Clandestine Radio (A Bedtime Story). By DVH.
In the fifties life was pretty good for a teenager living on the outskirts of Belfast. At least that's how I remember it. The Traditional Jazz Revival was at its height and almost without exception my friends were keen on jazz. Most also cycled or played cricket or rugby but jazz was their passion, and mine. Unlikely as it might seem this love of jazz led a few of them to take an interest in short wave radio, for a while. One of the bunch was a keen radio constructor and had been for years. He spent his pocket money in Junkie McDonald's Government Surplus shop in Winetavern Street and relied on his trumpet playing to finance the necessary intake of Bulmer's Cider and the pursuit of young ladies in tennis shorts. His father, believing mistakenly that it would keep him out of mischief, provided an excellent shed. at the bottom of the garden, where he could fiddle with his wireless equipment.
On wet evenings the rest of the gang started dropping in to this workshop and after a few months it became a well furnished and comfortable meeting place. Construction projects were confined to the bench and partially dismantled war surplus sets were neatly stacked beneath it. The light of a bare bulb was softened by a lamp shade, fashioned from a grapefruit tin. A set of genuine leather car seats appeared from somewhere and these enabled the boys, when the occasion arose, to support in comfort the superimposed load of student nurses. Beermats and ashtrays, liberated from taverns far and near. decorated the walls. A fine old all wave radiogram, displaced from someone's living room by a new TV, took a wrong turning on its way to the scout jumble sale and found itself a snug corner. To us the yellowish glow of its tuning dial was more homely than a real coal fire.
What with the leather seats, jazz records, and the warmth of a Valor Perfection stove, life was pretty good. However, lest it be thought that radio took a back seat. our intrepid constructor built several fine short wave receivers and in no time at all he had the old radiogram sounding like new. News broadcasts from the far corners of the globe enabled us to give some impression of an interest in current affairs and when the space age dawned a ra'lio was hastily modified to allow us to listen, direct and spell bound, to the 'bleep - bleep' of the first artificial satellite. Sputnik I, as it passed overhead.
Contentment never lasts for ever and dissatisfaction with the BBC's jazz coverage led us to look farther afield. On the thirty one metre band we found the Voice of America's "Jazz Hour. from Washington DC, each evening Monday through Saturday..." This was enough to persuade a couple of young musicians to take up short wave listening but sadly other jazz stations were harder to find.
"What about building our own wee jazz station?" someone suggested to the genius with the soldering iron, silhouetted against his Anglepoise. A daft idea, perhaps, but a challenge had been issued and we all knew it. A strange assortment of bits and pieces, some with Battle of Britain service, concealed themselves in the radiogram's spacious cabinet and from it. out into the hedge, ran a length of second hand TV cable. The cable led to a noble poplar in the corner of the garden where a volunteer, with total disregard for his own safety, climbed to a height of forty feet and tied a small aerial between its branches. If the BBC wasn't going to use the Divis TV sound channel in the wee small hours, we reasoned, should we let it go to waste?
Success came quickly. Over an area of four square miles or so, on the northern edge of suburban Belfast, a handful of young baby sitters, student nurses and other assorted jazz lovers knew that about half an hour after the National Anthem proclaimed the end of television for the dav they might, with a bit of luck, hear an hour or so's jazz. Only the elite who actually visited the garden shed could have requests played. Young ladies were keen to join the elite, and the elite became a trifle cocky. This Utopian state of affairs lasted through most of 1958. The father of the keen radio constructor knew that his son sat up late in his radio shed and that his friends visited him, but he had not the vaguest idea of the scale of the operation because the garden was accessible from the rear and bushes concealed the shed from the house. This hard working individual (if he wasn't out at a Labour Party meeting! ) usually dozed off in front of his TV until he was awakened by the National Anthem, whereupon he jumped up, switched off and went to bed.
Unfortunately one night he slept through the National Anthem. Half an hour later he was rudely awakened by the rousing strains of Humphrey Lyttleton's King Porter Stomp. Now perhaps a mile or so away, on Shore Road, reception was not always perfect but at fifty yards or so the tiny station provided an ear splitting signal. The puzzled gentleman, although not a jazz enthusiast, recognised the tune but took a couple of minutes to recall where he had heard it before. Then, wide awake, he was down the garden in a flash. Throwing open the door of the cosy little shack he exposed those inside to the chill air of the November night as the last notes of King Porter Stomp died away.
"What's going on?" he barked. The figure at the bench sat motionless. A joker in the darkest corner of the hut, slipping a young lady in blue off his knee said, "We were thinking of some Count Basie. Have you a request?" He did. Using well chosen, unambiguous words he requested the immediate shut down of what was probably the only pure jazz, no announcements, VHF pirate radio station in the world. It was non profit making too.
Perhaps piracy never pays?
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