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!!

The Case for Sport – 2.

I have personal experience of the brilliance of sport. By that I mean I’ve both felt and witnessed (and I’ll have you know occasionally been the origin of) daft-but-magic moments arising from running round the place/chucking or hoofing things, very often in the midst of some grinning or, okay, gurning pack of mates.

Now, what you will have to forgive me for calling my life’s work is absolutely centred on all this fizz. I really am privileged to be right in it, this lurv/sport/runrunrun-like-crazy vortex, where (for example!) the most perfect and comradely sharing often spins. So I know the invincibly good and penetrating and healthy and edgy stuff that grows here. (I’m aware too, in passing that bringing the L-word into this is ill-advised at best but do not withdraw it; I’m happy to postulate some dumb theory whereby love of people and of adrenalin becomes intrinsic to a trillion transformations.)

I also know that some are suspicious of (what they think is) sport’s adversarial nature. Some children being exposed or even damaged through failure before their peers – this does happen, this is important – but the failure is of coaching. Good coaches encourage a way through and skilfully re-calibrate what’s offered – how big the challenge might be. They make it appropriate and they lift the child through any difficulty. They splash in extra praise and make the thing (which may have changed) achievable; the ‘non-athlete’ joins the game and things bundle forward, before anybody clocks or judges the ‘fact’ that Johnny or Jess was momentarily lost.

This isn’t idealist nonsense. This is good coaching in Primary Education. Coaches facilitating the expression of talent – young, low or high, clunky or beautifully co-ordinated – coherent. Developing people as well as skills.

Every day I see this and I see children warming to allegedly less able mates as they clatter a ball off a tee; the former clapping and bouncing or high-fiving with proper joy and the latter arms raised in seminal triumph. No matter that the grooved majority can beast a bouncing ball around the park, the elation around Johnny clumping that helpfully immobile sphere with electrifying conviction is, in my experience, generally heart-warmingly shared. Indeed I am positive by nature partly because I see children sharing in somebody else’s triumph every working day. If that pleasure leaches through all manner of things in my life… how great must it feel for the suddenly emerging starlet?

I recently underwent further training on what are known as multiskills and wider skills to enrich and improve the link between my cricket coaching and the broader Junior Curriculum. Interestingly, one of the reasons for this training was because (allegedly) there is a perception amongst Secondary School sports teachers that new intakes of children have relatively poor sports/co-ordination skills. This may or may not be an accurate reflection of how things are – hard to know how meaningful such a general view might be? Hard to know if this is what Secondary School sportsfolks are always likely to say? – but if there is any truth in this notion, it ain’t good… and it ain’t surprising.

I have my own view on both a practical and philosophical level re- the state of sports provision in Primary Schools and maybe sometime I’ll share that. What I want to do here is reiterate my case for how MASSIVE it could be – how elevating, how life-changing.

Children learn to support/learn/calculate/share/plan as well as move, smile and co-ordinate in my sessions – and in thousands of other games lessons every week. We coaches are not solely in the business of cultivating champions or tweaking technical skills, though we hope, of course, for those things too. I am personally motivated at least as much by the aspiration to draw some tiny but also wonderful moment from a child who likely never ‘achieves’ at all in ‘class’ as to get some gifted child to smash the ball mega-miles.

I have a very clear picture in my mind right now of a wee fellah aged eight – sporting the worst home-shorn Mohican I have ever seen – so deep into listening and following a chasing and catching game and so bursting with the effort of breaking through into success that the phrase I occasionally fall back on – outliving himself – springs to mind. He’d simply gone somewhere new and ecstatic, like he’d shed a skin or thrown off some burden. He was living somebody else’s better life, blazing around a playground utterly into the game. Joined, essential to it, loving it, feeling every bit as brilliant as those good guys – the ones who always have their hands up in class.

I see these revelations almost daily and I cherish them. They make me ever more certain that the essence of what I do contains a valuable strategic purpose – to enthuse children towards new cricket teams – on the back of a truly healthy, civilised, populist impulse. What could be more generous or supportive or right than sharing some fun, building some confidence(s) and enabling better, fuller learning? Good sport coaching does all that… which is why I write to defend it… and extoll its virtues.

Okay here comes the deep breath/get real bit, where again, incidentally, despite monumental temptation I hold back from lambasting the suffocating reactionaries that may or may not be responsible for policy on this stuff… because the time will come, right?

I concede nothing is easy and sport is no panacea. And there are choices to be made on what money is spent where.
I do however maintain that substantial and intelligent use of games not only makes sense but is transformative in a way that may be hard to find elsewhere. If children’s ability to listen is central to much of school life – can’t or won’t listen? Fail – then dynamic games, challenging games can (and do) cultivate listening, whilst improving behaviour/attention span/problem solving.

Sport done well is a gift to many who may need to express unseen talents or (know what?) just run and smile a bit. Throw in the undoubted ‘social skills’ – sharing/toleration/patience/camaraderie and you’re getting pretty good value for your money. Maybe that’s something the Honourable Secretary of State might instinctively respond to?

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?

marathon boy

who were we running for or from

when we could run?


in our endless unstockinged feet

with that endless dizzy lope towards the tape –

the tape that drew us and wrapped us like mummies.

who ran alongside?

was it a lifelong friend who carried us through

their heart transporting ours?

or a stranger – or twenty thousand – who twinkled their encouragement?

i can’t remember.

there was the race –

my pop PB-ed, i think

but unconfirmed.

then, before we know it,

tightly, the pull-string

on the rucksack of my heart

is tugged.

and i think

i think a cheer goes up.

i can’t remember.

Stand Down Margaret.

So she finally did step down from that jewel-encrusted carriage; her head dizzy with accolades, with glorious confusion, the baying crowd perceived as purring kittens to her leonine, English majesty. She descended smoothly, unaided, to some lavender field – it should be stiff with barley? – in that singing niche of her memory that for her, forever, might be if not Ingerland, then Grantham. And as she walks, from that shop, from that street, into the butter-cupped facsimile of that rural idyll, the parting crops do then draw up to attention… and the birds stop… and the limp sun stills above the willow. Because (she thinks, or somebody thinks) something major has happened.

And maybe it has – unless I dreamed it? Maybe there was an event as well as a death. Maybe we have to concede that? And then… in what way do we rejoice?

A rake of us – a simmering multitude with every bit as much gumption and fight and ‘conviction’ as she – many of us recoil from both that faux English idyll and the idolatry, the (in our view) slightly weird, slightly perverse adulation for this woman. A woman we link to some blanched – or maybe that should be scorched? – Englishness. A brutalist and therefore hugely uncultured (opposite of) outlook. A leadenness too; dull and grey and introspective in the worst of ways – bigoted, actually – reeking memorably of contempt for the most fundamental human rights in say… South Africa, as though Apartheid itself was some acceptable province of this Way We Were nation. (Mrs Thatcher, remember, led when it came to propping up the dying racist regime in the pre-rainbow nation. Should we celebrate the memory of that, I wonder?)

Even those of us who happen to be blokes, who think it was kindof great that a woman got to be PM are denied the possibility of respecting this woman. Most of us knew already, pre the coiffured barnet, accent and manner that Thatcher’s obvious bitterness, that vile and one-dimensional and utterly hypocritical (no apology for labouring this one!) ‘conviction’ against the trackie-wearing classes, The Immigrants and The Homosexuals would make many of us squirm with shame or rage. The fact that she blew a historic opportunity for Britwomankind by being an utter and malevolent donkey in the role of PM has almost passed us by, such was the magnitude of her dislocating pomp.

She was sexless and yet quasi-regal, love-fodder for the dumb fawners and the prejudiced. The Mail invented her surely – she must have been pressed out of a centre-page special entitled Ideal Dictators? I can’t explain her any other way. The thought of her (and I know it ain’t jus’ me because we’ve been talking, right?) simply does my head in.

She got at us personally, I suppose, one way or another. In my case, we were yeh… close. Having been born and spent the first twenty-odd years of my life in Grimsby, I moved to London to work as a photographer’s assistant in what is atmospherically describable as The Thatcher Era. I had no money and shared a room in a rundown, terraced housing association gaff with one of my brothers. Hilgrove Road. It was great yet completely crappy in a way that we didn’t mind but that made parental visits unthinkable. Stepping outside the door though and walking the couple of hundred yards up to Swiss Cottage was a revelation to this particular smalltown boy. I had never really seen posh motors – Porsches, Jaguars, Rolls Royces – down here it was crawling with them. How did that work?

Now I know this car thing may not stand up as anything other than duff anecdotal opinion but it had real meaning for me, it was true – it became truer, in fact – that there was money here in a way that had never remotely been suggested Up North. Moreover as this admittedly crass osmosis of the divisive character of Elite Southness became better enriched by my experience/observation, so my political and I think philosophical oeuvre cobbled itself together; directed (if cobbling can be directed?) by Thatcherism. It became obvious that the most humungously cynical fix was going on; put simply, that the Tories were fixing it for The South. Because it didn’t matter in terms of votes or constituencies or voices how much mithering The North got up to… the South, under Thatcher won out. A massive and indeed overwhelming number of safe Tory seats in the London area effectively farted in the face of the rest.

We all knew that was what was going on. Politicking of the rawest and most unsophisticated kind. Parliament entrapped. Toffs and Tories flicking a superior brand of the V’s, whilst busloads of Home Counties-returning coppers flashed their wage packets at incandescent miners. It was deeply ugly; a legacy I was reminded of last night when a friend, having howled when the subject turned to a possible State Funeral, suggested a burial more appropriate, in her view.

Sling the old witch down a fackin’ mine-shaft. (And yes, for the record, my friend is an Essex girl. And yes, she would be right in wanting me to point out that I AM AWARE poverty and discrimination existed in the South too during this period but I stand by my identification of a very real North-South divide – construct or function though that may have been of a regional and possibly parochial standpoint. And she is with me and I am with her on the notion that Thatcher quite deliberately set us against each other… and incidentally, what does that remind you of?)

Recently (and here I’m not speaking of any reactions to the death – I’m avoiding media on the subject pretty entirely) there appears a rather sickening fashion for appreciating Mrs T’s determination and commitment to things she believed in. I’m not having that. Why credit the prejudices, the immoralities in fact, of a world leader in bulldozing folks apart? My most crucially politically-formative years were spent in a great city-state which barely acknowledged the existence of Another Country out there. Or more exactly knew all about it but didn’t give a toss. Because an allegedly strong woman was making allegedly tough decisions. I came to see her then and over time as a shrill weakling; a brittle, thin-blooded creature who plastered on thick the slap of bravery and ‘conviction’. I never believed a word – and I still don’t.

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.

Stoke Mandeville – a memory. (It’s nothing.)

I have blurred recollections of visiting Stoke Mandeville Hospital back in about 1980. In fact so blurred and alround unreliable are they that I have seriously considered slinging this wee epistle – both during and after its invention. But I’ve stuck with it, as much as anything because I think it may ask questions around the quality or veracity of my/our reactions to what we might have seen, or felt, or heard about this Savile bloke. Or anything else. And if at any stage it becomes clear I’ve totally misrepresented something then that in itself may be interesting or in some way informative, perhaps? It being something of a test for us to stay true when broiling opinions call so loudly to intervene in ‘evidence’.

So yes, I did go to Stoke Mandeville. And now, of course, like some highly-strung, high maintenance but laceratingly brilliant Scandinavian detective, I’m trawling through the memory – its shadows, its strip lights, its blandnesses – hoping or expecting some incongruity, some trauma to roar out at me. It hasn’t. This is some relief, although with the memory still relatively undisturbed, with its doors so un-kicked in, there is that delicious/nauseous air of prequel about it. What did really happen, if anything? What did I really see, feel, hear? Were any doors or spaces energetically different, suggestively blanked, violently inert? From what I can remember… no. But is it wrong to be drawn into this anyway? Am I on some particularly mawkish celeb-fixated trip here, or what? And are we all on that trip, more or less?

I went down there to visit my second cousin, who had done that classically awful dive into almost no water thing during hijinks at college. He remains one of the most outstandingly bright blokes I’ve known (but) he also remains paralysed and wheelchair-bound. We’ve not spoken for years, in fact – not from any falling out (he hastened to add) – but because, frankly, we shared little. He was both spookily bright and a little headstrong in a way I liked; known, for example, (aged 18) to trace the number of some berk who’d written parochial cobblers in the local rag and harangue him with An Argument Far Too Good.

He also had an alarmingly healthy mop of black hair; hair which despite its casual air of well-trimmedness kindof swung around the place like some quasi-liquid; on one occasion lassoing a particularly lush Lower Sixth Former, if I remember correctly. Which I often don’t. But I remember her -leading to a clear and legitimate difficulty – and a diversion. How to honestly recount a memory – a clear and specific one – which may, quite frankly be inappropriate. As may that word ‘lush’.

I vividly remember certain hormonal kickings-in accompanying any degree of proximity to this genuinely beautiful girl… and her (what’s the word?) beautiful body. To deny that or try to skip past via some more or less witty or subtle euphemism seems raw dishonest. (Goddammit I wish I had done, mind.) But no amount of growed up etch-a-sketching over late seventies hornarama erases either that dumb desire or the feeling that generally us blokes are crap.

So I went down to Stoke Mandeville. In a by now early 80’s state of Savile ‘awareness’, with no idea what to expect of the hospital itself; just some amorphously received knowledge of the place – Savile’s place. I wish I could be clearer on the details. I’m pin sharp on what I (by then) thought of the track-suited cigar-wielder, having grown through the dim familial appreciation for Jim’ll Fix It. I thought (I knew) he was a total arse… but no more. There was no sense that I was going to bump into Jimmy (and waft past him, disinterested, in my overcoat and JD badge) but maybe there was the wonder
if he may be there thing going on. We never met.

I recall being more than slightly disappointed to find that a lump of Stoke Mandeville was apparently barely-converted Nissen huts – air-raid shelters – or similar. Just a bigger version of the corrugated iron-roofed effort we had in our garden – the one my old man had done that fascinatingly bad brickwork against, to ‘shore up’ the rear wall. SM was like an RAF Camp, converted with the minimum of love and colour and expenditure to provide cover for injured folks. (The fear dawns that I may have this wrong – and I’m happy to be corrected on any of this – but this is what I hold in my head. A fusty and almost completely unlovely military camp.) I barely went in; this may have been due to some embarrassment from my cousin or just eagerness to get out; to the pub.

We went to a nearby hostelry, me a little self-consciously pawing at the wheelchair that he bundled expertly forward. As we entered an area apparently patronised only by patients and guardians or friends from Stoke Mandeville a young man walked unconvincingly to the bar. In fact unconvincingly overstates his level of his proficiency; which was clumpingly, one foot-draggingly low. He beamed as he turned back to the small gathering in the corner, all of whom were beaming or applauding back. His first steps for months. And now with that foam-topped incentive triumphantly clasped… and downed. It was a choice moment that we’d happened upon; one I will always remember – but clearly something of a commonplace in this quietly boozy bolthole for the spinally-injured.

The next bit really galls me because if it were full of lucid observations on the nature of relationships or even the geography of stuff at Stoke Mandeville then phwarrr! – this piece might be saleably incendiary. However, it really isn’t. No contact or conversation that might lead me to some revelation; nothing to exclusively pitch. I remember only being both disturbed and unsubtly fixated on the fear of and then sight of my second cousins’ atrophied legs as he swung them expertly into his bed later. No memory of landings or corridors or conversation-averse nurses. Or of his room, even. I didn’t stay.

So nothing. Except the feeling – which I dare not trust, having no doubt that many outstanding humans did some great work there – that it was an environment relatively devoid of comfort and of warmth. Somewhere – ouch – that it kindof figures bad stuff might have happened.

I know how lazy and quite possibly appallingly unfair that last speculation is. But it’s there, in my head. An atmosphere, an association, between poor buildings and assumptions about poor procedure leading to Savile stuff. Meaning that never mind having no value, this whole concoction may be positively unhelpful in its vacuity; a story about a void of observation. But I am interested in our capacity to judge; particularly when this capacity is stressed.

With Savile being such an outrage, with the man perpetrating such evil with such cynicism, it asks a lot of us – of anyone – to deal sagely with the aftermath. He’s truly a lucky man to be dead. We’d all, surely, be tempted to roast him on a spit? For me, things have become so loaded that it would be unthinkable to get in touch with my cousin (just) to ask him how it really was, being there, for some months, back then. I can’t ask him specifically about possible arrangements or the known or unknown machinations of some creep in a track suit. That would feel just too crass.

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.

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.

Pray for petrol?

The things that really get our goat tell us (or otherfolks?) a lot about where we’re at as people, right? As ‘individuals’. They give stuff away. Like looking your fellow in the eye when you talk to them whilst simultaneously trying to tell the minimum amount of the truth – or an outright lie I suppose – they represent a tactical error, a cheap submission of possession. So I should probably be somewhat circumspect before blazing into some further Vinnydiatribe about well… anything. But life would be less fun, eh, if purveyors of colour and opinion such as my good self let too much restraint and consideration get in the way of a good rant? Rants can be okay – both entertaining and cleansing even – if they manouevre or lurch accidentally into the lush territory of comment; real comment, where spite and spittle and punkydelic revelation bridle against dumbstuff. So, eyes a-swivel… here goes…

Let’s start as so often with the abstract; the felt. There is a direct correlation between my feelings for and about my Outlaws (which are mixed), their adherence to the gospel according to the Daily Mail and the panic buying of petrol. And by surreal but clearly imagined extension the demonization of single mums/chavs/gays/blacks/Asians/everyone who has not the fortune to be starchily anglo-saxon with-a-little money invested, is further enwrapped, infuriatingly, into this blue-rinsed(?) bundle. Meaning the wasps’ nest that is currently and indeed typically my head responds with a kind of spontaneous fury to linkages between What The Mail Thinks – or its obvious but sometimes unsaid manifesto – and what then actually happens in the wider world. Although – forgive my anarcho-pedantry here but I am loathe to view this particular landscape as in any sense wide – it’s surely arse-clinchingly narrow but let’s move on. It is, therefore often the machinations of the sub-Middle Class Right that get my goat.

The comb-over racists; the instant coffee-slurping homophobes; the blandly bitter; the church-goingly devilish, Jammy Dodger-toting entrenched. With their silver cars and silver spoons. Their white sugar. Their propensity to sound so one-dimensionally thoughtless whilst in Twenty Eight Second Deep Political Conversation Mode that you wonder if they might implode like some un-gay fairy at the culmination of their most killing observation that everything is because “All these people are getting all these things and we’re paying ferit!” Yup; luv them.

So the panic buying of petrol – which I don’t of course entirely blame on The Mail – has troubled me. In terms of the demographic of the slavvering topper-uppers it might be interesting to see who these folks are – even who they think they are? – but sadly anthropologists are otherwise engaged in (relatively?) lucrative projects in Dubai or Cambodia, I suspect. Allegedly, much of England – you poor poor loves – has been standstilled by these decently law-abiding and Minister-attentive folk. Only a heroic few have resorted to battling on the forecourt in defence of their honour and their right to dismember the opportunity of other, less aggressively responsible souls. Should their physical condition allow it – ie. if Gaviscon/Werthers levels have been sufficiently respected, these Defenders Of The Right To Get Absolutely Mental have launched themselves from their Renault Clios in lion-hearted response to some other’s hands upon the precious nozzle. I picture them, rolling around in the blotted sands of the forecourt; legs thrashing the unleaded air, flat caps awry, brogues still immaculately tanned but twitching out, violently, the death-throes of Moral Rectitude. For the good of this great nation; for the civilised world; for Biddy Baxter and Douglas Barder and yes! David Beckham. Then dusting down and finding that bloody Tesco Clubcard.

There is no strike, incidentally. And if there was all the Great Powers know/knew that a week’s notice had to be given, begging questions about the realness of any emergency. (In fact, probably wee-weeing all over any such notions at all.) Interestingly or not, fairly compelling cases have been made for this whole farrago of clunk-clicked politically-motivated or simply inept ‘statements’ being a sharp little number from the government to help swiftly massage income up at a time when unhelpful figures might bundle economic commentators into using words like Double Dip Recession (and stuff). Conspiracy Theory or Truth? As always the twitter/internet beast seethes with contradictory passions but queues down the road have made a comparative irrelevance of such unpatriotic sideshows.

Perception is nine tenths of the law. People have been led to believe those commie lorry drivers (who spend surely too much time in French travel-stops talking to their unwashed comrades?) are about to stitch us all up; best get our retaliation in first. The top man himself has even suggested it might be prudent to stock up. The paper says The End Is Nigh – right there, on page 1, 2 and 3, next to the stuff about George Wassuname and the other Scots peril. Salmon! No – Salmond! He’s a red an all! And now he IS trying to nick our petrol!! Best strike a blow for the family, for us, by filling right up; in the blurry understanding that this might even have the double benefit of denying some treble-chinned Jock or workshy other from dribbling 5 quid’s worth into his unroadworthy Escort. Why not? I’ve paid my taxes; bet they haven’t.

If I’m cruelly extrapolating or inventing well then so be it. Personal experience leads me to believe and to fear in this way. On the one hand I ooze faith in people; on the other their herdiness, their plodding dumbness and perhaps most offensively their selfishness is, to me, galling. How dare I? Well, having during the writing of this mal-focused reflection visited out of some honestly genuine – ie. diesel-deficient necessity – a fuel emporium in Haverfordwest, only to find it bereft of that syrupy elixir, the hackles are again rising. I am transported by the vogue for rage.

So don’t talk to me about pipelines or planning or tankers or truths; get me a club. For I am preparing, raging but prudently, for the next life, where karma ensures I now know that I fetch up on some snow-blown floe, icily bank-full of purpose, marching at some doe-eyed seal pup; a particular and hypnotically engaging one; wearing a flat cap and – admittedly bizarrely – brogues.