Archive | February, 2011

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Self Help Summitry and Class

Posted on 09 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

Norman Vincent Peale

In January, London’s School of Life held what it called “The Self Help Summit.” The Summit, culmination of years of psychotherapists’ frustration at what they call the Self Help Industry, brought together a remarkable range of (tongue very much in cheek) the usual suspects: Philippa Perry, Alain de Botton, Richard Wiseman, Mark Vernon, Frank Furedi, Robert Rowland Smith, Oliver Burkeman (who has recently published a new book, Help!). Vernon, on the School of Life’s blog here, summarized the Summit’s questions thus: “Can self help make you happy, develop your power, save your life? Or are it’s (sic) advocates peddlers of snake oil? Or again: given the genre is hugely diverse, is it possible to separate the dross from the gold?”

I wasn’t able to attend, but if the various reports of the event are anything to go by, it went well and did better than just avoid becoming the kind of sneerathon that might have anticipated. But I want to add a thought of my own.

I’ve read a lot of self help books in my time. I met my first as a teenager. I’d fallen in love for the first time, only weeks after fastening onto my first real-world ambition. This wasn’t a situation for which my upbringing had prepared me. I knew no one in my world to whom I could ask advice from, or turn to, or trust. It was a lonely and frightening time.

I came across a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking – in WHSmiths, probably, because this was the pre-Waterstones era. Scenting that this wasn’t a book that you wanted to be seen with in public, I read it in my room – and, for the first time, ran across concepts like goal setting, perseverance, and setting your own standards. All that and more, set in an go-getting, early-century America that was far removed from the knackered, cynical world I’d been brought up in. Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.. Advice! Tips! Guidance! Real life examples! What to do if things go wrong! I grabbed it and hung on hard.

(The religio-social background and history to NVP and positive thinking is fascinating – start with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World which is, incidentally, far harder on the self help industry in toto than the Summit appears to have been).

Over the next decade, self help played a huge part in stimulating my interest in psychotherapy as a career. I quickly found myself exploring thinkers like Aaron Beck, Irvin Yalom and Anthony Storr besides. But helpful as those great names would prove in guiding my work and practice, none of them would have been any help whatsoever to my stuck and somewhat lonely 16 year old self.

I’ve found little over the years from the official mental health industry that would have been. Even the sainted David Burns, whose Feeling Good is the favourite book of Metafilter, would have proved beside the point. Later, perhaps, but not then. Self help is not always, or not even principally, opposed to or in competition with professional therapy writing or services.

Because, with so many self-help books as with certain moments in life, mental health is not the principle issue.  Direction, purpose, and recovering some sense of control over life are central themes, alongside ideas of change and transformation. There are times along the way when that – something you are doing – not the emphasis on the style of your thinking found in some schools of psychotherapy – is what you really need. There’s room and a time for both – no one’s explicitly denying that, and ultimately they boil down to the same thing – but sometimes you need one so much more than the other, or you need one before it can become time for the other.

You might have noticed without my mentioning it that these are longstanding working class themes. The dream of breaking out into a different, better world: it’s the tale of every local lad done good, it’s the story behind Educating Rita and John Major’s autobiography, it’s the legend behind all those Carnegie libraries and Tesco and Amstrad and, and, and, and. Direction and purpose: they are not easy things to find, and they get harder to find, and use, with every rung down the ladder.

It is one of the classic “insults of class” – having to win for yourself the right to believe that you are entitled to form and follow your own ambitions. At the summit, Robert Kelsey attributed to self help his recognition that his sense of failure in life was in fact a fear of failure. That’s a hugely important point and he made it well. It’s also a middle class one. It’s easier to have a fear of failure when you know how and where to start, indeed, when you know you are allowed to start at all.

The need to change, to be different succeed is a familiar idea to anyone from a working class background. That, to put it bluntly, is because it’s true. It’s an easy thing for middle class journalists and writers to mock, who already have security, who already own the idea that you can achieve what you set out to do, who started life already halfway into the world most people must hustle and scramble to reach. It’s easy to mock when you’ve grown up knowing lawyers, poets, artists, bankers and academics and so assume that those fine careers are options for you. (I am lower middle class in origin and made it to 18 without having known personally any adults in any of those fields – I saw only computing, and not much of that. What about families where no one works at all?)

I’ve a friend, the child of a famous man, who has never read any self help, but knows it’s all crap. The family are wealthy: the chosen career is in a field with formidable entry costs. But I know this about my friend too: they’ve always had written goals. They’ve always used social “tricks” like mirroring and pacing in order to get on. They have a deliberate strategy to overcome failure when it occurs. They have another strategy for networking. They visualize their ideal outcomes.

So much of what they do is pure Tony Robbins. But they don’t know that, because actually, it’s just what people at their level in society do. Not overtly, or even knowingly: there’s no need. They’ll never be as self-conscious about it as people like me who have had to get it all out of a book (if not that one) because there was nowhere else for it to come from.

And I wonder if my friend, or anyone who has ever pitched an article for the hell of it, or just thought they might just – what the heck! – put in for that (interesting) job, or been called on to consult or whatever – I wonder if they have quite realized how unusual they are in British life. That their luck and fortune might lie – not in the results of their decisions, but in their assumption that they can make their decisions at all.

So I’m glad that the Self Help Summit left room for the genre to live and breathe. Without it, there’s really very little to fill the gap (the series of which this book is part is quite good) and beyond that, nothing but guides to gardening, cooking and cars, on into the distance. Even in England, that’s not going to be enough. And as for weeding out the dross – I think people might be sensible enough, resilient enough, to do that on their own.

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The Return of Kenny Dalglish

Posted on 09 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

A few days after her death, my grandmother comes in through my bedroom window after lights out. I am six years old.

She does so again on other nights. The dream always follows the same path. Malevolent twilight and her body framed against it, her back turned to me. The head slowly coming round; and the face wrong, changed, and wicked with appetite, wholly intent upon me; my rollercoastering nausea coming up and my fear: my stomach clenching, then darkness, a chorus of voices howling in the black and I’m falling, down, faster and faster and gritting my teeth, holding my eyes shut until I impact on the bed and waken into a chamber that’s unlit and alive with menace. I’ll hold still on my sheets, tight and noiseless, til sunrise.

Three years later, and I’m in my father’s living room in a town two and a half hours’ drive from home. Windows at each end let in album cover sunshine and there’s snow outside. Alone but vigilant for raised voices starting up away in the house, I’ve turned the stereo’s knob to tuner and found Radio 2. Football: the voice of Peter Jones. Or was it Bryon Butler? Or Alan Parry?

Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool are playing my Manchester United. I’ve been waiting for this game: waiting for it in the way you wait for a school bully, or a bombing raid. The speakers smell of cloth and dust, and their rich bass tone adds a luxury and a cruelty to what is unwinding, inevitably, out on the pitch at Old Trafford. I am armless in this fistfight, powerless, unable to do anything to help.

What’s forgotten now, except by those who were children at the time, is just how frightening Liverpool were. And in particular, just how frightening the one player every 8 year old had heard of was: Kenny Dalglish.

Back then, Dave Sexton’s United was a team of friendly, fatherly figures. Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Martin Buchan, Brian Greenhoff. Ipswich had them too: Mick Mills, Paul Cooper. You could imagine them joining in your playground kickabouts; you could imagine them wanting to; you could imagine them being the sort of grown-up who knew what to say.

My Liverpool fan mates might have worshipped him, but to me, Dalglish wasn’t friendly or a father figure: he was a knife. A cool, sleek blade that cut you. He was a boiling kettle, hovering over ants…

I won some of my United team at school through Panini flick-card competitions. If you had Dalglish’s card, which hardly anyone did, however, you wouldn’t enter it. You kept it separate. You kept it clean and undogeared. It gave you power and standing, in a way and of a kind that everyone understood. For children, iconic power is hard, tangible. Our best playground player knew it, and when he got the ball he’d shout out “Dalglish!” and dribble around you all, endlessly untackleable and unbeatable.

What made it worse was that my Liverpool fan mates seemed to have been Liverpool fans forever. They’d inherited their team through some distant, mysterious group exercise in wisdom and integrity from which I, foolishly and unknowingly, had absented myself.

Ending up with Manchester United felt like an act of carelessness. Because everyone was Liverpool.. Dave Sexton’s team spent that season fighting Coventry City for a mid-table spot.

I’m still United now, and of course, you might say, it ended well. Not so much of a supporter after Heysel, of course. Blind allegiance died that day: now it’s warmth and best wishes, no more, because no more could be justified. Nevertheless, I could wander down to the Baillie in Stockbridge in 2011 to catch Liverpool v United in the Cup and feel somehow shielded by all those titles and trophies. I could relax on a good seat with my wife in that great navy captain’s cabin of a pub, wander over to the bar for a pair of pints and some crisps, and get ready for a game that wouldn’t have a great deal at stake for me.

But just before kickoff, Kenny Dalglish emerged into view, framed against the light from the tunnel.

He was deep in conversation with – Sammy Lee? with his back to us, and as Dalglish slowly came round towards the camera, I saw his face with another thirty years on it, changed, wrong, and wicked with appetite: somewhere inside, I felt an ancient vertigo that I’d thought grown-out-of, beaten and outrun, starting up once again and I remembered what it felt like to fall, what it felt like afterwards to cling on silently, too frightened to move..

It’s one month later. In their last game, Manchester United lost to Wolves. Liverpool are DWWWW.

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Meeting Simon Clifford

Posted on 08 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

I don’t have heroes. Certainly, I don’t have footballing ones: any heroism that footballers have committed has been tangental to the actual game. Harry Gregg, yes. Bryan Robson, no. But for all that, there are people in football whose success I’ve an emotional commitment to. I haven’t often found myself around these people: it’s not something I’ve ever sought. When I am, it’s uncomfortably disembodying and disassociating. There’s a mix on these occasions, of plain old nerves and the urge to say, don’t waste your time with me, get on with it, it matters…

I last felt that way in late December, lunching with Simon Clifford in a restaurant’s private room beneath his offices in Leeds’ magnificent Victorian centre. It wasn’t an interview or anything like that – he’d offered me the chance to meet up and have a look around, and I was hardly going to turn down a chance to to see UK football’s best hope from the inside. And my nerves went, anyway, when it turned out that we’d both taken the same message from the same Rocky 6 clip.

Every time you meet someone “in football”, you come away with a stack of highly actionable stories that you could never possibly print. Clifford is a bibilophile, owner of one of the country’s most important collections of one of my favourite Victorian authors, and the stories were better than usual. I won’t pass them on. But I will pass on what else I learned.

I’ll also pass on what I learned from Clifford’s colleague Steve Nichol, now at Brazilian Soccer Schools and rated as one of the very best thinking coaches working in the UK today. One of the highlights of my day in Leeds was hearing Nichol analyse a recent Premiership match with the kind of succinctness and originality that only goes to confirm how little knowledge most of us who love the game actually have in Britain – and how much we need it. I tried to hide it from him, but I wasn’t keeping up, and felt ashamed.

In no order, then – here’s what I learned at BSS:

The future might be about to arrive

Aiden White, at Brazilian Soccer Schools from age 7 until age 18, has broken through into the Leeds United first team. Aberdeen have five BSS graduates under the age of 21 in their squad, and there are another 650 young people training up under BSS auspices in Aberdeen alone. This is happening across the country. A lot of us have wondered what would happen to the British game if real training was available to young people from the start. We might be about to find out. But:

BSS, Socatots and the Clifford philosophy are still developing

 

Clifford told me more than once that the existing setup of BSS and Socatots does not reflect the entirety of his thinking and that there are many more ideas awaiting execution than he and his team will have time for right now. There are further levels of attainment to be added at the top of the BSS scheme. Socatots, which is the great hope, starting young people off at the very beginning, hasn’t had time yet – it just hasn’t been around long enough – to generate its own cadre of graduates.

Local Socatots franchisees have signalled their belief – which I share – that appropriate training at that age level gives benefits far beyond football alone. Where football is concerned, the “new” ideology that we here more and more often now – that young people ought to be technically competent with the ball before moving on to game situations – has been baked into BSS and Socatots since the late nineties.

Player development

Some of what is still to come concerns fitness and focus. Steve Nichol posed the question – how do you prevent players stalling in their development after the age of 16? That is, how do you help them continue to grow once they are in the comparatively dead hands of Football League and Premiership clubs?

That’s not necessarily to criticize club academies, although the academies vary wildly in their quality, and are subject to the same coaching traditions that have held back British football in the past. But young players who make it into full contracts will do so on the back of a lot of hard work and sacrifice at an early age. The temptation to enjoy the immediate rewards is substantial and resisting it takes a level of maturity few people have at that stage in their lives.

Mental and physical discipline

Clifford and his team feel that the answers may come from boxing – a sport that calls on mental and physical discipline far beyond normal football training.

Football did originally associate itself with mental discipline. London social reformers like Quentin Hogg and Arnold Hills, saw football as a means of helping reintroduce the order to lives thrown into chaos by industrial change – mass demolition of working homes in the 1860s for Hogg, industrial depression, unrest and accidents for Hills.

But the problems posed by the modern game to young people are on another scale altogether: the human need for order and direction is obvious when survival is at stake. Less so when your choice is between extra skills training in cold weather or the chance to be the centre of female attention.

Boxing and the other martial arts put discipline and conditioning onto a different plane – presenting them as the key to adulthood and the only source of peer esteem. Importing these values into football won’t be easy, but it’s surely not impossible.

Because anyone who has spent time around good young players and decent coaches will know what I refer to as the atmosphere of “high seriousness” that they bring to their endeavours. It’s a cultural survival, a hangover from the pre-1960s Apollonian British culture that has vanished from academia, government and policing.

In football, that high seriousness has to share space with what George Best inadvertantly imported: fashion. Deep detachment: the universal application of satire and irony. The individual over the group – and groups, where they exist, are competitive, not cooperative. The priority given to sex – in direct contrast, here, to an older football tradition that evolved to deal with a world that had syphilis but no cure.

That high seriousness – friendly, but determined and implacable – was around me all day at the BSS offices. It made me realize – and think to myself out loud – they really are going to pull this off: they really are going to do this..

The place for thinkers in football

 

Mentors matter. Guidance matters. People, real or fictional, who guide and inspire.. and it was in that context that the Rocky 6 clip comes into play. Rocky’s message to his adult son – that to become what you must become, to have impact, you have to be ready for unlimited opposition, mental pain and physical discomfort – is a big Clifford/Nichol theme. How to find a way to exist for extended periods without outside approval or approbation.. It’s there in Raymond Blanc’s new autobiography, too, and in Ricky Gervais’ recollections: the worthwhile things lie on the wrong side of years of friendless, pitiless labour.

We’ve had League football in the UK now for 115 seasons, give or take a year or two. In that time, every single intelligent thinker who proposed that we transform the game’s skill and fitness levels has been spat out or destroyed. From Jimmy Hogan on and ever since, these people have had to make a way outside the League and FA systems. And these systems, so robust in maintaining stable competitions over an extraordinarily long time, are still digesting  the lessons of 1950 and 1953. No white smoke from Lancaster Gate yet. Not even bullet points.

Which means that any attempt to improve standards that seeks to do so via Leagues or Associations is doomed to failure. It has to be an outside job.

 

Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward’s experiences at Southampton show that, even at a club with a chairman who understands the issues at the right level and is open to progress, fear and ignorance win.

Nothing can move until professional footballers in Britain are equipped with skills, fitness and game sense beyond the levels achieved abroad. Anything else is beside the point. It won’t come from the clubs. It won’t come from the Associations.

It’s an outside job. And here’s the news from Leeds: the outsiders are working on it.

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