Tag: culture

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

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Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.

 

 

 

 

*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.

Keep moving, just to be still

New country, new me. New sports, new food. New people, new office, similar routine. New bars, new beers, still get drunk, same old hangover. New job, same mission. Same blog, but from Canada.

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Pretty much what I was expecting (Jessica Wood, thecord.ca)

Having finished wandering through Morocco, Spain, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and India, I am now becalmed in Southern Ontario, Canada. I have a new job, a new(ish) culture to learn about, but more importantly I have new sports to take in! Wintry, white framed sports. Apart from a minimum of skiing on a glorious and impromptu day in Iceland, and the compulsory skidding down a hill on a farm fertiliser bag in my childhood, I’ve never really dabbled in winter sports. The same is true for the vast majority of the world’s population, which does make me wonder whether they can capture what makes sport such a global phenomenon. But a Miracle on Ice, Eddie the Eagle and Jamaica’s bobsled team, these titular tales suggest the medium of movement, the degrees of the air, may not matter. But currently its summer, the ripe Ontario peaches fill the punnets of the market traders, and I have to find something else to talk about.

So Xingyi it is. A relative of Tai chi and Bagua in the Chinese martial art family, it is an “internal” art. This means that the focus is on activating body structures such as the ligaments, tendons and the skeletal system, to generate powerful motions and strong positions rather than the big muscle groups used more heavily in the “external” arts such as karate. It is part meditation, part fighting skill, and, perhaps because I get to wield a spear some of the time, I really like it.

Despite years of rugby, drinking in pubs, and being ginger, I’ve never got into a proper fight. So I’m not dreaming of cutting foes down or being admired for my prowess in the ring. Was always probably a bit scared of getting hurt. Probably afraid of getting knocked down by someone I didn’t expect it from. Probably just didn’t care about anything enough to want to fight someone for it. But I digress. For now, what I’m really loving is the constant, near mindless repetition.  Now that sounds daft, so let me explain. Learning is enjoyable, new things are enjoyable, and James Saper and the others at Stone Lantern are enjoyable company. Buts it a different aspect to it that I’m enjoying. You do an action: a cross-cut or a drill or the dragon, and then you do it again. Again. You or someone else tweaks it, and you go again. Something else now goes wrong. Tweak it, go again. We march relentless up and down (or for Bagua, step in endless circles) towards some distant ideal of the perfect form. The after work squat merchants grip, clean and jerk after us, they too in search of it. Dancers like us stare at the mirror, move, assess, criticise, and go again. Until skin chafes and blisters pop and blood seeps into seat-soaked socks. Have you ever been doing something and thought “nah that’s not what I wanted, I need to do that again”. Scoop up the can and aim for the bin you’ve just missed. Go for that keepy-uppy record again. Delete that last line and write it again.

James Saper (the boss, sensei, coach at Stone Lantern) set me up, going up and down with the crushing fits, or perhaps the pounding fists, and then went to help someone else. I stepped up and down, squeezing my punches closer to the midline of my body, or trying to spring off my back foot a little sharper each effort. James came back after a time, to see how I was getting on. “Fine” I remarked, and carried on. “Oh yes” he said, “you’re a rower aren’t you. I had one before, very happy with the repetition; just leave them to it”. I stopped then, as that link hadn’t occurred to me. In the year before leaving for Canada, rowing, specifically gig rowing had been my main sport. Now I was out of a boat, on land, learning some relatively obscure martial art form. They hadn’t seemed connected to me at all.

Hmmm….

But the link is of course repetition. When rowing, our mantra was “every stroke better than the last”. A straighter blade, a cleaner catch, a smoother exit, neater returns.  Every time, again and again. Describing it now, it sounds mind-numbingly dumb. Surely something like football or ice hockey over here where the fluidity keeps you permanently on your toes and so much more mentally stimulated was more attractive. As a spectator sport, the numbers speak for themselves.  But participation wise, martial arts are extremely popular. Do we all really like fighting, or is it some aspect of the repetition? Even other incredibly popular past-times such as fishing have the same element of the simple repetition. Cast, reel. Cast, reel. No fish? Never seems to stop them going back. Now any fisherman will tell you this is relaxing, not mind-numbing.  Rowing; its not dumb, its intense focus. Those martial art routines aren’t stationary repetitions; you’re constantly moving towards your inner goal. Call it centring, zen, relaxation, it doesn’t really matter. The point is we seem to achieve an inner calm, a stillness, when focusing on some repetitive action like this. Not just repeating it, but striving over and over again to make it better. In these modern times of shares and likes and retweets, there is still clearly plenty of room for the individual road, the long journey towards some pointless but simultaneously essential perfection.

Make that reflection in the mirror that bit taller, that bit brighter and that bit closer to your perfection. Smile. But you’re only one step of many, many closer. Step up. Go again.

One went to the cricket

 

Crash. Bang. Wallop. Hashim Amla smacks the ball over the boundary for a 6. The crowd roar. We jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate around the ground. I’ve made some new friends and together we celebrate these batting heroics, this “rampage” as the bright video screens inform us. We settle down and wait for the next ball, eager for another explosion. Amla goes again, carving the ball high into the air. Only this time the ball falls short. Into the grateful hands of the fielding side. Out. The crowd roar. They jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate once more. No matter that now the home side ebb where before they flowed. We celebrate the explosion, the action. This is Twenty20 cricket in India, the IPL (Indian Premier League) and it is brash, loud and immensely proud of it. Teams are assembled for millions, plucked from all corners, dressed in bright colours and set to do battle for our entertainment. Its curious to be at a ground where fans cheer both teams almost equally, but I guess that is why they are here. Not for their team, hard to feel attached to a constructed franchise, but to be entertained.

The home side, Kings XI Punjab, lost in the final over, to Sunrisers Hyderbad. So I was certainly entertained. But it was also a little perplexing. Wickets and runs from both sides were cheered, heroes on both sides adored. The only real spontaneous name chanting was for David Warner, the destructive Australian Batsman on the away team. He took the whoops and cheers with a nod and a wave, a bit bashful. Embarrassed perhaps, that the home fans favoured him over one of their own stars. Over their own team even. In fact It was very much about the stars rather than the teams. We weren’t here to see these two made up sides, but to see Warner and Amla swing their bats. Miller and Yuvraj Singh lay waste to the bowler. Who cares what the overall score was, how many runs did he get, how fast did he get them? Which bowler got the most wickets, who did he get out? Cricket, and the shortened format Twenty20 especially seem to lend itself to that. Individuals bowl, bat and catch. It lends itself to the creation of standout individuals: their contribution quantifiable, their worth valuable, their services hireable. The IPL is the pinnacle of this idea. It’s a funny mixture of an odd English game and a hyper-commercialised American entertainment sport. Its got colour, its got razzmatazz, and its oh so incredibly Indian. Its bright, brash and vivid for all of its existence, one massive party. Oh, and there were people taking selfies everywhere.

The selfie is obviously a modern phenomenon. But it is also a global one. East, west, north, south, everyone is holding their camera phones at arm’s length and taking a picture back at themselves. In India though it seemed to e to reach new heights. On the streets, at the mall, in pars and at sacred monuments: nowhere is safe. Do they really like themselves? Are they desperate for attention? Certainly they get uploaded exhibited on social media to be liked or favourited or shared. Bu where does that lead, what is the point of it all? Are we now so obsessed by ourselves that we just want to flood the world with our image, and the Indians more so? Why go to the cricket or the monument at all if it is really all about you? It’s a strange phenomenon, a curio of modern life with no end product.

However, perhaps we are weaving something. Creating a story, an identity, a hyper-individual of ourselves. Want to know about me? Here it is: freely available online to view, complete with a tally of likes and shares and comments to help you gauge my life’s performance. Putting statistics to the individual. Quantifying our contribution.

Selfies are like this, this Mid-Atlantic-Indian cricket is like this, and other sports are like this. We’re recording, judging and rating everything. Prizes for the winners. At the basketball there was a car on the court: Best social media post with the corporate hastag and YOU WIN THE CAR like like like Bazinga! How very American. At the bull fight too everyone was dressed up to the nines, and putting and preening in front of their own small screen while massive bulls died below. Are these the modern times?

This movement felt particularly strong at the IPL game of all the sport I’ve seen probably because its cricket, which lends itself to individual performances, and because it was India, where they seem obsessed by the cult of the individual. And yet the funny thing was I had some lovely personal moments with other fans while at the cricket. I met tons of people, shook hands or high-fived umpteen times. Danced with scores at every 6, cheered along to the music with every four. It may have been very temporary, but for that match (and about half an hour afterwards) I made so many friends. Face painted, grinning, shouting, waving friends. Yes, they all wanted to take a selfie with me. But I’m certain they would’ve approached me without their phones. I hung out with some policemen, some telecoms employees on a corporate gig, but mainly I got on with the other denizens of the North stand. It was wonderful. I beamed all the rest of the night and the next day. I too took a few selfies with these exuberant fans. But what I’m taking home is the warm glow from being with a group having a great time We had a lovely day out at the cricket.

But is it a sport?

 

 

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As simple as that?

My head buzzing with thoughts of flight and death, I headed for earthier territory. For this I chose the arid desert-scapes, natural parks and underdeveloped coastlines of Almeria. There were no specific sporting activities I was looking for here, more the general kind of activity people do away from the Hurley burely of the city and competitive life. Something one person can do. Like walk, kayak or fish, must really capture the essence of what is enjoyable about sport.

 

Inspiration came from an unlikely souce. Stepping onto the train were two Italian ladies. Alex Mayer, a semiprofessional flamenco dancer, and Teresa Bellina, a photographer making film about Alex’s life and her struggle to make it. After a brief exchange in Spanish, we began chatting in English about her life and flamenco. It sounded tough. Alongside teaching English, Alex would be dancing at least two hours a day, alongside additional exercise to stay fit, and more if there were evening performances. Watching what you eat, constant aches and pains, passing up other opportunities, it certainly sounded quite like the life of a sports person. She was adamant that that is what sue was. “Flamenco is a sport” she ruled. Hving not ever seen it live I was in no position to comment, bit I felt I needed convincing. True, as she said it sounded extremely physical, requiring dedication and training like any sport. And true, it requires one to push yourself continually, achieving greater and greater purity of expression. Great players I’m various sports are often described as dancers (Shane Williams, Lionel Messi, Muhammed Ali) so could it not go the other way? Does it therefore count as a sport?

 

I had been pondering this question a lot since watching the bullfight in Sevilla. In my last post I had largely concluded that bullfighting was not a sport. Again, it is athletic and demanding, but withbrare exceptions, there is not so much of a contest. The matador so rarely loses; everytime the bull dies. My conjecture then is that you need at least 2 sides competing on an equal footing for it to be called a sport? Realistically this is quite hard to find, can the small F1 teams really compete with Mercedes, Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s millions? Can other countries compete with British cycling’s rigorous and exhaustive approach? Furthermore, where does this leave the kite surfing that had my soul soaring a week or so ago? One can certainly find kite surfing competitions, but that did not appear to be what was happening on the beach in Tarifa. Was it not a sport there, but becomes a sport as suddenly as some competitive framework is laid down? Are hiking, fishing or kayaking simply past times until someone starts doing it against you?

This seems quite reasonable, even if it creates some unusual possibilities. Could ironing be a sport if you do it competitively? What about cooking, painting or writing? In Valencia I watched two brightly dressed teams build tottering human towers; were they competing in the sport of human tower building?

Why not? I am happy to let the “non-sports” become sports if they desire, its not a protected word. Bullfighting as I saw it is not a sport, but if it were altered perhaps it could be. Everyone has created in their kitchen or garden the sport of yoghurt pot curling or rubber ball hit-and-run or a myriad others. Surely this was how the “proper” sports got started, back in the misty memories of our cultures.

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Sadly my camera did not work in the low light conditions of the bar, so this photo is from the internet: flickr.com/photos/leobar-pixinmotion

 

 

To answer the question for flamenco, I actually managed to go see a performance (match? game?) while in Almeria. The set up was minimal, but the effect anything but. Three men, singing and clapping their hands, one man on guitar, and a woman dancing. All stamping their feet for a prehistoric percussion. All committed to the moment, the performance, the seriousness of it. Portraying life and death, love and loss. Genuine seriousness is something Johan Huizinga states as necessary for true play; the involved must be truly believing in what you are doing yet all the while knowing it is just for mimicking real life. Well we had that here. The crowd ole’d, clapped and whooped for an encore. The fervour caught one of the male singers, who lept to his feet, visage a riot of emotion, and just started dancing. Two women from the crowd, presumably passing flamenco dancers, were swept on stage, caught in the thrill of it. It was intoxicating. Was it a sport? Probably not; it was hard to see any losers. But it was bloody brilliant. Ask me I’d rather be a matador in a sunny corrida, or a flamenco singer in a dimly lit bar, and I’ll only give you one answer. And it doesn’t involve a cape, some horses, or the fluttering of white handkerchiefs.

 

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Sorry guys

Why do we do this?

The wind whips spray off the rolling sea, and I know I’ll soon be soaked to the bone. Myself, five crew members, a cox, and nearly 150 other boats are sat off the Scilly isles, mentally and physically preparing to wrench wooden boats through 1.6 nautical miles. As we nose towards the starting line, far out on the right of the course, fully exposed to the elements, I ask myself:

“why am I doing this?”

this is in fact  Falmouth mens A, World Champions for 2015
a gig crew powering through the waves

I am not asking that 2 minutes later. After a terrible start our boat is up and running, crashing through waves mere feet from rival boats. I snatch occasional glimpses of rival rowers in between desperately trying to get the blade of the oar fully into the writhing sea; and I think:

“you, I must beat you, I will beat you, I have to crush you”

and re-double my efforts. I imagine they are doing the same. My lungs burn, my insides hammer against the walls of my trunk every time I haul on the oar, I fight with the sea and my internal pace to stay in time with the rest of my crew and I grit my teeth and haul again. As our prow rises and crashes through a wave the water soaks our bowman and wets me, further down in the boat. A grin appears and my heart sings

“Yes, I was born to do this, I am viking, I am mighty, I am so alive”.

This is how the striker feels after they slam home a goal in front of screaming fans, how the javelin thrower feels as the spear arcs away on a winning throw, how the jockey feels as man and horse cruise over jumps as one.

And for what? We do not win, we never were contenders, pleased with our mid-place finish. We get back to the beach, swap with the women’s crew, and they head out for their race. No great adulation save weary pats on the back. No prize save cramping forearms, no glory save what we can glean from regaling these tales when back inside, far away though it seems now, in the warmth and with a drink in hand.

I am often struck at times like these by how pointless it all seems. Yet I am clearly not alone. The rest of the more than 1000 strong field clearly agrees enough with me enough to be out there too, in the wind and the rain. Round the world the story is the same: office workers running marathons, retirees playing golf, street kids kicking a ball or hitting one with a stick day and night. We, Homo sapiens, do seem pre-disposed to push ourselves against others, making measuring sticks out of javelins or horses or rectangular pitches with rectangular goals. This sport pervades our thinking, shapes our outlook and moulds our brains. Brains that seem well adapted to receive it.

the human brain: adapted to like sport?

There must be something in that. Why every culture places some men and women above others, based on some physical endeavour, which others will watch and appreciate and perhaps critique. There is a similar idea surrounding religion; why the human mind is susceptible to believing in beings that control or dictate the events in the world. There are a number of excellent books written on this, stemming from the observation that all human cultures appear to reach a similar yet irrational conclusion (apart from aspects of the modern Western world) that there are beings greater than us controlling things unseen. Art to is prevalent across the globe, flowing out of caves and across desert floors and over walls and into homes of peoples of every culture, despite not to helping to feed or clothe us.

For both of these phenomena it has been suggested that the forces of Darwinian evolution are at work (e.g. religion, art). Could it be that evolution shaped us, perhaps through a quirk or perhaps entirely predictably, to like sport? To more than like it, to love it, to look forward to it all week and to miss is terribly when it is taken away. This thing which causes us physical discomfort for no direct personal gain; why do we do it?

Right now I don’t know, but I want to try and find out.

sport; a vexing presence

This has been written about (here and here), but I don’t have space to discuss the ideas fully here. Instead I hope I’ve introduced the topic and set some people thinking.