After a longish period, with not much happening at all, the last week has been a particularly good time for reviews of my 'nostalgedy...
Friday, 26 November 2010
I don't believe that The Terminator got it right. It won't be killer robots from the future that will extinguish the human race, it will be the apoplexy that minor features of technology can engender.
For example, take this morning (please, take it anywhere you like). I found myself stuck in a traffic jam on my way in to work. Despite having left oodles of time to get there, I was in danger of missing the start of my class. So, using the nifty hands-free phone system in the car, I rang ahead to warn them I might be late. All well and good. A few minutes later, my wife rang, presumably to find out why I wasn't at my destination. I made the mistake of pressing the wrong button on this hands-free thing and succeeded in cutting her off. I tried to ring back, it wouldn't do it. My wife rang again but the system wouldn't let me answer. The system then decided to derecognise the phone altogether. As I drove on, with the phone ringing ever more urgently but being totally unable to legally answer it, my frustration grew. It grew even further when, on reaching work, I tried to use the phone conventionally to ring home and found that now that did not work at all. My blood pressure, at this point, could have usefully powered a small town.
Lord preserve me from technological advances!
Saturday, 13 November 2010
I was at a quiz in Loscoe when a muffled voice started to shout “Message, message, MESSAGE” in an ever more frantic tone, until it finally reached a point of absolute hysteria and then lapsed into silence. Everyone looked around accusingly but no-one reached for their phone. Five minutes later, it started again and this time a harassed gent pulled his mobile phone from his coat (phone now screaming fit to burst) and said to the assembled throng “It’s never done this before. I don’t know how to stop it” So he didn’t, and his phone kept screaming every five minutes, which was quite funny at first but soon began to pall. This made me realise that we may have come a long way telephonically, but some of us are still struggling with the basics.
Many years ago I worked at Harold Wesley Ltd in Victoria Crescent, Burton. This was a place that had more than its fair share of characters, such as a very soft voiced manager who insisted on talking on the phone (and they were very old fashioned Bakelite phones) with the handset at a 90 degree angle to his face. This meant that the microphone end was a good 9 inches away from his mouth and thus every telephone conversation involved a considerable degree of guesswork.
I was somewhere between 6 and 9 years old, and at my Auntie Liz and Uncle Ron’s house on a Saturday evening, when my own telephone training took place rather unexpectedly. I’ve mentioned before that my Auntie Liz was ‘cool’ in that she was very modern and up-to-date. She had a fridge when most people didn’t, which meant I could have ice cubes in my orange squash (a great treat). She used her front room as a living room, when most still kept theirs as a sort of shrine. But, importantly for this article, she had a telephone. Inevitably, it was in the front room, about two feet from the front door.
On this occasion, mum, dad, aunt and uncle were going to the pub and I was to stay and watch television for the short time they were away. This quite suited me because ATV were showing “The Strange World of Gurney Slade”. I don’t know if you remember this? It was a surreal comedy with a very haunting theme tune, which involved Anthony Newley walking out of a TV programme and wandering the streets. It was an odd programme that I loved but everyone else thought was “too daft to laugh at”. Before the grown-ups departed, I asked what I was to do if the phone rang (I was very aware of it brooding in the corner of the room). Auntie Liz schooled me in what to do and say. If it rang, I was to pick up the receiver and say “Burton 4827, hello” and take a message if necessary. I solemnly noted this and retired to the settee to watch whilst they headed off to the heady delights of The Coopers Arms.
It was great to have the TV to myself and be able to flick between channels (both of them) then troop back to the settee to join Judy, their dog, who was notionally tasked with guarding the house and me. However, my enjoyment of the TV programmes was somewhat blunted by the presence of the phone. I was acutely aware of its potential to ring at any moment.
Inevitably, about half-way through Anthony Newley’s surreal meanderings, the phone rang. Given how tense I was already, it was a wonder that they didn’t find me splattered across the ceiling. Instead, I approached the phone with trembling hand and voice, picked up the receiver and recited my script. Gales of laughter erupted from the other end. Inevitably, the adults had been unable to resist the temptation to ring up from the telephone box at the corner of Anglesey Road and Walker Street, on the spurious grounds of ‘wanting to check you were alright’. To which the answer should have been, until you rang, yes!
As the man in Loscoe discovered, phones can menace you more directly now. Whether this is progress or not, I’ll leave you to decide.
Friday, 12 November 2010
‘Listen with Mother’ was a superb programme that provided a mix of songs, nursery rhymes and stories in which the pictures, provided by your own imagination, were always far superior to those in the later television equivalent. Quite what a modern child would make of those very correct accents and pronunciation, I would hate to guess. A personal favourite was the nursery rhyme about the various horse-riding styles of certain noblemen and countrymen (you either know it or you don’t and if you’re my age, you probably do) which was always great fun but had very little contemporary relevance. I’ve tried singing it to various nephews and nieces in recent years (which is a form of cruel and unusual punishment according to the U.N.) and they still find it hilarious, even though the subject matter must be even more obscure to them than it was to me all those years ago.
I can’t remember when we first had a television but it must have been in the late 1950s and it was definitely second-hand. It was, of course, black and white and boasted as many as two channels to choose from but the only thing I really remember about the television, is it going wrong. It was exceedingly temperamental and took great offence at the buses that stopped at the Bus Stop (unsurprisingly) outside our house. Each ring of the conductor’s bell sent the picture into spasm and sent out a noise that could waken the dead. In its later years it became eccentric and started to demand sacrifices from its subjects in order to work at all. At first this was a hard-backed book strategically placed on a particular spot on top of the set (I don’t know how we discovered this, we just did), then two, then three…before it finally joined the great technological scrap-heap in the sky, it demanded no less than eight hard-backed books before it would even consider warming up (remember when things had to warm up before they functioned? There is no need to be like that, madam.)
I have this theory, for what its worth, that there is a very fine line between sophisticated technology and magic. This is particularly so in the early days of any technology when all of the elements function but (in Eric Morecambe’s immortal phrase) not necessarily in the right order. With an established technology you can reasonably expect an instant response to commands, with the actual work going on unobtrusively in the background. Making anything happen with new technology is essentially an act of faith and the internal crashing; banging and frequent failures are painful evidence of the work in progress. This is true of computers today (well, mine anyway) and was definitely true of televisions then. As a result, we technologically challenged individuals (or ordinary mortals if you prefer) are reduced to superstition to make these ‘magical’ devices do what we want them to do, hence the books on top of the television set.
A classic illustration of this early technology/magic theory is my first experience of stereophonic sound. My youngest uncle had a passion for traditional jazz, particularly during the brief phase when it was, to all intents and purposes, the pop music of the day. This featured in ‘Saturday Club’ presented on the Light Programme each Saturday morning by Brian Matthew (he’s still there, on Radio 2 now of course). At some point, the BBC conducted a series of experiments in broadcasting stereophonic sound which took place on Saturday mornings. Now my memory tells me that this involved ‘Saturday Club’ because I feel sure I remember the wonderful sound of traditional jazz appearing in the middle of my grandmother’s living room as if the artists were actually there. The ‘magic’ element of all this was that this amazing sound was created by playing both the wireless and the television at the same time, with one channel of sound coming out of each. Of course, this only worked if both pieces of equipment were strategically placed in the room and my uncle would spend ages carefully positioning each for maximum effect whilst I sat and waited with eager anticipation.
I started to write this particular memory with some trepidation because, although I was sure that I recalled it accurately, I had never met anyone else who had experienced it. Then, through the medium of the internet, I was delighted to find the following “1958 - First investigations into stereophonic broadcasts (
Crosby system). Experimental broadcasts begin using television sound transmitters for the right hand channel and the Third Programme transmitters for the left hand channel” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/milestones/1950s.shtml. Accessed 27.04.06). So it really did happen, but somehow I doubt that the Third Programme played traditional jazz. I have always been reluctant to tell anyone about this, wary of them calling for the men in white coats with the specially tailored jackets, but now I feel vindicated (they can’t touch you for it) so, if you have any memories of this incredible experiment, I would love to hear from you.
At some point, if you’re really unlucky, I will tell you about my encounters with coin-operated colour televisions, eccentrically designed cassette recorders and Dansette record players with enough small change piled on the armature to buy a fish supper. But I really must go now, I have to record a programme on the DVD recorder and I think a couple of carefully positioned volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a brief prayer ought to do the trick. Just try not to say anything to annoy it, whatever you do.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Continuing the Arthur C. Clarke theme of "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"...
I think I’m turning into my own grandmother.
By that, I don’t mean because of my rapidly greying hair or lined features (or the aprons for that matter, but we’ll draw a veil over that), I’m referring to my grandmother’s view of technology, the television in particular. My grandmother believed that, when they called it a Television Set, set is what they meant. It was something that should not, ideally, be disturbed but if alterations had to be made they should not be “taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly” (as the Book of Common Prayer used to have it, but not about televisions). In my childhood innocence, I was quite happy to fiddle with such technological advances as the Vertical and Horizontal Holds (which sound like something Jackie Pallo might have got involved with), but my grandmother viewed even changing channels with deep suspicion. The reason why I think I might be following in her footsteps is because I now understand her reluctance to mess about with something you don’t really understand.
We have recently had a new digital television and DVD recorder, which cost half as much again to fit and connect to the aerial, and I don’t understand it (I mean the equipment not why it cost half as much again…oh, I don’t know though). Every previous bit of ‘hardware’ that we have bought I have understood (mostly) and felt comfortable with setting it up and making adjustments, but not this. When some road repairs threatened to disconnect the houses in our area for a few hours the other week, my wife asked if I was going to unplug the T.V., I had to shamefacedly admit that I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to upset it! I fear this may be the steep end of a very slippery slope.
My earliest recollection of what might loosely be termed ‘entertainment technology’ at home was that standard item of equipment in any house in the 1950s, the large wooden wireless. This was, as far as I can remember, our sole source of entertainment when I was very young. The wireless was a faithful provider of such daily diversions as ‘Housewives’ Choice’ and ‘Worker’s Playtime’, both of which could be found on the BBC Light Programme and, best of all, ‘Listen with Mother’, which I think lurked on the Home Service. In those days (for those of you for whom the dawn of Radio 1 took place when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), the total output from the BBC, in terms of radio programmes, could be found on three channels, the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. For anything else, you had to look to the exotic delights of the foreign stations and, in particular, Radio
. This was a wonderful source of continuous pop music but only in the evening and only then if you could cope with the accompanying violent oscillations of the signal that sounded like a squirrel being slowly but deliberately fed through a mangle. My Dad used to try to convince me that this was caused by the signal rising and falling with the waves over the Channel (actually, he didn’t have to try very hard, I was always very gullible and they were called radio waves after all). Luxembourg
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
The above quote is from the great Arthur C. Clarke in 1961. All I've got to say is, if this is so, why do I feel like Tommy Cooper?
For example, the other dayI was trying to get my mobile phone to connect wirelessly with my new car's hands-free system. I followed all of the steps set out in the handbook for both the car and the phone. Would it connect? Would it bunny rabbits. I was reduced to holding the phone next to the radio, pressing buttons hopelessly and screaming "Connect you bloody thing" at it repeatedly. I could feel a nervous breakdown coming on. And then, for no apparent reason at all, it connected. Despite having followed the instructions to the letter time and time again, it finally decided to connect when it felt like it.
I think part of the problem (and I accept that a major part is me)is that Instruction Books are not written by the people who end up using them. Instead they are written by the people who designed the system in the first place, who know the thing back to front (probably the best way)and think you should too. It's a bit like when someone draws a map of directions for you. You can guarantee that they will miss out a vital roundabout or crossing which they didn't think was important but which had you hurtling toward John O' Groats instead of Henley in Arden.
Saturday, 6 November 2010
I was talking to an old friend the other day about children’s magazines in our quondam days (fascinating conversation it was, I’ll bet you wish you had been there). It turned out that we had both been boring little tykes with a fondness for such improving magazines as ‘Knowledge’. Do you remember ‘Knowledge’? It was one of those magazines that they nowadays call part-works. The idea was that you collected the magazines on a weekly basis and it built into an encyclopaedia. Today, you buy a magazine with a small piece of a Tudor battleship sellotaped to it and, 400 instalments and £1,000 later, you have enough small pieces to build said battleship. On the whole, I think the encyclopaedia idea was a better concept.
I had been an avid reader of ‘Knowledge’ for some years and really enjoyed the informative articles and the exceptionally good illustrations. One that still lives in my memory was an old fable from
Asia that involved a Mandrill. I can still see the drawing of this monkey, with the impossibly vivid coloured nose markings, peering out from the depths of a sultry jungle. I was reminded of this by the recent TV advert for a certain brand of coffee shops, involving a legion of monkeys playing with coffee makers. At the end of this advert, a Mandrill appears and, thanks to ‘Knowledge’, I was able to turn to my wife and say with some authority “That’s a Mandrill, you know”. She gave me the sort of look that only a wife can and went back to her paper. Ah well, they say a prophet is never recognised in his own country. You wait until we’re stuck in some sultry forest, she’ll thank me for my extensive knowledge of primates then.
At about the same time that I started subscribing to ‘Knowledge’, in the early 1960s, I found a copy of a book by Donald Keyhoe about UFO’s (Unidentified Flying Objects) or Flying Saucers as they were popularly known. This was one of those sensational exposé publications that accused the U.S. Government and military of a gigantic cover-up. Naturally, as a young and impressionable boy, I lapped this stuff up and was soon a committed believer in extra-terrestrial visitors. For reasons that I cannot recall, but which were probably connected to my rabid enthusiasm for my new ‘cause’, I wrote to the Letters page of ‘Knowledge’ to express my disgust at this ongoing governmental fraud and to ask if any other readers were interested in the topic (nowadays I would probably be taken into care by concerned social workers). To my amazement, some months later they published the letter and, even more surprisingly, I started to receive letters from similarly obsessed youngsters from around the world.
As a child, I had always been a fan of forming clubs and was forever cajoling my long-suffering friends into joining some hare-brained society of my conception. The sudden realisation that there were quite a number of like-minded Flying Saucer fans in the world naturally led to me forming the ‘Flying Saucer Letter Club’ (snappy title huh? It was known as the FSLC to its adherents). Letters flew back and forth, from my Burton HQ to places as disparate as Surrey and Singapore, and I soon gathered quite a file of correspondence (just think what I could have done with the internet and emails) from teenage boys and girls who were either keen believers, or had actually seen something strange in the sky. Given my predilection for writing, I naturally introduced a newsletter (actually two sides of typewritten foolscap) which I foisted onto my membership (for a modest subscription) and also sold to my mates at school. Unbelievably, this was pretty popular and I started to amass a nice little income.
Despite our move from the New Talbot pub to my grandmother’s house (due to a temporary financial embarrassment) and whilst all around me was going to Hell in a handcart, I still pressed on with the FSLC and the newsletter. People seemed to find the idea of a twelve year old running a small business, based on such an exotic concept, quite fascinating and I was encouraged to get the whole thing some publicity. So I wrote to the Today programme on Radio 4 (or the Home Service as it probably still was then) telling them all about the club. To my amazement they wrote back, expressing an interest. A few phone calls later and arrangements were made for a reporter to come and talk to me.
I have mentioned before how sacrosanct my Nana’s front room was, only for use on high days and holidays. Naturally, it had to be pressed into service for a visit from the BBC, and so I found myself perched on the pristine sofa, talking to Keith Ackrill from BBC Midlands. My Mum and Nana fluttered about providing cups of tea and trying not to look as if they found the whole thing anything other than a perfectly ordinary event. I must say that Keith was a consummate professional and did a fantastic job of putting me at my ease and showing a real interest in something that was clearly never going to be anything other than an “and finally...” piece.
It was the Summer of 1967 and my bit was due to be broadcast on the
Midlands’ section of the Today programme after 8.00 a.m. Tramping around Oak Street on my paper round, the tension was building. I had my trusty transistor in my paper bag and was passing the time listening to the Top 40 countdown, which was due to finish at 8.00. I knew that, when the No. 1 finished, it would be time to switch over to the Today programme. The No. 1 at that time was The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’, which must have one of the longest fade outs in recording history. Standing at the end of Oak Street with the radio pressed to my ear, I began to develop a deep and abiding loathing of the Fab Four as their record dragged mercilessly on and 8.00 seemed to be postponed forever. But the time came, I switched over, and listened with awe at my own squeaky voice pontificating on extraterrestrials to a waiting world. Walking back from the paper shop, I think I was in a state of utter shock and disbelief. Had I really just been talking on the BBC? At that moment, a rather stern woman from across the road shouted over to me “Was that you I just heard on the radio?” blushing furiously, I replied that it was, “Thought as much. You were very good” she said, and stomped off.
I floated home on a little cloud all of my own.
Friday, 5 November 2010
So, did you have a good Un-Bonfire Night?
It was last night, in case you missed it. Or, alternatively, it could be tomorrow. The only night it couldn’t possibly be is November 5th. You see, if Lewis Carroll could have 364 Un-Birthdays in each year, then I don’t see why I can’t have the same amount of Un-Bonfire Nights.
Actually, I’m a bit behind the times with this concept because, of late, the British have taken to the idea of igniting fireworks at every possible juncture, as if we had all been drafted into The Royal Artillery when we weren’t looking. Nowadays any spurious reason for celebration is seen as a good excuse to chuck a couple of tons of ordnance into the air.
It never used to be like this. In my childhood, fireworks were reserved for 5th November (remember?) and were usually not very impressive. Do you recall those little ‘family selection’ boxes that usually contained one Catherine Wheel, two or three Roman Candles, a couple of Jumping Jacks, a Banger or two and a Rocket (with some improbable and wildly optimistic name like GIANT STARCHASER). The whole thing would cost about half a week’s pay and would be over and done with inside five minutes. If I sound cynical, I do apologise but I was never a fan of fireworks as a child. I couldn’t stand loud bangs and I tended to think that standing around in the cold, damp, November night waiting for something that cost a fortune to NOT go off (more often than not), was something of a pointless exercise.
Can you imagine the reaction of the Health and Safety gurus if you suggested selling something as monumentally dangerous as a Jumping Jack today? “Well, we thought we would have this firework that, when you ignite it, jumps unpredictably around the feet of the children, making loud bangs at each bounce. The kiddies will love it!” And what about rockets tilting precariously in yesterday’s milk bottle? Or the Catherine Wheel nailed hopefully to next door’s wooden fence, with predictable results (irate neighbour, badly-burnt fence and the attention of the Fire Brigade)?
The most memorable firework display that I can recall, takes me back to 1967. My Aunt and Uncle owned a successful corner shop in
Walker Street, Burton, and had just decided to expand by buying the shop that Mr. and Mrs. Rawlings had run for years in Uxbridge Street. My Mum had been given a part-time job serving at this shop and she had to sort out the stock remaining after years of the Rawlings’ tenure. In the midst of all this, she found a box of very ancient fireworks that she gave to me (I can hear the Health and Safety mob’s sharp intake of breath from here!) It was mid-summer and, as we were living at my Grandparents’ house at the time, I guessed that they would not be too happy about an impromptu firework display. Quite what made me take them up to my Auntie Vera and Uncle Jim’s house in Burton Road, I don’t know, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
I turned up at Auntie Vera’s clutching a paper bag full of odd and unusual fireworks, probably dating from the Dawn of Time. I didn’t have much hope that we would do anything with them because Auntie Vera was a great one for doing things by the rules and, it clearly was not Bonfire Night. Therefore, I was amazed when, as dusk fell, she said “Are we going to try those fireworks then?” Neither of us knew whether any of them would work, or whether they would explode in a shower of dust and debris. Surprisingly, most (they were of the Roman Candle/Golden Rain type) worked really well and we had quite a show.
As I stood there with Auntie Vera watching these ancient fireworks on a warm summer’s evening, both of us studiously not looking to see what the neighbours thought of our antics, I relished our mini-rebellion and celebrated my first Un-Bonfire Night.
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA