Living in the Past

In which The Author visits another parallel universe

Today, I was supposed to be on the first day of a two-day course in Abercynon. Instead, I’m writing a blog about why I didn’t go. In the words of Prof Jim Al-Khalili: let me explain…
Rhian and I went to another Jobs Fair last month. Luckily for us, it was in Aberdare, so we didn’t have to go through the palaver of obtaining travel warrants this time (see Death Warrants.) There wasn’t much on offer, unsurprisingly, but I did pick up a leaflet about voluntary work. It was from an organisation called Communities 2.0, and here’s what it said:
Do you have IT skills?
Are you good with people?
Contact Communities 2.0 today and take the first step to making the most of the internet!
On the inside, it said:
Do you fancy becoming a Digital Champion?
If you have spare time to volunteer… contact Communities 2.0 today and help others make the most of the internet!

  • We are looking for people around Wales to become Digital Champions, to help others get online! Could it be you?
  • We will train you and help you to find a volunteering opportunity in your community.
  • We will support you directly or work with partners to help you get the best possible experience as a Communities 2.0 Digital Champion!
  • Being a Digital Champion would look great on a CV!

Communities 2.0 is a Welsh Government project that is helping communities and small businesses to make the most of the internet.

The other half (naturally) was the same spiel in Welsh. Even though there were a few more exclamation marks than strictly necessary, it got my attention! My friend Jon had done the same thing until he took his own life last December, and he’d thoroughly enjoyed it. As well as imparting his own knowledge to others, he’d learned a hell of a lot about the details of software and hardware which are currently out of my reach. Everyone’s a winner.
I got chatting to the guy on the stall, and gave him a copy of my CV. I thought it sounded like a good plan. As I related in I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, I seem to spend half my time as unofficial Tech Support anyway – whether I’m in the pub or in the Library. I decided it would be a good chance to make it official. Even though I wouldn’t get paid (just like I don’t now) I’d be meeting new people. Even better, I’d be showing them how to do the things I’ve had to teach myself to do over the last decade or so.
I’ve seen how excited Rhian has been while she’s been stretching herself from sending the odd email, through to Facebooking, digital photography and online job applications, all with my coaching. Over the weekend I showed her how to download images and share them on Facebook. I doubt if she’ll remember until I show her again, but it’s a start. Considering that most people I speak to seem to confine themselves to Facebook, Ebay, and YouTube, (if they go online at all) it seems to me as though they’re missing out on so much more.
A few days later I had an email inviting me to meet Isobel, the Communities 2.0 coordinator for our area. There were another four people interested as well, so Isobel suggested that we all met up in Wetherspoon in Aberdare and learned more about what was involved.
The particular organisation delivering the project in our area is Community Service Volunteers, through their cutely-named RVSP. I’d already encountered them during the summer, when I registered my interest in their Literacy Buddy scheme. This involves adult volunteers mentoring slow readers in school on a one-to-one basis, to try and engage their interest and bring them up to the expected level. At first, I assumed that the RSVP part of their email address was simply an easy-to-remember jingle.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that it actually stands for Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme. I may have retired from bookselling, but I’m far from ‘senior.’ Even so, it sounded like a pretty good scheme, and they’d pay for my enhanced CRB check (which will take all of thirty seconds) so that would save me £50 or so. I submitted the application form, and Helen R. and Maria B. agreed to be my referees. There was the predictable paper-based cock-up, so Maria didn’t get the reference request until 4pm on the day it was due in. I haven’t heard anything from them yet, so I’m assuming that the CRB check is still in progress. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn, however, that the whole thing had been subcontracted to the Circumlocution Office. Anyway, it saved me filling in the same paperwork again.
Given the name of the scheme, it came as a pleasant surprise to find that, of the five people the guy at the Jobs Fair had recruited, I was the oldest. There was my friend Chris D.’s wife Cathy, a young couple named Clint and Lucy (who, very oddly, share their first names with another former couple I knew in Cardiff), and a young girl named Natasha. Cathy has a load of NVQs to her name. Clint and Lucy do a lot with digital art and music. Natasha’s very keen on using the internet, and in particular genealogical research. Between us it seemed as though we had all bases covered.
Isobel explained that we’d be expected to work ‘in the field’, visiting libraries, community centres and day centres. The BBC has a project called First Click, which takes people from absolute beginner status to reasonable proficiency (roughly the level Rhian’s at now, in other words), and we’d be delivering that course, as well as helping out at the ‘drop-in’ sessions held at various libraries, including Aberdare. She gave each of us a copy of the First Click provider’s manual, and invited us to a two-day course on Digital Storytelling, at a time and venue to be arranged. It took place a fortnight ago, in Abercynon. In the event, Lucy and Clint couldn’t make it, as the Jobcentre had stopped their money (see Nothing Short of a Total War.) I’d bumped in Natasha a couple of days earlier, and she was planning to move to Carmarthen to start a new job. The day before, Cathy told me she’d been invited to a job interview. And then there was one. This time I was the youngest…
Digital Storytelling is a fairly recent innovation – maybe a decade or so old. I remember BBC Wales coming to Aberdare some years ago for a roadshow in which they explained the rationale behind it. It involves making short audiovisual presentations, involving still pictures and a voice-over to tell a brief story. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin. I didn’t follow it up because I didn’t think I had any stories worth the telling. (After you’ve read a few of my blog entries, you might well agree!) But time’s moved on, and I was familiar with the technology now. I’d also done a Creative Writing course at university, so I knew a bit more about constructing a narrative than I did a decade before. I’ve used GIMP, Audacity and Windows Movie Maker before, so in terms of the technology I had a head start on the others.
By virtue of the wonders of Arriva Trains Wales (in this instance, we wondered why we were fifteen minutes late out of Mountain Ash), they had a head start on me. If I’d have started work on the end product at the same time as the others, I’d probably have done a better job. In the event, this is what I managed to come up with. (He speaks! Brace yourselves, ladies, you get to hear my sexy and seductive Welsh tones in this.)
So, that was Digital Storytelling taken care of. The idea was that we would tour the length and breadth of the county borough, facilitating DS workshops in towns and villages for anyone who wanted to take part. Our target audience would be the 50+ age group, the people in whom Technophobia seems to be most deeply ingrained. It tied in nicely with an idea which I’ve been kicking around with a mate for a couple of years now – an Oral History archive, so that first-hand recollections of the Valleys could be preserved forever online. Whereas we wouldn’t be able to rock up to a Day Centre and just set up our gear off our own bat, we would be working under the Communities 2.0 imprimatur. Our little pub conversation might bear fruit after all.
Isobel suggested that, even though I hadn’t done my Digital Champion training, I might like to lend a hand at Tony S.’s Tuesday afternoon session at Porth Library. Tony is a likeable Englishman living in Hirwaun, after retiring from work which took him all over the Middle East. I was game. He’s got a wealth of stories and he’s a great conversationalist. We’d got on well at the DS session, so I was happy to join him on the drive down the Rhondda Valley. It’s not as though I had anything better to do that day.
As it turned out, I didn’t have anything to do over there either. The only punter for the ‘drop-in’ session was a middle-aged lady tracing her ancestors. She was perfectly competent at what she was doing, so I carried on working on a blog while Tony did some of his own genealogical research. After an hour and half we came away. It was all a bit underwhelming, to be honest.
On our way out I noticed that the Tuesday afternoon session was billed as a ‘Family History Drop-in Class’, and not an ‘IT Drop-in Class’, as I’d been led to believe. It was no wonder we hadn’t been overrun with unwilling 21st Century Boys and Girls, finally biting the bullet and getting over their technophobia. Tony wasn’t disheartened, even if I was. He rang me on Monday evening and asked me if I fancied coming to the Tuesday morning class at Hirwaun Library instead. That sounded more like it! How wrong could I be?
Only one of the half-a dozen or so ‘beneficiaries’ (as CSV refers to the people who turn up to these sessions) was actually interested in learning about the software: Margaret, my old friend from the Employment Training Scheme. I found it ironic that, back in 1987-88 when we worked in a large open-plan office in Mardy House, Margaret wouldn’t dream of approaching our mini-network of three Apple IIe computers. She was perfectly happy with her electric typewriter and dictation machine. Yesterday, she was noodling about on Google, trying to find the list of candidates for next week’s little-trumpeted election for Police and Crime Commissioner in South Wales. Tony was hovering around, not really helping much. I stuck my two-penn’orth in, and showed Margaret a short-cut to the list via the BBC website. I showed her how to ‘click through’ to start a new search, rather than return to the Google home page every time.
Then she asked for some advice on using Excel. Tony volunteered to help her, but everyone else was doing… Yes, you’ve guessed it – family tree research. I managed to convince him that he’d be better placed to offer advice on genealogical resources and to leave the Excel stuff to me. Margaret and I had a good natter while I was showing her the basics, and I’d like to think that she got the hang of it rather more quickly than she would have under Tony’s tender ministrations. After all, family tree stuff just isn’t my bag.
I know a large number of people who do find genealogy fascinating. When I was in work, we used to get no end of people coming into the shop to buy books on tracing their family trees. I once sold a bagful of books and maps to an American gentleman who was over visiting ‘the Old Country’ in search of his ancestors. When he handed over his credit card, I couldn’t help chuckling at his surname. It was Williams – probably one of the commonest names in Wales. I handed it back to him and said, ‘The best of British luck to you!’
Last year I was contacted via this very blog by an chap named Bob Deal. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and he’d chanced across my entry Nooks and Crannies. He’d been trying to locate Bell Court in Trecynon for eight years without success. Browsing through search results for Trecynon, he’d found my blog. When he stumbled across my reference to ‘the Bell, a long-vanished pub’, it rang a bell with him. Bob left a comment asking if I had any idea where Bell Court was. I told that him I didn’t, but that I knew a man who would.
After the weekend I made a beeline for the Reference Library and roped in Steven G., the librarian who knows everything about the local archives. He was on the case straight away. We dug out the census indexes for 1871 (the approximate date when Bob’s great-grandfather would have been living there) and found a reference to Bell Court. As I’d suspected, it was named after the Bell, and lay in the little cluster of streets at the heart of the village. That took us to the large-scale Ordnance Survey maps of Trecynon from the mid-1860s, and we struck gold. What was Bell Court still stands today, but now it’s part of Belle Vue Street.
We scanned part of the map and I took it home. Over a few hours of trial and error (mostly error) with GIMP, I was able to achieve something which amazed even me. I was able to overlay the old map onto a section from Google Earth, showing the old layout of the streets on a recent photograph. I emailed it back to Bob the following day and it blew him away. By using Google Streetview he was able to virtually drive past the house where his great-grandfather had been born, before he emigrated with his family as a young man, ending up in the Pennsylvania coalfield. We corresponded for a while afterwards, and I suggested some more resources he might find useful. I haven’t heard from him lately. I hope he’s okay.
Just over a month ago I ended up helping a chap with an Australian accent who was trying to connect his laptop to the Library wifi. When we’d sorted it out, we got chatting. It turned out that he was on a flying visit to Aberdare, also tracking down his ancestors. His name was Andrew Sant. He’d been born in London, but now lives in Australia. Before he left he showed me a half-page entry in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. It was about Andrew himself. I’m thinking of changing my business card to read ‘Technical Support to Published Authors.’
However, in spite of having access to a wealth of local history resources in the Library, I’ve only ever dipped a tentative toe into my own gene pool. As I told you in Picture This, I never knew my Irish grandparents. I only found out about fifteen years ago that I never knew my Welsh grandparents either. Even though their surname had been different from Mother’s maiden name, for some reason it had never occurred to me to question it. One afternoon, Mother told me the family history. Her real mother, Doris (née Morse), had died ‘in confinement’ when Mother was still very young. Her father, Henry Morgans, died the following year.
While Mother explained the family background, she showed me Henry’s funeral report from the Aberdare Leader. In spite of the circumstances, it cheered me up to know that their high standards of journalistic accuracy were still in place nearly seventy years ago; according to the paper, Henry’s surname was ‘Morgan’, and his late wife was ‘Dora.’ I’ve seen photos of Henry. He looked like a right spiv! I wouldn’t have bought a used car from him.
Consequently, Mother had been raised by Henry’s sister Violet and her husband Tom, whom I always thought of as Mams and Dads. The woman I called ‘Auntie Jean’ was in fact Mother’s cousin. Meanwhile, Mother’s real sister Elaine had been unofficially adopted by another branch of the family. This odd situation had led to a great deal of thinly-veiled resentment between the two ‘sisters’, which all came to a head when Mams was dying. At her funeral, we weren’t even mentioned when the vicar read out the names of the family. That was obviously Jean’s idea.
Jean made it perfectly plain that we weren’t related on the last afternoon when I saw Mams alive. She was tiny, frail, almost skeletal, lying in her hospital bed, barely conscious. I’d gone up unexpectedly to see her, and Jean was there. I said hello, but I wasn’t sure whether she’d heard me. She obviously had, though, because she asked who I was. Jean said, ‘he’s belonging to Uncle Henry.’ That was that. I picked up my jacket, squeezed Mams’s hand and walked away.
I’ve passed Jean in town several times since, but she’s never acknowledged me. One afternoon I was in the Cambrian having Sunday lunch with some pals when a woman and a young girl sat at the next table. I didn’t notice them at first, but when I went to the bar I realised that they were Jean’s daughter Dawn and her own daughter Heather. They didn’t say anything. Neither did I. I used to see Dawn a couple of times a week on the train from Treforest. We never even made eye contact. I won’t go to Jean’s funeral. After all, she’s not family, is she?
Doris’s mother (‘Granny Morse’) seems to been ahead of her time in some respects. Apparently she was a suffragette and socialist, who used to invite James Keir Hardie round to put the world to rights over Sunday tea. On the distaff side, that’s as much of the family history as I know.
As for the Irish ancestors, I know even less. Denis, my grandfather, was born in the village of Inistoige, Co. Kilkenny. That much is true. Dad used to tell me that his father had been in the IRA. His version of events was that Denis been at the Post Office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street during the 1916 Easter Rising. After being interned in Mountjoy Prison, he’d fled to this country to avoid the Black and Tans, the British paramilitary thugs who were charged with tracking down the rebels.
Well, what happened next depends on whether you believe in Nature or Nurture. On one hand, with an Irish Republican on one side of the family tree and Keir Hardie’s tea-and-cakes friend on the other, it was inevitable that I’d end up as some sort of mad anarchist, wasn’t it? Except, of course, that I have no way of knowing whether version of the past is true. I’ve only got Mother’s word for Granny Morse’s political affiliations – and they, by their very nature, are second-hand.
As for Denis O’Gorman’s revolutionary struggle: doesn’t everyone of Irish descent claim at least one ancestor who was in the Post Office that day? I’ve looked at numerous books trying to find a comprehensive list of those arrested after the rebellion, and none of them mention Denis O’Gorman by name. Mother once told me that Dad was ‘a bit of a Walter Mitty character’, so I’m inclined to take that version of events with a very large pinch of salt.
More important than my not knowing the family background is the flipside of the coin: I don’t actually care! It might be fun to find out that an ancestor of yours died on HMS Victory, or that somewhere in your family tree there’s an illegitimate scion of minor nobility, or that there’s a whole undiscovered branch of the family in Canada – but I really couldn’t give a fuck.
I can’t help viewing the whole genealogy obsession as nothing but the latest TV-inspired fad, brought about by the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? The broadcaster John Suchet’s grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew who settled in London. Mr Suchet’s quest to learn more about his family made for a moving documentary. But most of his other ancestors didn’t have anything like such an interesting story to tell. And that’s probably true for most of us.
My cousin Kathryn has been doing a bit of the family tree, but I don’t know how she’s got on. She’s probably had more luck with the Worths (her father’s family) than with either the O’Donnells (one set of grandparents) or the Joneses (the other set.) Meanwhile, I’ve only ever come across a handful of people who share my unusual surname. One was a customer in Dillons years ago, a young girl from Cardiff. There’s Tim, who used to play for Derbyshire County Cricket Club; Jane, who writes the agony column in the Daily Star; Christine, who played the violin on a couple of Shockheaded Peters recordings; and Juan, a Mexican architect (I’m not making this up!) There’s even another Steve O’Gorman, an American academic who’s written or co-written a number of papers on genetics. Was I the victim of the best-ever identity theft some time around my nineteenth birthday, when I was studying Applied Biology at Brunel University? Or is the parallel universe alive and well? Who knows?
More to the point, who cares?
My family history doesn’t interest me one iota. I know exactly where both pairs of my grandparents are buried, and that’s as much as I need to know. If I was really interested, I’d be able to use the Library and their online resources (they’ve got a corporate subscription, so we don’t need to pay.) I could even pick the brains of the fine volunteers from the Glamorgan Family History Society, who do their own drop-in sessions on a Saturday morning once a month.
[A digression: Last time the GFHS were there, I was there as well. I was doing the Guardian Prize Crossword online. There was a young woman doing some college work across the table from me. The old boy who calls in every day to look at the Daily Mirror was at the small table. Two retired ladies, volunteers from the GFHS, were helping another lady to track down burial records on microfilm. And Caroline the librarian was on duty. Caroline’s notorious for her lack of People Skills, but on this particular morning she reached a new low. She was doing her very best to dissuade one of the volunteers from using the new film reader/scanner/printer I mentioned in A Pressing Problem. She kept telling her that it was ‘faulty’ (it had only been there a month or so), and that they’d have to come back when Steven was there.
Now, I know it takes a little while to get used to it, but nobody ever mastered new technology by ignoring it or delegating it to someone else, did they? Instead, Steven and I have played with it, both together and individually, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve got a reasonable grasp on it. Steven and Judith also know that I’m always available for Tech Support, and I’d (incorrectly) assumed that my reputation went before me. Anyway, I walked over to where Caroline and the lady from GFHS were sitting, and said, ‘Would you like me to have a look at it? I’ve got a fair idea how it works.’
Caroline positively snapped at me, ‘Don’t touch it! You haven’t been trained!’
I was sorely tempted to reply, ‘And you fucking have! Much fucking good it did you! I’ll leave you to your new-found expertise, shall I?’
But since I rely on the Library for my wifi, I decided to say nothing. I did mention it to Steven the next time I was in there, mind you, and he was horrified. Before I left that afternoon he called on my skills once more. I was only too pleased to help him out – he and I are old friends, after all – but if Caroline ever gets into a knot again, she can go fuck herself!]
Which brings us back to the blog. I should have been in Abercynon today, for the first leg of the Digital Champion training course. But (as you’ve probably gathered by now) I didn’t go. I set my alarm clock last night so that I’d be up in good time to catch the train. In the event I turned it off and went back to sleep. Isobel texted me just before 10am to ask if the train had been delayed again. I didn’t reply. A little while later she rang me. I didn’t pick it up.
I don’t see the point of signing up for voluntary work as an IT Tech Support Buddy if all I’m going to do is stand around watching people search through endless census returns and BMD records. I wouldn’t even be able to help them out with any queries they had – it’s not a subject I know anything about. That’s the reason why I suggested that I should help Margaret with her first baby steps into the world of Excel. No doubt Tony could have done it. After all, he’s a fully-fledged Digital Champion. (Isobel gave him his certificate to prove it when we were at the Digital Storytelling workshop.) That would have left me free to help out with the family tree research. And I’d have been as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
So, this morning, faced with a future of endless Family History drop-in sessions punctuated by the occasional query about an aspect of IT which I actually know about, I withdrew my entry for the Digital Championship. No doubt Isobel will think the worst of me for not even picking up her call, but I really don’t see the point of learning how to teach people IT if all they’re going to do is track down their ancestors.
It’s a nine-day wonder. As soon as the BBC run out of C-list celebrities to pin down, the series will end and so will the enormous wave of interest in the topic. After all, how many people are still doing home makeovers, or laying decking in their gardens? Those bubbles burst a few years ago. So will this one.
On the way to town I bumped into Clint. He and Lucy were supposed to have gone to Abercynon as well today. They still haven’t got any money. He’s depressed as a result, and he wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it. I told him to join the club. When I told him of my experiences at the drop-in sessions, he agreed that we wouldn’t have had much to offer anyway.
After all, we’re sitting on the upswing of the greatest technological wave since the invention of the steam engine. There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. I’ve only scratched the surface of what computers can do myself. Why on Earth would people want to immerse themselves in the past, searching for family members they never knew about? I’m sure it’s interesting if you like that sort of thing, but it’s also a colossal waste of technology. And I really don’t think I want to waste my time watching other people lose themselves in pointless research, when I could be helping people who really do want to use computers for useful ends.
As far as the regulars in Aberdare Library and the Prince of Wales (not to mention some students and at least one lecturer) are concerned, I’m already a ‘digital champion.’ I don’t need a poxy certificate to tell me how good I am. I’ve got my unsolicited testimonials for anyone who’d care to read them. In the meantime – here’s to the future!
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