Helen Wilson is a professor of applied mathematics at UCL. She works on complex fluids – everything from toothpaste to molten plastic, and even wrote a paper on the fluid dynamics of the chocolate fountain. In her story, Helen remembers how she used to serenade her parents from the back seat of the car… Are we there yet?
Melody 9509 Recorder by Helen Wilson
I have a hard drive half full of videos of my kids. They range from hilarious (my son’s first experience of mashed banana), to frustrating (him blowing out the candles on his little sister’s birthday cake, and her ensuing tantrum) but my favourites are a pair from one week apart featuring my daughter’s first steps and my son learning to ride a bike. Lots of wobbling in each.
But when I was little, videos were a bit more difficult to arrange. My Grandpa had a cine camera, and there’s some lovely footage somewhere of me toddling around my grandparents’ lawn; but my parents didn’t. Instead, they had the brilliant idea of making an audio tape of me, with them, once a year during the preschool years.
There are some gems on there, as you might expect from unplanned interactions. In one of them I’m chatting on about “Dolly panties down… Dolly panties up…”. In another, the milkman rings the doorbell in the middle. But for me these recordings capture the safe, loving environment I was blessed to grow up in. They might be low-tech, but they are still a little window into my childhood.
Because of one of these tapes, I know that when I was almost 2 my sister gave me a plastic trumpet for Christmas, which (in my dad’s words) I blew and blew and blew until it broke. That must have been my first musical instrument. But my second was the recorder, which I blew and blew and blew but never, ever broke. It was a yellow plastic thing, made in a single piece, and I loved it. It bears my teeth marks to this day.
One year Dad reupholstered the kitchen chairs in a brown leatherette stuff (this was the 70s after all). He had a few scraps left over, so he made a case for my recorder. I heard later that one of my friends had had her mum scouring all the shops in town looking for a case just like it!
We used to go on caravan holidays, with Dad’s beloved touring caravan towed behind the car. When we’d finished exploring an area, or if the weather was poor, or if we didn’t like the site – we’d move on. So I spent quite a lot of time in the back of the car. Reading in a car made me travel sick, so how did I while away the time? I played my recorder, of course! As far back as I can remember, I was playing tunes by ear, often asking my parents for ideas of what I should play next. Now I am a parent myself, trying to drive (or navigate) despite whatever’s going on in the back of the car, I realise how trying I must have been.
Those hours tootling away in the car were a great musical foundation for me, and I’ve been an enthusiastic amateur musician ever since. Funnily enough, though, no-one ever asks me to play the recorder.