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.

How Can I Help?

Womad. And this time things are different. The sun is there and my wife’s on crutches, making the trawling round thing a potential pain – especially if that shin-deep festival mud returns to schloop and then unhinge your calf muscles from the back of your shins. So a series of pre-shindig conversations took place, once we finally committed to going, between the broken-footed one (who made it very clear she is not disabled, incidentally) and various Womadpeeps, about what might be done, maybe, in terms of helping her out. These friendly and apparently helpful exchanges having taken place, we booted up there; with about twelve names to refer to upon arrival.

A goodish three hour journey, including our smug wee detour round attritional and at that time surely baking queues and we cruised serenely into the Purple Gate untroubled. Jojo, our doggy but in fact heavily horse-pooh under-clad purple Megane with 158,000 on the clock having appreciated a cooling though incongruent glide through uberstoneywhitesville – those emphatically exclusive, beautifully wall-hung and wisteria-wafting villages south/west of Malmesbury. Given the stylistic limitations of said carriage, my discomfort with anything Posh-English and the demystifying NowPop booming from her inadequate speakers (because Yes, Of Course! The Kids were with us!) we may have done well to avoid a lynching. Instead, suddenly, we were there, in the brilliant sunshine, hearing cidery bass and brass booming amorphously in the leafy-balmy distance. Wow. Great. So… who did we need to find again? Tony.

Box Office… no… then that bloke… no… ask for…

In the glorious English summer sun Olympian but invisible difficulties arose. Things that kept just having to be ‘checked out.’

There followed a sadly predictable exhibition of traditional Brit(?) piss-poor ‘customer service’. Which in the context of this genuinely friendly festival felt jarringly disafuckingpointing, to be honest.

We were bumped disinterestedly from one ‘steward’ to the next and from one gate to the next for about an hour. Men and women, young to middle-aged displaying either that slightly hunted and need to escape face
or the drifting apathy of the too much skunk one that leads inevitably to lonely psychosis. (I hope.) To be fair one bloke was friendly whilst being completely open about the fact that he didn’t have the faintest idea what was occurring; fair enough. All wearing ludicrous – and possibly indifference-stimulating? – fluorescent orange or yellow.

I am aware that most folks will not at all have had this same experience but believe me, I do not exaggerate when I say it went right past shambolic – insultingly so – as we smelt disinterest more strongly than incompetence. (Pre –supervisor.) And I assure you we were more polite than the situation/the individuals invited/deserved. For longer. Until I thought you know what? My wife’s on crutches; it hurts – that foot, there! And this has like already been sorted SO many times!! Guys, you aren’t going to get away with treating us this poorly.

So we found ourselves before the Bloke Who Might Sort It, in the ‘shape’ of a body-less or at least strangely unphysical man of about 45. He was apparently narrowly post rehab of an either drug-based or (theoretically) psychologically reinvigorating sort; that – I can report back to his Bristolian therapists as they pluck their eccentric nose-hairs – failed, utterly. He paused profoundly for an age before saying anything, before … not saying anything. He asked questions suggestive of a mind fixated on butterflies and horse-dung beetles eating high tea; in Windsor Park; with a soundtrack by King Crimson. And he was in charge, in charge of this particular area. Wiltshire.

After a slightly bewildering minute or two, where I tried in vain to tune in to his cosmic vacuum, I became (for one of the very few times in my life) acidly-lucidly-angrily proactive. Justifiably. I put it to him pretty sharply that Whoa!! Maybe what the situation demanded was a re-wind to him (or somebody – anybody) saying Hey, welcome to Womad! You’re looking vexed, people. How can I help? Followed by the cheery ushering of us, the offended parties, through to the camping area closer to the arena – the one that 5 people had previously said we could and should head for. How life-threatening a decision would that be, for you to make, do you imagine? You being the supervisor?

I may have sounded like an arse; a complainer; something I promise you I am not. But I will own up to having an issue with the general level of (hate this word!) ‘service’ experienced in Britain. This is NOT because I am a monied traveller who has experienced much better elsewhere. This is not because I am some kind of Superior Git who expects the minions to fawn before my every call. And this is not because I am repelled in any sense by ‘those who serve’ – on the contrary I worked in restaurants and bars for years and feel strongly that everyone should serve the general public as part of a healthy preparation for life beyond. I am more often offended, in fact, by the conduct of those being served than those who serve.

However, people should be treated with courtesy and with sympathy by those who are directed to look after their needs. (Endof.) And I do think that we in Britain do this looking after thing generally very badly; either through lack of training or lack of direction or example or simply – and too often – through ignorance. I hate it and it embarrasses me.

I’m no salesman and no guru, for christ’s sakes. But clearly the nature, quality and manner of response to any enquiry is important. There is a moral imperative to be friendly and helpful and a more capitalistically inclined one to look after folks. I was struck by and have remembered the brilliance of a former Head Gardener at The National Botanic Garden for Wales in this; he would invariably offer How can I help? before really listening to any request or comment. His name? Wolfgang Bopp.

Certainly compared to this, not one of the first 7 or 8 ‘contacts’ we had with Box Office/Stewards at the Womad Festival was satisfactory. It was rather predictably lame, unfocussed, desultory, disinterested. Most employees showed neither the courtesy or the nous to listen or act. And given the location, the specific ambience, the crutches, the history of communications theoretically smoothing the way… it was crap. I’m not looking for sympathy; merely making some observations about this fascinating/infuriating evolved characteristic of British (Public?) Life. And by implication, maybe just wondering… is it just me that sees this as a(nother?) English Disease?

When we were finally waived through to what was actually the disabled camping area – something we had never specifically asked for, in fact – a big lump of time and energy and good will had been wasted. Really wasted. As we trundled rather apologetically in we were met by a steward in a wheelchair. He was genuinely charming, he was helpful, he was friendly and within five minutes we had the luxury of unloading Jojo ten yards from where we were to camp. Plus further willing help appeared whilst we were doing that now joyfully easy decanting of clobber. So we got our festival excitement – and more importantly our faith – right back. The important stuff – the music, the art – was a treat, naturally; more of that later.

Fear not, friends, for this is the way…

Those of you familiar with that parallel universe inhabited and perhaps even created by yours (f) truly – the vinnymeister – will no doubt appreciate the challenges presented thissaway by ‘covering’ the Spain/Italy final. Whether you will sympathise may be another matter. Put simply, my tendency for foamy action-painting-writing may, with each reminiscence of each threaded pass or nuanced offering, backwash the hell out of whatever was/is reported/intended. Leading to fruiticious anarchy of the most aromatic or indulged sort. I care not; it is my intention to reflect the death-defying poetry of these hypnotically controlling romantics, these brave revolutionaries, these um… Spaniards.

Thus, in psycho-purist good faith…and having denied myself the right to instantaneously orgasmic response… an appreciation.

In their pirouetting and their brimful/loveful dance towards Sunday’s very special victory, Spain have simply changed the football world; for the better. Breathe it in.  In restating and even re-imagining, re-validating their own brilliant and joyous conceptions of footie trust and belief and execution, the diddy, ticky-tacky ones have not so much entertained us as bathed us lucky lucky punters in their elixir.

Such was the lushness, the irresistibly elevating nature of this seminal game of togger. Whether or when the question was meekly or impudently asked – by innocent or heathen or centre-forward-obsessed reactionary – the Spanish, gathering us all up, strode to the mount to deliver their loved-up sermon; in repudiation of the necrophiliac 4-4-2; in glorious praise of liberated though team-hung expression.

Fear not, friends, for this is the way. Gaze or gawp upon it and repent. (Roy).

Well, it had something of the #biblical about it, eh? That utter and almost otherworldly grace; that resonance; that hayzooss gorblimey darting to the heart. Spain – to borrow James Blood Ulmer’s description of an inspired pil – went right past football.

Right past it and into something lovely and rather deep as well as bewildering; something that we surely need to both appreciate and in some measure try to understand, methinks – we Brits in particular.

So, what did they do?

  • They wee-weed purringly, ecstatically over notions of mediocrity
  • They championed skill over hardness
  • They beautifully extended the possibilities of the beautiful game

But what does that mean?

  • That small can be beautiful/effective/strong
  • That intelligence trumps mere effort
  • That they understand and we don’t.

I am clear that Spain’s triumph was a triumph for the game in the sense that they really have taken us somewhere better. In terms of what we might call/are calling inevitably culture. Previous truly great footballing sides – whether Brazilian, Dutch or possibly French – may or may not be meaningfully compared but my suspicion is that what Spain have over all of them is the quality, the depth of their understanding and belief in their own way. Plus a purity from first to last; in comfort and ‘under pressure’; from nominal centre half to False 9 – an unshakeably pure faith in passing and moving and threading and darting a way through, without compromise. In a carousel of triangles of awareness. Options, always-available options, improving or momentum-changing, arising from good, purposeful, communal work.

There is unquestionably a moral dimension to this – listen to them talk. Humbly, generally but always in the certain knowledge of this daft-wondrous footie righteousness, this faith in the power of their skills being evidentially more powerful than fifty yard passes; more certain.

So, what we get is a line-up of New Age Total Footballers. No strikers; because they believe that Fabregas or Silva or Alonso or Iniesta can finish and that they are manifestly better and more influential and more threatening than the current Torres. (And there is no Villa.) And acute or focussed surges from midfield are then the key to unlocking the modern defence.

In fact these uber-hombres believe that they have 10 likely goal-scorers on the park, not one or two. The fluency and the rotation and the efficacy of their alleged midfield – numbering what, 6? – making a mockery of dumb crusty Brits bemoaning Spain’s lack of a Jackie Milburn. Spain (not entirely incidentally Cindy) won the final 4-0, with no forwards but a forward threat that Italy, that great bastion of streetwise defending could not cope with!

Yet Spain have been labelled boring. This is just lazy. There are times when they may not be as exciting as a rampant Brazilian side in mid salsa down the pitch (last seen 15 years ago?) but… come on… boring?

Okay, feasible to remain unmoved by the playing of percentages as the ball is shuffled (occasionally) blandly around… but don’t please go mistaking their ball-retention as boring when it surely reflects the patient ticking of a brilliant mind. Something sensational and inventive will happen – with or without David Villa or Fernando Torres at its thrilling peak. That 4-0 – these 3 tournaments! – annihilate the arguments; both in terms of what is right and what is beautiful; Spain win. Where does that leave us?

Not all England players are as bad as might be apparent to the average Ukrainian onlooker at his or her home tournament. But as a squad, as a ‘nation’, England strode idiotically and embarrassingly backwards yet again. They may have discovered some team spirit but this was not reflected in teamwork; or certainly not in what we might call linking, or interplay, of which there was catastrophically little.

I watched every minute of England’s games and can barely recall anything resembling joined up footie. Even Gerrard, who carried his side with some honour in three of the games, achieved very little constructively. More typical was the contribution of Parker – whom I rate – but whose passing was either lame or non-existent for virtually the entire period. It is barely credible that a footballing nation of any stature could again produce such a void where football should be. Except that we do precisely that at every tournament we attend; one reason I came to resent this latest shambles.

Hodgson may yet do okay but it is not too early to challenge some of the central tenets of his footballing philosophy – a philosophy itself in need of arguably seriously independent review following the exhibition by Spain – the revelations from Spain – in Euro 2012. We might understand a manager with only a matter of a few weeks in charge of a group of generally mediocre players ‘needing’ to play safe -circle those metaphorically predictable wagons – avoiding ‘disaster’ being the immediate objective of this ungenerous worldview.  People, there has to be more.

In a Group Stage that was both absurd and utterly predictable England were close to appalling but won their group. For twenty minutes they made a decent contribution to a quarter-final against a workmanlike Italian side but then were soundly beaten before deservedly losing on penalties. Some folks talked of positives at the time of the Group Stage win but meaningful assessments became largely swamped by penno-trauma. We need to get past this.

The new England boss went for a caricature of English ‘dependability’ from the outset. The kind of 2 Banks of 4 that might launch now a thousand aching post-modern odes to Imperial Delusion. In one sense, it kinda worked – that Group win. In another it was like some deeply cartoonlike or ironic thing whereby slumbering giant fails to notice diddymen tying up gargantuan laces before then entering Giant Sportsday. Cue resounding kerrlummpp… and giant returning to slumber.

Except maybe the giant link flatters England these days. But there was something of a return to a fall from grace, or at least a further falling away and behind in that ultimately, predictably sterile 2 banks of 4.

Given the obvious and appealing supremacy now of what I once coined ‘twinkle over clonk’ and the need for a tectonic shift in emphasis in what remains the English national game, we may need to look carefully at whether Hodgson is really the man to preside over England FC. He may be some kind of a sophisticate – possibly – but the former Fulham man seems unlikely to lead us so necessarily and so dramatically forward after his initial and emphatic steps back.

A memory alights; that Brian Clough once said something typically acerbic, throwaway and profound about raising the skill level when competition was at its most pressured peak. In other words, you stoo-pid pee-ple… skill will out.

Joy Division; we are all Joy Division; I am all Joy Division.

It was a great name for a band, though some felt it unwise and still do. But for a band that shimmered and boomed and clattered alarmingly close to some edgy uber-achievement, some penetratingly cool triumph – or deathlike collapse? – it rings. As do those occasional mournful reminders… 10 years since, twenty years since… and on.

This last week there was another anniversary of the suicide of Ian Curtis, singer with Joy Division. And because he – Curtis – in particular was a full-on icon of my youth, a real marker for profound and unchanging things, like innerness, abandonment, my contribution follows. I note in passing this is my 100th post and I wanted to rise to that (ha!) by

a) as always scribbling too unplanned upon something I care about

b) by amongst other things contradicting those slack notions around great music necessarily ‘lasting’ or sustaining through the aeons. I’ve always been repulsed by the conservatism implicit in this argument; great music is often about the NOW and this may not always transfer to some ‘classic’, longevity-dependent scenario.

Joy Division were stupendously and really massively of then and I don’t give a toss if that, for some, hasn’t lasted. More generally, is it not true that one of the more unassumingly heart-warming features of fabulous music is often, surely, a lack of pretensions towards posterity? (And yes, I am making an argument for Joy Division being unpretentious in this respect because… Curtis responded naturally. That he did this with both poetry and via Manc-centric or actually Macclesfield-rooted prickly heat is a gift, not some pose or contradiction).

So this gangly Northern Gang were intense and yet possessed of a panoramic range; they were magnificent and yet live, relevant, supra or anti-pompous in their stridency. In that wonderful accident of young, unlimited, searing, utterly compelling boogie – either bass-heavy or driven with swinging but nail-sharp guitar – they found something special and yeh, expressed it. Easy; when the blood is pumping with chemicals and confidence; easy.

I, for one, followed them, wearing my bruised young-man’s passion for silently screamingly protest like a quietly treasured weal. Hidden to you dumbfuck passers-by, in this terrible bland universe, under my dead Dad’s old sports jacket; dotted with that tiny black badge of allegiance – the one that said Joy Division. A period picture finds me fully kitted-out for Misunderstanding – or simple exclusion – on the basis I appear to implode with fashionable sadness; I wasn’t kidding.

Ian Curtis was the epileptic, skinny-boy colossus of these great distracting issues; power, displacement, loss. Plenty of us in the Cult of The Aware knew he was going to die, somehow, in consequence. This haunting, uplifting stuff would kill him – soon. Because in the tradition of those who treat us to the enriching but violently selfless, in reduced fettle through excruciating and beautiful and heartfelt exposure, he broke against some unknowable dam. And if this in some ways glorifies a(nother) rock death, then so be it. Joy Division were, to me, on their A Game, absolutely glorious.

‘Transmission’ marked them out early on as uniquely achieving of both topical brilliance – annihilating the very idea of radio’s suffocatingly fraudulent liveness – and extra-dimensional grace. Dance dance dance to the radio immediately fired up the knowing, becoming one of the great and resonating refrains in a largely lazily masturbatory rock cannon.

Characteristically powered by sensational bass and the kind of joyfully lacerating guitar riff that in itself pissed all over the strawberries of the era’s alleged guitar heroes, this was and remains a truly towering single. Even now, when a phrase like that has lost nine tenths of its meaning. Curtis’ singing on this record is a kind of developing rage against everything dishonest ever in the universe. So perfectly natural to feeI both unsettled and humbled listening to it; (don’t worry).

She’s Lost Control (…er, who has, exactly?) was similarly electrifyingly on the pulse of profound shit and remorseless giving out. With Curtis intoning further motifs for all of our angsts against the backdrop of a sodumbit’sawesome chord sequence – one that my mate the best guitar player amongst us was deeply offended by. (Later, climbing higher on a high horse than I ever remember, I chastised him bitterly for failing to get that essentially punkish emotion, and for seeking (only!) to make decorative music for people to mindlessly adore. He had no idea what I was onnabout.)

She’s Lost Control was so obviously dark and its structure so utterly about those simple words repeated – dark-eyed and spookily serious – that following the singer’s death by hanging it may and does act like some rather crass but helpful ‘pointer’ dreamed up by join-the-dot rock-biographers. But Joy Division – despite the thematic grandnesses and presentational dodgy-pomp of the sleeves – were not essentially theatrical. They were way better than that.

Like a visceral Ian MacCulloch – whose Bunnymen shared some poetic sureness with their rivals in Northern Working Grandeur – Curtis told it like it was; lonely; cruelly difficult to bear; too much. Production values surrounding (often outstanding, in my opinion) were either a final touch of class or a whiff of seductive neo-fascism, depending on your point of view – or whether you actually liked Joy Division. I did and therefore am slightly troubled by the links made by some over the icy, marbled iconography and design of Joy Division things to suprematism of whatever kind.

Love Will Tear Us Apart can surely flush out most of these significant worries. As a wonderful sounding thing and an ode to sensitivities of the most truly human kind, it chimes for a deeply personal worldview. Incompatible, surely, with arch conservativism or any of that machismo-driven nonsense. Making it a triumph, a triumph for sadness and hurt and the sparkling but yes bruising bringing together of concerns upon love.

For me it’s right up there on the list of capsuled gems we humans might leave for funny green men to discover; after we’ve eaten all of our own heads to a soundtrack by Boston.

The production on this record – the words and the music on this record are inspired – absolutely inspired.

But maybe we should finish with Atmosphere? As the lights go out on human racing, how about some nuclear proofed record-playing robot-serf nonchalantly flipping on the 12″ vinyl version of Atmosphere by the mighty Joy Division. Somewhere in that austere, magic-filtered ease, with the synth and the voice and that perfect affirmation swelling and falling, walking in silence, I will be – and I hope you will be too – finding some words, proudly, tapping my toes, knowingly…

Walk in silence

Don’t walk away in silence…