I missed the era of vinyl. Before I was really aware of music, the world had shrunk its music and moved it onto cassette tapes. I vaguely remember songs recorded from the radio, DJ announcements intruding on opening bars, mad dashes to the decks as realisation dawned that those opening bars were the ones you’d been after for weeks. I remember hand-scrawled notes on scraps of card shoved in plastic cases, birthday presents of entire albums across two sides of tape that passed through teeth, slowly getting mangled. In order to listen to music, you had to destroy music.

But these are snippets of memory. My real era was that of CDs. That of homemade mixtapes (the word outlasting the medium) with no indication of what was on them. When I find one today, and can find a player, it’s a pot luck dinner of nostalgia. I still remember the first album I bought, when I saved up pocket money and vouchers for weeks to buy Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. I still have it, and if I went through my collection, would probably find that particular CD inhabiting the box of a completely different album. I used to look forward to coming home and choosing a particular album to listen to from start to finish, the soundtrack to my evening of me-time, long before that word became a thing. An album was a vibe that you absorbed. A CD was a beautiful shiny relic, and I was drawn to them like a magpie. Disused copies became works of art. Two floor-to-ceiling cupboards in my childhood bedroom are still covered with them, shiny side out, a musical mirror fallen silent. Accuse me of rose-tinted glasses if you wish, but we listened to music differently back then. You were always aware of music, because it took a certain effort for it to be playing. Even when listening on headphones, a Discman was a physical presence in your lap. You felt it. You cradled it still to prevent it skipping. You learned albums inside out as you navigated them based purely on track numbers, or you left it to finish playing in its natural order. When an album came to an end, there was silence: silence like the closing credits of a film, or the blank pages in the back of a novel. Space for the listener to reflect on what they had heard, turn the emotions over, regain composure, float back into the real world. I miss those times. There was something of a ritual to music, an effort on the part of the listener that urged them to stay and listen to the whole piece as the artist had created it. 

But you can’t fight the times. I’m now a Spotify subscriber, an avid Soundcloud listener, a YouTube channel subscriber. Things just seem different now. There is no silence. One track by one artist fades into another by another, faceless algorithms pairing songs together based on the listening habits of millions. There’s no time for silence. Tinny earbuds spew the latest tracks into desensitised ears before becoming irrelevant again. There’s no time for time. Music is no longer owned, it’s leased from an overlord for the four minutes of its life, an overlord who can decide at the press of a button that the lease will no longer stretch to your geographic location. Music listening has changed: speed up, quality down. At least that’s how it feels. Yes, CDs got scratched, fitted maddeningly few songs, started to flake around the edges and drop bits of glitter all over your hands, but I look back on those times with pleasure. 

I realise this may well be my first foray into "it was all so much better in the past", and so despite all my grievances I know I'll always listen to music. How can I not, when the alternative is silence? After all, silence is only beautiful when it follows a beautiful album. 

swim by streetlight

When it rains, puddles form on the road outside my window. Some people love rain for the sound it makes. I love it for the windows it creates into a world far beneath. I love the sight of tiny droplets, seen only upon impact, as if the sky is trying to become one with the earth. In another world, they are fish, nibbling the surface of a gigantic underground lake, only revealed through the rain. 

I shut my front door behind me as I go out onto the street. Droplets flow towards the underground lake past my ears, looking to return from whence they came. It’s been raining all afternoon, and now the lamplight of the street is shone back at me in a golden path. If I sit and watch myself in the pools, and look really close, I can see myself reflected back in the eyes of my reflection. Through my own eyes I watch myself sit motionless, a tiny mirrored me under streetlight.

When I decide the time is right, I sit on the edge of the puddle, my legs trailing in the water as one would in a pool. It feels cool, and the ripples my entrance caused send tiny wrinkles of light dancing across my legs. The impact marks of the pitter-patter rain cease to be falling drops and become instead tiny fish, gasping at the surface of the puddle. 

I hold my breath, and as I break the surface, a world of light floods my senses, a world of azure and sunshine a million miles from the grey city I’ve left behind. I find myself swimming, quite naturally, eyes open and seeing all that swims with me. Below me, I know from previous dives, lies a giant outcrop of coral, in which I know my soul resides. Swimming down, sans snorkel, I see it surrounded by clownfish and parrotfish and many others whose names I’ve never looked up. The only sound is the crackle of the sea floor. I leave the reef of my consciousness behind, and swim, outwards, to where I know cliffs block my path, dotted with caves. In two of these lurk my eyes, in two more my nostrils. My mouth is a great outcrop, still now but for the rise and fall of breathing. I take in every inch, edging along the lines that I know must form my chin and back up, swimming in the maze that is my ear. Then I swim back to the enormous blaze of colour at the centre. I spend a fair bit of time here, watching the coral and the fish around it, swimming, darting from crevice to crevice, carrying messages and thoughts around my personality. It’s rare that I get to observe my own thoughts as though a third person. The city above requires so much of my attention that these dives are few and far between.

But I like them. It’s peaceful down here. I feel safe swimming these waters. That promotion, those groceries, that festival you’re planning; it’s all meaningless here, lost in the face of eternal beauty and stillness. Time is immaterial and I can’t say how long I’m here, but eventually I feel a tug and must return to the surface. The outside world may require my attention. So I swim to the surface as slowly as I can, to linger ever so slightly longer in this paradise, then break the surface once more and am back on the street.

It’s still dark. The lamplight still shines. I have no idea how long I’ve been gone. It doesn’t matter. I emerge and climb from the puddle, dripping like I’ve just been born. If it’s still raining, I can’t tell. On hands and knees, I survey the world: the pavements, the parked cars, the sad dripping trees. Paradise it isn’t, but some days are pretty good. I stand to go inside, then turn to take a final look round at the puddle, by now still. Still waters run deep, I say to myself. I’ll be back, I know. But now it’s time to return to reality. After all, there’s a festival to be planned. Who's headlining that one again? Was it Radiohead?