The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct. Sound familiar?

And so it goes on, dispiritingly. The interminable flopping and falling and ‘drawing’ of precious contact. The denial of the *actual* aim of the sport – which is to stick the ball in the net – through the cynical, life-blood-sucking phoney faint; because percentage-wise, penno’s pay.

Plus, (part XIV to-the-power-of-b-over-z-squared; The Case Against) there’s all this holding in the box. Not just a sly gathering of a corner of nylon but an absolute wrestle, as though there are no cameras, no ref and no reason moral or otherwise why you can’t try to bully the striker to a standstill or hoik him away from the arc of the ball; bizarre as well as appalling.

As if it wasn’t enough to poison the allegedly beautiful game on the park, reaction to this stuff brings out the worst in us all. (By the way, the thought does strike that we’ve gotten away lightly so far in terms of violence erupting either in the stands, between players or even against the referee but surely the time will come when a particularly enraging example of diving or holding will dangerously or tragically combust a cup-tie/relegation decider? Meaning we really do need to start dealing with this. By the way.)

There’s an unholy and delusional matrix around this that points us towards low expectation or worse; I find myself counting down the paragraphs before the dreary conclusion that ‘we get what we deserve’. I say this because following any incident fans as well as managers tend to divide so crudely, illogically and indeed pathetically on party or club lines. It’s embarrassing in a bad (unreasonable) way and it’s anti-sport.

In the case of Shawcross yesterday – that same Shawcross who molested his opponent relentlessly, pre the penalty, presumably not just to prevent him from attacking the ball but also in the hope (the hope!) that he may eventually strike out and be banished from the field – the incident was clearly and correctly dealt with by the officials. And yet on phone-ins and elsewhere the Stoke Faithful were bawling their grievances against that decision. We know that Mark Hughes (great footballer, depressingly flawed human) traditionally sets the bar shockingly low post-incident, but Sparky led the way on this, excelling himself whilst shamelessly ‘protecting his player’.
Hughes effectively said both Shawcross and more ludicrously Moses had been sinless. Whilst we can all appreciate the urge to support your tribe this went right past scandalous economy with the truth. For Hughes to try to make an intelligent argument against the unanswerable realities that Shawcross tugged and held absurdly long and that Moses shamelessly dived was, as an Australian cricket captain might have said, distinctly average.

If we choose to look for them there are always pro and contra-complexities. Moses was touched by the hand of the defender; Shawcross was by no means alone in his transgression across the boundaries of hugging. Therefore Hughes could formulate his apology, his simulation of a theory. But more broadly and more subtly, is the art of defending not about big clunky guys baulking shifty and spry opponents and should the spirit of things then not enable a kind of levelling of the playing field? How else could Shawcross (say) compete against Di Maria (say?)

This is of course cobblers. For any single offence, a single judgement is being made, not a philosophically inviolable summing up of the nature of things football. Do something outside the laws – get punished. Complexity comes (and ideally goes) through the official’s instinctive reading of the motivation of players at the moment in question and cross-reference of the rules. Referee: was that defender in making minor contact doing everything to avoid contact? So choose. Was that attacker only ever interested in drawing a penalty? So blow and reach for the yellow. These are a couple of the areas of difficulty, questions which launch a zillion unseemly appeals each weekend.

The fact that time and again the same few offences stir the nation to a Neanderthal fury should be a clue to something but if the cause is generally evident the path to resolution is fraught. In fact there is no path. Refs good and bad are left floundering under abuse.

Why? Essentially because honesty has gone walkabout. These players, these coaches are sporting superstars we cannot trust. They will neither accept the truth nor respect the authority charged with judging what is true. Set aside for the moment the fact that mistakes are bound to be made by those who make the calls; players and managers have made the game ungovernable and they should be deeply, deeply ashamed of the fact. They forget that they are role models; they forget that they are amongst the most fortunate; they forget that the real glory of sport centres upon competitiveness with honour. Or does it?

Does cheating matter? Does backing your side at all costs, even if reality and Alan Shearer contradict you matter? Or is it merely the inevitable result of awesomely high profiles and awesome TV revenues… and anyways, the next game’s here, so get real and get over it, right?

Are these merely the contemporary facts? That the game is simply framed differently, so that the respect of your opponent is an utter irrelevance to the current player? Is that right, is that how it is – or just some weird code nudging us towards giving up on sportsmanship?

I know how much of this sounds, how uncool and unsustainable it seems to invoke traditional virtues but still I consider myself more of a contemporary geezer than some dreamer of halcyon dreams. As such I call for modern solutions as well as a common return to a sense of what’s fair and right. Fat chance of the latter but no excuses now for not establishing immediate assistance to the referee from video review; retrospective guidance and where necessary punishment for acts of cheating under a beefed-up Ungentlemanly Conduct law, overseen by a small, expert panel.*

However viscerally any of us feel the drift to amorality it’s no good merely mithering on that. That language may no longer be intelligible so let’s characterise the state we’re in as a challenge. One where the chief protagonists are chiefly bent, either on some short-cut to victory, or just bent. No option then but to dictate; impose short sharp shocking doodahs – meaning bans for weeks rather than meaningless fines – and hope that in their inaction they might stop to think.

*Those who haven’t read me on this before may not be aware I’ve been promoting this notion that an expanded Ungentlemanly Conduct law could be used to penalise divers/cheats/fellahs who just did something that ain’t good for the game. I think it could work.

Ageism is an NRG.

I’ve hardly been keeping count but John Lydon appears to have been in eight zillion and twenty-three radio studios this month. Publicising that most modern of phenomenon – the second autobiography. Given the erm difficulties re confronting the perennially inflammatory Gooner, has anybody dared ask him about Second Autobio Syndrome, I wonder? That might stoke the always-spookily-close-to-the-surface fury, eh? Having failed to opt for pod-cast mode during these fests-du-bonhomie, can I ask if the hosts wore shin-pads, as well as the obligatory ear-defenders?

The two Johns – Lydon and @Harumphrys – was surely a good match; have yet to check it. But the singer-songwriter’s (huh? Well… yeh!) also appeared with Simon Mayo and on Beeb Six… and now with Polly Toynbee for The Guardian. .

This extraordinary volume of coverage speaks to the BIGNESS of the Lydon/Rotten phenomenon as well (of course) the nature of publishing and appetites of The Biz/Media. It’s been a punky mohair  blanket-of-a-thing; were you hiding, cringing, tutting or chortling? I smiled at the deconstruction of our friend Russell Brand, I must admit.

‘Cos when Lydon spouts – and he does, right? – everything’s an opinion. Everything’s loaded with a challenge – even when it’s a plea for common decency. It’s remarkable. I could fully understand how many might think the (let’s be honest?) faintly ludicrously still-mohicanned one a total, total bore. I tend not to. I kinda forgive him, some of it. Just possibly not that barnet.

Look the essence of Rottenness is mischief. To say he plays up to that is both an insult and insultingly obvious. But it’s also inadequate because he’s a complex man and broadly significantly too bright (and too principled? Discuss!) to merely pedal anything. I think there’s an argument, even amidst this dubious schmoozling, that John Lydon has and does and continues to stand for something. Something inevitably compromised yes, but to do with old-fashioned rightness. Whether he does that gracefully or appallingly is debatable but Lydon has always railed against wrongs.

Inevitably we only hear him get interviewed and this is very different from being in his company, having penetrated the protective mesh. For one thing, there’s no relaxing. For anybody. Lydon responds almost uniformly stridently, rarely either confining himself to the question or answering it. He holds court, being occasionally genuinely funny but mostly actually just being prickly – being Johnnie Rotten. What we are left with is chiefly the sense of the absurdity of the game.

Which is why I go back to the music, not the construct. ‘Careering’ or ‘Poptones’ or ‘Rise’ rather than the blowtorch that is his ‘honesty’. I go back there because there was – is? – a real subversive majesty to some of that stuff. The Pil appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, where Lydon/Wobble/Levene simply disembowel seventies traditions for rawk moosic is in itself sufficient to cut Johnnie Johnnie a lifetime of slack. ‘Metal Box’ is in itself one of the greatest ever slabs of anything to be committed (and I mean committed) to vinyl. Lydon was the voice of and for this revolution, in which the Pil Army waded in against banality/capitalism(!)/drudgery and our addiction to sweet melody.

It’s raining across the border
The pride of history
The same as murder
Is this living?
We’ve been careering.

It’s only Johnnie who noticed – who protested – our dumb appeasement to careering like this. He (only) railed against it, with a poet’s vision and a lion’s heart… and that unholy delivery. OK – maybe only him and (more surreally) Mark E Smith. Late seventies early eighties it was perfectly acceptable to love Cure and JD and Bunnymen and Talking Heads and Television but only he – only Pistols and then particularly Pil – challenged the fraud that is Our Working Lives. He exposed the murderous anti-love at its core; he rose against its cruel unjustness, most magnificently in ‘Metal Box’. It’s there in ‘Poptones’, where we – our souls, us the suckers, the minions, the mindlessly seduced – are being murdered in a forest to the soundtrack of vapid music.

Drive to the forest in a Japanese car
The smell of rubber on country tar
Hindsight does me no good
Standing naked in this back of the woods
The cassette played… poptones.

These two songs, both featured in that OGWT (CAREERING IS HERE – ) might be the spiritual and political source for everything brilliant from Occupy to Uncut. Or they might just be the greatest (radical?) noises ever recorded by humans. Either way they simply utterly vindicate Lydon and they changed my life.

On every level they are… whatever the next strata up from ‘seminal’ is. They are fluid and mercurial and bewitching and yet caustic – razor-like. The lyrics are sensational in every way. Levene’s guitar is from another, more atmospheric planet. In the same way that Jackson Pollock produced creepily species-enlarging chunks of expressive art, Pil did too. That famous quote (James Blood Ulmer – ‘they went right past music’) applies. Plus – is it just me? – there is something undeniably beautiful about Lydon’s poise, his control of the (quiet?) whirlwind around him. It’s inviolably, unsurpassably magnificent music.

Not the case though, that this euphoric peak was flukily ascended in some transcendentally inspired recording session. ‘Rise’ is palpably also a truly great noise, as were Pretty Vacant and God Save the Queen from the Pistols days. Sure all that is mired in doubts over fashion/puppetry/simply playing The Complex but them were reet powerful toons too.

If a guitar sound can be said to unpeel the corners of the Establishment postcard then the raw, raking racket emerging from The Pistols stacks was it. A personal favourite for me – partly because of that signature mix of moralistic fire and spittliferous attack was I Did You No Wrong. For all that Rotten, Vicious et al were postcards (or cardboard cut-outs) themselves, unsettlingly magic product was the result of the MacClaren/Lydon/Kings Road adventure.

So for all the hot air, Lydon has produced. He is bona-fide. Whether this entitles him to be a bore is another matter. Whether it’s embarrassing or inspiring to see a worryingly inflated version onstage at Glasto is clearly dependent upon whether you remain either a fan or not. Personally, despite being conversant with the ageism is an nrg debate, I find it (how shall I say?) unnecessary to go see Pil now. I can still love the old bastard.

Few music icons retain their fire in the way that Lydon appears to have  done. But anyway, that back catalogue, those performances, they are enough.

To hoof not thread.

Part of me wishes – honestly – that Jack Wilshere would just go out and have a few beers and smokes and be him. Then bundle his way past a protesting Woy-in-a-wight-lather (okay, cheap but doncha just kinda resent that flustering pomp thing Hodgson’s got going?) and on to absolutely dismember some half-tasty international opposition. Singlehandedly. In a tournament game. With little flip passes from the outside of his left boot. Threading DNA molecule-like clusters of wall-pass-to-the-power-of no-no-no-he can’t- YEE-EESSSSAA like some cack-handed and slightly boozy Fabregas. But then part of me wishes he would just give in to his fate as a perennial crock; put us out of our misery; break all available limbs in a rash challenge leapfrogging a bollard outside some niteklub in Prague and have done with it. We deserve that, surely – to be put out, right out, of our misery?

This billowing pro and contra emotion around Wilshere is all about… what? When did it start?

In the very beginning something about him stirred us. When he first dinked a tiddlywink of hope into our Ovaltine. When he first semi-loped (can small blokes lope?) and semi-swaggered onto the park in the white of England. We some of us sat bolt upright on the couch for the first time since the Wicker Man. We put away the bedtime drink and reached for a cool beer. In Wilshere it looked like we’d finally found one.

Not only did he have that slightly retro Landun schoolboy(ish) confidence fing abart ‘im – the whiff of catapults in playgrounds or blotting paper splatted expertly into the khazi ceiling, or fizzing past teacher’s ear, he oozed, crucially, excitingly, with what we tend to lamely call ‘culture’. He was so comfortable in possession there seemed little doubt he might actually actually express that higher thing, that football. But perhaps the binary peaks in our relationship with this phantom tightened early around the simple unpatriotic truth; that his was a Spanish Stroll, surely and this was therefore unlike us? It was likely better than us, better than the turgid precedent for tarnished gold but could it prosper in the Three Lions kit?

Plainly with Jack the potential was there to burst exhiliratingly through the fusty limits of what had been us into something better and – please god – more competitive. That caressing of the traditionally renegade sphere, that invented time and space, that fifteen yard passing range, that coolness in the clamour. He spoke of other worlds, of brave new everythings where Ingerland played – competed – with Alonso/Xabi/Schweinsteiger. Momentarily, he really did. At the end-stop of our fifty-year deathlike dearth, it just seemed possible that we might have one but experience having traumatised us, we waited quietly.

We waited and symbolically or otherwise the poor lad got crocked. No – he actually did get crocked – for a living, it seemed. Season after season. In practical terms the granddaddy Gerrard simply dropped a gear and the axis with Lampard persisted – hopelessly – and the national side of Ingerland went on being the national side of Ingerland; woeful; emasculated; subtle as an air-raid; dense as a docker’s sandwich. From before Sven to Fabio to Roy we all traversed together the saddening terrain from one cliché of a failure to the next, with all of it predicated on that raw inability to treasure the ball – to hoof not thread.

With every fibre Wilshere enacted his understanding of – his protestation against – that dumbness. But he was never there, or he never had ‘a run at it’ – injuries gnawing away at both his momentum and our belief. With every absence, with every ‘lay-off’ for the ῠber-Gooner we the resigned flopped out again with another miserable beer and more carcinogenic snacks. Rather than being the pivot at international level, the boy barely featured.  Cruel.

At Arsenal too Wilshere flitted and flattered, his Wenger-approved neatness and penchant for centrality being only sporadically key to their easy, double-clutched movement. Like his club though, there was maybe was/is something one-paced about his game; pleasing mid-gears, so much fluent transition but a lack (alack!) of murderous high-voltage. But I find myself in the past tense…
The possibilities for England still  include saviourhood/irrelevance/absence through injury. As always, availability for selection will define things.
The juicy prospect of a critical role at the rear point of a midfield diamond aired itself recently. Given that Sterling of Liverpool featured at the prow of this formation, a Gor Blimey tingle ran through some of us. We all know (and I imagine even Hodgson knows) that Jackie Boy is happiest asking questions of a central defender thirty/forty yards from goal. However, his brilliance at collecting and feeding and moving and threading with bodies around him equips him beautifully for the (deeper) Let’s Get This Baby Movin’ role too. He is good enough to not just carry the metaphorical water but also the expectation. He is close to England’s finest at (say it again) treasuring the ball and building a threat. So let him have a whole lump of possession and (with Sterling at 10 in front) the other buggers better watch out.

That the blend, the detail of this is still palpably unsorted by the England hierarchy tells us plenty, I would argue, about Hodgson’s lack of foresight. Henderson suddenly appears to be a nailed-on starter and this perhaps alleviates some of the fears around Wilshere’s lack of focus defensively-speaking. Much depends on how much width and creativity (or constriction and ‘control’) the wider two of the four diamond players are asked to provide. Sterling has already earned the right – ahead of Rooney, incidentally – to be the free spirit taunting the space immediately in front of the opposition centre-backs. Does this really mean that we have to be (as it were) culturally cautious elsewhere to allow for this luxury?

Hodgson may feel that he has to ‘protect’ our admittedly ordinary back four by opting for durability more than creativity but how ‘bout he told the defence to grow some and the essence of the diktat became about us with the ball? How ‘bout he/we stopped to count the number of defenders in his side and concluded that two of them probably don’t have to mark anybody for eighty percent of the game? And Gary Neville demanded intelligent pressing and brilliant – international level brilliant – defending with or without a shield?

In other words rather than denying expressivity in our own team by selecting surplus minders in our midfield could we not trust those who can really play to play? Huh?

Qualification for the next major tourney should be straightforward enough now following a good win in Sitzerland.  Hodgson has the slack he needs to be positive, to mould a brighter way forward.

The Spanish Era may be over but not in the sense that it remains clear (now and always) that quality of touch/vision/passing are the keys. Not how or if you ‘can tackle’. Not capacity to perspire in the name of the shirt (even.) Quality of touch and the presence and confidence to play and treasure the ball is it.

Wilshere if fit (yawn!) must play central. He could play deepish and own the team strategy. He could. He could blossom and so could the new generation. They could. But the fear remains that he simply won’t get the chance. Because his ankles seem knackered and the culture – our culture, not his – still works against him.

Feel like a tourist?

Don’t know where to start with this one. Partly because I fear trouble lies ahead and partly because it genuinely is difficult to talk about raging furies… and I’ve got one going. Expect me to scuttle past the incorrigible and the politically correct (again) into something recognisably ill-advisedly human. And try to – yaknow – gimme the benefit.

Friends and followers will know I live in Pembrokeshire. We (I mean us as a family, personally) have got bugger all in the way of gargeous property, moolah, land or any of that stuff but what we have around us (my god! Jewel of jewels!) is the coast, The Coast Path, the twinkling sea and the gannets and the smell of mackerel or gorse or honeysuckle or horse-shit or ploughed fields, or the quiet glory that is a mown meadow sprawled out with a single grass-stem in its gob, reading and baking to hay under a smiling, banjo-playing sun. We’ve got all that, always, and particularly in the last week or several we’ve had shed loads, barn loads of it; I’m pretty clear that it’s not just my heart that’s been singing.

Now our tiddly but kinda pleasantly bijou home – four foot deep in kids, animals, wholefood-in-boxes and yeh, animal hairs – is denied a sea view but the total wonder that is the high-rez surround-sound cliff-top is but a hundred and nine point six-two-five yards away. (I labour this because it’s important – key, even – to the unseasonal angst I am about to unleash). Visitors come because they know about, or know something about what Pembrokeshire is.

These visitors, or grockles as we call ‘em, when they fail to reverse into passing places, or sit stupidly and wait whilst a zillion horses clop to all intents and purposes on the spot, preventing us locals from doing actual work in Haverfordwest or Milford, these vis-i-tors do come. (These particular horses, by the way are so experienced and so dumb that you could doughnut your Audi mid-ride and they would barely register your presence, so the alleged courtesy of sitting quietly, engine purring a self-righteous countdown for the life of the planet whilst the (Alexarrnder look! Wubberly geegees!) clomp past is utter townie doe-eyed bollocks). But I do digress…

Visitors stay next door on both sides of us, because on the one hand local people (Guy, computer guy who moves into his garage conversion) cash in and on the other a genuinely delightful family from Brighton/London/all over use their own, second gaff and/or rent it out. In passing I will say that I’m more offended by the amount of money folks charge than the practice of renting out but our hamlet effort is about 40% aliens in the summer and this sometimes feels… undermining. Anyway.

Last week some folks rented Guy’s place and once or twice I said hello to a bloke maybe sixty-odd on my way for that essential snort of briny wotsits with the dog. If pushed, I might place him in ‘The Merch’ on account of his propensity to wear apparently the same white vest for three or four days running whilst having a smoke on the doorstep. Plus he had that slickish back-combed barnet-thing redolent of greasy galley-food and cheery but solitary maritime banter going on. It is arguably entirely irrelevant that this gentleman was/is undoubtedly from Northern Ireland… but it is also undoubtedly true… and so I record the fact.

For some days we had no meaningful contact until one evening Bethan my wife heard The Family Next Door ‘gassing’ in the back garden and described their exchange as being ‘like something out of a cartoon’ but this comment hung, shorn of impact, undervalued, in the air at the time. Then I had a proper conversation with this guy. He nailed me slightly as I passed with the pooch.

You gotta television picture? he asked.

Yeh, we have – and no probs. You have a problem with yours, or what?

Nothing for three days.

Aaah. Hang on (I say) the BT lot were carving up the hedge the other day and bunging up a new pole… they’ll have maybe cut the wire, the donkeys. Happened before.

He neither confirms nor denies that he’s heard this story but I’m somehow immediately certain that Guy has already explained this one to him… and that he’s unimpressed. His manner shifts slightly towards the Miserable Git About to Bore the Universe end of the market. But… I don’t want to hate this man. In fact I want to give him every chance to pull through to Genuine Bloke In a Spot-hood, me being a sucker for well, anyone who patently ain’t posh. I wallow in the possibilities for a moment, giving him every chance – after all, he isn’t posh, he doesn’t reek of privilege, he’s got a working man’s hands and face and manner – no, I don’t want to be hating him, do I? What’s he on about, really?

Me and the wife can just about manage without the telly like but it’s not been easy with the children.

Oh right.

And you got a mobile signal at all?

Nope. Nobody does mate. It’s just a fact of life. You’ll get a mobile signal up there (I point) or up there… but not here. No chance. Just the way it is. Pembrokeshire. Although I reckon there’s something quite nice about not being available when you’re home, to be honest…

Well the telly being off hasn’t been good. Okay for me and the wife but what’s the children (who are grown up, by the way) gonna do? They’ve gone home. Couldn’t stand it anymore… and what happens if there’s a fire and you’ve no mobile… the place is gonna be burnt down before you can do anything…

I’m weirdly stunned; in shock; but immediately the rage is rising. All I can actually get out before easing away is

Well if there’s a fire we’d use a landline, first up… and then we’d probably step outside and call for help or run to the neighbours, as yado…

But I’m already walking away, right? Having swiftly computed the black-and-white of what he’s said, the psychotic, poisonous essence of it… that the children have gone home because there is no telly… walking away, the fury rising yard by yard as I contemplate firstly shocking, summary violence and then calm towards something more proportionate. And then back to justifiable violence once more. Finally I settle and simply wonder what exactly it is that stops me from saying this;

Let me get this right you complete fucking moron. You and your family of unfeeling arse’oles have come to Pembrokeshire where you could walk to a sensational cliff-top in one minute, from where you could walk possibly the finest stretch of coast in Western Europe, or drop down onto a beach that cries out for games or swims or dog-walks or digging or rock-pooling or surfing or paddling out in a sit-on-top or okay just lounging in yer humming fucking vest… and your kids have gone home because there’s no telly? Is this what you’re telling me? With a straight, slightly unremarkable face? With no sense that this marks you out as right up there with the dumbest creatures that have ever walked this earth? You’ve firstly chosen – unless this is some surreal Community Service Award thing(?)- to come to the most beautiful place any sentient being could imagine and then both brain cells have triggered fall-into-a-decline mode because you can’t plonk yer idle underwashed bumholes in front of a gogglebox? In weather that might only be described as absolutely fucking magnificent? When the sun is beaming for you and the gannets are plunging and the sand-eels twirling and the bass practically coming in their pants with excitement… because the whole natural world is screaming ‘Look at me I am a wonder!!’ You, my friend are farting in the living-room and smoking on the doorstep and quite simply unaware… of the presence or value of anything. Well I’m sorry not to sympathise or support your campaign to reduce the rental fee against my friend and neighbour, Guy – that’s where you’re Neanderthal logic is going, right? – but having now reflected upon this and without needing to put this to the committee that is my family and our dog and the pigs in that field… I’ve decided we’re gonna eat you. Bethaaan! Get the knife!

This is clearly how it should have gone. It didn’t, because not only have I read stuff which argues against violence even under appalling temptation, in the main, I believe it. However, despite the need to defer to certain moral guidelines re how we might describe or appreciate other humans, I choose to show no pity in my description of this man and his dumb family, even after a day or three’s reflection.

Yes I know not we’re all reliant or addicted to something and that for many that thing is the telefuckingvision. I find it difficult, though, to claw back from the brink of homicide in this case. To have actually gone home (or in the parents case allowed their offspring to make that choice) is, as we say in Wales, ‘beyond’. They are thus anti-life and their obvious ignorance – traceable to lower life-chances as it may certainly be – offends me so significantly that I react… so. I wanted to cut him up and maybe not eat him but spread him out there for the gulls and the ravens. That feeling remains.

There are bigger questions here, on education and sensitivity and reliance and lack of opportunity as well as issues (of course) around my own levels of tolerance. But in the short term I am left with raw anger at the crushing, crushing stupidity of this ‘ordinary’ family. And sure, sadness that this is where we, the world, the people, the nation, some of us are at – mindless and dead to the most wonderful of things.

For Rod.

For Rod.
I was asked to say something today and I thought ‘Yeh. What a privilege. However difficult, however worryingly humungus the likelihood that I may just breakdown and weep, pitifully – yeh.  For Rod.’

Then word came I may well be speaking after Bob Marshall-Andrews.
It made me think of Glastonbury… and I’m (say) Ed Sheeran. And I find out I’m headlining – on at midnight – immediately after David Bowie.

I’m suddenly very conscious that I’m Ed Sheeran, the slightly porky, slightly ginger, arguably faux-Irishman with 98 student-friendly numbers all of which are about my own small melancholy. Whilst he’s got ‘Jean Genie’.

Rodney, I’ll do my best.

Before I go any further one wee indulgence if I may? I’m deeply aware that I speak for my family (and maybe your family too?) when I say that Druidstone has been like the Maypole around which we have danced for forty years. I am so thankful for that – we are so thankful for that – I/we, all of us offer our love and continued support to Nick, Angus, Beth and co. especially now… but always. And yes, always, we will dance.

I have some notes to help me out. Scribbled with a bookmakers pen on the beaches or cliff-tops around Dingle, County Kerry. Most of which felt appropriate.

Let’s start with a question, for the Question Master, Jes Walton – my brother:
If I am David Byrne – what are facts?
‘Facts are useless in emergencies.’ Not that this is an emergency – it’s just a recognition.

Personally, I recognise facts as fraud, preferring (like Rod) that which is fascinating or subversive or downright hilarious. I reckon – and I reckon Rod reckoned – often there’s more truth in the style points racked up around something than in what’s actually happened. In other words I/we rate defiance… and wit… and unutterable, irredeemable cobblers.
(Stay with me people.)

So here’s some facts I choose to recognise today. You can grade them and maybe waft them under your nose for the whiff of profundity or alcohol.

Fact one; I learned about longbows from Rod Bell.

Fact two; in about 1638, Rod plus two English tourists took out the entire French nation but for some geezer called Serge le Poisson and ‘is missus – Marie Antoi-fishnet – at either Agincourt or Pont-Abraham Services, from a distance of either 600 yards or six foot two… or both… with their longbows.

Fact three; Strega is a maaaaarvellous but deadly potion.

Fact four; Rod Bell could talk, wonderfully, about architecture, wine, the Aztecs, leg-spin, boat-building and the use of chocolate in South American cuisine.

Interesting aside-fact-thing; Rod could talk but he could not sing. He scuttled around (didn’t he?) humming, on a mission.
Real Proper But Gawd’elpus Massively Flawed By Consumption of Poteen-fact; Rod sang – as did Stuart Thomas – one mad, blessed night in about 1980, when a barbershop singing group, recently peeled from a laughably tiny minibus originating in County Cork, pulled into The Dru.

We luxuriated (I think that’s the word) in the rocket-fuelled rainbow that is the craic for ten hours solid – make that liquid – and it may have been the most fabulous day of my life. Except, naturally for the advent of my children, my wedding day and the mother-in-law’s birthdays.

Rod was at my elbow – then and often. Not conducting, just being absolutely in it; sharing, chipping in, sprinkling anecdotal gems.

Fact several; shortly after this Rod and six blokes with beards invaded Ireland on a land-yacht shouting something about mackerel pate and accidentally winning gold on a beach near Kinsale.

Unfact one; (gently gently…) Rod’s father was a political agent for the Conservative Party. But this is mercifully counter-balanced by the fact that Rod, John the Ghost and Dash were all, at one stage, Sandinistas.
These are the things I have learned and here is my concluding fact. Factoid. Observation. Tribute…

I experienced Slivovic, Black Bush and Tequilla-Pop kindof evenings with Rod Bell. I learned about the origins of man, music and the internal combustion engine. I/we played fiercely magnificent darts on windblown nights in February. Often Rod got in a real groove; one had that great style points. For me, he’s still in that groove because some things – daft, quiet, remarkable things – do go right past life.

Cheers mate.

The best team won.

The best team won, in the smiliest, sassiest, feelgoodiest cup of them all. Perfect – just what you want.

In the oven-warm afterglow of a final that was better than many (but hardly wedding-cake, aesthetically) our reviewing and re-living can be surely generally positive? We’ve enjoyed generally good, sometimes exceptional Group Stages leading to the delicious South American/European Giants confrontations in the last four. Though those semi’s see-sawed between the extraordinary (Haaysus Kreeeeest! Bra-zeeeeell!!) and the arch-typical staccato tease and counter-thrust, the simple rightness of the German victory over a relatively dull Argentina in last night’s showpiece surely artfully plonks the cherry.

But… before looking again at the meaning of all of this, I’ll hand over to the Morrissey lookalike sitting alongside me on the sofa. Because it’s time for my regular dance with miserablism, moralism and emphatic, quiff-swaying pomp.

This has unquestionably been a vibrant, colourful and sometimes brilliant World Cup but not one that allows me to go with the Best Thing Since Sliced Wotsists – not quite. Too many things cut across that notion – key examples include the measured negativism of Holland and Argentina; the low standard of the host country; the continuing drift towards anarchy on the park.

Let’s start with that last one… and get it out the way.

#Brazil2014 confirmed or reaffirmed the sad truth that ‘top’ players are now spending too much of the 90 minutes seeking advantage rather than playing. The Holy Grail is apparently that moment where you find yourself on the edge of the box – or in it – horny with the possibility that you may by some means draw a foul. The actual goal as an objective has receded into the distance, so that only the drawing of contact counts. That grieves me. For so many players to be rejecting the idea that the most life-affirming surge of adrenalin might best be employed to jink gleefully but cleanly past the defender before lashing the ball wholeheartedly into the roof of the net saddens me. However retro or unrealistic it may sound, I just wish they’d dismiss the very existence of the defenders, dart instinctively towards the red zone and smash the fucking thing. Like they used to.

I know how corny it sounds. Robben and Muller aren’t Malcolm MacDonald, eh? The game’s moved on. But I know I ain’t the only one thinking this drift towards games made ungovernable by the cynicism and the cheating of players is BIG and BAD.

Muller and Robben may be word-class footballers but they are both evidently shit sportsmen. They habitually cheat through shameless exaggeration or pure invention of that most contemporary (and cancerous?) of concepts – contact. Forgive me but cheating is unacceptable. Not regrettable, or inconvenient, or inevitable – unacceptable. You don’t have to be weirdly conservative to believe honesty is important in sport or anywhere else. Honesty is important – it’s a central part of that which makes life – and games – work.

I regret but don’t accept either the need to go on the defensive about that value; I’ve written many times about the need for a powerful step back towards that idealism. I still think a Gentlemanly Conduct law could be redrafted to bundle football back into line on this.

In Brazil (as in the Prem/La Liga etc etc) with a zillion witnesses we saw the following on countless occasions; an international player either chugging purposefully or bursting athletically towards the danger area with but a single thought in his head – to throw himself shamelessly as soon as a defender’s leg was stretched. I’ve heard it said that there is some skill in ‘drawing’ fouls this way but c’mon, really? What could be cheaper or more crushingly anti-sport? Players are plainly unable to restrain this appalling instinct so it falls on those who govern the game to sort this. (Surely this is do-able, given the 86 cameras on every significant event in world football?) For me, until it is dealt with there will be no relief from the drift away from full-on, life-affirming sport – from pure footie.

The second major disappointment was the unsurprising but still dispiriting funk that was the host team. Brazil have been ordinary for arguably 20 years – certainly they have rarely showed the expectant world the kind of football for which they are famed – but there was no avoiding the near-cataclysmic sense of well… despair that engulfed the host nation and provided an unwelcome mega-story for the tournament. SEVEN – ONE.

Let’s face it Brazil had a head-start in terms of goodwill, the buzz around this World Cup being manifestly sexier and buzzier than yer average quadrennial gathering. I can’t imagine a neutral anywhere not wanting to see some festival football from these hosts or at the very least downright expectant of an upful shindig given the context of beachy, beautiful, footie-daft people. Brazil (the nation – or nations?) was well up for it; the team, however, was simply inadequate.

I confess to some minor toldyouso-ism following an early-tournament twitter prediction that either #Ned or #Ger might stick 5 past the hosts given their diabolical defending. When it came to pass in such dramatic, nay traumatic style I felt angry rather than vindicated – angry for the arrogance of Luiz and Marcello and the rest, who have plainly been dreaming they are no. 10’s for aeons and have finally been found out for simply not bothering to work at their real jobs.

Scolari is of course culpable in this, for imagining a clubby, fatherly relationship would see his poorly selected, frankly inept crew through. Ultimately an obviously consistently negligent group got what they deserved, if somewhat cruelly. Is it strangely gratifying that our press aren’t the one’s screaming Show Ponies?

The generally more predictable inertia around the other semi (and mercifully, just a few of the other ‘knockout’ matches) was simply tournament football in action. Argentina were unlovely but successful against a Dutch side who did a whole lot more but without that finding, expressing or urgently seeking the freedom to unleash. Van Gaal enhanced his reputation (you do wonder if this was as important to him as the progress of his team, especially given the theatrics around That Goalkeeping Change?) but chose not to liberate up his side. Whilst the majority of coaches would do the same in the circumstances that ole idealist in me wants to believe he would have been better advised to have bawled ‘we’re plainly better than these Argies – go get ‘em, boys!’ before instructing Schneider and co to flood forward into the box. Except I suppose, that if they’d gone in there, they’d only be thinking of that one thing… contact.

So let’s remember the other stuff; the freshness and brilliance of James Rodrigues maybe, the sheer quality of the German’s teamwork, the gusto and the brilliant defiance of the Americans. Mini-glories from Iran and Costa Rica, gallantry and ecstasy, as well as local heartbreak or overly growed-up caution. If we can ever separate the obscenity of all that money spent on our indulgences – and perhaps we are simply wrong to do so? – this was a really good World Cup.



So United are still in the competition and they’re happy with that. After being given a lesson during the first half in particular, they charged forward just enough to do just enough. They can go ‘toe-to-toe’ again at the Allianz.

My memory being every bit as broken up, conflicted and generally feeble as yours, here’s what struck me about the game – bullet-pointed.

  • Let’s not forget, people, that the first half was a nil-nil massacre, with Bayern playing at a level United cannot yet dream of.
  • Welbeck again did that thing where he looked like a world-beater for five minutes then, when the moment came, he really let his eyes glaze over, needed the moment to be over, longed for the responsibility to be gone, rather than for him to have to grasp it. And he dinked unconvincingly – unsuccessfully – because he is a good player but not a…

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A Knight in Shining Foil?


There’s been a whole pile of stuff written about JW this week, following his typically understated exit from international rugby.  Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph wrote with notable insight and sensitivity to the various and often conflicting Wilkobsessions, offering a real sense of the uncalm crypto-buddhism thing haunting or guiding the extraordinary Englishman.

For Jonny was/is at once the least fly of fly-halves, the most lion-hearted mute, the most innocent and most experienced body.  He is special and yet magnificently, unchangingly doubty; robotically brave and yet disappointingly free of ambition.  We’ve seen a knight in shining foil – often cruelly exposed to the lances of Backrow Baddies or occasionally brittle self-confidence.  And yup; Jonny’s been kinda DEEP.

And that’s hugely rare for a really top level sports-guy, right?  (Or maybe not?)  But peculiarly, Jonny has enjoyed or endured almost Beckhamesque levels of interest and exposure during his decade…

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The Plight of The Swans.

The story broke nationally earlier that a fracas, accessorized street-gangster-stylee, had broken out on a Premier League training ground yesterday. Allegedly in this case we’re talking full-on foaming low-brow lunacy – i.e. ragamuffin with brick – as opposed to gold-toothed sophistohoodlum with diamond-encrusted firearm. Whilst this may arguably endow the event with a kind of old-school bunch-of-fives credibility, the whole shebang seems particularly absurd when traced to its geographic location – Swansea FC.

Prior to this un-Swansea outrage, the feeling has been that a side built in the dreamboat image of their manager have absolutely led the way as the most civil painters of precious doodles, or as makers of footie-as-sculpture, turning that theoretically dull, flat space (the pitch!) into kinetic, smoothly sensual linkages. If that makes them sound more like a love-object than a togger team, then so be it. Laudrup has developed the inherited football culture and this sense that material has been skilfully – artfully? – tweaked and moulded persists. Then they started getting beat. Then they started reaching for bricks – allegedly.

Suddenly and darkly, there’s the danger of tragedy interloping, via a) some geezer getting badly hurt b) The Swans going into unthinkably graceless free-fall. Even for neutrals, this is not happy territory.

It figures, of course, that any bitterness between Chico Flores and the former skipper Garry Monk will be appropriated from now ’til the end of the season as the sign – the moment – when the Swans terminal dance began. ‘Course they’re arguing – because the club is full of prima donnas!’ That may be the reaction from the cynics and from Cardiff, should the weeks claw away and the battle for survival harden. Personally I hope and trust that they will play their way out of this but the obvious argument against –that a team so apparently obsessed with football of the choicest kind may be less well-equipped than say Sam Allardyce’s mob to battle – rings true enough to worry us purists. But say it anyway; Swansea are good for the Prem and they deserve to do their classy lil’ thing.

Meanwhile t’other Welsh relegation contenders – also now led by a Scandinavian, remarkably – already sit in the bottom three. Despite some signs of encouragement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crew were ultimately duffed up 4-2 at The Etihad, by a Manchester City side who look both profoundly capable and ready to take the title this year. Solskjaer will have to really work some restorative magic to keep his team afloat – they look rather cruelly short of quality all around the pitch – but he seems a good sort and both realistic about what may be necessary and up for the challenge. Critical may be who he, as a name, can bring in.

Pellegrini, on the other hand, is in sky-blue clover. Money has bought successive City regimes everything a manager could dream of but this one has shown the wit and the authority to corral the extravagant forces available. To the extent that they are now, unquestionably, amongst the elite handful of clubs chasing the pigs bladder anywhere.

Although it may be possible to imagine that amongst his brilliant mercenaries lack of loyalty for the club badge might cause the occasional blip in the next year or four, City seem perdy close to impregnable and should Aguerro or Toure depart elite replacements are no doubt, for this empire of the nouveau riche, buyable. The question then may be more about how prominent or even dominant might City be – and over how long a period – rather than whether they pip Arsenal or Chelsea this time round.

Down at The Emirates, the other birdlike senior presides over another fabulous and indeed intriguingly classically Gooniferous phenomenon. The perennial Norf Landun storyline, featuring dashed attractive football and an inevitable falling short is again emerging as the business end approaches. Only this time the falling has missed its reassuringly early cue so that we can’t quite be sure (can we? Can we?) that Wenger and co will again be damned to disappointment.

In fact a delicious tension is beginning to unwind, given the actual possibility that Arsenal may be in it to the death, as it were. Where once we had the certainty of failure, we now have something that twinkles with possibilities – something life-affirming, something which teases – and I for one think that’s great.

Okay on balance the brutal truth remains that the bulk of us fear recent history will again repeat; that because of the goddamn inviolability of Mourinho’s Chelsea and the power and depth available to Pellegrini, Arsenal will be undone. If like me you understand Arsenal/The Wenger Project as a worthier, more genuine and longer lasting investment than either of the other two candidates, that does seem unnecessarily cruel. However, a couple of things strike me;

  1. The Arsenal are far from hanging on in there in this title race – they are playing with too much zest and purpose for that.
  2. The Premier League run-in will be a far richer and more exciting place should Wenger’s side remain competitive to the last.

I say two candidates. And this is both disrespectful to Liverpool and contradicts my oft-repeated esteem for their gaffer, Brendan Rodgers. The former Swansea man has invented something so threatening at Liverpool that the Scousers have re-found their roar as well as their lust for the title. Rarely is the incongruously lame phrase that ‘anything is possible’ more appropriate than in the case of this Anfield side, where the world’s most deadly player and his medium tasty English sidekick do have the potential to radically unpick the wider narrative… only to find themselves (let’s say) two-down home to Villa after 40-odd minutes.

Rodger’s Liverpool can and will beat almost anyone on merit on any given day and can even go on the kind of run that snowballs towards glory. But, honestly… I don’t quite see them as Champions. His squad is palpably less impressive than Pellegrini’s in particular and the ‘Pool defence (and keeper?) is just too ordinary. Suarez-led, they have lit up the league; whether this claim is undermined by the Uruguayan’s propensity or ability (you call it) to gain free-kicks or penalties is, whichever way you judge it, one of the issues of the season.

Spurs, Everton and Manchester United are not contenders for the title; they must target Champions League Football instead. United, as always, draw the most coverage – just not here – where the subject is essentially top… Wales… and bottom.

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?