Being a somewhat romantic nostalgia story of technology, piracy and my clandestine music.
"I was always fishing for something on the radio."
— Bob Dylan
It smelled of magic.
I can still remember the smell, and the colour. My father had brought this radio back as a gift from the Orient; he was in the RAF and a firm believer in gifts to educate his son about the wonders of the world. By way of example, I remember opening a letter from him as a very young child and getting the exotic scent from that little sheet of raw rubber from Malaya. He was forever giving me fabulous gifts from around the world and sharing his stories, but this radio, this beautiful thing was a marvel. Not that radio was new to me; I'd grown up with the wireless. Listening to the BBC Home Service was a part of life, was responsible for my sense of humour among other things. The Goon Show and Round the Horne were significant in my development.
But the family radio was a huge box in the living room, a hulking Grundig valve beast that hummed as it warmed up, ticked and buzzed a little until it stabilised. It had a magnificent wooden case and a satisfying clunk! as you changed bands, and a tuning knob made (in my imagination) from real ivory. The sound was rich and mellow, suited to the sonorous tones of almost Shakespearean presenters. The whole family (all three of us) would gather round it, basking in its warmth. On the other hand this new (6 Transistor! Pocket Size! Includes earpiece!) miracle of the modern world was mine. Mine, I tell you!
Oh, that's right. The colour. It was green. One day I'm going to find that exact colour, but for now just let me tell you it was between mossy grey-green and khaki drab. There were tiny differences in it from end to end, those little imperfections that suggested, no matter how wrongly, that it was lovingly crafted by some artisanal radio maker in exotic Hong Kong. Leave me my romantic ideas, world.
Then there's the smell. I now know was of freshly-minted circuit boards and flux, but to a nine-year-old boy it was the very scent of freedom.
It was the early 1960s. Aunty Beeb played "modern music" that ended in 1956, it seemed. Crooners, Mantovani and comic songs. Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney. All things Classical. Yes, comedy. Yes, news and cricket matches and Wimbledon, all crisply up-to-date. But the music? It had been handed down, laundered a thousand times, starched and ironed and presented by well-rounded Home Counties accents from people a million miles away from the world of a small boy.
American readers may be baffled by a government that sought to give a broadcasting monopoly to just one entity, but that is how it was. Commercial radio was years away in my childhood, the government wished to control the airwaves. My memory is that, whilst these stations weren't actually illegal, British subjects were nevertheless legally barred from interacting with them. We could receive European broadcasts that were a breath of fresh air; many stations had English-language programming that was just…well, it blew me away.
I remember two radio stations in particular. Radio Luxemburg and Radio Caroline. They blew fresh air into the lives of countless teens with "pop music" and enthusiastic young and real-sounding presenters. Names that would later become associated with BBC Radio One like Tony Blackburn and Simon Dee, to name but two. Oh, and
Emperor Roscoe Emperor Rosko, how could I forget you?
These were the iconoclasts, the exploders of shibboleths, the destroyers of the old world. Shiva had come and wasn't about to leave any time soon. Of course the older generations feared this, as older generations do because change we don't understand is bad and the Mary Whitehouse brigade kicked up a storm. Yet radio continued despite many attempts by media and even the government to stop it. These broadcasts from the Continent and international waters were seemingly unstoppable. If you want an idea of how things were, the film The Boat That Rocked will fill you in.
Of course these were the shows to be listened to away from the parents. Under the covers at night, secretly enjoyed with that tiny plastic earpiece. At the bottom of the garden up against the orchard fence. Away in the fields, dancing awkwardly in the weeds. Even in the car, tapping my foot and humming until my Dad told me to shut up, and probably "turn that racket off". The music was wondrous. American rock'n'roll. Johnny Cash. The British Invasion bands. The Rolling Stones, The Shadows and others too numerous to mention. Oh, I just remembered Gerry and the Pacemakers and Tiny Tim. There was Cilla Black and Motown, for goodness' sake. My Dad may not have approved, but he'd given me this can of worms and I had opened it.
With my new radio, tuned to 208 or 199 metres, the world belonged to me now. The tyranny of previous generations was shattered by the brave new technology and Japanese ingenuity. My six-transistor radio opened up a world of music undreamt of before, a world of fun and anarchy and passionate art. Ugly plastic box you may have been, but you performed miracles.
So I'm going to leave you now, with the image of a twelve-year-old wertperch sitting out of bounds on a sunny bank east of a boarding school in Rutland. Clad in brown sailcloth shorts and a green uniform shirt, his arse may have been damp from the grass but the future had beckoned and by golly he was going to follow.
Thanks to MarmaladeSkies' for prompting this nostalgia. Thank you too, Dad.
I should add the little story that led to this writeup. When I read MarmaladeSkies' poem I flashed back to 2016's World Series game in which the Chicago Cubs wrought victory in a hard-fought match. The final moments of that game are associated with a desperate hunt for a radio on which I could listen out in the sticks. It was an old transistor radio that rescued me and allowed me a glimpse into that especial piece of American culture. Thank you.