Way back in the early days of the world wide web, there used to be a site called “Talk To My Cat”. You had a little text box to type things into, and, or so the site had it, the contents would be played through a speech synthesiser, and if the cat happened to be around, it would hear it. The idea appealed to me then, and still does.
I often feel a bit like that when I post here. You never quite know who might be listening. There were, according to Google Analytics, a handful of page views from Consett at one point. Now I know that hisself doesn’t use the Internet, but who knows? Maybe someone in the house does. And maybe if that someone reads this, they can read it out loud, and if Paddy is listening he might hear it?
I’ve gone on record as saying I wouldn’t seek to meet him, and I wouldn’t, but on the other hand there are things I’d love to talk with him about, and so on a strict “talk to my cat” basis, here are some of the main themes I’d be looking to explore. And if Paddy happens to hear them, well let’s have a conversation somehow eh?
Shortwave radio. Can we talk about shortwave radio? As a boy I’d trawl my own personal patch of megahertz on my mother’s SW receiver, over and over again. There was something magical about it. You’d hear lists of numbers – we believed them to be spies. Or sinister slightly robotic Americanised voices of Russian or Far Eastern propaganda stations. Yes, there were documentaries about tractor factories and the five year plan: I later learned that these were sent on transcription disks to student radio stations, and played a few of them delightedly in the back room where they were kept, before being rather disappointed at how dull they were when you could hear them without static bursts and sections of Romanian football commentary.
But what you were really after was music. Trying to capture elusive strains of the bands you liked but which were hardly ever on the mainstream AM LW or FM stations, hoping the World Service would have them on – nothing is quite so fascinating as a station you couldn’t quite listen to reliably. And in between that there was always the possibility you’d hear a ghost stuck in limbo between two squawks of static. As stupid as that sounds, on a cold dark winter evening in an empty house it didn’t seem fanciful at all. There was just so much short wave to explore, inching along the dial station after station after station, round and round endlessly in case you had carelessly missed something wonderful. It felt like looking into the infinite.
And I think Paddy was just as fascinated as I was. Because I hear echoes of that in “Radio Love”, and of course in “I Trawl the Megahertz”. But the world shrank and satellite channels expanded, and the internet connected everything and everyone to the point where it all became one simultaneous cacophony of connection, and you can now hear everything which means you bother with nothing. There isn’t the thrill of discovery any more, of tuning in just at the right moment and hearing a moment of secret revelation. Oh to go back 40 years, if only for a day, once more around the dial.
I’d love to discuss music in the 1970s too. Being a few years younger, I missed out on Marc Bolan. I remember my sister being given a great stack of Jackie magazines or some such, I suppose about 1973, and in one of them I recall reading a letter where Bolan was dismissed contemptuously because his first name, “Marc” was the French word for the dregs in a brandy cask. With two results: firstly that attack was so unusual it has stuck with me ever since, and secondly the 10 year old me found it a sufficiently convincing argument that I never bothered actually listening to the music. Instead I went for the Sweet and “Ballroom Blitz” and Sparks with “This Town”. The distance between one year and the next was staggering in the 1970s – honestly each year felt like decades concertinaed together – and you would very rapidly move on from school term to school term, gradually growing longer than your trousers, fascinated by the albums the bigger boys at school were looking at on the bus, but wouldn’t let you see, still less listen to: titles like “Nursery Cryme” or “Pretzel Logic” or “In the Court of the Crimson King”. Once bewitched by one of those, anything you liked seemed completely lacking in the remotest mystery. I’ve never forgotten the moment the needle went down for the first time on “Nursery Cryme”. It was like entering a secret garden.
And isn’t that the entire point about music? It’s a constant exploration into the unknown and the allure of secret knowledge. It’s exactly like the SW dial. You never know where a half twist will lead you, but there’s a fascination about the unknown spaces you might enter, and a hunger to discover them. And – it has to be said – the occasional disappointment when they turn out metaphorically to be just another documentary on tractors. It happens. Not everything is wonderful. But enough is.
All the same, if the gulf between a year to another in the mid 1970s was massive, it was nothing remotely comparable to the chasm between 1976 and 1977. In my mind that is the dividing line between ancient and modern: Bakelite v. PVC. Fascinating to think that there is less passage of time between 1977 and 1952 and 1977 and now, so much more history and music after that watershed than in all the endless time since “Rock around the Clock”. Yet it’s very difficult for me to hear, say, the Sex Pistols or Elvis Costello and not think of it as contemporary. After moving so fast for 10 years, time sort of stopped after the 1970s.
I don’t suppose Paddy’s experience was significantly different to mine. It would certainly be interesting to find out.
If you live mostly in your own head – and I would suggest to him that he does, I certainly do – then you can see why the radio and music appeal in a similar way. They are essentially virtual yet infinite spaces to wander in, whether brought to you by what the prevailing atmospheric conditions conspire to bring to your receiver, or by the sort of random walk you make in your progression through music. Very little else quite works in the same way, leaves the same space for the imagination. Outside I suppose Ulysses, prose tends not to swirl in the way music does, it’s much more of a guided tour. Poetry perhaps comes close. The Wasteland, or some of Blake’s feverish streams of altered consciousness (they say Blake was under the influence of the noxious chemicals he used to etch his copper plate engravings, but whatever, it did lead to some astonishing imagery). Expressionist art maybe.
That’s what I think anyway.
Over to the cat. I’d love to hear from you. It’s too one sided a conversation without you.