London buses as a unit of quantity

I heard BBC commentators the other day trying to put the scale of the Covid death count into some form more intellectually digestible. Not an easy task. But in some arenas, the use of apparently ludicrous measures is commonplace. Like dinosaurs for instance – the size of these creatures is always described not in feet and inches or even metres and centimetres but London buses. Tyrannosaurus may be one London bus whilst a good-sized diplodocus could be as many as three. At the other end of the size spectrum, the principal currency is minis or, for those who can remember, London phone boxes. “These creatures were so small that you could fit thousand million into a London phone box”. Or “a colony of these tiny little birds would fit in the boot of a mini”. And although I haven’t seen the footage, I’ll bet that David Attenborough has used those units somewhere on camera. And so on.

Why on earth a London bus should be chosen as the definitive unit of dinosaur size heaven knows. It’s the same with those daredevil motorcycle riders. Once again their achievements are measured in London buses. Evil Knievel could jump 15 London buses say whilst his rival Hamish McRubbish could barely clear 12. On the other hand his forte was London taxis where he thought nothing of clearing 20.

Okay I’m making this up but merely to illustrate a point. We may not be great fans of the metre or the kilogram, foot, pound, furlong, chain or whatever. But that’s no justification for randomly allocating new units inappropriately. Where will it end? I rather like the idea of fish as units. And in inappropriate scales. A pint of beer might be 2.6 deci-haddocks. A night out for two in Chinatown might leave you little change from a giga-halibut. And talk about inflation – rising by more than 19 milli-shrimps in the Covid aftermath.

Now Covid, there’s a good point. The commentators on the BBC told us that we had lost the equivalent of a medium-sized city in deaths due to Covid. Averse as I am to novel units, this somehow made sense. Indeed, why stop there? Why leave it at “a medium-sized city”. Let’s be more precise.

Since the first Covid related deaths in the UK on 5 March 2020, the death toll rose quickly. Three weeks later we had lost just over a thousand, the equivalent of some small unnamed village. Chipping this, Greater and The Other upon sea. By 11 April however we were on the map, or rather for the town concerned (Skipton), off it. We had already long lost the equivalent of Marlow, Troon, Enniskillen, or Newport Pagnell. By the beginning of May, the Grim Reaper had put paid to Ripon, Saffron Walden, Tonypandy, Buxton or Godalming, barely resting in Belper, Arbroath or Felixstowe on its way through to Skegness, Newton Abbot or Melton Mowbray.

The whistlestop tour continued. By the beginning of June Covid had taken the equivalent of Ashford, Pontypool, Stratford-upon-Avon, Sevenoaks, Windsor or Motherwell, barely catching its breath while heading for Leatherhead, Morecambe, Pudsey, Billericay or Bridlington. By the end of July, release from lockdown had taken the toll, by way of Falkirk, Haywards Heath, Canvey Island, Cleethorpes or Great Yarmouth as far as Tonbridge. 74,265 dead.

By the time we reached the beginning of December and everyone began to think of Christmas, the virus had devoured Braintree, Bexhill-on-Sea, Salisbury, Inverness, King’s Lynn, Durham or Royal Leamington Spa. By the arrival of Christmas, coronavirus had taken Altrincham, Gravesend, Aldershot or Tunbridge Wells. The release of the lockdown over Christmas, whilst compassionate, was ill judged. By New Year, the virus had rampaged as far as Lowestoft, via Bognor Regis, Walsall, Paignton or Harrogate. Death toll: 108,165.

As the self-flagellation began over the Christmas relaxation blunder, the virus pressed on, through Paisley, Londonderry, St Albans, Hastings or Bath. After taking the waters, the Covid roadshow passed Lincoln, Stockport, Doncaster, Maidstone, Cheltenham or Gateshead.

In a grim sort of way, these units mean something. Probably more so if you happen to come from any of these towns or cities. To think of those towns empty of people is a surprisingly potent way of driving home the message.

Today, the totaliser stands at at the equivalent of High Wycombe with just under 126,000 casualties. I wonder what that is in London buses.

For the love of hi-fi

I greatly regretted the passing of LPs and vinyl generally around the early to mid 80s. I had been an avid collector of music since my late teens. I can remember the very first pop record I bought in the mid-70s. No sooner had I left the shop than I had the album out of the carrier bag to admire it. I would like to say it was something really cool like early Velvet Underground or the Doors but it wasn’t. Moving swiftly on… Really? Well if you must know it was Hot August Night by Neil Diamond and as if that wasn’t bad enough it was a live double album. For many years, as my tastes matured (if that’s the right word), I hit it back to front so that the spine wasn’t readable among my other records. Ironically some 45 years later, Neil Diamond is somehow fashionable again and that particular album somewhat sought-after. I even played it myself the other night, singing along to Sweet Caroline of course, to the amusement of the neighbours. I had forgotten that the window was open and the nets were in the wash.

Of course back in the 70s I was at boarding school and couldn’t afford a proper hi-fi, not that there was room anyway in my tiny little bedsitter room. I had a second hand music centre with a couple of puny speakers that boasted a massive 6 W output. I say ‘boasted’  but, if truth be known, there was nothing boastful about my meagre music centre. I don’t recall it even having a headphone socket. Definitely not proper hi-fi. And ‘proper’ in those days meant an amplifier the size of a suitcase powering speakers as large as coffins with 12 inch woofers or larger, capable of  curdling milk or detaching retinas. My enduring memory of that school was the end of prep each evening when the porter’s lodge bell would sound and, practically in unison, all the biggest hi-fi systems would blast out Smoke on the Water, accompanied by the sound of falling roof slates.

I especially remember buying my first ever classical record – Grieg’s Peer Gynt music – not because I particularly liked this cold Scandinavian music but because Morning had been used as incidental music in a production of Orpheus and Eurydice in which my unrequited love Jackie V, from Summerfield House, had starred. To this day I cannot listen to that music without thinking of her.

Eventually when I left school and went to university, I bought more albums, popular and classical. It was still three decades before I would appreciate jazz. My degree course incorporated a placement year. For many, this amounted to pressing the pause button on their degree for a year, serving no really useful purpose other than ensuring they had forgotten everything they had learnt in their degree on their return the following year.

For me, dispatched, initially reluctantly, to Glaxo at Greenford, it was a revelation. Paid as a junior technician, it was approximately four times my student grant. I had money to burn. And being only a temporary job, they paid me in cash. And weekly. Each Friday I would collect my winnings (sorry I mean earnings) and skip back to my room in the hostel, conveniently located 20 yards from the main entrance and directly across the road from the Flying Horse. Senior management drank there. The juniors walked a quarter of a mile down the road to the company’s social club where the beer and food was subsidised and you could play a game of pool without intimidation by local thugs.

I had more money than I knew what to do with. If I had been sensible, and who is at that age, I should have banked it. As it was there were pay envelopes in every drawer, cupboard and briefcase. I remember when I left at the end of the year finding money in shoes, wash bag and lab coat. To this day I don’t know whether I found all of it.

After I had been there perhaps a couple of months, I decided it was time to spend some of this and what better thing to spend it upon than a hi-fi. By purchasing my own system I would somehow exorcise all that embarrassment and teasing about my puny music centre. Off to Laskey’s in the Tottenham Court Road, my jeans bulging with money, to splash the cash.

You remember your first hi-fi like your first girlfriend. Often more fondly. And I can remember exactly what I bought: a Pioneer PL 514 turntable with a Shure cartridge, a JVC JAS 11 G amplifier and a pair of Wharfedale Glendale XP2 speakers. I can’t believe it looking back but I actually carried all this kit from Laskey’s to the Tottenham Court Road underground station and from the Greenford underground station back to the hostel. We wrapped the packages tightly together and taped them into one enormous structure. They must have thought I was doing it for a bet but the truth was that to buy the XP2 speakers rather than the earlier 3XP model, I had spent an extra £15, money I had allocated for a taxi ride home.

I remember nothing of that journey between leaving the hi-fi shop and unlocking my door back at the hostel. It was mid summer and I must’ve sweated pints (this was before metrication). The sensible thing to do would have been to drink plenty of water and lie down for an hour or so to recuperate. I did neither.

Within 10 minutes I had extracted all the electronics I had purchased from its cardboard and Styrofoam packaging. A Matterhorn of Styrofoam as I recall but of course we weren’t trying to save the planet then. In fact we weren’t aware it needed saving. That came later. A further 10 minutes to check the electronics – yes, the mains lights all came on. Just needed to connect up the speakers. It was 6:05 PM

Soon it was 6:05:01 PM. My heart sank. I had no wires to connect the loudspeakers. The shops had shut, five minutes earlier. I briefly considered dismembering a small standard lamp which came with the room. Nobody would notice. Fortunately sense prevailed. The amplifier came with an overly generous mains lead. Another 10 minutes of blundering with a Swiss army knife and we were in business. Speakers connected, amplifier on, turntable ready. All systems go!

How do you baptize your first hi-fi? I chose the Berlin Phil, under Lorin Maazel, playing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I looked at the record, turning it to catch the light. No scratches, smooth as a baby’s bottom. Onto the turntable, 33 rpm, arm extended over the record poised for action. A careful wipe of the record surface with a velvet pad to remove any dust. Slight rumble as I lowered the needle onto the lead-in groove. A few seconds seeming like minutes before a flutter of strings and the rasping brass calls of the Firebird. It was the sound I had dreamt of all my life. I heard sounds that had not been there previously. The cavernous bass of Mahler’s third symphony, the Stradivarius violins used by the Lindsay Quartet in the Beethoven late quartets. That cigarette scraped voice of Janis Joplin’s song to Bobby McGee. Lee Morgan’s in-your-face trumpet on The Sidewinder, the effortless top Cs of Birgit Nilsson singing the Liebestod from Tristan. I hadn’t just bought a hi-fi that afternoon. I had bought a new record collection. After an hour of frenzied disc swapping, I had listened to half my record collection. It was like a curtain being pulled back to let the light in.

For the rest of the weekend I did not leave my room. Except for meals. A sunny day it might have been but I cared not a jot. I was listening to my new record collection on my hi-fi. I even said the words aloud to savour their unmitigated joy.

That weekend was the beginning of my love affair with vinyl. I rather enjoyed the rigmarole, the ritual. Selecting the album from the collection, gently removing it from its outer then innner sleeves, examination for scratches or defects, cleaning it on the turntable, adjusting the volume, releasing the arm and returning to one’s seat with the album cover to follow the lyrics or to read more about performers. It was almost a religious ritual, part of the many procedures to keep the disc’s in top condition over many years. It wasn’t a chore it was an act of love. And I think also a largely male state of mind. I don’t know of any women who showed the same tenderness to their records or nurtured them with the same love. More than once girlfriends had given me its-the-records-or-me ultimatum and been disappointed not only by the polarity of the response but with its speed of delivery. Sorry, girls. It reminded me of the words to Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi”. You know the ones I mean.

Vinyl had everything I wanted from music. This seemed almost to be a spiritual connection between the vibrations of a tiny diamond along a track and the neuronal wiring that turned those sounds into music.

When the first CD was released in 1982 (an Abba album since you ask) I was sceptical. Not least because I had, only three years earlier, bought a pricey (well, for me) turntable and suddenly here was this new kid on the block. Whereas some embraced the new format wholeheartedly, I was slightly underwhelmed. Part of the enjoyment of the music was examining the notes in the album cover. Something large to read and admire. In those days some bands (Yes, Genesis et cetera) commissioned works of art for the cover of their rather overindulgent – if we are honest – triple albums. You didn’t get that with CD. Those little jewel cases were difficult to open and, despite what the manufacturers said, fiddly. I mean:

“What have CDs ever done for us?”

“They’re smaller, take up less space. ”

“Okay, I’ll give you that. But apart from being smaller and taking up less space, what has CD ever done for us?”

“They’re much stronger and difficult to damage”

“Fair enough. That’s a good point. But apart from being smaller and taking up less space and being stronger and more difficult to damage, what have CDs ever done for us?”

“They have much less distortion and the sound is more realistic”.

“Yes you have probably got a point. Still I ask you, apart from being smaller and taking up less space, stronger and more difficult to damage with much less distortion and a realistic sound, what has CD ever done for us?”

“Well they…”

“Oh shut up”. (With apologies to Monty Python).