In which The Author risks alienating half the Welsh population
I started typing this in the Library at about eleven a.m. Some twelve thousand miles and several hours away, the British and Irish Lions were playing Australia in the second Test of the series. It was an early start by UK standards – although it’s nothing compared to some of the live boxing bouts and Grands Prix that have been televised in recent years. No doubt a good number of my friends were watching it on Sky Sports. When I passed the Mount Pleasant and the White Lion on the way into town, both pubs were open for the game. The Mount was offering food at half-time. The White and the Conway used to do food at half-time during the Six Nations. When Wales (and, by implication, the Lions, who seem to be mostly made up of Welsh players this time) play, it’s a big event.
It also means that by mid-afternoon Aberdare (and no doubt other Valleys towns and villages) will be swarming with muscular, short-haired, tattooed blokes, full of alcohol, testosterone and/or anabolic steroids, looking to kick the shit out of anyone who doesn’t look like one of them.
(1445 STOP PRESS As if by divine intervention, one such cunt has just told me that if he had his way, he’d chuck me out of the pub. Instead, he got chucked out. You don’t fuck with the pub regulars, regardless of how hard you think you are. Maybe he’s another Neanderthal who’s frightened of my Netbook. For a horrible moment I thought we were in for a repeat showing of The Dreaded Netbook Hurler of Old Mountain Ash. Maybe, like many other inhabitants of this time, that particular fuckwit just hasn’t come to terms with electricity yet. How on Earth do they manage to live with such witchcraft in the world?) Anyway, whatever else happens I’ll be back in the house long before the real trouble starts.
I used to hate rugby when I was in school, but that was largely because we were expected to play the damned game, rather than just watch it. (see Rules of Engagement.) Have a dekko at the various pictures of me dotted throughout this blog. Do I look like a fucking rugby player?
I started watching the Six Nations when I was in my early thirties, largely because the pubs would be showing the BBC live coverage and I got swept along with the excitement of it all. It was almost inevitable that after a little while I picked up a few ideas about the game. After a few such afternoon piss-ups I actually started to enjoy watching the internationals. Even though I never got into the Club or Regional games, the Five (and later Six) Nations tournaments were something else entirely.
There’s no doubt that if you live in Wales, there’s a sense of great occasion over those early spring weekends. When I was working in Cardiff, the whole city got caught up in a fantastic festival atmosphere for a few days either side of the fixture itself. For our home matches, the visitors descend en masse during Thursday and Friday, and often stay till midweek. The pubs and clubs burst with colour and ring with songs in foreign languages and unusual accents. There’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie and friendly rivalry which one doesn’t find whenever there’s a soccer match.
Laurie and I once strolled over to Kitty Flynn’s for our lunchtime libation the day of a Wales v Ireland game. In Caroline Street, crowds of people in red and green jerseys mingled freely, exchanging banter and sharing cigarettes as they moved from one pub to the next. Lloyd the doorman was standing at the side entrance, directing punters to the main door on the corner. Behind him, we could see that the place was stuffed to the gunwales.
‘We’ll never get served,’ Laurie said, but we caught Lloyd’s eye just the same. He stepped aside to let a couple of people out, and sneaked us in under his watchful eye. We were regulars, after all. At the bar, all hands were quite literally to the pumps. People were queuing four-deep to get served, and every available space was occupied. Even so, as soon as Mary the landlady spotted us, she started pulling our drinks. We knew the exact prices and we didn’t have to mess about with change. We actually managed to down two pints each in the time available – not bad going for such a busy afternoon!
When Dillons was open, and the old stadium was still standing (i.e. before 1999), we could get a vague idea of the run of play by standing in the car park and listening to the roar of the crowd as it echoed across the city centre. It wasn’t the same once the Millennium Stadium opened; the structure somehow contains the sound. Instead, we used to have the BBC Sport website on the computer in the shop. It refreshes automatically, so that we were able to keep each other and the customers up to speed with the latest results.
After 1999, other things seemed to change as well. Rugby internationals became huge occasions, and Cardiff really capitalised on the phenomenon. Families flooded into the city, and street vendors would make a killing from flags, giant plastic leeks, hooters, and other daft souvenirs. Kids would queue up at makeshift stalls all along Queen Street and St Mary Street to have dragons painted on their cheeks. The TV cameras would scan the crowd before zooming in on a group of attractive young women wearing weird foam headgear in the shape of huge daffodils. (Imagine having a ticket for the match and finding them sitting in front of you…) Meanwhile, BBC sports presenter John Inverdale would make a beeline for the Vulcan, standing on its own amidst a ‘redevelopment area’ opposite the Art College, and chat with fans over a pint and a packet of crisps before kick-off.
Pubs, restaurants, hotels, taxi firms and the rail companies must make a small fortune over those couple of weekends in the spring when the capital really comes to life. (Our shop would be like a graveyard during the match itself. The only people about were the diehard non-fans or the Rugby Wives, whose husbands were either in the stadium or in one of the pubs.) Our takings used to reflect that – a quick ‘poll’ of the tills in the cash office would reveal a dramatic peak towards lunchtime, followed by a precipitous fall about half an hour before kick-off.)
Walking around the centre is an exciting adventure in itself. The carnival atmosphere is infectious, and even if you aren’t a lover of the game you find yourself smiling at strangers and greeting the visiting supporters with a loud ‘Bore da!‘ Unlike football games, there’s always relatively little trouble in town, and remarkably few arrests. (The few incidents which do occur usually involve Welsh and English fans – some things never change.) Instead of fighting, people just get pissed, in some cases get laid, and (in extremis) get lost.
I was travelling home one evening and got chatting to some extremely tired and emotional Irish guys, who were staying at the Heritage Park in Trehafod. They’d managed to board the Aberdare train, and only noticed their mistake when they passed Pontypridd. I knew the conductor to say ‘hello’ to, so I called him over and we explained what had happened. He advised them to jump off at Abercynon, wait for the next train back to Pontypridd, and then catch the next Treherbert train. But the Guinness was in and the sense was out. As we pulled into Abercynon, one of them spotted the Junction Hotel an easy stagger from the station.
He cried, ‘There’s a pub!’, grabbed his stuff, and leapt onto the platform. The whole gang followed him in the general direction of the Junction. I’ve no idea when (or even if) they arrived back at Trehafod that night, but they were having a whale of a time. I know loads of boys who’ve done the Scotland or Ireland trips. If you don’t have an unexpected adventure and make new friends, the whole thing’s a pointless exercise.
Another time, I was walking through St Tydfil’s Square in Merthyr Tydfil on the Tuesday afternoon after the Wales v Scotland game. Dad was seriously ill in hospital, and I was making my way there for a meeting with his doctor. I’d stopped off to buy a paper, and was surprised by the skirl of the bagpipes echoing from the shop fronts. A lone piper, in full Highland dress, was standing outside W.H. Smith with his stuff on the ground in front of him, playing a lament. I don’t know whether he’d blown his money home on beer and whisky and was busking his fare home, or whether he was just waiting for his mates to rejoin him. It was a sad moment in what was to become a very bleak day for my whole family.
But here we are, back in 2013, and I’ve just relocated to the pub. Even if the Circumlocution Office had managed to get its collective finger out of its collective arse and put my money into the bank as promised, I won’t be spending very long in here today. For one thing, on the orders of South Wales Police, beer glasses are contraband items on match days. In order to reduce the incidence of pub-related violence, drinks have to be served in plastic mugs instead. There are two kinds of these monstrous creations. One is the sort of thing you get in beer tents at village fêtes and pop festivals, so flimsy that when you pick it up about a third of the drink spills over the top. The other is more solid, made of polycarbonate, which flattens your lager in no time.
[A digression: During one of the Autumn Tests, I was in the Prince of Wales and asked Emma the barbint if I could have a solid plastic, instead of the other type. She told me that all the polycarbonates were in the glass washer, and they were still warm.
I replied, ‘Personally, I’d much rather mine was hard, warm and wet than dry and floppy.’ For some reason she told me had a filthy mind. Who? Me? It’s not the mouth it comes out of, is it?]
No, the real reason why I avoid the pubs on match days isn’t the plastic mugs, or the daffodil-wearing bints out on the lash, or the steroid boys. It’s the Rugby Pundit. He’s a guy who played in school, or possibly joined one of the second-class clubs in the Valleys until age and/or injury forced him onto the sidelines. If you walk into any pub in the land, there’ll be at least one chap who will entertain you/ educate you/ amuse you/ bore you shitless (delete as applicable) with his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport. In England, for example, you’ll probably find a guy who could write the definitive history of Crewe Alexandra FC. In the Valleys of South Wales, the equivalent pub know-it-all is an expert on rugby.
What the Rugby Pundit doesn’t know about the favoured pastime of the ‘muddied oafs’ isn’t worth knowing. Whether it concerns the shortcomings of the current Ospreys back row, the future prospects of a first-time cap pulled from the Under-19s Squad, or the poor selection made by Warren Gatland ahead of the Second Test, the Rugby Pundit’s opinion is nothing short of 24-carat gold. It needs to be, because he broadcasts it – not only to his friends, but to anyone else who happens to be within earshot. Sometimes he will gather a crowd of like-minded souls to his impromptu seminar, each of whom will vie to outdo the others with his knowledge of the minutiae of the game. The Rugby Pundit has more opinions than Bill Beaumont, he’s more fiercely nationalistic than Phil Bennett, and he’s more excitable than the late Bill McLaren. Immediately the team is announced, he’s analysed the coach’s selection and picked holes in the starting fifteen.
‘So-and-so should be there instead of such-and-such,’ he announces to the world in general. ‘Whatshisname should be on the bench until half-time, because he’s not match fit,’ he states sagely, to nods of total agreement from his drinking cronies. ‘We’ll put three points on them if we’re really lucky,’ he declares, confident that his prediction comes direct from the Supreme Being itself.
Of course, the Rugby Pundit never puts his money where his mouth is. He’ll only ever put a quid in the sweepstake for first try-scorer, because he’s got the same chance as anyone else of scooping the pool. Ask him how much he’s made by translating his oracular predictions into hard currency at the bookie’s, and he’ll tell you that gambling is a mug’s game.
At half-time, the television commentators offer their opinion of the game thus far. They are people who’ve represented their countries at international level, and who are arguably better-placed to pronounce judgement on the events of the previous forty-or-so minutes. But no, the Rugby Pundit knows better. He’s already analysing the game in forensic detail for all to hear, breaking off only for a fresh pint, a smoke, a piss, and possibly some free food, before the restart.
When it’s all over, the real post mortem can get under way. ‘If whoever hadn’t missed that kick,’ the Rugby Pundit tells all concerned (and the unconcerned alike), ‘we’d have won easily.’
I remember all that crap going on after the Sunday night quizzes, when I used to play for the Cross Inn and the Blossoms back in the day. Regardless of whether we’d had a storming victory or a severe arse-kicking, the team captain would insist on going through every question and comparing our answers with the ones on the card.
[A digression: When we first started a team in the Whitcombe, we naturally had to play in the Second Division of the Cynon Valley Quiz League. We had a strong side on paper: me, Gaz, Julia, Deno, Liz Williams, and (every so often) Dad, and we were also something of an unknown quantity. Our notional strength translated into results, and the end of our first season we were promoted to the First Division – not bad going for a bunch of newcomers. Now we were up against the big hitters like the Rock and Cwmaman Club, and the pressure was on. The day before we were due to play Cwm Club, I bumped into their captain Alan Swanson – yet another Cwmaman noisy bugger – in town.
‘You’ve got us tomorrow,’ he said with an evil glint in his eye. ‘We’re unbeaten so far.’
‘So are we,’ I reminded him. ‘You won’t beat us, either, Swanny.’
‘You won’t take us down,’ he assured me, and we went our separate ways, laughing at each other.
In the event, thanks to our last-minute sprint for the line, our scores were tied. We stood up for the traditional exchange of handshakes, but Swanny gave me a big bearhug instead.
‘I told you you wouldn’t beat us, mate!’ I told him, to gales of laughter all round.]
Anyway, while I was team captain, I dispensed with the ritual post-quiz autopsy. Maybe my long-standing interest in Quantum Mechanics had something to do with it, but there seemed to be no fucking point in it. In the Universe Right Here, Right Now, the result stood in stone. If we’d listened to Julia’s inspired hunch about pop music in the second round, or if Gaz had chosen to stay awake during the individual questions (see The Power of Suggestion), we might have gained an extra point – but we didn’t! Those results took place in the Universes Next Door, where we couldn’t influence them one iota.
So, while the Rugby Pundit witters aimlessly on about what might have happened if Leigh Halfpenny had managed to get a bit more length out of his kick, I remain sitting quite comfortably in the Here and Now. In the meantime, the sun is out and town is fairly busy, with no sign of the post-match idiots (previously cuntpany excepted, of course.) They’ll hit the pubs by about four o’clock this afternoon after hitting the beer all day, and then start hitting each other and/or innocent bystanders a couple of hours later. They’re the ones who give the game a bad reputation in the Valleys. After all, in spite of the oft-quoted (and seemingly unattributable) saying, around these parts Rugby is a game watched by hooligans.
Do you remember when you first started acquiring language?
I shouldn’t have thought so, in all honesty. After all, we start acquiring our mother tongue in early infancy. Our proficiency develops almost in a geometric fashion. Each new development lays the foundations for further advances. Lev Vygotsky applied this idea to his theory of childhood learning, where he came up with the idea of a scaffolding.
Each new layer is built on the previous one. It’s the role of the teacher to help the pupil to reach new heights, by enabling him/her to move into the Zone of Proximal Development. It’s the gap between the level the pupil will attain unaided, and the level the pupil reaches when pushed and stretched by a good teacher.
While we were discussing this in a Psychology lecture I pointed out something which I’d noticed on the trains for several years. The Welsh word for ‘ladder’ – ysgol – is the same as the word for ‘school’. Coincidence? After all, both of them enable you to ascend to a higher level. Maybe it’s just an accident of language. Maybe there’s more to it than that. Who knows?
Anyway, children learn how language operates almost instinctively – until, that is, they start school. Then. as Steven Pinker says, they get taught the formal rules of grammar (Pinker, 1999). That’s where the fun starts. A small child, simply by listening to his/her parents, will learn to say ‘The dog ran around the garden.’ The same child goes to school and is taught that, in order to make the past tense of a verb, one adds -ed to the bare infinitive. Then he/she gets a row from the teacher for saying ‘The dog runned around the garden.’ He/she just can’t win. After a while, the mental confusion gets sorted out and most people achieve reasonable fluency.
I don’t think that we acquire numeracy in the same instinctive way. Although we may have an innate understanding of quantity, we have to be taught that 1 + 1 = 2, and that 2 + 1 = 3. It’s been frequently asserted that there are indigenous peoples throughout the world who only have words for one, two, few and many. However, it would seem that where there is language, a knowledge of mathematics follows almost by default (Sizer, 1991). On the face on Sizer’s evidence, a knowledge of arithmetic, geometry and basic algebra does not rely on literacy for its propagation through time. Maybe our facility for language and mathematics are in some way interconnected, and ‘hard-wired’ into the human mind.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for sport. In spite of the best efforts of Communist countries from the 1950s onwards, I very much doubt that anyone has ever been born who innately knew the rules of Association Football. Or the rules of rugby, tennis, golf, snooker, darts, bowls, basketball, rounders, hockey, track and field events, Pub Quizzes, chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, or any other popular competitive game. Let’s take an example.
To the uninitiated TV audience, cricket consists of little more than a group of grown men walking around a field. Two men with sticks occasionally run past each other while the others run in all directions, and a man wearing a dozen hats waves his hands in the air from time to time. Just when things get interesting, they all go and have a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich. When a cloud looms into view, they call it a day and go for another cup of tea. At the end of five days, they decide that nobody has won, and go for yet more tea. In the meantime, the commentators remark on the passing buses or the occasional pitch invasion by a pigeon, and eat cakes sent in by the audience.
Could anything be more inexplicable? How the hell could you teach that to anyone? And yet (and I’m not defending Imperialism by any means) the British exported this most bizarre of ceremonies worldwide during the days of Empire. And, of course, our colonial cousins repay this debt by beating us almost every time they play us.
To the cricket fan, of course, this arcane ritual is nothing less than sacrosanct. Shanara’s father (born in Bangladesh) is a huge fan of the game. Meanwhile, she hasn’t got the foggiest idea about the whole thing. Or sport in general. That’s another thing we’ve got in common. On the couple of occasions when she joined me in the pub to watch the rugby, I even had to tell her that our team were the ones in the red shirts.
But then again, thirty years ago, I knew next to nothing about rugby. I didn’t watch the Five Nations on TV. In fact, I had no interest in sport at all. This was when we had three channels, of course. Grandstand and World of Sport were just a waste of a Saturday afternoon on television. If we were lucky, BBC2 would show an old science fiction film. Otherwise, there was nothing worth watching. I heard people talking of Grand Slams and Triple Crowns without any idea of their significance. I met Dr John Williams (aka J.P.R. Williams) when I was in my early teens. That was nothing to do with rugby, though. It was in his professional capacity as an orthopaedic surgeon. The guys in school were amazingly impressed. I wasn’t. His was just a name I’d heard on TV.
Thus it was that I spent a decade or more pretty much adrift in the state education system during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember a time, playing soccer in the comprehensive school, when I thought I’d actually scored a goal. I hadn’t, of course. To this day I don’t know why.
The teacher bellowed at me, ‘Haven’t you ever heard of the offside rule?’
I wish I’d had the presence of mind to reply, ‘Yes. Have you heard of the Pauli Exclusion Principle? Okay, then – you explain your bit first!’
But, of course, I didn’t say it. Anyway, he was a PE teacher. He’d probably have thought the Pauli Exclusion Principle was an arcane rule of Downhill Skeleton Bob.
PE teachers didn’t seem to have changed since the vivid portrayal of the bull-necked, bullying caveman made famous by Brian Glover in Kes. ‘Bullet’ Bronson in Grange Hill seemed to be a pretty accurate representation of our PE teachers for the most part. I had to endure the ritual humiliation every week of being amongst the last to be picked when the Hearties chose their teams. The usual protest of, ‘Oh, Sir, we had him last week!’ did little to boost my confidence as a team player. I ended up skiving the lessons more often than not.
It became a self-fulfilling prophesy. I usually ended up as goalkeeper, where I used to make a valiant effort. That was all. I’ve often wondered whether the likes of Pat Jennings, Neville Southall and Peter Schmeichel started out by being so crap at football they got shoved into the goal and hoping for the best.
My favoured events were the ones I could do with no special equipment and no technique. I was a runner. 400 m, 800 m and 1500 m were tailor-made for me – long-legged, big-lunged, and able to pace myself across the distance. Eddie Morgan, the new PE teacher, saw where I was coming from and gave me a school report which I still treasure: ‘Makes up for lack of natural ability with great energy and enthusiasm.’ He could see that I simply didn’t know the rules of most of the other games. Let’s be honest, if I’d been as behind in English or Maths as I was in PE, they’d have given me remedial lessons.
I watch rugby now, of course. I still don’t understand the finer points of the game, but I know a decent play from a missed opportunity when I see it. I’ve gathered my knowledge over fifteen years or so of watching Wales’ varying fortunes on TV. Mother’s love of tennis came the same way, by watching Wimbledon on BBC when we were in school and picking up the rules of the game. Our understanding wasn’t innate or instinctive. We took the time to pick them up.
It’s taken me a long time to get to grips with some of the UK’s most fiendish crossword setters. My interest in crosswords, as with quizzes, began with Dad. He would come home from work with the South Wales Echo and I’d sit beside him as he worked his way through. About twenty years or so ago I lapped him and left him way behind. I came to understand what was going on in the little corner of the newspaper, in the same way that Mother came to understand what was going on in a little corner of London SW19.
I still haven’t got the full measure of a couple of the current compilers. In the Guardian, Araucaria, Paul, Brummie and Boatman occasionally do things that would make people who are used to The Times or Daily Telegraph puzzles throw up their hands in despair. At least Azed in The Observer plays by the ‘rules’ laid down by his predecessor Ximenes. Even speaking as an anarchist, without some semblance of acceptable behaviour, the whole system breaks down. We’d be back to the days of Ximenes’ predecessor Torquemada, where some weeks there were no correct entries.
If you’re not interested in watching sport as a child, you don’t get the opportunity to learn the rules by assimilation. So you have to be taught the rules instead. And if you’re not taught the rules, how are you expected to abide by them? You can’t just throw twenty-two schoolboys and a football onto a playing field and expect them all to automatically know the offside rule. It’s like throwing a bunch of nursery school kids into an A level Maths lesson and expect them to do differential calculus. You have to know the foundations first.
I can’t remember anyone in school taking the time to explain the difference between a penalty and a free kick. I didn’t know why sometimes there was a scrum and sometimes a line-out. I still don’t fully understand the Duckworth-Lewis Method. I expect I’m not the only one. Yet in Wales, and especially in schools, there seems to an assumption that every boy must spend his Saturday afternoons (and a great many Sunday afternoons and weekday nights) glued to the television, watching football.
Let me assure you that I didn’t, and I know a lot of youngsters who don’t. Would it really hurt the PE teachers to sit down with the class before they even get their kit on, and explain exactly what they’re going to be doing for a few hours every week, term in and term out, for at least the next ten years? With an understanding of the object of the game, even the hopeless cases might find something which appeals to them, without being mocked by their peers and teachers alike. If this idea takes off, it could revolutionise PE teaching in schools. Maybe – just maybe – this spell of sporting success which seems to affecting Wales at the moment might not be a flash in the pan.
PINKER, S. (1999) Words and Rules: the ingredients of language. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
SIZER, W.S. (1991) Mathematical notions in preliterate societies in The Mathematical Intelligencer, 13(4), pp. 53-60.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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