It was different back in those days; if you wanted to buy groceries in a supermarket you had to pay by cash or cheque. Before starting your trip round the shop, you would be required to queue up at the customer service kiosk and let the assistant stamp the back of your cheque to enable it to be used for payment at the till. And yet, just a year later, I saw my first-ever barcode scanner at the Presto supermarket in Harrow.
On Wednesday nights I would join my two housemates for a couple of pints in the Red Lion. We shared a house on the outskirts of Leicester; two chemistry students, one computer scientist, and our landlady. The journey into town was too far, taking us past the cattle market and the prison, so we just went to our local and sat at (usually) the only free table, near the door.
‘Are you coming, then?’ asked Dave.
‘Yeah, hang on, just setting this up.’ I had a portable cassette radio on which I would record concerts broadcast on Radio Three, and this evening the last item was Beethoven Three. The leader and conductor made their way onto the platform; I waited for the applause to die down, then pressed the record and play buttons and dashed out.
We sat in the pub drinking lager-and-lime, arguing about the merits of various academic pursuits, and listening to Culture Club (who I mistakenly thought were UB40) on the jukebox. Then, at about ten o’clock we would leave to walk home. Back in those days all pubs had to close at ten-thirty, and it would be too late to get a snack from the local chippy.
The landlady would still be up when we got back in, watching TV or knitting. John offered to make us a coffee, and I went upstairs to check if my tape had captured the entire symphony.
I scanned back, and back a bit further until I heard the furious closing pages of the finale, and applause. After the concert we had a news summary, during which the announcer said that police in London were investigating the discovery of human remains at a house in Muswell Hill.
I turned the machine off and went downstairs to chat to the others before turning in for the night.
I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for a new TV drama called ‘Des’ starring David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen, the lonely serial killer who butchered young men and who was caught after their body parts blocked the drains at his rented house. Tennant gives a horribly convincing portrayal of this callous misfit, a nondescript civil servant with limp, side-parted hair and harmless-looking spectacles.
Two years later, in 1985, I found myself in London. I enjoyed going to pubs and meeting other men. One of them lived in Muswell Hill, and when we went back to his house one night he pointed out a nearby bus stop. ‘That’s where Dennis Nilsen would get off the bus with his victims.’ he said.
I enjoyed London; cinemas, theatres, etc. I went to see lots of chamber music and orchestral concerts, including a performance of aggressively modern work played by the LSO under Pierre Boulez. The Royal Festival Hall was busy, but not full; and I wondered how many people would listen to this piece if it was shown on BBC One as part of a Prom Season. (Diary note: ‘Went to see Boulez, he conducts like a policeman directing traffic’)
It has recently been announced that the members of the LSO are to be given access to a new Covid-19 diagnostic tool, the DNA-Nudge box. This magical device takes a cotton-bud swab of saliva, whirls it round for half-an-hour, and then delivers a verdict to let you know if you are infected with Covid or not.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has been lauding the virtues of this device for months now, and the government has given 160 million pounds to the developers, a research team based at Imperial College; however, scientific appraisal is thin on the ground, and the units are still hard to find, despite us being promised that a nationwide roll-out was scheduled for September 2020.
I suspect that Hancock and his comrades are so easily dazzled by anything remotely technical that they willingly handed over the money, keen to find a solution to the UK epidemic of this new virus. One is reminded of the infamous ‘Bomb Detector’, a cheap plastic item carrying an aerial and a printed circuit-board. This object had originally been marketed as a novelty joke device for finding lost golf balls, but a shrewd entrepreneur had spotted that the UK government was totally ignorant when it came to anything scientific. He organised some fancy packaging, a series of ‘demonstrations’ to prove that the aerial would respond to the presence of concealed explosive materials, and promptly made a small fortune on the back of a worthless product.