We’ve had possession of a digital radio for the festive season. Now, I’m happy to share in the Register’s skepticism about the future of DAB. Any cessation of transmissions on the FM band would be a disaster: not just for those who can’t afford to buy new kit, but for the environment, as a whole technological layer would become redundant in a very short space of time. At least with television you can intercept and decode the signal between an existing aerial and an existing television set: radios are typically monolithic devices, with the aerial connected straight to the electronics.
But the BBC World Service, available all day on DAB, has been a veritable ear-opener. It’s largely impossible to access the channel from mainland UK for all sorts of reasons: one of which is that (to howls of indignation) many of their non-digital transmissions were switched off recently; another more long-term reason being that the station isn’t for the UK: it’s for the rest of the world. As such, it has news broadcasts that make you feel, deep in your heart, that what you’re hearing is news, not celebrity or media happenings. It has the sort of balance that, on mainstream BBC channels, gives the Daily Mail conniptions because it’s not right-wing enough.
Stephen Fry wrote an essay, which appeared in Paperweight, about the wonders of the World Service; like anything else he’s written or said, it’s almost guaranteed worth a read. But the World Service is worth more than just a listen: it’s an essential cultural and social service that makes a difference to people throughout the world. And personally, while live 6 Music broadcasts are fun, the World Service is probably the channel that has finally convinced me to buy a DAB radio.
Libraries and reference
I rejoined Oxfordshire Libraries a few days ago. You turn up with a driver’s licence or passport, and they give you a card. I then had a look round the library itself, which is a lot better than I remember. They still don’t have a toilet, preferring—and do excuse this brief rant—that anyone who’s just been fixing their bike should smear oil and road muck over the pages of their books, rather than risking the off chance that some evil freeloader who wasn’t planning on going to the library might—gasp!—dare to go in on the pretext of using the loo, and actually experience the inside of a library for the first time in years. Madness: barking, passive-aggressive, HR-department, county-council madness.
But Oxford’s library has a huge amount of books, as you’d expect, and even more that you can’t see on the shelves, and free internet access (which I didn’t try out, so it might be restricted). You can also borrow books from the central library and renew or return them to any of the other libraries in the county (Botley, Cowley, Headington, Blackbird Leys, Eynsham, Hook Norton…), or renew them online. I suppose all of this sounds rather par for the bibliotechnical course, certainly if you’ve been in libraries recently, but I’ve gone from an avid library-using pupil (nobody else had ever called Pinter books up from the stacks of Blackburn Library) to a collegiate-library-using student, to a library-ignorant adult.
More excitingly, if you hold a library card for Oxfordshire’s libraries, you can access the OED, Encyclopedia Britannica and Grove Art and Music Dictionaries for free. That’s free; gratis. The Times bicentenary newspaper archive. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who’s Who, if you care. It’s all there for free, if you’ve got a library card.
I remember being able to sneak into the OED’s site from the Oxford university network, and revel in the etymological and bibliographic richness therein, and this is simply wonderful. A completely non-web-2.0 service, very straightforward, just pages of content in alphabetical order with a basic search. Precisely what you want from a dictionary.
The downside is that the county council’s website is enormous, sprawling and utterly dreadful to navigate: you simply can’t find the portal to all of those wonderful online resources by searching or navigation, unless you know precisely what you’re looking for. You certainly can’t find it from the library resources page at libcat.oxfordshire.gov.uk—pardon me—www.libcat.oxfordshire.gov.uk. They’re hidden, unless you go into the library, pick up a leaflet, and “log on” to the URL that’s printed therein.
But all those services are nonetheless available, like fruit on the trees, to be plucked or left to windfall. Use them or lose them. Personally, I feel like I’ve been accepted back into an undemanding and advantageous society.
Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn’t Own A Television, which is why Christmas spent at one or other set of parents provides my only experience of the medium in a given year. I keep track of Charlie Brooker and the like through the Guardian Guide and other blogs, of course, but every now and again it’s good to actually see what’s going on. iPlayer continues to perform poorly on Mac and Linux, so Christmas television it has to be.
The offerings were much better this year, with plenty of films on terrestrial and free-satellite, a lot of interesting documentaries and cultural shows, and big hitters like Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit. But the tail ends of two long-running shows really impressed me, and these were:
The IT Crowd. Most of the people who read this will probably already have discovered this comedy, from Graham Linehan of one-half-of-Father-Ted, one-fraction-of-Black Books writing fame. If you haven’t seen it yet, go and watch every episode. Pay careful attention to Mossy, the charming, witty Asperger, and even more attention to the backdrops in the IT office: Linehan asked his blog readers to suggest possible props, to give the set realism: it’s fun for those in the know to play occasional games of Spot the Lolcats, while a witty, bizarre comedy very much along the lines of Black Books: three antisocial misfits brought together; cantankerousness where American writers would substitute cranky, gritty charm; fragments of farce and a feeling of lack of control; and complicated, extended, long-running ironic gags.
Gavin and Stacey. An apparently frothy romantic comedy hides within its breast the powerful beating heart of a respectful but unremitting social satire. Like Austen’s novels at their best, G&S lets its characters and the rather humdrum events of their lives carry big issues and important social drama as if it was the lightest, easiest burden in the world. The two lead characters are lovable bubbleheads; their best friends (played by the co-writers) an exciting psychosexual mess; their parents’ generation an even weirder combination of characters. The gentle satirisations of Barry and Billericay ways of living, and the culture clashes when the two families meet, are all utterly believable and dutifully affectionate, a triumph of humour through cumulative realism unparalleled in any other TV except from perhaps The Royle Family. And I defy you to not wish to have Rob Bryden’s Bryn as your very own uncle.