Friday, 26 December 2014

The Time Machine

I recently bought a record player, otherwise known as a phonograph. For those of you whose experience of music is one of digital downloads, MP3s, iPods and Beat headphones bluetoothed via your iPhone app, record players are belt-driven mechanisms on which vinyl disks rotate. The disks, also known as LPs (long players), are grooved, and these grooves, when set against a diamond-tipped stylus set within an armature, replicate the music recorded in the studio on other machines through which magnetic tapes have passed.

Interestingly, today the words "disc" and "disk" refer primarily to either CD/DVD ROM-RAM disc media, or floppy disks for computer drives. We're a long way from the Top 40 and "spinning the platters" here.

You may wonder why it is that I'm indulging myself in such pedantic detail for something that's arguably recognised by most people. I do so because such recognition cannot be taken for granted, and in this case, such recognition is vital. After all, there's a substantial minority of the population who don't know the Prime Minister's name.

Record players are time machines. My time journey began a couple of months earlier, when I opened a cupboard and rediscovered a collection of old LPs that my wife and I had been moving around with us for years, even though we hadn't owned a phonograph for decades. In a way, we kept them for the same reasons that people keep old photographs: it helps us remember something of ourselves when we were young.

A 1976 Gordon Lightfoot, a Beatles '65 and Blondie's Parallel Lines, were three albums first dusted down. The latter is a case in point with reference to the "time" theme. The album opens with the sound of a telephone ringing. It's not a retro ring, as one now finds on a list of 'rings' for a mobile phone. Nor is it ringing ironically, as though one wished to make a point about retro rings per se. It rings like a telephone because that's the way telephones rang in those distant days; a tinny, squeezed tone, that's what 1977 sounded like.

Other, still older albums were brought to the light. Tenors recorded in the 1950s, operas, popular crooners in the Sinatra style, all I think belonging first to my wife's parents, both now long dead. To play them now, my wife relives her girlhood sitting evenings in the front room of a council house in Colchester, listening with her father to Wagner's Ring Cycle, or after school to Lou Reed or Wizzard.

Time spools away as the records spin. James Taylor sings, "Nothing like a hundred miles, between me and trouble in my mind," and once again I'm sitting at an old oak table, working over drafts of poems that would in time be published in Poetry and elsewhere.

A vast encompassing arc of words and music set in time, set across time, carries us irrecovably to the world of our past selves, which somehow survives in these turning media, to remind us of our expectations, our evocations, between the grooves these slippery seconds rotating through our dreams.

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