Fast forward to 2020. Not the best year for anyone and certainly not for travel journalism. Back in Northumberland, I had some free time. Instead of going to the airport regularly for a heady dose of otherness, I stepped out of the exotic into a weekly Lidl store.
In search of diversion, I ripped off my long-forgotten 1980s radio transmitter among the trash under the stairs. Having survived my wife’s regular silent threats of eviction, the dormant steel box appeared to be in good condition. I gathered various other needed components, missing pieces that arrived courtesy of eBay, and scrambled to the garden shop.
The design of the antenna, given the limited space in the garden and proximity to neighbors, involved stealth technology worthy of Area 51. A keg of beer, a plumbing drain pipe, a speaker and a handy cherry tree offered a very British solution. At least I thought so. “What is that?” my wife said.
“It’s sculptural,” I said, pointing to the 16 radial wires that extend out from the base of a curved, slightly offset 15-foot pipe that hangs from the tree. “Antony Gormley would be proud. And that’s a topic of conversation.
The answers to other objections were rigged, and night was falling anyway.
When everything was hooked up, the antenna tuned and tuned, the power supply on, I made an initial speculative appeal to a Russian amateur station outside of Moscow. Surprisingly, for me, they responded. In my mid-fifties, I had finally become an amateur (as amateur radio operators are called with self-deprecation).
Over the next few days and weeks I tweaked the station setup, erected new antennas, used my credit card on a more modern transmitter, and set up in the hangar late at night, talked to radio enthusiasts in over 40 countries. Generous Italians patiently suffered from my crimes against their language, inviting me to visit and try their olive oil when “this bloody virus is over”. Others, too, made a voice of friendship heard, from Corsica, Lithuania, Sweden and elsewhere. As my daughter reported, “Well, daddy found out about ham radio, and we haven’t seen him since. “
During the blockade roller coaster, I carried gear to hilltops – to make contacts and collect points in the Summits On The Air competition, which encourages Hams to transmit from high points around the world – conversations bounced off satellites and received digital images from the International Space Station. When possible, I headed for the coast where the proximity to the sea improves the signals. Powered by an old car battery, my transmissions spread to Japan and the United States. “So, are you using a fishing rod, a homemade wire antenna, and 50 watts?” Asked a vaguely disbelieving American whose own antennas rivaled those of GCHQ, while still producing enough electricity for a small village.
And therein lies part of the satisfaction, in carrying out an independent solution with what is available. However, not everyone understands. Once, while struggling to erect the antenna for the fishing rod in an unfavorable wind, a passer-by asked me what I was doing.
“Why don’t you just call them?” She said and walked away. As Louis Armstrong apparently put it, “If you have to ask, you will never know. “
In an activity that I had always assumed to be in decline, on the air, it is obvious that I am not the only one to rediscover amateur radio as a channel unaffected by social distancing. Steve Thomas, Managing Director of the Radio Society of Great Britain, reports: “At the start of the pandemic we launched an unprecedented campaign with the NHS called ‘Get on the air to care’. This has provided support for current amateurs, inspiration for those wishing to return to amateur radio and a new path via remote surveillance exams for over 2,750 to pass their basic license as well as over 1,000 to pass. intermediate or full licenses.
While it’s easy to spend thousands, basic transmitters are available for under £ 200 and kits can be built for even less, while an efficient homemade antenna costs about the same as a pizza. to take away. Interestingly – I think it’s interesting, anyway – December 2019 heralded an 11-year solar cycle recovery. As sunspot activity increases, long-distance communications will become more feasible and stable, which is rare good news, at least for the UK’s 75,000 amateur radio enthusiasts.
Of course, all of life is out there on the air. Contest stations, which do not want to chat, but collect call signs at a knot speed. Technical experts whose habit is to explore the burrows of theoretical physics and to challenge the intricacies of everyone’s knowledge. Grumpy old people who complain of having a bad back, and others who just complain endlessly about the weather. However, every now and then there is a meeting of mind, a cultural exchange, and the beginnings of a friendship.
There is no doubt that in recent times the company has shrunk. Our faces are hidden by masks and even eyes are often averted as we avoid each other in the street. Instead of bringing us together, social media echo chambers seem adept at promoting prejudice and sowing division. Random interactions have become less frequent as we are discouraged from leaving the island safety of our own homes. Sometimes not only is it good to talk, but it is good to talk to someone new.
For more information on amateur radio, including how to get started, visit the British Broadcasting Corporation