I received a surprise through the post the other day: an envelope full of QSL cards. Perhaps I should begin by explaining what these are. QSL cards are customised postcards exchanged by amateur radio stations to acknowledge the contacts they have made. Perhaps I should briefly explain what radio amateurs do. Radio amateurs train themselves to operate (and sometimes build) their own transmitting and receiving stations. These, most famously, operate on the shortwave band. Each has a call-sign which identifies it and the country it operates in.
Anyway, back to the QSL cards. If you ask me, they are one of the great things about amateur radio and I've amassed getting on for a shoe-box full of the things since getting my licence. Some are straightforward, others humorous or artistic. Here a few I have received over the years. The countries they come from can be identified by the callsign. As a guide, those beginning with a D are German, U from the Ukraine, OK Czecheslovakia and PT Brazil. /m denotes a mobile station:
I'm a great believer in hobbies. You don't have to be ambitious or work your fingers to the bone to enjoy a hobby. In fact, if you have the kind of job you're glad to get home from (I don't – I enjoy my job, even if it does wear me out!) a hobby can give life the kind of meaning we dream of it having as children. Put another way, you may not be able to be an engine driver, but a model railway layout is yours to design and run as you please.
I suspect my father instilled this in me. Some of my earliest memories are of him building and maintaining a greenhouse to grow tomatoes. I can still smell that thick, green smell a humid tomato plants when I think of it. He built canoes and sailing boats. He got into early music and learnt to play the recorder. He built drums and gemshorns (recorder-like instruments fashioned from cow horns). He encouraged me, too: I spent quite a few hours sat in canoes and sailing boats or dangling from the end of a rope in a local quarry (this wasn't a punishment – I wanted to rock-climb). He also built my first radio mast.
When I was a child, my great passion was radio. If I could get hold of an old one I was there, transfixed by the glowing dial with its mysterious-sounding foreign station names: Zeesen, Rome, Daventry (I later realised this was English), Hilversum and so on. Without realising it, I was already interested in “DX”: the art of receiving (or even communicating with) distant stations. I spent many happy hours winding wire around toilet roll holders (anyone who has built a crystal set will know what I mean) and many more trying to get slightly more complicated radios to work. When the glowing dials of the old radios went dark, which they did from time to time, I'd be in the back, tearing out their guts for the variable capacitors and coils I needed for my next crystal set. Radio parts had a surreal aura about them in those days: the variable capacitors with their interlocking vanes and the valves, with their glass bulbs full of odd complexities. There is a magic to radio, which we often take for granted: these are machines that work without moving, and enable you to hear voices that are speaking thousands of miles away, not to mention the weird atmospherics and other mysterious sounds that can be found between the stations. I think people will notice this even less in the future, as we are entering an era in which most communication is carried out via cables and 'wire-less' is merely a convenient way of connecting machines that are a few feet apart.
My great ambition when I was ten was to be a 'radio ham'. I never got it together then. The exam looked difficult, and to get onto shortwave (the natural home of “DX”) you needed to pass a 15 words per minute Morse code test. I did spend hours pouring over a book, Fun with Shortwave Radio by Gilbert Davey (I still do, from time to time. The cover, reproduced above, shows the amateur station GB2SM, which used to exist at the Science Museum). It was full of radio designs that I suspect were more poured over than built by most readers. While I was contemplating the possibilities, life took over: I slowly realised I would never get anywhere with anything technical or scientific as I was no good at maths, and that my main passion was music.
Thirty years later I got it into my head to build a crystal set. There were a number of reasons. I had children of my own and I think everyone should build or at least experiment with one. Also, I had this sense of unfinished business. I found I had been reinfected with the radio-building bug, only now I had the resources and the application that I had lacked thirty years before. I took the amateur radio exam in 2002, along with the morse test – mercifully, the speed requirement had been reduced to 5 words per minute! I finally had a call sign: M0KXD. I joined an amateur radio club and through my contacts there I bought a transceiver – an ancient valve 'rig' that had been built in the days when I was first considering taking the exam.
I said at the outset how I was surprised to receive the cards. The reason is that as I write, the hobby is on hold. The ancient transceiver has broken down, I suspect, for the last time. I have had to repair it more than once – but this time I am stumped. I had great fun with it. It never managed to put out more than 10 watts (imagine a 40 watt lightbulb...) but it enabled me to contact the USA, Brazil, Russia, Israel and Iceland. Such is the magic of short waves. Sadly, it never made it to Australia or Japan. I am building myself a morse transceiver in my spare moments. It is taking me a while. Partly this is because I am short of time to do all the things I want and need to do but also I sense myself procrastinating, spinning it out, as I enjoy building radios at least as much as I do operating them.