Grassroots Research

In which The Author does some fieldwork

On Wednesday evening the Radio 4 PM programme included an item about the next generation of smartphones. The BBC’s Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, was reporting from New York on the launch of Nokia’s latest model. The Finnish company, once the leader in mobile technology, has been struggling in the face of competition from Apple, Samsung and other manufacturers. To prove the point, Mr Cellan-Jones had stopped a handful of passers-by and asked them about their phones. Not a single one of them had a Nokia.
By that time on Wednesday, I was worried that I might be on the verge of joining them. I’d taken Stella out in the afternoon, and that was the fun started. Before I set off I’d put my camera in my shirt pocket, where my phone usually lives. The result was quite bulky, and I wondered for a moment about leaving my phone at home. I even put it on the shelf for a few moments before deciding to take it – just in case. I’ve got a number of job applications in motion at the moment, and Sod’s Law dictates that you only ever receive a call when you aren’t within easy reach of the phone.
To say Stella was pleased to see me would be an understatement. Trying to put her harness on was like restraining a violent psychiatric patient, with her limbs thrashing everywhere and her head jerking back and forth. It would be nice if I could get hold of a low-dose tranquiliser dart gun, just to pacify her for a few minutes until she was ready to go. I might have a look on Ebay later …
We set off down the back streets as usual and arrived on the old tramroad in Trecynon. The river runs parallel to the tramroad at the other side of a grassy bank. Stella made a beeline for the river, of course, but it’s quite shallow on this stretch and there’s not really much potential for swimming. I found a stick on the grass so we played there for a while before continuing along the tramroad to the Iron Bridge. This is one of Stella’s favourite places, as the river’s deep enough for her to have a good swim around, and I can throw sticks off the bridge for her. We played there for a few minutes and then I dropped down to the path on the river bank.
There are three bridges in close proximity here: the Iron Bridge itself dates from 1811 and is one of the oldest of its kind in the world; a short distance downstream the A4059 crosses the river on its concrete raft; a little further down again is the bridge carrying the freight railway line to Tower Colliery Washery. Between these last two bridges I spotted something standing motionless in the water.
Graham and I had been talking a few days earlier about the heron which has made its home on this stretch of the Cynon, and which I’ve often seen flying over the river. Much to my amazement, Stella had failed to spot it, only about ten yards away from where she was splashing around. They ignored each other, and I realised that bringing the camera had been a good idea after all.
It isn’t easy photographing wildlife when you’ve got a mad Labrador running around nearby

They’re a bit overexposed as I didn’t have time to adjust the settings. I was just pleased to get the photos before Stella made a charge for it and frightened it away.
Anyway, we crossed the railway bridge and made our way into Cables Field. When we were growing up in Trecynon we always called it that. It’s probably got a proper name, but as it backed onto the Aberdare Cables factory (later Pirelli, now Prysmain), we just called it Cables Field. When I was young, on Saturday afternoons during the football season, the approach road to the Iron Bridge would be stacked with cars bringing players and spectators to watch matches on what was then a well-kept pitch. Now it’s overgrown and only visited by dog-walkers, youngsters on scramble motorbikes, and occasional groups of illicit drinkers in the evenings. Stella likes it because she can let off steam there without my having to worry about traffic. I always manage to find a nice stick on the way there, so she gets to tear around the field, bouncing through the long grass and scrubby undergrowth, while I have a stroll around the perimeter.
On Wednesday I heard something I’ve heard only rarely in recent years – a grasshopper was chirping in the grass a few feet from where I was standing. I looked closely into the grass and glimpsed it perching on a long leaf. I decided to try photographing it. While Stella was amusing herself at the other end of the field I managed to get a decent shot.

Stella and I had another couple of Chucks with the stick before setting off for the path again. As I put the camera back in my shirt pocket, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. I checked my back pocket, but found only my house keys. My left side pocket held my handkerchief, my right side pocket held my wallet and Stella’s lead, and my other back pocket held a couple of plastic bags. My phone wasn’t in any of them.
The first time I’d taken my camera out was when I saw the heron, so we walked back to the river bank to have a look there. But the path is tarmac, so I realized that I’d have heard it drop to the ground. It had to be on the ground in Cables Field – somewhere! But it’s a big place to search, especially when you don’t know where to start. It could have slipped out when I was taking the photos, or when I was holding the camera in one hand and throwing a stick with the other. If it had fallen on the long grass it wouldn’t have made a sound.
I hunted around for about five minutes before starting to question myself. After all, I’d put it down before leaving the house. Maybe I was mistaken about having picked it back up. Alternatively, it could have fallen out on the grassy bank where we’d started earlier. We retraced our steps without success, and I even took Stella to my house to check the shelf before returning her to Kath’s house. We had a quick look in the living room, in case Stella had managed to dislodge it when she was thrashing around, but it wasn’t there either. So, I was temporarily phoneless, for the first time since last summer.
It was still an improvement on C—, who parts company with her phone regularly. It’s a vast improvement on Sam B., who averages one lost phone every six weeks or so. (I think her kids sell them on Ebay, personally.) Helen also gives me a new number every so often. But it still left me incommunicado. I know it’s only a very basic model, with actual buttons, no video facility, no camera, no Bluetooth, no internet capability, and only a limited selection of ringtones. I don’t really want anything more advanced than that, to be honest. It would be nice to go upmarket, but so many people have had problems with their iPhones and Blackberry handsets that I think I’m better off where I am. After all, the fewer features something has, the fewer things can go wrong! But it was inconvenient to say the least. Not only would I be out of touch with lots of people until I could sort out a replacement; it would mean that all the job applications I’d sent now had incorrect contact details for me. I couldn’t afford to replace it immediately (if at all), so I was in limbo.
I also knew that if it pissed down with rain (as it usually does) overnight, that would be the death of my phone. Fortunately it stayed dry, so I decided to try something different. On Thursday I came into town and put a quick SOS on Facebook. Andrew L. rang my number and confirmed that it was still alive – he’d managed to get a ringing tone when he dialled it. That was a relief; at least the dew hadn’t seeped into the case and ruined it. It also meant (presumably) that nobody had come across it in the meantime. If someone had picked it up, they could have done one of two things: either handed it in to the Police Station and hope it was claimed; or taken out the SIM card and tried to use it themselves. (They’d have had no luck on the second score, because without my PIN the handset would be useless.) Jonathan E. suggested trying the Police Station, but I figured that the chances of someone just stumbling across it were pretty slim. The fact that it was ringing and, more importantly, unanswered, led me to Phase B. I put another shout on Facebook, asking for volunteers to meet me and retrace my steps. If they called my number periodically, sooner or later we should hear it ringing wherever it had fallen.
So it was that yesterday evening I met up with Kath S., Dai L., their children Dylan and Eleri, and their dog on the grassy bank where Stella and I had started our walk. We drew a blank there, as I’d expected, and strolled along the tramroad to the Iron Bridge, while Kath dialled my number every so often. Kath told me on the way that she’d tried texting my phone before realising that it wouldn’t do any good. We put it down to a momentary lapse into blondeness. Their dog had fun in the river before we got to Cables Field. When we were on our way in through the gate, a chap was coming out with his dog in tow.
‘Daft question,’ I said, ‘but did you happen to hear a phone ringing when you were in the field?’
‘I heard something,’ he replied. ‘I was wondering what it was.’
We split up in the field, Kath dialled again, and within half a minute Eleri held my phone triumphantly in the air. The screen logged 16 MISSED CALLS – one from Andrew and the rest from Kath – but nothing else. At least I hadn’t missed out on an important job offer. That was something. We walked back up to Trecynon and I bought the kids some chocolate to thank them for their help. I’ll buy Kath and Dai a drink when I see them out next.
I wondered later whether an expensive 3G all-singing, all-dancing phone would have survived a night in the wilderness. I have a feeling that the slightest increase in ambient humidity would have knocked out some vital component, voiding the warranty and leading to an expensive repair job. Meanwhile, my old retro Nokia was none the worse for its adventure.
I did feel sorry for the guy walking his dog, though. He probably thought he’d discovered an unusual ground-nesting bird with a really jazzy call. The Australian Lyre Bird is well known for its mimicry skills, but I shouldn’t imagine there are many species in Wales which can sing the Nokia Fuse ringtone note for note.