Air Training Corps, aviation, flight, flying, growing up in England, growing up in the 1950s, humour, London, Monty Python, news skit, reflections, Royal Air Force, Stereophonic sound, Wright Brothers
…and several butchers aprons.” That’s all we heard of the previous broadcast on a Monty Python news skit. We can only imagine what the news item could have been about. If you are reading this without having read part 1 of this post series you are in the same boat. Well not quite, you could go and have a look at part 1, though to be honest it won’t make much difference. I wrote it and I can barely remember what was in it.
And so on with part two. I should mention, before getting to the blowing out of brains, that I was fascinated by stereophonic sound when it came out.
I really wanted to find out what it was like. Unfortunately the early stereo systems were way beyond my meagre means. I did have a passable turntable (mono), an ok amplifier and speaker (single), and a lovely old radio/gramophone (not sure who it belonged to originally). I found out the way a stereo record works is to send two separate signals from the needle. One track of the recording went up and down and one went from side to side – that’s how they recorded the left and right hand tracks. Instead of there being just two wires from the needle head to the amplifier there were four. I have no idea how the amplifier split it’s signal between the two stereo speakers.
It seemed to me that If I bought a new stereo needle head for my turntable and some fine wire, I could attach one channel to my amplifier and the other to the old radio/gramophone. This I could afford. It was a delicate job, needing rather more wire than a simple stereo system. I hooked it up. Then I needed a stereo record to try it out. I went out and bought a record with chamber music from the Palm Court. This was one of the few records tin our local store that was presented in full stereo. I went home and put on the record. It took it a bit of fiddling to get the two separate systems to give a reasonably balanced output. One had better base than the other – but Eureka again, it worked.
I sat and listened enthralled by how the sound filled the room. I couldn’t believe the extra depth to the music. I moved the two systems around to get the optimum separation and stereophonic experience. It was stunning. I would never buy a mono record again!
I tried to stir up some interest in stereo in the household. Mugwump wasn’t very impressed, but then he mainly listened to musicals (enough said really), he would put South Pacific on in the living room, really loud, open the living room windows and then sit with his head out the front room windows listening to the music waft over the roof – I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair – please!
Mum and Dad came to look – yes look at my system, they were more concerned about all the wires that were strewn across the room than this remarkable sound.
“Can’t you hear how much more rich the sound is?” I asked – “Am I going to have to try to Hoover around all those wires” mum was thinking. Dad tried to be supportive but since the last record he bought was played on a gramophone with half-inch long ⅛ inch thick needles, he wasn’t exactly an audiophile. “Very nice son; has anyone seen my soldering iron?”
A prophet is never recognized in his own town – I bet Edison wasn’t appreciated in the early years..
As well as sound, I was interested in flight. I had a few dreams where I could fly – it was wonderful. Our dog Ming tried to fly – chasing the birds in the garden, he practiced a whole afternoon, but never got more than a couple of inches off the ground – he would never compete with the Wright Brothers.
On the coast on holiday one year, we watched as the American air force practiced supersonic flight. Maybe its was this combination of flight and sound that got me interested. We would watch them far out to sea, climbing very high then entering a steep dive to reach mach 1 (the speed of sound), the sonic boom would eventually cross the sea and rattle our beach-hut dishes. It was fascinating to watch and to hear. Unfortunately one of the pilots was unable to pull out of the dive in time. I’m glad to say I didn’t see it happen. The wreck of the plane was stored on the promenade for a couple of days – guarded by marines. I don’t know if the pilot escaped in time, I really hope so.
What was I saying, oh yes, flight was my other fascination. More precisely, flying in an aeroplane fascinated me, I was less interested in the theory of flight – it could have given me a lift, but I found it a drag.
One day, walking near the shops with mum, I saw a poster and small display in a shop window. It was advertising the ATC or Air Training Corps. “Boys, learn to fly, join the Air Training Corps, 27F squadron”. There were photographs of aeroplanes, boys in uniform with rifles, model aeroplanes and photographs of boys climbing into two-seater aircraft. I looked for restrictions – 14 to 19. I decided to join.
As an aside, when I was seven or eight I had signed up to join the Cub Scouts. I was put on a waiting list, I am still waiting, I could hear any day now.
I went down to the ATC hut the next Friday evening. I was welcomed in. “This is band practice night, you do want to be in the band don’t you?” asked a very smily officer with a huge RAF mustache. “Er, yes sir”. “what instrument would you like to play, we have drums and cavalry trumpets”. “I’d like to play drums sir!”. I now learned my first lesson about military organizations. “Wonderful. Go over to the band room and pick up a trumpet and mouth-piece, everyone wants to play drums”. “Yes, sir”. I was learning the lingo fast.
There were about half a dozen boys with side drums, one big lad with a huge bass drum, and about three rows of boys with trumpets. Everyone was tooting or tapping at once. I learned the meaning of cacophony.
A sergeant took me in hand, directed me to the front row of the trumpets and said “don’t worry about what you are playing, when we play, just blow and make as many sounds as you can”. He showed me how to tighten my lips and squeeze out a note. I actually already knew how to do this, I had once or twice scared my mum by coming up behind her on washing day and blasting a note through the hoover-twin hose. It became my thing for a while, being able to play a note on anything tubular. And they wanted me to become a clerk!
Band practice was brought to order by the moustached officer – Mr. H. He was very musical. He showed us what he wanted from the drums – lead and seconds. He got them practiced. Then played the tune he wanted the trumpets to play.
Mr H counted us in and the music began. I started blowing. I couldn’t hear what I was playing with the sound of all the other trumpets and drums. But I blew and I blew (like the big bad wolf) I blew – and the band played on.
I was starting to feel a little funny when the sergeant called out in a very loud voice “Sir, we have a man turning green here”. At which point everything went black and I woke up in a mess. Well not a mess, but the mess, where we used to get tea and cakes sold to us by the lady who lived next door. They had laid me out on a bench until I came too. I felt as green as I had looked and rather stupid. The officer and sergeant came by and clapped me on the back “well done, private, but don’t try quite so hard next time”. They sent me home with my own cavalry trumpet and mouthpiece to practice. Imagine mum and dad’s delight, to say nothing of the neighbours.
I blew my brains out that night and apparently that raised my profile in the squadron. They were big on effort.
I did eventually get my flight experiences and met some V-Bombers up very close, but that’s another story.