Kate Bush – I hear him.

Focus could be the word.

I hear him / before I go to sleep / and focus on the day that’s been.

It’s a delicious opening. An invitation to travel as well as to what – indulge? Or just be thankful?

But who is your ‘him’? Who is that you love so deeply that they are where you go… with or without Kate in that perfectly expressed moment? Probably it’s a lover – no? Whether it’s a lament depends of course on which emotions-from-now you copy and paste upon it.

I think for me that first line – so personal, so all of us? – has always been about my dad, who died at 44. I hear a lament in that tenderness but I hope you don’t, I hope you just luxuriate in its richness. Unquestionably, there’s both that ‘great toon’ thing and some seductively universal draw going on there; undeniably too there’s elite level execution of the intention – of the song.

The Man with the Child in his Eyes is classic Bush in the sense that it pulses and soars beautifully, it’s whole, it transcends pop. It’s intelligent and powerfully received (as meaningful) even if the meaning ain’t always clear. In the opening lines there’s movement – often there is some shift – back into the now. But if I was a real student of Bush maybe I’d be working up a hypothesis around the theme of… yeh, focus.

Look at a slack handful of the videos and the extraordinary (and quite dating?) backlighting or faerie-fuzziness thing. In Man with the Child that dance/tease(?)/express through-the-veil combo is striking. Firstly the dance is erm, sitting down only and yet lithe and wavelike, birdlike, swelling with movement and comfort or the search for comfort. Second the lighting is either about the softness of the song or about Bush’s insecurity about body image, depending on how you read the Kate-as-essentially vulnerable line. Or (most likely) it is some accommodation of the two wildly conflicting notions.

How do we view this? Why is there stuff in the way?

We need to be clear (ha!) that Bush was (yes!) steeped in English middle-class-ness but leaping, arcing, dancing radically free through what she thought of (thinks of) as her art. Her performances and the performances for video and television were extraordinarily brave. That which was seen was not only central, inseparable from the song and expressive in a way that was utterly exposing (but) it was the only way in which this artist could or apparently would work.

Most of us hadn’t seen dance like that or been pre-schooled in any sense for the lit-conversant art-school hand-grenades that this doctor’s daughter was about to fling surreally round the gaff. In short she was unique – obviously so, defiantly so – from the first moment.

Announcing herself with Wuthering Heights was some move. God I’ve love to speak to Dave Gilmour (who allegedly kinda bankrolled her early doors) about the early Kate and how she got there, how she was. Did she reek of prodigy or genius or precious wee thing? How much power did she wield? Were those around her vipers or were they in awe? Who plumped for all those leotards, all that sexuality and what boundaries were discussed? Was it actually all awash with drastically necessary drug-use or was Kate cruising in a kind of searing creative pomp?

I hope it’s not unseemly that I’m fascinated by what on a kindof visceral level fuelled the dance. I’m perfectly willing to believe that she was simply a majestic talent. But later, in that unhinged Babooshka vid, for example, was she simply unaware? I know there’s always some character-acting going on (and three hundred-weight of i-rony) but I worry that there was some self-hatred in there too.

Maybe all these things are more my problem than hers. Maybe the desperation I fear simply isn’t there. Perhaps the fact that Kate was instantly precious was gathered in, presumed and anticipated even by her and that frisson around how far she might go, how out there, became essential to the whole project. Maybe I’m out of order bringing us anywhere near this idea that things point to a level of vulnerability – predictable, girlie vulnerability – that Bush had to fight a way through.

Again let’s be clear; I personally rate and revere Kate Bush for her fearlessness and her ambition. Back then she was profoundly original, gem-like in the banal matrix of duff ‘bands’ and duffer cheesy-pop fluff. She took a huge lungful of something wonderful, loaded up with Klimt-like sensual expressionism and hurled her soul out into the audience. Zillions of us got just enough of it to hold her aloft.

But this becomes too breathy. Let’s grab a hold of something else – politics.

Breathing / breathing my mother in / breathing…

Bush would accept, I reckon, that she is broadly un-political, placing herself in the broader-than-that category we might term Artist. However I imagine there are folks out there who adore her for the revelatory nature of her Woman-as-Artisthood.
Breathing may be a seminal work of feminism as well as another fabulously intriguing product. Go listen.

An end-of-the-world crypto-dirge meets some extravagant, challenging and in truth maybe only partly successful homage to… Mother(s). It’s a line in the sand, yet another exposure and also a triumph of plain weirdness. We may not know whether to wallow in its sexiness, join some protest group, get back to art school or possibly campaign to get every art school in the nation closed down. How are we supposed to view this when the questions are so e-nor-mous and the milieu so colourful and new?

The Gift is surely that it pays to experience this stuff. Of course some of it don’t work – this is the edge. It’s also personal and pure and recklessly giving. So no wonder.

There’s no safe way for me to spill out the feeling that in the 70’s/80’s Kate Bush was a beautiful, beautiful specimen of womanhood who did something liberatingly special. That dancing/those toons/those lyrics. Loaded with something fantastical and real.

Tonight, I wonder where is she now?

She was (I think) an art or dance-school philosopher – and yes there is a wee criticism in there – out there somewhere bold, somewhere only hers. I’ve heard folks lump her in with Bowie as some un-Englishly cracked actor and I can see why… but why compare? Kate Bush was incomparable. I hope her return to the stage does nothing to diminish that.

I can see today that she was, in the midst of the masturbatory blandness of the pre-punk or un-punk music scene, gorgeously unique, bewitching, luminous and credible. How will we view her tomorrow?

Under Milk Wood. Inna BBC Wales stylee.

To begin at the beginning. Michael Sheen is quietly electrifying, like the night itself. Tom Jones twinkles and twitches amiably, like some sea-faring, rabbit-nosed cat king. Jonathan Pryce poisons the missus (and vice-versa,) only she lacks the manual. And Charlotte Church’s sheets are surely as virtuous and polar a white as it says, there, there in those voiced words; in the silken, cobblestone rap of it.

Sorry. Fa-ar too tempting to slip into sub-Llareggubian; the language of herons and otters and shouting dogs and oh, people – the living and the dead. In the lush, daft, dusky, gloriously humdrum thrall of that beautiful, rippling world, who wouldn’t? When the warmest and bestest of Welsh Wales are up there, winking at us – who wouldn’t be seduced?

I am. Whilst knowing enough of this dumpy oddball Thomas to intellectually challenge that ludicrous pomp, that selfishness, that (arguably?) misogynist micro-creed of his. Whilst being the bloke who (o-kaay, metaphorically) pours a pint over him, for his braying, his idleness, his middle-classness.

Despite the despites I confess that for me Dylan still breaks right out and runs off giggling, wheezing, to hide in some upturned boat. Incorrigible bastard that he is, he’s probably still there, swigging something gross but writing something else that’s utterly life-affirming; for which we must forgive him. Something beautiful, fearless and inviolably good because – whatever the inadequacies of the man – it’s flooded with supreme and undeniable warmth.

This BBC Wales/National Theatre Wales version of Under Milk Wood is seductively good not because it is flawless or universally beautifully performed (though in its predominantly purple passages it does have that quality) but because it simply gets Thomas. And Laugharne and all that defying of the banal – and the humour of his language and the web-footed lives of the protagonists. It gets all of that beautifully.

Here though, a necessary note. I say protagonists rather than characters aware of the difficulty some have with the writer’s neglect for building or ‘developing’ ‘character’. But I’m with Thomas, refreshed, in fact by his inspired cartoons in this and nearly every instance.

Relax. I don’t make an argument for suspension of normal critical faculties so much as a plea to listen and to allow the poetry of the thing (remember that?) to do its work. The contemporary, over-thunk, painfully work-shopped calibration of meaningful events-in-the-life-of thing is just one end of the spectrum, no? (One that often feels deadly to me, if I’m honest.) I for one make no apology for sharing the instinct and predilection for unreasonable colour; defying the banal. The essence of this Dylan Thomas stuff is love of life.

The current BBC Wales production is brilliantly as well as lavishly cast, bringing together a fabulous and familiar but authentic posse of Welsh talent. Most clearly revel in it – and again, who wouldn’t? Apart from the above-named stars the likes of Katherine Jenkins and Bryn Terfel are called upon, in both cases to sing as well as act – briefly. Casting the former, in the role of Polly Garter, was deliciously sharp. You may find yourself caught between laughing or letching but I predict you will generally be caught, somewhere in the gambol.

The notes (on BBCiplayer – go within the next three days!) describe, somewhat pretentiously, a ‘community’ of Welsh performers. This sounds counter to both the notion and actuality of a production linking/sharing points and people ‘twixt L.A. and Laugharne itself. (Laptops are as key to this as erm… lapwings). We, the audience, are bounced between places which are essentially locations only for the words; a bedroom; a car; a room with a view over Llareggub. Meaning the actors faces and those words (only) carry us. But there is something shared here, and yes, I’m thinking something of the communal about the evident, joyful, raising of the actor’s game. We are wrapped within it, as are they.

Hard and probably wrong to single out moments or performances. (Go see, you fools!) However, Sheen’s opening monologue is magnificently compelling. It’s authoritative and true – big-league in a good way like Gareth Bale back from Real for an exhibition match at The Liberty (say). Playing absurdly stunningly but with humility.

I may be wrong but I like to think that Sheen bought in to the idea of this as a both a national event and a privilege – and one in which he led. He would know that the myths and loves around Dylan Thomas and Wales are so inseparable in their big-hearted, boozy expressivity that there is a feeling of something essential here, beyond any literary or poetic quality the work may have.

The production itself is smart enough to offer a glimpse or two of actors watching other actors. So as Sheen begins the capture, we see or sense there is delight and maybe a touch of awe in the excitement of the watching troupe. It’s – in this case – a delightful device. Inspiring, I imagine, for the supporting cast.

But please do watch. Watch and mainly listen. If unfamiliar don’t go in there thinking there’s any real action. It’s just words. I would argue it’s freeing and even revelatory for those who read or write at all – and I do mean at all – but waddoo I know? I’m the sort of bloke who smiles when folk (well, the dead) ask

Is there bosoms and robins?
Fightin’ an’ onions?

Or when the town gossip screeches
Who’s Dead? Who’s dyin’?
There’s a lovely day – aaaw the cost of soap flakes!

But waddoo I know?

I know there’s something powerful caught here, in Under Milk Wood; still.

I’ve watched this production three times and tried to calm down and say something sensible and articulate and mature. But I am undone by smiles. The thing is a triumph and a joy. It’s there to be felt and heard. Thomas feels hilariously, possibly weirdly relevant to a Wales that is as sassy and starlit – or as dumb and dusky – as the next place. 100 years on from his birth, Laugharne(I know) is still beautiful and sleepy and murderously awash with gossip and treachery and love that divides as well as binds. Like everywhere.

So how is it unique? Simple answer… because of the voices. Voices that this poet, Dylan Thomas, from a writing shed overlooking the Taf, really heard, really felt.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/p01x5k4n/ – do watch!!

Your own… personal… Mu-nich.

The Munich Trove. What a great story. The spiriting away of proper high-end modern art – Chagall/Picasso/Dix etc etc – by sleeping cohorts of either greedily ambivalent or conflictingly discerning Nazis, bearing canvases through dark tunnels in hay-carts or on dark, dark trains. Or by packing them on reluctant mules for clandestine hikes over the Schwarzwald. Or somewhere – somewhere misty. This is surely so-o fabulous we may have to wheel out the You Couldn’t Dream It Up subheading. More fun though, methinks, to dream up our own, life-changing stash…

Except maybe not a stash; not something the buggers could legitimately take back. No – NO – a gift, a spectacular, real, fuck right off GIFT that The Authorities could gawp at all they liked but never take away. So you can choose to openly display it – put one in the conservatory dwarling, put one right there in the front fucking window!! Wherever you want. And there’s no denying it’s yours. Phew. Woddablast that would be. In my head now it’s already sorted.

So yeh My Inheritance of absurdly wonderful art-stuff happens thissaway – in a whirl. I’m in Venice… and there’s a mighty storm… and everything must surely be lost ’til I swallow up the sea and spit it back out, harmlessly into er… The Dalmatians. And the Richest Man Ever Ever –who has been watching from an unsinkable mega-schooner thing, whilst supping fine Prosecco – sees, and promptly magics up, without my knowledge, the following. For me. To keep.

(If that was all a bit urgent it’s because I just want to get to the bit where I think about which paintings really quick, okay?) Because, yeh, it feels like I kindof get to choose… or does the Rich Bloke like … read my mind?

Hmm. Not clear on that. But whatever, suddenly, they’re all there! On the carpet. With the dog still sleeping under-neath! WOW!! Or should that be POW!!?!!

You Couldn’t Dream It Up But…

The first thing I see is yeh – the biggest. Back there, behind the dog, the parcels and everything. Parked against the wall but taking up half the goddam room. A ginormous box-like rectangle, like a fish-tank only I don’t know yet what’s in it because it’s wrapped in stuff. If I unwrap it now… OMG!! Shark!!

Settle down and think.  And try to be articulate.

Never known how much I like this but ‘The Impossibility of Death or Whatever Thingy’ – Damien Hirst. Bloody great shark in the living room. And what’s the label saying? Oh yeh. Maybe the title is massive on this one. ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. How brooding and primeval and slow (actually) and bewitching and swallowing and challenging is that? Great work, RB and thanks for the early monster red-herring curve-ball. It’s awesome. I know that’s a totally naff and inadequate word for it but close up, that is awesome. And yeh – a surprise.

Whoa. Okay so clambering into this pile here now and… it’s hilarious this. Propped against each other. Just plonked down, pretty much.

Oh, okay – this is great. This is great. This I’ve always loved or been drawn to; David Bomberg – The Mud Bath. Always just thought it’s remarkable and somehow has so many levels, only about half of which I’m getting. But it really pays to look. Nationalism and chaos and blood/mud, I imagine… but there’s something both kinetically charged and sophisticated going on here. It’s a radical British treasure; absolutely e-ssen-tial. Nice one – great start.  Chuffed with that.

Just realised we’re effectively into a Desert Island Discs thing here. How groovy is that? 20-odd artefacts here though, by the look. And they’re all ‘modern’, I think. So it is my Munich.

I’m just going to pull them out and see what’s here. Almost brutally. Line them up or separate them. Jesus. Be careful enough Vinnybach.

Okay, this is really interesting because RB has obviously caught hold of something here; my sense of what’s bloody magnificent or powerful or attractive, rubbing up against conflicting (used that word already I know but it’s right, again) emotions around the artist. Lucian Freud. Part of me thinks genius, part of me thinks brute. The flesh and the eyes; painted or flippin’ ravaged? Incredibly sexual workings-over of the subjects – the people. Unbelievable – no! Corporeal/supra-believable. Hugely, intimidatingly present bodies… and those eyes.

Brilliantly, this one’s a subtler variation. Girl in bed, 1952. But it’s still all eyes. Beautiful. Welling. Meaning (I’m guessing) this man can’t have been a complete brute; there’s just too much poignancy here. What’s next?

Okay. So we’ve gone back a bit. Vlaminck. And I saw a painting of his in Helsinki, I think… but was it this one? No. But it was… it made me think, it made me re-appreciate Vlaminck, position him way higher. This isn’t it. This is ‘Under the Bridge at Bezons’, 1906 and it’s strong again – from that heavy-daubed fauve scene. Colourful ,obviously. Strongish whiff of Van Gogh maybe. Wouldn’t immediately have chosen that. Maybe that’s the point? Move on.

Now this is fantastic. Inspired work by the RB Geezer. A Rothko, but one of the earlyish ones, before he really got going on the Universal wotnots – the ‘mausoleums’ and all that. (Which I love.) Untitled (Subway) c. 1937. Saw this on ‘Power of Art’ – the Simon Schama thing – which I also loved. Weirdly seductive crazee-mirror people on a platform which is also a trance… deeply fascinating. And so, so hinting at the godlike free-form genius to come; a revelation because of the contrast with Seagram murals and all that. A much littler story but a wonderful one. 

And now immediately a BI-IG Print. Of a Richard Deacon sculpture/installation. Whorls of bentwood. Okay… and this would really be about the object’s presence in the room, in the space. But I’ve got it in the two dimensions. Interesting. ‘What Could Make Me Feel This Way 2’. Airy and modern and kindof unstill in a way I’m still trying to get to grips with. Wouldn’t fit so in cibachrome.  Top choice again – think something about the beauty of diversity and open-mindedness is being suggested here. Fabulous.

How many things do they get on Desert Island Discs? Is it eight? And two luxuries? Well I’ve got more than that here but for my next gift (or choice) I have… something again I recognise but which is reduced (as it were) from installation to print form. Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’. Epic and genuinely significant feminist statement from the seventies – still major now. A table laid in celebration and observance of brilliant (largely forgotten) women, controversially featuring ‘vaginal forms’ as plates. Iconic. Massive. Demanding. Demanding recognition. Stunning. If the original installation is still in the Brooklyn Museum(?) let’s us blokes hire a plane and go pay homage. Seriously. Flog a painting or two and go. Onwards.

Last of my eight for now (I’m saving a shedload for private viewing)is… a Miro. A Miro because I love his range. From surreal poetry to polemicist to farm-boy naif to metropolitan boxer. With that particular Catalonian angle, broiling with heat and deftness and parochialism and utopian heart. ‘Constellations’. Symbols that I can’t yet read. Wow, wadda gift. What a mixture of gifts we have. What are yours like?

What I did in my holidays, by bowlingatvinny, aged 624.

Travel. Culture. National ‘type’ or character or that thing about how a place feels. Rich but loaded territory. I stumble over it here and waft airily through memories following a break in France and Spain, foolishly crossing over into stuff which we may have to label judgement; knowing it’s not just ludicrous but probably downright wrong to make comparisons between places. It is, however, bloody tempting to try to capture some sense of what was wonderful – what we loved most.

Hey look I’m still cruising down the slope back into the Valley of the Working. Having recently nosed through the Vallée d’Aspe and then gawped at the Pyrenees from both sides, I remain 70-30 (percentage-wise) in the grip of Post Hols Daze-Virus Effort. And I have no raging urge to deny the affliction by deigning to re-enter normal life. Why should I, when so recently we were on Penä Oroel in the balmy heat watching some Aragonese bloke launch a paraglider? Into thermals us West-Walians would poetically-enthusiastically describe as liftin’ with vultures, mun? Why would the everyday exclude or even intrude on that? No, let’s loiter in that memory, please, have tâpas with it and drain the slowest of slow coffees. Until finally we click over into school pick-ups and yaknow, rain.

Yup we went from Wales to France and Spain, flying Stansted-Biarritz and picking up a car to skirt, drift and boot through the mountains to Jaca, Aragon. Critically, we could stay with friends in a tiny hamlet where climbers wipe before entering Los Pirineos; both on a financial level and in terms of accessing local cultural/geographical highlights this helped. In fact it simply made it possible.

Emerging from the likeably tiddly airport at Biarritz, more than faintly disoriented by the cack-handed Megane somebody foolishly hired me, we GET AWAY remarkably. Admittedly I’m looking for the wrong mirror/wrong life-endangering juggernaut but we are unmistakably away and into the drive – into our holiday.

We see some French roads – some Basque roads – and trees and villages. We look at the strangely conflicted words on the signs and fail (consistently) to say half of them. Whilst not quite meandering we draw in some of the local stuff – sweetcorn, mainly – and the colour red and the colour white. And tiles. Then poplars being sentries but maybe the sort that welcome rather than guard. We get in to that French Basque zone, gently… but sure… like tourists. Wondering how San Sebastian can be the same place as Donostia summink-or-other? Maybe searching for some dubious link between Basque and Welsh but ultimately leaving that one be. And just looking.

The flight had been okay. Ryan Air. Meaning a slightly edgy mob of wannabe guitar players, surfers and youngish families, all pretty unashamedly shedding the usual courtesies (here I do mean the passengers more than the staff, who were fine) and unzipping that myth about Brits queuing beautifully. The head stewardbloke – who may in truth have been directing the frenetic activity around him from a position of some Eckle(s)burgian insight – was actually genuinely good value as local prompter and wit, as well as accommodating er …host.

However the incoming flight had been slightly late, meaning an almost worryingly quick turnaround – raising certain perfectly legitimate questions. Like would the pilot need a drink? Or a kip? Would they make sure they had air-in-the-tyres/diesel in the tank/a shammy leather handy to wipe the driver’s window? We were all thinking this, or the aerial equivalent, I know: not just little old ahem plane-phobic me.

No the flight was fine but I’m kindof with Dennis Bergkamp on this. And soon enough, as our drive progressed (and my palms aired) there came to pass a seamless and vacation-appropriate gradation into ease. Bidache; Navarrenx; Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The visual momentum built as we went from countryside with a whiff of the special, to full-on gobsmacking, as we slid, in fact, into the Vallee d’Aspe. Now ’twas proper rip-roaring glacial scenery and proper mountains seen very close up, from the laughably tight valley floor. A brief, syrupy downpour and then tunnels into the guts of all this rock; into Spain.

We’d slithered south-easterly across France and now we plunged north-south just the few tens of kilometres to Jaca, through the area allegedly dotted with ski-resorts. (They are there – around Candanchu – but they simply weren’t on the mission schedule.) With the east-west grain of the Pyrenees at our backs as we ploughed on, we began to recognise gaps or drops into sleeping but boulder-strewn streams and the shoulders of some of the peaks; all this hauled or sprung from the memories of our previous visit, three years ago. We knew something of this place, ‘course we did. And the names now… Sabinanigo, Huesca, Castiello de Jaca. Familiar but still exotic.

About three hours all told to get from Biarritz to our stony, amiably street-dog-friendly village. Clunk the doors and look at the mountains – the foothills actually – Los Pirineos now being a few klicks to our north. Feel the hard, Spanish sun; the heat. A quick shuftie at the map confirms we’re at about Snowdon-height, looking up to between six and seven thousand feet; Snowdon times two, pretty much. Visau’/Bisaurin away and left, Monte Perdido maybe an hour going right. Hikes immediately – and I do mean immediately – available…

Wow. Must walk up there later – remember that next ridge? We walked it. That do-able on a mountain-bike?

(Answer – no, not for me – I tried it. Constant slippage or wheelies or punishing, pointless effort in near enough 90 degrees. My fitness is decent but we just skated on the gravel, on the dust. To be fair it was crazy steep.)

There followed days of exploring and rediscovering. Trudging then latterly floating up Penä Oroel , part shady yomp, part dreamy alpine meadow, concluding with stunning open views which genuinely (in that inadequate phrase) stirred the soul. Or driving with relentless purpose to blissfully little-known pools – pozas – to launch into deep pockets of sometimes shockingly refreshing mountain water. Then perhaps most memorably of all, trekking the bulk of a day, through, over and onto retreating snowbanks around 6,000 feet, faithfully following cairns in the absence of signage or people, to scale Pico d’Aspe. Looking down on France and the universe and (real) chamois(es?) flitting over the snow.

Mix in a dollop of ice-cream or fried squid in the town (Jaca), twenty minutes of Real Sociedad on the telly in the sports bar, plus a mowsie round the cave-cathedral that is San Juan de la Penä… and there you have it – or a flavour of it. Wonderful things and daft things. Like my daughter blowing all her holiday money on riding at Caballos el Pesebre, where instead of Pembrokeshire Nags there were sub-Arabian beauties. Where she cantered round (almost absurdly but beaming) beneath Los brooding but beautiful Pirineos. And I just sat and watched and read further into Homage to Catalonia!

I can’t pretend we engaged deeply with either the local social or political milieu. I am aware, for example, of the disaster that is youth unemployment in Spain and have views on that. I know that dangerous wee bit about the Spanish Civil War and have some relevant history; some; enough maybe to feel the nearness of Franco and hear the enduring bitterness towards the Guardia Civil. But we were tourists, staying with a family of (fluent Spanish-speaking) non-natives. So what was it, exactly, that made me fall for Spain?

The Pyrenees I find stunning and evocative. I failed, I admit, to entirely separate the view from the heroic defiance, the anarchistic militancy and indeed the sacrifice of the population (as was?) Ground like this is going to foster pride and passion and maybe a little wildness and given the essential local connection between folks and earth through time it makes sense that something preciously approaching a worker’s province could emerge here. I am very close to writing that you can still see that – feel it – the land simply seems worth fighting for.

In the 1930’s a truly remarkable revolutionary fire swept through much of Spain and continued to flicker defiantly here, in the forests and the farmsteads. Partly, no doubt, because the geography is with the rebel, the guerrilla, not the government. Partly, I like to think, because the people are big enough, generous enough to battle in order to share. Standing on a peak in Aragon, looking at a land that could not be mastered – not that gorge, not that Alpine slope! – I got sucked into all that… romance.

It’s a leap from here/there to the following – that I prefer Spain to France – but I will make it, without, on this occasion accounting for the frisson around the subtext. I’ll simply own up to the preference for (imagined) 20th century Spanish defiance over (imagined) French capitulation; that should do it.

There’s a certain deep richness to rural northern Spain which blows me away. Kindof uniquely. There is, in Los Pirineos, this endless slew of mountains, a splendid, inviolable peace; no doubt related to – arising from? – the scope, the scale of the view, the physical realities. But there is something else, beyond, beneath.

Even allowing for the fact that I was re-reading Homage to Catalonia at the time of our visit and am therefore likely charged with Engaged Lefty Wistfulness, I will dare to suggest that culture, politics, the mix of daily grind and grand philosophical breach – of war, of war, in fact! – breathes into this. In the wonderful, silent greenness of the slopes and the ochre plain I found something very rich and hearty and intoxicating. And though on returning to the French side I was much taken with St Jean de Luz in particular – Spain does it for me.

Bute Park Divers.

I walked that millennium way

My hurry a commonplace in the eye of the border

And the riverbank

My breath in unison with the joggers and the students,

The bud-killing cold some amber glory

But the stands as silent as the fish.

The whistle of that city bustle no doubt stilled

After the game that swallowed him

For no man in its dream of Jonah or of Jaws

Drunk well on its remembering.

I bounced on,

Drawn to the bridges.

The flush of youth is here

Craning for trout, or bikes, or signs

The students in their lycra shoals

Miked up to saccharoidal bliss,

Found within their luminous buzz.

Who is lost amongst the cityfolks?

Distracted, scarfless in the permafrost.

Is it cold, cold in there

Where the tiddlers dream who won?

Not traipsing off to Ely or to Eden

By foot or boozy mini-cab

I flank the water.

I wasn’t close – and yet I was.


That soft sphere clasped in her blind ‘basket’

Those four eyes handling.

The adrenalin shaking out its fur.

She goes again.

Through that matrix of fraught failure,

Dry-lipped and unexpressing

This little girl is nearly smiling.


Airborne – she and the tiny earth together

Palmed out towards the radar

Of her own blurred universe.

She grabs; it falls.

By now the room is watching.

Again – a hopeful exhortation

From Dan and Jack and Rhodri bach –


They know this is not rocket science,

They know that it’s not luck

That coaxes or coordinates such things.

But I’m the coach. Not pre-disposed I hope

To seek for epic confirmations, lightning bolts.

A gentle word.

With barely a flicker, she raises hands.

We lend our focus and the ball… lands.

Right over Mid-off.

Under a stony sky on that scuffed pitch

Flecked with the memory of hail

Where Elin still plays horses in Specsaver glasses

And the goal-line technology confounds,

My manly fingers dried out like winter veg

The games, despite the cold, went great.

The warm-up might have lasted years – perhaps it did?

Owain never grew above four feet.

But rarely has a test in Llandissilio been so… passed.

He bossed the thing and flailed that bat

Sword-like and reckless through the chilled swathe

Outside off-stump,

His cheeks flushed, hands numb.

I clapped and stamped and ooohed and aahed

With heart. To keep them happy – to keep me warm.

Calibrating this or that, according to the manual.

So cherish and celebrate this brilliant catch or stop,

The moment of some daft, uplifting grace or bouncing joy

For this or that non-sporty girl or boy.

A spiteful grab, mind, then mild rebellion

As, unsubtly, the littl’uns shirk their fielding job.

Relax. The focus comes and goes when you are eight.

And as it does, where else to look but up?

Distracted by some floating, fleeting presence

I might, in fact, forgive.

From Mid-off comes the call,

Sky-punchingly possessive. Barcud Goch! Barcud Goch!

I drop the ball.

The Case for Sport.

Encouragingly, this sport thing won’t go away. As both a political argument and a philosophic one it’s stayed present because like some shirt hoisted into a euphorically-stacked crowd, it draws loads of us. Our instincts kick in around it. Essentially, we’ll grab a hold, thank you very much and we’ll pull as hard as we need to establish our part – our ownership maybes.

Young and old, man and woman. Think of those around you, think of the things that animate them, that light them up with either joy or fury or the most hilarious disproportion; probably sport. The lines blurring magically over whom, exactly, is taking part; everything coalescing around some need to play or join or represent.

I know not everyone gets it. (Shame.) At a time when we as a nation have greater need than ever for obesity-reducing running about the place, we can easily side-step fears that competitive sport just doesn’t work for everyone. Fine, so starting in nurseries let’s just tweak the nature of the game(s) and hike the encouragement. Get the ‘non-athletes’ in, immediately if not sooner. In primary years, get children active with sponge-balls and wind balls and things that go WE-EEE but not BANG. We are lost already if we don’t establish a culture of gaminess – running and jumping and catching for fun. Start there. Make it available. Make it fun.

Good coaches and teachers know where and how to find the right kind and level of activity. Whether those coaches or teachers are available to your children may well be a function of government policy or that old lottery around the quality of individuals. In the first case I strongly urge you to engage with the debate around Physical Education in whatever way you feel able. This might mean demanding generous and intelligent sports provision at your local school, or it might mean joining some wider campaign. Poor or tokenistic PE provision in schools is damaging and annoying, particularly if you as a parent can clearly identify individuals responsible… and it goes on. If you have to complain to a Head, or an MP, or just the disaffected dads down the pub, just do it… and give it some wallop.

But why should we bother? What would a good PE culture deliver? What kind of differences might it make? Crucially – is it worth paying for?

Good coaches transform the school experience of many children. They get them smiling but also listening. They get them running but also thinking. They know that whilst some children will get totally stuck in, others will shuffle round the edge shyly. They see it as their job to engineer games – question, question – whereby the children themselves have stumbled towards some democracy of fun; where there is sharing and teamwork and maybe a spark of competition. Or maybe not.

Differentiation is key, as it would be in all other forms of education. Seeing what works or helps; identifying what children can do. Clearly an obese child with poor co-ordination will need and enjoy a different kind of moment to the athlete in the class. Prepare for that, then. Calibrate down or up – judge the level of technical bumpf, splatter the encouragement, welcome them all in. Just don’t forget that one aim should be for that obese child to be fitter and happier, sportier and yes… slimmer in the long term. Meanwhile the athlete continues to be challenged and his/her technical skills developed. Because you can do all that stuff in a single games lesson. All you need is a good teacher and some pretty fundamental resources.

I’m not sure we should need to step beyond the health and wellbeing issue in order to legitimise the case for sport. Quite simply that fit’n well feeling is so central to so many aspects of life that it blows away all counter-arguments – including those of a financial nature. We reduce significantly, through a culture of sport, the numbers of obese/diabetic patients in hospitals at huge benefit to the national purse. I don’t have the figures; I don’t need to. Healthy physical activity, encouraged and developed through schools is an essential part of how we keep both individuals and society buoyant. Sold.

I work for a sports body and a cricket-specific charity. As consequence of the far-sightedness and generosity of certain people, schools get me for nowt. I’m there to support cricket, sure, but have clear objectives in terms of linking in to the academic curriculum, citizenry and wider, touchy-feelier aspirations. I’ve been trained to coach cricket and I’ve been trained to work in school. So, ‘midst the relentless F.U.N. I have children work out how many of them should be at each cone for us to have a fair relay. I ask them what we might do to give the maximum number a bat? (Giving up the bat is a real challenge for some children – there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere, yes?) I suggest this is only going to work if we share.

I get them to think through the structure of the game – how many are we? What time we got? How do we moderate? Quite sophisticated/quite simple. Great idea Sara – let’s have two overs each! Good work, Tom – brilliant running! Let’s go non-stop!!

I can tell you that virtually every session I am conscious of wee hearts being lifted, soaring somewhere – and I don’t just mean the high-fliers, the ‘athletes’ in the group – through the lovely machinations of the game. I know (because the Headteachers tell me) that these children love these lessons and that some of them engage much better with other school activity because… I guess… they feel good about something. Hopefully, themselves?

You may or may not be surprised to hear that if anything I’ve really underplayed my passion for sport here and the part it surely must play in the development of healthy and happy people. I am at pains to stress that though I love competitive sport, I can see examples where it works better to take out some of that bite and replace it with rounder-edged joys. In sport as in life everybody must be valued, encouraged, supported. But that’s then a political matter, yes?

In this wider debate, I support the view that Michael Gove is an embarrassment and a liability. So clearly distanced from the nation’s touchstones that he can hardly be blamed for his crusty isolation. It may be the making of a poor argument that the man barely looks like he’s ever flung a stone into a pond, never mind leapt to claim the ball at a line-out. Still, I find Gove’s educational philosophy weirdly fascinating and invite psychologists to do their worst with such an extraordinary mixture of reactionary sadism and camp Victoriana.

Specifically, however, his obvious lack of understanding for sport transgresses too far into ignorance for me to tolerate too much of it. I know it’s both unhelpful and ungracious to personalise this thing… but in Gove’s case I’m prepared to drop my standards. We as a nation(!) – oh-oh can of worms; exit swiftly before someone says We’re all in this together!- cannot afford, for our children’s sake, to let a fool of that calibre run Education. And we certainly can’t afford to let him spoil our precious games.

There is more of this mixture of pomp and poison in my surprisingly readable ebook – out here amzn.to/SSc9To

Some top people recommend it.

Two cheers for apostasy.

Much of what we do feels increasingly contingent upon something; something else. Did I say increasingly? Yes.

Often, of course, this something else is central to guiding or sharpening our response; let’s call that ‘focussing’; other times it obscures. Absurd I know to speak of the general run of things, but in the general run of things it feels like either nothing really is simple these days, or nothing really is. In this, our dorito-munching delirium, we can’t be arsed to work stuff out – whether that conundrum be a political choice or a moral one, or a nothing. With everything screened or distracted, by accident or design, our houses (and our mouses?) and our workplaces are mothering or at least hosting some anaesthetising fog; in which we waft around the place, more or less dumbly.

Is this just because the world gets older and more knowing? And choices, ironically, are massively more complex beasts than they were, say thirty years ago, when (allegedly–apparently) we knew nothing? In the same way that there can be no new rock music, is there is nothing in our lives at all free from influence? And if this is the case, why so difficult to cut through the crap and feel and be and express any honesties we may have? Why so difficult?

Despite my diabolical wordiness, I’m a pretty uncluttered bloke. I can and often do unleash opinions or contributions without raising any of the apparently essential filters used by brainyfolks – the sort that pre-empt faux pas, or vitriol, or the generally ill-considered. I don’t have that tetchily neurotic web out front, constantly dampening down before spinning my offerings to the universe. And that pleases me; mostly. I think very often that the mesh in this battery of excluders we raise before our spoken word is unhelpfully tiny; it catches far too much reactive wit and instinctive wisdom – if that latter isn’t a contradiction? And no, I’m not still talking about me.

Now, I am. Whether my colour (the colour of my writing, stoopid) is a mark of confidence/arrogance/brilliance/ignorance is for others to decide. It is in itself an invitation to counter colourfully. Counter-argue, counter-punch even. It’s my voice/it’s a stir. Because alongside of the fact that life/sport really is ‘about opinion’ we must, we need to share and test our most firmly held views. And if we can do this whilst creating something true, then we add to the store of generosity in the world – whether what we say contains beauty or not, I think. And so I raise this gambit-of-the-egos in order to talk about belief.

It would appear that anthropology is about making sense of people’s collective stuff; their culture, their social structure. It’s a conduit for understandings; ideally. It seems charged with furthering the cause of objectivity, by freeing study from opinion in order to note rather than judge. Because judging is inappropriate – too subjective. I am no anthropologist, regrettably.

Let me fix upon an issue which becomes then my example – a process again so loaded with ructions that if I/we ‘stop to think’ fear of misconstruction might confound the enterprise afore it’s hauled anchor. Islam; a faith no more or less absurd than any other great religion; let that be our example. Because it’s topical. Because it tingles and burbles with incoherent or inflamed (if not volcanic) assumptions. And shed loads of prejudice.

I am familiar with the argument – no doubt brewing behind the furrowed brow-zone of your sagacious bonce, dear reader – that white pseuds like me are at least as responsible for any reduction in intellectual freedoms as Islamic militants. Because white pseuds like me own and write The Daily Mail; because of widespread institutionalised xenophobia; because many things work against the radical. So I accept there is a case to answer on why I’m having a go at Islam rather than some other perceived enemy of the people’s right to Yaa Boo Suck(s). Some will feel this in itself reflects dubious standards – intellectual and moral – in me. Perhaps I need to challenge myself more vigorously – catch more stuff in the mesh.

But I do want to have a pretty significant grumble about this (to me, in my ignorance) amorphous/homogenous construct, the Radical Islamist.   Chiefly because I spit multidinous seas reflecting on the closing down of our capacity to reply, to stand up to Islamic protest.  Unfortunately, I want to do it an entirely non-anthropological way, leading with my chin, wagging and pointing fingers as I might in a trans-garden-fence rant: (I mean discussion.) In the knowledge that this is not, at all, the way to proceed, but in the hope that truths worth arguing about may spill forth ‘midst the spittle. Plus, someone has to say this stuff, right?

The Radical Islamist gets lots of media. Partly because what he/she does is often controversial – maybe intoxicatingly so? – and because of the frisson lit in our western hearts by any faint whiff of (contender again for word of the decade, for the 9,000th decade on-the-trot?) jihad. Jihad is major, no question; but cop this…

One of the most real terrors of our time might be the brutalised nature of the assumptions we in The West make about Muslims. The argument that this is the fault of Islamic terrorists is seriously beyond inadequate; but please note my acceptance that we are all culpable before I go on relentlessly towards my inflammation.

Now, such is the intimidating power of the broad swath of Islam-o-weapons – from reflective or seductive mullah to shocktroop loony – that The West, fascinatingly, is forced largely into apologetic mode in dealing with higher profile eruptions of Islamic faith. Young blokes assaulting embassy perimeters or old geezers quaking with sub-fatwa furies have backed us into a corner. Despite the obvious and pretty reasonable assumption that these are seriously deluded people we daren’t give them the equivalent of a direct bollocking; the level of their lunacy prevents this. In our unspeakable smugness, underscored as it plainly is by atrociously misjudged military interventions, we fear they might rustle up some further atrocity of ‘their own’.

The ironies are almost unbearably rich when patently dumb fervour is appeased by western concerns towards being ‘sensitive’ to religious belief, and by being incidentally frankly shit-scared. As though on the first instance religion deserves our respect and on the second it’s irresistibly mental. Because that aforementioned fervour is predicated upon the alarmingly real threat of violence.  This passion/hate combo penetrates deeply into our western consciousness, even when our insignificant part of this clunky notion The West is largely dismissive towards or disinterested in any god blokes.

In this scenario, where Islamic ‘radicals’ have a hold over freedom of expression the tensions twixt that which might be said and that which may be said invites close and urgent review of that which is right, does it not? (Right being a concept so massively shrouded in laughably milky uncertainty that I can only use it casually, as though it has so many meanings I can’t be arsed to indicate a ‘true’ one; I can only hope you know what I mean.) (Relax. One just got through the mesh.)

The Choice therefore appears to be that we either paddle dangerously towards inevitable contention here, or we risk appeasing our way to denuded freedoms, if politically correct(?) or anthropologically sound nuancing is factored in. So, consider my oar about to be stuck right in… and would that could be done dispassionately.

The argument exists that it’s not right to allow the unhinged protestations of some hopelessly deluded fanatics to rob any of us – deserving or otherwise – the facility for free speech. Even if the embassy-manglers, as an example, are sincere and can articulate legitimate reasons for their actions. (The polar opposite view of course is that it is not just a right but an obligation before god to defend one’s faith.) Protests clearly may on occasion be a key indicator of both high and worthy aspirations – democratic expressions of our yearnings towards civility. We may need to look simply(?) at what kind of protest is legitimate, rather than what subjects may be demonstrated upon.

It may not be entirely vulgar to suggest these guys – the Islamists, the youths, the women, the children – offend plainly against criminal law and critically against freedoms more precious even than the right to ‘defend’ your faith. In fact there is a relatively convincing intellectual and philosophical case that this is so, particularly when we consider how difficult it has become to even reasonably oppose Islam.  It’s just that the perceived visceral raging and biblical-animal reflex kicks the possibility for spiritual debate in this instance rather briskly into touch. Nobody’s listening.

But hear this – even if we factor out the necessary qualifications about not singling out this (western) generation’s feared ‘other’. Violating or burning property or killing people who sit anywhere on the religious respect-deficient continuum is viewed by many millions as a) an embarrassing own goal b) a virtual admission of the thinness of your belief c) counter to any notion of tolerance d) an irreligious outrage.

Let me just squirt this further lemony job in at this point. For me there is no god; simple. Religion really is a sometimes fascinating but generally insulting notion – an offensive one of itself. And/but if there was some god, some Allah, it seems unlikely he/she would sanction the brutalisation of any freedoms – even the freedom to offend him/her. Or maybe not. Whatever the truth of that, we in The West who are targeted by Islamic Radicalism in any form should be confident enough to say not only that recent ugly protests are ugly and unlawful, but they spring – like our religions – from fairy-tales.

Things like this take courage; clear-sightedness. And it’s not always possible to take the heat, the emotion, the counter-punching vitriol out. Gods are fictional and it’s about time we rose to that. And manage as best we can how others fail to deal with it. Others like the Islamic Radicals, so poorly represented by those who violate. Guys, we can look at you and say that we will not tolerate either your violence or the falseness at its heart. We cannot forever recoil from the ‘inflammatory’. You are wrong and you have been duped; like lots of us.

To be specific, I haven’t seen a single second of ‘Innocence of Muslims’, the currently hugely contentious ‘anti-Islamic’ film fomenting ‘reaction’ around the globe. But I don’t need to see it to know that the subsequent eruptions of violence are in any case a travesty against the most holy and humane thing we as a species possess – the facility to express our intellectual brilliance, our freedom to speak. Islam really does need a good dose of Monty Python’s; irreverence being next to godliness, in fact.

The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct; part one.

The 2012 Olympics was a significant success for New Blighty in virtually every way you can think of, including and importantly because it did express some progress towards an appreciation of and national ease with our much discussed multi-culturalism. It’s surely a tad more difficult now to be casually or serially racist? Now that we’ve all seen how wonderfully part of us Mo Farrah/Jess Ennis are, how much we mean to them, even. Only the most outstandingly moronic and impervious xenophobe could bark out white supremacist garbage (or similar) in the glorious wake of such a unifying Olympics, yes?

That may be too optimistic a view. But for me a key memory, a genuinely warming one amongst the admittedly intoxicatingly gathering festival concerned how we look… and how we sound, us Brits. Tied into those abstract notions of place and belonging – notions frequently co-opted or compromised by sometimes legitimate political or cultural discourse – this goodly thing that shone back at us (proper people?) did appear to be about us; our team.

We were a hugely attractive bunch; black or mixed race or whatever. And when our athletes emerged into individual focus from their brilliant blur of TeamGBness, for their post-blow sofa-spots or trackside verbals, they were, despite their ‘diversity’ uniformly charming and generous; they were great company.

Dangerously for those of us attempting to report without lapsing pretty immediately into anglo-corn, our athletes brought back to us virtues feared lost in the age of footballer-generated smog. They really were delightful, articulate and entirely believable as decent specimens of humanity. They were compellingly appropriate if not ideal representatives for us. We therefore revelled in the sense of a shared adventure – inevitably more or less vicariously – but with a persistently humming and occasionally electrifyingly uplifting connection. Because beyond the silverware, the medals, there was a profound general awareness of extraordinary people – them – giving of their best in the knowledge of, or even motivated by, other people – us!

…Here comes that dangerous crop of hagiopoop…

Consequently us Brits were gawping and smiling at heroic effort and deserved success by athletes we were proud to think of as Our Lot – not just because of their winning but because of their winning humility, humour and palpable honesty. Time after time – you pick your own! – we were presented with beaming members of TeamGB who captivated us with their wit and their roundedness during interview. They talked with real warmth and appreciation and understanding and insight and generosity about their event… and often our place in their success. And we loved them for all that.

Okay. So deep breath and yes, remember not God Save but those other lyrics, of Declan MacManus –

No more fast buck / when they gonna learn their lesson

When we gonna stop all of these victory processions?

Maybe the world hasn’t actually been changed. A fine Olympics hasn’t, sadly, undermined the monolithic badness of Growth-worship or manifest greed. (In fact, looking at the sponsors… let’s not go there.) But maybe something in our sporting world got better? And maybe we can nudge or bundle shy or retiring loveliness a bit closer to the front of class?

Already a certain momentum against widely perceived arrogance and ludicrous over-remuneration of modest and frankly often undeserving talents in the football world has arisen. Not that many needed the Olympics to flag up the rolexization of our national game – there being even amongst the tribal and myopic some acknowledgement that players don’t give much for what they get.

So let’s just compare what we heard from Farrah and Ennis, the rowers, the cyclists (again, you name the ones who affected or inspired you the most) with what you might get from Frank Lampard/Rio Ferdinand/Kenny Dalglish. (And I reckon I’ve plumped for 3 gentlemen fairly representative of their milieu – even if one is retired.) And let’s maybe consider some vaguely equivalent post-match scenario.

There would be little chance of unaffected joy from the football side. There would be a patina of rehearsed dullness, in fact. Possibly due to some significant underachievement by a manifestly poor or disappointingly stilted England side but arising too from a widespread Premiership Quality cynicism wherein no real truths must be told and some imaginary defensive line must be held against public knowledge.

Whilst Lampard has the capacity to come across as a decent bloke, he is traditionally unwilling to break through into generous good humour; Ferdinand and Dalglish are less giving than this. Often one or both are deliberately obtuse or somewhere between absent, insultingly bland and openly hostile. There is a chronic disconnect, in short, between these legends of the game and the notion that fans might really want to know what they think of x or y. And critically, there is very rarely any suggestion that they love what they do. Or we don’t feel that.  They don’t share much.

On good days, when I feel the footie-pulse coursing through my own veins, I colour in Frank or Rio’s blandness with memories. Often though, I am spurred to join in with those ‘having a dig.’  I have to confess to having unreasonably enjoyed the diabolical freedoms being an insignificant blogger allows – I know and respect the fact that the likes of @ianherbs @_PaulHayward reign themselves in for national publication – but I can sling verbals around a bit, sound off a bit more – like you. So I can further indulge the dubious belief that our young Premiership heroes are ripe for personal as well as professional evaluation, as they are in the court of popular opinion.

When weighed up for their fitness for purpose as rounded humans, or appreciated in terms of their sensitivities, their understanding of value and yes, place, The Footballers seem embarrassingly feeble. Some might say shockingly or offensively so.

On times I am offended by their dumb scurrying through life, their brazenness. How could they allow a sport so beautiful to be so disfigured with simulation, with contempt for authority, with arrogance of such an epic quality? (For surely they are complicit in all this, if not administratively ‘responsible?’)

There is no comparison, I’m afraid, with what those cyclists give and what most bigshot footballers give. In that loose but majestically fine, tippy-tappily omniscient organ us fans call our hearts, we know something ain’t right. These people – some of these people – simply aren’t good enough. And, therefore, my friends, the Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct will go on.