Football is Back!

I feel like I’ve been waiting for ages for the football calendar to resume, although it was only back in the middle of March that the decision was made to suspend the football season due to COVID-19. But now, this week, as I’m sure you will have noticed, football is back on TV again! And the excitement and anticipation in our house is incredible.

The first game of the resumed season was a neutral one for me: Aston Villa up against Sheffield United. But my family and I gathered around the TV, plates of lovely, hot poutine on our knees (see the pictutre below), celebrating an indulgent opportunity to ‘veg out’ in front of a game, and we were treated to a steady but intriguing match that resulted in a 0-0 draw.

Binge watching for the evening, we then sat quietly through Man City vs. Arsenal, expecting both teams to be raring to go: two Premier League giants ready for a big face-off. The 3-0 result went some way to suggest how unimaginative and out of practice Arsenal were. Man City were the better team, and it was clear that several weeks without a game had left all the players far from being match-sharp.

The return of top-flight football was marked with support for the Black Lives Matter movement, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Players have had ‘Black Lives Matter’ emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys and everyone on the pitch took a knee in solidarity with the movement and to highlight the importance of this message.

There is no doubting the power and meaning attached to these gestures, nor the impressiveness of many of the young men acting as terrific role models combating the racial prejudice and injustice which is still prevalent in football, across our society, and in many others around the globe. I hope these powerful gestures and eloquent footballers will be heeded, but more importantly that their words will be followed up by action by those with power that makes sport and society more inclusive and more just.

On Sunday, Father’s Day, we made a special dinner, a brazil nut and sage roast and all the trimmings, a bottle of wine, beer, and we gathered around the set for the much-awaited derby game. We expected our team to win: the presenters suggested that Liverpool would beat Everton easily, even though our main man Mo Salah was on the bench. When pundits make comments like that, I always expect things to go wrong.

It was a slow game and it might be fair to say that the 0-0 draw reflected the lack of end-to-end excitement and the match would have been much improved by the excited singing and baying of the crowd. However eerie it is to watch a live game with no supporters, safety comes first.

Everton might even have deserved to win the match. Tom Davies hit the crossbar; Seamus Coleman and Mason Holgate both had a strong game and they very effectively nullified Liverpool’s attacking intent. The only consolation was that we are another point closer to achieving the title, but understandably, after such a long lay-off, and having no crowd presence to raise the players’ game, the tension and excitement of football isn’t quite what it used to be.

Our next games are Crystal Palace, who appear to be in fighting form having handily dispatched relegation-threatened Bournemouth in their first game back, and then Man City who hammered Burnley last night. There will be some twists and turns in the Premier League before this season is over and before we can finally celebrate that long-awaited title. But football is back and we have everything to play for. Bring it on!

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Don’t blame the goalkeeper

I was watching my team play in the Champions’ League this week and, I suppose, I was feeling a little bit confident. We had a one-goal deficit, conceded away from home and, on our own territory, I was sure we’d win. The captain was back from injury and we had a full team of strong players, including the second-choice keeper because the number one was suffering from thigh strain. But I was confident that we’d do it. We’re a better team.

We scored the first goal, they got one back and the game went into extra time, two fifteen minute halves. We were playing better than they were – they’re a defensive team anyway and the commentator repeatedly reminded listeners that they don’t play well or score away from home. That was the hex.

We scored a cracking goal in the first part of extra time and I’m sure all the fans thought that was it. But the opposition got one back, then another and, in the final moments, yet another and we rolled over and that was that. We lost 4-2. Unbelievable, given the calibre of our players: there were thirty five shots on goal. But we didn’t score and we leaked too many goals at the other end.

Then, after the game, the pundits picked over the bones and the goalkeeper came out as being reprehensible. In a way, maybe he could have saved the goals: he was entirely responsible for one or two howlers.

But I believe the culture of blame that sits fault squarely on the shoulders of the keeper or blames the last man standing or the weakest player isn’t fair. A team is exactly that, a team. And once the team has lost, it has to move forward. Part of that process may be to improve on mistakes, analyse how to improve based on prior errors, but that’s not the same as blaming one person and repeatedly rubbing it in.

Paul Robinson, a goalkeeper who played for Tottenham and England, said that an error he once made in an international game cost him sleep and made him under confident for weeks. Fans reminded frequently of his mistake as he played on the pitch and it did nothing for his performance. It stayed in his mind and made him doubt himself, which impacted on his game.

So, in defence of Adrian, our second keeper who let in a couple of goals the other night and who has been a good deputy all season, I’m suggesting that we don’t blame the keeper or anyone else for that matter. Here are my top ten reasons.

  1. He’s only human. He made a mistake. We’re all human. We will make mistakes.
  2. We need to move forward, not pick open wounds. We need to heal.
  3. A team is a team; family groups stick together and support each other. There are ten other players in a team, plus those on the bench – how well did they play their part and help the goalkeeper? Win or lose, a fan supports a team. We are there for the glory and for the grief.
  4. Negativity is harmful. To focus all the time on what is wrong won’t make it right. We need to focus on the positive and how we can improve.
  5. We can’t win all the time. Nor should we want to: it would be dull.
  6. Making mistakes is, in fact, a positive. That’s how we improve. Let’s support our team to get better. After all, people make errors for all sorts of reasons. We don’t know what’s happening in somoene’s life.A judgement based on little or no background information is harsh.
  7. ‘Thanks’ is a good word. Thanks for the goals you saved; thanks for the times you did really well. And the times that are less than perfect, we expect them to happen.We plan for them and accept them. And, by the way, one reason we watch sport is for the thrills and spills, the ups and downs. We are there for the ride.
  8. Oh, and we’re winning the Premiership, by the way.
  9. And we could well win the Champions’ League next year. The competitions happen again and again and we’ll be there to enjoy it.
  10. This one may be unpopular but – it’s only a game. I had a friend once who used to smash his fist against sharp objects when our team lost. Please don’t do that. I know we invest in the tension and the excitement but, once the final whistle blows, it’s gone and we think about the next game.

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Of course, this blog post isn’t just about football. How can it be? There are too many times when the ‘goalkeeper’ is blamed, faults are picked over, repeated, blown out of all proportion. Sometimes, if you let a goal in and let your team down, you’ll feel bad. It’s up to others around you to support you then, to help you improve, to remind you of your good points and to help you move on. There are ‘goalkeepers’ in every family, every office, every factory, every industry, every school, every street, at every level. We are all goalkeepers. At the end of the game, we need to be a strong team and help each other. There will be more games, more opportunities and, if we show solidarity, there will be more wins. We’re in it together for the glory and the grief, the wins and the losses. Enough said.

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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The new football season is here – an old friend is coming home

It is really like welcoming an old friend again, now the football season has returned. I always feel a little bit sad when the season ends in May, even though this year my team did really well and we went out on a high. Now the new season has started, there is a kind of fresh optimism, a hope that we’ll win the League this year, the Champions League again, and there’s the sure knowledge that we’ll experience highs and lows, wins and losses, times when we were robbed and times when we ground out a victory we didn’t deserve. That’s football. It’s all about the emotion.

Of course wild emotion, blind devotion and hot-headed passion are not always good things. I find myself often having to explain to people why I love football. Many of my friends can’t see the point in the game and they offer me a salvo of reasons why I shouldn’t like it: footballers’ salaries, high ticket prices, homophobia, racism. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to shrug off the negatives and justify the beautiful game.

Years ago, I was a student, watching a derby game. The man standing in front of me swore at a player on the pitch: in one sentence he managed to create an insult that fused misogyny, racism and homophobia. I was shocked by his words and puzzled by his sudden aggression. After all, the player was on the team he was supporting and all he had done was give the ball away.

Football generates such passion. Standing at the kop end, listening to fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, surrounded by banners lauding players and ex-players and honouring the Hillsborough 96 always brings tears to my eyes. It’s an incredibly powerful moment in which tradition, ritual and intense loyalty bind a whole crowd of people together as a family. In some ways there’s nothing to beat it, from kick-off to final whistle. I always say to those who don’t understand the point of the game, echoing Camus’ words, that football is pure theatre. Being a fan at a match brings such a strong sense of belonging, despite and sometimes because of the ups and downs of each game.

I’ve just related one single negative incident of aggressive racist behaviour at a match, but there are so many positive stories I could tell. There was the time a man next to me gave me a grin and said ‘Eh, girl, do your kids like crisps?’ and stuffed a six-pack of Smiths into my hands for my two children, who were ten and nine. There was another time at a different game when a huge man in the seat in front of me leapt to his feet to applaud and one of the fans next to me patted him on the shoulder and mumbled ‘Sit down, mate – this girl and her kids can’t see if you stand up.’

I came out of a game once – I think it was against West Brom and we’d just won 4-1 –and a woman I’d never met before caught my eye and came over. She hugged me, her face beaming, and said ‘What a fantastic game that was, eh? Didn’t we play great?’ We chatted for about ten minutes and she was a lovely person. How often does that happen outside of football, a complete stranger making conversation? It should happen much more frequently – it is so rewarding. Football can bring people together.

Racism is a huge cloud hanging over the beautiful game. Yet again this week, just a few days into the season, there have been attacks on Twitter, abusing players such as Tammy Abrahams and Paul Pogba. It is shocking that this still happens.

In the same way that a fan can ask someone to sit down because they have leaped up and blocked kids’ vision, we as fans have to ask people not to be racist. The abused players’ safety and feelings come first and there are ways to change behaviours and protect the players.

My friends often cite the negatives when they ask me why I enjoy football. Sometimes they’ll suggest something trivial to explain why I watch a game: it must be because of the twenty two men in shorts – how else could I tolerate ninety minutes of kicking a bag of wind? I tend to shrug off such comments and remember the good times – cheering in the Kop, being hugged senseless by someone I’ve never met because our team has scored; being in a crowd where I can listen to several accents all crooning the same song; hiding behind the sofa because we have a penalty shoot-out after extra time. But racism and homophobia don’t belong in football.

Football is about ninety minutes of suspended normality, where rivalry and skill and the lottery of goals and the vagaries of VAR come into play, but at the end of the game, that’s all it is, a game. Football’s about laughter and banter, belonging and hope, supporting and solidarity, cheers and fears and tears, but it can never be about hatred and derision in any form. The friend I welcome home at the start of each season is one with a good heart that understands fair play. It’s a lot of fun, a tense performance of two halves packed with suspense and thrills, winning and losing. But the beautiful game of football reflects the diverse beauty of the world, no matter which team we support. There is no place for an unfriendly face or violence or words that wound.

My unconventional relationship with the sofa, based on Dr Who and the Champions’ League semi final game

 Perhaps I should start by saying that the only time I sit down conventionally is when I’m writing at the computer. And that is hardly conventional sitting – my cat, Colin, is behind me on my chair, occupying three quarters of the seat, so I am perched on the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leans me myopically closer to the screen and the keyboard. Colin is purring, I’m typing away, so it’s a symbiotic situation that leaves me with a warm butt and Colin with a feeling of being connected to the person that feeds him.

Most of the time at home, I sit on the floor. At mealtimes, I am sometimes at the table, sometimes on the move, but for the purposes of reading or watching TV, I’m on the floor or on the exercise bike.

So – the situation with the sofa is as follows. I have one – a sort of soft sofa that visitors or family can lie full-length on with a cup of tea, nodding off if they wish, with a cat stretched across their torso. Sofas provide comfort. But, for me, a sofa provides more comfort than simply a place to stretch out and relax. A sofa is a sort of safe grandparent figure.

I only had one grandparent, and that’s a story for another blog. My Nanny Leigh was lovely but she wasn’t your conventional grandparent who lived in a conventional place and did conventional things. I certainly wouldn’t have crawled onto her knee for comfort. She’d have giggled and said something to me I wouldn’t have understood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that sofas are places I go to seek solace.

It started when I was a child, the first time I watched Dr Who and the Daleks. I was petrified. So, of course, I hid behind the old sofa and peered out at the scary metal creatures with the protruding stick arm that killed everyone with a blast of radiation and turned them into skeletons.

The good thinking about a sofa, and hiding behind one, is that it is big. You can duck behind it and just listen to the scary sound effects, or you can peek round the corner, having a huge barrier of safety, a wedge of furniture between you and the terrifying thing on the screen. It is also soft and giving, like a big hug, so you can lean against it and believe you are getting support from something larger and therefore less vulnerable than you are. Its solidity is solace itself.

Years later a student of mine, Magic Dave, recommended Gothika as a film he said I’d enjoy. Enjoy is one of those peculiar words. I did enjoy Gothika, but in the way that I’d have enjoyed having my toenails plucked out singularly for the fun of it. I watched the entire film behind the sofa, scared witless.

Peering out at Halle Berry’s psychologically terrifying and thrilling performance was even worse than the daleks. I took out my contact lenses and hid behind the sofa, peering out blindly occasionally to guess if the screen was safe enough to watch. I’d formed a habit now – the sofa was a shelter, a den and a giant brave grandparent all rolled into one.

And, of course,  there was the question of football. I’ve even put squashy cushions behind the sofa now, a duvet, pillows, a flask of soup, for watching football. Istanbul, the Champions league final of 2005, found me camped out for the entire 90 minutes plus extra time plus the heart-stopping Dudek heroics of the penalty shootout. And, cowardy custard that I am, I’ve hung out behind the sofa for most Liverpool games this season, both Premiership and Champions’ League.

This leads me to the Barcelona game last Wednesday, the game we lost 3-0 and still played very well. I was shivering behind the sofa singing ‘He’s Virgil Van Dyke’ at the top of my voice, clutching my flask of soup, hiding, peering out for a few seconds then diving back when the going got tough.

So, this Tuesday, with a 3-0 deficit, the game at Anfield, where will I be watching the entire match? I’ll be behind the sofa. I have no idea what will happen in terms of the final outcome, but I’m hoping for a miracle, a good result, the way my team often succeed by doing things the hard way and respond to adversity with heroics. We might score the first goal, a second before half time and then the second half is poised for a third goal. This will evoke memories of Istanbul, (seen from behind the sofa.) Messi may not turn up and maybe Mo Salah will. Maybe he’ll be fit and Sadio Mané will be on a roll and I may even be able to crawl out from behind the big sofa and watch some of the action before ducking back and shaking like a leaf, screaming ‘I can’t watch, I can’t watch’ at the screen.

Statistically, given that we’re three goals down, it’s possible that we’ll lose and I may emerge from behind the sofa to watch it all, Messi scoring the first, Suarez the second, and I’ll sit and watch the heroics of my team, playing well, missing sitters, not being quite incisive enough to score when we should have nailed it, but deserving to have found the net for a goal or two. I imagine I’ll sigh and be philosophical and say ‘Well, on another day we’d have won.’ ‘Who can play against that kind of Messi free kick?’ ‘We played much better than the result shows’ and ‘Next year, we’ll be there…’ I won’t need to be behind the sofa if we are five down on aggregate – the result would be a foregone conclusion, so therefore there’d be no tension, no fear. I’d be safe sitting on the floor in front of the screen in the knowledge that we’d lost.

But at least, although my air-borne dreams of football and trophies will have been dissipated, the sofa will be there in all its avuncular firmness, and I’ll be able to hide next season when, of course, my team will be beak with a vengeance, fully fit, ready to win the league, the Champions’ league, even do the treble.  The duvet and pillows and flask of soup will be at the ready and I’ll be able to dive behind for safety at any moment when a penalty is given, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell me whether we’ve scored or not before I can creep out safely and cheer.

I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to my sofa. But sitting on it is the last thing I use it for – unless guests come round and they’re not in my house to watch horror films or football.

Why the World Cup is like a novel

Coverage of major sporting events is difficult to escape: whether it is the World Cup, the Six Nations, Wimbledon or The Tour de France, it is regularly in front of our eyes, on the television and in the newspapers. It is the main talking point in the news, perhaps more than the NHS crisis or halting Brexit negotiations.  Players’ names and faces become familiar; results are publicized far and wide and key events quickly become assimilated in our culture. The tournaments begin with people selecting favourites: a national team, a vital player or a big personality, and then the show begins. For me, it’s like any good novel: there are heroes, villains, injustices, triumphs, laughter and tears. We have underdogs, someone to root for and someone who is dangerous, whom we will fear: the opposition. We hope and pray that things will go the way of our heroes and we hold our collective breath as they set forth on their quest for victory. There will be adversity on the way – offside goals, penalties, red cards – but we hope that it will all end happily ever after for those players we support.

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In terms of the 2018 World Cup football tournament in Russia, the English media and fans are hopeful that their team will make a respectable showing. Fans will never lose sight of the iconic memories of 1966: Bobby Moore hoisted on top of the victorious team of cheering players, his fist clutching the Jules Rimet Trophy. The moment 52 years ago that England last won the World Cup is fixed in the minds of the English fans, whether they are old enough to remember it or not, because it has been so long since England had a football team who could go close to emulating Moore’s men. They long for football to ‘come home’ again.

Of course, there are the football haters who echo Guy Martin’s words: ‘I have nothing against football. It just seems very wasteful losing 2 hours of my life to watch 22 millionaires on TV chasing a bag of wind in their underwear.’ Martin has a point: he is a motor cycle racer turned TV presenter and it must be frustrating to adore and participate in such a thrilling sport where coverage is marginal. Footballers are paid a great deal of money and live a life of luxury. That is the case for many people and we are all aware of the gap between rich and poor. The difference in salary between the Premier League and lower leagues is huge. In the Championship the average salary is between £7.500 and £8.500 a week. The top players in the Championship can earn around £80.000 a week. The average salary in League One is between  £1.700 and £2.500, and in League Two it’s between £1.300 and £1.500. Still above average, but hardly enough for a life of luxury.  Many working class boys around the globe practise football skills from an early age in the hope that they can one day live the dream of being a sporting hero. Few achieve it.

This brings me back to the World Cup. Before this year’s tournament even began, the media machine was underway, thrilling us with episodes from the soap opera which is football. We held our breath wondering whether Mo Salah would start for Egypt, given the arm wrench he received from the dark lord of tackles, Sergio Ramos, in the Champions League final. We witnessed the sacking of Spain’s national coach. England’s Raheem Sterling was criticised over the gun tattoo on his right shooting leg, until it was revealed that  he’d vowed to  ‘never touch a gun’ after his father was shot dead when he was a boy.

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The World Cup has historically had its fair share of memorable controversies. 1986 brought the ‘hand of God’ moment where Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players ever, cheated by handballing a goal. In 2006, English referee Graham Poll booked the same Croatian player three times in match against Australia. (Two yellow cards constitute a red card sending off.) In the same year, Zinedine Zidane of France was sent off in his last-ever match, for butting an Italian player in the chest in retaliation to a verbal provocation, apparently about his mother. 2006 was a red card year for England too: Wayne Rooney was given his marching orders for stamping on a Portuguese player’s foot in the quarter finals, thereby contributing to England’s low chances of progression beyond that stage.

So there’s no shortage of best-seller material – scandal, horror, violence, tragedy, intrigue – but what about the romance, the love interest? I suppose that is where the supporters come in. We see them on the television, throngs of happy singing men with their shirts off, their whole national flag painted over their faces and bodies. Gone are the days of simply waving a rattle – this is full-on passion. And of course, like all mindless passion, it is about the heart ruling the head. When the team win, they are adored, idolised, their names chanted in songs which laud their prowess and promise eternal devotion. And when they lose, they are brought low, deemed flawed, despised, their names dragged through the mud and of course, all fans are technical experts and know what was needed to win, to alter the outcome, to change the game.

Albert Camus said that football is like theatre, and it is. A play in two acts, two halves. The players are centre stage for all to see. Fans live through the comedy and the tragedy, waiting for the final outcome. I think football is also like a novel:  each moment is a page turner, each game another episode leading towards the final game, the denouement where it all kicks off, where the climax happens. And of course, when the novel ends, it may be the best one yet or it may be one of the less satisfactory stories. But there will be more games, the next sequel, and more opportunity to invest emotionally, another chance to watch, to analyse, to give our opinions and offer our own interpretation. We will always continue to hope that our central characters win the day and become the memorable heroes we all aspire for them to be. And when it all becomes completely unpredictable, someone will breathe a sigh of amazement and say ‘You couldn’t write this stuff!’
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Revelling in life’s little pleasures…

Happiness is about enjoying the small things. It’s about getting the most from each moment and not letting an opportunity pass to feel grateful and blessed. Of course, there is happiness to be found in the big things: presents, promotion, pastimes, but perhaps real happiness is something we can connect with every day.

It’s true, external things bring pleasure. We aspire to something and then when we attain it, we believe we are happy. Why not? I know plenty of people who are exhilarated by the excitement of a new job, or a shiny car, a new relationship, a new home, a holiday: all these things bring the possibility of happiness and fulfilment. For me, completing a novel, beginning a new one, holding my finished book in my hand with its wonderful front cover design and title has the capacity to make my heart sing.

Things which happen by accident make us feel blessed. Winning the lottery, for example, would open up many new doors, offer new horizons and the chance to change. Things which happen to us externally, which are not fully of our making, are exciting because they present us with instant opportunities to make life better. Similarly, a promotion to a better job defines us as successful and it’s natural to feel that our achievements make us more exciting or more complete people.

But the problem with chasing happiness is exactly that: we are always seeking the next buzz, the next chance of fulfilment. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there has to be interim happiness which doesn’t depend on luck or someone else’s benevolence.

The base line  for happiness is our own good health and the health of those we love. Bereavement or constant worry about sickness will put a huge barrier in the way of happiness.

However, if we are blessed with life and energy, happiness can be found all around us. It is about taking the time to relish in the small things that promote sustained happiness. I suppose it’s back to the old concept of the half empty glass, and whether we can celebrate that it’s half full.

Today, it’s cold and raining. Usually, that doesn’t initiate a feeling of euphoria. But to be able to put on warm clothes and step outside, feel the wind, the water on your face, to come home and have the luxury of a fire in the hearth, a warm cup of steaming tea in your hands. That’s happiness.

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It’s easy to let immediate opportunities for happiness pass us by. We struggle through each day, busy with deadlines looming, technology pulling us in and absorbing us. How often do we take time to watch the sun rise or set? If it’s only when we’re on holiday, then maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe we should do it more frequently, taking a small drink, breakfast  or supper with us, and think about savouring every bite.

We have music all around us, but when do we stop everything we’re doing, turn up the volume and really listen to every note? We see people we love daily, but how often do we enjoy deep conversation or the time to take someone’s hand, look into their face and completely appreciate every moment we share?

As a fan of the beautiful game, I find it easy to fall into the trap of being governed by the lottery of  a result. If my football team win, I believe I’m happy. If we lose, I’m disgruntled and look for someone to blame: the ref, the goal keeper, the manager, the weather, the fixture list. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for life: it’s too easy to invest in superficial things we can’t control and which don’t really matter, then fall into the trap of blame and anger when it doesn’t go our way. But it is the people we love and the beauty within the moment which really make us happy.

Doing things for other people, making them smile, being kind, positive actions and thoughts towards others makes us happier, not just because we bask in being good, but because there is genuine pleasure to be found in making others’ lives better. Joy lies in reciprocating and sharing more than in allowing some external gratification to wash over us in a passive way.

Unless it is a beach, the waves from a vast ocean washing over us in the warmth of the sun. Or climbing hills, playing in the snow, squelching our boots in mud, alone or shared with others whose company we love. Not much beats grasping each transient moment life gives us, inhaling scent, savouring the taste and listening to the unique sounds. Perhaps nature is always there for us, offering us the opportunity to enjoy being alive in the present.

If that is so, if we can find joy in the duration of each moment, then we are truly blessed.

 

 

 

 

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Patience for Klopp

A new season, a new person to love, to hate. Change manifests itself in football as the wind blows in the autumn leaves. Last season Ronald Koeman was doing well; this season, without Lukaku, he is floundering and many fans are booing during Everton games, blaming him for the low league position after he has brought in so many new players. I don’t really get it.

More troubling to me is some Liverpool fans’ attitude to manager Jurgen Klopp. A draw with Manchester United yesterday was not so bad; Liverpool were the better team and played some exciting football. I think that the players are improving: there is increasing confidence, a noticeable lack of fear of any opponents and Liverpool would have won the game with Matip’s shot, had De Gea not made what may be the save of the month.

Klopp has revitalised his team, made the style of play breathtaking and potentially brilliant. He’s not there yet but already some fans are baying for him to be dismissed, questioning his managerial skills and creating an atmosphere of negativity. Some comments on social media are vitriolic, personal and there is the hyperbole of frenzy which lacks logic or consideration.

I read recently that many fans were suggesting that Benitez should return as manager. I love what Rafa did at Liverpool. Yet it took  it took him five seasons to build a team that could seriously compete for the title. It is the immediacy and anger of off-the -cuff negative comments which makes them stand out and be noticed;  however, the senseless lack of logic renders them hot air. Even ex-players, fans and pundits are suggesting that Klopp is wholly reprehensible each time the team draw or lose. But who can win everything? It’s a long season.

Image result for Jurgen Klopp quotes about his critics

Klopp’s Liverpool team is, perhaps, where it should be in the league, given the spending power of the teams who occupy the top three positions. It is clear he has a long-term plan, which will hopefully include securing Virgil Van Dyke in defence in January and a striker or two. Klopp fits the Liverpool ethos of positivity, support, energy, commitment, loyalty, good-humour: in his words, ‘heavy metal’ football. But the constant calling for his dismissal every time we draw or lose a game, the incessant criticism of a moment’s minor but costly mistake, is another manifestation of the manager-maligning culture which is becoming the acceptable face of football.

Fans regularly criticise Dejan Lovren for the leaky errors in defence, but they don’t  acknowledge the heroism and loyalty of  him playing with back and achilles injuries which force him to take five painkillers before each fixture. Klopp, of course, knows the background of each player, his fitness, his mental attitude, and he has an overall plan beyond the next game. As fans, we should see the potential and be positive and supportive, and trust in Jurgen’s judgement. But knee -jerk comments and hyper-critical personal sound-bites are so much easier.

However, it is interesting to see how Klopp deals with critics. It is a lesson we might all find useful. Ridiculed for his suddenly thicker hair, he replied ‘Yes, it’s true. I underwent a hair transplant. And I think the results are really cool, don’t you?’

He has an attitude of positivity. He wants to do well and accepts that there will be criticism when mistakes are made, but he is determined and focused on the future. ‘I am not the guy who is going to go out and shout ‘we are going to conquer the world’ or something like this. But we will conquer the ball. Yeah? Each fucking time!’

He is realistic. Although fans want instant results, he sees a future beyond the single game. He is a manager with a long-term plan.”You have to get information in each situation. You’ll never find me three days after a win, drunk in a hedge and still celebrating.’

So Klopp has a useful stance on fault-finding, whether it is personal or professional. He accepts that it will happen, rises above it and stays true to himself. Difficult to do, of course, when the disapproval is rife, but Klopp demonstrates a self-belief which will stand up to condemnation. He renders his critics’ statements trivial. His attitude is simple: retaliate, ignore or diminish.

Mourinho called himself the special one, so Klopp became the normal one. Arsene Wenger’s ball passing was deemed an orchestra, so Klopp reinvented himself as heavy metal. He is loyal, prizes collective positivity, team-spirit and praise. He is outspoken, honest and not afraid to stand up for what he believes is right. He is ready to take on critics, bullies, whiners and intimidators. Just look at the quotation below, when he refused to answer a question from a journalist who represented so many negative values to his team and to the Liverpool culture itself . The way he dismisses their perspective is perfect.

Image result for Jurgen Klopp quotes about his critics

He may build up our team and win trophies, but probably not this year. He may be sacked one of these days after we lose or draw one game too many. Who knows? But his integrity and self-belief and his determination to stand up against needless negativity is a breath of fresh air. It may even be enough to blow some of the critics away. I hope so.

We don’t tolerate bullying. Or do we?

From our first day at school – maybe even before that – we are told that bullying is wrong. It’s not difficult to work out morally. When a person is marginalised, abused, made to feel isolated, hurt, it can’t be right. Schools and institutions do their best to eradicate it yet, headteachers admit, it is part of the culture of schools, part of human behaviour. It goes on.

We’ve all been bullied, haven’t we? Sometimes it’s obvious – a gang of kids puts on pressure, or there is name calling, intimidation, attacking. Sometimes it’s less obvious, but just as vindictive, as any child isolated in a playground with no friends knows too well. Sometimes the bullying comes with insidious threats about what will happen if the victim tells someone, which not only prevents a cry for help but also forces the victim to inhabit a place of utter loneliness and helplessness.

We may also have all been bullies. Either deliberately or inadvertently, we have hurt someone or looked the other way when someone is hurt. Perhaps this is the schadenfreude effect, deriving some sort of perverse pleasure from other’s misfortune. Perhaps it’s the human behaviour that Orwell demonstrated in 1984 when Winston said ‘Do it to Julia. Not me!’ If someone else is being bullied, then we are not. Not this time.

I remember flushing a girl’s ham sandwiches down the toilet, my friends cheering me on while she sobbed. I walked away from the act feeling that, in violating another, I had violated myself and it wasn’t a good move to behave this way in order to ingratiate myself with others. I made a point of befriending the bullied girl afterwards, sharing my lunch with her, and it was uncomfortably humiliating to see how quickly she forgave me and wanted to be my friend.

I’ve been bullied, too. Not just as a child, either. I’ve had my share of name calling, rivalry put-downs, being on the end of others’ controlling behaviour. I remember my A-level English teacher at school telling me I wasn’t anything special and I’d probably manage an E grade. I got an A. Nietzsche was right.

Image result for Nietzsche That which doesn'tSo why do we do it? Why is bullying so commonplace? I read somewhere it is an atavistic and tribal thing. The alphas bully the ones they consider rivals or suitable prey, and the masses adhere to the stronger group because it is safer there and prevents them from being victims themselves. So, basically, cowardice sustains a culture of bullying and it’s easier to hang with the perpetrators than defend the weak. Not an impressive bunch of cave dwellers, are we?

It’s quite hard to stop bullies, too. The insidious and repetitive nature of their attacks, not always in the open, not always visible in their needling, makes it difficult to analyse what’s happened after the event. I’ve seen it in the workplace: in schools, defined as the natural corporate  fabric of an establishment, used to suppress and deflate anyone who seems a little different to the company norms and certainly anyone who thinks outside the box. Bullying expects conformity, demands it. It goes on unchallenged and that’s why people shrug it off and don’t stand up to it, but accept it as part of the dominant culture

It has even pervaded the media. I’m no fan of Theresa May’s politics. I believe her policies have stretched some of our public services close to breaking point and pushed many people closer or further into desperation and poverty. That said, the glee of the reporters and some of her opponents, in her own party and in others, that her disastrous conference speech, marred by the farcical incident with the P45 and her unfortunate coughing fit was, I think, an example of bullying. By all means disagree with her perspectives and her politics, but to take pleasure in watching someone squirm in the public gaze is a cruel example of schadenfreude. The enjoyment of someone else’s public discomfort, revelling in their humiliation – this is almost the definition of bullying.

Related imageBeing a bastard when you’re a kid is one thing. As an adult, to take any joy from someone else’s pain shows how little we grown since we left the playground. We can do so much better. We can differentiate between disagreeing with people who don’t share our views or behave how we would like them to, and wilfully wishing them harm. The way forward is conversation, writing, listening, debate, education, joining groups of likeminded people and campaigning for change.

We may disagree with someone strongly; we may even find someone’s views or behaviour (or policies) abhorrent, but the answer certainly isn’t going to be found by flushing away their sandwiches or their self-esteem. Because, if we’re not careful, we may be playing into the hands of another bigger bully with even more malicious intentions and doing their dirty work for them.