Photo by Markus Spiske
(Source: The Guardian)
He bought me and my brother – both of us blind – a tape recorder that dominated Christmas Day and the remainder of the holidays, and led to a long and happy career
It’s eight o’clock on Christmas morning, and Uncle Tom wants to hear the news. My 11-year-old self is wondering why on earth grownups want to hear the news on Christmas Day when there are vital things to be done, such as handing out presents. And then, while I am only half-listening, something weird happens: the Greenwich time pips start. Surely we have already heard those. And then the boring man with the plummy voice begins going on about a Christmas message to the world from the Vatican. Surely that’s been on already, too.
It’s my older brother, Colin, who gets it! “Pete, Pete, it’s a tape recorder, you idiot! We’ve got our tape recorder.”
The penny drops: Uncle Tom and my dad have recorded the headlines, and are playing them back.
I think it’s often quite rare to experience real excitement over a present: in my experience, children are as good as adults at knowing what is expected of them and simulating joyful surprise, even when they don’t feel it. But for me this was one of those rare moments when my insides gave an involuntary lurch and the world did a little somersault.
Colin and I had both been blind from birth, and at this point were spending most of our time at a special boarding school, Worcester College for the Blind (now called New College Worcester). In the late 1950s, Britain had just reached the point when exciting consumer goods were coming within reach of the not-really-rich, and at Worcester reel-to-reel tape recorders were definitely the consumer gizmos of choice. For blind kids, they would trump cameras every time, especially at this moment when rock’n’roll was more of a religion than a pastime. For us, you could spot the better-off kids not by the clothes they wore, or the holidays they boasted about, but by the tape recorders they owned. So in our class, Iain Hopkin was marked out as something of a plutocrat by his Brenell recorder. Fortunately for us, Hoppy was a generous soul, and gave us all access to his recordings of Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers.
Still, a recorder of your own was the height of aspiration, and Colin – better informed and more realistic about family finances than me – had no real expectations.
I realised, much later, that at this time my dad, a very good joiner and carpenter, was probably earning about £8 a week. The tape recorder my parents had bought us, although nowhere near at the top of the range, would have cost more than four times his weekly wage. My parents could only afford it by borrowing the money from Uncle Tom, who had a thriving grocery business. Family or not, I know my mum and dad would have thought long and hard before incurring the debt.
The new toy, mains-powered and the size of a small suitcase, dominated the rest of Christmas Day and the remainder of the holidays. Once we had mastered the controls (Colin was the technical one, but was surprisingly patient in sharing his discoveries with me), we recorded everything in sight: each other, our parents, the milkman, the dog … And we very quickly learned the fun to be had at catching people unawares.[…]
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