H. P. Lovecraft certainly had a memorable way with a word. At one point in The Unnameable he talks about ghastly festering and gibbering hideousness in Massachusetts during the Puritan age in Massachusetts. He was not referring to the Orphan Scrivener, though some subscribers may beg to differ, if only because this particular horror has a name. We've undertaken not to gibber too much and given hideousness is in the eye of the beholder, we'll leave subscribers to judge for themselves as they read on. Just try to ignore the occasional burst of monotonous piping on a demoniac flute....
As that nice Mr Google informed me, the very day I began this essay was Paddington Bear's 50th birthday, reminding me a while long ago I stumbled over a reproduction of William Powell Frith's The Railway Station (l862), depicting a train getting ready to leave Paddington Station. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/frith/paintings/5.jpg
There's a mystery connection. In the far right of the painting http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/philosophy/frith_detail.jpg two well-known Scotland Yard detectives, who have been identified as Detective-Sergeants Michael Haydon (with the handcuffs) and James Brett (who's just laid his hand on a man's shoulder) are arresting a wanted fugitive, close enough to escaping the long arm of the law to have his foot on the step up into the carriage.
The trips I took on the steam trains in my youth were much more orderly -- well, apart from a drunken Irishman who insisted on entering the ladies only carriage at the start of one journey and a couple of men fighting at Newcastle's Central Station at the end of another.
The engine is hardly visible in Frith's painting, but it brought to mind when the train to Newcastle passed through Darlington's Bank Top Station, up to the mid l970s passengers could see a very similar engine, Locomotion Number 1, sitting on one of the platforms http://www.pbase.com/csdesign/image/50705216
Locomotion Number 1 is now displayed in the city's Railway Museum in honour of its having pulled the first steam passenger train on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the autumn of 1825. Apparently many who had turned out to see this amazing event confidently expected the strange and frightening new machine to explode, steam engines being basically boilers on wheels. It could not have been too comfortable a trip since the majority of the passengers travelled in open wagons formerly used for hauling coal, although dignitaries as usual got a better deal and were trundled along in the shed-like structure shown in the postcard.
Those who remember travelling by steam usually wax nostalgic at the jerky drop of an up signal, recalling stray wisps of steam curling out from under enormous driving wheels while the great iron beast, resplendent in gleaming paint and well polished brass, sits poised to go after the fellow with the long-spouted oil can and peaked visor cap set at a rakish angle has swung down from the driver's cab and carried out his mysterious business. The smells of steam travel, coal smoke, steam, and hot oil, permeate memories of journeys begun after the heavy slamming of thick wooden doors by a waistcoated guard walking the platform along the length of the train, followed by shrill blasts on his whistle to announce an imminent departure and the distinctive chuffing as the train drew away.
What a struggle it was to manage the wide leather strap lowering and raising door windows, the better to get cinders and soot on your person and allow steam and smoke to billow into the carriage when passing through tunnels! Carriage seating was upholstered in stiff, dusty moquette reminiscent of nothing so much as inexpensive carpeting, the walls above the seats adorned with advertising prints featuring maps and beautifully painted views of locations throughout the country encouraging travel and thus, in a promotional masterstroke, more business for British Rail. And can anyone who saw them forget those stern printed notices above the alarm chains in each carriage warning the penalty for misuse was five pounds?
It's a fair bet some of the most vivid steam age memories centre around the powerfully beautiful engines, the drivers' cabs displaying a multitude of tubing, gauges, levers, and stopcocks. Dame Rumour had it bacon and eggs were cooked on stokers' cleaned-off shovels, introduced into the firebox near the end of overnight runs. Lest passengers grew faint from hunger buffet cars provided more varied sustenance. Similar to that offered in railway refreshment rooms, it was solid, if often derided, fare featuring such staples as ham sandwiches with an occasional suspicion of a curl to their bread, stick to the ribs jam roly poly, pork pies, Scotch eggs, and slices of darkly mysterious Dundee cake, washed down with strong tea in thick-lipped cups. There were also fancier restaurant cars featuring the elegance of linen tablecloths and menus but alas las for the profit columns in British Rail's ledgers, I rarely patronised either carriage for the trusty Reed thermos flask, a bag of crisps, and a couple of rolls of Rowntrees fruit gums saw me through the longest journey.
Last month the BBC reported the first steam engine to be built in Britain for half a century had carried paying passengers on a maiden round trip of sixteen miles. Similar to engines that ran on the London & North Eastern Railway, The Tornado was built over a span of eighteen years by a group of enthusiasts based in Darlington, who raised almost three million pounds to cover the cost of the work.
The trip was a resounding success and The Tornado will now go into service pulling special excursion trains -- which is more or less where we chuffed in.
There was a time when I had the radio on a lot. I grew up carting plastic transistor radios around on summer days and with crackly car radios accompanying me everywhere. It was important that a stereo system include a good radio.
During the fifties and very early sixties I only liked novelty songs. My parents had record albums but what did Ray Conniff, Frank Sinatra, or Perry Como have to say to a kid? (Except, maybe, “get lost so the elders can be alone”?) Fortunately the radio stations displayed better taste than mom and dad, playing classics like Alley Oop, Purple People Eater, Little Space Girl, and the whole brilliant oeuvre of David Seville and the Chipmunks.
By the time I was in college my friends and I disdained AM radio, which is where popular music lived in that era, because the Top 40 never contained enough “good” music. In particular, radio lacked the Kinks who didn’t have many American hits. How we reveled in those few weeks when Lola neared the top of the charts and “our” sound was heard in the land.
FM was where it was at in those days. I recall driving at night, headlights illuminating a winding two-lane back road, one hand on the wheel, the other on the tuner, turning the dial back and forth, trying to hold onto a distant FM station which kept threatening to drift out of range. More than once I pulled out of the depths of the night some weird, seemingly endless, psychedelic opus. The title, artist, and station were lost in the deep space radio noise that kept washing up over the music. I never heard those songs again. They might as well have been broadcasts from another world, received only on the tinny radio of the old Plymouth as it rumbled past black empty spaces that were fields, shadowy mountains of discarded coal ash, and dingy houses, one window in each filled with a television’s wavering blue glow.
Long before that, when I was still into novelty songs, my friend Bobby and I decided it would be fun to have our own radio station. We were sure our younger brothers would love to tune in to our station, if they knew what was good for them.
As I recall, the station’s music library consisted of one badly scratched 45 rpm of See You Later Alligator by Bill Haley. For variety we also featured the Chipmunks’ version -- the same record played at 78 rpm. The song is actually about a rough patch in a relationship The singer sees his baby “walkin’ with another man” and nearly loses his head, but it turns out to be a misunderstanding. We didn’t give a 'gator’s tail for any of that. All that interested us was what she says in the chorus:
“See you later alligator, after 'while, crocodile.”
It sure was a catchy chorus, and suitably ridiculous.
“See you later alligator, after 'while, crocodile.”
You can’t listen to it just once!
Simply sitting beside the ancient record turntable and listening does not a radio station make. The magic of radio is that you can’t see where the noise is coming from. Or so we reasoned. In order to create a realistic radio experience we took the turntable down into Bobby’s basement which featured a window level with the lawn. Since we weren’t planning a television station, the window interested us only because we could open it a crack. Then a couple of paper cups attached to either end of a long string extended outside made a transmitter with a broadcast radius of over twenty feet, sufficient to reach our audience at the base of the maple tree. We could have reached the back of the basement but unfortunately our show didn’t have listeners in the oil furnace area.
This worked decently, but not well enough. Almost immediately we switched a more sophisticated broadcast technology -- an old garden hose. Once you put the hose up to your ear -- and shook the water out of your ear -- you could hear what was going on in the basement much more clearly. The depth of sound was superior to the cup and string, especially in the bass register. The equipment even added echo to music, rather advanced for the time.
The audience did have to trade the radio receiver back and forth. And it was necessary to clamp a hand over the ear that wasn’t pressed against the nozzle so as to block out the sound coming naturally through the partially closed window and ruining the effect. But why would our audience need a free hand to enjoy hearing See You Later Alligator over and over? Our demographic was too young to drive, obviating any need to hold onto a steering wheel even if the broadcast had been available on a car radio, which it wasn’t. The hose couldn’t reach the driveway.
We did our best to vary our programming. Aside from playing Bill Haley’s original and the Chipmunks’ cover, we sometimes just set the needle down on the chorus. We also introduced both versions enthusiastically and at great length, and announced the name of our station:
"You’re listening to WGTR. Proudly serving Bobby’s back yard since 2 PM. WGTR. Your only choice for the best reptile tunes. We play the scales."
We also advertised the hand-drawn comics and lemonade which could be purchased by our listeners at the end of the broadcasting day, unless they were yellow bellied sapsuckers who didn’t want to play along.
I’m sure our little brothers remember the radio station as fondly as I do. Unfortunately we only went on the air once. Afterwards, whenever we moved the turntable to Bobby’s basement our brothers never seemed to be around.
It’s too bad our station didn’t have much reach -- so far as we knew. But who can explain tricks of the atmosphere? I like to imagine that somewhere, some time, someone’s driving along a dark road, randomly changing stations and there suddenly emerges, from the hiss and crackle:
See you later alligator, after 'while crocodile,
See you later alligator,
So long, that's all,
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, and our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/