What does my search history say about me?
Certain aspects of my life require me to Google some pretty unsavory stuff: in a teaching capacity, I have found myself searching for far right extremist groups, trans hate groups, most sexualised video games, racist adverts, peodophile front pages, legal highs, TikTok Rape Day, Only Fans scams, 5G conspiracy theories and perhaps most controversially of all ... international day of balloon sculpture.
Recently I worked with a graphic designer on fivrr to create book jackets for my novels. This involved sending him Google images of various elements to work from. Hands down the weirdest thing I have probably ever searched for is, ‘guy impaled on long spike’ (the deuteragonist of my coming of age novella meets his end harpooned by a narwhal statue’s tusk). Believe it or not, Google actually delivered a pretty accurate depiction of how I envisaged this picture. When I asked for a simple ‘school kid tie round head’, well, apparently this is like the most obscure idea ever. What I got was lots and lots of school children wearing ties. In the intended way: neatly around their necks. I tried ‘school tie head band’ and got every single colour and stripe of headband under the sun: silk ones, lace ones, gingham ones by the dozen, bow-on-top ones, polka dotted ones, tartan ones, velvet ones, Pudsey Bear ones, ones with face masks attached (because, let’s face it, post Covid, you can’t search anything without a face mask getting a cameo appearance). Maybe that had something to do with the fact that in my head, school ties actually need to be tied, when in reality, the modern variant clips on – and therefore cannot be worn around the head to signify a Lord Of The Flies style revolt.
So, I suppose if I disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances tomorrow and my laptop got siezed by detectives (pause while I savour this post-mortem-imaginary attention) they would find these searches pretty eccentric and maybe conclude that I had some ‘issues’ that needed working out.
But it’s thinking about the searches I undertake when actually writing my fiction content that really makes me uneasy. And I know it’s just for the book! Recently I watched a John Irving documentary on YouTube, in which he spoke about visiting prostitutes in Amsterdam as part of the research stage of his novel, ‘A Widow For One Year’ (which, by the way you should totally read). He took his wife along, so you know, it couldn’t have been more respectable. I can only dream of one day having the luxury to conduct actual field trips in the name of fiction (pause while I ponder writing these off as expenses on my tax returns). For us writers struggling in the garret of our two bed end terrace, it’s Google journalism, not Gonzo journalism that informs our prose.
So, today I had taken the dog and my laptop to my parents’ house for the day because I’m having work done on the house; downstairs is basically a building site and the bedroom is packed with boxes of books and DVD’s, so it’s like I’ve barricaded myself into the 1980’s. And yes, I know that retrospectively we all heart the 80’s: in meme form, or an ironic leg warmer, maybe we’ll crimp our hair for that reunion thing. But when you are physically surrounded by obsolete artifacts that are materially all you have to show for three decades work - NOT so bodacious. Totally not bodacious at all. I had to get out of there; to get off the anxiety cycle that goes something like this: I’ll just bin all the DVD’s – but, no, wait, they’ll end up in landfill; I’ll take them to a charity shop – but that’s a lot of cycle rides (how many rucksacks does it take to move an entire film collection?); I’ll flog them online – but that would mean typing in every title (and then deliberating over it); do I know anyone who car boots? Does anyone still car boot? How much would anyone pay for a DVD? And then I look at the sheer amount of them and the space they take up and I contemplate the last time I even watched one, and the likelihood of me ever watching one again. I weigh all this up against the comforting familiarity of them sitting on the shelf. And what else would I fill the shelves with? Is it any less indulgent to hoard hundreds of film titles, just to look at, just to reflect my values, my identity and my cultural capital, than it would be to display a collection of ceramic frogs or superhero figures or framed photos?
Anyway, I digressed. And then I digressed some more. Back to searching. So today, while other members of my family were passing a regular Sunday afternoon eating lunch, drinking wine, watching sport on TV, napping in front of sport on TV, complaining about the weather, I was tackling a ‘difficult chapter’. I knew this episode had to feature somewhere in the tale I have to tell. I’ve known for some time. And today, I could put it off no longer. It was time to get on the adults only train to porno-ville. Full disclosure: yes I have; once; it confirmed to me that I am indeed asexual. No, I’m not answering that.
Today was the first time I had ‘done it in public’. Lots of writers do, don’t they? The Potter series was famously penned in Edinburgh coffee shops (or is that just part of the myth?) Imagine E.L. James knocking out a sex scene in a Tesco café; mind you, erotic fiction writers surely must be the doggers of the trade. These public spaces still offer anonymity though; I was sitting feet away from my Mum and Dad and constructing a narrative thread based on the porn habits of a church congregation. And my parents are born again Christians! Every time Dad approached the dining table where I’d set up my work space, I quickly shut down the last page I visited: ‘first online porn sites’, ‘pervert synonyms’, ‘stages of sex addiction’, ‘proper name for crabs’, chlamydia (that was just for the spelling).
The protagonist of my soon-to-be-published Kindle book, ‘Post Midnight Blues’, writes a ‘poem’ entitled: ‘An Ode To Porn In The Hedgerow’, recalling more innocent days, when a lorry driver might pull over on the hard shoulder for a quick wank and toss his used copy of Razzle into the bushes for teenage lads to find and take back to their hide-outs. I can’t help thinking a writing must have been simpler then too.