… and a smashing present.
I posted this on the Tunbridge Wells Writers’ website yesterday as part of our Christmas Countdown, so if it seems familiar that’ll be why. Today’s post, however, includes an ‘Easter Egg’ in the form of a crappy seasonal Clerihew at the bottom, which I forgot to put in my last post here. Enjoy!
It’s difficult in these days of Mp3 mass storage and unlimited music streaming to comprehend just how desirable a bottom-of-range compact cassette recorder might have been to a twelve-year old cahnsil estate oik in the early 1970s. Imagine today’s average twelve-year old unwrapping their first ever i-phone and multiply it by a factor of around a million, then throw in an X-box1 for good measure and you might be getting somewhere close. But probably not, because twelve-year olds today are already likely to be on their fourth or fifth generation smartphone, and will have regarded ownership of such items as a god-given right rather than a privilege from the time they lost their first milk tooth. Spoilt little buggers.
But I digress: In 1973 I would have sold my granny to sex-traffickers to get my hands on a cassette recorder, and thrown in my granddad too, had he still been living, for the price of a triple-pack of blank C60s and a set of spare batteries.
My dreams were almost answered in December 1972. I had been pleading miserably (shush!) for a tape-recorder since my birthday in August (when I had received nothing grander than a cheap kite), and had convinced myself that said pleading had “incentivised” mum into borrowing the necessary monies from our tallyman, Mr Pither, to procure it for me. Imagine my shock and dismay, then, on discovering on Christmas morning that the daft old bat had instead invested my present money in a poxy little second-hand reel-to-reel recorder on the advice of a “family friend”. That the “friend” was the person selling the reel-to-reel – probably to fund the purchase of a proper cassette for their own offspring – was an implication lost on my mother, but an oversight she would rue throughout the entire Christmas period and for at least six months of the following year.
In fairness, the little reel-to-reel was a beaut: far more versatile than the coveted cassette, with three playback speeds and a sound quality that the “compact” format wouldn’t come close to realising for at least another decade. But that wasn’t the point: it wasn’t a cassette, and on the one occasion I plucked up enough courage to take it out of the house to show my friends they laughed so hard they endangered the gussets of their hand-me-down bell-bottomed Lionels.
One thing I did like about the reel-to-reel format was a neat trick I had learned from my dad before he went out to buy a newspaper one day and never returned: if you recorded a fart at the highest speed and played it back at the slowest it sounded like a motorbike. Thus I spent many a happy hour sitting at our kitchen table forcing out farts into the handheld microphone and recording hilarious motorcycle-based comedy sketches around them. I even bought a second-hand Philishave™ razor at a jumble sale, because my dad had utilised one in his recordings, using the same speed-adjustment technique, to replicate a helicopter. Sadly, however, with the best will in the world there’s only so much fun to be had from a portable tape-recorder that everyone else regards as a laughing stock. Having run out of ideas for motorcycle and helicopter-based radio sketches and clogged the head of the mic with foul-smelling detritus I soon grew bored and flogged the thing to a second-hand shop for a handful of coppers I spent on sweets. Or possibly fags.
I can’t remember precisely how long I kept the reel-to-reel, but I do know it lasted longer than the cassette player I finally obtained in 1973. I cannot begin to tell you the joy that heralded the unwrapping of my present that Christmas morning, nor the unmitigated pleasure that followed that very afternoon as I bullied the family into silence while I recorded Christmas Top of the Pops by holding the microphone up to the TV. Mum had thoughtfully provided me with several changes of batteries, and these lasted right up until teatime, at which point I discovered that the very cheapest models of cassette recorders eschewed the convenience of a mains lead in order to keep manufacturing costs down.
Over the next couple of weeks I begged, borrowed and stole money at an increasing rate to feed the cassette’s insatiable appetite for batteries. It took six HP2s – aka “Them Big Bastards” – at a go, and these, if I kept the volume down, were good for about four hours recording and playback time before the music slowed to the point of being unlistenable. Every time The Sweet’s Blockbuster or T. Rex’s Jeepster segued from Glamrock foot-stomper to Paul Robesonesque ballad I would feel my heart drop. Having sold every saleable item in my bedroom to feed my habit I would resort to throwing the three-piece around in hopes that a few pennies or perhaps a shiny tanner might be rescued from the lining down the sides.
The crunch finally came a few weeks after I returned to school in January. I would come home almost every afternoon to find my older brother, Robert, sitting in the kitchen listening to my cassettes. I think he was between jobs then, or perhaps working early shifts at the sossidge factory, but either way he would get home about an hour before me and spend that time recording over anything I had recorded and generally burning up my precious batteries as rapidly as he could. I don’t think he had any interest in the player at all: his sole intention was to wind me up, and wind me up he did.
For him it was just a small daily victory in the ongoing battle that had waged between us since I had slipped out of the womb four years behind him and started competing for my mother’s attention, but for me it was ritualistic torture.
The unfairness of it was what really got to me. Despite the age difference I could hold my own in a good old-fashioned fistfight, but what could I possibly do to overcome the disadvantage the school timetable had me at? I tried different hiding places, I tried screaming, I tried threats… I tried just about every counter-measure I could think of, but night after night he won. The injustice of it incensed me…
The noise, dear reader, of a Binatone compact cassette recorder smashing up a kitchen wall is far louder than one might imagine. First comes the dull thump of the initial impact, but this is but a prelude to the series of sharp cracks, crunches and occasional Boings! that punctuate the explosive destruction of the outer plastic casing. Within milliseconds this gives way to a symphony of ironically musical tinklings as metal shrapnel and vulcanised rubber flywheels fly hither and yon, and this builds in turn to the drum-n-bass rumble of half-a-dozen Big Bastard batteries tumbling to the linoleum and rolling across the floor.
My snarled, guttural cry of triumph – There, let’s see you f*****g record over my Top of the Pops now! – lasted only seconds before realisation of my folly hit home. As Robert ran for cover I surveyed the dent in the wall before me and the wreckage of my beloved cassette and howled with pain and rage. As the last battery slowed to a standstill under the kitchen press rage turned to frustration, frustration to sadness, then sadness to an overwhelming sense of loss.
As mentioned above, here’s that crappy Clerihew…
Looks much older
When he’s screaming It’s Chriiiiiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaasssss on my TV
Than he did when he screamed it in nineteen-seventy-three
Thagyew, here all week etc…