You do not need to be a mathematician to realise that in 1977 I turned eleven. In Scotland this was, and I believe largely remains, the final year of primary schooling. A year of being the top of the heap before finding yourself hurled unceremoniously to the bottom again at high school. A year to make the most of the fading embers of the friendships you had fostered. There is a sense at that age of the comfortable familiarity of the everyday somehow coming to a close. Uncertainty lies ahead and this is both terrifying and appealing all at once.
Certainly the Electric Light Orchestra were part of that comfortable familiarity. I heard them on the radio. I heard them at what would be the last of my gang of friends' birthday parties. Malcolm’s house on St Meddans’ Street. His older brothers’ record collection and that spaceship image on ‘Out Of The Blue’. Sci-Fi technicolor daydreams. Delicious.
Of all the songs on ‘Out Of The Blue’ it is ‘Mr Blue Sky’ that has stayed with me. This is likely not surprising, for it is certainly one of the more celebrated songs from the era. Rightly so. ‘Mr Blue Sky’ is one of those songs where the parts of the jigsaw puzzle fall so eloquently into place. It is a record that sounds almost exactly as you would expect it to from such a title. The only thing that might have made it more perfect is to somehow send it back a year in time and have it as a soundtrack to the legendary summer of 1976. Oh, and if the group had not looked like a band of long haired relics from the ‘60s… For even though I was barely aware of the New Wave of fashion I still knew that ELO was not the look to go for. Not cool.
And yet, of course, in subsequent years I would learn that ELO really did have cause to claim outstanding cool credentials, for were their roots not sunk deeply into the brilliant Pop of The Move and earlier to The Idle Race whose records have certainly thrilled me? And was ‘Mr Blue Sky’ itself not covered by The Delgados? Themselves a band cloaked in excellent cycling references when cycling was the coolest of underground activities. Nods. Winks. You know the score.
When you are nearly fifty perhaps you know the score better than you did when you were eleven but ironically you also care little if at all about notions of what the score might mean. You suspect it means little, if anything. But you still just about keep an eye on it.
How can anyone not love San Sebastian? It is certainly something of an iconic place for cyclists, particularly British ones, for it is where Tom Simpson became the UK's first World Road Champion and of course Adam Yates won the Classica San Sebastian one day race in 2015. In perhaps a less positive light it was the scene of Channel 4’s vehicles being torched in a display of Basque nationalism at the start of the 1992 Tour de France. Quite why they picked on Channel 4 is not entirely clear to me. Perhaps they just got unlucky. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough orange on their cars.
Basque pride is strong in Donostia (as we shall now, in deference to those crazy Basques, call San Sebastian), as it is across the entire region. My friend Peter, a long term resident, tells me that it’s really not so long ago that Thursday night was generally regarded as riot night. Burning cars barricading the streets and other associated high jinx. Hard, perhaps, to imagine such larks these days as the city celebrates something of a gentrified revival, flooded by culture and tourism.
History and culture certainly drew us there a few years back, on the trail of Hemingway and his ‘Sun Also Rises’. There is reference to cycling in that novel too, and of course there is Jake Barnes swimming out to the raft in La Concha bay. A raft still sits in the bay and people do swim to it. I have done it myself. It is further than it looks.
At the western end of La Concha, where the Bay of Biscay churns and the wind whips around the headland, sit Donostia-born Eduardo Chillida's 'Haizeen orrazia’ sculptures. I have said in the past that sculpture rarely thrills me but Chillida's work is one of my few exceptions. Like Judd, his work has something of the industrial about it, but with more of a nod to the organic. Normally this would fill me with dread, but the earthiness of Chillida’s work is rooted in a simplicity of form that one may not normally associate with this. His work first struck me on a visit to Bilbao in 1999. What a special visit. It informed some sleeve notes I had the privilege to write for an Aislers Set record and in these I made reference to Chillida’s hands: A display of exquisite line drawings as part of an extended exhibition at the Guggenheim. Perhaps it is no surprise that it was Chililda’s drawings which had the most vital impact on me. Such powerful explorations of positive and negative space within two dimensions. Stark. Clear. Un-bending. Intrinsically earth-bound yet with a singular spirituality. Perhaps this is the Basque nature made solid. Perhaps not.
In three dimensions Chillida’s work is all this and, yes, I will admit it, more. The 'Haizeen orrazia’ sculptures were always intended to interact with their context and it is their context that informs their form and their development over time. They are stoic yet forgiving; harmonious yet distinctive; harsh yet sympathetic. Such beautiful contradictions.