To peer at the glowing valves in the back of an old-style wireless was like looking at a futuristic city, the sort of place the Treens lived in on Venus. You could imagine them flying from skyscraper to skyscraper in their machines and The Mekon of Mekonta hovering around on his brain-powered tea tray. The Treens were almost human, although green but The Mekon, also green, was practically all head. The Treens obeyed his every command because he was so, well, brainy. I really wanted one of those hover trays but I wouldn’t have had the brain power to drive it. After a certain age the ability to fly through deepest space in a cardboard box or on a bin lid, powered by imagination alone, sort of deserts you. You may of course, sit in the box and make appropriate noises but long before you reach Alpha Centauri, your family will have sent for the good people in the white coats. When adults are described as ‘well grounded’ it is considered a compliment, not a disability. We Earthlings are unavoidably ‘earthbound.’
You might see the Manhattan skyline, all lit up and buzzing with energy. That was where so much music and talk came from. By reaching around to the knob at the front, you could cut off the energy. Wheeeoooo chunkk! Manhattan died. Turn again and the city came back to glowing life.This was a guilty pleasure as we were expressly forbidden to interfere with the wireless. Even the smallest valve is vital to the life of the whole apparatus. The Old Man might have to go down, in high dudgeon, to Oisín Thornton’s shop for a new valve, or to Bernie Clancy to have the whole blasted thing repaired. High Dudgeon may sound like a charming little village in the Cotswolds but it isn’t. My Old Man was there on many occasions. It was not a tranquil place at all. Certainly not in 1940 when his wireless exploded with the surge of the new electricity. The Force was not with him on that occasion. Blasted E.S.B. At least I wasn’t responsible that time.
Static was the curse of radio, as it came to be called. I believe that the fizzing and flickering on old televisions after ‘shut down’ is the echo of The Big Bang, the reverberation of the creation of the ever expanding Universe. If so, the Big Bang must have occurred somewhere near Skerries, because we got it all the time on radio and later, on television. Amateur wiring and dodgy DIY fuses probably didn’t help. Multiple adapters from a single plug created the perfect electrical storm. Nevertheless the static emphasised the wonder of the whole business. Practically every programme sounded like a dispatch from Nazi occupied Europe,where some brave resistance fighter pedalled furiously on a bicycle-powered generator to send vital information over the airwaves. Fine tuning was required to locate your favourite programme through the blizzard of static. The needle jerked along the dial from Athlone to Hilversum to Frankfort in search of a clear signal. The needle was powered by strings winding around little wheels. There was a green tuning ‘eye’ that promised clarity. We lived in hope. Sometimes it paid off.
Force filched from the wind
Always at breakfast time, we got Dvorak and his Slavonic dances from the Home Service, courtesy of the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra. There was Lift Up Your Hearts, a short inspirational talk just before the eight o’ clock news. One of the themes remained with me:……..a clergyman in some far-flung outpost of Empire saw a young shipping clerk supervising coolies as they carried bags of rice up gangplanks and into the hold of a freighter. The sun was hot, even in the early morning. The young man, clad in white, with his sola topee and clip board, was tallying the bags as the coolies struggled up the plank and ran back down. “Juldi! Juldi!” said the young clerk by way of encouragement. The clergyman saw him in the late afternoon, still tallying and encouraging the sweating coolies. The young man looked exhausted. Even the mad dogs and all the other Englishmen had taken refuge from the heat. ‘”You’ve had a long day,” I said. “Keep your chin up”. The young man smiled in response. He straightened up and carried on with renewed vigour. It is amazing how even the simplest kind word can make such a difference.”‘ He never thought to lift up the hearts of the coolies. Blasted natives. “Juldi! Juldi“
The Old Man always encouraged us in the morning: “Get a move on. There’s Lift up Your Effing Hearts. Get out of bed and get off to school.” He improved after a cigarette and a cup of tea. Piiip! Piiip! Piiip. Eight o’clock. Boots on the floor. “Here is the News.(in no particular order)…..Korea, Mau Mau, Cyprus, death of Stalin, The Middle East, (always The Middle East,)King Farouk, Nasser, Suez, Hillary and Tensing, Glubb Pasha,Makarios,Kenyatta, inflation, Budapest, Cold War, Kashmir, Bikini atoll and the hydrogen bomb…” That was before ‘bikini’ took on a new resonance to disturb the tranquility of growing boys. They were only talking about nuclear devastation and the end of life on Earth.
Sometimes there was good news; news to make young lads, leave their breakfast, jump up and down and yell in sheer delight. Sixty years ago, almost to the day, through the firestorm of static, all the way from Melbourne, came the commentary on the Olympic 1500 metres final. The ‘man from Eire’, Ronnie Delaney came through the field, the greatest milers of the day, Landy, Hewson, Lincoln, Tabori and a handful of luminaries, to carry off the gold medal for Ireland. In the apparently relentless and grim Fifties, his achievement stills shines out. The Force was with him that day. I still cheer when I see it on video.
I think it was even better though, on the wireless.