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Sport, Recreation and the Arts - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 19th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:21 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, this is indeed an early gift for Christmas—a debate whose title, when I first looked at it, reminded me of a rather shapeless pyjama suit that I sometimes wear that allows me, within its unfolding scope, to go this way or that. I leave the rest to your Lordships’ imagination.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I certainly do not want to repeat what has already been said. It has been an impressive debate, with a wide variety of points of view and perspectives, and a lot of expertise. I am very grateful to have listened to the speeches.

If I do not want to repeat what has been said, I certainly do not want to repeat what I myself have said. It was Harold Wilson who could quote himself brilliantly for many years after he had spoken on anything. However, I am aware that in the few short months I have been standing in this position, I myself have spoken in debates—this is by no means an exhaustive list—on the future of museums, the importance of the arts, post-Brexit realities for the creative industries and the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts. That is under the art bit of the Motion.

On sport, we have debated the balance between giving money to elitist and medal-winning sports, and keeping the balance between that and getting children and others out on to sports fields by injecting funds at the lowest possible level. And we had a recent debate on image and performance-enhancing drugs, and looked at sport from the point of view of the threat posed to it by these habits.

Under well-being, last Friday the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury introduced a debate on reconciliation as an aspect of British foreign policy and, not long before that, we had a debate to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, when we had occasion to speak about peace. There have been many debates in your Lordships’ House in recent times about mental health, particularly as it applies to children and young people, and loneliness and self-image have figured largely in how those debates have proceeded.

With all that in mind, and not wanting to go over that ground again, though profiting from what others have said, I have tried to find a different way from this point forward: how to triangulate those areas of experience and endeavour. I came up with a saying by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who described more than once something he called a “limit-experience”. For him, a limit-experience was what behoves a human being to test themselves to the limit to discover who they are. Settling for a bourgeois, unchallenged, kind of repetitive and routine life is the very pits in terms of defining what it means to be properly and fully human. So we test ourselves to the limit. I believe that these areas of endeavour that we have been talking about give extraordinary opportunities for people to test and push themselves to the limit.

I shall use the art technique known as pointillism and just give little bullet points. On art, for example, I was standing in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in front of the recently restored Rembrandt painting of “The Return of the Prodigal”. I had seen excellent reproductions, but nothing prepared me for the reality. I stood in front of this picture, which was larger than I had thought, for a start, and it simply demanded of me that I situate myself in the dynamic that the artist had put before us on a flat canvas. Was I with the father welcoming the child home? Was I the child longing to be welcomed home? Was I with the older brother in a bit of a stupor and not being very friendly? There was all the darkness as well as the light, and Rembrandt was a master of the light.

Then we have Picasso and his extraordinary “Guernica” in Madrid. What a commentary on the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s that was. What searing images of cruelty and suffering, and the twisting of all it means to be human is present in that canvas. I have to say that I will be spending Christmas in Paris, and I will certainly visit the restored Picasso museum—which I dislike enormously; its predecessor was much more ordinary and more wonderful. Picasso’s “Guernica” is what constantly comes to mind when I want to think about the rise in our day of totalitarianism.

Then there is the Tate Modern, where I stood in front of those extraordinary canvases by Mark Rothko. I did not understand how to approach them. They are not my kind of thing, although I am wearing a Mark Rothko tie in honour of the debate. A dear friend of mine, Katherine Baxter, who knows about these things, assured me how to be in front of the “dark luminosity”—there is a phrase—that comes from that canvas, both half threatening but beguilingly drawing you into something that is far deeper than you have ever known before.

I lived for 10 years in Haiti and worked in co-operatives with the primitive artists there whose art in the 1950s and 1960s was very much in vogue. People had suffered so badly, yet through art they were able to envisage realities and cope with externalising interior dynamics that they found almost intolerable. If you can get alongside such people and enter their minds and their spiritual being, something happens to you as well. Art can push people to the limits. It is that aspect of art that I want to lay before your Lordships today. A work of art, said Picasso, must make a person react. It must agitate him and shake him up.

Turning to sport, I played rugby for my university at a time when Wales beat everybody. I played rugby against Barry John—people of a certain age will know that that ought to get me into heaven more quickly than others. Rugby is a terrifically physical game; you put your life on the line every time you rub the wintergreen into your legs before taking to the field, and run faster than the other guy not because you are more skilful but because you are terrified of being tackled by him. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, says that sport teaches people to follow the rules; not in rugby, especially in the scrum. The things that happen in the front row of the scrum are in defiance of the rules—it is indeed a law book unto itself, never written down. But people are certainly living at the edge of their abilities there.

I got my colours for both rugby and cricket at university. In Wales, we have soft wickets; fast bowlers do not do terribly well. They swing the ball, but they cannot do much off the pitch. However, on tour in Hampshire, where they have hard wickets, the ball comes at you like a rocket—an Exocet. You pretend to be brave as you put your foot forward into the line of the ball and play the perfect stroke, only to realise that it was a nanosecond or two too late. Cricket is an intimidating game, too.

My noble friend Lord Parekh talked about nationalism, which he is rather worried about. My wife—bless her heart—is worried about it too: she is English, and so when England play Wales, it is not possible for us to coexist in the same house. Ancient wars are being refought when those games take place. I find shouting for the Welsh team when I watch a Wales-England game on television is a good substitute for going out and knocking the first Englishman I see on the nose.

I cannot go to the Millennium Stadium, or whatever it is called now—I have never been—because I cannot bear the commercialisation and commodification of sport. It was such a fantastic game to be part of—an activity and a way of life. But I cannot bear the flames that go up, or the triumphalist announcements made when someone scores.

Art and sport can push us to the limit; what about well-being? What pushes me towards well-being, or the feeling that my well-being is asserted or affirmed by experiences that push me out of my comfort zone? It is poetry. I gave my library of 5,000 or 6,000 books to a seminary in Fiji, but I took all my poetry into retirement. I live with the earth-shaking thoughts of George Herbert, John Donne and R S Thomas. The love of solitude is also something that threatens me; I am naturally gregarious. It is sometimes a little threatening to be on your own, and yet I think I absolutely need to do that sometimes in order to discover the deep streams running through me and the deep thoughts struggling to find expression.

All of this tells me we must not just approach questions of sport, the arts and well-being quantitatively. We must not simply commodify them. We must somehow always understand the importance and essence of these activities and endeavours. How can anybody be against any of them? Surely the case that needs to be made is that their availability should be maximised, and we should do whatever it takes to bring people the possibility of enjoying these activities. That is true more than ever in these Brexit-dominated times. Rather than percentages, statistics or millions of pounds, we should focus on understanding and supporting these essential activities and empathising and associating with them.

This is my conclusion, you will be glad to know. I wrote a poem, which is my Christmas present to your Lordships. I grew up the son of a single mother, living in utter poverty in one room in a brickyard in Burry Port, South Wales. I was gloriously happy as a child. Here is my gift, which will remind you of “The Hippopotamus Song”:

“Sport, sport, glorious sport,

Nothing quite like it in my Burry Port.

There’s art for the seeing,

And tons of well-being,

A town to have glee in

Is my Burry Port”.

Happy Christmas.