Reflections of a Sports Agnostic

So our summer of love of sport is over.  It began when Bradley Wiggins rode to victory in the Tour de France, a first for a British rider, and has ended with Andy Murray winning the US Open, the first Grand Slam for a British man in something like 76 years, and in between, there’s been all the Olympic and Paralympic activity.

Soon, we’ll be left only with the prospect of the usual tedious stuff to which I pay no attention other than to turn the television off when it’s on.

I’m not a natural sports fan, so I’ve been surprised at how compelled I have been  by the summer’s events.  I’ve even attended, and enjoyed a couple of the Olympic events, watched other things on the television and cheered the achievements of the competitors.  Given my usual antipathy towards the sport shown on television and occupying so many pages in newspapers, I’ve been wondering what it was that engaged me this summer.

I think it’s the stories of the people involved, how they have found ways to practice their sports to excel, when no-one was paying any attention to them.  They represent the complete antithesis to the prevalent images of the premiership footballers which litter our sports news coverage, floundering in mediocre performance and excessive rewards, doing nothing that is remotely interesting or admirable.

Whether they are apocryphal, exaggerated, or actually true, the stories that Bradley Wiggins sensed in himself the risk that he would go down the same drunken disappointed path as his father, and so consciously decided to do everything in his power to win at cycle racing; or that Mo Farah’s parents, knowing they could only afford to send one of their sons to the UK, sent him, leaving his twin brother behind in Somalia, are stories that contain elements of light and dark, difficulty and triumph, of human frailty and strength, that are fascinating.  The sporting achievement is just one aspect of them.

Watching Andy Murray try and fail, and try again, until he achieved his ambition, in spite of all the expectations weighing on him, and to do it with his much misunderstood, dry, West of Scotland humour intact, is something I admire.  Instead of settling for always being fourth, in an era when the top three were exceptional players, he tried everything to get his game right to beat the best, even when that set him back for a couple of years; even when he faced humiliation and defeat at the centre of  a huge arena and in front of a massive television audience if his nerve failed him.

There’s a lesson in that for us all, I think, and that’s what’s interesting in it for me, not the competition itself, and that’s why, often, I’ve no need to see the contest itself, it’s enough to simply know the result.

Lost in the Grampians

After touring my way through the wine areas of South Australia, largely in the rain, I arrived in Halls Gap in the Grampians in late August 1997.  Tired of staying in hotels and B&Bs, after my stay in a little cottage in Burra, I’d discovered the world of the off season holiday chalet rental market, so I searched out a little holiday village on the edge of town and decided to stay for a couple of days.

I remember the place, largely because I remember getting lost in the woods on a walk; but what I didn’t recall until I reread my journal was just how much I enjoyed playing house for a few days.  I elected to stay longer than I originally planned and, rather than continue my progress east, I opted to do day trips out from my cosy little base, deciding that driving out and back each day was worth it to be able to enjoy having the time to unpack my bags, do some laundry and even iron it, and cook for myself in some approximation of ‘normality’.

I’ve told the story of getting lost a few times in the intervening years, and it was quite surprising to see how calmly I recorded the events in the diary, as the memory is quite an unsettling one, so comprehensively had I lost my way.  It was quite a foolish thing to do, to set off into the woods on my own without a proper map, but the officer in the National Park centre had told me that the route shown on the leaflet she sold me was easy to follow on clearly defined paths.

Both of these things were true, but only for the first 2/3rds of the route, which is about where I lost track of the path.  Or maybe it was before then, because by the time I noticed, crossing over a messy river, through a stretch of mud and tried to turn back, I couldn’t find the path then either.

It took me nearly four hours of scrambling hither and thither to finally find a path – I was seriously starting to think about what kind of place I should look for to spend the night – i did have some food, water, waterproof trousers and jacket, but it was not a pleasant thought given the amount of wildlife both large and small that seemed to be about.

I’d even started shouting ‘help’, when I thought I’d heard voices in the distance.  On the path I managed to get back to the road and then  I walked the 5km back to the car trying to sing to myself to keep me going, walking along the white lines in the middle of the road to give me some point of reference in the dark.

It’s funny that I didn’t record the thing about the story that always makes people laugh when I tell it, which is that I found the path only after noticing that the sun was setting and following that direction, but only after having stopped dead for a few moments wondering if the sun sets in the west in the southern hemisphere and working out from first principals that it does.

When I got home I couldn’t believe what a mess I was – covered in mud from all the full length falls down the wet hillsides; hands and knees scratched and bruised.  Fortunately no marks on my face.  Everything, even the rucksack has been in the washing machine today.

The next day, I hobbled around and had a quiet time.  Well and truly chastened, I think.

‘Shakespeare staging the world’ at The British Museum

The introduction to this exhibition begins: We know that the plays were written by an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, but this exhibition focuses on his world more than his life, and that was what it did.   It’s not about the performance of the plays either, although there are special films on continuous loop of a selection of speeches performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

What it does, by reference to the overall themes of the plays, is to examine the contemporary concerns in politics, philosophy, religion, exploration and invention, and displays artefacts from the period which give a visceral peek into the physical reality of the world.  I found the whole thing fascinating, as I followed the winding route around the inside of the old Reading Room, its glorious roof overhead.

It is a true feat of scholarship to have brought together the theses of the way in which all the contemporary controversies,  ideas and influences are referenced in the plays and then to have decided what artefacts might be used to illustrate and contextualise them.

For all the mentions of sword play, we have a sword and dagger,  sharp and shining, dredged, separately from the Thames; to show why the ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ stage direction in A Winter’s Tale was not as ridiculous then as it sounds to us now, there is the history of bear baiting in Southwark, and the skull of an animal excavated in the area.

I learnt about the fashion for melancholy among thinking young men of the period; Jacques’ meditations on it in As You Like It may have been parodying the writing and posing of poets such as John Donne; and the idea that for Elizabethan London, Venice represented a city of wealth and luxury, as well as one which was open to immigrants and otherness, and therefore provided the perfect setting for plays exploring those concerns.

I already knew a little about the tightrope Shakespeare trod when writing the history plays, to make sure that he wrote history in a manner that supported the throne and legitimacy of first Elizabeth and then James I, but not the extent to which writing about Cleopatra, a Queen losing her power, was potentially hazardous, and so had to be done in a way to draw great distinctions between a woman undone and made foolish by love, and the strength of the Virgin Queen.

There is no avoiding the violence of the age, from a description of theatre goers walking across London Bridge beneath the heads of the executed to reach the Globe, or of the history of those beheaded or hung drawn and quartered.  Religion and superstition were topics that could be hinted at but not confronted straight on; the closest perhaps being the witches in Macbeth.  It was in this part of the exhibition that the curators elected to display one of the more macabre pieces, the boiled eye of a Jesuit executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, kept as a relic inside a silver case.

The first item on display is the original Folio of the Collected Works, and after the exploration of the world in which they were written, the final piece brings them into the last century, with a cheap mass produced edition of the Complete Works, covered in Hindu picture cards which is owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, and used by him and his fellow inmates in Robben Island.  He asked each person to sign alongside their favourite passage.  The book is open at Nelson Mandela’s, from Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2, Cowards die many times before their deaths, The Valiant never taste of death but once.

A Town Like Alice…for Real

A Town Like Alice was a favourite novel of my teenage years, and even though it’s only about Alice Springs to the extent that the town is held up by Joe Harman, the hero, as an aspirational place, when I was planning my trip to Australia in 1997, it was a key stop on the itinerary.  Add to that, years of British children’s television fascination with the School of the Air and the Flying Doctors, and I was really looking forward to my visit to the town.

My memory of my trip is of my fascination with the history of the town, and how the locals know exactly how and when the town originated.  The idea that it could be traced so clearly and definitively because it is so relatively recent, is such a contrast to the rambling history of any town in Britain.  There was no mystery, and I enjoyed hearing the stories, recounting the decisions on the  location of the telegraph repeating station and then the railway.  This was something that I experienced subsequently in the mining areas of South Australia and Queensland, but as Alice was the first place I heard these tales, they stuck with me.

But when I look at my contemporaneous journal it’s the people that I met who fill the pages.

I took a tour in the McDonnell range with a retired geologist whose commentary was largely about the geological history of the area, which, by happy accident, fed right into my own interest in geology and topography.  Tea from a billy and damper bread cooked in the fire featured in most of the exchanges I had while in the area.

Either ‘Lying down Woman’, or I was well and truly kidded

Fired with my enthusiasm for riding on a Harley Davidson at Ayres Rock, I was disproportionately pleased to find another biking tour guy who satisfied the biker appearance stereotype – a straggly goatee beard, long hair neatly plaited and tucked down inside his leather waistcoat; and extremely chatty.

Later I was persuaded under pressure, after more billy can tea, damper and lots of chatting with Willy, an aboriginal guide, to have a go on the didgeridoo, but could not get it to sound of anything other than someone blowing down a hollow stick. And then ticked off The School of the Air where the walls were adorned with school work from the scattered school children, and also photos of a visit by Charles and Diana – her looking very young in a nasty yellow dress a la Queen Mother.

It looks odd to me now that I noted these photos, as I wasn’t a fan and didn’t (and still don’t) pay any attention to the doings of the minor Royals; it was probably the anachronism of seeing the couple do their meeting and greeting  in such a remote place in the middle of Australia that struck me as so peculiar, but now I know I wrote those observations just a couple of weeks before Diana’s death.

From Alice I travelled south on The Ghan train to Adelaide where first impressions were not good….. but that’s another tale…….

Mind the Gap – The Olympics and Social Media

Apparently activity on Twitter reached some kind of peak during the recent Olympics, and WordPress has posed the question of whether our own appreciation of, or engagement with, the Games was impacted by this or other social media.

Because this blog, if it’s about anything, is about my interaction with the world, I have written a couple of posts about my attendance at  Olympic events, as well as my impressions of the impact of the Games on my city.  I’ve also been to Cultural Olympiad events and written about them; but I wouldn’t describe writing about these things as anything particularly remarkable.

Where perhaps I have participated in the boom in social media is as a reader, not necessarily of blogs on the events, but in checking out comments on twitter.  On the couple of evenings when I was out and interested in the results achieved by Team GB, in the theatre interval or on my way home before going underground, I checked out if anyone was tweeting about success or medal count, an occasionally tedious process if it required too much scrolling back through time.

I follow a couple of athletes as well as a couple of the BBC’s journalists on twitter, and if they were ‘cheering’ or ‘congratulating’ that was a fair indication of good news.  Silence was a bit harder to interpret, as in the heady days of exceptional British success, sometime a bronze medal didn’t always receive the unbridled appreciation that it deserved.

My main interaction with twitter was on the night of the Closing Ceremony, which I watched on my own, cringing, barely able to watch it even through my fingers, so embarrassingly awful did I find it.  I logged on, my PC on my lap to see if I was alone in my opinion of the lamentable occasion.  It was the entertainment of the debate over just exactly how terrible it was that stopped me switching off, and then after a while I had invested so much time in the hope that it might improve, I didn’t want to stop, in case the moment after I turned off, it suddenly got better.

When I was bored by the events, I looked to social media to make it more interesting, but while I was properly engaged, as during Mo Farah’s races or Jessica Ennis’s heptathlon I didn’t even think about the online buddies;  so I don’t think I’m properly of the social media set…yet, and didn’t really contribute to the Olympic inspired spike.


Addendum – I’ve just discovered that this post has been Freshly Pressed.  A huge surprise, so welcome to all new readers.  As you’ll have seen, I’m really only on the fringes of social media, so this it feels quite odd to receive such extra attention for a post on this subject.  I hope you’ll leave a comment if you’re more savvy about it than me!

‘The Olympic Journey – The Story of the Games’ at The Royal Opera House

The early bird avoids the queue

An unusual collaboration between Covent Garden Opera House and The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, this show was staged in the foyer and part of the floral hall bar of the opera house, more used to accommodating music lovers taking their interval refreshments.

I’d noticed the queue when I was in the area last Thursday, and a bit of online searching revealed that the exhibition opened at 8am, so, being averse to waiting in line for anything, we got there at 8:30 on Saturday and were ushered straight through to the security scan.  We had to wait for entry to the building until a green light shown on the little box by the door, because, as the young woman guide explained to us, it was a ‘pulse flow’.

Once inside, the first room contained a display recounting the history of the ancient Olympics, with some fine pots depicting athletic events, wrestling and running and an explanation of the schedule for the 5 days of competition.  The second room focussed on the pentathlon and, projecting onto a huge pot, animating figures from the painted pots, showed some of the imagined drama.

‘We then jump centuries to the modern era’ according to our guide, to a brief history of Pierre de Coubertin and his establishment of the modern Olympics in the 1890s.  One vitrine showed some of the awards and medals awarded to him by various countries; a fascinating show of star shaped bling from the turn of the last century.

Up the well upholstered staircase there was an exhibition of the torch from each Games since the ritual was introduced in Berlin in 1936.  I’ve not been a fan of the torch palaver, and this bit of the show did nothing to change my view.  They’re torches; let’s hope no-one spent too much time or money on any of them, as with the exception of the one from Sydney 2000 which managed to hint at both a boomerang and Sydney Opera House, they are unremarkably torchy.

The most notable thing about the world map showing the various trips the flame has taken over the years, with an extra highlight on the epic UK tour, was that Guildford and Aberystwyth had clearly been misspelt the first time round and a correction had been pasted onto the board.  I wonder when they noticed…….

The final room was, for me, the most interesting, and was the one in which we were released from the ‘pulse flow’ and could see at our own pace.  In it were displays, including artefacts and short films, highlighting the lives and achievements of 20 Olympic athletes.  Why they all cared so much about their sporting achievements is fascinating in itself.

One of the features that has been much discussed about the 2012 Games is that there is for the first time near parity between men and women’s events and that all the participating countries have brought female athletes as part of their teams.  This has included women’s boxing for the first time.  Personally I can’t abide boxing of any kind, but if women are going to do it, then I suppose they should be allowed to do it at the Olympics on the same basis as men.

The slow but gradual development of women’s sport is evident in this last part of the show from Fanny Blankers-Koen, through Olga Korbut and Cathy Freeman to Kelly Holmes, it does trace and echo the changes in  attitudes towards women’s capabilities and rights.  At least no-one now suggests that women athletes should be at home looking after their children….or do they?

Wrong – A Photo

Sport?  It’s the beer that counts.

Theatre Twice in One Day

It’s not often that the stars align so that it’s possible to catch two West End shows in one day, but this Thursday was one such red letter day.

First, it was Shrek The Musical, at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  I’ve only ever seen bits of the film, so it hadn’t really occurred to me just how specifically it was directed at children, and of course, a matinée performance is just the time to take the under-10s.  I was therefore somewhat apprehensive when I saw the dozen or so crocodiles of small children waiting outside the theatre being shouted out by already frazzled looking adults.

But, once inside, the extra buzz of chatter and rustling of restless bottoms on seats gave me the feeling that I was about to see a pantomime. Every now and again there would be a moment of audience reaction, a special sort of tinny, rattling laughter that reminded me of a Crackerjack audience; that collection of children in their school uniforms and Brownie and Boy Scout outfits cheering the silliness of a Friday afternoon teatime television.

What to say about the show?  It was silly and a lot of fun, taking pops at fairy tales and sending up rival musicals; it’s also got its share of sly humour and clever stagecraft.  There was tap dancing, talking gingerbread and stuffed animals, but no particularly memorable tunes, with the exception of I’m a Believer which they performed from the top of a green wedding cake as an encore.

Perhaps my favourite image was that of the dragon, looming out of the stage at us, its wings raised, ready to fly, the men manipulating it, black clad and athletic, underneath.

Fortified by a couple of glasses of wine and a pizza, next on my agenda was The Complete World of Sports (abridged) by Reduced Shakespeare Company.  It’s always a risk having me at comedy, because so much of it does nothing other than irritate me, but I always try to approach it with an open mind.

And this was fun, silly dressing up with funny hats and wigs, with occasional pratfalls , but it’s also sharp and witty, satirising many of the clichés of sport and its reporting, ridiculing the hyperbolic metaphors and poor grammar.  The performers react to the audience, and even seek audience participation (I’m glad I didn’t know in advance), but by doggedly avoiding eye contact I escaped selection.

Following on the sports theme, I was even home in time to catch the television late night Olympic round-up which featured both John McEnroe and Daley Thompson, two of the favourites from my youth, both of their fiery personalities now mellowed, transforming them into outspoken and amusing national treasures.

All in all, a day of entertainment.

‘Metamorphosis – Titian 2012’ at the National Gallery

Metamorphosis – Titian 2012′ is another exhibition staged as part of the Cultural Olympiad.  It brings together, for the first time in centuries,   three of Titian’s works inspired by the story of Diana and Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and shows them alongside works, specially commissioned for the event, by contemporary artists, Chris Ofili,  Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger, carrying on the tag game of inspiration passing from one artist to another.

As well as the art works, the Metamorphosis programme includes three new ballets and other performances, which are represented in the National Gallery by a film of the rehearsal process and models of the stage sets.

One of the most striking aspects of my visit to the exhibition was how quiet it was.  My footsteps echoed across the Sainsbury Wing lobby and downstairs to the show rooms.  Perhaps it was noticeable to me because the last time I was in this part of the gallery was to see the da Vinci exhibition, which I shuffled through in a long line of people, peering over the heads of the short people at the front, or because Trafalgar Square outside was a heaving throng of soon to be underwhelmed people, kept in line by policemen from Manchester, waiting to see the olympic torch (but don’t let me get going on that bugbear again…).

I wasn’t completely alone in the exhibition space, but it didn’t really count as a crowd.

The Titian paintings depict aspects of the mythical story in which Actaeon spies on Diana in her bath. When she discovers him, she turns him into a stag and he is pursued and killed by his own hunting dogs.  They are full of classical detail, and reclining flesh, drapery and little dogs in the corner of the canvas.  I spent a long time looking at them trying to capture and appreciate all the little touches and detail.  The story is there: the transgressiveness of voyeurism, no matter how accidental, the immediacy of punishment and revenge, and the fatal  injustice of not being seen for what you really are.

I found the contemporary responses less compelling.  I think it’s time to admit that I simply don’t understand what Chris Ofili is getting at.  Ever.  This isn’t the first of his shows that have left me unmoved and disinterested even though I do understand there are those who find interest in his work.

Conrad Shawcross uses old industrial machinery to both produce work and to feature in the presentation of that work.  I like watching machinery, you know, the steam engines at the Science Museum, and films of factory production lines making light bulbs or the bottling line you usually get to see at the end if you go on a tour of a vineyard or spirits producer.  Consequently I quite enjoyed watching the articulated arm of the machine he’d used to carve a set of antlers bend and wave circumscribing  invisible lines in the air, all the time wondering what Titian might have made of it.

Mark Wallinger’s is a fully functioning bathroom, a white shiny space, visible only through peering through the keyhole or cracks in a window, or if you could get the right angle to see through the Venetian blinds.  The viewer stands in a dark space, peering in at a woman in the bath; a real woman, one of a cast the artist found through putting an ad online for women called Diana, who were interested in participating.

Crouching down to look through the keyhole there is a slightly uncomfortable feeling of being made into a voyeur.  Having said that the staginess of it acts to undermine the notion, and then waiting in line for my turn to look through the crack in the corner of the window behind a man holding up his young son, all trainers and Harry Potter backpack, so he was high enough to see, was a tad on the surreal side.  Their conversation was the highlight for me.

Boy: ‘I can’t see anything.’

Man: Close one eye; that’ll work better.

Boy: ‘Why is the lady in there?’

Man: ‘It’s art. Like in the painting outside where the man was spying on the lady.’

Boy: ‘The lady with no clothes on?’

Man: ‘Yes.’

Boy: ‘Does this lady have no clothes on?’

Man: (putting his own eye up to the glass) ‘Yes.  She’s not wearing anything.’

Boy: ‘Is she locked in?  What if she wants to come out?  Will she have no clothes on then?’

Man: ‘Shall we go and get an ice-cream?’

The Glossing of History

Memory’s a funny thing isn’t it?  We each have our own version of it, and then there is the history that enters the annals, the story that people who come later will read as the truth.

It’s the Olympics again that has set me thinking, especially as in the filler bits between action, the BBC is giving us snippets of Games from the past so we can point at the screen and say ‘I remember that.’

Yesterday, on the day of the semi-finals for the men’s 800m, we were given a show of Sebastian Coe returning to the stadium in Moscow where he ran under the Olympic flag in the 1980 games (there was an ‘official’ political boycott because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).   Coe is the chairman of the London Games and has somehow become to embody the spirit of good sportsmanship, which is fascinating to me mainly for its disparity from my memory of his behaviour in Russia.

In 1980, the 2 best middle distance runners in the world were British: Coe and his arch rival Steve Ovett.  It split the nation, as in tennis where you were either for McEnroe or Borg, you either favoured Ovett, the surly rebel, or the more conventional Coe.

Coe was meant to win the 800m in Moscow, but was beaten by Ovett.  Coe, in my memory, didn’t behave well in defeat.  He couldn’t bear to look at Ovett, and shook his hand as if it was something he might have stepped in.  In contrast, when Ovett,  was beaten in his preferred event of the 1500m, he seemed smiled and congratulated his rival with some grace.

Since retiring from competition Ovett has not been in the public eye, while Coe is front and centre rubbing shoulders with politicians and Royals.  His reputation has been buffed and glossed.  It’s another reminder that history is written these days by the people with good PR, but I can’t quite rid myself of the memory of what a bad loser he was.

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