If you read last week’s non match day blog then you’ll be familiar with my approach to the close season. For those of you arriving late to the party here is a brief résumé. Whereas my usual function here at PA is to provide a brief literary distraction on the day of the match, during the close season I stray. I stray from the topic of football for a number of, to me at least, obvious and straightforward reasons. Chief among these is the incontrovertible fact that the football season is over and therefore we have no football to discuss. I also believe that we spend so long on the subject during the season that a little break is not only desirable but necessary to our continued enjoyment of the beautiful game. Like all recovering addicts I recognise the danger of strangling that which you love in a fevered bid to squeeze one last drop of pleasure from it.
I am aware that others disagree. They think they can fill the void that Arsenal leaves in their lives with meaningless speculation about the movement of players which takes place in something referred to as the transfer window. Others clutch desperately at the straws of international football while the people who write about the game whether in a professional capacity or simply for fun feel the need to endlessly rehash the events of the season just passed before switching to yet more meaningless guesswork about events yet to come.
This is all an elaborate form of masochism and I will have no part in any of it. Believe me a little rest does us all good. However, there are those of you who have suggested I might continue to provide you with some amusement at the weekend and as such I am writing a weekly diary of my non footballing activities. A glimpse of a wider world into which we may plunge once the antics of our favourite team have been suspended for the summer.
I don’t do anything particularly exciting you understand, but as I’ve mentioned before I am constantly amazed by just how much time is freed up when not obsessing about football. Since last week I have, for example, completed all three seasons of Banshee and am happy to report that it was utterly, gloriously ridiculous, filled with over the top cartoon violence and simulated sex of the highest order. A rollicking good dose of silly escapism in a world populated only by muscular men and pneumatic women straight from the catwalk. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief at the alter of pure nonsense and good fun then this might just be the show for you.
One thing I am determined to do this summer is get out of the house rather than sitting in front of this damn screen and watching sport. Now you might think that consuming thirty episodes of Banshee in one sitting is a bizarre way of spending less time at the computer or the forty two inch flat screened Sony and you’d be right. What I mean is that on Saturday or Sunday I try to get out and go visit something. Anything really. Just go and see a little bit of the world outside of Wesley Avenue. Last weekend it was the turn of South Wales to welcome me and my trusty camera. I liked what I saw. Whether South Wales was equally excited by seeing me is more of a mystery.
My mum grew up in Tintern. Tintern is what my geography teacher would have doubtlessly referred to as a ribbon settlement. It is a strung out little village which meanders along the banks of the Wye only occasionally straying from the water’s edge to gain the odd foothold in the high sided, heavily wooded valley and then only on the western bank of the river. Which is a good job really as the Wye also marks the boundary between England and Wales. This being border country if the people of Tintern came from the other side they’d be English and being Welsh that would doubtlessly piss them off a little.
Mum has written an autobiographical text on growing up in this village and I found it a fascinating read. Not just because the thought of our parents having any sort of a life before we came into the world is a curiosity for us all, but also because it highlighted just what an incredible journey she has been on since childhood. The world in which she grew up has altered beyond recognition. One of the most striking examples of this occurred to me when I considered her other great interest which is genealogy. Now I know lots of people delve into aspects of their family tree and since the internet made this easier it has become a very popular hobby but my Mum does nothing by halves. While she hasn’t exactly uncovered the cave into which our prehistoric ancestors first dragged their Sunday lunch she has unearthed an enormous amount of detail on both past generations and relatives still living.
What struck me was how she sat communicating electronically with a distant and previously unheard of relative in Canada while converting the text of her book into a format said relative could easily open with her favoured software and here I was reading how, as a child in Tintern, Mum grew up in a house without electricity, sewage, gas or running water. She clearly remembers her grandmother tying her with a length of string by the wrist to the kitchen table when leaving her alone in the house in order to keep her from coming a cropper in the fire. She recalled their outside toilet which was a board over the stream and the copper heated over the fire on bath night. She prayed she wouldn’t be too far behind her father, four brothers and her sister in the queue to climb into the tub as the water soon became cold and none too clean. From such humble surroundings – and surroundings that were commonplace and not in any way unusual – she now edits her digital photographs using Photoshop, stays in touch with family and friends via Facebook and watches the goings on in her bird box via a wireless camera which sends a feed to her desktop.
I simply cannot imagine the contrast in how I lived as a young boy and the world I shall come to inhabit in my later years being quite so insanely different from one another.
Last weekend mum was heading back home (as she still refers to the village she left before I was even a twinkle in the milkman’s eye) to attend a school reunion. The village school, which had three classes and from which the only escape was in passing the eleven plus, was where she learned the three Rs and she and her remaining classmates meet up in one of the village pubs once a year to reminisce about the old days and have a good old moan about how the world has gone to shit rags since they were young and that kind of thing.
Now, Mum is quite capable of driving herself, but I ask you what kind of son would I be if I didn’t offer to go with her and see her safely over the bridge and into the land of dragons? Also it’s a free day out and the Wye Valley is one of the most beautiful places these islands have to offer. It is more than just the scenery though. There is a different pace to life over there, a different attitude. The people are possessed of a wonderful dry irreverence and are quick to see the humour in the most mundane of situations. I have been recognised by total strangers in pubs over there for a resemblance to my maternal grandfather. Once a chap plonked himself at the table my wife and I were sharing in the Moon and Sixpence, and, with no more preamble than putting down his pint, pointed me out with a thrust of his chin and said “You’re a Hayward”. I didn’t wish to correct him, pedantry is often mistaken for rudeness, and so confessed to my mothers maiden name.
On this latest visit the woman taking the entrance money at Tintern Abbey examined my English Heritage membership card with a studied and exaggerated theatrical scepticism more usually reserved for those working in passport control. She knew and I knew that Cadw and English Heritage have a reciprocal arrangement which allowed me access to the ancient ruins but the pantomime amused her and I’m all for that. It was the antithesis of that appalling sterile forced politeness with which big businesses these days insist their staff insult their customers. The ‘ Is there anything else I can help you with today sir’ culture which doesn’t allow for people to be human beings, preferring to straitjacket employees into a grotesque endlessly repeated role play which must make their lives hell and certainly ruins the experience for the person on the other side of the counter. I’d rather Basil Fawltey than a robot trained to within an inch of their life and not allowed to appreciate my finely tuned sense of humour.
The Abbey itself was splendid. Some early summer sunshine lit the stonework and white clouds drifted across what my kids call a Simpsons sky. The place is much bigger than it looks from the road and was once home to a thriving colony of Cistercians – it thrived sufficiently to send some monks off to start up new ventures notably in Kingswood in Gloucestershire and Tintern Parva in Ireland. Originally founded by the splendidly named Walter fitz Richard (Groucho Marx voice: Ah yes, but did Richard fit Walter?) (wiggle cigar) (waggle eyebrows) in 1131. In 1536 the Abbey fell victim to the act of Suppression which decreed that monasteries earning less than two hundred quid a year were ‘dens of iniquity’ and as such Tintern, which could only show an income of £192 was seized by the King. The King then handed it over to his mate Henry Somerset, earl of Worcester who immediately set about stripping the roofs for the lead and generally turning the old place over the the elements.
What is left is an arresting site. As you enter the village coming from the Severn Bridge it sits on the banks of the Wye below and to your right. As a child I passed it most weekends on visits to my grandparents. My dad was a man who firmly believed that if a gag ever earned him a laugh it must be comedy gold and as such deserved repeating. And repeating. As a result I cannot drive past Tintern Abbey without hearing him say, as he did without fail every time, ‘Look at that place son, they built that eight hundred years ago,’ pause for dramatic and comedic effect, ‘you’d think they’d have got the roof on by now’. It reached the point where my sister and I would take a break from giving each other Chinese burns in the back of the car and mouth the words along with him. It used to drive me insane. Now, I’d give anything to be able to hear him say it just one more time.
I took my camera and tripod, a mixed salad roll and a copy of Betjeman’s poetry into the grounds with me. Mum’s reunion would be bound to take a good few hours so I had time to relax and enjoy the spectacle and hopefully get a couple of decent shots. This must have been some place when it was up and running. The interior would have been enormous and it is such a shame to see so magnificent a building laid so low. However, just as an ostensibly decrepit fifty two year old overweight man can actually be surprisingly attractive and interesting to members of the opposite sex if only given a chance, there was something beguiling about the ramshackle remains. To stand within the once great hall and be surrounded by views through the ravaged windows and open doorways by the green of the wooded hills and to look up at the blue sky and white clouds framed by the walls was just wonderful.
Once mum had finished her reunion and added a new bunch of silver surfers to her Facebook friends list we did a little family visiting, pausing only for her to enjoy a go on a rope swing which hung from the branches of a conker tree. As she flew precariously out towards the slow moving deep green waters of the Wye I wondered if instead of taking a picture of this madness I ought perhaps to intervene. I was however reminded of the words of a friend of mine who took me to task for suggesting he and I were getting a bit too old to be out every weekend on our mountain bikes, especially given the perilous nature of the downhill courses we attempt to ride. Stew, he said to me, you don’t stop because you get old, you get old because you stop.