Susie Rushton: The little box that changed our lives

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Zeeeeep! Zeep! That was the sound it made when you pressed the rewind button in the middle of a song. The original Walkman, launched back in 1979, made all sorts of bizarre sounds. If the cassette had accidentally unspooled, for instance, a horrible growl would emit from inside the black plastic case, a sort of gritty-sounding vibration that signalled the demise of my carefully edited tape of that week's Top 40 (just pop; no rock; Bruno Brookes's voice excised).

The iPod, by comparison, is a silent, inorganic, dead-eyed robot of a music player. If it conks out, it does so suddenly and without any noisy death throes. Clicking its "back" button to start a track again is all very convenient, but hardly has the idiosyncrasy of that cassette-rewind sound effect beloved of garage DJs even to this day. Apple's iPod is the physical extension of an online marketing network; the original Walkman was only as good as the handful of tapes you bought, or made yourself.

So mark this; the original Walkman was declared dead this week as Sony shipped its final delivery of personal cassette players. While we shouldn't mourn its passing – who's actually still listening to cassette tapes? – it's worth pressing the pause button on technological development, to consider how the little oblong box changed our lives.

It definitely changed mine. I remember putting the headphones on for the first time, one sunny afternoon while on holiday with my family. I was borrowing the new gadget which had been purchased by my parents (one to share between the two of them). To my 12-year-old ears, it was sensational, not only to hear music while walking along, but to experience the instruments playing right inside my brain.

Somewhere just above my eyebrow, a guitar howled; the bass seemed to throb at the top of my spine, while the vocals fizzed from my ears into the middle of my cerebral cortex. Personal stereo was like a drug that temporarily changed your perception of the world – but it also separated you from the people sitting right next to you. The very first models made by Sony in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover, actually had two jacks for headphones, enabling two people to listen together simultaneously, and even provided a microphone function for one user to speak to the other over the music. It was soon phased out.

Instead, the personal stereo came to promote, for me, introversion, day-dreaming and private pleasure. A year or so later, I finally got my first Walkman, a chunky black-and-green model with an FM radio and graphic equaliser, and soon developed a glassy, middle-distance stare. I stopped reading altogether (who needs books when you have Marti Pellow?).

Today, my iPod is a tool with which I cut out distractions and induce focus (Philip Glass has provided the soundtrack to the task of writing this column so far) or a motivator to stay on the running machine another five minutes. The iPod is extremely efficient – but so is my dishwasher. I met it as an adult, so our relationship is formal, and perfunctory. The original Walkman was a cloak of privacy that came just at the right moment for me, as adolescence arrived and I wanted to push the rest of the world away.

Being French sure puts a man at an advantage

What is it about perma-stubbled M Olivier Martinez that caught the eye of Halle Berry, gorgeous, Oscar-winning Bond girl? Is it the same quality that attracted his impressive collection of ex-girlfriends: Kylie Minogue, of course, but also reported lovers Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Mira Sorvino, Michelle Rodriguez? What is it that these non-French women see in the Parisian actor? His dodgy film career notwithstanding – except for a role in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, 10 years ago, a Cesar award for "Most Promising Actor" turned out to be wide of the mark – Martinez manages to charm men's-mag pin-ups with more ease than his Hollywood cousins.

It's unfashionable to assert it in this country, but lots of women really are crazy for French men. The sexy Jean-Pierre with a fag in his mouth and a penchant for black clothing is a cliché that seems too ridiculous to be true. But, look, if guys are allowed to sheepishly admit a preference for sexual stereotypes, can we have a go, too? Like blondes with big bosoms in too-tight sweaters, the Sexy Frenchman is a sum of his parts: a love of fine clothes, food and wine; an unembarrassed appreciation of high culture; good hair; that slurry accent; that twinkly way he gazes into your eyes, as he thinks about how gorgeous he's looking right now...

It's 47 years since Alain Delon appeared in The Leopard and 22 since Jean-Marc Barr made the next generation swoon in The Big Blue, but for a lot of British and American women the stereotype holds: the ultimate dish is forever French.

What the length of your curtains says about you

Trident schmident. Here's a tricky issue concerning domestic policy that I think requires urgent debate: the curtain/radiator issue. Put simply, if you have a radiator underneath a window, where should the bottom of the curtains fall – at the top of the radiator so the heat comes in, in the middle so half of it does, or (the decadent choice), right to the floor? "I'm afraid that's not a decision I can make for you," said the woman in the John Lewis haberdashery department, gravely. Yes, yes, but there must be pros and cons? Please!

Drawn further (if you'll excuse the pun) into the conflicted world of curtain design – now I know how Vince Cable felt, working out how to sort out policy on state pensions – I consult a range of expert opinions on the matter. Sister (curtains to floor, but tucked on top of radiator), mother (to halfway down radiator), and Elle Decoration (Curtains? Darling, it's all about bleached, reclaimed medicine-cabinet doors used as shutters) all confuse me further.

Have I finally bought my first home, quite late in life, only to discover that I've missed the delivery of the Handbook On All Domestic Decisions? Daringly, and because it was cheaper, I opted for severe austerity cuts, with the curtains ending on top of the radiator, sacrificing style for warmth. It's just a shame they're bright turquoise, but like I say, I'm new to all this.