Category Archives: Cynon Valley Leader

Here Comes the Sun

In which The Author has more technical problems

I made several fruitless attempts, spread over a two-hour window, to get online in Aberdare Library this morning and afternoon.
Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that, of course. The ongoing piss-poor wifi provision in what should be the one place where it is available in this technophobic town is a regular bone of contention for me. Just a couple of weeks ago, I emailed my local councillors within Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC to bring the problem to their attention. So far, only one of the three has had the courtesy to reply. Kudos to Cllr. Ann Crimmings of Aberdare West for taking the time to look into the situation. (Mind you, given the local population’s three-tier technical hierarchy, which I’ve discussed in I Want to Believe and elsewhere, it’s quite possible that the other two have yet to check their emails.)
When I first mentioned the lack of signal to Steven G., he told me that he’d already rebooted the server once this morning, about half an hour before I arrived. It hadn’t done any good, evidently, as the network steadfastly resisted all my attempts to log on. Steven vanished into the main office and returned a few minutes later, looking even more harassed than usual.
‘They’ve done something, so it should work in a few minutes,’ he told me. (Do you see how lightly the technical terms trip off his tongue?)
Anyway, I waited five minutes or so, tried connecting again, and didn’t even get the login screen which you need to negotiate first. By now Steven had gone for his lunch, and Judith was sitting at the desk. I decided that I wouldn’t mention the problem to her. I’d already earned a place in her bad books on my way into the building.
As part of the ongoing de-accessioning process in Rhondda Cynon Taf (see A Turn-out For the Books), the library service has decided to sell off pretty much its entire stock of CDs and DVDs. They were stacked up on trestle tables in the recess by the main doors, and Judith and Aled were standing nearby while a couple of people browsed.
‘Aye aye?’ I said casually, ‘the closing down sale’s started, has it?’ Judith gave me a sour sideways glance, and I followed it up with, ‘Oh, sorry – that was in rather poor taste, wasn’t it?’
Actually, Aberdare Library should be fairly safe from the first wave of public service cuts which RCTCBC are planning. For now, anyway. The same can’t be said for the smaller branches (see A Further Turn-out For the Books), hence the ongoing stock clearance.
[A digression: Martin H. and I had a closer look through the sale tables when we were leaving a couple of hours later. It occurred to us that we must be part of the first generation of humans who have lived through an entire wave of technology, right from its inception to its virtual obsolescence. We can still remember the birth of CDs in the early- to mid-1980s. We saw TV presenters rolling them across the studio carpets, and even smearing jam on the playing surfaces, to demonstrate their resilience in the face of adversity. (Little did we know that the smallest speck of fluff or partial fingerprint would fuck things up badly.) Now, just about three decades on, we’re seeing their slow death, as downloads and online listening replace the physical object altogether.
In Snap, Crackle and Pop I wrote a long piece about vinyl records, and the altogether different experience involved in the acquisition of music in those days. It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that my own vinyl collection is pretty much redundant following the failure of my stereo system. Just over a week ago, to thank me for being there (almost) at the start of the whole story, Andy Tillison very kindly sent me a zip file containing Gold, Frankincense and Disk Drive’s newly-reissued debut LP Where Do We Draw The Line? (see Our Friends in the North.) I haven’t been able to listen to it since the technical breakdown.
Ironically, Andy had had to remaster the tracks from another surviving vinyl LP and encode them digitally to get them out to a new audience. It’s not quite gone full circle, but it’s still well over 180º from where we started.]
Anyway, I gave up trying to access the Library’s wifi and tried using the MyFi instead. For some reason, I got a signal, but once again it failed to connect. I know my thirty day data allowance is due to run out (in fact, I’m pretty sure it expired yesterday), but I couldn’t even access the website to buy more data. Fed up, I decided to resort to Twentieth Century technology instead, and spent quite a while looking through the Aberdare Leader microfilm archives.
I thought I’d find a piece in there from late February or early March 1982, when Dad resigned from the local council. I found a brief item from the Western Mail, but although I scoured the news pages right from the January snowfall to the Easter school photos, I drew a blank. Maybe I’ll try again in another twenty years or so, when the ongoing process of digitisation and online cataloguing reaches the 1980s.
Martin came in, so we decided to repair to the Prince for a glass of Coke and to warm ourselves by the fire. While we were there, the BBC News Channel showed a picture of a large solar flare. It might have been CGI, or it might have been actual data gathered from a space probe somewhere in the cosmic gloom. (The sound was off, so we had no way of knowing.) But it reminded me of something which Billy, another of Aberdare’s legion of technophobes, keeps bringing up when he’s had a few pints.
Nigel Calder wrote a book a good few years ago called The Manic Sun. I haven’t read it, but Billy has, so he’s given me (and anyone else who’ll listen) the gist of it. In a nutshell, Mr Calder’s book predicts massive solar flare activity which will play havoc with the Earth’s weather and telecommunications systems. I picked up something similar last week on a couple of websites. Apparently some scientists think that the Sun’s magnetic field is due to flip over any time now.
We’re certainly going through a period of extreme weather at the moment – the first wave of aid has just reached the more remote areas of the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan made its devastating landfall just under a fortnight ago. There was also a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia soon afterwards. In the words of Private Eye magazine – are they possibly related? I think we should be told…
Anyway, I gave up trying to top up the MyFi while I was listening to the evening news. I listened to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and then came to the pub to use their wifi. I’ve checked my emails, checked Facebook, and (most importantly) I haven’t missed a day of NaBloPoMo. It was a close-run thing. I might not bother topping up this fortnight after all, and come here to use the wifi instead. It’s a lot warmer than my house, for one thing.
However, there might be even more unanticipated consequences of all this solar activity. John Finnemore was the fourth member of the Clue panel in their opening shows recorded at Weston-super-Mare. Hitherto, Mr Finnemore’s radio outings (as writer and/or performer) have epitomized the sort of unfunny ‘new comedy’ which I outlined in No Laughing Matter.
Tonight, things were very different. First, he made me laugh out loud several times, especially during his first attempt at Mornington Crescent, where he really threw himself into the nonsensical spirit of the game. Even better, he proved himself to be the new champion of Pick Up Song, finishing within much less than a gnat’s crotchet of the original record.
Has the manic sun re-engineered Mr Finnemore’s cerebral cortex and somehow made him capable of great comedy moments? Or has it just fried my brain? Watch this space…

Underground, Overground, Wombling Free

In which The Author recalls a colourful character

My friend Ross D. and I were having a daft conversation on Facebook, a couple of days ago, and he mentioned someone I’d almost forgotten about. I’d posted the following status about someone who’d walked up to the desk in the Reference section of Aberdare Library:
Library Fuckwittery (Part 6,371) – A woman complaining to the Reference Librarian that the cooker in her new house doesn’t work and her garage door is leaking. I think she’s got this building confused with one of the following:
a) The Rock Grounds
b) CAB
c) An office staffed by people who actually give a fuck.
A number of my friends commented on it, including Ross, who said:
It obviously hasn’t changed much over the years. Do you remember ‘Where can I find the bonking?’
Where do I begin to explain this cryptic comment?
I suppose the best place would be to start at the beginning of our own friendship, and to go from there.
Ross and I first met in September 1986, when we were working on a research project called the Cynon Valley Profile. Although we weren’t employed directly by the library, our team was based in the research room adjoining the Reference Library. We used to spend a lot of time in the big room, though, which is where we first encountered an elderly chap by the name of Noel Rencontre. After our exchange on Facebook, Ross had tried to describe this curious character to his partner Richard, but it’s very difficult to sum him up accurately.
Mr Rencontre’s name was already vaguely familiar to some of us, as he’d stood for Parliament in 1984. Ioan Evans, the previous Cynon Valley MP, had passed away at the age of only 56. A by-election was called, and seven candidates contested the seat on 3 May that year:
Ann Clwyd has been our MP ever since. Meanwhile, the remarkable surge by the Social Democrats has been explained by a combination of a popular local candidate and the novelty factor of the SDP (the party had been founded three years earlier). It didn’t last, of course. Cynon Valley has been pretty much a two-horse race between Labour and Plaid Cymru ever since.
But look at the table again – a Womble Independent candidate had beaten a ‘serious’ candidate into last place? Who was this mysterious man, who’d lost his deposit but given the people of the Cynon Valley some entertainment at the same time?
We found out for ourselves in the summer of 1987, when a small, sprightly, white-haired chap came into the Reference Library. In a loud voice with what sounded like a mid-European accent, he demanded to know where he could find ‘bonking.’
The tennis star Boris Becker had had a run of bad luck, and the tabloid papers knew where the blame lay. According to the Sun and the Daily Star, Mr Becker had been paying too little attention to his game and too much attention to his girlfriend. ‘Bonking Boris’ was headline news, both on the front and back pages of the newspapers.
This term was a new one on our visitor. He told us that, when he was a young man, people used to call it ‘jig-a-jig’ instead. This wonderfully eccentric old boy turned out to be none other than Noel Rencontre.
By now his name was a bit more familiar, as he’d stood in the local elections a few weeks earlier. Some of us had seen him ‘on the stump’ in Victoria Square, wearing what seemed to be a painted laboratory coat, and with a ghetto blaster at his feet playing ‘The Wombling Song’ at full volume. We’d also seen his name on several letters in the Aberdare Leader, but it was the first time we’d encountered him in the flesh. It was a case of ‘once met, never forgotten.’
To prove this, I called into Aberdare Library this afternoon and had a word with Steven G., who’s worked there since before the Profile days. As soon as I mentioned the name ‘Mr Rencontre,’ he beamed with delight.
‘Ah yes,’ he laughed, ‘the Womble.’
He vanished into the research room, and before too long he’d dug out some documents. They were in one of a couple of hundred boxes in the cluttered tiny space where (almost unbelievably) we used to work. Here’s part of the official election candidate list from May 1984.

Womble 4

There was more information in another box. It must have been among the materials we’d accumulated during our research, as we worked through the 1987 election campaign. This little piece appeared in the Aberdare Leader, where the paper gave brief pen portraits of the candidates in the local wards:

Womble 2

Even better, we’d archived one of Mr Rencontre’s election leaflets:

Womble 1

Steven also searched through the card index before digging out some of the old cuttings books. In the age before the Internet, if a story relating to the Cynon Valley made the regional or national newspapers, they were clipped and glued into a series of hardback exercise books. (They must go back for decades!)
Mr Rencontre had had two letters printed in the Western Mail within a couple of months. I remember that he also had a number of letters published in the Aberdare Leader, but they’re not indexed, so it would take us ages to track them down. It calls for a brute force approach of just scrolling through them on microfilm. (That’s why my own Collected Letters to the Editor are incomplete.) Here are the two that made it into Wales’s national daily paper.

Womble 6

Womble 7

The second one is interesting. Have a look at Mr Rencontre’s description in the list of election candidates. The work study engineer who was forced to retire at 55 is obviously a reference to himself.
After this brief foray into local politics, Mr Rencontre vanished from the radar entirely. His letters dried up, and his colourful interventions in the life of Aberdare seemed to be over. Until Geraint Benney stood for Plaid Cymru in 2005, and brought some zany humour to the traditional grey Valleys politics, there was nothing comparable to disrupt a series of lacklustre election campaigns.
There’s a sad postscript to this story. While we were chatting, Steven had a quick look on one of the genealogical databases. Then he went back to the Leader on microfilm and found this:

Womble 5

Mr Rencontre lived to the grand age of 83. For a brief time he brightened up the political scene in the Cynon Valley, amused us with his eccentric letters to the press, and ensured an enduring place in our collective memories. May he rest in peace.