A politician as politicians should be

The death of Newport West MP Paul Flynn this week prompts me to re-publish here a review I wrote of his autobiography for the Welsh magazine Cambria. Flynn was always straight with the Press and, as a reporter on the South Wales Argus, I enjoyed good relations with him, though he took me to task if I wrote something that annoyed him, as well he should have. I didn’t think he was always right, either. Give and take. Civilised give and take.


NIGEL JARRETT is amused and moved by the Welsh MP’s autobiographical memoirs

The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn (Biteback Publishing Ltd., £19.99)

When the irrepressible MP Paul Flynn began his political career on Newport borough council in the 1970s, I turned to my South Wales Argus reporter colleague, Tom Ellis, and said, ‘We’d better not doze off while this guy’s on his feet.’

Tom, the paper’s local government correspondent, was used as I was to waiting interminably for debating councillors to get to the point; that’s if there was any debate at meetings where decisions had already been taken by powerful political groups, mostly Labour. Even with the incessant noise of rubber-stamping in the background, it was easy to see that the eloquent and often sardonic Paul Flynn was going to help us get something newsworthy out of the tiresomely unproductive.

Newport’s council committee meetings were covered religiously by the Argus in those days and, to be fair, the group generally laid out its wares clearly, albeit with an irrevocable outcome in mind. Minority opposition members achieved publicity by default, especially at the full council’s monthly meetings. Their frustration often reduced cogent argument to rant and animosity.

Tom and I soon discovered that despite group discipline Paul Flynn often espoused unusual causes and spoke out publicly if he disagreed with his Labour colleagues, either bravely at formal meetings or through contact with the Press. He’s a prolific writer – in books, in letters to the Press, as a blogger and in the public prints. He once got back at an obdurate Labour group by writing a scurrilous and pseudonymous column in a local newspaper.

As this candid, entertaining and often self-deprecating memoir recalls, his outspokenness came to a head when he opposed the demolition of a row of council houses in his ward on the grounds that it would lead to a common-enough spiral of decline in social conditions. He was thrown off the group. Other pet causes, including opposition to banning the film Last Tango in Paris, promotion of traffic-calming measures and encouragement of performance poetry, had already irritated its other members. To him they were serious but to others they must have seemed mischievous, off the point and – worse – enviably headline-catching.

Beyond group diktats, he was free to speak his mind, though he had to avoid expulsion from the party itself. He was to depart Neil Kinnock’s front bench at Westminster on two occasions (the second a retirement through fatigue compounded by arthritis) for his present position on the back benches, where he has been popping up and down for six months short of 20 years, exercising the independence of mind that got him into trouble in the first place. He’s been equally active and provocative outside the Chamber.

With regular immersion in hot water has come the fame-through-notoriety that has probably and ironically been an advantage to Labour. If you like Paul Flynn and his single-mindedness, you’ll probably like his Labour friends. The electorate’s ‘Don’t knows’ doubtlessly think that his charisma might make him worth voting for. He is a favourite of political correspondents of every persuasion and has won their formal plaudits and prizes. Canvassing once, he was tailed for the Daily Telegraph by the playwright David Hare and thoroughly enjoyed it. They both did, apparently.

In the 1970s, when the party in Wales was looking for unanimity of view on devolution itself, let alone a referendum, Welsh-speaker Flynn was in no doubt that Wales should be governed in part from within. Typically, he had few qualms about bashing Labour luminaries who disagreed. These included the manically anti-devolutionist Leo Abse, whom in other respects, as an uncompromising reformer, he most resembles.

When the vote went against devolution in the 1979 referendum, Flynn, to the astonishment of many who for perfectly valid reasons had opposed any measure of self-government, was irate, and in the book recalls his anger by saying that the No-vote ‘disgraced’ Wales on the international stage. If nothing else, this reveals a patriot, one who has come to terms with the difficult accommodation involved in being both nationalist and internationalist while supporting himself on the bedrock of Labour virtues.

Of that time he writes, ‘It is a rare event in world history for a nation to declare it does not want to have a larger say in its own affairs.’ Divisions had been rife, even in his own backyard, the ‘Gwent Against the Assembly’ movement having been funded by a £1,000 grant from the Labour-controlled county council. Anger aside, the whole issue and the fidgeting alignments of friend and foe must have been grist to Flynn’s mill.

He was born in Cardiff. His father, a machine-gunner throughout the Great War, was shot in the leg but later deprived by the government of his ex-serviceman’s pension. Flynn’s picture of a man vainly trying to sell full sets of encyclopaedias to scrape a living in the 1930s is heart-rending. The father’s example of heroism, determination and disappointment has been the son’s political inspiration.

His mother is equally lovingly portrayed. Kathleen Flynn came up with a sophisticated analysis of the Welsh that went beyond the glib, north-south division favoured by those eager to describe sarcastically a nation of irreconcilable polar opposites. Perhaps only a Cardiffian from the melting-pot of Grangetown could have understood it. There were three grades, she averred: the Cardiff-Irish-Spanish-Italian but Wales-born ‘mongrels’; sing-song Valley types who were ‘Real Welsh’; and the northern Welsh speakers, who were ‘Proper Welsh’ (deeply Protestant and probably extra-terrestrial).

The first Flynn to attend a grammar school, he went to St Illtyd’s, an establishment for good Irish Catholic sons, where his interest in the Welsh language, ‘a lifelong delight’. was sparked by teacher Glyn Ashton. Perhaps the often lone-furrowing Flynn, a man with a roving intellectual curiosity and keen sense of injustice, was interested in languages because their embodiment of ideas can often be usefully exclusive. At any rate, on two separate occasions he famously addressed the Commons in Latin and in Chaucerian English. He also encouraged pioneering parents in their 1960s mission to have Welsh taught in schools.

He became Newport’s first Welsh-speaking MP in 1987 (actually for the sub-divided constituency of Newport West) and was invited the following year to be a Llywydd y Dydd when the National Eisteddfod came to town. Preparing his presidential address, he was urged by the BBC’s Huw Edwards to amend a quote by Hungarian writer István Széchenyi from ‘a nation living in her language’ to ‘a nation living through her language’ (drwy’r iaith). The niceties of words. In a characteristic resolution of self-assurance after doubt, he stuck with Széchenyi’s original metaphor.

To say he’s done his bit for Wales is an under-statement. The language passion was channelled into the clamour for a Welsh fourth channel, but Gwalian concerns stand beside an infinite variety of other issues spreading outwards from his ‘infatuation’ with Newport, where he has worked, lived, brought up a family, been re-married after divorce and suffered grievous personal loss, all recounted with candour and absence of self-pity. Being a stroke victim doesn’t appear to have staunched his wit and invective.

Backbenchers are able to make waves but the wave that breaks around the leader of the party and gets him uncomfortably drenched is possibly the ultimate in revolt from below. As Flynn’s fulminations have been trained on proponents of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, animal dissection in schools, criminalisation of drugs, mortgage and pensions mis-selling, cavalier attitudes to boxing injuries, homosexual inequality, bull-bars on 4 x 4s, to name just a few targets across a wide range, it is perhaps no surprise that Tony Blair should have been in line for a soaking. There’s no love lost between them.

And if anyone thinks an MP in his seventies who has suffered a stroke and been possibly enervated by years of campaigning should have become less vociferous or more forgiving, let them be warned that retirement from politics would for Paul Flynn cause painful withdrawal symptoms. He’s been in Parliament for a ‘mere’ 22 years and is ‘just settling in’. As a late developer, he senses that the best is yet to be.

So no-one, least of all the Labour hierarchy, should expect immunity from ire and coruscating appraisal; at the same time, those who may not like him should be pleasantly surprised by his generous good nature and jibes both well- and ill-intentioned. He says his judgements of other politicians are inspired by admiration and hero-worship, ‘spiced with a little malice’. The last is uppermost when Lembit Opik, Kim Howells and George Thomas get it in the neck; Anne Widdecombe (Flynn’s beloved ‘Doris Karloff’) probably ducks with a smile on her lips; Ann Cryer, Stephen Pound and Gordon Prentice are wreathed in adulation. But the party is still being called to account, it having ‘wallowed in the easy victories and the comforts of power’. Austerity, thrift and concern for the fragile human habitat lie ahead.

There’s still work to be done, too, at the lone crusader level : the introduction of daylight saving, hounding the Church Commissioners over blood sports on Anglican lands and investment in the arms trade, among others. On his suggestion of making St David‘s Day a bank holiday, he has never taken John Major’s ‘No!’ for an answer. It may yet come to pass if the old Grangetown mongrel – or Labour’s ‘Welsh Terrier’, as one BBC journalist called him – keeps his teeth in good nick.



Onward and Upward and Sideways

I thought my new short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, might be out from Templar Press by Christmas; but ten days away it looks unlikely. Alex McMillen, who at Templar runs one of the most important poetry imprints in the UK, has been doing his darnedest, uncomplainingly putting up with my interminable edits as he takes on fiction for a change. We got there in the end. That’s the problem with editing and proofing: the MS typeset exactly as it will appear in book form always looks right, and therefore beguiles. Close reading not only reveals solecisms missed last time around but also inelegant constructions (also missed) which one just has to remedy. The process in logic would of course carry on without end. Did Hemingway, agonising over the final paragraph of For Whom The Bell Tolls – I think he had a dozen attempts at at – feel that he’d hit on the definitive one? I suspect he would have had several post-publication second thoughts but could do nothing about it until the time came for re-printing. I can’t be sure that he bothered, having never read the first edition.
A Gloucester Trilogy, consisting of three spooky stories based in the Forest of Dean, had an early add from me when I mentioned something in the first story, Inspector Rossington’s Casebook, which linked it, albeit tenuously, with the succeeding ones. My poor police-inspector, recalling his career in the force, may not be as he seems. The central story, Christ, Ronnie, Christ, won the inaugural Templar Shorts prize and appeared at the same time in my second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, published by the Medway-based independent, Cultured Llama. The final one, Missing, is a more involved case of goings-on among educated Forest folk, centred on a writer from Ruardean called Emma Brocke, not her real name.
Alex has come up with a nice front-cover illustration: a Monet-like painting of tall, wind-beruffled trees that aptly doesn’t show any grubbing around on the forest floor, or anywhere else in the forest for that matter. The mise-en-scène, as the auteur has it, is meant to reflect the idea of the forest as a place of mystery and dark imagining: think Hansel & Gretel and Grimm things in general. I’ve also included a foregoing epigraph, supposedly an anonymous verse referring, as does Houseman’s in one of his Shropshire Lad poems, to the presence of the Romans in ancient Severnside. (It’s by ‘Anon.’, but I made it up. If we can’t invent things rendered without authorship, what can we do?) That’s it. With Acknowledgements and a couple of endpapers and a biog, it clocks in at just sixty pages. The idea is new: we’ve had poetry pamphlets aplenty, often the promising or hitherto unpublished poet’s first effort in print and the overture, publisher and poet hope, to a first and full collection. ‘Tis better, of course, if the contents of both poetry and story pamphlet have some linkages to justify their handling by the reader. Mine has. My hope is that it’ll sell in the area of which it speaks. So I’ve booked preview features in the two main Forest weekly newspapers (calling in favours here), though the daily Gloucestershire Echo hasn’t had the courtesy to reply to me.
The New Year, then. Gary Raymond at Wales Arts Review and Gwen Davies at New Welsh Review have promised to commission notices from their writers, which is kind of them. (Gwen has just published an author blog of mine about the American poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch.) Others might too if I can think of anyone. Marketing and publicity are not my strong points, and at my age I cannot call on a host of admiring and/or sympathetic coevals. A Gloucester Trilogy will always be a stocking-filler; which Christmas is immaterial.
In other news, Laura Black at Fictive Dream, which published a story of mine called Siblings, about closing ranks against threats of one sort or another, is reading a second one, called Lovey-Dovey, which is about romantic infatuation. Jamie McLean and Celia Morris at The Erotic Review have taken my essay Close Quarters: Eroticism, Nudity, Pornography, and Burlesque, and are looking at possible illustrations. Jamie tells me that Malachi O’Doherty has written on broadly the same subject, so I must look him up. My second poetry collection, Gwyriad, is with Wrecking Ball Press, a poetry imprint I admire. Work on the novel is halted but at this moment I’m coming to the end of a story, Dear Reader…, about a woman ‘of a certain age’ who is about to take her annual summer holiday at an offshore hotel and believes that her life might be changing. I’m thinking of submitting it to The Island, a magazine which publishes stories to do with anything insular; it has published my story A Weissman Girl, which appeared in my Who Killed Emil Kreisler? Collection and deals with a woman whose instability has led to a lonely life in an American rural fastness.

Intimations of Mortality

The present is molten, the future is uncertain, and the past is all we have. I realised this when, thirty years ago, I began looking for my paternal grandfather’s grave (my other grandparents were cremated). He was buried in the same plot as his teenage son, who played the violin, wrote letters to the Radio Times and died decades earlier of rheumatic fever (his violin was buried with him). I failed to find this last resting-place, as the euphemism has it: the cemetery was abandoned and overgrown and church records lost. The dead had all gone forever, but the absence of a memorial to someone whose body had been interred seemed especially sad, perhaps because they were so often associated with lapidary commemorations at the very spot. As a non-Believer, I needed the comfort of a literary text that dealt with the importance of remembering the departed, especially the buried ones, and I found it in 1997. It was by Thomas Lynch and it was called The Undertaking.

Lynch, the American poet, created in his book an extended contemplation of life and death, of the living and the dead, that miraculously avoids the macabre by depriving it of its disturbing effects. Instead it offers the reader a way of facing the inevitable as well as the proposition that ‘where death means nothing, life is meaningless’. For, in addition to being a celebrated literary figure, Lynch is a funeral director, heading one of the biggest companies of undertakers in Michigan. He may be the only poet to have included the employees of a funeral parlour in the acknowledgements to a book – this one. That he is also their boss makes him doubly unusual. In having derived his main income from sources other than the creativity for which he is famous, Lynch belongs to a small clan. Among them is his fellow American Charles Ives, a composer who was also an insurance company magnate while serving up iconoclastic and often uproariously unclassifiable music when he had five minutes. These are not among artists disgruntled at having, say, to teach or clean hospital floors when – in their opinion, at least – talent dictates that they should be in continuous and unpaid flow; they are happy in their dual roles. The Undertaking is also one of a small number of modern masterpieces – Charles Sprawson’s 1992 meditation on swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, is another – that stand more or less alone beyond anything else their authors wrote.

Lynch’s first chapter opens with a sentence as matter-of-fact as it is startling: ‘Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.’ After just thirty pages, it’s clear that he intends mitigating taboo not with gallows humour with with warmth, witty recollection, an unswerving eye, and philosophising. This view was just what I was looking for. I soon felt that here was a man who if not exactly having the measure of death – that would be uncharacteristically supercilious of him – could place it in the context of how the dead were prepared for a dignified leave-taking that would surely include long-lasting remembrance. That was something denied my grandfather and the musical son he joined in eternal embrace. I was, of course, prepared for a description of processes normally shielded from the world by black velvet drapes. And it coincided with my familial disappointment.

Lynch and his brother were summoned to Florida to embalm their widower father, who had died while on holiday with a lady friend. He writes, ‘He’d gotten the death he wanted, caught in full stride, quick and cleanly after a day strolling the beach, picking sea shells for the grandchildren and maybe after a little bone bouncing with his condo-mate, though she never said and we never asked and can only hope.’ On the way, the brothers had their ‘tools of the trade’ – gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends and a box marked Slaughter Surgical Supplies – examined by airline security staff in case they constituted some hitherto unknown bomb-making equipment. When laundry-owner Milo Hornsby died two hours after midnight, Mrs Hornsby phoned to report that he’d ‘expired’ and to ask if Lynch would ‘take care of it’. Of course he would, even though at that time of day, apart from the interrupted sleep, it would be bothersome. But he wouldn’t be doing it for Milo’s sake, for Milo was dead, ‘helpless and harmless’. As the author repeatedly asserts: the dead don’t care; and, as Lynch’s father had told him, when the time came he’d know what to do.

Part of Lynch’s ancestry is Irish. He first located his cousins Nora and Tommy in County Clare. When Tommy died in 1971, Nora cycled to the local Post Office to phone Lynch long-distance. She herself died just shy of her 90th birthday, ‘a tiny jaundiced corpse, made little and green by pancreatic cancer’. It’s the kind of observation the author makes without wishing to shock – my grandfather died with, if not from, prostate cancer – and maybe to make us concentrate on the vibrancy of living, and ultimately to make the connection between the corporeal and the spiritual. Nora left her Irish house to him; the first thing he did was install a flush toilet, a ‘civilising invention’ that removed us from unpleasant reminders of the body and its functions. I recalled that my grandparents had outside loos, one at the end of a long garden and with squares of toilet paper sliced from copies of the Daily Mirror and hung from a hook.

Lynch doesn’t bleat about his inability to make the writing of poetry appear more important than the embalming of bodies. Even when he does write about it, the central focus is on two of his poet friends and the poems they wrote as hymns to the power of love, especially sexual love, which is about as far away from the ‘careless’ and insensate dead as could be imagined. At a time when even a well-known poet may count his admirers in hundreds rather than higher multiples, he is aware and unashamed of how his ‘dismal’ trade looms larger. Most people, he reminds us, are not enamoured of death, funerals, obsequies, and undertakers, though in being also a poet he can doubly number himself among the exceptions: the poet as one who as relief from solitude will take any opportunity to ‘dress up and hold forth in elegiac style’, especially if free drinks and a buffet including Swedish meatballs are part of the deal; and undertakers themselves, who serve the living by caring for the dead and staging their funerals. A man he works with, Wesley Rice, had stayed up all night re-constructing the bashed-in body of a girl murdered by a madman with a baseball bat. ‘What Wesley Rice did was a kindness,’ Lynch says. ‘And, to the extent that it is easier to grieve the loss that we see than the one we imagine or read about…it was what we undertakers call a good funeral.’

And I smile with regret at the forgetting that surrounds my grandfather’s memory when Lynch suggests how it might be remedied. On the way west by air to a poetry reading from his home in Milford, Michigan, he looked down from 33,000 feet and saw in the desert the greenswards of golf-course oases. He had the idea of the Golfatorium, where punters could drive, pitch and putt on fairways beneath which the dead, including their late relatives, were buried in their thousands and bunkers were a mixture of sand and human ashes. Then there was his notion of Cremorialisation, by which those ashes, instead of filling an urn (‘ten to twelve pounds on average’), were mixed with polymers and fashioned as objects related to the deceased: the hunter becoming a decoy duck, for example. Lynch believes there’s something of the Protestant work ethic about this: the idea that even in our literally lifeless extremity, when we have come to dust, we should be of use. It’s very American.

The townspeople in this story are seen through the author-undertaker’s eyes as people he will ultimately have dealings with but who share his temporal concerns. Two of them were instrumental in organising the rebuilding of the town bridge across the Huron, which formed part of his funeral processions to the old cemetery. For its opening, he wrote a poem, read at the ceremony by actor Mary Jackson, one of the two instigators; she’d had a long-running part in the TV series The Waltons. The poem ends:

A graveyard is an old agreement made

between the living and the living who have died

that says we keep their names and dates alive.

This bridge connects our daily lives to them

and makes them, once our neighbours, neighbours once again.

Lynch reminds his readers that the expectancy of death is a round 100 per cent, about which the dead have no opinion. This is droll. It’s worth mentioning, too, because there also seems to be something oddly American about it, that the deaths around Milford are sometimes bloodily violent and murderous.

My grandfather was a coal-miner, who daily ‘came to dust’ and once used the word ‘murderous’ to describe his time at the coal face. Some undertaker, too, would have had to perform re-constructions on his colleagues lying dead and crushed underground by rockfalls. After reading Lynch’s book, I was sure its author would wish my grandfather to have been remembered by something more concrete than fading testimonies. Pity he hadn’t been a golfer.

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997). Jonathan Cape.

I didn’t like that. Did you?

One of the problems with reviewing music today is its tendency to fawn and over-rate. One could be cynical and blame reviewers for simply wanting to take advantage of free tickets and guaranteed best seats in the house; but that would always have been the case. Low ratings require greater powers of analysis and perception than does unpredicated admiration. Criticism implies fault-finding and realistic assessment. But that also means wider background knowledge – and bravery. Critics whose impulse is always to over-praise will never be taken to their effusive task by those praised (though they might well be ridiculed in private by people who know better); but to disparage at length will almost certainly elicit a response from those criticised (though probably not from the better-informed, even when they disagree). After a while, critics find ways of describing a performance in realistic terms: by mitigating their eulogies with small misgivings. The problem today, despite the forensic analysis one encounters when performances or recordings are being evaluated, is the high standard of playing. Some say it’s never been better. A concert, therefore, will always reach an acceptable standard, and reviewers will wriggle out of confrontation by putting their views down to personal like or dislike. What function does reviewing perform? No practical one, except in circumstances where everyone recognises that something is going wrong; then there’s safety in a consensus of disapproval. Perhaps the best one can say of intelligent music criticism in newspapers (or on websites) is that it appears reularly and is thus a signal to readers of what the editor thinks is important. Music criticism is therefore a contribution to jounalism and the culture it represents, rather than to musicology.

A little titillation goes a long way

Having had two stories* published in Rowan Pelling’s The Erotic Review – now a website since Pelling has moved on and started The Amorist magazine – I’ve been fascinated by the interface between eroticism and pornography. The Erotic Review and, I would assume, The Amorist, bar pornography from their pages, thus making a firm if not clear distinction between the two. I’m not sure what this consists in, apart from eroticism’s, and specifically erotic literature’s, having established a rubicon, a line in the sand. The trouble with lines in the sand is that the merest breeze will eventually efface them. But let’s consider the rubicon, the point beyond which any decision is irrevocable; in this case any decision to go for something that leaves eroticism behind in opting for a blatantly improper and indelicate alternative. Perhaps the difference between them is so slim that it’s impossible to tell one from the other; perhaps pornography is something that calls a spade a spade while eroticism calls a spade an ergonomic device for driving into the belly of Gaia. (Erotic terms often have to be looked up; pornographic ones are self-explanatory.)

Neither the erotic nor the pornographic has its own mutually exclusive agenda. One might say that erotic literature excites the imagination to gird basic impulses with a sense of eternal deferral, whereas the pornographic rampages through the flower-beds to reach what is lusted after. Flirting, peculiarly associated with women, is an example of the erotic; so is any other kind of suggestiveness, especially denoted by clothes in the process of being taken off. Time lapse is the thing. No erotic story ends with its finishing-line breasted, if one might be forgiven the phrase: right to the end, all is left to the imagination, and its protracted exercise is a literary matter. It was one of the 1960s ‘kitchen sink’ writers who distinguished between middle-class and working-class attitudes to sex. The former, he averred, was often hung up about it and even when it was not it required varying amounts of inventive foreplay; the latter simply disrobed and got on with it unceremonially, often against a wall. (middle-class coupling against a wall would be regarded as some form of slumming.) The humour of this, admittedly superior, view of the matter lay in the nature of coitus itself: the same experience, give or take an appreciation of the nether anatomy and an ability to invent scenarios. The implication of such a view resides in its capacity to distinguish between sex as mystery, even spiritual, and sex as ordinary, mostly manual: big deal or no big deal. This is why Freud’s case histories based on the repression of sexual instincts are literary. They are tales of physical and moral anguish. Cutting to the quick has no tale to tell.

I was once encouraged to read the stories of Anaïs Nin to decide if they were pornographic or erotic. There was one which involved a woman, the narrator, in a heaving crowd at some open-air event. She felt something odd happening directly behind her and realised it was a male, whom she couldn’t see because of the crush, in a state of priapic excitement and unavoidably pressing against her rump. It ended with the two improbably negotiating congress by means of unzipping, skirt-raising and sundry re-arrangement of clothing, without anyone around them noticing. That there was something comical, let alone improbable, about this ending seemed to be a factor in most pornography. Laughter is often a posit-coital reaction, maybe at how ridiculous the sex act is. Pornography is about the risible endgame; eroticism is about the equally hilarious seriousness of what leads up to it without the goal itself  being mentioned.

Kenneth Clark distinguished between nudity and nakedness in art. Nudity, as practised by people who like taking their clothes off without any prospect of sexual activity or encounter, often like to ‘share’ their nakedness with others, especially easy today with a worldwide audience in cyberspace. It’s called exhibitionism, the act of displaying your unclothed body for others to see. That automatically leads to voyeurism: without an image to trigger it, sexual arousal would not take place. That the gratification for the naked person might come from the neutral (non-sexual) responses of other clothes-shedders is hard to believe; at the very least they would not be shocked as a sexual response; that’s to say, they would not stop dis-robing just because some viewers were sexually excited by the result (or, in the case of the erotic, by the act). Nudity, eroticism, pornography: is this not a chain succession? The so-called ‘nude person’ is often into both the erotic and the morbidly pornographic as interchangeable states.

It would be interesting to discover if these activities are related – i.e., if those displaying their nudity, burlesque, eroticism, and pornography for public viewing (exhibitionism, without the word’s pejorative overtones) are equally comfortable with all four roles as variations on the same broad theme. I suspect they might be, even if they are coy and more circumspect about the last. One can say this without being at all judgemental.

Has anyone dealt with these matters from a gender angle? Except for nudity, the roles are each associated with a division of heterosexual status: the female strikes the pose, as it were, and the male gazes. Popularly, pornography is never seen in the opposite terms, though no doubt they exist. This observation applies to still images of individuals. But it is not the stereotype. A good example is seen in the way popular newspapers display photographs of semi-clad women, never (or never for the same reason) of men. These newspapers as entities are not supposed to be run by a particular group of people for any particular group of readers. So, the implication of a daily ‘page 3’ picture of women is that it is aimed primarily at male readers by a male-dominated editorial team in which the female element is complicit. No such newspaper has ever published pictures on a daily basis of half-naked men; if they did, the attraction would be assumed to be for male readers, or a gay readership. (No doubt the female picture might attract gay females, and the male picture heterosexual women, but that’s not the perceived intention.) Pornography is seen as something women engage in for the gratification of men, but that’s only because the male view of almost everything has always been paramount.

Also interesting is the response to images of those performing the quartet of roles publicly. One supposes it to be an increasingly crude and inappropriate manifestation of sexual arousal, a conclusion that must force one to wonder where, in each display, titillation ends and something more crude begins. ‘Crude’, of course, is a loaded term.

* Celia, Oh Celia, and Images From the Floating World.

Did you see who scored that try?

Discovering that the chairman of the residents association where I live is one Phil Gardner took me back forty years to when I was a sports reporter. Phil was captain of Ebbw Vale rugby team, known to its slightly jittery opponents as ‘the Steelmen’. At seventy he still looks as though he could lead a veterans fifteen, or ensure that a team reduced to ten men still had a chance of winning.

My newspaper required its general reporting staff to take on sports duties. It was impossible to ‘cover’ the leading Welsh clubs in our circulation area with any conviction unless one person had responsibility for attending its (mostly) home games and writing a weekly bylined account of what was going on at the club and with the team. Those were pre-professional days, when players turned out for the love of the game plus undisclosed ‘expenses’, which varied depending on the club’s wealth. ‘Shamateurism’ the cynics called it, with no little justification. Apart from that, it was a different era with a different – perhaps rougher-edged and more leisurely – approach to the game, in which players with exceptional talent stood out. No sooner had I joined the paper than I was half-pressed into taking charge of, first, the Cross Keys club, then Abertillery. Though both in theory of equal status, Abertillery was deemed to be of higher rank, partly because it had once boasted two of the world’s best rugby players, Alun Pask and Haydn Morgan. Its former scrum-half, Allan Lewis, too, had played for the British Lions, and was credited with perfecting, if not inventing, the spin pass from the scrum, which allowed the backs to position themselves at a greater distance because the ball travelled further and faster and was easier to take on the run.

I didn’t have to be a sports reporter but like a lot of other newsroom tasks at that time, the job was expected of you. There was, of course, a small team of full-time sports scribes, who pushed pens at desks, wrote opinion columns and took charge of the best rugby and football teams as well as blanket coverage of other sports, such as swimming and cricket. In those days, rugby was an often scrappy game. The set-piece line-outs and scrummages were untidy, dangerous and notorious for infringements, some of them unseen by the referees, who were themselves of variable competence. Abertillery ‘trained’ on Wednesday nights at Abertillery Park on a baize-flat pitch at the bottom of a steep-sided valley. When the floodlights were switched off, the night was Bible-black, with a quarter-mile walk to the unlit car park. I was assigned to the club at the start of the season, just after the clocks went back, and turned up on my first Wednesday hoping to see the team maintaining its fitness and skills. After two laps of the pitch, a few press-ups and some desultory kicking and passing of the ball, the players had had enough. This was the pattern. The standard of play reflected the preparation. During matches, moments of brilliance never outnumbered incidents of clumsiness. Tries were often messily scrambled affairs often difficult to credit to a particular player. In bad weather, when the thirty players on the field were indistinguishable from one another, it was guesswork, the sought-for intelligence often relayed to the Press and committee box via the touchline and assorted runners. On Saturday afternoon, I was required to phone to my newspaper 100 words after twenty minutes, another 100 plus the score at half-time, another 100 midway through the second half and then the final score. When games began to be arranged for Wednesday nights (training was held on another night or not at all), I had orders from up to half a dozen national newspapers to send 100-word reports at the end of the game. In winter, this meant writing and sending on a black Bakelite phone by torchlight. Once, I was fired on by someone with an air rifle on the opposite side of the valley; as the saying went at the time, they could have had my eye out – then I would have made my own news. First thing next morning, I would have to have a report for my own paper ready for submission. This freelance work for ‘the London papers’ paid well: about £250 a month, which in the 1970s looked after the food bills and more. It also attracted the interest of the Inland Revenue, ever on the scent of the little man and his snivelling propensity for tax-avoidance. With a young family I had no opportunity or inclination to spend more time than was necessary at Abertillery Park. I did cover games between Abertillery and Ebbw Vale. Phil Gardner must have been playing in most of them. I don’t remember. Ebbw Vale also had its luminaries, including Clive Burgess and Paul Ringer, Gardner’s back-row colleagues. John Billot, of the Western Mail, nicknamed Burgess ‘Budgie’ and Gardner ‘Grey Wolf’; John Billot, who started at the Western Mail as an office-boy, and became deputy to J.B.G Thomas, its leading rugby writer, and one of the worst so-called ‘authorities’ on the game one could imagine. JBG couldn’t write; Billot could, amounting to almost a stylist. At the end of a wet and windy Wednesday, good sports journalism was all about writing well, accuracy being taken as read.

There once was a blogger from Hull

One of the more distressing aspects of the worldwide web is the ability of Tom, Tamsin, Dick, Dora, Harry, and Hilary, hitherto leading lives of anonymous respectability, to set up websites and announce themselves to the gullible online community as ‘critics’. A critic is someone who evaluates – and criticises. Critics are supposed to pinprick pomposity, identify and assign the fourth-rate to its proper place, and try not to be that most craven of individuals, the PRP. Even if you are without hope as a writer, musician, actor and artist, the Public Relations Person will elevate you to empyrean heights. Even though no-one likes your work, and ‘real’ critics (employed by someone, some journal, as people who know what they are talking about and are willing to sort wheat from chaff) describe your work as the sub-standard crud it so obviously is, some blogger from Scunthorpe will come to your aid. Once non-entities establish a website, make it look professional (with the help of a designer), attract advertising, get the ever-increasing individuals drowning in their blandishments to post inordinately long encomia under ‘PRESS’ on their own websites, they have arrived. The adverts when charged for attract an income that can be used to travel the country in reviewing mode. The more sycophantic the reviews, the more publicity is generated among those not wishing their shortcomings to be publicised (though they are obvious to anyone with a basic intuition). No god-awful musician, for example, is going to retrieve for posterity and self-advertisement anything negative. Real critics are willing to say something is bad when they really think it is. It won’t win them friends among the sub-standard; but it will help to foster an atmosphere of honesty and may even lead to improvements. So many of these websites are so unrelievedly fawning in their praise that they are nothing more than what newspapers call ‘advertorials’: that’s to say, claptrap that flatters to deceive. The trouble is, self-deception has no defence against flattery. In any case, it is easier to flatter than to risk disapproval by saying something is flawed. You can always identify this sort of PRP journalism: it usually goes on – and on, and on. And it’s not journalism at all, but the prolix utterances of those who wish to hear the sound of their own voice without being disturbed.