Me and the Manics

 

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Ever since I set this blog up I’ve wanted (but struggled) to write a post on the Manic Street Preachers and I guess more specifically my relationship with them and what they mean to me.  This week I’ll be going to London to see the Holy Bible gig at the Camden Roundhouse (thanks Phil) and I’m excited beyond belief and certainly perhaps more than a man of my age should be but that in itself is testament to the band, their longevity and relevance.

When the Mancis burst onto the scene in the early 90’s proclaiming they were going to be bigger than Guns N Roses and Public Enemy many (especially those in the music press, yes Steve Lamacq I’m looking at you) sneered and dismissed them as fake but what I heard was ambition.  Ambition was an important attribute in South Wales, not in the naked greed sense displayed by the plastic spray tanned idiots paraded on our TV screens on a daily basis, but in the ‘I don’t want my kids to have to work in the pits type of way’.  ‘I want you to get an education and get a good job’.  Good jobs were often seen to be teachers, lawyers, ministers and to this day if you walk into any secondary school in England there will be a good chance you will find teachers of Welsh heritage.  It was recognised that to escape the manual labour and better yourself then education was important.  This had been the case in South Wales right from the early days of industrialisation through the formation of the strong trade unions, miners welfare and institutes that established principles of looking to improve both yourself and your community along lines of equality and social justice.  Many left leaning leaders came out of this approach none more so that Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service. Libraries did indeed give us power.

When the Manics started releasing incendiary recordings chock full of pride, passion, emotion and intelligence I felt a clear lineage through to the likes of Bevan using the microphone in a different way but still using it for powerful oratory, strong messages and vision.  They were light years ahead of any other band at the time and picked up the gladioli dropped by Morrissey and breathed some Welsh fire back into the music scene.  It’s impossible in a simple blog post to cover all of the themes, authors, philosophers, cultural and political reference points that make up so much of their music because to do so would require the writing of a book.  Suffice to say that for me it is so good to have a band writing songs that actually mean something, have been thought about and that provide a fantastic education in their own right.  Having an intelligence in your lyrics however is irrelevant unless you can back them up with brilliant tunes and scorching, visceral live performances which the Manics do in spades.  I’ve been lucky enough to see them in all sorts of venues over the years from tiny sweat stained clubs to Glastonbury declaring they should build a car park over the lot of it.

I grew up in Newport in South Wales, and after stumbling through school travelled north each day up the Gwent valleys to go to Crosskeys 6th Form college.  This was at a time when my home area was being decimated by the Thatcher government and the miners strike was honing my political education.  The year below me at that college were the individuals who would, a few years later, emerge as the Manics and I understood where they’d come from and what they were singing about.  Over the last 20 odd years I’ve aged along with them, but also hopefully changed and developed along the way as they have.  Whenever I hear them, and particularly when it is live, I am transported back to where I’m from and I experience feelings of pride, passion and emotion that no other band can provoke within me.

The Manic Street Preachers – original, intelligent, controversial, ambitious, exciting – simply one of Britain’s greatest ever bands.

Manic Street Preachers - 02 Arena, London 17/12/11 | Photo by Jason Williamson

As the viaduct looms like a bird of doom

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I wrote recently of my new found exploration into night time MTB riding and I was not expecting to write something else on it so soon but last night I was out again and this photo of me and my experience encapsulated in many ways what is so magical about it.  A short time before this photo was taken we’d careered / slithered down a muddy field and I was trying to learn fast how to control a bike that was quite frankly moving around all over the place as my wheels skidded and skipped in the mud.  I tried very hard to relax, stay off the brakes and feel the movement, letting the front wheel go where it wants and slowly correcting.  Trying to do this intuitively and by feel was tricky but I did reasonably well I thought.  Plenty to build on and a very interesting experience.

Then after much mirth and a short pedal I looked up and wow, this incredible structure loomed up in front of us.  Being pitch black you couldn’t see it until you were almost underneath it.  It was a jaw dropping moment.  The others who ride the area regularly take it for granted but I thought it was mesmerising.  It reminded me of some old mid west American coal or gold mining track and it was really eerie and atmospheric.  Apparently we’d ridden over it an hour or so previously on our way out on the ride and it’s pretty cool on the top but approaching it from below in pitch black was just ace.

I must admit that I love bridges, there is something about the concept of reaching out to cross a divide that appeals to me, perhaps because it goes to the heart of human desire for exploration as in “I wonder what’s over there?” but also because bridges link places and help people to connect with one another which I think is a fundamentally good thing.   Although perhaps they just remind me of my own mortality, no matter how many bridges I cross, I can’t escape the ultimate crossing from life to death.

All these thoughts and heightened images were whirling around in my head as I pedalled off under the bridge and Rob @chasingsheepMTB took the amazing atmospheric photo above.  As I rode under it there was one song that was playing in my head, the brilliant Red Right Hand by Nick Cave, the lyrics to which I’ve used for the title to this post as it was so apt.  The track is below if you don’t know it.

 

Roll of Honour – by Phil Dean

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When the Boys Book Club go away for the annual trip we have, over the last few years, done some of our own writing as well as reviewing whatever the book happens to be.  The year in Barcelona we had a theme of Reliance and could come up with whatever we wanted to around that theme.  We hunkered down in a bar and read out our own pieces to each other, it was a special moment for me and a real highlight of the trip.  It’s one thing to critique published authors, it’s quite another to have a go at something yourself over a short time-frame (we had three weeks) and reveal that to others.  Phil is, alongside me, one of the earliest members of the bookclub and he wrote a beautiful piece called Roll of Honour inspired by his visits to the stunning Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red installation at the Tower of London.  He has published his piece on his blog so make yourself a cup of tea and go and have a read of Roll of Honour 

I’ll post a couple more of our interpretations on here hopefully over the coming week with the authors permission.

Barcelona and the Boys Book Club

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This year’s annual boys book club weekend away saw us continue the search for a bit of autumnal warmth by heading to Barcelona.  Our trips follow the routine that I wrote about in last years Palma post and Barcelona would be no exception, no grand plan just wander around taking the temperature of the city and it’s culture as we meander, perhaps with a bit of architecture or art thrown in for good measure.  We would of course be reviewing this months book, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and discussing some of our own work as we had set ourselves the theme of Reliance and were tasked with coming up with something creative around that theme.  We also had a couple of new members this year who had not been away with us before so that was also going to be interesting to see how the dynamic might be affected.

Much as I’m not a fan of getting up early in the morning, the forced early start does enable you to make the most of a weekend away as we were sat with a cold beer in our hands in a lovely little plaza by lunchtime with the day before us.  We’d actually stumbled upon a historic weekend to be in Barcelona as all 881 mayors of the various towns and villages of Catalonia were in town to discuss whether they should collectively sign a memorandum calling for the right to be able to hold a referendum on independence.  As a result there were TV crews around, demonstrators and a general feeling of excitement that something was afoot heightened by incredibly loud firecrackers being let off.  Yellow badges were being handed out that it was explained to us were not necessarily signifying that the Catalans wanted independence but that they wanted the right to a referendum to decide their own fate  Echoes of course of what we have recently gone through with Scotland and what might happen with Europe.  Much as I fully support the principle of national self determination I can’t help feel that globalisation is causing communities and nations to encircle the wagons somewhat and wrap those wagons in a national flag which has potentially dangerous undercurrents.

One thing that has definitely changed, even in the short few years we’ve been doing this, is technology.  Photos can be quickly snapped on phones (in the early days a couple of the lads used to rock up with some serious proper camera gear) and of course city maps, places of interest, where to eat / drink etc can be summoned up instantly.  There are many advantages to this but at the same time it can add a bit of tension for those who want to experience things in the moment and not second hand through the glow of a screen or someone else’s recommendation.  The same is also true of the books, do you read it with no prior knowledge or do you use the easily available information to find out more ?  In our book club it is very much frowned upon to do research around the book / author but for some this is a very difficult temptation to resist

Friday’s wanderings saw us drift down through the Gothic quarter mazing our way away from the crowds down through Bareloneta to the beach before thinking about eating (we did a lot of both thinking about it and doing it over the weekend).  A few people had said to me before the trip that you’ll get stung in Barcelona, really expensive.  This was of course true if you couldn’t be bothered to walk a couple of streets away from the honey traps.  If you could then you could (and we did) eat and drink like kings for staggeringly reasonable prices – much cheaper and better quality than Leeds that’s for sure.  Walking away from the seafront area saw us adopt the method for the weekend, a simple neighbourhood bar with a few tables outside and a tapas board delivered fantastic quality and value both from a drink and food perspective every time.  As in every other Spanish city the vast majority of places to eat and drink are small, independents which makes such a refreshing change from the branded sameness of much of the UK these days

We lazily headed back towards the centre of town keeping our eyes open for somewhere good to eat in the evening and popping our heads into anything that looked interesting, which included me joining some lively looking locals for a game of street table tennis.  Before heading out for the evening we had a very quick turnaround at the hotel before regrouping at a local pinchos bar to discuss our own work.  This is always an interesting and eye opening part of the weekend and we started doing it partly as an experiment but also we spend a lot of time critiquing ‘professional’ writers so what does it feel like to have a go yourself and open yourself up to a bit of peer reviewing.  This year we had some great interpretations on the theme, from a Haiku to poetry and short stories, some funny others reflective and some genuinely moving.  I think it really adds something to the weekend and it also proved to me that no matter what we do for our day jobs there is some hidden talent and creativity amongst the group.  Hopefully with the author’s permission I’ll post a couple of the pieces on here.  After more wandering, eating and drinking we turned in after covering a good ten miles during the day, which we would do again on the Saturday.

After clearing our heads – how nice it is to be able to do this sat in a nice plaza with a fresh coffee and orange juice – we decided to have a wander up to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  Historically of course cathedrals did often take hundreds of years to complete but it feels slightly surreal that this is still the case today – I think 2026 is the anticipated finishing date to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but I have my doubts.  It’s a very difficult building to describe but it is undoubtedly one of the most staggering pieces or architecture (or works of art?) that I’ve come across.  Of course there is plenty more of Gaudi’s work dotted about the city that you will come across from the astonishing to the mundane as he designed some of the paving you will be walking on and, as I’ve written about previously, I think you can tell a lot about a city from it’s paving.

After another stunningly good value pavement lunch we wandered down to the Museum of Contemporary Art which had a real mixed bag of a collection in it, a great exhibition called Nitrate by Xavier Ribas contrasted sharply to me against a couple of floors of impenetrable offerings and several surreal items including songs by the Housemartins and the Smiths ?  We all needed something to drink after wandering round the museum before we gathered ourselves for the evening meal and a debate on The Moonstone.  Despite a valiant attempt by one member to point out the relevance of the book it’s fair to say it was universally not enjoyed and I doubt very much if it will enter the reckoning for our book of the year awards in December.

Although we had the odd focal point what I enjoyed most about the weekend was the aimless wandering, the randomness of the conversation and getting to know the other members more.  As we wandered about you would find yourself drifting in and out of different conversations as you walked next to a different person or sat next to someone different at the next bar, these moments are for me what makes the boys book club such a wonderfully rich and rewarding experience.

The photos on this post are a mixture of mine, Phil’s and Andrew’s taken over the weekend.

Up The Buttress

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(a fellow ‘rider’ tackles the cobbled climb)

Ride 400 metres up a street, how hard can that be? Very as it turned out when the street in question is insanely steep and cobbled.  Saturday saw me and Rob (@chasinsheepMTB) head over to Hebden Bridge for the Up The Buttress challenge, a timed hill climb up the steepest ‘road’ in the town.  Now anyone who has ridden over in that valley knows that it is steep sided and makes for challenging riding, whether that be on or off road but this street took things to a whole other level.  I don’t know how steep it is but people milling about the registration tent were saying it varied from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5.  We had no chance to think much about it as after paying our fee we were lining up ready to roll, I had no idea what I was facing as you could only see the start of it from where we were to set off and that looked like a wall.

There was much talk of tyres and tyre pressure and what was the ‘best’ style of bike to get up it.  There were all sorts, hardtails, full suspension, blinged out cross bikes, old clunkers and one dude having a crack while attempting to tow his daughter in a trailer !  All ages were present and it had a feel of a really inclusive event – young or old, good or bad just have a go which exactly as I like it and it should be and everyone no matter the ability was cheered, encouraged and cowbelled up the slope.  To add to the air of inclusiveness anyone who got to the top, no matter how you did it, got entered into a prize draw and there were some amazing prizes including a bike from Orange !

As I got ready to go Chipps from the Singletrack crew felt my tyres, “any good?” says I, “you’ll see” was his reply with a knowing look in his eye.  Oh dear.  I didn’t bother thinking about trying to charge into the bottom of the slope, I thought I’ll just roll to it in bottom gear and then spin away.  I’ve recently ridden up some very steep stuff so I thought I’d be OK but I’d not factored the slippery cobbles into my equation.  As the wall hit and I started to peddle I thought to myself, yep I can do this and inched up the steepest part of the hill but then just before a lip across the path all my wheels were spinning like something out of the road runner cartoon and I ground to a halt.  Jumped off and pushed for a bit then tried to get going again which was a lot harder than it should have been as just could not get any purchase.  Finally got moving and felt OK (well that I was not going to die anyway) and plodded slowly along until the inevitable spinning of wheels hit again and I ground to a halt again.  I seemed to be now standing on glass as I was actually struggling to stand still but I could not get the wheels to get any grip so resorted to pushing up the hill in a comedy slip / sliding about fashion.  As I neared the top the shouts of encouragement rained down but I could not have moved any faster if Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes had been behind me.

Crossing the line I realised that at least there were some others who had slipped about, Rob however had no problems right tyre choice and running at an insanely low pressure meant he didn’t slip once, that and he’s a great rider of course.  We encouraged a few riders up, got our breath back and then headed down the road to the pub for a few beers before going back to see the winners receive their fantastic prizes – a massive cobble a la Paris-Roubaix and see what our lucky numbers got us in the raffle.  Rob got a bottle of beer whereas I got a fantastic Timothy Taylor’s cycling jersey.  Sometimes it pays to be the snail.

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Ithaca – Island Notes

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A primary palette; green, white and blue

Awake, view through open shutters, a crystal clear glinting bay, dreamlike

Walk onto balcony, searing heat and luscious light, incredibly intense.  Warmth reaches past your bones to your very soul.  Alive.

Tree-lined arms reaching out at the entrance and hugging those who enter into the safety of the bay

A multitude of masts swaying and adorned with the flags of a united Europe

Terracotta rooftops dot the hillsides atop whitewashed houses

Vertiginous hills hide Homeric secrets of Odysseus slayer of Troy

The seas horizon so ruler straight you can understand our flat earth believing ancestors

Official temperature: Scorchio

48 hours in and already unclear what day it is as time warps under the sun

All that is measured is natural: sun, winds, tides and the bodies need for rest and nourishment

Rhythms altered, my mind wanders unfettered and free

Books devoured in large chunks in between snoozes

Meals taken in seats so close to the harbour edge that the potential for comedic mishap looms large

Charcoal fires, cooked meets, fresh vegetables and olive oil like liquid gold

Red welts on pink flesh as mozzies join in in dining out

Different noises, snatches of conversations in another tongue, chugging fishing boats, anchors being winched and rigging singing, crickets chirping but mostly a calm silence

Cyprus trees standing tall, blowing in the breeze, whispering as if with tales to tell of centuries past

Old women hobbling slowly down to the shore before taking the daily constitutional dip

Narrow, simple and terrifyingly steep roads hug the coast, breath in and pray we don’t meet anything

Morning bakery run, strong coffee, pastries for breakfast and pies packed for lunch at the waters edge

Ungainly entry to shimmering sea over warn pebbles before salty buoyancy takes holds

Warmed muscles put to use easing through the water, then float, suspended in a different world, cool sea supporting, eyes shut to the retina damaging orb, bobbing, tranquil, wondering how long this state can last

Overhanging trees on white pebbled coves providing shade in between dips in the crystal waters

My children playing, making up games, laughing in the sea with pure unadulterated joy

Yachts from first time flotilla holidays to millionaires plaything constantly manoeuvring in and out of the bay like pieces on the God’s island chessboard

Ice cold beer served in frozen glasses at a waterside taverna watching the afternoons harbour movements, has anything quenched a thirst so well ?

Night fall, three floodlit windmill sentries standing guard at the harbour mouth, music playing, prophets celebrated till the early hours, women of every age hand linked high and circling in a show of community, no film set cliché this

Memories etched and stored away for when times are tough, remember this, days of simplicity, bliss and happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workers Lunchtime

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I’m on a quest. To fill that pure, unadulterated hour. Sandwiched between the two thick slabs of morning and afternoon. In my job I’m lucky enough to have an hour break for lunch and I’m looking for new bite-sized stuff to do.

I like the old, Victorian, philanthropic capitalists like local lad Titus Salt, the Lever brothers, Mr Cadbury, and the Rowntree family. Whilst counting their money they provided their workers with distractions, other than just combing wool, making soap or stirring chocolate.

These forward looking individuals knew that work wasn’t the be-all and end-all. The well-being of employees was on the agenda. Maybe it wasn’t just altruism, maybe they got more work out of a more content work force.

And those Victorian types were all for setting up societies to discuss big matters and learn more about each other and the world. From now on I’ll devote more of my lunchtimes to see what this city can offer its workers around noon.

So far I’ve been digging some mindfulness at the local Buddhist temple. Taken piano lessons again after a break of 20 years. I’ve got on my bike and cycled down river to see leaping Salmon. Discovered a lecture about magic lanterns (basically the demonic precursor to PowerPoint ). Went hunting for the grave of Pablo Fanque, Victorian circus impresario, whose name is immortalised in the Beatles song, Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite. The other week I attended a gathering of local philosophers in a pub to talk about Truth. So instead of window shopping and eating a pasty at the desk I’m going to look for lunchtime enlightenment through exploratory meanderings, lectures, travel, eating and leisure. And be back in an hour.