Clock-radio has been with me through good times and bad. I bought it for my daughter Beth, who was hard to get up in the morning, but she’s moved on, electronically. I repossessed it when the alarm on mine failed. It can be hoarse and occasionally eavesdrops on the police, but is otherwise reliable.
It’s constantly tuned to RNZ National and set to come on just before the six o’clock news in the morning. Sometimes I forget to set it and it defaults to the midnight alarm. I reach out and blindly stab at the row of buttons on the top. The off button is the only one with a notch in it. How many years did it take me to work that one out? When you turn the power off and on again, the clock flashes until you set the time. I try to fool myself by making it 10 minutes fast. The stove clock, the car clock, and my mobile phone are all on different times. My time is relative and requires nimble arithmetic.
Clock-radio’s mains plug is smaller than most and has just two pins. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t need as much power. I am incredibly ignorant about the practical side of electricity for someone who majored in physics. I’m still not sure how radios pick up the waves from the air and translate them back into sound. A bigger mystery to me is how the brain interprets them. Sound is all in our imagination.
I do know that radio waves are the same as light waves, only much, much longer. Microwaves fall between radio and visible light waves on the spectrum. The background radiation from the birth of our universe is microwave length, at around 1mm. While it won’t cook you, it’s a nuisance, causing the white noise on your television; a small price to pay for the creation of the universe, I guess. When the radiation stops, so do we.
Clock-radio is always first on the scene of a disaster. I remember when the news came through about the Cave Creek platform collapse, the first Christchurch earthquake, the Pike River mining disaster, and the last American election result. For some reason, I didn’t turn the radio on when the 7.8 Kaikōura earthquake woke me up that Sunday night in November 2016. It didn’t seem all that bad to me, though I did get out of bed and stand in the doorway after a while, noting the time on clock-radio, minus ten minutes. My old wooden house graunched and shuddered. I think I must have missed the first half of the quake. I was very tired that night. The next day I was amazed to find out how much damage it had caused to buildings in Wellington, and the enormity of the quake at its centre. Everyone else I knew had been listening to the radio throughout the night. I was annoyed I missed that shared experience. Disasters can be enjoyed from the comfort of a warm bed, listening to the radio in the dark, knowing that so many of your countrymen are tuned in too, all feeling for those affected. Radio is our life-line. My earthquake kit in the spare room has plenty of batteries. I put it there, as far away from my brick chimney as possible. It’s likely to come down on me in the big one, but now that it’s just me in the house, I’m not prepared to spend the $15K to have it dismantled.
One of clock-radio’s darkest hours was the announcement of the September 11 attacks in New York. There was no mistaking the grave tone in announcer Geoff Robinson’s voice that morning. Television got the better of clock-radio that day, though it could never take away its first-on-the-scene primacy. And clock-radio was able to connect with New Zealanders living in New York who could speak to us in our own voice.
The fact is, clock-radio knows its days are numbered. It gets shoved to the back of the bedside table to make room for Samsung 5, and feels its plug being squeezed in the multi-plug panel. The phone interferes badly with the radio signal. I have to separate them. Increasingly, Samsung 5 is sleeping in the bed with me, sometimes still clasped in my hand after sending emails to myself in the middle of the night with ideas for stories. I used to hurl socks onto the bedroom floor to remind myself of thoughts I’d had in the night, but now I message myself. No wonder clock-radio starts to hiss. It must resent being turned to face the wall, to prevent its light reducing my melatonin production, while Samsung 5 stays fully alert between the sheets. Clock-radio can’t connect to the internet, but it doesn’t give away my secrets to Cambridge Analytica either, or allow me to be invaded by ads. If I murdered someone, clock-radio would have no idea where I was at the time and wouldn’t be able to give evidence against me. Its semi-circular styling is by no means dated but what clock-radio can compete with the slimline, go-anywhere competition with its choice of alarm music. Sure, it has the satisfaction of knowing that it has broken some of the biggest news stories in history. It knows how the world turns. It has lasted longer than any phone I’ve ever had. And it doesn’t keep intruding on the rest of my life. Clock-radio knows its place, and stays there.
A couple of years ago, clock-radio was especially proud to report that gravity waves had been detected for the first time. These are ripples in space-time from colliding black holes, predicted by Einstein a century ago. This was the last tenet of his general relativity theory to be proven. By the time they reach us from billions of light years away, the perturbations are beyond small. Their detection was an experimental feat on a par with the discovery of the background cosmic radiation and the Higgs Boson.
It was New Zealander Roy Kerr who solved Einstein’s general relativity equations for rotating black holes. For this, he received the Nobel Prize equivalent for astronomy, the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the King of Sweden in May 2016, fifty years after his feat, and just after the detection of the waves that also verified his solution. My daughter Laura and I went to Stockholm for the ceremony as amateur unpaid reporters when we learnt that no New Zealand news outlet would be there to cover it. Sadly, our video was not good enough quality for TV1 News. This was quite a blow for Laura, who was up until 3am trying to upload it using the pathetic Stockholm hotel internet service. It was a problem we had not anticipated. There was nothing I could do to help except stay awake in the other single bed. We sipped our duty-free gin with water.
Another unforeseen hitch in our plan was not knowing what the King of Sweden actually looked like. He filed into the room, indistinguishable from all the other ‘suits’. We expected him to be wearing a crown or a fur-lined cape or something. The Swedish are so understated, so classy. In three short days we fell in love with everything about Stockholm and the Swedish people, though they can have the weather. It was bitterly cold in late May.
At the post-ceremony reception, we asked to be introduced to Kip Thorne, who was a prospect for an interview. A couple of weeks later he told broadcaster Kim Hill and clock-radio, at length, just how significant Roy’s work was. Laura’s photos were used by quite a few organisations, including Radio NZ and the Royal Society of New Zealand. Our trip achieved something after all. Professor Thorne won the Nobel Prize for Physics a year later.
The day before the ceremony, Laura and I attended the scientific symposium in Roy Kerr’s honour. It took us ages to find the remote part of the university campus it was in and, as a result, we missed the first part of Roy’s opening presentation, which was a shame as his was the only one we could understand a single word of. Not because he was the only presenter speaking in English. But they might as well have been talking in old Icelandic. Even with a physics degree, I couldn’t understand anything. We were in the presence of genius. Nevertheless, we narrowed our eyes in concentration, and nodded occasionally. Professor David Wiltshire from Canterbury University also presented. He is one of a handful of people in New Zealand who has a working knowledge of general relativity. David studied under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University, and read to him when he was in hospital with pneumonia. Sherlock Holmes was Stephen’s favourite, David told me.
Since I got divorced, and Beth and her boyfriend left home, I have been more reliant on clock-radio for company, especially in those bleak hours of wakefulness that seem to divide every night’s sleep in middle age. Night-time thoughts turn dark and paranoid, and are no longer delicious running fantasies about whoever it is you’re currently fantasising about. A poet interviewed by clock-radio once said that he feels a sick foreboding and self-loathing the instant he awakes, even before he remembers who he is. That struck a chord.
Samsung 5 now offers a bewildering range of podcasts for insomniacs, like the umpteen-part History of the English Language and the Radio NZ back catalogue of programmes about Parliamentary services, the Treaty of Waitangi, and pest eradication (even I get sick to the back teeth with biodiversity, but don’t say I said so). I start reading but can’t seem to find anything that holds my interest at the moment, so I soon chuck the book aside and pick up Samsung again. I flick through the options, finally settle on something, wake up as soon as it’s over, toss and turn, go to the loo, put the electric blanket on, turn it off five seconds later, untangle my annoying twisted pyjama bottoms, go to the loo again, then return to that true crime series. Now let me see . . . what shall we have this time? The woman who got her hands severed by a samurai sword-wielding methamphetamine addict? The tale of unrelenting abuse in foster homes? The prostitute wrongly jailed for murder? In addition, I have a heavy self-recrimination agenda to work through in the small hours. All the things I wish I’d never said, or wish I had. I go through the rosary of embarrassments. Why can’t I be more like Jacinda Ardern or Helen Clark? Why can’t I be sensible and control what comes out of my mouth? Then I mentally compose a beautifully crafted and litigious email to the Council about my drains.
A piercing whistle. I know without even looking that it’s most likely an email from Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich about the ‘Republithugs’ and what they’re not doing about climate change. His subject line is always in capitals. He is famous for the book he co-wrote with his wife Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, warning of the effects of the exploding human population. I once linked arms with him in the absolute darkness and sleet on a Stewart Island beach, waiting for kiwi to come out. I do not mean to imply any romantic connection. He was 81, and though at the peak of his intellectual and oratorical powers, was feeling slightly dizzy. He’d come all this way from California to see our birds in the wild.
The Department of Conservation guide turned off his torch and we stood perfectly still; our only reference was the fast slap of waves on the beach somewhere to our left. Finally, just before we became crazed by hypothermia, a kiwi ran right past us, caught briefly in torchlight.
Sleep finally comes. The next morning, exhaustion sits on my chest. I’m just grateful that none of my partners ever owned a samurai sword.
Writing this has made me wake up to myself. Things have got to change. Samsung 5 is going to sleep in a separate room from now on. I am going to train myself to stick at reading again, and will give up all other forms of bed-time stories. I will distract my personal demons by counting the possums we’ve yet to eradicate, and fantasising about a career in Parliamentary Services. If I have one of my brilliant ideas in the night, I’ll go back to throwing socks on the floor, though the socks can’t always tell me what they’re doing there, come morning.