Boyhood Bliss and a Wind-Up Box
IT was a large square mahogany box, well-polished, and there was a handle you had to wind, and lids that opened top and front. You changed the steel needle every time you changed the record.Skip to next paragraph
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The records were kept flat in a cardboard box to prevent them from warping. If you didn't pack them flat, the heat and humidity turned them into strange shapes that would have made them eligible for an exhibition of modern sculpture.
The winding, the changing of records and needles, and the selection of a record were boyhood tasks that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was methodical in these matters. I hated records being scratched, or the turntable slowing down in the middle of a record, bringing the music or the song to a slow and mournful stop: This happened if the gramophone wasn't fully wound. I was especially careful with my favorites such as Nelson Eddy singing "The Mounties" and "The Hills of Home," various numbers sung by The Ink Spo ts, and a medley of marches.
All this musical activity (requiring much physical exertion on the part of the listener!) took place in a little-known port called Jamnagar, on the west coast of India, where my father taught English to the young princes and princesses of the state. The gramophone had been installed to amuse me and my mother, but my mother couldn't be bothered with all the effort that went into playing it.
I loved every aspect of the gramophone, even to cleaning the records with a special cloth. One of my first feats of writing was to catalog all the records in our collection - only about 50 to begin with - and this cataloging I did with great care and devotion. My father liked "grand opera" - Caruso, Gigli, and Galli-Curci - but I preferred the lighter ballads of Nelson Eddy, Deanna Durbin, Gracie Fields, Richard Tauber, and "the Street Singer" (Arthur Tracy).
It may seem incongruous to have been living within sound of the Arabian Sea and listening to Nelson sing most beautifully of the mighty Missouri River, but it was perfectly natural to me. I grew up with that music, and I love it still.
I was a lonely boy, without friends of my own age, so that the gramophone and record collection meant a lot to me. My catalog went into new and longer editions, taking in the names of composers, lyricists, and accompanists.
When we left Jamnagar, the gramophone accompanied us on the long train journey (three days and three nights, with several changes) to Dehradun, in northern India. Here, in the spacious grounds of my grandparents' home at the foothills of the Himalayas, songs like "Shenandoah" did not seem out of place.
Grandfather had a smaller gramophone and a record collection of his own. His tastes were more "modern" than mine. Dance music was his passion, and there were any number of fox trots, tangos, and beguines played by the leading dance bands of the 1940s.
Granny preferred waltzes and taught me to waltz.
I would waltz with her on the broad veranda, to the strains of "The Blue Danube" and "The Skater's Waltz," while a soft breeze rustled in the banana fronds. I became quite good at the waltz, but then I saw Gene Kelly tap-dancing in a brash, colorful MGM musical, and - base treachery! - forsook the waltz and began tap-dancing all over the house, much to Granny's dismay.
All this is pure nostalgia, of course, but why be ashamed of it? Nostalgia is simply an attempt to try and preserve that which was good in the past. The past has served us: Why not serve the past in this way?
WHEN I was sent to boarding school and was away from home for nine long months, I really missed the gramophone. How I looked forward to coming home for the winter holidays!
There were, of course, some new records waiting for me. And Grandfather had taken to the Brazilian rumba, which was all the rage just then. Yes, Grandfather did the rumba with great aplomb.
Later, I believe, he'd moved on to the samba and the calypso, but by then I'd left India and was away for five years. A great deal changed in my absence. My grandparents had moved on, and my mother sold the old gramophone and replaced it with a large radiogram. But this wasn't so much fun. I wanted something I could wind!
I keep hoping our old gramophone will turn up somewhere - maybe in an antique shop or in someone's attic or storeroom, or at a sale.
I shall buy it back, whatever the cost, and install it in my study and have the time of my life winding it up and playing the old records. I now have tapes of some of them, but that won't stop me listening to the gramophone.
I have even kept a box of needles in readiness for the great day.