John Murray’s classic novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels switches in a delightfully disorientating way between details of what’s on modern day (well, modern in 1991) digital channels and stories prompted by historic terrestrial ones which help tell the narrator Roe’s own tale.
Roe was (like John Murray) born in 1950 and so belongs to the television generation, which sounds suspiciously like a Kursaal Flyers’ punk cash-in number which was very popular here back in 1977, but which means the first wave of kids who can claim to have grown up watching TV. Interestingly, there were loads of songs from the punk era about television, but before that perhaps not so many.
Roe’s story about the television in his life starts really with the first set in his village, and watching The Brains Trust: “Who’s going to trust a person’s brain when any bugger can understand it?” is the locals’ view. Roe recalls some of the milestones in his TV-viewing life, including, in 1966, The Wednesday Play, a series of one-off dramas, and in particular an adaptation of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane which was a “riotous clout in the face”. And then there was Armchair Theatre where “whoever it was commissioned these outrageous TV plays obviously worked on the principle of the odder, the better, the madder, the richer, the more insolently plotless, the more artistically flawless.”
Other highlights include the arrival of Steptoe & Son (“East End Dostoiebloodyevsky”) and the episode of Eamonn Andrews’ pioneering chat show where Peter Cook was spectacularly rude to Zsa Zsa Gabor. And on a similarly anarchic theme there was Kenny Everett and Germaine Greer on Nice Time. Particular reverence is paid to the early 1970s BBC dramatization of Sartre’s Roads To Freedom with “wispy little genius Michael Bryant” as Mathieu.
There is also a pretty special day Roe recalls where a beautiful young lady turns up on his doorstep with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which they listen to and then make love, before ceremoniously watching Fawlty Towers, the episode where Basil ends up giving his faulty car a damned good thrashing. And there is a great description of the painstaking care taken by Connie Booth and John Cleese in their writing.
By the time of the book in 1991 Roe finds the state of terrestrial TV so appalling he believes that he must have succumbed to mesmeric hallucinations and imagined that he once saw wonders like the 1971 adaptation of Eyeless in Gaza, one of George Moore’s Esther Waters, Zola’s Germinal, and a Maupassant tale as part of The Liars with Isla Blair and Nyree Dawn Porter memorably among the cast.
His salvation comes through satellite TV which allows learning and opening up. In John’s novel Radio Activity his character William Stapleton similarly finds regular redemption via short wave radio. The book itself is set in 1986, and William is by day a frustrated college lecturer, mostly teaching bored apprentices from the Windscale nuclear power station. He is in his mid-30s and fed up with his lot, and as a bit of a wireless enthusiast finds relief by shutting himself away in his attic and twiddling his knob in search of arcane delights, as a way of becoming a free soul.
As John writes: “The short wave bands were as if recondite, mystical, unfathomable progressions of hissing, fizzings, splutters interrupted by waxing and waning babels of Slavonic, Haitic, Latin, Semitic, Finno-Ugrian, Germanic, Baltic imprecation”. William habitually tunes into Radio Tangiers for one show which broadcasts traditional songs of lamentation sung by the enchanting Fatoma. William, like a true Cumbrian, “enjoyed an infinite amount of identical repetition of the same little pleasures”, and in particular tuning in to any frequency where he might find “the Islamic ‘artist mode’ of dolorous yearning manifested itself in the folk music”.
Coincidentally there is a similar theme in parts of Jah Wobble’s autobiography, which is itself at times as funny and wise as a John Murray book. As a musical teenager Wobble, while developing his tastes, tuned into the short wave bands. Later in the PiL-era, when he was getting into Miles Davis, and lots of jazz like John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Charlie Mingus, and Arthur Blythe, he carried on listening to his short wave radio, in particular Radio Cairo and Radio Tehran, and fell in love with the singing of Om Kalsoum, with its wonderful yearning Egyptian string accompaniment, and became particularly interested in the composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, collecting cassettes from around the Edgware Road, featuring what Wobble describes as “some of the most playful, innovative music that you could ever hear.”
That sense of learning and of opening up which John Murray describes in his books through the media of satellite TV and short wave radio can also be applied to the experience many of us later had using the Internet. There was a time when it seemed as though the Gates of Eden had been opened, and it was possible to graze luxuriously on liberated sounds. This was the world of blogs where before the clampdown people posted rips of rare vinyl, available to download for free in the form of zipped files of MP3s, with accompanying information on who did what. For a small number of years all sorts of incredible hidden music was shared, and this was an incredibly intoxicating time to be living through.
The same could be said of YouTube, that occasionally revelatory resource where clips of music from all around the world were shared, expanding our horizons, shattering preconceptions, and making a nonsense of the pop culture history books. Though, as Jim Dodge prophetically wrote in his poem Holy Shit: “Now we know so much that knowledge has overwhelmed knowing and discoveries come far too fast for reflection”.
That quote is a classic example of what is scribbled down here in a collection of notebooks, like this one, a blue, hard-backed affair, nice and solid, and very tappable ( with currently a BiC MatiC mechanical pencil, the last one left from the packs Poundland once sold). It is a ruled Banner book bought in the old Oxfam shop just before it disappeared, and is currently being used for scribbling down attention-catching quotes in, striking sentences, from books picked up in the local library or found in one of the charity shops when doing the rounds.