I liked to walk home by the longest route I could find. I would mark the position of home in my head and learn the new roads I would find. Sometimes I would call in on friends on the way, but always with a purpose.
I walked past one friend’s house. I had already seen him a couple of days ago and I didn’t really approve of his playing with illegal two-way vhf radios. He wanted me to join him in setting up a sort of pirate radio station (before there were such things) with imported walkie-talkies. He was into electronics and had lots of exciting junk in his bedroom. He actually had a small television in his room. It was the only family I knew who had two televisions. But what was really exciting about him was that he had light-emitting diodes and, wonder of wonder, photoelectric cells. My parents didn’t believe in telephones. I had had a working telephone intercom for my birthday (or some such occasion) and I was fascinated by communications. What I really wanted was to be able to set up a secret (secret was very important) telephone system with my friends using light instead of wires.
My mother had bought me a second-hand portable (we would call it luggable) typewriter (manual, of course!) and was teaching me to type. My dream (like a secret agent) was to have a briefcase with a portable office in it: a typewriter and a radiotelephone, or at least a telephone I could point to my friends’ windows with my light-emitting diode and photocell.
I hated television. It hurt my eyes and was not nearly as exciting as the wireless. I was very angry with my parents for getting one. Television was so dominating. You had to keep moving the aerial about the room to get a good picture and it was always going wrong. When it was working you had to sit in front of it. You couldn’t do anything else; it took over the living room and stopped us being a family.
The wireless was much different. It was a friendly storyteller and a teacher who didn’t give you homework. You could make your own mind pictures. My father let me keep the Bakelite set next to my bed sometimes, especially during the holidays or if I was not well. I loved the yellow light behind the dial and the far-away sounding names of stations I could never pick up: Athlone, Hilversum, Luxembourg, Moscow. The programmes: Life with the Lyons, The Clitheroe Kid, Round the Horne, Journey into Space, The Navy Lark: these were all fixed and friendly ports of call, not like that glaring monster in the living room which demanded total obedience and attention and hurt the eyes into the bargain.
As I walked through Agnes Riley Gardens I thought that television would be a lot better if it could be more like a moving picture on the wall, using reflected light, one we could look at to illustrate a point in the story or not if we didn’t need to. I thought that the cathode ray tube was really just like an X-ray tube and if we had to have all the precautions of lead lined aprons and so on when we had an X-ray why not with televisions? Could we be really sure they were safe? Colour televisions were probably worse because they used more powerful beams. They had colour televisions in the United States and everyone knew how crazy people were over there. How long would it be before cathode ray tubes were obsolete?
I wondered about oil films on the water in the gutter. All the colours of the rainbow were there, the colour just depending on the thickness of the oil sheen at that point. If we could have a screen made up of cells of something that could twist or thicken and stretch in response to an electrical signal from a grid behind it we could have the desired moving picture using reflected light. I thought about my pencil sharpener with the picture on it behind groves which moved as you moved it about and I thought about that stereoscopic viewer I had bought from Woolworth’s. If the cells were prismatic you could produce a stereoscopic image, but that would depend on the angle at which the picture was seen. And the most important thing was to make the image as casual as a picture on the wall and to take away the dominating authority of television. A fixed viewing angle would defeat that. I was sure that someone would know the answer. There had been 3D pictures at the cinema (of horror films like The Monster from the Deep or some such I wasn’t interested in) but everyone had to wear green and red glasses to see it, which was hardly realistic. There must be an answer to casual 3D viewing.
The cathode ray tube is so old-fashioned and dangerous; I wonder what they would think of it in 2000?
I enjoyed the birdsong in Atkins Road. There were always blackbirds or thrushes in the gardens and in the trees of the grounds of La Retraite Catholic High School for Girls. I wish I could record the sound and play it in the morning to wake up by. Another friend had a tape recorder. It was such a big thing and you had to be careful about winding and threading the tape and making sure the reels were in place properly. It was just like cinema film. But there were super-eight home movie cameras, which were not as clumsy as the ones they used for cinema films. I wonder if I could have a little tape recorder one day, one I could keep in my briefcase with my telephone and typewriter?
La Retraite School was a frightening and foreign fortress. It was Catholic and there were strange symbols on the wrought iron railings (and why hadn’t they been cut-off to make Spitfires during the war like everyone else’s?) Not only was it Catholic, but it was also a girls’ school: doubly foreign, doubly frightening.
But I knew it was wrong to think like this. The last war was a just war and had to be fought because Nazism was an evil based on hatred, hatred of things and people that were just a little bit different.
I was born after the war and felt in some way cheated. When I started Junior School I was envious of the children in the top class because they were alive during the war. Although they would have been only babies, they were alive, they were there during the V1 and V2 raids and would have contributed, if only passively.
But now in my time there was another country with just the same evil ideas; one we seemed scared to fight or defeat in other ways: South Africa. I thought of speeches I would make and dreamed of ways of helping the struggle. I dawdled every morning, washing in the scullery wrapped in my heroic dreams. I always made myself late for school.
Would South Africa be free in 2000? Neither Britain nor America seemed serious about helping her people. I doubted it would be free then, but I hoped I would have played some part in helping.
The telephone box was free. It usually was. Nobody used it much. KELvin 4328. There were slots for pennies, shillings and florins. There were instructions I had never used about making trunk calls. I had only ever used pennies and I wondered when I would make my first trunk call to someone outside London and put shillings or two-shilling pieces in the box. I was always careful to make sure I kept my 1860-penny in my pocket and didn’t use it by mistake. I always carried it with me and often wondered what stories the penny would tell me about the people who had owned it if it could speak.
An aunt had sent me a comic book with many stories of space and time travel. One of the stories was of telepathic twins who could be made to go back in time by holding an object from that period. It told of their adventures with the dinosaurs. I thought that story silly; fossils were rock, not the actual bones of the creatures. It was more like superstition and ghost stories to endow objects with such powers than science fiction. But I still often looked at that penny deep in thought.
4d bought a local phone call from a kiosk and there was no time limit. Only trunk calls were timed. Local calls from home were free, but there was no phone at home. “Waste not, want not. I don’t want anyone calling us and if we need to make a call we can always go to the phone box. Why pay rent for something we don’t need?”
One-way calls could be free if the person at the other end was expecting your call.
When you got through you could hear them announce their telephone number. If you pressed button A they could then hear you and your money would fall irretrievably into the box. If the number was busy, didn’t answer or you got the wrong number you could press button B and get your money back.
I called my friend (the only one with a phone at home) with a view to conducting a telephonic game of chess on my plastic peg-board chess set for as long as I could before someone wanted to use the phone. His mother (forewarned) answered, “He’s having his tea, then he’s going to have a bath so he can’t speak to you now.” I pressed button B.
I thought about conducting long-distance chess games by telephone. Trunk calls were timed so you would have to compress time somehow. If you could record your moves on tape then play the tape twice or three times as fast over the telephone the other person could re-record it and slow down his tape. I wondered how many times faster you could get away with. How high a pitch could the telephone system cope with? An octave higher is twice as fast and is the difference between a grown up man and a woman. It would sound like pinkie and perky to anyone listening in.