An Open Letter to the BBC Newsdesk

In which The Author picks up on another annoying use of language

Dear Sir/Madam
I wish to point out a grave misuse of the English language in your 7 p.m. news bulletin on Radio 4 tonight. I refer to your story about commemorative paving stones dedicated to the recipients of the Victoria Cross, which are to be laid in their home towns during the next year. Your newsreader said that there were 467 ‘winners’ of this medal, the highest award for bravery in combat.
I would respectfully point out that members of the armed services do not ‘win’ the Victoria Cross, or any other medal. They are ‘awarded’ them, ‘receive’ them, or ‘earn’ them. War is not a sporting event, and these courageous actions should not be cheapened by using words best associated with competitive achievement.
Yours faithfully
Steve O’Gorman

Silence in the Library

In which The Author wishes it had carried on raining

Last night it pissed down in no uncertain terms. The St Jude storm we’d been expecting last Sunday (see Take the Weather With You) seemed to be a mere dress rehearsal for this weekend’s onslaught. According to one of the Welsh newspapers, the seafront at Aberystwyth looked like ‘a war zone’ this morning. I’ve only been to Aberystwyth once, many years ago, as I related in Granotechnology; however, to judge from my brief impression of the town, it seems unlikely that the gale force winds and mountainous seas could have done much more damage.
This morning, as a consequence, I decided to stay in bed until it was all over. There’d have been no point in venturing to town in that sort of weather. I’ve got food in the freezer, and the only thing I really needed was milk, which I can pick up in the corner shop. To my chagrin, when I finally opened the curtains it was gloriously sunny, with high clouds signalling an unseasonably mild day.
Autumn has come very late to this part of the country. September and October were warmer and wetter than they used to be when I was younger. Many of the trees in Aberdare Park have yet to shed their leaves, and some are still in their summer colours. The shorter daylight hours have triggered the rest to put on their short-lived autumn coats, although those that have changed are feeling the results of the stormy weather. One tree quite close to the road is desperately clinging onto the last of its leaves, as though letting them go will be an admission that winter is finally on its way. In St John’s churchyard, at the entrance to the town centre, the trees are also reluctant to let the seasons catch up with them. I took these photos earlier today, and you can see that autumn has yet to unveil its full palette:



When we were in school, I’m fairly sure that my mates and I were crunching our way through the freshly-laid golden carpet long before the half-term break (which was last week in our area.) There was a nice cover of leaves on the path from the side gate one day last week, but now it seems to have been swept up. There’s probably a good reason for this. In these days of ”Elf and Safety gone mad,’ it would only take one ‘no win, no fee’ Tripping and Slipping claim by an elderly dog-walker to force our cash-strapped council to the point of bankruptcy.
Talking of the parlous state of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council’s finances: I mentioned a few weeks ago (in A Further Turn-out For the Books) that the projected funding shortfall might force the closure of a number of libraries in our area. I highlighted the threat to the library service because Ruth H., who first drew it to my attention, works in one of the libraries. That turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg. RCTCBC are also proposing to cut back on ‘meals on wheels’ for the elderly and housebound, day centres for senior citizens, youth clubs, and – most controversially – nursery provision for pre-school children. I won’t go into the full details; you can read about them for yourselves in Evans (2013).
This last issue has really ignited people’s fury; there’s a large and vociferous Facebook group, a number of petitions are circulating (both online and in the Real World), and tomorrow there’s a series of protests planned across RCT and the neighbouring county borough of Bridgend. As they’re taking place on 5 November, they’re being organized under the general banner of ‘The Bonfire of Austerity.’ I might try and make it to the Pontypridd demo, but I won’t try to do all three. Even with an Explorer bus ticket, trying to fit in visits to Bridgend, Llantrisant and Pontypridd in one day (and on schedule) would be a logistical nightmare. As Llantrisant lies directly on the bus route between Bridgend and Pontypridd, on paper it would be easy enough. In reality, it takes the best part of forty minutes. From Llantrisant to Pontypridd is about another half an hour. I think I’ll stick to the Pontypridd demo, for reasons of cost and convenience.
[A digression: I once had to rescue Carys, when she was stuck in Pontyclun without a car and trying to make her way to her granddad’s house in Beddau. She’d put a cry for help on Facebook, which I spotted when I logged in the Students’ Union. I texted her the details of the bus route, which would take her pretty much from door to door. She texted me back, saying that it was the only constructive suggestion she’d had that morning – everyone else had just taken the piss out of her.]
Anyway, after realizing I’d wasted half of a very pleasant day, I walked to Aberdare as usual and made my way to the Library. I’d only been there a minute or so when a chap came in wanting to speak to the librarian. Steven G. was in the office, and the visitor paced around quite agitatedly until he returned. Immediately, the guy launched into a very loud argument about the cost of photocopying and printing – 10p a page for A4.
When I was designing posters and newsletters, about a quarter of a century ago, a standard photocopy would cost about 5p in a print shop, and economies of scale kicked in as the quantities got larger. If the prices had risen in line with those of most other things, we’d be looking at 20p or more for a single page. Some corner shops still charge 5p, but I expect that, like milk and bread, they just use the nominal charge as a loss-leader to get customers through the door. In contrast, the Post Office in my village charges a whopping 50p a page! I queried it once, and was told that the rate was set by Post Office Counters Ltd. As with most of their other charges, it seems little short of daylight robbery.
Taking that into account, 10p a page seems quite reasonable. I suppose that in theory the Library could apply a sliding scale, so that someone wanting, say, a hundred copies, would pay only £8, rather than the full tenner. That’s probably far too logical a system for this place, though. (Remember, they’ve only just updated their computers to run Windows 7 with Internet Explorer 8.) However, after Steven patiently explained that the rate was set by the local authority and was the same throughout the county borough, the guy then asked why it was only 5p a page in Merthyr Library.
As they say in America, well, hello… It’s a different local authority, with a completely different management structure. What goes on in Merthyr Library has absolutely no bearing on what happens in Aberdare Library. (Come to think of it, what goes on in Bridgend Library has no bearing on what goes on in Aberdare Library either. They’re open all day on a Saturday, whereas ours closes at 1.00 p.m.) At the very least, our loud and angry complainant clearly needs to be sat down and shown a map of the South Wales Valleys. No doubt he’ll go away and contact the department in question, as I did about a month ago. I raised the thorny (and oft-mentioned) topic of their piss-poor wifi connectivity on site. I had a reply from my local councillor last week, saying that they were looking into the problem. Since then, I haven’t had any problems getting and staying online here. Coincidence? You tell me!
No sooner had Photocopy Guy left the building when a youngish chap with a beard and a laptop came in. I couldn’t tell from his accent whether he was from Australia or New Zealand; either way, I had a very large sample to work with. He’s obviously a minister in one of the chapels in the area, and spent ten minutes or so telling Steven about a prayer meeting over the weekend. At every opportunity, he reiterated his beliefs in a loud voice.
By now, my friend Brian, who used to commute to Cardiff on the same bus as me until he retired, was sitting opposite me reading one of the magazines. We were involuntarily subjected to this unwelcome preaching until someone else came in and rescued Steven. The ironic part about the whole episode is that Steven is himself a chapel-goer; the guy was quite literally preaching to the converted.
I remember a time, not too long ago, when a library was a place of quiet refuge from the hubbub of everyday life. There would be signs everywhere asking for SILENCE, and the fearsome custodians of the books would ‘shush’ anyone who stepped out of line. Things have certainly changed in thirty years or so.
When I was a student the second time round, I frequently had to point out the ‘silent study area’ signs in the Learning Resources Centre to groups of giggling youngsters, while other students (myself included) were trying to work. The accepted rule of ‘silence in the library’ seems to be a thing of the past. It’s not unusual to sit in the library for a couple of hours and hear tinny ‘music’ coming from another user’s headphones, or amplified music from one of the branch computers, usually generated by someone who can’t be bothered to borrow the headphones from the issue desk.
At other times, one of the town’s many Loteks will loudly demand technical support from staff members (which they’re neither qualified nor employed to give.) Notwithstanding the issue of its cost, just using the bloody photocopier seems to be beyond the capabilities of many Aberdare people. I’ve quoted the wise words of Sir Arthur C. Clarke before, and I’ll quote them again: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
The noisiest crowds by far, though, are the Writers’ Group and the Reading Group. One corner of the Reference Library has been converted into a small meeting room, where these gangs of (almost exclusively) middle-aged women congregate every week to discuss their latest literary efforts. It’s a pity that the council bean-counter who decided against soundproofing the room doesn’t call in on a Wednesday morning, when the Writers’ Group is in full flow, shrieking with laughter and rattling their crockery, and hear the inevitable consequences of that decision in person.
On a really bad day, one of the town’s increasing number of Care in the Community cases will come in and cause a lengthy disruption. Facebook Darts Man and Invisible Dog Woman are just two of these interesting specimens. The first, as his byname suggests, plays online darts against imaginary opponents, keeping everyone else updated with his expletive-laden running commentary. The second is more interesting; she has an imaginary dog which travels on buses and trains with her, and which she engages in one-sided conversation for hours on end. (I’m pleased to say that she leaves it tied to the railings when she comes in.) Last week, she performed a minor miracle. Somewhere on the dwindling shelves of Aberdare Reference Library, she managed to find The World’s Funniest Book. I’ve no idea what it was, but it kept her in hysterics for several minutes until she left abruptly, presumably to collect her dog, which had been left outside in the pissing rain.
I’ve never known a staff member to intervene on behalf of the rest of the library users and tell these peculiar individuals to put a sock in it. I’ve known other users to tell Facebook Darts Man to pipe down; but he’s a big lump, and if he turned nasty things could get out of hand. Even as I’m typing this, there’s a guy a few years younger than me typing away at one of the public computers and muttering loudly to himself all the while. Maybe he doesn’t realize that it’s not running speech recognition software. Or maybe he’s just another psychiatric case left to wander the streets and gravitating (as they all seem to) to a place of relative safety.
Meanwhile, I had some exciting news over the weekend. Apparently The Conway now has free wifi, so that I’m no longer restricted to the library in order to access the full range of the Internet. (The Myfi has a data allowance of 3Gb a month, so I can’t go mad and browse YouTube all night, as much as I’d like to.) Whatever system John’s had installed, it can’t be any slower than the one I’m using in the Library at the moment – with a download speed of 90.79 KB/s. If it means that I’ll need to start frequenting a pub at the far end of town, so be it. We can’t all rely simply on magic, after all.
Evans, C. (2013) Rhondda Cynon Taf services to face chop in bid to bridge funding gap, Wales Online, 17 October 2013