Friday, September 27, 2019

Nobody Ever Says Thank You

I'm currently reading Nobody Ever Says Thank You, a biography of the English football manager Brian Clough, who died in 2004 and whose managing career stretched from the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties. He was particularly famous for taking unsuccessful teams, reviving their fortunes, and making them champions. He was also known for his outspokenness and his complex personality. The film The Damned United (starring Michael Sheen) is a heavily fictionalised account of one particular phase in his career.

I was very interested in soccer in my teens. Occasionally I think of reviving my interest; whenever I watch a soccer game on television, I become quite gripped.

But the main reason I read the book was because I had seen The Damned United, and because I absolutely love the title. It is taken from a piece of advice given to Clough by his mentor, who advised him that nobody ever said "Thank you" in the world of football management.

At five hundred pages long, it's quite an undertaking to read, and I've only browsed it in the past. (I found it on a book exchange shelf-- but I'd already been impressed by its title before I happened to discover it there.) Now I'm reading it all the way through.

This is partly because Clough is such an interesting figure, but it's partly because I'm so drawn to the world it describes-- especially at the beginning. It's a world of ice-bitten and waterlogged playing fields, windswept training grounds, cold dressing rooms, cups of Oxo (an incredibly potent beef extract drink), dour Yorkshiremen, verbal sparring, fish and chips, and so on. I don't find that atmosphere depressing-- I find it bracing.

But, reading the book, I realize there's another reason I'm enjoying it. The long litany of football results that forms much of the narrative is very appealing. I like the structure, the repetition (with variation), the sturdy framework-- 1-0 against Liverpool at Anfield, 2-1 against Wolverhampton at home, 3-3 against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge....there is a soothing poetry to it, not so different to the swash of the tide on the beach.

There is a mysterious connection between repetition and the sublime. This is very obvious when we think of the liturgy, the rosary, and the other repetitive aspects of Catholicism (and of all organised religion). The imagination is stirred by the thought of all the Masses celebrated through history, all the Masses celebrated today, the succession of bishops, the slow development of doctrine, the collision of time and timelessness this brings about.

The same applies to other areas of life-- cinema, for instance. What is playing at the local multiplex? Something is playing, right now. And some of the movies playing right now will enter into popular culture, and some may even enter into the cultural memory of society.

Football is the same. Although Brian Clough is dead now, and all the players he managed have long retired, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest and Derby County are still playing week in, week out-- rising up and down the tables, being promoted, being relegated, winning trophies, spending years in the wilderness (a delicious phrase). Football clubs have their own folklore, their own pantheons and legends, their own collective memory-- each of which forms a part of the sport's collective memory, which itself forms a part of a country's collective memory. There's something very exciting about that. At least, I find it exciting.

Read Me In Print!

If you are so inclined, you can buy the latest issue (pictured) of Ireland's Own magazine, which features an article I wrote on strange sports. Have you heard of cluster ballooning? Underwater hockey? The Eton Wall Game? They all feature in my article.

It's the second article I've had in that magazine recently-- I had an obituary of the Irish folk musician Danny Doyle in a September issue.

I hope to have future articles in the coming months!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

On Snowflakes

Here is a delightful poem by Francis Thompson (1859-1907), most famous as the writer of "The Hound of Heaven": 

To a Snowflake

What heart could have thought you? --
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor? --
"God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind --
Thou could'st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost." 

I like this poem for many reasons. First off, I love snow. I wrote a whole blog post about my love of snow, here.

Secondly, I like the tripping metre. Lines like "Fragilely, surely", "So purely, so palely", and "Mightily, fraily" evoke the swirl of snowflakes in the wind.

Finally, I like the use of somewhat exotic words, such as "argentine" and "devisal". I like it when poets (and writers) use exotic words, and I think it's a shame that they often steer clear of them, out of fear of purple prose-- or, indeed, purple poetry.

Today, of course, we tend to use "snowflake" in a different context-- as an epithet for somebody who is too narrow-skinned or sensitive. (Sometimes it is expanded to "special snowflake".)

This usage began with conservatives mocking liberals who saw racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. everywhere. With tiresome predictability, it was soon re-appropriated by liberals, who accused conservatives of being "snowflakes" when they complained of being called sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. Now everybody calls everybody else a snowflake.

All that is polemic, and serves a purpose. However, it's a shame that the term has become so pejorative.

Why should the term "special snowflake" be reserved for such combative uses?

Everybody is a special snowflake. There, I said it.

It may not be the case that no two snowflakes are alike, but it's certainly the case that no two people are completely alike. And this is a very inspiring thought.

Why should people be so different? I can easily imagine a world where everybody was interested in the same things, loved the same music and movies and books, had the same politics, enjoyed the same activities, wanted exactly the same things out of life, and got excited about the same ideas.

It would be a world with a lot less conflict, perhaps. But it would be much duller.

I like to ponder the diversity of mankind because it's so triumphantly anti-reductionist. It's not the case that everybody wants the same things out of life. It's not even true in the case of bad people, never mind good people. There are bad people who want money, there are bad people who want power, there are bad people who want prestige, and there are bad people who are utterly idealistic-- and willing to do the most evil things for the sake of those ideals.

To move from the depths of wickedness to the great mass of humanity, however, we see that the multiplicity of human motivations is staggering. How often do historians find themselves puzzling over the purposes of the great men in human history? Someone like Winston Churchill, for instance? or Otto Von Bismarck? Or Thomas Jefferson?

Why are all ideologies so prone to fissures, schisms and tensions?

Since my father's death, and even before his death, I have been pondering the similarities and differences between our views of the world. He was a Catholic, like me. He was broadly a conservative and a traditionalist, like me. He was a romantic, like me. But every now and again, he would say something which made me realize that, in many respects, his view of the world was completely different to mine. For instance, he was much more of an essentialist in his view of nationality and ethnicity. He believed very strongly that such-and-such a people had such-and-such a character, and that this was hardwired into them-- whereas I am very sceptical of this, and correspondingly more fearful that peoples are in danger of losing their distinctiveness. My father (who actually campaigned against Ireland joining the EEC, which became the EU) was opposed to the European project because he thought it was doomed to failure, that the peoples of Europe were too different to weld into a unity. I'm quite the opposite-- I'm opposed because I'm afraid the project might, in fact, succeed in this very objective. (Although I believe my father would also have opposed this, too.)

As we know ourselves, sometimes it is very hard to put our own motivations and ideals into words. Certainly this is what fuels a lot of my own writing, and thinking, and reading. I have a very specific vision of my own, but trying to actually articulate it can be immensely difficult.

I don't think I'm special in this regard. I think I'm very ordinary.

Or rather, I think everybody is special. A special snowflake.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

My Grandfather, my Father, and Me

Over the weekend, I came across some letters and other documents written by my grandfather. He generated a huge amount of writing in his lifetime, but (to the best of my knowledge, and to my great regret), most of it has been lost.

He was a community activist, a member of the Worker's Party (which was both an Irish nationalist and a socialist party), and at one time a member of the IRA (this was long before the Troubles in Northern Ireland had broken out).

As a result of my father's death and funeral, the death and funeral of another family member, and various other family events, I've been hearing a lot of family stories, including stories about my grandfather and my father.

Much of my knowledge of my grandfather comes from my father's memoirs, which remain unpublished, and every word of which I typed from manuscript.

He seems to have been quite a character, the protagonist of many a comic story.

He was a mechanically-minded person, and he once invented a control panel using which (or so he hoped) he could control all the lights and appliances in the house from one central point.

So delighted was he with this invention, that he gathered his entire family around to witness its ceremonial turning-on. However, as soon as he hit the first button, all the lights in the street went out-- and stayed out for several days, apparently.

There are several stories about his fondness for fake séances, one of which involves a member of the Irish army-- a strapping fellow in a greatcoat-- running back home to jump into bed with his mother.

I don't remember him that well. He died in 1991, a little after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, when I was thirteen. It was my first real experience of death.

I remember him as a white-haired, patriarchal figure, who lived with my aunt and was always watching television. He looked like a rugged Samuel Beckett. He had a rather stern demeanour, but a wicked sense of humour-- I remember how devastasted I was, one Christmas, when I handed him a small gift-wrapped cylinder and he said: "I hope it's not a pen!". (He hurried to reassure me when he saw my face fall, however.)

Like my father, he was very political and very idealistic. However, the differences are also very striking.

I learned to my great surprise, only last week, that my grandfather (despite being an Irish nationalist) had little regard for the Irish language, and thought that too much effort had been devoted to preserving it. I'm getting this information second-hand, so I can't be sure, but it seems reliable enough.

And it fits with my knowledge of him. He seems to have been a much more hard-headed, pragmatic character than my father. His public-spiritedness was focused, more than anything else, on bread-and-butter issues, and on helping out particular individuals.

That's admirable in itself. But why be a nationalist at all, in that case?

I'm not sure what my grandfather's religious views were. I've heard different things. The impression I get is that he was somewhat anti-clerical.

The picture I get-- peering into the murk of the past-- is that the progression (or regression!) from my grandfather to myself is one of increasing conservatism, traditionalism and mysticism-- a trajectory which is quite the opposite of Irish society over the same time.

When I read my grandfather's letters, I get the impression of a man who was very business-like, very down-to-earth, very practical-minded. The lyricism which is never far from the surface, in all my father's writings, is nowhere in evidence. (Having said that, I've heard that he wrote at least one patriotic ballad, and I only have a few documents from his hand.) Somehow, I get the impression he had little interest in literature, poetry, or the life of the imagination.

My father had a more poetic temperament than my grandfather. But he was still a lot more practically-minded than I am-- observant, analytical, very interested in subjects (such as economics and city planning) which seem unbearably prosaic to me.

Where did my father get his devotion to the Irish language, I wonder? He never learned to speak it, but he did help to set up an Irish language school in our community-- the one I attended. Without having attended that, I wouldn't have even the middling grasp of Irish that I do.

My father was a convinced Catholic, but he never went to Mass. He might go to the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, but that was about it. And yet there was no doubt at all about where he stood, when it came to religion and to Catholicism. (I was very glad he received the Last Rites at the end.)

The sweep of social and cultural history is very interesting to me, and family history is a current within that. My grandfather and my father were both men who pursued ideals, who made a solid contribution to the life of their times. I think I would be doing well to emulate them even in a very small way.