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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Nostalgia and a Test of Patience

I recall one afternoon as a young boy living in the basement (former servant's quarters) of a typical Victorian town-house in the Pimlico district of Westminster. Next door to the bedroom (where we as a whole family slept together in the one room) was an adjoining bedroom which was long abandoned, with giant black cobwebs occupying the corners, near the ceiling and window frame in particular. The room was cluttered with bric-a-brac long disposed of by former tenants, with every item covered in dust, including the base for a Singer sewing machine still complete with a flywheel powered by a rocking foot pedal. How I would spend time alone in that room, totally obliterate of the spiders, sitting at that bench and attempting to see how fast I can get that flywheel spinning. 

It was then that I spotted something resembling a small black suitcase lying nearby, as with everything else in that room, long abandoned by its owner. When I lifted its lid, I was filled with a combination of joy mixed with curiosity at the sight of a record turntable powered by a crank, and what looks to be a fully-functional pick-up arm complete with needle. Next to the player was a pile of wax records, along with a vinyl single of Rock a Hula Baby by Elvis Presley. Not that any of the wax discs were albums, but singles which preceded the smaller vinyl version which afterwards dominated the market for decades. 

I carried the record player and its records to the living room, where it became my plaything, even despite my parent's warning that the original owner may want to reclaim it. But as long as it lasted, nobody had ever knocked on our door. 

A version almost identical to the one I found.

A close up of the pick-up mechanism

The music entertained not just myself but the rest of the family. But by being young and inexperienced, I tended to turn the crank more than needed, the continuous over-winding over the months eventually broke the spring, permanently losing its tension, therefore no longer able to keep the turntable rotating at a constant pace. It was a crying shame. With Dad fearing that the spring would somehow penetrate the strong casing to fly with velocity at my face, he disposed of the unit, never to be seen again. Yet despite it's constant use, there was never a complaint from any of the neighbours. The reason for this was straightforward. There was no tone adjuster on the unit and the rather tinny sound failed to penetrate the rather thick walls separating each tenancy. 

Technology beats on. For Mum's birthday in 1962, Dad bought her the latest in musical technology, an open-reel tape recorder - heavy, bulky - but what I considered as a youngster to be a technological miracle. The main difference between this new-style device and a record player was that now, supplied with its own microphone, we are able to record our choice of music, along with private conversation. A phenomenon which no doubt caused the hair of every entrepreneur working in the music industry to stand on end with prophetic apprehension! 

But although the unit gave us plenty of fun, together with a plethora of splicing joints dotted along the length of the tape itself, like with the record player, no disturbance was caused to our neighbours. Maybe that fact that these units can only deliver mono sounds, that is from a single speaker built into the unit itself. The sound issuing from the tape recorder, if I recall, tended to be crackly, with the beating of the drums barely discernible. But nobody complained.

This model of open-reel was the exact one we had.
The predominantly wood and metal cabinet might have been the reason why this device had stood the test of time. For more than half a century, it is still in my possession, although it was years since it was last used, still in good working order. It was rather unlike the next step up in music technology - the all-plastic Cassette Recorder - small, compact, and portable, but in comparison with the open-reel, it had a shorter life span. I have always found the cassette to be something of a bane to use. I have learnt by experience never to wind back the tape to re-play the song I have just heard. This shortens the life of the tape, causing the playback to sound trembling, the vocals delivered with a quivering tone, only for the tape eventually to be chewed up by the pinch-wheel, lengths of tape stuck in the mechanism, and its life at an end. Yet this device had kept me entertained throughout the early 1970's when I was in my late teens. Another advantage the open-reel had over the cassette was that if during use the tape snapped, as it often did with the open-reel, the two ends can be spliced together with a special tape which was easily available on the market back in those days - an apparent recognition that such was a universal problem.

But if the tape in the sealed cassette snapped - unless I was lucky enough to have both ends exposed to fix - that was it. The cassette ended in the bin.

The cassette recorder of the 1970's.

However, what a revolution in home entertainment brought in by the stereo! Which included me when I bought my first stereo unit which I installed in my bedroom, as in those days I still lived at home. And sure enough, whilst listening to stereophonic sounds, it wasn't long before the sound of banging came through the floor. Mum was complaining that the bass tone was too loud. The only solution was to adjust the bass until the sound was practically tinny. But at least there was peace.

The bass. The very thing that caused complaints from neighbours after flying the nest and settling into my own apartment in the mid 1970's. Strange in a way; whenever I played secular music, I did not have too much trouble. But put on Gospel music and soon enough there would be a knock on my door. People complained a lot more frequently when I was listening to Gospel music. Especially from the single occupant of the apartment directly below me. Whenever he called, he stood tall and looming in a leather jacket, his darkened countenance looking down onto mine. I quickly learnt that with a fellow that big, I didn't want to cross him. Then one evening I was playing squash with a friend down at the Leisure Centre. At that Centre the squash courts were constantly booked, and at the end of each thirty-minute time-slot the two players must leave the court, even mid-game, and allow the next pair of players to enter.  

And so the bell rang to signal the end of our slot. I approached the door and opened it to let ourselves out. Standing right there with his partner was the fellow from the apartment downstairs. I was as much shocked as he was. He was shorter than me in his natural height and his build wasn't that impressive. Shortly after that incident he moved out, and he wasn't seen again. One thing I could say of him - he knew how to keep his footwear concealed, even if his soles were as high as a station platform!

And all this brings me to ask: Why is our younger generation obsessed with stereos so huge and powerful that such would suit a public ballroom? This brought on the turning of the tables, with myself making the complaint. Such as an incident which occurred in the Autumn of 2004.

Well into the night I was kept awake by the constant thump, thump, thump coming through the ceiling from the apartment above ours. No discernible music, just this tuneless beating. I wasn't too worried for either my wife or myself, but I was more concerned for our newborn daughter in case she was disturbed by the noise. So I crept upstairs to ask that their hi-fi can be turned down for our daughter's sake. The one answering the door said something like Huh huh, but did nothing to lower the volume. And there lies my mistake. I should have checked on my daughter. Had I done, I would have seen that she was sleeping well, got some earplugs and returned to bed. But instead, I returned upstairs to complain further. The female who answered the door spoke in a very arrogant, couldn't-care-less manner, explaining that it was her 21st birthday. Her attitude arose my irk, and I gave her what I thought was a gentle tap on her shoulder. She went down as if I gave her a hard push. Instantly three half-drunken men rushed out, along with two or three females, to lay me out. But I managed to reach my front door unscathed. Outside, they were pushing to get into our apartment while we were inside, with myself pushing to close the door. Fortunately my strength prevailed and the door closed. Safe inside, while the crowd was banging and attempting to bring the door down, my wife called the Police. It was they, two officers in our apartment and the other two upstairs, that the entire situation was diffused, and the long-for silence prevailed throughout the entire building. And you know what? My daughter slept through the entire ordeal totally undisturbed.

It was not long after this that those upstairs were partying again. But this time a young mother from another apartment called up from the yard outside, complaining about how their noise was keeping her child awake. Their reply took the form of a string of unprintable expletives. I have learnt much from the experience. The party-loving occupants upstairs did not have a great year. After cheering England with so much passion during the 2004 European Cup football tournament, their team was knocked out of the Quarter-Finals by Portugal on a penalty shoot-out, after a 2-2 draw. No wonder our upstairs neighbours were devastated, and we became the sitting duck for them to vent their frustration. 

As I write this blog, a birthday party is taking place at the house next door to ours (which we moved into just a few months after that party incident). They too have a powerful music centre which, to me seems so inappropriate, other than to irritate their neighbours. Like in previous times, it's a constant Thump, thump, thump, without any tune we could recognise or associate with. But unlike those before, they usually turn their sound right down by eleven at night. But whenever such situations occur, we keep ourselves to ourselves, and learn to be patient. We have never complained since, and I have found that yes, there is a price to pay in putting up with the noise. But the price we would pay would be much greater had we knocked on their door. As it is we remain on good terms. There won't be any hostilities, as Jesus would himself had said:
If you are smitten on one cheek, turn the other also; if someone tells you to go one mile, offer to go two miles, and give to those who asks. 
Matthew 5:38-42.

Sound advice indeed, if heeded will save from much grief and sorrow. Pity I learnt the hard way.


  1. Dear Frank,
    These days,patience is not only a Christian virtue, but a self-preservation policy, as so many get carried away by road rage or foolish taking offense at some innocent remark, and before you know it, violence erupts. I remember the reel-to-reel as the first repository of music for my dance solos when I was a little girl, and even making a recording of my grandmother singing "Come Thou Almighty King" a cappella in Ukrainian.
    Thanks as always for the entertaining and well-written post. God bless,

  2. There are both positive adn negative effects of technology. While the new technology makes far more things readily available, it also produces more opportunities for problems, and people, being sinful tend to focus on the worst aspects. Patience becomes increasingly important.