In theory TikTok knows nothing about me. I have posted two videos: one of my grandsons kicking a football in a garden, the other of their much younger selves running through the dry desert house at Paignton zoo. They are the most unremarkable clips imaginable. The last time I looked, the football being kicked in the garden had been watched 3,700 times and ‘liked’ by 650 people. Astonishing. Apart from those two videos, I haven’t posted.
My grandsons love TikTok. They are on it every day. They post videos of football cards they have collected and the ones they want to swap. Except when my grandsons post one, I never press the red heart to ‘like’ a video that appears on my daily feed. So while there are grounds for the TikTok preference algorithm thinking I probably like football, and that I am old enough to be a grandfather, it can’t possibly know anything else.
So what do they send me on my daily feed? With frightening precision I get the northern comic Roy Chubby Brown. Remember him? The flying helmet and goggles? I like Roy Chubby Brown and always have done. But Roy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, to put it mildly, and his career was severely curtailed on the grounds of public decency long before the term ‘political correctness’ was coined. He overstepped what might be said to be the wider boundaries agreed on by ordinary, broad-minded British people long before this narrower Puritanical set was imposed from above.
So him. I get Jim Davidson being interviewed by Nigel Farage. I get Katie Hopkins. I get sunburned builders’ conspiracy theories. I get reminiscences of old-time east London and Essex gangsters. I get terriers slaying rats. I get the ten rules observed by real men. I get clips of Till Death Us Do Part and Alf Garnett ranting.
For a while I naively assumed that everyone on the planet was getting the same daily TikTok feed as me. That Alf Garnett and Roy Chubby Brown were surprisingly popular the world over. I knew that once upon a time Norman Wisdom was a huge star in Albania and Benny Hill was popular in Egypt, so couldn’t rule it out. Then I read an Economist piece about TikTok that said while the company address was in the Cayman Islands, the ‘preferences algorithm’, based in China, was by far the world’s most advanced.
I’m not on Facebook but Catriona is. After many years, Facebook appears to have finally worked out that what she really likes are ‘animals do the craziest things’ videos. She gets very little spare time in her day, but when she does she watches these. They make her laugh. ‘What are you watching, mon petit chou?’ I say. And she looks guilt-stricken and shows me someone holding a pet rabbit the size of a pony or a mongrel singing. I spare it a few moments of haughty, unamused attention and pass by.
But now I’ve been bitten by the TikTok bug and lie in bed all day watching ratting videos, Alf Garnett rants, sunburned builder rants, Mike Tyson knockouts, sexy beach babes provocatively fingering their bikini strings, former Kray associates fingering their braces, and grainy film of old-school comedians telling outrageous jokes in smoky clubs. If I hear her coming up the stairs, I pause them and pick up my novel.
At last I have found a contemporary novelist I like very much and am reading everything I can lay my hands on by the South African Damon Galgut. But just as it was with porn in the old days, I lay the novel aside and my finger strays to the iPad screen and the TikTok app and before I know it the day has advanced, the light has changed, and I return to my senses feeling thoroughly debauched by a Chinese algorithm designed to locate and light up my mortido complex.
And I think: is this how it ends? Lying in bed watching TikTok videos? At the weekend I had planned a retreat in a nunnery. Three days of silent prayer and contemplation. But two of the nuns have caught Covid and the technical nun thought it best that we postponed. And at the weekend the tumour pain in my armpit, shoulder and shoulder blade intensified alarmingly. For the first time, the usual dose of the usual painkillers didn’t touch it. An escalation. I have always imagined that when it was time for me to die I would make a serious effort to prepare myself. And now that the warning light is flashing, what do I do? I tap the TikTok app and there’s Bernard Manning saying, ‘A man walks into a pub with a crocodile under his arm.’ Shoot me.
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