- Cover Story
Home for the Holidays: The Christmas That Changed Me
My parents paid far more than they could afford for the greatest gift of my life
It’s eight o’clock on Christmas morning, and Uncle Tom says he wants to listen to the news. My 11-year-old self is wondering why on earth grownups would be interested in the news when there are important things to be done, such as handing out presents. And then, while I am only half-listening to the radio broadcast, something weird happens: The boring newsreader begins talking about a Christmas message from the Vatican. Hadn’t we heard that report earlier? My older brother, Colin, figures out what’s happening. “Pete, Pete, it’s a tape recorder! We’ve got our tape recorder!”
It finally dawns on me: Uncle Tom and my dad recorded the news, and are playing it back now.
I think it’s quite rare to experience real excitement over a present. Children are as good as adults at knowing what is expected of them and simulating joyful surprise, even when they don’t feel it. But for me this was one of those rare moments when my insides gave an involuntary lurch and the world did a little somersault.
Colin and I had both been blind from birth. Now, in the late 1950s, exciting consumer goods were coming within reach of the not-so-rich. At the special boarding school in Worcester in western England that Colin and I attended, reel-to-reel tape recorders were definitely the gizmos of choice. For blind kids, they would trump cameras every time, especially with the rise of rock ’n’ roll. A recorder of your own was the height of aspiration. However, Colin—better informed and more realistic about family finances than I was—had no real expectations of getting one.
I realised, much later, that my dad probably earned about £8 a week as a carpenter. The tape recorder my parents bought us would have cost more than four times his weekly wage. They could only afford it by borrowing the money from Uncle Tom, who had a thriving grocery business. I know my mum and dad would have thought long and hard before incurring the debt.
The new toy, the size of a small suitcase, dominated the rest of the Christmas holidays. Once we had mastered the controls (Colin was the technical one, but was surprisingly patient in sharing his knowledge with me), we recorded anything and everything: each other, our parents, the milkman, the dog ... And we very quickly learned how much fun we could have with it.
Peter White aged about 8, with his older brother, Colin, aged about 12.
It wasn’t the first time I had been entranced by a tape recorder. I vividly remember walking into a room when I was four and hearing a child’s tuneless singing. I stopped dead. “It’s you,” Dad said. “Noisy, aren’t you?”
It turned out that he had borrowed a tape recorder because he and some friends were writing and performing songs and sketches for his former school’s annual concert. And so for the first time, in the same way that a sighted child might react to seeing themselves in a mirror or a photograph, I got the sense of myself as a separate person who existed outside my head and was experienced by other people. It was both exciting and embarrassing.
I took my first steps down the path to my career as a broadcaster when I returned to school after the holidays. I was lucky to be in a class of imaginative, creative and radio-obsessed boys, and it wasn’t long before we started to make our own embryonic radio programs. I would wander round the school with my rudimentary microphone, recording my thoughts in the style of the voices I heard on the radio.
Most of what I talked about came from my imagination, although occasionally we would stage real events to heighten the excitement. Particularly memorable was a boxing match between Mick and Geoff (respectively the strongest and the gamest boys in the class, both totally blind). The commentary came from the only boy who had a little bit of sight, in a very passable imitation of a boxing commentator.
In fact, the biggest challenge was not finding things to do with the tape recorder but wrestling it away from Colin—it was, after all, a present for both of us. His generosity on the first day we got it did not extend to handing it over to his clumsy brother at school.
“You’ll break it,” he would say. “You’ll lose it. You’ll scramble up the tapes.”
To be fair, I did all those things. On one fraught occasion, I tried to disentangle a hopelessly knotted tape while standing in front of an open window and managed to get much of it enmeshed in an overhanging tree.
But 10 years later, after I had started and abandoned a university law course, I drew on the confidence gained from those early excursions into sound and walked into a radio station in the southern city of Southampton, in the hopes of selling myself as a broadcast journalist. It all nearly ended there—the receptionist told me there were no vacancies, and that I should apply to the BBC in London. I prepared to hitchhike my disillusioned way back to university.
Then luck intervened. A producer at the radio station who was putting together a weekly program for blind people had seen me with my white cane being ushered into the elevator. He later phoned me at home and asked if I would return to Southampton to see him. Twenty-five years later, I presented my first report for BBC TV’s Six O’clock News, a program my dad had never missed. Although by then he’d been dead for more than a decade, I like to think he’d have realized that his inspired Christmas present had changed my life.
Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs correspondent.
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2022