I was ten years old before I saw television. It was at Kerry Dangerfield’s house in the summer of 1964. I remember being ushered into the Dangerfield’s sitting room, a sepulchral and disheartening space filled with side tables, china cabinets, an oversized sofa and two armchairs upholstered in depressing brown velveteen.
Antimacassars were placed strategically on the backs of chairs to protect the fabric from the brylcreemed head of Mr Dangerfield and crochet doilies proliferated on every surface, all the work of the industrious Mrs Dangerfield.
The gathered party was a small one. Mr and Mrs Dangerfield, Kerry and myself. Kerry, an only child, wasn’t encouraged to enjoy a large acquaintance due to her delicate health. Just what her health issues were, was never made clear but it was implied that large groups exacerbated the condition, whatever it may have been.
Kerry told me the only reason her parents encouraged our friendship was because I possessed pretty manners. A rather fallacious observation I thought then, and still do decades later.
I took up position next to Kerry on the floor in front of the Television, a plate of her mother’s jam drops between us. Mrs Dangerfields jam drops were famous, not for their deliciousness I hasten to add, but rather for their glue-like viscousness.
I usually avoided them at all cost but when pressed to partake I would dutifully pop one in my pocket and say with bold mendacity, “I’ll save it for later.”
My first encounter with Mrs Dangerfield’s jam drops had been less than auspicious and left me feeling rather resentful. A wobbly front tooth had become imbedded in the biscuit’s amazingly adhesive dough, pulling it clinically and painlessly from my jaw.
It wasn’t so much the loss of the tooth that I grieved for but, rather, the loss of opportunity for the tooth fairy to leave me two shillings. I had inadvertently swallowed the tooth along with the piece of glutinous hardtack.
Kerry smiles, “We’re going to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons if Daddy can get a good reception.” I nod uncertainly, not sure what a reception had to do with viewing a cartoon. The only reception I was familiar with was my cousin Leoni’s wedding reception. And the only vaguely amusing thing that happened there was Pop rudely interjecting during the Mayor’s long and very boring speech.
“For God’s sake, let’s get this bloody show on the road!” Pop had said with awful and annihilating emphasis. The mayor had turned beet red but not as red as my Aunt Lydia. “With her red hair, it was difficult to tell where skin ends and hair begins,” I heard my Aunt Julia whisper to my mother.
Mr Dangerfield turns on the television and the room is filled with the sound of a thousand snakes hissing. “Thats static,” I’m informed by the more sophisticated Kerry. We all peer into a small screen filled with what looks like snow. Mr Dangerfield fusses with knobs and anxiously fiddles with the aerial, pulling it this way and that.
After what seems an age (it was probably only a few minutes), Mrs Dangerfield says worriedly, “It doesn’t look promising Dear.” Mr Dangerfield continues maneuvering the aerial, placing it on the floor then on a china cabinet but still no picture appears. I can tell he’s getting more and more frustrated.
“Bloody useless thing! I don’t know why I let you talk me into buying a television. There won’t be a decent reception in Roma for years to come!”
“Dear, the children,” admonishes Mrs Dangerfield gently.
I glance sideways at Kerry. She is smiling. I do believe she is enjoying her parent’s discomfiture. Suddenly, there is sound. Daffy Duck’s excruciating voice cuts through the static and a picture materialises out of the raging blizzard. And for a few moments the four of us watch transfixed as Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck inexplicably fight it out in a boxing ring.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last, Elmer and Daffy are again lost to violent and noisy static. Mrs Dangerfield says in resigned accents, “Ok children, off you go, downstairs. Take the jam drops with you and I’ll bring down some cordial in a minute.”
Outside, Kerry and I sit in the pepperina tree. “So, what you think of T.V.?” asks Kerry as she throws a jam drop over the fence to old man Bakers dog. The dog catches the biscuit with greedy precision. I hesitate in answering. I don’t want to appear rude or ungrateful by speaking the truth. “It was ok,” I demure. And then add truthfully, “I’d much rather read a book.”
“What are you reading?” asks Kerry with genuine interest but before I can answer she points to old man Bakers dog. “Whats wrong with him do you suppose?”. The dog is running around in obvious distress, pawing at its mouth and shaking its head violently as if trying to dislodge something.
“I reckon it might be your Mum’s jam drop. Its glued his jaws together!” We both shimmy down the tree faster than you can say “knife” and take refuge behind the big old bougainvillea vine at the side of Kerry’s house. Old man Baker set great store by his dog and woe betide anyone found doing it a disservice.
“I’m reading ‘The famous Five go Caravanning’ by Enid Blyton.” I say, continuing our conversation from where it had been interrupted. “I love Enid Blyton!” says Kerry enthusiastically. “And you’re right. Books are much better than boring old T.V.
The afternoon passes in pleasant discussion of books read and plans of what to read next, until it’s time for me to head home. Mrs Dangerfield gives me a brown paper bag filled with her jam drops. “Make sure you share these with your sisters.” I smile and thank her.
The last time I had given my sisters Mrs Dangerfield’s jam drops they had fed them all to Mary Murphy. Mary, always susceptible to gluttony, arrived home in tears, unable to open her jaw. So fast was it held with jam drops, her panicked mother thought she had lockjaw and rushed her off to the hospital.
My mother made my sisters apologise to Mary and her mother but privately made the observation that Mary Murphy didn’t possess a lick of sense and neither did her mother. “Everyone knows to stear clear of Portia Dangerfield’s jam drops!”
“I hope you weren’t too disappointed about the television not working dear” says Mrs Dangerfield as she and Kerry see me off. “Not at all Mrs Dangerfield. It was great. Thank you. See you later Kerry.”
And as I made my way down Browns Lane I ponder the wonder of television. It’s not so special I think. Rather underwhelming actually. I cheer myself with thoughts of Enid Blyton waiting for me at home.
Yes I reckon books are better than boring old T.V. – a belief I have not changed in fifty years. I still don’t own a television but I do own books. A veritable library of books. My Grandfather Jones always said, “Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” How right he is!