Leap Year’s Day + 1

It’s not every year you get a chance to blog on 29 February, so it seemed a shame to miss the opportunity.

However, I did. So here I am, on 1 March instead. The 29th passed off peacefully, with no proposals needing deflected. Nasty Jen had hatched a proposal scheme which involved the payment of a large fine should the poor unfortunate have the temerity to reject her offer. The amount was reputed to be in the region of £10,000. Frankly, as escapes from captivity go, it seemed cheap. I haven’t heard yet if anyone was significantly lighter in pocket this morning.

Jones will be dismayed to discover that my turntable count has risen to two this week. I had been becoming more aware of the limitations of mp3s, having discovered that when played at higher volumes, the distortion is irritatingly noticeable. So when an old friend’s dad called to say he was jettisoning his Rega Planar 3, I resolved to dust off my vinyl collection, and begin enjoying analogue music again. Having already in my possession a Planar 2, bought second hand years ago from some guy in Albion Road, the arrival of a second deck might finally herald the birth of my DJ career. Or perhaps not.

The turntable, I was informed, needed a new stylus. No problem, I thought. Until I really did think. Where on earth do you buy a needle for your record player these days? I searched online, but only succeeded in bewildering myself with the types of stylus that were available, having no idea if they were suitable for the cartridge. And then the Admin Supremo’s Apprentice stepped in. His dad, he explained, used to “mess around with” turntables. So, on the recommendation of the Admin Supremo’s Apprentice’s dad, I found myself descending into a basement emporium on Leith Walk, a room lined with speakers, valve amplifiers, turntables, and even, gosh, the odd CD player. Four days later I had my P3 back in residence and was listening to the unadulterated purity of analogue sound – no jitter, no quantisation errors.

Digital sound has its uses. iPods rule when convenience takes precedence over sound quality. I have been putting some of my dad’s favourite old tunes onto my iPod the last few days, and playing them to him. He’s been in a coma for over a week now, since suffering a brainstem stroke following a fall, and I have no idea if he hears the music or not. But I hope he does, and it brings him some comfort. Alison and Maggie were scrambled from London within hours of the accident, and Maggie’s presence has been a joy in a difficult week. I have been fine-tuning my role as the mischief-making uncle, winding her up to levels of excitement at all the wrong times. Just before bed-time is ideal for chasing tennis balls down the hallway, I find.

My dad has had a difficult few years lately – having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease just over ten years ago. It has played havoc with his mobility, sleeping, stomach, speech, his dignity, and more. At times his frustration has been obvious, but mostly he has remained gracious and a model of Christian love.

On one occasion we were on holiday at Rossnowlagh in Donegal. I was about 7 years old, and made some dismissive comment about dad’s age (he would have been 57 at the time) and his running ability. Whereupon he pointed to a nearby sand dune and offered to race me. I remember being stunned at how such an old man, in my eyes, could outpace me so easily. Twenty-six years on, I was staring at his feet one evening while I was visiting him in a nursing home, where he was staying while mum was in London. They were swollen and misshapen through heart valve malfunction. I recalled the Rossnowlagh race, and silently grieved over his loss of mobility. Age takes its toll on everybody, but Parkinson’s steals so much more.

I have often cried out my frustration to God that Dad has had to go through this. Never more so than recently, as he lies in a hospital bed, awaiting the end. Why? I know not.

But though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?

Radio 2 and the vinyl-buying experience

Another morning of domiciliary visits at work provided another morning’s listening to Radio 2, and Ken Bruce in particular. Since the demise of Popmaster, effectively removed from the show following the BBC Phone-in Competition Shenanigans, Ken Bruce is barely worth listening to. As a decade, the 80s hold a certain number of fond musical memories for me, but there was undeniably a large volume of musical tat produced during that period, and Ken Bruce manages to dredge up most of it up. He finds some from other decades as well of course, but seems to prefer his tat to be 80s vintage.

I mused on this as he played a Johnny Hates Jazz song without any apparent shame. I once owned a Johnny Hates Jazz album, and am thoroughly ashamed of it. In fact, lots of my early musical purchases are now an embarrassment. Is it just me? The first record in particular. Every time I hear someone on the radio naming the first record they bought, it’s always something by the Beatles, the Stones, Joni Mitchell. Some GREAT song or album that’s endured, or if not then something obscure and therefore by definition ‘cool’. I have my suspicions that they might be making it up. I’ve never heard anyone confessing to buying a tacky one-hit wonder as their first record.

I spent one penny short of 2 Irish punts on my first record – “My toot toot” by Denise LaSalle – in a Golden Discs outlet in a Dun Laoghaire shopping centre. The Golden Discs has probably gone, and the shopping centre is now likely a mall, where people spend their Euro-subsidised euros instead. But they’re not spending it on Denise LaSalle records, or even CDs for that matter. A classic one-hit wonder, except that it wasn’t a classic, and might not even have been a hit, I can’t quite remember.

But I still have the record. It still has the branded price sticker on it, so I daresay you think I read that information off it. But that’s the thing about records for me. I didn’t need to. Buying a record was an event, and a full-size LP, or even a 12” single, provided you with something distinctly tangible for your cash.

Buying a CD has never been the same experience, although even that beats downloading music digitally. Nothing could be more soulless. Browsing through my collection of records sparks memories of where and when they were bought – an Extreme box set from Ripping Records on South Bridge during my student days, a classic Ten Sharp 12” single from a now-forgotten record shop on Great Junction Street, another single from somewhere in North Berwick while on holiday. Lots from Makin’ Tracks in Belfast. A Black Crowes picture disc from Caroline Music in Newry. Most of my vinyl collection bought ‘currently’ – rather than long afterwards from a second-hand record shop – consists of 12” singles rather than LPs. Sadly, even way back in my youth vinyl was dying out. Cassettes were by then the medium of choice for albums. The first album I bought (in another Golden Discs as it happens) was on cassette. It was Curiosity Killed The Cat. No idea what the album title was. It was terrible, but I managed to flog it to a future girlfriend.

I’m resigning myself to the sad fact that the days of significant musical purchases are slipping away in the face of a relentless digital onslaught. Perhaps even the days of the CD are ultimately numbered. The experience will be missed, but maybe I shouldn’t grieve too much. Downloading music can be a very useful option, and burning tracks on to a vinyl-effect CD-R does minimise the pain somewhat… Time moves on remorselessly, and as if to underline the fact, I went to work yesterday without my belt on and my trousers stayed up all by themselves.

Ah, the onset of old age and rotundity. Pass me my slippers and rose-tinted spectacles…