Looking Forwards, Looking Backwards

In which The Author is determined not to be outdone

As regular readers know, I don’t have fixed internet access at home. That went out of the window at the same time as my university career, back in October 2011. I’d only just paid one phone bill when the next one thudded onto the doormat. I couldn’t afford to maintain it, so I reluctantly let the phone line go. I have to rely on Aberdare Library and/or various pubs for sufficient bandwidth to update my Netbook and get the various podcasts to which I subscribe. At home, when I’m just surfing the net and not using a huge amount of data, I can get by using a MyFi.
Neil G. from the pub sold his MyFi to me during the summer, as he couldn’t get a signal at his flat in Cwmaman. I’ve been to Cwmaman many times, and my phone drops off the grid as soon as I pass The Fforchneol. It’s the Land That Mobile Signals Forgot. Allow me to expound a theory…
The three loudest people I’ve met in my life – Alan Swanson, Stuart Cable, and Deno – were all from Cwmaman. Let’s consider each one in turn.
There was a running joke in the old days of the Cynon Valley Quiz League, that you heard Alan Swanson coming long before he entered the room. During the games themselves, his ‘whispered’ discussions must have inadvertently fed the correct answers to many rival teams over the years. We always said that if ever Aberdare decided to appoint a town crier, Swanny was a shoe-in for the job. I remember the season when we fielded a team in The Whitcombe, and had won every game so far. The day before we were due to play Cwmaman Club, I bumped into Swanny in Aberdare.
‘We’ve got you tomorrow,’ he said, with an evil gleam in his eye.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘We’re unbeaten so far.’
‘So are we,’ he replied.’And you won’t beat us tomorrow.’
‘Swanny, you’re up against the dream team,’ I countered. ‘You’ve got no chance. Good luck for tomorrow – you’ll need it.’
It turned out to be the closest match of the season. When James announced the final score, it was a dead heat. We stood up to shake hands with our opponents as usual, and I gave Swanny a big hug.
‘I told you you wouldn’t beat us, didn’t I?’ I grinned.
Swanny died several years ago, far too young, and it seemed as though the wind had gone out of the Quiz League’s sails. After that we saw the wholesale closure of pubs throughout the valley (see Another One Bites the Dust), and we lost most of the function rooms which were so important for the league’s survival. You couldn’t have a serious quiz in the surviving pubs, which had only one big room (as opposed to the traditional bar/lounge setup), and which invariably had a jukebox, pool table, big TV and/or ‘singer’ to disturb the proceedings. The CVQL wound down slowly, with the older quizzers falling by the wayside and the venues disappearing along with them. It finally died five years or so ago.
Stuart Cable was better known to the outside world and, if anything, even louder than Swanny. When he joined a band, it shocked nobody that he decided to play the drums. Even if he’d had a Marshall stack that went all the way up to 11, it still wouldn’t have been loud enough. On the other hand, a drum kit enabled him to make the maximum possible noise with the minimum possible amplification. It was a no-brainer, really.
I first met Stuart when he was going out with Emma P., and he was playing with a four-piece band named Tragic Love Company. We became firm friends, and even after the band changed their name to Stereophonics and became massive, he was still the same old Stuart. He was without a doubt one of the kindest, warmest, most genuine people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. When he left the band, he pursued a second career as a DJ and broadcaster. If I ever came across a nice joke about drummers, I’d text it to him, and he read a couple of them out on his BBC Radio Wales show.
Shanara and I were on our way home from Cardiff one evening when my phone rang. I was surprised to see Stuart’s name on the screen, so I answered it and he burst out laughing. He was snarled up in traffic in Monmouth town centre, and trying to phone a different Steve to say he was running late. We chatted for a few minutes, and after the call Shanara asked me who’d rung me. I told her it was Stuart and she didn’t believe me. When I first took her into the Welsh Harp several months later, she was amazed to find Stuart there, and even more amazed when I introduced her to him.
On the day of Stuart’s untimely death, his colleagues at Radio Wales were paying tribute to him throughout the morning. I phoned in and spoke about our friendship for a few minutes. I recounted how he’d invited some of us to watch the Wales v England Six Nations game at Cwmaman Institute a few years earlier. We were at one side of the room, fairly near the TV. Stu was propping up the bar at the other end of the long function room. During one violent maul, I remember his eruptive bellow resounding throughout the room: ‘Come on, boys, stamp on the fucking English cunts’ heads!’ While I was on the air, I decided that a verbatim quote probably wasn’t suitable for Jason Mohammad’s show; instead, I described the occasion as ‘like watching Scrum V with Ozzy Osbourne in the commentary box.’ Unlike Black Sabbath’s main man, however, Stuart wouldn’t have needed a microphone to reach the back of the stadium.
The third Cwmaman noisy bugger, Deno, is an old mate from the Carpenters days. He’s always been a noisy bugger, as we proved on our impromptu tour of Wiltshire some years ago (see Getting Stoned.) He’s married to Julia, and their children go to my old school in Trecynon. He has a tattoo studio on the village square, just around the corner from my house, and if I’m passing the school at the beginning or end of the day, I can always hear his less than dulcet tones echoing from the high perimeter walls.
It occurred to me one day, while we were chatting near the school gates, why the three guys I’ve talked about here were such noisy buggers. It was obvious when I thought about it: mobile phones are useless in the geographically-challenged side valley where they were brought up, so the inhabitants shout at each other as a substitute for phone calls. It’s the Welsh equivalent of yodelling, only rather less tuneful and tourist-friendly. (Lately, Bob P. has entered the list of Noisy Cwmaman Buggers as well, but his noise level only increases in direct proportion to his beer consumption. The other three started loud and stayed there.)
Anyway, in Trecynon the mobile phone situation is rather better. My signal is generally pretty decent, although it has its moments, especially when we have a period of stormy weather like the one we’re going through at the moment. The signal to the MyFi is usually problem-free as well.
Strangely, the one thing that is adversely affected by the weather conditions is the FM radio signal. After about ten o’clock at night, I can usually say goodbye to BBC Radio 2 entirely. On the very rare occasions that I’ve tried listening to Radio Wales, that’s been hit and miss as well. Radio 4 comes and goes, Radio 3 is usually okay, and Radio Cymru is always available for some unknown reason. (It’s just a pity I don’t speak Welsh.)
The stated aim of the UK Government is to shift entirely from analogue to digital radio, as the TV broadcasters did in piecemeal fashion until 2011. In fact, I wrote to the BBC a few years ago, pointing out that the existing FM signals in my area were already becoming unreliable. I wondered whether the analogue transmitters were being deliberately powered down, in a back-door attempt to force people to switch to the new technology.
However, the switch-off date has already been postponed a couple of times, because of the sheer number of analogue sets still in use. There are hundreds of thousands of people like me, with a radio in virtually every room of me. On top of those, there are millions of car radios. All of these devices will become obsolete at a stroke. This policy, like so many, clearly hasn’t been thought through.
Which brings me back to where we started. As well as the channels we’re all familiar with in the UK, the BBC also has a number of digital-only stations: BBC 6, 1Xtra, 4 Extra (formerly BBC 7), the Asian Network… While I had a landline, streaming these services wasn’t a problem. I got quite hooked on BBC 7 for a while, with its interesting mix of old and new comedy, drama and SF. However, streaming those via the MyFi would soon eat up my monthly bandwidth allowance.
That’s why I finally decided to bite the bullet this week and buy a DAB radio. I first looked into it about ten years ago, but at the time the coverage in this area was pretty poor. I checked out the available channels on the BBC’s handy website, and discovered that I could pick up Heart (which plays ‘classic pop’ all day) and very little else. It seemed to be an expensive investment – a basic DAB set was over fifty quid – with very little return.
One person I knew did invest in a DAB radio around this time; Glen from work lived in Cardiff, and had the full range of BBC services at his fingertips. However, if he spent the night at his partner Andrew’s house in Newport, scarcely ten miles along the coast, nearly all of those channels vanished from the scan results. I decided to see how things developed.
Things finally developed this week, when Mother gave me money for Xmas. I rang her on Xmas Day to thank her, and told her that I’d probably spend it on a DAB radio. To my horror, she told me that Mary and Les had bought her a DAB radio for Xmas. That made my mind up for me. After all, I couldn’t be outdone on the technology front by one of the people who’d enabled me to coin the word Granotechnology. Thus it was that I treated myself to a DAB/FM set from Argos yesterday.
It’s a basic model, but I didn’t want anything elaborate. I don’t have an iPod, so I didn’t want one with a docking station. I’ve already got two CD players, so that would have been redundant as well. The most important fact is that I was able to listen to Steptoe and Son and Yes, Minister on BBC 4 Extra last night. I haven’t bothered programming the presets yet; I’ll probably do that tomorrow, when I’ve had time to study the instruction manual properly. I’ve finally got more than the four basic channels to listen to, and when I combine those with the various podcasts from the BBC, there’s very little radio content that I’ll miss from now on.
The strangest thing about the radio, though, is the design. Apart from an LCD display where the old tuning dial would have been, and a number of push-buttons on the face, it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mams’s kitchen during the 1970s. It’s boxy, with rounded edges, a big speaker grille, and an aerial sticking out of the top. It’s ‘retro’, if I’m being charitable, and downright old-fashioned if I’m not. About a month ago, in PC World in Pontypridd, I had a look at their range. Apart from a couple of streamlined matt black exceptions, they all looked as though they’d fallen through the Rift before I was born, and arrived in 2013.
I can’t help wondering why the designers of such high-tech products are so nostalgic for designs which were already obsolete in 1980. Have a look at the product advertisements which I revisited in OMNIscience, and remind yourself of how bulky and chunky those old hifi systems look in the light of today’s streamlined midi units. Externally at least, DAB radios have taken a step backwards from there, to the era of the first transistor sets.
It’s almost as though Samsung and Nokia had decided to bring out their latest range in two parts, a mouthpiece and an earpiece, linked by a little piece of wire. Maybe the manufacturers are trying to attract the Granotechnology generation by giving them something familiar to anchor themselves to. Or, maybe, as with every music and fashion trend of the past thirty years, the human race is destined to simply rehash the past in regular cycles, with true innovation banished to the sidelines as usual.