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ELECTRONIC AUTOBIOGRAPHY

by

Robert M. Young

The first radio I remember was like a piece of furniture - very dark brown, almost ebony. It rested on four legs, rather like stair rail uprights. The radio itself was a box with a small crescent-shaped translucent dial. The switches were toggles, and the speaker was below the box, between the legs, with an ornate wood carving partially covering it. I loved to open the top and look at the glowing valves (called tubes in America) and the interleaved sets of disks which rotated in relation to one another as you tuned the stations. The radio stood in the corner of the living room, and I was somewhat in awe of it.

There was another radio across the room in the bookcase. It was smaller and decidedly more modern with a huge tuning area listing all sorts of exotic places: Hilversum comes to mind. It was polished and had a number of wave bands. I never noticed it much until all gathered around it to hear the news of Pearl Harbour. I was six, and I don't believe that a day has gone by since then when I have not been keen to hear the news on the radio several times per day.

I date my electronic awareness from that moment. Of course, my relationship with modern electronic inventions goes back before that, but I took the others for granted. The telephone and electricity for lighting, fans and the refrigerator were natural to me, even though rural electrification was far from complete in the surrounding countryside. Talking on the phone was nothing special and remained a taken-for-granted extension of face-to-face encounters: 581771 to Lakeside8 1771 to area codes to touch dialling seem fairly unremarkable to me, just as did attic fans and air conditioning. Although I suppose I was on the phone to my friends several hours every evening for all my teens, it was the other communications technologies which most fascinated me and still do. (In the last couple of years my experiences with mobile phones have finally brought magic to the medium of telephony.)

I was given a tiny radio of my own quite soon. It was ivory-coloured with a knob for tuning and only a volume control. I listened to it all the time. I can still remember the programmes I listened to as long as I lived at home: Let's Pretend (fairy tales), Superman, Captain Midnight, The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, Gangbusters, The FBI in Peace and War. I soon moved onto more grown-up mysteries: The Shadow (with the voice of Orson Wells), Charlie Chan, The Thin Man. And there were endless soap operas which made being at home on a school day or in the heat of the day during polio epidemics bearable: Ma Perkins, The Right to Happiness, Stella Dallas. Sunday ones were special: One Man's Family, Henry Aldrich, Dagwood Bumpstead. Comedy shows were a must: Fibber McGee and Molly, Baby Snooks, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Bob and Ray ('This is Bob and Ray, signing offand saying, write if you get work, and don't forget to hang by your thumbs.'), Edgar Bergin and Charlie MaCarthy, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor. I also never missed The Lux Radio Theater (sometimes called Lux Presents Hollywood and presented by Cecil B. DeMille), and my mother never missed the Bell Telephone Hour or the Metropolitan Opera,

My absolutely favourite programme came on at ten, well after I was supposed to be asleep, so I took my Truetone under the covers, where the tubes and light made things hot. It was I Love a Mystery: The Adventures of Jack, Doc and Reggie. I don't recall who Reggie was, but Jack was Jack Webb (later of Dragnet fame), and the woman lead was my favourite radio voice of all, Mercedes Macambridge. I never saw her until she played Luz in 'Giant', but the tremolo in her voice seduced me utterly. I recall the long serial about an escarpment and plateau which convinced me once and for all that radio is the most visual medium. What it conjures up in the imagination is far more vivid and pictorially exciting than any projected pictures.

This is not to say that I was not attracted to projected pictures. I went to the Village Theater or The Varsity Theatre or the Knox Street Theatre every Saturday of my childhood, and when I became independently mobile I went all over town many nights of every week to other suburbs or downtown. I suppose I saw every film that came to town from about 1942 till 1953, when I went off to university. The names of the theatres still thrill me: Inwood, Maple, Lakewood, Majestic, Palace, Rialto, Newsreel (whose leaflets I delivered on Saturdays to all the offices in all the skyscrapers of Dallas for several years). We saw all the foreign films at the Coronet and necked at the Northwest Highway Drive-In. Movies were our main social entertainment until dancing took over. I first kissed a girl there and first petted there. I also had my values shaped by the westerns, film noire and Burt Lancaster. To this day I can often come up with the next line of a movie showing on the television which I saw once in Texas in the 1940s or 50s.

The same is true of the songs I heard on The Hit Parade, Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride. They are all in my memory and available to hum or sing, many still word-perfect. By the time I was listening to those programs I also had a tiny 45 rpm record player and a slightly larger white Bendix radio to play it through. My parents never had a 78 rpm or LP gramophone while I was at home. I got my first one at university and only then began listening to classical music. My own listening was always from the radio and at the dances we went to two or three nights every week, and if there wasn't one being given by anyone, we went to an old honky-tonk, LouAnn's, and danced under the stars to hit parade and dirty bop records.

I was amazed when I first saw a wire recorder (the precursor to the tape). The father of my 'steady', Terry Crozier (with whom I'd still like to have one more dance before I die) bought one, and we were soon recording our favourites on it. I absolutely had to have one. This was saying something, since my family was not well-off. I got lunch money but no allowance and had to pay for my own clothes and entertainment. I had two newspaper routes and was up from 4 till 6 every morning. Even so, I bought myself a modest motorbike and a Webster Chicago portable wire recorder. I loved it. I put all my favourite songs on it and recorded my Latin lessons and played them to myself as I went to sleep.

I also bought a Hallicrafters ham radio communications receiver with lots of short wave bands. I coveted Hallicrafters for years and studied their catalogues all the time. Finally, a wealthy friend upgraded his own short wave radio and sold his Hallicrafters S-40 to me cheap. I went to school to learn Morse code and how to be a ham but never made it. What I did and loved doing was to listen to foreign broadcasts, especially the BBC and Radio Moscow. I felt utterly daring when I wrote off for the Radio Moscow broadcast schedules. I still half-believe my own whopper that the FBI called on my parents when I got the letter with the schedule. It was McCarthyite witch hunt time by then, and our ultra-conservative community was seeing Reds under everything and supporting the witch-hunts all the way.

The radio, cinema, music and short wave radio were central to my well-being. I seemed fascinated by things outside the world of Dallas, a world I rarely left because of the Depression the war and then our modest means. But I was electronically transported all over the world and into adventure and romance. I was and remain addicted.

We never had a television while I was living at home. My parents couldn't afford one. When I saw TV sets, what they said to me was 'free movies', and when I got my own as a medical student I watched into the small hours all the time. I also listened to the radio late into the night. They had all night radio stations across the border in Mexico, and I listened to popular music, blues, Country and western and all sorts of bizarre ads for lanolin, reconditioned razor blades, statues of the Virgin May that glowed in the dark and personally autographed pictures of Jesus Christ . When I moved East I listened to talk shows in New York. Gene Shepherd was supposed to be playing records, but what he did was rap fascinatingly about life, his childhood and all sorts of things. Barry Gray interviewed famous actors and celebrities in a restaurant. I especially remember how thoughtful John Carradine was (he was Preacher in 'The Grapes of Wrath').

When my college roommate and I split up on leaving Yale, he took the records, and I got the hi-fi, only to have to sell it a year later when my wife and I had a child and needed money to buy a washing machine. I bought another (rather battered) one when I went to Cambridge and began working my way through the King's College record library, which is how I first got serious about classical music. Some years later my wife was in hospital, and having a potentially serious operation. When I asked her what she'd like, she said a good radio. So I went to the hi-fi shop near the college. Not only did I come away with a lovely Tandberg portable, which she loved, but when she came home from hospital, she was greeted by the strains of 'Land of Hope and Glory' from an Ampex stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder coming through a Rogers Cadet amplifier and Ampex speakers.

That was the beginning of my tape collection. The shop was kind enough to loan me new records, and between them and the college library I built up a collection of several thousand records on tape. I listened to tapes non-stop and ended up having open house evenings when I talked about music and even gave a series on the BBC Third Programme and wrote the main essay in the programme for the Bath Festival (the nearest mainland Britain ever got to having its own Woodstock). I had a portable Telefunken I could take in the car and to parties and went to some trouble to fix up music in the car. To get stereo I had them create another amplifier and had an earplug in one ear. I can't recall all the arrangements and all the tape recorders I got through, but I was certainly portable long before walkmans. By this time amplifiers were transistorised, so the hi-fi shop could fix up small ones for me to play through speakers in the car.

It took me a long time to move over to compact cassettes. One day the world will celebrate the man who made hi-fi possible on narrow tapes running at 1 7/8 inches per second. When they realise that he also invented video-tape, Ray Dolby's place alongside Edison and Bell will be recognised. I knew him a little; he was a research fellow in Pembroke, a college down the road from King's. I am embarrassed to say that I found him boring and was not nice to him. I have since repented and want to say how much pure pleasure I have experienced from his technical inventions.

I didn't move over to compact cassettes until my parents gave us a windfall, and I got a Pioneer amplifier and cassette deck with Dolby Noise Reduction and began a cassette collation which is still growing. I decanted many of the reel-to-reel tapes and am sad that I rarely use the Uher or Revox reel-to-reel machines which were so important to me in the in 60s and 70s. I now rely on Aiwa machines which have excellent fidelity and Dolby C noise reduction in practically every room in the house. In Cambridge, the sound system was in my study, a cavernous room with very large speaker cabinets with William Morris cloth over Goodman Triaxioms (built to accommodate the Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil'). I'd wired the whole house with constant impedance volume controls in all the main rooms with jacks for playing portable radios through the speakers.

By this time there were half-way decent small tape recorders. I am not talking about walkmans but about the Aiwa and Sony recording and playback machines which preceded them(e.g., Sony TCS-300 And Aiwa HS JO2 with auto-reverse and Dolby B). I took them everywhere and listened with earphones before proper walkmans were available and they were miniaturised to not much bigger than the cassettes. I never cease to marvel that so much beauty can come from so small a box and tiny indwelling earphones.

There was a parallel history of dictating machines from quite large, mains ones to the compact Phillips and Microcassettes for dictating notes and letters and recording lectures. I dictated reams of research notes into the mains machines before I discovered the amazing portable Olympus and Sony ones which I still use interchangeably with recording walkmans and the impressive Sony Professional with Dolby B and C.

The first FM radio I heard was a small one my father won in some lottery and kept next to his bed. My parents would listen to light classical music and news in their room. I remember an FM radio station which signed off every evening with an advert from a local portrait photographer. The announcer spoke in funereal tones, saying, 'For the next twelve hours, Comini bring you silence. Like the serenity of a Comini portrait, these sponsored silent hours...' I didn't have my own FM receiver until the 1960s, when I was delighted to record long sessions of The Jazz Scene, compered by Humphrey Littleton, who supplied my tape collection with an amazing collection of vintage performances of early modern jazz. Since then FM receivers have gone digital and produce even more remarkable fidelity. I have trouble sleeping the night through and benefit from the twenty-four hour BBC World Service, which has recently been superseded for me by BBC Radio 5. I keep an earphone in my ear through most nights, and the constant chat soothes me to sleep, punctuated by regular news bulletins.

Videotape was for me as thrilling as the free movies of television. When they first became consumer items I was making television documentaries about science and technology, and the manufacturers were glad to give away samples, so I got several. I liked the Sony Beta-max format best, of course, but never made much use of the Sony video recorder, which I loaned permanently to a director friend. I have built up an enviable VHS collection of films and documentaries and have recently had to get some new shelving built to accommodate the hundreds of tapes alongside the array of tens of thousands of audio reel-to-reel and cassette ones. There is now some space at the foot of the bed, where there was a sea of videotapes for many years. I can probably watch most of my favourite films at will from inside my own collection. Storing them is not a joke, though.

I had a lovely auto-reverse tape deck in the car and was delighted to complement it with a 10-CD autochanger. I'd bought the first Sony portable CD, but it was cumbersome, and I have only recently bought a streamlined Technics Discman, which has remarkable fidelity. Someone cleaned our house out of electronic equipment one day a couple of years ago, and I didn't know that you weren't required by the insurance company to replace the top line machines I had with the latest and best, so I got a Micromega CD unit which plays through a lovely set of Kef Concerto speakers in cabinets I had built in Cambridge. There are four sets of speakers around the bed, bringing radio, cassette, reel-to-reel and television brought through a unit which enhanced it and video through the hi-fi for both the speaker system and headphones. It is really not worth getting up. There is a more modest system in the kitchen, a portable one in the bath, ones in my children's rooms and another facing me at my computer, now able to pay encyclopaedic CD-ROM and music CDs. I have just given my lady a lovely system for her car with radio, cassette, a 12 CD changer and four speakers. She has regular hour-long trips to make, and the experience is now transformed from frustration to leisure listening. She can listen to CDs, tapes chosen by her, collections of love songs I make for her and readings of poetry and books, along with AM and FM radio. My own sound system is worth more than the car it's in. (Mind you, the car, though a Saab Turbo, is 16 years old with more than 100,000 miles on the clock).

Collections of favourite songs have been an important part of my life since the time in my teens when I made them with the Webcor wire recorder. I made my first tape of favourites in the mid-1960s. I recall sheer delight that one five- or seven-inch tape with four tracks could hold so many songs. I remember also being troubled when I wanted to delete some and substitute others. Of course, it's not on, since songs are of different lengths. Thus began a series of favourites tapes which is still going strong. I made tens of them on reel-to-reel and played them endlessly at dancing parties. Then began the cassette series which is still growing. I give each one the title of the first song or a phrase which reflects my mood at the time ('Endurance fav's' 'Loving Hope fav's'). They give me great joy and comfort. I play them in the car, the bath, the kitchen, in bed, on the train, even (for a time) on my motorbike as I went out to Southall to work in a mental hospital. I have also made compilations to say things to successive lovers and to myself about relationships. I make collections of kiddie songs for my grandchildren and ones of requests from my children. There have been times when the sound of Willie Nelson's voice has been all that stood between me and despair, and I have thought through many a crisis while listening to favourites tapes. Most songs come and go and a few ('Help Me Make it through the Night') stay over the years or are occasionally revived. It is a world where I can savour, mourn, ruminate and celebrate the vicissitudes of life and relationships, current and past. Some songs have more than one set of associations, other recall single incidents or periods.

My story about computers is not one of unmitigated celebration. I was almost phobic about computers and could not see the point of them for a long time. I had an early Sinclair and never got the hang of it. I suppose Amstrad should have been my entry point, but the machines and I would quarrel. I'd switch on. It asked the time. I'd say what it was. I'd be told this was wrong and would storm off. This humiliation recurred over many months until someone was kind enough to say that I could lie or disable the question. Then I did manage to write most of a book on the Amstrad, but all was transformed when a colleague, Joe Berke, showed me his Apple Mac. I was envious (as he intended me to be) and thought I could give myself one and the kids a superior sort of video game platform all at once. I was wrong about the kids and had to get them a separate Commodore, and they lost interest in it in a few months. I, on the other hand, have never looked back. My letter-writing and intellectual work were transformed by my Mac IIsi and Microsoft Word word processing software. I was not quick to learn, but I did manage, and am delighted with the result. I have added memory and RAM until I had a catastrophic crash which felt like a stroke, but I recovered.

The next step was a modem with a fax inside the computer. I has never been altogether reliable, and I continue to think of reverting to a paper fax. What the modem did do, however, was to make the next move possible. That is, after many false starts and agonising problems getting it all configured, I got onto the Internet (with much hand-holding from Mark Alexander and various helplines). I first got onto various email forums and then founded a number and branched out onto the World Wide Web. I built up 24MB of RAM and 640mb of disc space on the Iisi before succumbing to the lure of a Powermac&500. Unfortunately, it's Open Transport software cannot deal with the Internet, so I am awaiting delivery of software that works and limping along with a Performa 630 until they solve the problem. I'll say more soon about my adventures on the net, where I currently moderate two email forums, subscribe to 30 others, have about 20,000 email letters stored and am just getting into the web in a big way.

3627 words

The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

email robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

 


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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