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Book review: Flags & Bones by Ben Wildsmith

17 Feb 2024 5 minute read
Flags and Bones by Ben Wildsmith is published by Cambria Books

Euron Griffith

“Alright there dude?”

Actually, no. Because to be frank, there are few things more likely to transform me from a normal, law-abiding and responsible member of society into a whirling Warner Bros cartoon dust storm of fury and bile than some bloke half my age in a back-to-front baseball cap addressing me with the dreaded ‘d’ word.

Only someone from deepest Harlem or the lead singer of Mott the Hoople could ever get away with it. I’m not a ‘dude’, a ‘boss’ or a ‘chief’.

I also have a problem with ‘mate’ because it’s usually the word guys use just before they push you up against a wall and smash your windscreen with a spanner.

Or, as Ben Wildsmith points out in this vibrant cornucopia of essays and observations, things can get even worse because, if done effectively and convincingly by skilful politicians such as Tony Blair (‘the godfather’ of ‘oleaginous shithousery’ as Wildsmith memorably dubs him) simple words like ‘mate’ — if uttered with the correct nuance and tone— can actually lead to power. Real power.

Monumental emptiness

Wildsmith, compares Blair’s mastery of the ‘I’m just a normal bloke’ shtick with Sunak’s complete lack of charm and tin-eared sensibilities to the concerns and thinking patterns of the electorate.

To quote Wildsmith, Sunak has a style of presentation ‘more suited to a shopping channel at the far end of the Freeview listings.’ And this lack of oratorial and personal charm is, he suggests, symptomatic of the monumental emptiness of his actual politics.

Yup, the Tories are in for a kicking in this collection. But no one could accuse Wildsmith of blind partisanship because Sir Keir gets his fair share of surgical strikes too.

‘The King of Remainers’, he writes, ‘is now an adherent of Brexit. The man named after Keir Hardie represents the workers and the bosses, even when the bosses are the government itself.’

Take that mister!


Wildsmith is an Englishman living in Wales. But he claims in another of his pieces that ‘England doesn’t exist in any meaningful way and should be abolished.’

Pondering on the very nature of that elusive’ Englishness’ he writes that his native land is, in fact, a pot pourri of accents, obsessions, cultures, joys and worries wrapped up rather too neatly in conceptions of ‘stiff upper lip’ stoicism and deference’.

‘It is impossible’, he claims, ‘not to be charmed by the absurdist humour you find in Dudley, or the spectacular delicacies of Lancashire, or the always great music in Manchester.’

Leaving aside the latter for a second (and the entire output of Hermans Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers…and f***g Oasis) I wonder whether the concept of ‘Wales’ itself isn’t also a kind of false construct.

Like ‘England’ we are at least twenty different states, each with its own dialect, loves, hates and culture.


Take another of Wildsmith’s passions for instance, rugby. Whenever I meet people from other parts of the UK there is an assumption, because I’m ‘Welsh’, that I love this game and am obsessed with it. But I don’t.

I grew up in North Wales and our love was football. Proper football. Not ‘soccer’. Rugby wasn’t hip. It didn’t have a pop soundtrack (not unless you counted Max Boyce – which I didn’t) and our teacher at school drummed into us that rugby was simply a game for boys who were too fat and too slow to play football.

Rugby was a game of booting the ball into the stands and getting cheered for it. A game full of ridiculous rules which stopped the game whenever things got too exciting. ‘Play on ref’ was never a phrase heard from the terraces.

Apart from Barry John, the players weren’t cool. So no. I don’t like rugby. But I’m just as ‘Welsh’ as someone who does. Or doesn’t. Humour too isn’t quite so easily demarcated.

I do once recall hearing that Owen Money finds it hard to get a crowd going anywhere north of Merthyr and I doubt if anyone in that town has ever giggled at Harri Parri. We’re complicated. Flags don’t reflect this. Any flag.

On target

This isn’t one of those polite collections of essays and articles. This book is a bit like being confronted by a bloke in the pub who prods you in the chest and tells you stuff whether you want to listen to it or not.

It’s like a sudden burst of The Clash at a coronation. It’s like a deafening and reverberating fart in a well-attended vestry. It’s like finding a live tiger in your wardrobe.

Although they are miles away in terms of their politics and outlook, I was reminded of the styles of Rod Liddle and Jeremy Clarkson. Even A.A. Gill at times. And I genuinely mean that as a compliment.

Because, like them, Wildsmith is wilfully (and skilfully) acerbic and verging on the poetic. Not afraid to offend or boot a deserving target in the bollocks.

We need more of this kind of fearlessness in Wales. We’re far too polite you know. Mate.

Euron Griffith’s A Casual Life in Six T-shirts will be published by Seren on March 18th.

Flags & Bones by Ben Wildsmith is available to order from Cambria Books

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