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When wireless was something you listened to

For those of you who regularly read my blogs, you may remember my having a few issues with the batteries in our smoke alarms. Well, it might interest you to know that the very next day, when I thought I’d finished with batteries, my wife’s wristwatch stopped for the exact same reason—the battery had gone flat. And it was while I was stood at the counter watching the young man in the jeweller’s replace it with a new one, that I became intrigued at the actual size of that battery.

“Makes you wonder,” I said, shaking my head, “how a tiny little thing like that can keep a watch ticking away for over two years, because that’s the last time I had the battery replaced—quite amazing really, don’t you think so? In fact, I’m pretty sure it was you that replaced it with a new one. Do you remember that, it was you, right?”

He didn’t say anything, just shrugged his shoulders, nodded his head and carried on doing what he was doing—probably thinking I was born around the time of Methuselah, and wondering what the heck I was going on about. He was in his low twenties, I think, round about the same age as a couple of my grandkids. Just like them, he’d grown up with computers, mobile phones, iPads and the like; not to mention batteries the size of a baby aspirin. I mean, everything has changed so much in these last few years. It’s nothing like when I grew up, when the height of technology was embodied by watching my Dad listening to the wireless, which, I might add, was also driven by a battery. Only difference, this battery I’m talking about was the size and weight of a breeze block (“cinder block” over here in America).

I mention that because (when my turn came around) I had the job of carrying it all the way to the chandler’s (“hardware store” if you’re an American) to have it recharged. What a back-breaking job that was. Besides trying to keep it level so none of the acid spilled out, by the time I’d reached the chandler’s, my arms felt like they were about to drop off.

The wireless I’m talking about sat on the small low table perfectly positioned within arm’s reach of Dad’s armchair—move it away from that position at your peril. It had four little round knobs across the front: the band-selector knob, the tuning knob, the volume knob and the switch-off knob. And you could always tell when the battery was beginning to run low, when the sound began to fade. When people’s voices sounded so faint it was like they were living on another planet. And this always seemed to happen when Dad was in the middle listening to the nine o’clock news. It got him so frustrated and mad, he’d say things like “Blast and damn it (or words to that effect), why does it always do it whenever I’m trying to listen to the *&%$#@ news?”

That’s when he’d twist around very quickly, grab the wireless-set off the table, and hold it up close to his ear with one hand while twiddling the knobs with the other trying to get the station back before the news finished. I can picture him now as I write, looking like some expert safe-cracker trying desperately to figure out the combination of a safe.

Talking, whispering, coughing, sneezing, even loud breathing was absolutely forbidden in our house when the wireless was on.

The famous Tommy Handley Show (if my memory serves me correctly) always aired at around eight o’clock on Thursday nights. Mrs Williams, a lady I was evacuated with during the latter years of the war, allowed me to stay up to listen to that show. What a lovely person she was.

Other than that, I wasn’t particularly interested in listening to the wireless, except when Dick Barton—Special Agent came on. We loved that show, my brothers and I. A highly popular thirty-minute children’s serialised programme that was first aired in 1946, this show was so popular it was always the topic of conversation in school the next day. We’d gather around in the school playground and natter about it for ages as if it had been actually filmed, simply because that’s how we saw it. With the help of our imagination, we would make it picture-real and exciting.

Educating Archie was another very popular show that quite often boasted (you’re not going to believe this) up to fifteen million listeners. “Archie Andrews” was a ventriloquist’s dummy used by ventriloquist Peter Brough.

Fifteen million people (about a third of the population) would gather around their wireless sets to listen to Peter Brough the ventriloquist. It’s absolutely true. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, because I myself was one of those people.

Let’s not forget, all this stuff I’m telling you about happened way back in the dark ages, long before man walked on the moon, before most people had even heard of television and computers. I mean, what with all the technical jargon that’s going around right now, it’s very difficult for someone of my age to keep up with it all.

Take the word “memory” for instance. Back in my day, that same word was something you lost with age. It had nothing to do with computers.

  • An “app” (application) was for employment.
  • A “cursor” was someone who swore a lot.
  • A “web” was a spider’s home.
  • A “hard drive” was a slow treacherous winter’s journey across the fog-bound Pennines before they built the M62 motorway.
  • A “virus” was the ’flu.
  • A “mouse pad” was where a mouse lived.
  • And a “3½-inch floppy” was something personal, something you kept to yourself, something you didn’t want anyone to know about.

Sorry, I have to go now: it’s time for my afternoon nap. See you next time.

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