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During these summer holidays I’ve found myself spending evenings on the living-room floorboards, head on a cushion, a glass of wine not far away, a record on the record player – and a mobile phone in my hand somehow looking lost and deflated.  The phone isn’t in my hand because I’m about to make a call; it’s there because of the phone numbers it contains, two phone numbers in particular, contact details for people who’ve moved on to better things, if that’s what has happened.

The first number is for a work colleague.  I didn’t know him well but he was someone so very skilled at connecting people, someone adored by hundreds despite being a shaved-head, motor-bike-loving, anti-establishment punk (at least that’s how I saw him).  Why I came to have his number in my mobile is anyone’s guess, but I do have a picture of him near my desk so I see him most days and he sees me and makes sure I stay true.

The second number is for a cousin, a great, great woman, the closest I’ve had to a sister, someone I used to email or text when something brilliant had happened, someone who explained the blood that I have in my body, someone who told me that to get ahead I need to take risks, someone who encouraged me to compare myself to no one.  An Epsilon character (as per Huxley) someone said, a vital force said someone else; she was another anti-establishment punk I reckon.  I’m yet to put a photo of her near my desk because to me she is still alive and I want to keep her that way for as long as I can.

To send a text message to both of them.  ‘Hi, how r u?’  But what would happen?  Where would the message go?  Do the phones still exist?  Are they in drawers, the battery fading?  Or does the partner keep the phone fully charged by the bed as if it’s a version of the gone-away person, something that might suddenly flash and rumble into life?  An almost irritated message may come back to me: ‘You need to know that the person you loved has gone.’

Perhaps the phones no longer exist at all, dropped into a recycling box in a communications shop, but maybe the phone numbers still work although not in the way they once did back here on earth.  I could get a response from my text message.  ‘Hi, gr8 to hear from u!  I’m really well.  How r u? xox.’  But what would I do then?  I’d scull the wine, that’s what, and I’d stare at the phone and wonder if it’s me who may have shuffled off to Buffalo.

It could be that I shouldn’t have these phone numbers any more; maybe I should just press the delete button.  But I can’t have these two people erased all over again – I don’t want to lose this evidence of their living, of our connection.  Sometimes I think that despite what I know to be fact I should just write a message anyway and press SEND.  And then what?  I’d wait.  And keep waiting.  According to the Italian author Oriana Fallaci, ‘Death always announces itself by a kind of scent, impalpable perceptions, silent sounds.’

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, January 31 2009)

One day they'll get these things pocket-sized.

Sorry, I’m doing it again.  I wrote about record players last month but in the spirit of that great old saying “Everything in moderation except the things you love”, I must keep exploring this new element in my life – for three reasons.  Firstly, the cute little baby is now happily ensconced in my house.  Secondly, the process of returning to technology that by rights should have been extinct years ago has been surprisingly revealing.  Thirdly, I’m in love.

It’s such a humble object: all black, no brand name (I didn’t buy it from a supermarket, it’s just that minimalism is how modern turntable design is done), and it has only one button (on/off).  Even though I’ve had it for two weeks I still find myself checking it out.  Sometimes I wonder what it’s doing there: as soon as it was out of the box it gave the loungeroom a very 70s feeling; but in the right light it also looks like it’s flown in from outer-space and is nesting beneath the television.  Other times I just gaze at it longingly, lovingly, wantonly.

But it needed setting up.  That’s right, it wasn’t just a matter of plugging it in and bunging on a record – I actually had to piece it together.  And this is where it all became quite strange.  Turntable technology hasn’t progressed in the last twenty years; in fact, it’s regressed like nothing else on earth.  To change the playing speed you must adjust a ‘fan-belt’ (as described by He Who Loves 2008 Gadgetry Not 1978 Gadgetry).  To  get a deeper bass sound you adjust weights.  To improve clarity you tweak a thing at the back that looks like a little man fishing for carp.

If the truth be told, I had to get a man in.  He arrived with tools attached to his belt and then proceeded to spend an hour explaining how I’d put almost every component together incorrectly, which was why the first record I played – ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush on single – sounded like I’d trodden on an al-foil covered cat.  When the man was finished, however, I poured myself a cheeky port and put on a record and let my hearing do the rest.  Yes, there’s the familiar crackling and popping, but once I’d readjusted my ears the sound was amazing – it’s very perky indeed.  The musicians are in the room: I can hear plectrums hitting guitar strings and bows drawing across cellos.

But perhaps the most extraordinary gift this little black contraption has given me is engagement.  There’s the whole cleaning-the-record thing for starters (in warm dishwater, say the audiophiles), and then you must carefully place the stylus down on the vinyl, but, as the arm is not automated these days so you have to lift it back up again once the record is finished, you really can’t put on an LP and then go clean the bathroom.  To get the most out of it, you have to stall your life for the music, you must stop and listen.  And in a world which seems to be fracturing at a horrific rate, stopping and listening to beautiful sounds, or melancholic or bone-rattling aggressive sounds, are good things, great things – fundamentals.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, November 1 2008)

I’m going to do it, get the needle and slowly, carefully, put it where it needs to go.  Then I’ll stretch out and let it wash over me, through me, and enjoy the utter gloriousness of it.  After decades of abstinence, you see, I’m going to have a record player in my house again.  And I can’t wait, though I will have to wait because I have to scrape together the last few pennies.  But I’m already going through my small (and rather dusty) collection of LPs and singles, trying to decide which will be lucky enough to have First Spin status.

It could be New Order’s Substance, partly because it has ‘Blue Monday’ on it, which will sound great through the new speakers (you can’t buy a record player without getting new speakers), and partly because I can remember riding my bike up to the St Ives Shopping Village, which was my haunt for the first eighteen years of my life, and buying this double album, although it actually contains “12 x 12-inch a-sides”.  Back home, however, I discovered in one of the records an imprint of a sneaker, so I returned it to the store and was given a replacement.  But I’d learnt that at some stage in the manufacturing process, records must be pliable enough for a mark to be left when, perhaps, an overworked factory employee stumbles.  Vinyl indeed.

'The Queen is Dead' by The Smiths. Greatness.

Or it could be The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead.  The first time I heard this record, in 1986, my last year of school, I didn’t understand it one bit – my older brother’s best friend had just told me that if I was keen on music I must give The Smiths a listen.  But I thought the singer, whose lyrics referenced Wilde and Yeats, sounded like a morose yodeller and his lines ran counter to the music, the music being pleasant enough, in a jingly-jangly sort of way, but it simply wasn’t to my less-than-developed private-schoolboy taste.  Needless to say, two or three years later I realised that Morrissey sang all his words for me and me alone.  Even now, at the age of 39 and 51 weeks, I’m still a Smiths obsessive.

Or the first record could be ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ by A-ha or ‘Victims’ by Culture Club, both on 45.  Then again, maybe not.

It’s true that this is all about nostalgia – I even admitted as much when last weekend I nervously walked in to a hi-fi store and told them what I was looking for.  Yes, I’m having a sentimental yearning for the past. But what does ‘sentimental’ actually mean?  A romantic or nostalgic feeling; by emotion rather than reason.  Hang on, my decision to own a record player is entirely reasonable, and sensible, and logical; emotion has nothing to do with it, thank you very much.  Besides, even now, in 2008, some bands still put out music on LP, so this might not be about the past at all – it’s just about…options.

Whatever, if I am being nostalgic, I really don’t care.  It was Lou Reed who said ‘I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine’.  And this nostalgia is all mine, baby.  If only I was cool enough as a kid to own a Velvet Underground record.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, October 4 2008)

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The past