Copyright © 2014 Alby Stone
‘What’s that?’ I asked. My Uncle Ron had been busy with scissors, a soldering iron and a tube of superglue. The kitchen table was littered with bits and pieces.
He held his creation up so I could get a good look at it. It was a cardboard cube, about six inches to a side. On the top he’d glued a cone, also made from cardboard but lined on the inside with baking foil. The mouth of the cone projected an inch or so over the edge of the cube. A plastic straw, one of those ones with a bendy bit like a concertina, fed from the pointed end through a hole in the cube’s upper face. There was another hole in the bottom, through which a yard or so of copper wire dangled. The whole assemblage, apart from the foil and the wire, had been painted black.
‘It’s a Bullshit Detector,’ he said, turning it round. That’s when I saw the third hole, into which a torch bulb was set.
‘A Bullshit Detector,’ he repeated. Uncle Ron wasn’t normally quite so patient, but from the smell and the roaches in his ashtray, I suspected he was pretty stoned. A couple of spliffs and a full belly always put him in a good mood.
‘Bullshit,’ I scoffed, and was amazed to see the bulb light up. As far as I could see he hadn’t done anything to make it do that.
He grinned triumphantly through his untidy facial hair. ‘See? It works.’
Uncle Ron was a bit of hippie. Well, to be honest, he was quite a lot of a hippie. Sixty-one years old, he weighed in at around twenty-two stone, had a ratty beard and greying brown hair hanging halfway down his back in a ponytail but receding at the front. He habitually dressed in a purple or yellow t-shirt, one of several paisley waistcoats and flared blue jeans. Not only did Ron look the part, he talked the talk. He had tales of hanging out in the Grove with heads and freaks, going to demos and free concerts, sit-ins and squats, getting his head together in the country, and lots of other things no one I knew could translate. Even my mum – Ron’s younger sister – didn’t know what he was on about most of the time. He’d lived with us for as long as I could remember, nominally in a small bedroom next to mine, though he’d eventually annexed the conservatory and one of the two garden sheds, where he spent most of his time. Everywhere he spent more than a few seconds reeked for days afterwards of patchouli, sandalwood and cannabis.
To the best of my knowledge Ron never did a day’s real work in his life – ‘the Man’ was his avowed if vague and undefined enemy and working for the Man was out of the question – content to live on state benefits, small profits from buying and selling old records on eBay, and the sometimes grudging generosity of family and friends. I always suspected Ron’s detestation of the Man, the Rat Race and White Middle Class Male Supremacy in general masked a genuine fear of exerting himself. I never knew him to leave the house more than once a week, when he would amble ponderously to the shops down the road, withdraw some money from his bank account, and stock up on tobacco, Rizlas, snacks and materials for his machines. Everything else he needed came by mail order, or he’d get one of us to get it. As a hippie, Uncle Ron also walked the walk, but it was never very far.
I’m not so sure that Ron was just a lazy sod, though. He was more the creative type. I’ve mentioned his machines. He made lots of them. Maybe ‘machines’ isn’t the right word because none had any moving parts, but that’s what he called them so we all went along with it. There was a foot-high cardboard pyramid built to the exact angles and proportions to the Great Pyramid of Giza, which he claimed kept his razor blades sharp. I suppose it may well have done, not that he ever shaved. Then there was the device made from three tape-sealed shoe boxes glued in a triangular formation on a sheet of plywood. The front two were mounted with the bare metal halves of a set of bicycle handlebars. Wires led from these boxes to the third, which had two dials drawn on the lid in blue and red felt pen respectively. The dials read from one to thirteen clockwise, and the needles were glued permanently at the seven mark. This, Ron asserted, kept him balanced. Every evening at sunset he would grasp the handles, close his eyes, and balance himself. I don’t know if it had any real effect but I must say he was always a bit grumpy on summer evenings.
The best machine was something he called an Interdimensional Transporter. This was a sheet of cardboard lined on the inside with CDs glued with the shiny sides facing in – he favoured CDs of old Jimi Hendrix albums, ‘for the vibes’ – and those flexible adhesive mirrors you can get from Poundland. Ron would smoke a couple of spliffs, fit the Interdimensional Transporter over his head and sit directly under a naked lightbulb. He reckoned it was just like Doctor Who’s TARDIS – bigger on the inside – and had similar abilities to take him through space and time. I tried it once. All I could see was my own face and various parts of my head, distorted and reflected back at me countless times. It wasn’t a pretty sight and it gave me a migraine. Maybe if I’d smoked some weed first it might have helped but I couldn’t find Ron’s stash. In all those years I never did.
The Bullshit Detector was impressive. OK, I was only fifteen, but even so. That evening we tried it out a few times. We sat and watched the news on Channel 4 with the machine on the coffee table and, sure enough, whenever a politician opened his or her mouth to speak, the bulb would light up. It flicked on and off during the commercial breaks, throughout The Apprentice and I’m A Celebrity, and only remained wholly unlit for the duration of Guitar Heroes on BBC4. I was amazed.
Late in the evening we retired to Ron’s room and – for the first time ever – we shared a spliff, to the accompaniment of his scratched and worn copy of the Beatles’ White Album. Vinyl, of course. Ron loathed CDs, which he reckoned leached the music’s soul, though he was happy to use Hendrix CDs for other purposes, as I said earlier. He had a hefty stack of LPs, which he stored under a table. I flicked through them as we passed the joint back and forth. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Move, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Incredible String Band, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Cream, Hendrix (of course) – an old hippie’s desert island discs, nothing older than 1966 and not a lot later than 1972, when – according to Ron – ‘they all started to sell out, man. Except for the ones that died.’ His bookshelves echoed the time he’d become locked into. Timothy Leary, Mick Farren and Richard Neville rubbed spines with Herman Hesse, Tolkien and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
When the spliff had been smoked down to the roach, I emerged from under the table, banging my head in the process, waving a stained and battered cover that I was sure contained a stained and battered LP. ‘Never heard of this one,’ I said.
He squinted at the cover. ‘Man, that’s one of my favourites. David Peel and the Lower East Side. Far out. You put it on the deck while I get the cheese puffs and crisps out. Then I’ll skin up again. Bugger, I forgot to balance myself this evening. Oh well, fuck it, too late now.’
So we ate junk food, smoked a couple more spliffs, and listened and sang along to ‘I Like Marijuana’ and ‘Up Against The Wall’, ending the first side with happily stoned shouts of motherfucker!
And that’s when I noticed the Bullshit Detector, sitting by the record turntable on Ron’s psychedelically-painted chest of drawers that stood to the right of his bed. The light was glowing brightly. ‘Ron,’ I said, ‘the light’s been on all the way through this record.’
Ron was aghast. ‘Oh, man – not David Peel. No fucking way. I thought that guy really meant it. No, that’s too fucking much.’ With an anguished moan he fell to his knees and began to rummage frantically through his LP collection.
Now the thing about Uncle Ron was that he really believed all that hippie stuff from the Sixties. Peace and love, flower-power, chakras and mantras, karma and dharma and Black Panthers – you name it and to Ron it was all true and self-evident. The late Sixties were humanity’s lost chance at Paradise. He’d turned on, tuned in and dropped out to such a degree that he barely existed in what I considered the real world. Now he chose a selection of albums by, I guessed, artists representative of his ideals and began to play tracks at random. And every time a track began, the Bullshit Detector lit up; and the light winked out when the track ended or he lifted the stylus.
Record after record failed the test. I’d never seen him look so distraught, so lost. Then he played his trump card, his totem and talisman – a signed copy of Electric Ladyland. Uncle Ron, who claimed to have been at the Monterey Pop festival and Woodstock, and said he’d met Hendrix several times, starting with something called UFO in London in 1967, swore that at the exact moment Jimi died – he always referred to Hendrix solely as ‘Jimi’ – the record had floated through the air from a shelf and landed gently on his chest as he lay in bed. Naturally, I thought he’d probably been tripping at the time, but you never know.
Reverently, he removed the treasured vinyl from its paper sleeve and laid it on the turntable. Seconds later, the opening notes of ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’ emanated from the speakers. The bulb on the Bullshit Detector glowed. Ron stood, open-mouthed and blank-eyed. Then he wept.
‘Leave me alone, man,’ he whispered as the tears coursed down his face and trickled into his beard. ‘I’m really freaking out here and I need to be alone to get myself together.’
I opened my mouth to say something comforting, although quite honestly I had no idea what to say, but he shook his head. I nodded, offered him a rather stoned look of what I hoped would be taken for sympathy, and got out of there.
The next morning, Ron didn’t come down for breakfast. When he still hadn’t appeared by eleven, my mum went up to see if he was alright. He wasn’t of course.
According to the post-mortem, Uncle Ron died of a heart attack. Our GP wasn’t in the least surprised. Ron had been obese, took little exercise, and lived on junk food, cigarettes and weed. A myocardial infarction was only a matter of time; and that time had come. My mum was really upset. Well, he was her older brother, after all. I was fairly gutted myself. He might have been seriously weird but Ron was a good bloke and I liked him. He was more of a mate than an uncle. Mind you, I think my dad was secretly pleased. He’d been in the army and he had no time for long-haired layabouts. Dad and Ron had never seen eye to eye about anything.
It wasn’t just a heart attack, of course. I found that out after the funeral when I came home before my parents and stretched out on Ron’s bed. Right then, I found his characteristic scents comforting. It made me feel as if he hadn’t really gone, that he was just on the bog or in the bath and would be in at any moment. Yeah, I know it sounds silly. But I was very upset and only fifteen years old, don’t forget. Anyway, I lay there and shut my eyes and tried to remember him. I reached out and touched the record deck with the fingertips of my left hand. Then I realised Electric Ladyland was still on the turntable. I sat up and lifted the stylus onto the disc – it would be a fitting tribute. The Bullshit Detector lit up. And as I took my hand away my fingers brushed the case of the turntable and I received an almighty electric shock.
I used some words that would have caused even Uncle Ron to raise his eyebrows and took a closer look. The power cord was, by my estimation, about two feet shorter than it should have been and was patched here and there with insulating tape. Thinking about it, it made sense. I couldn’t remember Ron ever buying wire, yet he used quite a lot of the stuff in his machines. This, I deduced, had been his source. The silly bugger must have messed up the connection somehow. When the turntable was powered on and the stylus moved to the ‘play’ position, the whole thing was live. Experimentally, I moved the Bullshit Detector away from the deck. The light went out. I moved it back and the light came on. Poor Ron had died miserable, for no good reason.
That was five years ago. I inherited Ron’s library of hippie texts, his record collection and his assortment of non-moving machines. I passed on the clothes, though. The local clothing bank was welcome to them.
Sometimes, I smoke a bit of weed and put the Interdimensional Transporter over my head. It doesn’t take me anywhere. But I use the Bullshit Detector quite a lot. It still lights up whenever a politician speaks on the television or radio, and quite often when my dad says anything. I did consider taking it apart to see how it works, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It just seemed wrong. It weighs about as much as you’d expect of a few bits of cardboard and wire and an old torch bulb, so there can’t be any batteries in there. Anyway, how would it work? There are no switches, no controls of any kind. Static electricity, possibly – but if so, how does it do the detecting? Did Uncle Ron somehow imbue his machine with part of his own soul?
I’ve used the machine a lot lately. There’s a General Election in a couple of weeks and I’ve been vetting the party political broadcasts, advertisements, debates and what have you. But so far everything I’ve seen or heard or read from any of them has been bullshit.