Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Wunderbar 2009

It's 10am on a Sunday in December 2009 and we're in Eldon Square shopping centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne courtesy of Wunderbar festival. We've been here since Friday morning, accepting challenges and rematches from anybody who'd like to play a game of table tennis against us and in so doing become part of the team representing this city. The scoreboard bears witness to the games that have gone before, our tired eyes, our tired limbs, our fading will, testament to the hours we have spent in this spot being window shopped, encouraged, admired and derided by a steady stream of consumers.

But today is different. Thanks mainly to the footprint left by the dominant Christian ideology that has sculpted the 24 hours between the end of Saturday and the start of Monday. The shutters are down, and not just at the windows of spoil-sport Chocolatiers, Thorntons – who have made their passive resentment of our table tennis project abundantly clear. And like the empty football stadium, the empty shopping centre has a distinctly different feel, a palpable Sunday-ness. Something is missing, the people. And it is in this absence that we recognise the generative quality of the moving body in space. Without the people there is a physical transformation of the shopping centre as well as a shift in the imaginative, affective, sonic and social qualities of the space (McCormack 2008).

The stillness is disturbed by two middle aged men, tottering in a post stag-do haze past the barred windows of Claire's Accessories.

The first man says:

"What'sallthisthenI'llgiveyouagameoftabletennis I'mquitegoodme meandyoucomethen letshaveyoucomeonthen"

Or words to that effect. His mate giggles under his breath. The two men are Welsh. I can tell from their accents. The question; "where are you from?" confirms their nationhood. Our chit-chat leads us onto the question of singing, a field in which the Welsh have somewhat of a reputation.

The first man says:

"If I win, I'll sing you a song. I'll sing you a Welsh song, I'll sing Land of Our Fathers. So come on then… Let's be 'aving you."

And so it happens that a proud, half-cut, Welshman and his giggling mate take up our challenge. They represent the city of Newcastle in a first to 11 game of table tennis against a Live Art duo from Bristol – and I can't help but speculate that this wasn't originally on the agenda for the aforementioned stag-do. But here we are, and it is starting to get serious. Giggly mate is now chewing his fingers and occasionally piping up with textbook 'coach in the corner' phrases like:

            "Come on, don't let you head go down"


            "Pull yourself together"


            "What they bloody hell are you playing at, hit the bloody thing."

It's starting to mean something. Hitting this ball back and forth across a net halfway along a table, in the middle of a shopping centre means something. And maybe it only means something because we/they know how it feels for something like this to mean something. They've seen this before on the pub's big screen, or in their living rooms, huddled close on the bar stool or sofa, with glass or can in hand. But still he plays. He plays his best and is frustrated by his ineptitude. Maybe because he wanted it to be glorious,  or he wanted to show off in front of his mate or perhaps because he wanted to claim something, something here, now – to carve out his own slice of history in this place.

He loses. It's not even close. Maybe it's the booze or maybe it was always going to end this way. No-longer-giggling mate is already sauntering past HM Samuels the jewellershead down, hands in pockets when our gallant loser approaches the microphone…


Takes a moment…


Clears his throat…


And sings…

He sings 'Land of Our Father's', in Welsh (of course), at the top of his pitch perfect baritone voice into the Microphone, his song echoing around the empty passageways of Eldon Square shopping centre. And for those few minutes this place becomes his. His voice, his song, his pride and that place start to submerge into each other. We are in the Welsh mountains on a clear crisp morning, or at the opening of the Welsh Assembly, or in a packed Millennium stadium on match-day.  He is the home team; this is his turf, his patch. Eldon Square shopping centre, Newcastle upon Tyne has, for the briefest of moments, become another territory. His territory. 


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