Naomi Jacob is now pretty much forgotten but at one time, around the middle of the last century, she was Britain’s most popular romantic novelist. Fond of wearing a very great deal of tweed and not the prettiest of ladies, the novelist Paul Bailey told me once that when he saw her in Harrods in the early 1960s, where he was then employed as a sales assistant, he mistook her for JB Priestley. One of her many, many volumes of autobiography is called Me Again and I suspect I’m saying a very similar thing when I invite you to read my column in yesterday’s Sunday Express. There or below:
On a 1962 album of his Frank Sinatra sings the Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn song Please Be Kind. Infuriatingly, when my CD gets to that track I can hear a click accompanying this most recognisable of voices and the Count Basie orchestra which plays behind him. The odd thing is the compact disc is actually in good nick and so the noise doesn’t come from that. Rather my own imagination throws it into the mix like some out-of-time finger-clicker who has wandered into the studio. There he lurks primed to snap into action whenever I listen to this song, and should I hear it being played on my iPod, or on the radio, or as I did once in a hotel bar in Brussels he’s there too.
The thing is my parents had this album on LP and at some point it must have got damaged; a result of which is this click, at the start of side one track two. I played Sinatra – Basie a very great deal as a child and when years later I bought myself a copy of it on four-and-a-half inch plastic rather than twelve inch vinyl my mind seemingly made the executive decision to recreate for me the experience of listening to our cherished, if impaired, LP – wilfully ignoring the fact that was partly what I was trying to leave behind. Why my brain decided to hold onto this aural gremlin I don’t know as the sound of physically damaged recordings is thankfully not one that bothers the average person in 2014. By and large, clicks, bumps and scratches only exist unheard on un-reached for records in collections which are not being played on turntables that probably no longer work anyway.
And although digital technology has made extinct for most of us so many of those once everyday sounds such as the rewinding of a cassette, the fitting of a film in a camera, the retuning of a radio, or even the turning of pages in a book it isn’t only that particular advance that has done it. Along with car engines revving up on a winter’s morning; coming to, cold and chilly on the sofa, woken up by the high-pitched squeal television channels used to emit after close down; the hooves of the rag-and-bone man’s horse; the mysterious mechanical chord produced by the compound of levered buttons cashiers depressed to register the price of something on a till; and the clack of chalk on a blackboard there are plenty of once common noises that have simply vanished, present no more outside our memories or specialist archives.
My ghostly Sinatra clicking came to mind this week when I read that a loudspeaker has been installed in the newsroom of The Times to broadcast a recording of manual typewriters whirring away. Apparently as the deadline for the print edition approaches the tapping gets louder and more urgent-sounding supposedly spurring on those wearying hacks to file their copy. As well as, I should imagine, making them come over all nostalgic for the days when almost everyone was willing to spend money in order to read a newspaper. An object that not only told you what was going on, but behind which you could hide, and which on crowded trains you could practice your origami skills by folding it into a neat little square.
As Helen and Maurice Kaye of Bournemouth celebrated their wedding anniversary this week so many of the sounds which must have unwittingly underscored their eighty years of marriage exist no more. And as with sounds so with language. Research by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press indicates that the use of certain words – marvellous, pussycat, catalogue, for example – is on the wane whereas words like awesome, internet and treadmill are far more commonly encountered. But as with my scratched record it will take a very long time indeed before these words that are losing favour become entirely obsolete and even then people still might take a pleasure in using them.
The golden records that were packed aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 are still awaiting discovery. Circling space, this product of Carl Sagan and his NASA committee, are an account of life on earth through a compendium of the sounds of both human activity and those of the natural world. Whether they will ever be heard is anyone’s guess but if they are the samples of music from different cultures, of animal cries, the crack of lightening, and greetings in a multitude of languages may strike their audience as only marginally more alien than that which was the mere hubbub of the late 1970s does us today: the gentle burr of a milk float at dawn; the slow, deliberate noise of letters being formed by a Dymo label maker; or even someone saying cheerio.