March Books - 2023
I've been slacking a little in keeping up with monthly book notes. It's only March, and here I am, falling behind already!
Nobody Ever Says Thank You - Brian Clough - The Biography by Jonathon Wilson
I picked-up this book in England. It’s about one of the great characters in the long history of English football – Brian Clough. Clough was a working-class man from the industrial north-east of England – which is to say, amongst other things, that he was not afraid to speak his mind and that he was never going to fit within the strictures of the snotty ruling Football Association class in London.
Clough was a prolific striker in his playing days, scoring 254 goals in 271 English League Division 2. His career was ended by a knee-injury at age 29. As a manager he took two small, unfashionable teams – Derby County and Nottingham Forest – from the lower depths of Division 2 to become English Champions. In the case of Forest, he also lifted them to the very summit of the game, winning the European Cup twice – an astonishing, never-to-be-emulated achievement.
Clough was widely outspoken, a purist in how the game should be played - ‘If God had wanted us to play in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there,’ made for TV - ‘I wouldn’t say I was the best boss in the business, but I was in the top one.’ As such, he was a divisive figure. Certainly, the author of this book seems conflicted, admiring of Clough’s accomplishments, but less than charmed by the man. As such, it’s a bittersweet read.
In his last years in public life, Clough was much diminished, ravaged by alcohol. The book ends as he belatedly leaves Notts Forest (ignominiously relegated back to Division 2) and retires from management. Clough lived on for another decade, though we hear nothing of that – presumably because alcoholism took what was left of a once brilliant life?
I suppose there’s something to be said for trying to maintain a certain dignity, concealing a subject’s end-of-life struggles, though I can’t help but feel it’s also part of the bargain in terms of writing a life story. But if you were brought up on Brian Clough, as I was, it’s hard to completely erase the affection in which he is held by so many.
Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves
I’m deeply suspicious of a book that looks like it came from the Self-Help section, perhaps, some might say, born of an arrogant belief that I don’t have much to improve here. Not the case, in fact.
Of Boys and Men was a thoughtful gift from my friend Dennis Burnett, aware as he is that I’m a dad to two young lads, aged 9 and 11. And while I had my suspicions to begin with, it turned out not to be ‘self-help’ at all, but rather, a considered study in the ways that boys and men are struggling within a changing culture, and how these struggles are being neither recognized nor met.
Boys have long been failing academically (comparatively, girls perform better at just about every level of school and university), but as men, they are failing to adapt to shifting roles in a changing world. What I appreciate about the book (which goes neck deep in social studies and statistics) was its even-handedness. It acknowledges that the work of improving women’s equity is not yet done, despite significant gains over the last thirty years; but equally, that while that work must continue, it does not mean that we cannot at the same time work to repair the fault lines that are appearing in male roles both at home and at work. It’s a book that points out the origins of some of those faultlines – which, no surprise, tend to be exacerbated across lines of race and class – but also points to the ways those on both side of a divided political landscape, are failing to address the issues. Finally, it proposes a few potential solutions (they include, encouraging more men to work in the HEAL - health, education, administration and literacy – industries; provide more paternity leave to encourage and allow men to become equal partners on the home front...while also helping to narrow a pay gap between men and women that is in many ways now a ‘parenting gap’ i.e. a result of women failing to make-up lost opportunity at improved income through time spent at home with young children).
Evidently there’s a lot to chew on here, but at only 181 pages in length it’s both lean and nourishing.
Two Nurses, Smoking, by David Means
I know that I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things that seems to happen as we get older is that we read less fiction. Have you noticed that? Is it a failure of imagination? For years I devoured fiction, mostly contemporary and 20th Century (which, as my wife is quick to point out, means reading a lot of white mid-century dudes). This was at a time when I aspired to write my own fiction, as well as writing freelance (including book reviews). I still try to maintain some grip on what’s happening in modern letters, but far less than I once did. These days, I still know many of the names, but I’ve read fewer of the works.
But I’m still invested to some extent.
This short-story collection from David Means is superb. He’s constantly exploring different entry-points to storytelling, and frequently points-out what he’s doing along the way (though not-at-all in an obtrusive way). To say that these stories are about loss, about overcoming grief, or of finding love, or finding ways to love, often in unlikely places (a bereavement class, for example) is to distill them to their simplest element, without encountering recognizing the beauty of the language, the distinctive arrangement of accumulated detail. It’s the most original story collection I’ve read in a long time.
Frank Auerbach by William Feaver
It’s possible that I first learned the name Frank Auerbach from a source I learned many things – David Bowie. In this instance, it’s because Bowie owned an early Auerbach. Over this past year as I’ve read more about 20th Century British painters, I came to learn more about him. This sumptuous monograph is written and edited by William Feaver, author of the two-volume biography of Lucian Freud that started me on this kick.
Auerbach’s parents perished in the Holocaust, while he was lifted to safety. He is now 92. His life, despite a degree of later fame, has been lived in Spartan fashion, painting every day in a small studio in London. He was great friends with Freud, and for a while, Francis Bacon.
I like the looseness in his work – not to suggest a carelessness, but rather, his bold brushwork. I tend to like the later work a little more, less built-up and dense... and while I've been dabbling once more with painting myself, I find that it offers a certain encouragement, permission even, to create with a little more freedom.