508. Gwyliwch Rhag Cymru

I have a soft spot and a great deal of sympathy for the Welsh.

Sympathy first: they have to live next door to the English, have Charles as their Prince, and listen to their language being eternally mangled.

The soft spot: for 48 years they were the All Blacks’ most dreaded opposition. 1905 and 1935 and 1953 hurt. The Welsh ambition, often, has been to be the All Blacks of the North: a small player base energised by dreams of glory, overcoming the odds of money and numbers, playing with a skill and flair and heart that comes out of the very soil.

Of course they haven’t won against the ABs since 1953, but it’s been too damned close for comfort too often and, as they used to say, you never beat the Welsh, you only score more points than them.

They have had some mighty players, and have a few handy ones now. For my money, Jamie Roberts is the best centre in world rugby since Conrad Smith’s retirement. Dan Biggar can kick and kick and kick them from everywhere. Alun Wyn Jones is just a big diesel engine. Sam Warburton is a fine, inspirational captain who leads from the front.

On paper, though, the squad for this month’s three test series looks too thin for the task. Just not enough depth right across the park to overturn 63 years of heartache.

But.

In Warren Gatland they have a coach as canny as they come. And, maybe, for him it’s an audition for the All Blacks job, just as Ted and Shag did their apprenticeship in Cardiff.

Second but.

The All Blacks always start rusty. Always. And it will be worse this year having lost so many senior heads, especially in the backline. Kieran Read’s first job as proper captain will be to show that he can win ugly.

Third but.

The New Zealand audience isn’t nearly worried enough. We’re just four days out from the first test, and nobody is screaming the house down with anxiety. Too relaxed by half.

You’d have to think that Gatland is targeting the first test as his best chance to sneak a win. And he only needs one win out of three to drown in free pints for the rest of his life in every pub in the principality. They’ll carry him from Pontypridd to Rhyl on their shoulders, scattering fragrant leeks in his path, and clasping him to their breasts as a true born son of the valleys. Twenty-five years from now every player in the Welsh team would be called Warren Jones.

All he has to do is get past Shag, who is himself cannier than a canned can thing.

Item 1: the first test, not the last, is at Eden Park. That in itself will knock some rust off, because it’s a fortress for the ABs.

Item 2: he’s as tough and unsentimental about selection as ever. Just ask TJ Perenara. Or Matt Todd who gets bypassed for Ardie Savea. Or putting the hard word on Keiran Read that the Olympics are nice and everything, but being captain of the All Blacks is what it’s all about.

Item 3: he’s talking up the expectations, not talking them down. Taking it to a new level, not re-building.

The road to Tokyo 2019 starts here. Time to get the anxious on people.

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507. The City of Light

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

From around the world, solidarity with the City of Light, in lights.

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506. Corruption Kills

The release of the WADA report into allegations of widespread drugs cheating by Russian athletes is a reminder to all sports and all countries that corruption is a killer.

It kills the raison d’être of competition: joy at the possibilities of blending mind and body to do extraordinary things.

When competition is twisted by individuals’ rule-breaking for money or status, we all bear in the loss. The biggest losers are the clean athletes, yes, but also the audience who will drift away in disgust or despair, with a feeling that this life is less beautiful than it could have been. Should have been.

No sport is exempt from the scourge. Every sport has its cheaters: baseball, cricket, football, rugby. (Remember Dean Richards?)

Corruption in sport and business and government is an attack on all of us. It says that the game of life itself is rigged, that joy and beauty and hope are chimeras to be manipulated by the least amongst us.

Fight back. Insist on following the rules, especially in those moments when you could get away with it because you won’t get caught. Own up to the knock-on, call back the batsman, choose businesses that pay their employees and taxes properly.

There are worse things in life than losing. Winning with a guilty conscience is one of them.

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505. How To Eat

regular spot to share some ideas about what’s good and what’s not on the interwebthingy. But, you know, it’s your life, so feel free to agree, disagree or ignore what follows.

What caught my attention last week

Lives of Writers

Joseph Kanon at the New York Times reviews a biography of David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) and an autobiography by Frederick Forsyth. One is serious and the other is “like finding yourself trapped in a pub with an insistent storyteller.”

Cornwell’s early life was dominated by his father Ronnie, a charming cheating conman. He has used that cloth to construct a deep and sad understanding of the drama of falsity.

There are the expected celebrity cameos — the Burtons behaving badly, Alec Guinness impeccably. We learn that le Carré is still sensitive about bad reviews and can be prickly and demanding with his publishers (that queue forms on the right). But most important, Sisman shows us le Carré’s almost monastic devotion to his craft, a man for whom writing is life.

Lucky unlucky man.

Culture in the Information Age

Joseph Epstein at The Weekly Standard meanders through ‘an inquest’ into ‘Whatever Happened To High Culture‘.

The distinction between high, middle and low culture is an old, often futile and sterile, argument about taste that traipses will-nilly over issues of class and ethnicity and power. Clive James, for one, has championed the idea that ‘popular’ does not have to mean ‘worthless’. But it is also worth remembering that learning requires work.

The acquisition of culture requires repose, sitting quietly in a room with a book, or alone with one’s thoughts even at a crowded concert or art museum. Ours is distinctly not an age of repose. The rhythm of our time is jumpy. The smart phone is its characteristic instrument, with calls and texts coming in more than intermittently, Google there to consult as an aide-memoire, to check for stock prices, ball scores, recent terrorist murders. Information not culture is the great desideratum of our day, distraction our chief theme.

The great challenge in our Age of Affluence (calories, content, work) is to learn how to consume well.

Read Primo Levi

Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish chemist, wrote one of the essential books of the 20th century: If This Is A Man.  Essential in the best and worst senses of the word, because it is a beautifully crafted memoir of Auschwitz.

Tim Parks at The New York Review of Books reviews The Complete Works of Primo Levi (edited by Ann Goldstein, with an introduction by Toni Morrison).

In 1946, aged twenty-seven, despite working full-time as a chemist, Levi completed his account of his time in a concentration camp. Now widely considered a masterpiece, If This Is a Man was turned down by Turin’s main publishing house, Einaudi, in the person of Natalia Ginzburg, herself a Jew whose husband had died in a Fascist prison. It was also rejected by five other publishers. Why?

I would quibble with much in Mr Parks’ review, but if the new book and its reviews brings Mr Levi to the attention of just one more person there will be an advantage.

Do your conscience, your intelligence, your humanity a favour: read Primo Levi.

What I’m Trying To Ignore Next Week

Mark Reason. There’s contrarian, and then there’s attention-seeking.

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504. On The Road Again

Yesterday I drove up to Taranaki to see my mate Captain Tinarse before he flies out on his next assignment.

We had a long night that might have involved red wine, and certainly did involve a lot of re-telling remembered lies and stories and jokes.

They joy of it is not just catching up with a friend, but also the drive itself. Not a bad place to live, really.

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503. Close To The Cup

BrotherPhil very nearly got his hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy today (if it hadn’t been for the other thousands of people, the security guards, and some bloke called Shag holding on to it.)

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Which reminds me of the time BrotherPhil very nearly scored a try for his 1st XV …

 

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502. Life Goes On

I guess I’ve been fairly focused on rugby for the last six weeks. Certainly my posts have contained a fair amount of it.

Here are some of the things that I noted, but did not write about:

18 September: Volkswagen comes clean on its dirty diesels.

20 September: Alexis Tsipras remains Prime Minister of Greece when his Syria party wins 35% of the vote in a general election.

21 September: the first light-rail commuter system in sub-Saharan Africa opens in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fares for the 17km ride are 6 birr (US$0.27).

23 September: hundreds die in a crush during the Haj in Mecca.

23 September: the Colombian government and FARC rebels agree a key step in their peace process.

30 September: Russian warplanes began operations in support of Syria’s President Assad.

3 October: 22 people are killed in a Medicins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan by a mistaken US airstrike.

6 October: Trade ministers from 12 countries complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

10 October: nearly 100 people are killed at a peace rally in Ankara, Turkey by two suicide bombers.

13 October: The world’s two largest brewers (Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller) agree in principle a US$106 billion merger.

15 October: The Myanmar government and eight rebel groups sign a ceasefire agreement.

18 October: The Iranian nuclear deal is formally adopted by the UN Security Council.

19 October: Justin Trudeau becomes Canada’s new Prime Minister when the Liberal Party wins an outright majority in the general election.

21 October: Ferrari starts trading on the NYSE with the ticker symbol RACE.

25 October: the Law and Justice party wins the Polish general election.

25 October: comedian Jimmy Morales wins the Guatemala presidential election on an anti-corruption platform.

27 October: the Kansas City Royals win Game 1 of the World Series against the New York Mets in the 14th innings.

29 October: China changes its 35-year old One Child policy to a Two Child Policy.

29 October: the Nepal parliament elects Bidhya Devi Bhandar as the country’s first female president.

31 October: the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup.

What does all that add up to? That life goes on, with the normal human mix of tragedy and pathos and progress and bizarre. A single rugby game does not change the trajectory of history any more than a single business deal or a single election or a single sunrise.

We do that ourselves by our succession of actions, an accumulation of virtue and error. The struggle continues.

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501. The Day After

Boxing Day. The day after the wedding. The day after the World Cup, or the exam final, or a childhood’s birthday.

The day when all the intense focus and anxious of the Big Day has evaporated leaving you … what? Deflated isn’t quite the right word, because all that space is filled with a warm glow, a satisfaction, a collage of memories and images.

What’s changed is that the thing is behind you rather than in front of you. What’s the goal now? What are we looking forward to?

Which is why the media has pivoted effortlessly to talk of 2019: coaches, players, strategies. Way too early for any of that.

For me, the important thing is to carry on with the weight loss and fitness gains. Which is why I have already signed up for a tramp in March and a half-marathon in May. Keep the head in the game. And there are some tidying up facts to attend to: public parades, putting this blog to bed, and maybe an idea for all the wonderful loyal members of the Order of the Black Heart.

And maybe time to pay back some of the care and attention of MrsDavy who has suffered my anxious these last few days weeks months years with good grace, and something approaching understanding. She even surprised me last night, as we watched the replay (of course we did – haven’t you?) by showing an understanding of the offside law. And the LittleDavys keep growing up much to my pride and chagrin.

Life carries on, and would have even if we’d lost. Ah, but isn’t it grand that we won?

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500. The Dessert of Double Champions

  

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499. The Dinner of Champions

While this will undoubtedly get me in trouble with the Food Bastards, I reckon a “once every four years” moment deserves to be celebrated in style. 

Cheers Shag. And thanks.  

 

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