'I may be old, Year 7 – but at least I have mix tapes'

A chance reference to a cassette recorder in a Year 7 set text opened up a world of teenage nostalgia for Sarah Ledger
13th December 2020, 4:00pm
Sarah Ledger


'I may be old, Year 7 – but at least I have mix tapes'

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I felt very old the other day. It was a minor detail that did it: a reference to a cassette recorder popped up in a play I've been reading with Year 7. 

There were puzzled faces. A quick Google search brought up images of cassette recorders and tapes. 

"Ah, yes…" said a little voice from the back row, "…my grandad has loads of those."

Time was my students' grandads had collections of gasmask cases or war medals or box brownie cameras. Now it's cassette tapes. And videos. And analogue watches. The very items that - when I was in Year 7, or the first year as it was known back then - were state-of-the-art. 

I reined myself in. I limited the diversion to a brief explanation of how we bought blank tapes, slotted them in, recorded and then listened back at leisure. Then I returned to the text with all due decorum. 

A brief history lesson in music-listening habits

But, I admit, I was so tempted to take the diversion right back to 1979, when a cassette recorder was all the rage. 

In the first year - or, indeed, the second year and all the way to the upper sixth - there were limited options if you wanted to listen to your favourite song. No streaming. You had to hang around WH Smith's music section on a Saturday afternoon, pretending to browse through the "Folk A-G" records (no scrolling) and hoping that they'd play Message in a Bottle before you lost the feeling in your feet or your last bus left. 

Or you spent Sunday evening sitting next to the radio, your finger poised over the "record" button, praying that Hopelessly Devoted to You hadn't slipped out of the Top 40. There was no way of knowing until it was too late. 

Anything less mainstream involved going over to your mate's house to see if her big brother - sixth former and connoisseur of the esoteric - would lend you his copy of Unknown Pleasures for the weekend, on the condition that you would not scratch, warp or drop it. He never did. He could spot a scratcher, a warper and a dropper a mile off. 

If you were lucky, he might - just might - treat you to a listen. The record, once removed from the flimsy inner sleeve with fingertips, was reverently placed on the turntable and, as the stylus lowered, idle chit-chat was sternly forbidden. 

The unknown world of mix tapes

And if my Year 7s don't know about cassette tapes, how can they know about mix tapes? How can they ever declare undying love for one another without resorting to 12 eclectic tracks on each side - from the deliberately ironic to the gorgeously obscure - and a homemade sleeve with handwritten track notes and a completely irrelevant image, Greta Garbo in moody monochrome, for example, or the Hindenburg in flames?

They will never learn the split-second timing required to drop the needle on to the groove with one hand and press "record" with the other. They will never know the frustration of someone bursting in and accidentally committing their announcement that "it's time to come down for tea" to posterity because you were halfway through recording Kings of The Wild Frontier.

They can't know the joy of ordering The Jam's latest single - going into the record shop, writing down your name in a book - and queuing on a Saturday morning to collect it when it arrived. 

The notion of getting your hands on a bootleg edition is totally lost to them, or being haunted by a song after you'd heard on the radio but didn't catch the name. There was no playlist to Google, no Shazam. 

I didn't go there. I stuck to my lesson plan and barely considered showing them how to respool an unravelled tape with a pencil. 

I have a phone. I download, I scroll. I love the way that I can think of a song and own it and play it within seconds. But there are times when I wonder if it makes it all too easy - that the pre-digested blandness of the likes of Ariane Grande and Justin Bieber prevail over more demanding artists. 

A further Google reveals that cassettes are now the fastest-growing format. New albums are released directly on to tape, and the Walkman is making a comeback.

Perhaps, like me and their grandads and grandmas, my Year 7s will learn the joys of cassette tapes, and in 2060 will have a little cache of beloved mix tapes of their own.

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

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