Sunday, March 27, 2016

The world comes to those who iron

It was Terry Prone who told me that she used to get her best writing ideas while ironing. And that at the time she scribbled down those thoughts on the white worktop in her kitchen, using a washable magic marker. The image has always stuck with me.

I came late to ironing, and I'll immediately admit that I don't do much more than my own shirts, maybe pillow cases, and sometimes a rough stab at the sheets. I'd be afraid of ruining anyone else's clothes, is why I keep it at that.

Anyhow, I like to listen to the radio when I'm ironing. It was always my favourite medium, much more so than TV. Even today, when I am both a consumer and producer of material on the internet, it is still my place to go for keeping up with the world.

Like, for instance, when more or less pressing the creases out of my latest batch of washed shirts, I was entertained and informed about how botanical archaeology is illuminating our transition from a hunter-gatherer society to agriculture many thousands of years ago. Also about the work of Capability Brown, an 18th century British landscape architect who is apparently a hero amongst those who garden (I don't). And how Viagra came about. A rich mix indeed as the iron swished and steamed over my fabrics.

I wasn't listening to a traditional radio. There isn't one where the ironing board lives in our house. And anyhow, in Kilcullen I wouldn't have easily been able to access the BBC World Service, or any of thousands of global broadcasters, on an ordinary radio set — the town area is notorious for being a 'valley' in terms of radio reception. Nope, thanks to the magic of the internet and the portability of my (now venerable generation 2) iPad, I can listen to the world with ease.

(I can watch it too, on internet videos on virtually every news media as well as Youtube, but radio still produces much better pictures than does TV. One word if you're puzzled by that remark. Imagination.)

I'm like my iPad, heading towards venerable in age terms, though thankfully in humans it still takes much longer. So I can remember when there was only radio. When we had to sit down and listen to it in one room, because that was where it was. In our case a tall unit in the corner of the large sitting room, which also had a place to stack the 78rpm records which could be played in another part of the unit.

I have strong memories of winter Sunday afternoons lying on the floor, listening to 'Living with Lynch' (the late Joe Lynch of later 'Glenroe' fame, who in his radio days was also a regular visitor to our home) on Radio Eireann, following that with afternoon BBC family comedy programmes 'Life with the Lyons' and 'The Navy Lark'. The BBC also contributed to my lifelong interest in space travel with 'Journey into Space', the exploits of astronaut (the word didn't exist then, though) Jet Morgan and his intrepid crew. Radio Luxembourg on a Sunday evening provided the gripping science fiction exploits of 'Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future' against his arch-enemy, the Mekon, aided by his faithful pal Digby.

Those were Sundays, and before the days of central heating we only used that room in winter on that day. So we did have another radio set, a small one in the small living room heated by a twice-a-day-sulphurous anthracite stove. That was where we children spent our winter weeknight evenings. In my case usually reading a book while listening to Radio Luxembourg, snuggled close to the stove. On Sunday nights I smuggled that radio up to my bedroom to listen to 'Top Twenty' between 11pm and midnight, the set muffled in a 'tent' under my bedclothes, the electric cord to the skirting board socket a dead giveaway if any parent looked in. I think they chose not to.

In my mid-teens, a friend of my Dad's was going on a holiday trip to America. For most people we knew, something unachievable. The transistor radio was then the thing, and over here we knew that there were relatively affordable 'pocket' sets available there. I asked my Dad's friend would he bring one back to me, I'd pay him whatever it cost. He did, and refused any repayment of the $16 (which, secretly, I'd been counting on). I now had a personal, and pocketable, radio. It was about the size of today's iPhone, much smaller than any of the European 'transistors' available at the time. And very cool when I brought it to school in Newbridge College.

Of course, there was an American disadvantage. The radio only came with AM, no Long Wave that we depended on in Europe to listen to our only other English language regular broadcaster, the BBC. And with 'just' six transistors, it wasn't powerful enough to easily pick up AM stations in Europe like the AFN and Luxembourg. Though at night, Luxembourg was possible. There was only one Radio Eireann station broadcasting then, and not all day either, but it was still something special to have my own, and electrically untethered, personal radio. I also remember it being expensive to run — it used that small chunky PP3 9v battery with the two terminals on top. Which you could test for remaining capacity by putting your tongue to both together and assessing the resultant tingle.

Moving on rapidly, like every household in Ireland we eventually became part of the television era with the advent of Bealach a Seacht, Radio Telefis Eireann's TV channel space. Of course, families were once more confined to one room, and mostly to one channel unless they were lucky enough to live in Dublin or in border or east coastal areas where there was access to BBC and ITV.

I remember discussing with a friend who had technical electronic knowledge the possibility of making a DIY television using relatively small cathode ray tubes. Wasn't really doable, he concluded. Of course, 'personal' TVs eventually arrived, albeit being more 'luggable' than portable, and still needing a mains power source, and also beyond the means of a very young man not long out working.

There's no need to go all the way through how we arrived from there to today. Most reading this are probably young enough to take it for granted. Which is, I think, the point of this whole and rather rambling piece. From a child lying on the carpet in the sitting room, listening to the outside world as broadcast through just one, and a large, 'radiogram', I'm now a grandfather able to have visual chats without pre-organisation with my grand-children in Australia and America, no matter where I am in the world.

I have various personal devices, computer through iPad to smartphone, by which this can happen. I can be, and have been, travelling in different countries when my phone rings and my grandsons in America show on the screen because they 'want to say hello to grandad' as they have their breakfast. Our grand-daughters in Melbourne do similar things, and when one was making her First Communion on the other side of the world, we were able to watch it as our daughter streamed the ceremony from her iPhone.

Against all that, listening to the BBC World Service while ironing seems small beer indeed. But it's just as important. And to my mind, being able to choose to listen to — and watch, if video is your preference — anything in the world, thanks to the internet, is, well … isn't it a kind of magic? For me, that Viv and I and our family are no longer tied to sitting in one place to be connected, that I can watch TV programmes or listen to radio from all around the globe, it is truly magic.

And ironing … it's really kind of relaxing? I can see where Terry Prone, a friend those many years ago, was coming from. It's where this piece came from. I just didn't have a white plastic surface to write the idea down …

And I suspect there weren't the unplanned creases in her clothes that mine are left with.