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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 113 - Blissful world of the cat's whisker radio


VENI, vidi, video - or words to the effect that I came to an electronic devices shop in 1982, saw a video cassette recorder I fancied, bought it but have only just conquered my latest one and, ironically, find VCRs are becoming as dead as dinosaurs, their retail place usurped by the DVD (digital versatile disc) players.

From first purchase, I found operating instructions about as abstruse as the philosopher Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but my wife, who is computer literate and numerate, quickly and efficiently became Programme Director, feeding the machine with what we supposed would be a cerebrally-nutritious and visually-alluring diet of tapes, including, if I remember aright, Panther Girl from the Kongo and I Married A Werewolf From Outer Space, favourite weather forecasts and shampoo advertisements.

The machine, built like a death-ray apparatus, liked our selections and began to chew tapes with relish, spitting out bits like pomegranate pips. I bought another, an ugly brute, that looked as if it could send missiles to North Korea. It also developed a similar appetite, as did some others, although our latest one refuses, fastidiously, to crunch any of our offerings, even rejecting some, probably regarding them as tasteless.

Whatever their faults, VCRs proved an invaluable contribution to home entertainment. As one who, as a child, remembered adults stroking a crystal on "cat’s whiskers" radios to coax static- suggesting small-arms fire and programmes, faintly-sounding as if broadcast on one of the Martian moons, I have seen miraculous developments in the business of keeping the human race entertained, informed, and even inspired.

GREAT electrified heavens, I have sat before a brown, bog oak wireless cabinet with rococo fretwork over the loudspeaker trying, over 1938 airwaves, to raise life from strange-sounding places with faraway names like Hilversum, Stuttgart and Motala, but only producing sounds suggesting a Dutch comedian falling flat on his face, some jerkily-rendered opera, faint French accordionists, lost choirs and Henry Hall and his band playing The Music Goes Round and Round, inexplicably merging with the massed, menacing singing of The Horst Wessel Song.

Gramophones? I remember wind-up ones that made records sound as if played under water and, if the mechanism began to run down, could make my grandfather’s recording of Dame Nellie Melba singing Any Old Iron? resemble the despairing wail of a lost soul in Dante’s Inferno.

I recall also more sophisticated ones of the 1960s which held a stack of eight 78 rpm records above the turntable. These were supposed to drop in sequence giving, say, a sizeable chunk of a Wagner opera, broken only by the crash of descending records. Sometimes several discs fell at a time or all at once, peremptorily speeding-up the twilight of the gods.

Stereophonic sound was a boon to those who were restive if they could not place the exact location of the timpani, woodwinds or strings. What more could we want? Plenty, and the transistor radio was a technological miracle that I regarded with the awe of some native discovering Concorde in a jungle clearing.

MANY ecstatic radio users freely shared their bliss, loudly and in public, generous actions that almost disappeared with the advent of pocket-sized, combined radio and cassette-recorders that needed earphones, making users, silently mouthing lyrics, seem like goldfish absently lipping ants’ eggs.

Vinyl records gave way to the crackle-free but comparatively cold sound of compact discs, but it is in television, that vital, life-support system of humanity, that we have seen significant strides.

As one who had a 14-inch screen - like looking through a keyhole - and can remember watching programmes like Compact and Emergency Ward 10 as through a blizzard, I can say that not only have we seen technological wonders but also the transformation of vacuity from a cottage craft to an industry.

Some screens are almost wall-to-wall, but programmes, with a plethora of quiz games, chat shows, sexual explicitness and bellowing, boorish comedians, have not expanded in quality. Truly, television allows us to be entertained in our living-rooms by people we wouldn’t have in the house.

And now the DVD revolution that will flash brilliantly on fashion’s firmament and be extinguished by some new, miracle "must have" invention.

The world is full of such wonderful things, we should all be as happy as kings and, as American writer James Thurber remarked, "you know how happy kings are".


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