Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Eight things I loved about August

Muddy and sweaty atop Craig yr Allt, on the Ridgeway Walk.
~ 8 ~ The Olympic Games: I'm a mark for the Olympics. That's a pretty well-established fact. And I've mentioned countless times that my emotional attachment to this particular Olympics stretches back years, to a time before London was even declared host city. Back when I first heard that London was bidding, I promised myself, for no particularly obvious reason, that I would be living in the United Kingdom by the time the opening fireworks went off. I think, perhaps, in my mind I assumed I would be in London and that I would be there in the stadium watching it all take place. But that was never a specified part of the goal, so I'm not too upset.
Indeed, I was quite happy with where I was when those fireworks went off: in Penarth, sandwiched amongst friends who had come over to watch the event.
Maybe it is precisely because I created an emotional connection to the 2012 Olympic Games that I feel they were the best I've ever seen, but there is also some outside evidence to support such a claim. First, of course, is the fact that in the middle of the wettest summer on record suddenly the weather held just long enough so the majority of events were unaffected. Many countries had incorporated golashes and umbrellas into their wardrobes in anticipation of the notorious British climate, but, amazingly, most spectators and athletes were rewarded with agreeable summer weather.
Secondly, Team GB came away with a stunningly large haul of gold medals. It was the best the UK has performed since the end of the Empire. 
This, and the weather, and the whole feel of the summer (the Queen's jubilee, Andy Murray playing respectably well at Wimbledon, etc.), have mixed together to create an oh-so-slight swell of Britishness as of late. Welsh and Scottish nationalists spit bile at the trend, but by and large I find people on this island of rain are just a little more patriotic these days. Perhaps "patriotic" is too strong a word; it is certainly not patriotism as any American might show it. But it feels that a greater sense of pride has developed or is developing: a broader understanding of some kind of something that gently connects the surprisingly diverse cultures and accents of this place. Seeing this all around me helps to remind me of why I wanted so badly to come here in the first place, why I tied my life to the 2012 Olympics.
They were a games that I genuinely feel made the United Kingdom better in some tiny way. And because of that, I can't help but feel they were the best.

~ 8 ~ Usain Bolt: One of the biggest surprises of the Olympic Games for me was Usain Bolt. Not that he is fast, or a really, really, really amazing athlete, but that he's not as big a drinkbox as I had thought. I'm pretty critical of athletes who spend more time celebrating than the thing they're celebrating. Bolt ran the 100 meters in 9.63 seconds. He then spent roughly 30 minutes mugging for cameras and basking in the adulation of fans. That kind of thing annoys the hell out of me; be mensch enough to not parade around.
So, in the lead up to the games, with all the talk focused on him, I had a tendency to grind my teeth upon hearing his name. I felt he only represented the lesser part of what is so incredible about the Olympics: he's good at what he does. But the Olympics are better than other sporting events because there is also, often, an emphasis on being a good person. I didn't see that in Bolt.
But then I saw a video someone had posted on Facebook, in which Bolt refused to talk to a foreign reporter while the U.S. national anthem was playing. Then I saw him do the same thing on the BBC, while Kenya's national anthem was playing. The man is an insufferable show off, but when it really matters he shows respect for his fellow athletes, their countries, and their supporters. That kind of respect completely changed how I feel about him. I can't help but wonder how many NBA players on the U.S. men's basketball team would be good enough to do the same.

~ 8 ~ Visiting London: I wasn't there in the stadium for the opening ceremonies but I still wanted a chance to experience London in the throes of Olympic fever. I've already written about the experience of going out there, so I won't repeat myself other than to say that my lasting impression of the experience is positive. I get damn-near teary-eyed at the memory of the good mood that seemed omni-present in London during that time.

~ 8 ~ "Finishing" my book: I'm not really sure how to define where I am with my book at the moment. I finished a rough draft toward the middle of the month, then locked myself away to focus intently on revising and editing so that late in the afternoon on the very last day of August I was able to claim that I had produced the final draft. But the problem there is the word "final." I am hopeful this book will be published. If it is, I accept as a given that changes will be made at the behest of an agent, editors, and so on. So, it's not really a final draft. It's a draft with which I am comfortable enough to send to other people in hopes of having them see enough merit to work with me to make changes. 
Whatever the case, I am happy about it. I genuinely feel this is some of the best writing I've done so far. I've sunk an incredible amount of time and emotion into the project. Hopefully it will all pay off in the form of a published book.

~ 8 ~ The Ridgeway Walk: Based on how overgrown and underused some of the paths are, almost no one in the Cardiff area is aware that there is a really lovely hiking trail stretching the width of the city's northern border, called the Ridgeway Walk. Easily accessible from a number of train stations, it runs along the ridge of hills that form the high side of the half bowl that is the Cardiff area, offering views extending as far south as Devon, and as far north as the Brecon Beacons.
On a slightly soggy morning not too long ago Jenn and I took the train to Lisvane, and walked west several miles to Taff's Well. I realise all this geographical talk means nothing to someone not from the Cardiff area, so suffice to say it was a pretty long hike. It was only about 6 miles as the crow flies, but we're not crows and that doesn't take into account all the up and down walking that's involved. By the end of the day I smelled awful. But this scenery is the sort of thing that helps me overcome my latent bitterness toward Wales. It is a very pretty place, this country. It is not nearly as bad as I can sometimes feel it to be.

Beach bonfire, looking toward Penarth Pier.
~ 8 ~ Beach barbecue: Further proof that Wales does not suck came toward the end of the month when Jenn and I had a picnic on the beach.
Penarth, as the abundance of sea gulls on our roof would suggest, is a seaside town. Its claim to fame is the fact it is home to a 118-year-old pier, one of the last Victorian piers in southern Britain. And well into the 1960s, the town was a holiday destination for people from all across Great Britain. When I taught Welsh at the Assembly offices last summer one of my students would happily distract me from teaching by telling stories of her childhood in Penarth, when the town still somehow felt far away from Cardiff. These days, when it is often cheaper to fly to Spain than travel by train to south Wales, Penarth is mostly the permit of locals. It is just us Penarthians wandering the esplanade, eating the ice cream, wondering how that terrible Italian restaurant manages to stay open when seemingly no one has anything good to say about it, and wishing just one member of the Vale of Glamorgan council had an IQ above 75 so that the beauty of the area could be better utilised. Because we've got lovely views, yo. If we had a decent pub to go with our decent restaurant, and perhaps something other than a permanent construction site right across from the pier, it would be a really enviable place to live. With a modicum of effort and intelligent planning, Penarth could be one of those places that people come to and think: "Oh, wow. I really wish I lived here."
But then, perhaps if Penarth were such a place, its beaches would be annoyingly crowded on a bank holiday and a barbecue like the one Jenn and I had might not be so pleasant.
For those of you playing along at home, one of the nifty facets of British life is the existence of single-use disposable barbecue grills. I've never seen such a thing in the United States. Perhaps this is because the U.S. summer has more reliable weather and, as such, it's worth it to invest in an actual barbecue grill, knowing you will get to use it more than once a year. Nonetheless, the disposable barbecues are about the size of a thick notebook and fit easily into a bag of other important picnic items, like a blanket, a bottle of rioja, sausages and ribs. Jen and I packed all these things and walked out to a spot where Marconi first transmitted and received wireless signals over open sea.
After grilling our dinner we used the remaining coals to fuel a fire built of collected driftwood, and sat there cuddled next to each other as the summer light drained from the sky. Soon it was just us, the sound of crackling fire and tide moving in, and the faded orange sparkle of streetlights in the various towns and villages of the Bristol Channel. There was something beautiful and melancholy about it. I thought of how it must have looked 100 years ago, and how it will look 100 years from now.

~ 8 ~ Pure, by Andrew Miller: I've been hellbent lately on getting myself to read stuff that's "good." I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "good," admittedly. Stuff that other people say is good. Stuff that wins awards. Barbara Kingsolver says that reading is biological in the sense that "whatever comes in will, in some form, come back out.So, since I want very much to be a "good" author, I find myself trying to figure out what that means by reading authors that others deem to be good. This often means picking titles from the lists of winners and runners up in the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, etc.
Andrew Miller's Pure won the 2011 prize for Costa book of the year. Not a terribly prestigious award, perhaps; the Costa Book Awards were only dreamed up in 2011. But that's more or less how I came across the novel: somebody somewhere deemed it good enough for an award. And because I am a rube, I thought: "Hey, I would like to write well enough to win awards. I think I'll read this book."
However I came to the book, though, doesn't really matter. The point is, I liked it. Miller creates a protagonist in the old style of a person you'd like to be, a person whose qualities you wish you possessed. So it is easy to stick with him as he moves through a story that has good pace and doesn't get bogged down in all the traps you would expect from a story set just before the French Revolution.
I find it interesting, and not just a little bit distressing, that the books I've enjoyed most this year are the sort that I would not really write.

~ 8 ~ Gangnam Style: Have you seen the Gangnam Style video? Surely you've seen it. How could you not have seen it? Last I checked, it had been viewed 104.5 million times. That's the population of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada combined. But if you haven't seen it, watch it now. Hell, even if you have seen it, watch it again. It will do you good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ooohhhhhhhhhh.
New format!