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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reel-to-Reel Recordings

Dad turns to the microphone on the mantlepiece, clears his throat and adopts a suitable air of gravitas. 

I will now read some of my favourite poems,” he says in his most dignified voice. The sound of muted giggling emanates from me and my brother sitting on the floor next to the tape recorder.

“Ernest Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis,” he announces.

The noises in the background become audible whispers.

“What’s he on about?”

“He says Ernest Dowson had some Ryvita for his breakfast.” More snorting and sniggering. Dad continues.

“They are not long, ...”

“What aren’t? Is our Sooty’s tail not long?”

“... the weeping and the laughter, Love and desire and hate:”

The disruption intensifies as my mother bangs on the window and shouts something muffled from the yard outside. Dad struggles to keep going.

“I think they have no portion in us ...”

My mother enters the room and interrupts loudly.

“When I tell you your dinner’s ready, it’s ready, and you come straight away.”

The recording ends.

Would Dowson’s melancholy poetry and vivid phrases ever have emerged from out of his misty dream had he married and had such an unsupportive, philistine family?

Christmas 1962 – an unbelievable fifty-two years ago – was when my dad came into some money and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was really for the whole family, but as I was the only one who knew how it worked it was effectively mine, my parents being too old to understand such modern technology and my brother too young to be trusted with it. The next door neighbour was appalled at the idea of such an extravagant present for a twelve year old. Her eyebrows must have shot even further through the ceiling a month or so later when the new car arrived. As I said, my dad had inherited a useful sum of money.


The Philips EL 3541, as the YouTube video shows, was beautifully designed and built, part of the last triumphant surge of valve-based electronics before the transistor revolution. In contrasting greys and white, preceding the stark ubiquity of brushed aluminium, the case and controls had pleasantly curved profiles. The main buttons were smooth and soft, but clunked and clicked with a satisfyingly businesslike sound. The whole thing felt substantial and robust, with a reassuringly heavy-duty carrying strap. It looked a bit like a wide, trustworthy face with large eyes and beautiful white teeth.

People are beginning to re-discover that using and owning physical objects like tape machines and vinyl records can have value, a sensory quality you don’t get with digital downloads. Why did we ever throw these things away?


This particular model was a four track machine, which means it could make four separate recordings on each reel of tape, two in each direction. The machine is shown with five inch reels (13cm) which typically held nine hundred feet (270m) of tape, but it could accommodate up to seven inch reels (18cm) holding eighteen hundred feet (540m). Tapes ran at a speed of three and three quarter inches per second (9.5 cm/sec)* which means that a five inch tape ran for around forty-five minutes and a seven inch tape around ninety minutes. So using four tracks, you could record for up to three hours on a five inch tape, and six hours on a seven inch tape, although you did have to turn over and re-thread tapes manually at the end of each track. A seven inch tape could therefore hold the equivalent of eight long playing (LP) records or albums, provided they weren’t excessively long, which they weren’t before the late nineteen-sixties.

Just to complicate things a little more, these numbers are for ‘long play’ tapes. You could also get ‘double play’ (2,400 feet on a 7 inch reel) and ‘triple play’ (3,600 feet on a 7 inch reel) but these were thinner and prone to breaking or stretching, so I avoided them. There were also thicker ‘standard play’ tapes, and five and three quarter inch reels as well, but the boxes always showed the tape length so it wasn’t as confusing as it sounds. Most of my tapes were Long Play five or seven inch reels. Believe it or not, I still have them, some from 1962 and 1963.

Some of the earliest recordings picked up a high pitched whistle through the microphone. Later I used to remove the backs from the television and record player to connect wires to the loudspeaker terminals. It got rid of the whistle but it could so easily have got rid of me as well.

The earliest recording I have is still on the five inch tape that came with the machine, from the Light Programme at four o’clock on the 30th December, 1962, ‘Pick of the 1962 Pops’ – “David Jacobs plays some of the hit records from the past twelve months**.” It starts off with Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Tower of Strength’, which had been number one in December, 1961, and then runs through a further twenty-three top three singles of 1962, ending with Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’. There are plenty of solo singers but not a British pop group among them. It was only a month or two before the end of that year that I’d first heard of the Beatles when ‘Love Me Do’ came on 208 Radio Luxembourg late one night on my transistor radio underneath the bedclothes.

I recorded the corresponding shows for 1963, 1964 and 1965, and for 1966 to 1969 the ‘Top of the Pops’ year end shows from television (audio only)**. This was a period when the old guard of solo singers such as Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Frank Ifield appeared less and less in the charts, displaced by emerging new groups like Jerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers and of course The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In 1964 the top spot was almost entirely British, Roy Orbison being the only exception.


I owned only two actual LP records myself, ‘The Hits of the Animals’ (an export version bought in Belgium) and Georgie Fame’s ‘Sweet Things’, but built up a considerable collection of recordings by exchange borrowing with friends. It included Donovan, Manfred Mann, Sandie Shaw, Jim Reeves, and the early Beatles and Rolling Stones LPs, although I later erased most of them by over-recording with music borrowed from the magnificent collection at Leeds Public Library.

I began to develop an interest in classical music. A friend’s elder brother had gone off to university leaving his record collection unattended in their front room. Attracted first by the sumptuous excitement of George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, I sampled the rest of the collection, such as the Beethoven symphonies and Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. They all went on my tapes. I don’t think my friend’s brother ever knew. Thanks Mike!

On one tape there are early recordings of broadcast comedy shows: the Christmas ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ from 1970; the first four programmes ever of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ from 1972** which were for many years lost to the B.B.C and possibly still are; and audio recordings of early ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ from television. By then I was living in a shared house in Leeds where one of our favourite diversions was transcribing the Python scripts and acting them out. 

Like snowy pictures on old videotape, the sound quality has not always lasted well. Perhaps with music this doesn’t really matter as you can always replace it, digitally re-mastered with a clarity that far exceeds the original, and usually in stereo rather than the earlier mono.

But you cannot replace the evocative social and family moments that were captured. Despite surviving in only thin and feeble form, they are irreplaceable beyond value.

At a friend’s house a group of us believed ourselves worthy rivals to the likes of comedians John Cleese, Tim Brooke Taylor and Bill Oddie. We wrote and recorded our own biblically themed comedy, ‘The Old Testacles’, most of it unrepeatable because of scurrilous allusions to countless teachers and pupils then at school, and of course the relentless uninhibited adolescent filth.

But the family moments remain the most poignant, like my grandma feeding my baby cousin on her knee, speaking in a village accent fashioned and formed before the First War:  

“Shout o’Sooty. You shout. What does Sooty say? ’Ere y’are. He du’n’t say ’ere y’are. Who’s go’r all t’butter? Yer gre-ased up aren’t yer? Oh heck! Eat it up nice. Yes you eat that up. Yer can’t come up, me shirt buttons‘ll be runnin’ all ove’ we-re n’t the’? Deary me to dae!”

Most precious of all are my dad’s unselfconscious performances. Because his grandad had been a sea captain, he claimed an inherited, natural aptitude in the delivery and interpretation of sea shanties. He announces the well-known windlass and capstan shanty, ‘Bound for the Rio Grande’, and begins to sing:   

“I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea...” followed by a hesitant pause, followed by complete breakdown into helpless uncontrollable laughter.

I am on these tapes too, embarrassing in my unbroken voice and long gone local accent, as my dad begins another poem:

“Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun...”

As before, my brother and I whisper to each other in the background.

“It’s about Miss J. Hunter’s bum.”

Again we all collapse into irrepressible laughter and my dad is unable to continue further.

 

* In comparison, cassette tapes, which became successful from the late nineteen-sixties, ran at one and seven eighth inches per second. They had to go slower because they were so short. However, the slower the recording speed the poorer the recording quality, which meant that cassettes were prone to distortion and background noise which had to be corrected by electronic sticking plaster such as the Dolby noise reduction system.  But cassettes were so compact and convenient to handle that they soon supplanted reel-to-reel and the rival but troublesome tape cartridge system which emerged around the same time as cassettes. 

** It would be a shame if these recordings were lost for ever so I have digitised them, put them on YouTube with private access (you can only hear them if you have the URLs) and linked them below. 
There are problems with the Pick/Top of the Pops programmes because nearly all the music has copyright restrictions. In any case, many items were cut short at the time of recording, generally not very well, and one or two were even omitted in order to fit one hour programmes on to 45 minute tapes. The sound quality has also not lasted well. But here is a list of what there is.
  • Pick of the 1962 Pops presented by David Jacobs on The Light Programme, 30th December 1962 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1963 (presenter unknown but it might be Don Moss)
    Pick of the Pops 1964 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 20th December 1964 at 5.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1965 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 26th December 1964 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 1 BBC1 26th December 1966 at 6.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 2 BBC1 27th December 1966 at 6.17 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1967 at 2.05 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1967 at 5.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1968 at 1.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1968 at 6.35 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1969 at 2.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1969 at 6.20 p.m.  

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Ghost of Airmyn Crossings

Tasker Dunham offers a ghost story for Christmas.

Over the years, countless children of Goole have grown up, moved away and made their lives in distant places. Yet they retain a passion for the town, that ‘Port in Green Fields’, with its distinctive history and treasured memories. They record nostalgic recollections of childhood on the internet, wonder at any mention of Goole on television, and always look for their home town football result. Some, when nearby, even after all formal and familial ties are gone, make a special detour simply to pass their old school on Boothferry Road. But not Matt Wetherell. Rather than go out of his way to see Goole, he keeps well away. When duties take him to Hull from his home across the Pennines, he always turns right on to the M18 at Langham, and drives through Lincolnshire to enter the city over the Humber Bridge. Anything to avoid Goole.

Over fifty years ago, when still at school in the sixth form, Matt and a group of friends became regular drinkers at the Percy Arms in Airmyn. In those days, sixth formers caught in a public house would have been in serious trouble at school, even when legally old enough to buy alcohol. It was a misuse of privilege, squandering the opportunities of sixth form study while those less fortunate were cleaning railway engines or keeping the peace in Cyprus. So Matt and his friends kept discreetly out of sight in the taproom, and the handful of teachers that frequented the same public house were careful to stay in the lounge so as not to notice them.

The comforts of the taproom were basic: plain walls, wooden floorboards, bench seats and bare tables, but there was always a warm fire burning. It was perfectly adequate for the main activities there: drinking, smoking, playing cards, playing dominoes and telling yarns. Matt and company tested each others’ memories of the Latin fish names on the faded pictorial chart on the wall. They became familiar with the other regulars: the farmer, the garage owner and the cinema manager who always arrived late with his wife after the last show, never removed his trilby hat and always had a rude story to tell.

To reach the Percy Arms, Matt and his friends walked the mile or so across the fields using the track known as the bridle path or Airmyn Crossings. It was lonely and remote in those days before the roaring motorway was built at the Goole end, and the housing estate encroached at the Airmyn end. It was a pleasant stroll on a warm evening, more of a challenge in wind and rain and undeniably menacing after dark, especially where the trees and bushes joined overhead. The darkness added adventure to the walk home which was always late. Pubs were not supposed to serve drinks after half-past ten, but the landlord bent this rule a little, especially if the cinema manager was delayed. The local police knew when to be diplomatic. Sometimes, it could be nearly midnight before Matt and his friends started home along the pitch black track with several pints of Smith’s inside them, their apprehension kept at bay by vulgar songs and loud bravado. Sometimes a couple of the group would steal ahead to hide in the bushes ready to jump out and frighten the others with piercing cries. It was rowdy, but innocuous enough compared to what some teenagers get up to nowadays.

Matt never finished his sixth form studies. Before his friends went off to university he had left school for a job in a local office, his ambition diverted by a girl friend, the accomplished and beautiful daughter of an affluent local solicitor. They made plans and imagined their future together, but much to her father’s relief, she left for university too. Despite ardent promises to remain true, she gradually drifted away. When Matt last heard of her, she was organising famine relief in Africa.

Thus, one Christmas Eve, Matt found himself alone. He decided for old times’ sake to walk the bridle path to Airmyn. Nothing had changed. The taproom was just as it had been. The floorboards still knocked to his footsteps; the seats remained hard; the tables, bare; the faded fish chart still on the wall. There were few signs it was Christmas, but the coal fire had a more cheerful glow than usual and everyone was in a happy frame of mind. Matt played dominoes with the farmer. The garage owner enquired as to his well-being. The cinema manager arrived late with his hat, wife and rude story.

When Matt eventually started back along the deserted track, a little unsteadily due to the beer inside him, it was late and an ominous fog had descended. It was thick, the kind of fog you only get around Goole, where moisture from the rivers and low-lying fields conceives a dense, cold vapour that penetrates deep inside your lungs and shrouds the sight and sound of your footsteps. Matt’s shadow hung eerily in the mist around him; shapes and silhouettes moved in and out of the bushes and trees nearby; dark forms both ahead and behind gave the impression of something approaching and then dissolving away. The only thing Matt heard was the sound of his own breathing. It intensified his unease.

Suddenly, just where the path bends beneath overhanging trees, Matt sensed something tumbling from above, as if someone was falling on him, and then, inches away from his own face, another face, a terrifying face with hollowed-out eyes and grimacing, uneven teeth. Matt raised his arm to push it away. His hand slipped into the mouth; it felt wet and cold; his fingers scraped across rough teeth. He shuddered and screamed, staggered sideways and fell into the adjacent field, the surface of which lay some two or three feet below the level of the path.

Looking up from the ground, Matt realised he was alone. No one else was on the path. Yet, surely, he was certain it had been real. His fingers were wet where they had entered the open mouth, and sore where they had rubbed across the teeth. Beside him, on the ground, was something round. It took a few moments to realise it was a human skull. It had the same uneven teeth as the face that had materialised in front of him. Matt cursed. Stone cold sober, he scrambled back up to the path and ran as fast as he could to the safety of the lights on Airmyn Road.

Rationalising afterwards, Matt decided the skull must indeed have been real. He still had a graze on his hand to prove it. In his drunken state, he must have fallen from the path, dislodging the skull from the loose earth at the side of the field; it only seemed to have dropped from above as the ground came up towards him, an illusion. He had probably covered it up again as he scrambled back up to the track. He never related the incident to anyone, and there was never any report of human remains found on Airmyn Crossings.

The following week, Matt’s employer offered him a promotion away from Goole. It was several years before he visited the Percy Arms again. When he did, reluctantly, but necessarily because of a family function, much had changed. Outwardly, the place looked the same, but internally it had become a single large, refurbished lounge. There was no sign that the taproom had ever existed. He drove there by car, but passing along Airmyn Road, he just had time to register that the route of the old Airmyn Crossings had been diverted at the Goole end to accommodate the new motorway.

All of this was now fifty years ago. The farmer, the garage owner, the cinema manager and his wife must be long gone. Recently, Matt heard a tale that seemed to have some bearing on the events of that Christmas Eve when last he saw them. A distant cousin, Louisa, of whom he knew only vaguely, visited him in the course of tracing her family history. Matt was unable to add much to her findings by way of family memories or old photographs, but she told him a story previously told by her grandmother, who had in turn heard it from her grandmother.

His name, Matt, or Matthew, had run through the Wetherell family for generations. An earlier Matthew had been born, not in the Goole area, but in a village many miles away to the North. That Matthew had worked on the lands of the Northumberland estates, and one summer had transgressed unwritten social expectations by becoming too familiar with the daughter of the incumbent of the local Parish. To prevent the friendship developing into anything more serious, it had been arranged that Matthew would be moved to other lands owned by the Northumberland estates in distant Airmyn. Matthew’s brother Mark also had to move with him for no reason other than that he was Matthew’s brother. In due course, the news arrived that the vicar’s daughter of whom Matthew had been so fond, was now married, and had moved to the colonies with her new husband. Matthew, distressed, took to wandering like a tramp in the woods and fields. He disappeared just before Christmas and nothing was seen or heard of him again.

More happily, Matthew’s brother, Mark, remained in Airmyn. He married and had a large family. He was the common ancestor of both the present day Matt and Louisa who had told him of these far-off events. If you care to look in the Airmyn Parish registers for the early years of the nineteenth century, you will find mention of a Mark Wetherell, servant in husbandry, son of John and Mary Wetherell of Melsonby, which is in North Yorkshire, near Richmond.

The precise location of Matt’s disturbing experience that dark Christmas Eve must now be somewhere beneath the Eastbound carriageway of the M62, after you drive past the end of West Park but before you reach the Airmyn Road flyover. Strange things happen just at that point: engines misfire, sudden gusts of wind cause vehicles to swerve, drivers slow down for no apparent reason. You should concentrate and take extra care there, especially on Christmas Eve. Matt Wetherell avoids it like it was haunted.