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The new oracle

Over the years in our small Scottish village we have seen many profound changes -- the railway closures, the shutting down of the small shops, the increase of town dwellers quitting city streets and coming countrywards -- but by far the greatest revolution in our midst has been the one brought about by television.

In earlier days we still listened to farmers telling of old days in the farmsteads, of famous deals at market, of prizes won by their Clydesdale horses and butter-and-cheese-making wives. The village children still ran about barefoot, guddling in the burns, carrying home tadpoles in jam jars, knowing the best nesting places and the arrival of the first swallows.

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At first there was a grudging admission that a new medium existed, but it cost cash and so was suspect. Then gradually our very skyline changed, our birds found new singing posts on television masts, the children had new songs, new games of cosmonauts and space travelers, new bedtime hours. The new phrase of greeting for villagers, stopping in the street, was "Did you see yon program last night?" instead of "How are you the morn?"

Old Hughie the farmer, bedridden for years, found in television his new reality and like the rest of us hardly knew fact from fiction. The personalities who appeared on the screen were larger than life to Hughie. When we passed his farm we sometimes heard him shouting to his wife, "Tell yon man to clear out.I'll not have him under my roof!" He would hurtle medicine bottles and his stick at any politician appearing on the screen who didn't belong to his party. "He'llm not tell mem how to vote!"

Davie, the former porter on the railway, suddenly came into his own. He had always brooded darkly over the newspapers and radio; now he was the keenest viewer in all the village, never missing a program. From a know-nowt he became a know-all. He, who had seldom moved beyond the village, now traveled the world. He had found the kingdom he had perhaps unconsciously been seeking. "New horizons aye opening up," he would say complacently.

When Rab, the former signalman, talked of going back to his box, locally pronounced as boax,m he now meant something wonderful even if not quite the sanctuary his signal box had been. Whereas Davie lived almost exclusively in the small space beside his set, Rab went further afield in activities that brought in cash, tree-felling and joinery. Little by little a strange new relationship developed between the two rivals. The formerly inferior Davie could now refute any of Rab's statements with the irrefutable thunderbolt of "I saw if on the Boax!" We could hardly believe our ears at the note of humility that crept into Rab's voice when Davie contradicted him. "Aye, Davie, you'll be right. I was snecking Murdo's hedge -- or clipping auld Tam's heid -- when yon program was on." Time, or telly, had its revenges.

Finally only two villagers held out against the invader. There was Tam, whose avarice was legendary -- "Catch me wasting guid cash on a telly!" he would declare -- and his farm lad, Bobby. Bobby had no time for frivolity. For him life meant not only work but hard work. If we passed the farm window in the evening we sometimes saw him slumped in sleep across the kitchen table, a hunk of bread and cheese half-raised to his snoring mouth.

One day Rab, who knew all the village gossip through his extra-televisory activities, came out with his customary opening gambit, "Have you heard . . . ?" pausing for dramatic effect, then exclaiming, "Tam's hired a Boax!"

We found Tam, his chair drawn up close to his set. "Aye, I've hired a Boax," he brought out, half-defiantly. "Him and his Boax!" Bobby muttered. "Time for nowt else." Tam's nose was almost touching the screen. "Come and see this, Bobby. Is yon no' marvelous!" Bobby gave a half-grudging sidelong glance before returning to muck the byre, but we sensed a hint of reluctant curiosity. How long before he, too, was seduced by the siren?

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Tam's endless tales of his ancestors, told over countless cups of long-brewed tea, were at an end. He had soon demolished a word heard on other villagers' lips. "What's yon selective viewing they talk about?" he demanded indignantly. "I'll miss nowt. Nor Benjie either," he added, jerking a thumb at his collie. "Yon dug's so wise he could turn on the knob himself." If Tam, the closest-fisted Scrooge in all lowland Scotland, could spend so many pounds a year on television, es geschehen noch Wunder,m "miracles still happen," as Schiller wrote on a very different occasion.

Some months after Tam had found his new treasure, Bobby was seen thundering down the farm lane on his tractor, followed by the addict Benjie. "Get out my road!" he shouted imperiously. "Fitba's on the Boax at 6 and I've got the kye to milk." The very animals have learned to adapt themselves to the new revolution.

The green countryside still beckons, wild geese and swans fly over our rooftops, the whaup gives his unearthly cry, russet-brown fox cubs skip out from the golden whins, but who sees or hears them? All the village, down to the very cats and collies, are huddled beside the ubiquitous Boax. Coleridge's unfortunate person from Porlock, who broke the spell of Kubla Khan, would be greeted in our village with a furious "WHEESHT! Can't you see I'm watching!" Crouched to a man over the 20th-century equivalent of Coleridge's stately pleasure dome we would make short shrift of any ill-timed visitors, from Porlock or elsewhere.

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