Listening to The Radio
Not by profession, but by way of recreation, my father was a DIY radio constructor. Perhaps I ought to express that differently, for he died in 1947 before the phrase “Do it Yourself” or “DIY” was coined. In those days DIY was called handiwork and those who did it were handymen. Feminism had not, in his lifetime, extended to non-sexist language, so naturally there were no handy-women. Women just got on with running the house, washing, cooking, sewing, mending, shopping, ironing and all the rest, but were not handy-women, or even handy-persons, just housewives. But I digress.
Also, at that time radios were called wireless sets. They were full of valves the size of, or even larger than, light bulbs, condensers, large high tension batteries, small low tension batteries, and accumulators which had to be recharged weekly, in our case, at the local cobbler’s shop.
From time to time my father bought a copy of “Practical Wireless”, with a free blueprint inside. The blueprint was pasted to a wooden base, and then various components were screwed, as directed, through the paper to the base. The exact position was shown on the paper by circles or squares, with the name of the part within it. Wires followed along the white lines on the blue-paper, and then connected to the parts. The whole was encased afterwards in a cabinet, on the front of which was a large dial with a pointer, like a clock face with only one finger. This could be turned to point to Daventry, Luxembourg or somewhere called “short-wave”. The batteries were plugged in and the loud-speaker connected; the earth and aerial attached, and, low and behold, music and voices came out of the air and filled the house. On the short wavelength, the dots and dashes of morse code from ships at sea could be picked up, as they relayed messages from ship to ship, or ship to shore.
As a boy, I was privileged to have an extension speaker in my bedroom. It was a black horn – a miniature version of that well-known one in which a dog listened to his master’s voice. The lead from the set was switched off at bedtime, but, through some fault in the wiring or the switch, the sound still came faintly through even though it had been turned off in the room below – loud enough to be heard if the horn was pressed to the ear underneath the bed-clothes.
Saturday night Music Hall with Vic Oliver, or Rob Wilton, Will Hay, Two Ton Tessy O’Shea, Albert Modley, Stainless Stephen and a host of other stars, to be surreptitiously enjoyed in the privacy of the world under the bed-clothes.
I wondered then, as I do now, at the miracle in which the air is full of unheard sounds waiting to be captured and amplified with the aid of a bit of wire and a handful of inert looking components screwed down in a wooden case. Though he died before I could discuss it with him, I am sure my father felt the same awe. Why else would he dismantle working sets to assemble new ones, if were not for a joy of achievement, arising from acting as midwife during the birth of a miracle.
How he would have marvelled if he had lived longer; at television sets, first black and white, then in full colour; at video recorders bringing the cinema into the front room (it was always called the front room in those days, the lounge is a modern affectation); at mobile telephones carried round in the street on which you could not only speak, but take photographs as well; at computers and word-processors (his sermons were typed on an old portable type-writer with a ribbon which as it worn, printed fainter and fainter). Had he lived long enough he no doubt would have built his own word-processor from a DIY magazine). He would have looked with astonishment at calculators that every school child could use; at cameras that focus themselves, and compact disk records which can be played without ever-lastingly replacing the steel gramophone needle, or constantly winding the handle at the side. What wonders now surround us and which he never knew! And who knows what wonders are still to come.
And what a multitude of different sounds there are filling the air. There is music of all kinds – rock, pop, classical, jazz, light musical comedies, heavy operas – there’s no end to the variety. And the words – idle empty chatter, educational and informative discussions, news of disasters, appeals for help, drama, poetry, propaganda – they are all there and more – countless millions of words all around us waiting to be picked up by tuned receivers and heard by listeners on land and sea, or even flying through the air above us.
But none of this sound is heard without the right apparatus for capturing it. Invisible, unheard, undetected, it fills the ether waiting until it is captured by the correctly tuned equipment, to be translated into a form our ears can appreciate.
The humble home built wireless set is no more. Music centres or the pocket-sized personal stereos have replaced it. But the miracle remains. The air is full of sound, and with patience, with the right equipment, we can tune into it and listen. Otherwise it goes unheard, for we have to take the initiative in order to hear.
But something else has happened in those years which have intervened since my father built his wireless sets with the aid of the popular magazine of the day. It is not only that the name has changed from wireless to radio; it is not only that the sets have become more sophisticated with different components; it is not merely the proliferation of broadcasting stations, or more technically ambitious programmes; but it is to do with the way we react to the modern radio transistor set.
When my father built his sets and they successfully worked, we then listened to the wireless. Sets were not turned on simply to break the silence, or to provide a background of noise against which we performed the daily tasks. We sat round and listened, or hid under the bed-clothes when we should have been asleep. For one thing it would have wasted precious batteries which cost money to replace. But I think it also had much to do with the feeling of awe. The wonder of it was new. Miracles should not be treated with casualness.
Today, it is as if our very achievements have made us blasé. An advertising slogan for a firm offering services to the public may go something like, “We can perform miracles by the next day, the impossible may take a little longer”. Miracles are everyday two a penny events. The mood is triumphal. We cease to wonder and marvel.
There has grown up an arrogance, an indifference in the human soul. That there are those things around us which we can neither see nor hear is taken for granted, and the wonder has gone from it all. The words and music we capture are no longer valued.
But more damaging is a culture of not listening. Go on any building site, enter any garage workshop, sit down on the beach or walk in the park, and the chances are that the radio is on and the sound comes forth. Often it is loud, too strident. But most distressing of all, the set is on, not so people can listen, but merely to break the silence.
The most damaging aspect of this phenomenon is not the volume, though that can be distressing enough on occasion, but the implication that listening is not really very important. And because we cease to listen, we cease to hear. Perhaps we turn the volume up because we have forgotten how to listen.
None of this would be of such deep concern if it were not symbolic of an attitude to living. Just as we treat listening to our radios with casualness, so listening in general becomes perfunctory. We hear without appreciating; we see but do not perceive. A cry for help is unnoticed, a child’s plea is lost in the busy confusion of life.
If we tune ourselves correctly, and it is not really all that difficult to do so, there is much to hear. There is music, poetry, drama and beauty in the world which surrounds us; there is much to learn and to wonder at; there are cries for help to which we can respond; there are choruses of joy in which we can join, there are sympathetic replies to questions asked.
But if we lose the capacity to listen, we shall hear none of this. It becomes the so-called wallpaper background. It is the equivalent to the musical background of the restaurant, the shopping centre or the fair-ground. If we lose the capacity to listen, we lose the capacity to respond.
People used to talk of the still small voice within, which is heard if we listen. It is not that the voice has stopped to speak, but so frequently, we have lost, apparently, the will to heed.
We live in a world of beauty, of miracle, and we are in danger of not seeing it. We live in a world where voices cry out to us, and we do not hear. Our parents knew of the all-pervading presence of God which they could detect by attuning themselves, but we are in danger of saying there is no God, because we neither see nor hear. Are our aerials are connected? Have we tuned in?, one asks.
As I have remarked from this pulpit so often before, the changes to the world in the last century, nay in less time than that, have been greater than in the preceding thousand years or more. But human nature, human needs, human aspirations remain largely the same. As ever, much human unhappiness stems from self-imposed deafness and sightlessness.
Let us go back to listening to our wireless sets; both the material ones and the spiritual ones. When we truly listen, there is so much to hear that is beautiful. Glorious sounds fill the air if we tune in to them, and tune out the dross.
Then there are cries for help to which we may attend. There is knowledge to be gained; there is peace to be had.
A.E. Houseman’s poem begins
In Summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear
I hear you, I will come.
Shall we listen awhile, and maybe come too?
C.J. Rosling May 2005
Fulwood 28 June 1998
Hucklow 15 May 2005