Saturday 27 April 2024

Daily Doodle

A sketchbook page.


An advert in Sounds, April 1983

"Outside London, 24 hours a day, except during the season's major cricket matches, when it's available at the end of play"

Even without the summertime disruption caused by cricket, this doesn't seem the most compelling of offers to the pop-loving public: "all your favorite singles" but that translates to "four different songs" during the week, going up to five at the weekend. 

How much did they charge per minute? 

Easy to picture parents up and down the land with steam coming out of their ears when they opened the  phone bill.  

I could find very little information about Discline online.

But in the 1960s a service called Dial-A-Disc was offered by what was then known as the GPO - General Post Office . 

Same issue with the cricket competing for limited phoneline bandwidth!

Excerpts from a Retroscoop post about Dial-A-Disc:

"Dial-a-Disc was trialed first in Leeds, springing to life at 6 pm on the 7th July 1966. It ran for just under a month, before being hailed as an outstanding success! The service was started again on the 8th December 1966, again only in the Leeds area, but it was rolled out to the rest of the country gradually over a four year period.  On-demand music streaming had arrived. But Hi-Fidelity it wasn’t.

"Transmitted in Mono, with the bandwidth heavily squeezed, the music was accompanied by the obligatory background crackle and static hiss generated by sending the audio down miles of copper cable. But despite its shortcomings in musical quality, it was a truly magical experience – and one that had an indefinable charm about it....

"The service ran during the ‘cheap rate’ hours from 6 pm in the evening to 6 am the following morning every weekday, and all day on Sundays.  Initially only the top 7 records in the charts were played on the service, with a new record being played every day. This was soon increased to the top 8, with two records being played on Sundays. Eventually, the service expanded in its latter years to include the whole of the top 20.... 

"People who used Dial-a-Disc have fond memories of the quirkiness of the service.  Some individuals recall that on some occasions they could sometimes hear other people talking on the line during the gaps between the end and start of the records. This appears to have been more of a problem when listening to Dial-a-Disc via public phone boxes. In some inner-city booths, youths would dial into the service specifically to chat to other local users during the quiet spots. One woman from Birmingham claimed to have met her future husband in this way!"

Like fiddling the lecky or your gas meter, crafty kids found a bunch of different ways of getting to hear the pop tunes for free. 

However this one doesn't sound very satisfying: 

"Listening to the record in installments.  The GPO allowed users to listen to the first 10 seconds of the recording for free before you had to insert money into the coin box. Users would ring the service multiple times until they had managed to listen to the whole disc. Tedious, but achievable."

But wouldn't it just replay the first 10 seconds of any given song again and again? 

Another juicy, yet also somewhat puzzling and unconvincing snippet:

"There was another problem caused by the service that particularly affected small towns and villages that only had one public phone box. Clusters of youths began to hold what the press began to term ‘telephone-a-gogos’, where dozens of teens pooled their pocket money and hogged call boxes for hours on end listening and dancing to the same record over and over."

Hmmm... look,  I know people in the sticks were culturally deprived - I can remember what it was like living in a smallish town in the semi-country in the 1970s  - but really, would kids cluster around a public telephone to hear pop music? What is the broadcast strength and range of a phone receiver not held to the ear but aloft for a group of people to hear?  Fairly feeble, I'd say - and then the level of fidelity would be barely existent. And talking about capacity - "dozens of teens" were squeezing themselves into a phone box, were they? 

For a moment there I started to wonder if this blogpost was made-up.

The second half of this also strained credulity:

"My ‘love affair’ with Dial-a-Disc occurred during the summer of 1979, where I would often dial in to hear the latest sounds. However, the first quarterly bill brought my happy ‘affair’ to an abrupt end.  I did attempt to call from a Phone box on one occasion, but a bunch of local yobs ran round the box with a roll of masking tape and sealed me in. Luckily, a passer-by spotted me and managed to get me out."

Yeah, pull the other one, pal.

Ditto for your story about the mate who, heading home drunk from a party, got in a phone booth and dialed up "I Will Survive", then fell asleep. Only to wake in the morning and find a long, irritated queue of people in the morning waiting to use the phone,  but too typically English and polite to disturb the occupant. 

Ah, so -  as the reference "the summer of 1979" indicates -  Discline would appear to have just been a rebranding of Dial-A-Disc, which had carried on through the 1970s  and under its new name would make it the other end of  the '80s,  finally winding up in around 1991.  

Tuesday 19 December 2023

The Pathos of Obsolete Reference Books

The library at the academic institute where I work part-time recently had a massive chuck-out.  Scanning the tomes strewn across the tables, I was struck by the high proportion of reference books - encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, thesauruses,  -ographies of various types. Quite a few of them seemed to be just lists bound between hard covers - an inventory of modernist sculptures made in the UK between 1945 and 1972 along with their current institutional location; a list of works by female visual artists; examples of land art. 

Reference books used to be one of the most reliable generators of revenue within publishing. The sheer number of libraries around the world provided a guaranteed base level of sales, and there were other institutions that might have a specialist interest in particular reference works. Back then, you could  also probably rely on some individuals buying them as well -  people with professional or obsessional reasons. Then with general knowledge encyclopedias, there was the association of owning a set with self-advancement and edification. But it's the specialized reference works that grabbed my eye as I browsed the bargain-price tables in the library. 

It seemed to me that it must have been such a thriving market that publishers of these kinds of work had an incentive to keep coming up with new subjects and concepts for reference works, to the point of inventing needs and desires that didn't necessarily exist until the idea was put out there. How else to explain some of the titles that I saw -  like the Dictionary of Literary Characters. Or like these - 

There were various other kinds of reference works that weren't exactly encyclopedias or dictionaries. I was fascinated by these bound volumes of New York Times theater reviews from just one single year in the early  1970s - attracted by the illustrations printed directly onto the burlap-like cloth covers, instead of onto a dust jacket, but also intrigued by the idea that these compendia even existed.  

But no doubt for a drama school or a university theatre department, having these in book form was much preferable in term of ease of use than having to scroll through back issues of the New York Times on micro-film.  

The stuff in this stacks-clearing sale were going dirt cheap and I was tempted to rescue some of the orphaned tomes - but I was put off by the sheer weight of them (going to my place of work involve a lengthy commute by public transport) and also the knowledge that - after an initial flick-through - I would almost certainly pile them up in some corner and never look at them again, The house is already horribly cluttered  - I must have around 400 unread books. 

Still, there was something melancholy about these bereft books....  I thought of all the effort, diligence, care that must have gone into their laborious construction.  The sense of responsibility felt. The belief that what was being undertaken was of real value. And I'm sure they were valuable to users.  Remember just how hard it was to find things out before the internet. 

Of course, pathos suffuses the objects in any second-hand store - books, records, magazines, whatever. You find yourself imagining the creative excitement behind each object - the labour not just of the authors but of everyone involved in making a project reach fruition and get out into the world: editors,  designers, marketing and promotion people. DJ Shadow's comment about the record store basement as a graveyard of dreams comes to mind. But with music, there is still the possibility of a life in the culture - radio play or streams or YouTube views...  crate-diggers unearthing things and sampling etc. The analogue husk of the music is not necessarily the end of the story. Fiction and non-fiction can get reissued or rediscovered by new readers. But reference books - here, it's the very function that has been voided. The internet has usurped the role of the bound ink-and-paper repository of information. 

Before the internet took over, back in the 1990s, one of my main ways of procrastinating - putting off the work that needed to be done - was to pull a reference book off the shelves and flick through it. Almost always something to do with music. Often it was the Rolling Stone Albums Guide, which had somehow come into my possession - it's not something I would have bought. I'd skim through it and my eye would come to rest on an entry for the Allman Bros, or Bloodrock. Or I'd reread and be freshly bemused by the loathing directed at Sparks, or snort once again at the measly 3 out of 5 stars afforded My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything.

 Chuck Eddy's "guide" to greatest heavy metal album was another thing I'd dip into repeatedly. 

Thinking back to much earlier in my life, certain reference works were revelatory. Take The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - a thick, full-color book teeming with illustrations and reproduced covers of paperbacks and s.f. magazines, but also crammed with well-written, informative essays on various sub-genres and scenario typologies, and mini-thinkpieces by some of the great writers in the field (there's a terrific one by J.G. Ballard on the cataclysm novel).  

The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was a present I asked for for my 14th birthday, or maybe it was Christmas 1977 - I'm not sure.  Another present request was a pictorial dictionary - the one below. See, I fancied being able to recognise and name things like, say, all the different parts of a shoe, and to know all the different kinds of shoe as well... basically have at my command the names of appliances and tools and vehicles and garments and plants and creatures and ... every kind of object and substance in the world. 

However although I never got rid of it - and recently was reunited with the book after years of it languishing in storage -  I have never once found myself using The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary.  So I still couldn't identify the different bits of a shoe or name many types of footwear.  I guess there's still time... 

Sunday 12 November 2023

Struwwelpeter (shock-headed" Peter)

Finally managed to get a very old copy of Struwwelpeter (shock-headed" Peter)
this is a very dark and strange collection of childrens stories. Written in 1845 by Heinrich Hoffman. Hoffmann wrote the book in reaction to what he perceived as a lack of good books at the time for children.

In six short, illustrated stories, Hoffman, a physician from Frankfurt, told grisly moral tales: of a boy who wasted away after refusing his soup, another who lay writhing in pain after a mistreated dog exacted revenge, and yet another who had his thumb cut off after he sucked on it one too many times. Struwwelpeter’s sin was that he never cut his nails, bathed, or combed his hair; his punishment was distinct and cruel—he was unloved. Hoffman spared none of his fictional children. When they misbehaved, they were punished. Cruel Frederick, for instance, was nasty to all creatures, pulling wings off of flies, killing birds, and throwing kittens down the stairs. But when Frederick beat his dog without mercy, the dog turned on him. Frederick ends up in the bed, wounded and sick, and the dog is never punished. He gets to eat the boy’s dinner (at the table, no less). Text from Atlas Obscura The 19th Century Book of Horrors

In 1955 Writer/director Fritz Genschow adapted Hoffmann's book to the big screen. Previously he had made film adaptions of Hansel and Gretel and would go on to adapt Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty
and other family films. A stage production of Shockheaded Peter, by Philip Carr and Nigel Playfair, with music by Walter Rubens, premiered at the Garrick Theatre in London on 26 December 1900.

Sunday 22 October 2023

The Comb-Over, over?

 [post formerly at the old Found Objects but reconstituted in honor of Britain's greatest footballer, Sir Bobby Charlton, RIP- and a great comb-over owner]

One thing I've noticed on my visits back to England over the last few years--you will never see a comb over anymore.

They used to be the mark of male middle age.

Bus conductors, men in betting shops, famous footballers, TV quiz presenters.... half the teachers at my school.... they all had comb overs.

At some point sense prevailed and the balding started to shave down their side tufts to near invisible.

Much more dignified (did they really think they were fooling anybody, the comb over squad?)... no need for yucky hair cream to plaster thinning elongated strands across the pate... and unlike the comb over invulnerable to the elements or a football colliding off the bonce. 

However one side effect is that walking through a crowded public space in the U.K. today, it can feel like there's a lot of aging, getting-stout skinheads about.