The cogged radio knob was grasped & turned,
a green lotus light bloomed, energy slowly unlocked:
this moment holy, on rough cord carpet kneeled
a pubescent “pop picker” in audio adoration,
short trousered knees were tattooed by Tintawn,
heart and soul in hostage to Motown melodies,
thrilled at the illicit discovery of pirate stations….
Radio sets in the sixties were powered by a series of triodes, vacuum tubes and valves. Valves mysteriously glowed, like a toy town scene, creating considerable heat that warmed the top of the wooden frame.Such metal and glass parts could be peeked at through die-cut holes in the cardboard backing.
Turn the radio’s left toothed knob, hear it’s decisive click. Your eye would be drawn to the lotus-like bloom on an emerald eye. It was like an imitation brooch, oddly-placed in the gold fabric that decoratively covering the grille. Behind this latticed fabric boomed the round, drum-skin tight, black speaker surface, an inverted cardboard bosom.
That jewelled eye “blossomed”, indicating that the valves were slowly warming up. Press down hard on one of the three analogue square buttons, directly below the screen. Then the abstract hum turned into broadcast. Medium Wave, Long Wave, Short Wave. Turn the toothed knob on the right.
Two grooved wheels turn a looped taut string within the hidden chassis. This crude system propelled the station guide marker, stiffly moving past an array of radio stations Your eye follows the station indicator stick, moving behind the glass screen imprinted with names and numbers. Third; Light; West; Hilversum; Paris; Luxembourg; Brussels; even Athlone. Like terrestial tides, a rhythmic reception hissing came and went. Sometimes the broadcast crystal clear, sometimes slowly morphing into distorted temporary gargle. Then back to full reception levels.
Press your ear to the golden fabric; close your eyes; imagine presenters talking into large microphones, in faraway studios. See them through the large studio window of broadcasting booths. A prominent red light warns of live radio.
Pirate programmes were transmitted from swaying small boats, anchored in international waters, bobbing up and down on stormy waves. It was a music mission, lead by gung-ho pirates, playing music without official permission.
On Sunday afternoons my brothers and I waited impatiently for the iconic theme tune of Alan Freeman’s ‘Pick of the Pops’, preceded by the rhythmic cymbal beat, echoing tom toms, upbeat trumpets and tubular bells. It was Harry Roberts rhumba tune called ‘Quite beside the point’. Then Freedman’s cheerful Australian voice: “Greetings pop pickers!” Then on came the surfing sounds of the Beach Boys ‘California Girls’, Rolling Stones rebel rock ‘I Can’t get no Satisfaction’ and the hippy Kinks ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’.
One day this eight year old asked for the pocket-money price of that Kinks single. Any song that mentioned fashion in the title was a good choice for the son of rag trade parents. That innocent boy didn’t realise that the subversive lyrics were more than a mere dig at the trendy Carnaby Street scenes in London:
They seek him here, they seek him there
His clothes are loud, but never square
It will make or break him so he’s got to buy the best
‘Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion
At boarding school I took to wandering around school grounds, portable transistor radio permanently pressed to ears. My school report summed it up well: “In his free time (Louis) leads a very aimless existence. He and his transistor spend far too much time hanging around his classroom. By now he should be developing more positive enthusiasms…”
In the early 80s I had been ill for a period and frequently found myself going to bed even earlier than much younger kids. Too weak to read books, I listened to the radio instead. The station of choice was Sunshine Radio, a pirate station. It soon unwittingly brought metaphorical “sunshine” into my life.
The top ten music was an enjoyable distraction. On-the-hour, news was read by some sweet dulcet-toned young woman. What was it about her accent that sounded familiar? After listening for a few evenings, I eventually realised that woman was my Second Year boarding school girlfriend. I had dated Allanah (tr. “darling”) for a few wonderful summer weeks.
I hadn’t heard her voice for years but recently had seen her. She was walking carefree down Dawson Street. She was the successful Trinity College student (and pirate news broadcaster). Too shy to shout out her name, or dodge traffic, running across the busy city street to ecstatically greet her. Had I known that would be my last ever opportunity, I might have plucked up the courage.
But who was I in her eyes? An academic failure, on an endless cycle of dead-end jobs. I had accomplished little in my life up to that point. Some months later, however, I wrote a lyrical poem about her, recalling our good times. It was slyly titled ‘We were the Pirates then’. It combined to our loose eroticism with the freewheeling spirit of pirate radio stations in the 80s.
Some time after I had finished writing that poem in her honour, I visited some old scholars from that boarding school. After reading my homage of Allanah to those alumni, a curious silence quickly fell among that small gathering. I was puzzled. I thought the poem cheerful. Perhaps it could even be put to a pop tune. To critical-minded college students it might even be possibly considered… good??
Irish name and Asian-like eyes brown,
classmate boarder at co-ed Newtown,
shiny gold-blond hair, smiley freckled face
she beckoned me on, yet kept me in place.
Allanah read Asterix in the Irish Times,
she exuded charm, engaged in wilful crimes:
that “darling” thief stole my treasured transistor,
I caught the culprit, I couldn’t resist her.
Premature lovers, promiscuous teens,
contours mapped out under jumpers green:
oh amorous apples, swoon of soft skin,
ignoring biblical command, indulging in sin.
On the hour, Allanah read the news,
I whisper: “I remember you.”
My ears weren’t playing tricks:
Venerated name, darling prefix.
What I was told next shocked me. While I had been writing my “pirate” poem about her, Allanah lay in a Dublin hospital dying of cervical cancer. She was the first contemporary of mine to have died. After hearing that news I added in a concluding verse, to reflect this sad conclusion of our friendship.
Gone that girl reading Sunshine’s news,
gone the romance, gone the pirates too:
dead and buried at twenty-five, cancer
killed that darling dreamer & ballet dancer…