One of my favourite actor jokes concerns a performer spotted hobbling along a street in pain. When asked why he’s wearing such crippling footwear, he reveals a stone deliberately placed inside of his shoe. The reason? “Well,” he replies, “I haven’t had a job all year, my agent’s dumped me, my wife’s left me, she’s taken the car, and my house has been repossessed. Removing this pebble each night is the only pleasure I have left.”
I now know how he feels.
I don’t know what provoked me into purchasing a “smartphone”, the latest must-have e-mailing and texting gismo for the successful man about town. It allows you to send and receive e-mails as well as surf the web while on the move. “You really aren’t taken seriously these days without one,” my agent had assured me.
In many ways I was a willing convert. The smartphone generation has already proved a boon in London, at least for the long-suffering commuter. No more being marooned in fetid carriages with frantic businessmen bellowing “I’m still on the train” to their bosses every few miles. Instead, an almost monastic silence has supervened.
It’s not because the general public have rediscovered their manners but rather that everyone is now doubled over their new smartphone, thumbs fluttering as they e-mail about why their being stuck in a tunnel outside London Bridge is so damaging to the state of the entire western economy.
And so last week I joined their number. After all, think of all those crucial messages I might be ignoring while away from my home computer. Instant response could only lead to new horizons and further possibilities.
The reality has been brutally different. Rather than confirming my indispensability to planet Earth, the heavens are having a high old time punishing me for my hubris.
In the two weeks since I became part of the electronic in-crowd, my smartphone has hardly rung. In addition, my inability to master the tiny keyboard has resulted in my losing a gig after sending my acceptance confirmation to the wrong address, plus various misspelt and unintelligible pieces I’ve fired off to high-profile potential employers who are now convinced I’m either illiterate or on medication.
But there’s a far more profound consequence I hadn’t bargained for. Being perpetually online has removed the last refuge for the jobbing actor – the tiny shard of hope, however futile, that somebody may have tried to contact you with a job offer while you’ve been out of reach.
The philosophy goes something like this. When the first domestic answering machines appeared in the 1980s (just as I was starting out in the business) they proved the greatest morale booster for struggling thespians since the invention of cathode ray. Returning home from a walk or a trip to the shops to find that tiny light blinking on the console, indicating a missed call and a left message, would always provoke a surge of hope. No matter that it was probably a wrong number or somebody trying to sell you double glazing – it might just be “Cubby” Broccoli calling to say that he’d just watched my fourth police constable from the left on an old episode of some long-forgotten drama series in his hotel room in California and decided I simply had to be his next James Bond.
That tiny winking light was more exhilarating than all the lights of Broadway. I even used to find spurious reasons to go out, just so I could have the thrill of coming back in and find it flashing again.
Mobile phones may have reduced this simple joy, but optimism has merely shifted to the computer. What exciting e-mails might be waiting for me on my PC when I got in from a hard day of feeding the ducks in the local park?
But with the smartphone, self-deceit is impossible. Instead, the passionate indifference of the outside world is now made manifest 24 hours a day. My new toy has crushed that most precious component in every actor’s armoury: delusion. Unless I’m going to stuff a pebble in my shoes, the outlook seems bleak.
The one bit of good news is that the machine is going back to the shop first thing tomorrow. I might not even ask for my old mobile in return but simply retrieve my ancient answering machine from the attic and see if I can get it working again. In which case, I’m hopeful the heavens will forgive my overweening arrogance. With hope restored, you can expect to see me gainfully employed at a theatre in the heart of London within a matter of weeks. Even if it’s only selling ice creams during the interval.
* Published in the UAE's THE NATIONAL on Oct. 26.