New discoveries

Radio - Louis Barfe listens to some old stories recorded in the sixpence-a-go booth

In these days when most computers are capable of becoming multi-track recording studios and CD factories, the amazement registered by those hearing their voices on record in the early years of the gramophone is perhaps easy to forget. For many years, the only way an average person could cut a disc was to use one of the sixpence-a-go booths that proliferated in railway stations and at seaside resorts between the 1930s and the 1960s.

Radio 4's Archive Hour provided a reminder of these communal recording devices - immortalised by Graham Greene in Brighton Rock - in the form of Alan Dein's "Don't Write, Make a Record" (20 April). Having truffled in junk shops for these old recordings, Dein began to wonder about the stories behind the discs - the family holidays, broken romances, practical jokes. In the first instance, he tracked down the company responsible for the "Record-O-Voice" machine, the Amusement Equipment Company, and discovered that it was still operating under the ownership of the founding family. The chairman, Stan Bollom, was amazed to learn that so many of the recordings survived, and admitted that he hadn't heard one since the end of the Second World War.

Bollom observed how, over the years, the discs had gone from being private items to articles of general retrospective interest. The interviews that followed revealed the discs to be captivating documents of social change, as citizens from all classes had partaken of the novelty.

First was the daughter of a naval commander involved in the Battle of Jutland, with a Christmas greeting from her grandmother that was recorded in a department store and sent to an overseas posting. She noted how old her gran always seemed, though she was herself now older than her grandmother was at the time of the recording in 1935. The empire that her father served has gone, as has her grandmother's ancestral pile.

Moving down the social scale slightly, the sons of a Yorkshire railwayman listened to a record made on a family holiday in Morecambe, on which their father attempted to display some of his linguistic skills. However, one of his offspring noted that "he even spoke French in a Yorkshire accent". The brothers went on to note that the vicar waived all the fees at their parents' wedding because they were called Abraham and Sarah, good biblical names. They then recalled snippets from their childhood, such as a game of Cowboys and Indians in which a girl was tied to a lamp-post and left there when everyone went in for tea. All interesting little vignettes, unlocked by a long-forgotten five-inch disc.

Also appearing were a sailor and his girl back home, who had lost touch more than 40 years earlier; the son of Gracie Fields's manager, who surprised his son by sounding more like the comedian Bud Flanagan than he had ever realised; an American vinyl addict who came across a cache of recordings made by an amateur enthusiast from the radio coverage of the Pearl Harbor bombing; and an old Carthusian friend of Jack Kerouac who was captured scat-singing with the King of the Beats.

These disparate stories, linked only by the medium on to which they were etched, were also held together by Dein's obvious passion for the subject and his sensitive yet thorough line of question-ing. The result was a fascinating hour of living history, far ahead of any dramatisations or reconstructions. As the naval commander's daughter observed wistfully: "Nowadays, you make a telephone call, and you can't replay it." We should be thankful that these tales didn't disappear into the ether.

Radio 4's Archive Hour is on Saturdays at 8pm

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