When I first started writing columns for Nation.Cymru, I had the feeling of being a newly qualified driver. I had wanted to do this so badly, and for so long, but each keystroke was an oncoming lorry that could wipe me out if I was careless for a second. The temptation is to drive slowly and keep well away from the centre line.
For a start, I was writing about international rugby – the M4 at rush-hour of topics here in Wales. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about this glorious, infuriating game, someone in the Post Office queue knows more. If this were Germany, we would have a compound word for the dawning realisation that you have just offered your opinion on Saturday’s game to a man who played for Wales A in 1982.
Not that lived experience is a passport to respect, either. I was on Twitter the other week and saw a row erupt between a legendary, two-code international and an opinionated nobody over league structures. By the end of it, the international had been blocked by the keyboard warrior who was ‘tired of his childish grasp of the issue.’
Fortunately, there’s a route out of all this, which is to accept you know nothing and try to convey how the game felt for everyone watching. The emotional sway that rugby still holds over a big chunk of the population is etched on to the faces of people in pubs and clubs with every final whistle. How this manifests is a reliable indicator as to how a person deals with life in general. There are, I reckon, two archetypes and I grew up with one of each.
My mum would lose it altogether in the final quarter of a tight game. She’d be screaming xenophobic abuse at the telly, running out of the room because she couldn’t face watching crucial kicks at goal, and banging pots and pans around in the kitchen if Wales lost.
My grandad, on the other hand, would quietly darken as matches slipped away from us. Insisting that it was ‘only a game’, his educated commentary would slow to a trickle, finally atrophying into occasional muttering.
I see this in clubs I visit across the nation as we offer up our personalities in service of the impossible dream. After two consecutive defeats, none of us are ever going through this again. The game is over in Wales, and we are fools for clinging on to past glory when the future is zip wires and bucket hats. That’s it, we’re out. Then the team pulls off an unlikely victory and the clubs are bouncing again. The only thing I’m certain of in life is that when I die, I’ll know the result of the last international and hold an opinion about who should be in the back row for the next one. It’ll be wrong, of course.
According to lore, when Nye Bevan was asked about his brother running for election to the Welsh Rugby Union’s committee, he shook his head.
‘It’s not something I’d do.’
‘I’m not that interested in politics.’
When, after some pleading on my part, I was permitted to write a weekly political column, it carried none of the anxiety inherent to my rugby pieces. If you find yourself in disagreement with a well-known political figure nowadays, there is a better than evens chance that you’re in the right.
Whatever your political persuasion, we can all agree that the current line-up of I’m an Otherwise Unemployable, Incompetent Narcissist… Get Me Out of Here and on to a GB News Sofa is the most dispiriting gang of social inadequates we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
The behaviour on display at PMQs would result in a clip round the ear were it to be tried anywhere that decent people gather. Skirting ever closer and into criminality, our politicians conspire with the client media to act out a pantomime in which actual governance is barely attended to in favour of naked careerism and, not infrequently, personal enrichment.
The truth is fatal in this world. If a politician hits social media after a few too many we sometimes have a glimpse of what they actually think. To watch our leaders recoiling in horror at notions they privately agree with, whether from Lee Anderson or Diane Abbott, is to experience dishonesty not as a failing but an assumed virtue.
So, to hell with them. In my day job, I work alongside people trying honestly to protect the vulnerable from awful decisions made by those in power. We see the hopelessness and pain that rains down from Westminster, occasionally sheltered by the flimsy umbrella of Cardiff Bay. We try to mop up the flood when it isn’t.
So, facing a blank page every Saturday and looking for a politician who deserves a booting is a pleasure, a privilege, and far easier than it should be.
You can’t be angry all the time, though, not if you want to stay married. There’s ‘what I did on my holidays’ pieces here, some bits of whimsy, and the odd venture into the philosophical wilderness, from which I’m frequently rescued by readers arriving in the comments section like St Bernard dogs on the Matterhorn.
Nation.Cymru has published them all, often to my astonishment, and with only the gentlest of editorial raised eyebrows. That readers have given me their time is thrilling beyond my imagination.
Diolch yn fawr.
As a fellow writer I’d have to say that Ben is enviably good, forever upping his game and delivering high-octane opinion set within corruscating prose. Sharp, yes, but compassionate too, caring about unfairness much as he does about the words that shine brilliantly through. – Jon Gower
Flags and Bones is a terrific book: an omnium gatherum of Wildsmith's wit, eloquence and righteous state of the nation anger. His writing is fresh, furious and very, very funny. In Ben Wildsmith Welsh political writing has found - for good or ill (or do I mean good and ill?) - the commentator it deserves. – Patrick McGuinness
Ben's pen is a spike on which he skewers the empty, self-regarding, and never-to-be-enlightened heads of those who have power. Their ridiculous preening, their moral squalor, their sheer worst-of-us-ness is exposed and explored with a lacerating, caustic wit. Nurture your fury, and let Ben Wildmith put some fun into it.- Niall Griffiths