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Archive for October, 2012

Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.

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Front cover of Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony BurgessLittle Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (1986)

Mancunians will forgive any faux pas but one: success. In the 1960s and ’70s, the author of A Clockwork Orange became a core component of the M.M.F.T.M.(T.C.) community: Mooch More Famous Than Me (The Coont). In the 1980s, Morrissey would join him, but the two Mancunians already had two big things in common: music and Irish Catholicism. Music is how Mozza made his name and how Buzza originally wanted to make his. Mozza is I.C. on both sides, Buzza was I.C. on one, the side of his birthname, that of the Wilsons:

They did odd jobs, sang and danced, joined foreign armies and disappeared into Belgium, migrated to Dublin, came back with Irish wives. There was a regular tradition of marrying into Ireland, which meant often into Irish families that had taken the boat from Queenstown to Liverpool and wandered inland to Manchester. I ended up as more of a Celt than an Anglo-Saxon. My father broke the tradition by marrying a Protestant of mainly Scottish ancestry – Lowland, hence Anglo-Saxon – but he married her in a church with a Maynooth priest and she converted easily. (pg. 9)

She died easily too, swept away with Burgess’s older sister Muriel in the epidemic of influenza with which Mother Nature reasserted herself after the clumsy, man-made slaughter of the First World War. Whatever man can do, Ma can do better. Arbitrary loss and natural evil are important themes of Burgess’s fiction, but death didn’t just shape his writing: it made him a writer. Given a year to live in 1959, after the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour, he set about creating a pension for his wife:

I did not really believe this prognosis. Death, like the quintessence of otherness, is for others. But if the prognosis was valid, then I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I would have to earn for my prospective widow. No one would give me a job… I would have to turn myself into a professional writer… (pg. 448)

It’s a good way to end a highly readable autobiography, which might be called a B.B. book: Before Burgess, before fame. You’ve Had Your Time (1990), the highly readable sequel, is A.B., After Burgess, after John Wilson made his dead mother’s maiden name internationally famous. But he never forgot his roots:

I am proud to be a Mancunian. I have, after a struggle with a people given to linguistic conservatism, even succeeded in importing the epithet mancuniense into the Italian language… and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a cittadino mancuniense, cioè romano. At the time of my birth, Manchester was a great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian debased itself when it grew ashamed of the city of its origin: a superb liberal organ was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism. (pg. 15)

That showing-off and opinionated self-importance is characteristically Burgessian, but self-importance isn’t unknown among other Mancunians. You can learn a lot about the northern inferiority complex from this book and about the refinement of it that came with being both northern and Catholic. But Burgess is right to resent certain things. He was always a better and more interesting writer than the southerner Graham Greene, a convert who thought Burgess’s “cradle Catholicism was suspect” (pg. 418). He wasn’t a better writer than the convert Evelyn Waugh, but some of his best writing was inspired by Waugh. The very funny, but also sinister, misunderstanding in The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the second book of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy, is obviously Wauvian, but with Burgessian embellishments: it involves an edentate Chinese cook, a cat, and a kitchenmaid, and hinges on the ambiguity of the Malay verb makan, which can mean both “to eat” and “to fuck”.

Burgess says that “the Malay language, and later the Chinese, changed … the whole shape of my mind” (pg. 371), but his fascination with language and languages began well before his encounter with the polyglot gallimaufrey of Malaya. As a child, he was attracted to the exotic French on the label of an H.P. sauce bottle. But he also heard exotic language from his family:

My grandfather would say, if [his wife] Mary Ann had a headache, “Oo’s gotten ’eed-warch.” The “oo” is Anglo-Saxon heo and the “warch” is from weorc. He would translate this for foreigners as “She’s got a headache”, but Lancashire phonemes would cling to the straight English. So, for a long time, with myself. I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the mediaeval Wilsons… Since the provincial revolt of the 1950s, the Lancashire accent, especially in its Liverpool form, has become acceptable in the wider world, but the dialect itself is nearly dead. It has no orthography, and there is no literary tradition to elevate it. (pg. 11)

This is another of Burgess’s losses: to have lived long, as he did, is to have lost much. Not just his mother: his mother-tongue too. But the dialect, “automatically comic” in England’s “centralising linguistic culture”, lingered into his adulthood. After the war he moved to the hamlet of Bamber Bridge near Priest-Town Preston. His first wife Lynne could not understand what she was asked when she went into a pub during heavy rain: “Art witshet?” Lancashire lad Burgess could translate this as “Art thou wet-shod?” (pg. 347) Through Lynne, whom he had met while both were students at Manchester University, he encountered another disappearing linguistic tradition. She was Anglo-Welsh and her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones:

Llewela is the feminine form of Llewelyn. It has noble leonine connotations, but to the students of Manchester it was a joke. The English always have trouble with the Welsh unvoiced lateral unless, like me, they have studied phonetics… Llewela solved the problem for the Sais [i.e., the Saxons] by borrowing the masculine termination and calling herself Lynne. (pg. 208)

But she wasn’t a Cymric incarnation of Burgess’s “darkly Mediterranean” erotic ideal: she was “a tall athletic girl, blonde and blue-eyed, with a superbly developed body” (pg. 206). One of Burgess’s most famous books, Earthly Powers (1980), is about a homosexual writer based on Somerset Maugham; one of his most memorable characters is a homosexual Malay called Ibrahim in Time for a Tiger (1956). But Burgess said book and character were exercises in imaginative sympathy: he never felt inclined that way. If Little Wilson and Big God is anything to go by, he didn’t have time. When he wasn’t studying phonetics, composing symphonies, or translating menus into Latin, he was seeking or shagging women. This is the metaphor he chooses to sum up his introduction to Asia:

I wandered Singapore and was enchanted. I picked up a Chinese prostitute on Bugis Street. We went to a filthy hôtel de passe full of the noise of hawking and spitting, termed by the cynical the call of the East. I entered her and entered the territory. (Part 5, pg. 373)

There’s lots of lechery in this book. And lots of literature, but Burgess didn’t always acquire it in the conventional way. Although his degree would be in English Literature, his first love was music:

In school essays I would refer to the Mozartian limpidity of Addison’s prose or the Wagnerian richness of Thomas de Quincey… I was the only one in a French lesson to be able to say what a casse-noisette was, thanks to Tchaikovsky. I also knew the Faust legend, because of Gounod and Busoni, and could read Cyrillic, having studied in Manchester Central Library the original score of Le Sacre du Printemps. Asked to compare the styles of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotus Eaters”, I said one had the austerity of Sibelius and the other the sensuousness of the Venusberg music in Tannhäuser. What I should have said was that one was in blank verse and the other rhymed. (pg. 115-6)

Autodidactism and showing-off: Burgess began both early. He describes composing a symphony in 1934, in his late teens:

The writing of a three-hundred-page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate. You can spend four hours scoring a passage which, in fast tempo, may take only a few seconds to perform. The ring finger of my right hand is permanently deformed with the strain of writing that one work alone. It was a highly juvenile work, and the Luftwaffe, in the name of Beethoven, to say nothing of Wagner, was probably right to destroy it in 1941. (pg. 159)

That “merely literary” is a dig at the southern literary establishment, which Burgess felt never accepted him or properly acknowledged his talent. But he didn’t devote much of that talent to writing about the war that destroyed his symphony. It wasn’t the overpowering experience people who didn’t live through it sometimes imagine: it had been anticipated for years and Burgess seems to have spent his military service being buggered about and being a difficult bugger. After yet another brush with authority he remarks: “I felt, as often before, that I was marked” (pg. 275). But he saw no fighting and ran no great risk of death, unlike some of his fellow students at university:

Poor as I was, however, I still insisted on the Friday night booze-up, with Gaunt and Mason and two men from the English second year called Ian McColl and Harry Green. Green and McColl fascinated me. They were coarse, rejecting totally the grace of civilisation, but the English language and its literature were their life. McColl was so soaked in Anglo-Saxon that it was a natural instinct for him to avoid Latinisms and Hellenisms even in colloquial speech. He was quite prepared, like the poet Barnes, to call an omnibus a folk wain or a telephone a fartalker. He knew German but hated the Nazis, who, after all, were only disinfecting their language of exoticisms in McColl’s own manner. He and Green knew there was a war coming, and they did regular infantry drill with the university Officer Training Corps. They were both killed in France in 1940, following the tradition of First World War subalterns, and this they were perhaps prepared to foresee. They never spoke of a future; they were fixed in a present of which the literary past was a part. McColl composed orally an endless saga about two lecherous boozers called Filthfroth and Brothelbreath … Green, outside a pub in the Shambles [a district in Manchester] called The White Horse, exclaimed at the ancient rune [Þ], which the Normans replaced with a digraph, in the definite article. In some arty antique signs, like those outside county town teashops, that rune appears as a Y, but it did not here. “Christ,” Green cried, “they’ve got a proper fucking thorn.” (Part 3, pg. 198-9)

Would McColl and Green have become famous if they had survived the war? Perhaps not, but Burgess manages to “embalm” their “poignant history” in “the magical spices of words”, as Lytton Strachey said of another autobiographer, Cardinal Newman. If Burgess had not memorialized them, they, their “Filthfroth” and “fucking thorn” might now be entirely forgotten: two new-lit candles blown out more than seventy years ago by the breath of Mars. Earlier in the book, Burgess has described a lost photograph of his mother and sister, who both died while he was still a baby. It was “long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites” (pg. 16). The photograph had gone; his memory of it remained; now there is just the description of the memory in a book. McColl and Green are one step nearer reality: remembered and recorded from life. Burgess saved a crumb or two of their mortality from Edax Tempus, Devouring Time, and that is part of the value of this book. It’s about a famous man before he became famous and saves many crumbs from his own and other people’s ordinary lives. But he obviously wanted fame: when he stole “pass-forms” during the war and forged signatures to go on illegitimate leave, he used names like “J. Joyce, E. Pound, E.M. Forster, Lieut for Major” (pg. 281), knowing that they were unlikely to rouse suspicion in the philistine army.

That first forgee is particularly important: Burgess spent the war seeking strength through Joyce, whom he’d first been bedazzled by before the war. “Ironically”, however, the hell-sermons of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) had frightened him back to faith: “I ran to the confessional, poured out my sins of doubt almost sobbing, and received kind absolution and a nugatory penance” (pg. 141). I can’t take the same jouissance in Joyce, but Burgess followed him faithfully from the fairly conventional Portrait through the deepening experimentation of Ulysses (1922) into the poly-performative linguistic maelstrom of Finnegans Wake (1939), which “impressed” the unliterary Lynne “only because the apparent typing chimpanzees had put me into it as ‘J.B.W. Ashburner’” (pg. 215) – John Burgess Wilson used to visit her at Ashburne Hall, a female hall of residence at Manchester University. I can’t say how happy Joyce’s influence has been on Burgess’s writing, but it did sometimes get a little silly. In “The Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, Joyce used older forms of English to create “a series of literary parodies which serve the representation of the growth of the embryo in the womb”. Of his Wagnero-Joycean novel The Worm and the Ring (1960), Burgess says:

In describing the adulterous act of my hero Howarth-Siegfried and Hilda on a school excursion to Paris, I tried to go further than Joyce by hiding the shameful deed in a kind of reversed history of French prose style, with the Strasbourg Oath collapsing into Latin at the moment of climax. This had nothing to do with the Ring of the Nibelungs: it was sheer literary self-indulgence. (pg. 368)

You said it, Buzza. His attempt to “go further” than Joyce reminds me of a scene in the Comic Strip’s “Bad News Tour” (1983), a heavy-metal mockumentary in which a guitarist boasts of having learnt “Stairway to Heaven” when he was only twelve, even though Jimmy Page didn’t write it till he was twenty-two. Burgess undoubtedly had no time for Led Zeppelin, though he contributed strongly, if inadvertently, to the counter-culture with at least one book: the Led Zeppelin drummer Bonzo would be dressing up as a “droogie” after Stanley Kubrick filmed A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s. And Burgess may never have heard of the Smiths and Morrissey, that later Mancunian who committed the cardinal sin of rising to international fame. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if the two had been swapped at birth, Morrissey being sent back in time and Burgess brought forward. The art of both is rooted firmly in northern England, but Burgess’s tendrils wandered much further: he’s right to contrast Maugham’s Anglo-centric Malayan fiction with his own, which drew on all races of the region and mingled all their languages. Morrissey has written about Hispanic gang-members and sexual encounters in Rome, but he’s never tried to translate The Wasteland into Malay.

For Burgess’s full discussion of A Clockwork Orange, you’ll have to look at part two of the autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, but Burgess’s post-war, pre-independence days in Malaya are fully covered in this, part one. They inspired the Malayan Trilogy, which contains some of his best, funniest, and richest writing, and he says they killed Lynne, who became an alcoholic there through boredom and acquired anaemia because of the climate. Burgess ends the book meditating on the irony of trying to earn money for a wife who would die long before him. He begins it in the middle of the 1980s, meditating in New York on his own survival and the endless struggle he has had with the English language: “Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting. This book is another battle.” (pg. 6)

Burgess did die fighting and although he never wrote as well as Waugh, very few people have and Waugh did not mix so many ingredients with such gusto into his writing. Little Wilson and Big God doesn’t have the elegance or elegy of A Little Learning, Waugh’s slender essay in autobiography, but I’ve read both books several times and hope to read both again. Burgess’s is much longer and you’ll laugh more and learn more: he always retained an outsider’s fascination with the strangeness of human beings and their languages. The larger strangeness of mathematics and science passed him by, as it did Waugh, and phonetics was as close as he got to science. Burgess’s experiences during the war weren’t as powerful as those of J.G. Ballard, who spent it in a Japanese detention camp, rather than teaching English on the Rock of Gibraltar as Burgess did, but both writers were influenced by a hotter sun and spicier air. One was born east and came west, the other was born west and went east: that shared experience means that their fiction has an un-English richness and extravagance. Ballard’s literary flight, fuelled on science and psychosis, will last longer, but Burgess is in some ways more entertaining and is certainly funnier. There’s Lancashire music-hall in this book, with Catholic guilt, northern chippiness, and some of the “old sharp flavours” of English life that the rising tide of Americanization and standardization would soon wash away. And much more beside, from rejections by T.S. Eliot and pub-encounters with George Orwell to cats feasting on snakes in Borneo and dicing with death driving through the Malay jungle. As introduction to Burgess or explication for his fans, I’d call it doubleplusgood.

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You want literary trangression? I’ve recently come across something that puts everything else into the shade. Sade’s Sodom? Soppy! Aldapuerta’s Eyes? Infantile! Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions? Fuck off and diet! The most powerfully nauseating piece of prose I’ve ever read is this:

Emery’s life-partner, Laney, is HIV positive. Laney and Emery are proud to be a serodiscordant couple. Through diligent safe-sex practices, Emery has remained HIV negative since becoming Laney’s partner in 2005.

That is part of the potted biography of Emery Emery (sick), an American “stand-up comedian” who is one of the many contributors to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by Ariane Sherine. If you don’t find it nauseating too, either you’re a Guardianista or you have no aesthetic sense. For smarminess, sliminess and sheer self-fellating self-righteousness, I have never seen its equal, despite my diligent liberal-prose-reading practices since well before 2005. Okay, I expected this book to make my flesh crawl – after all, David Baddiel is in it – but Emery surprised even a H8-positive homo-negativist like me. But I wasn’t surprised that the editrix of the book “writes regularly for The Guardian”. Or that she and her close-knit contributional community “have donated their full share of the profits from this book to the Terrence Higgins Trust”, “the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.”

You would expect that sort of piety from deeply devout atheists like Richard Dawkins, whose quarrel is not with religion as such: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. His own religion, liberalism, has its own sacred cows and its own pious rituals, like the ostentatious donation of money to AIDS charities. But I wonder what Dawkins and other liberal atheists would think about AIDS if it didn’t differentially impacticize a Minority Community sacred to their faith. What if it had a much higher prevalence among fundamentalist Christians than among gays, for example? I find it impossible to believe that liberal atheists wouldn’t draw uncomfortable conclusions for Christianity, if that were the case.

As it is, Dicky Dawkins & Co. use AIDS to bash the bishops only because bishops oppose the use of condoms, not because bishops die of AIDS very often. Heads atheism wins, tails Christianity loses. And Christianity is the overwhelming target of liberal atheists in the West. At least one of the contributors is highly positive about another religion. The eminently emetic David Baddiel says this in his potted bio:

Born and raised Jewish, and maintaining a deep affection for his Jewish heritage and identity, David’s Facebook religious views entry describes him as a “fundamentalist atheist”.

The grammar and punctuation there are as skilful as Baddiel’s comedy, but then this porn-positive performer does have an EngLit degree, with all that that implies in terms of issues around issues of good prose. It might seem odd that a “fundamentalist atheist” can have a “deep affection” for a religious tradition, but it isn’t really odd at all, I would suggest. I can imagine another contributor having a “deep affection” for his Hindu or black “heritage and identity”, but not for his Catholic or Methodist. And there’s no way on earth a contributor would express affection for his “white heritage and identity”. That would be blasphemy in excelsis. But Baddiel’s h-and-i aren’t Christian: he isn’t anti-God, he’s anti-Son-of-God. His quarrel, like Dawkins’, isn’t with religion: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. Although I am an atheist (I won’t say “too”), I prefer the religion that gave birth to Milton and Tennyson over the religion that gave birth to Marx and Trotsky.

Perhaps Baddiel studied Milton during his EngLit degree. If so, there’s little sign of it in his dreary “An Atheist at the Movies”, simul-scribed with one Arvind Ethan David, whose potted bio also attributes supernatural powers to something inanimate: “Born and raised Catholic, Arvind’s Facebook religious views entry reads ‘Atheist. Humanist. Yogi. Bear.’” Which is a crap joke, but funnier than Dicky Dawkins’ contribution, “The Great Bus Mystery”, which proves once again that Dawkins should stick strictly to biology:

I was hoofing it down Regent Street, admiring the Christmas decorations, when I saw the bus. One of those bendy buses that mayors keep threatening with the old heave-ho. As it drove by, I looked up and got the message square in the monocle. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial. Another of the blighters nearly did knock me down as I set a course for the Dregs, where it was my purpose to inhale a festive snifter, and I saw the same thing on the side.

That’s the start of Dawkins’ would-be Wodehousean, wanna-be Woosterian story based on an advert run on the sides of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” One way to enjoy life is to read P.G. Wodehouse, who, after an Anglican upbringing and education, wrote sunny, gentle, life-affirming humour for many years. Whether he’d have done the same after a Catholic or Muslim upbringing, I’m not sure. Sunny, gentle and life-affirming are not good ways to describe the best atheist humorist in this book: Charlie Brooker, the Guardian’s Wizard of Wind Up and Magus of Misanthropy. Scabrous, genital-obsessed and life-denying would be closer. Brooker doesn’t shed rainbows: he squirts bile. And I doubt he’ll keep it up for decades. Not successfully, anyway, but that may be because, unlike Wodehouse, he’s a Committed Cultist with a Pious Purpose: to mock and ridicule all True Faiths but his own. Brooker’s True Faith is liberalism: like everyone else here, he’s part of the highly conformist non-conformist community. This is the conclusion of his sermonette:

Laughter separates us from the gods while binding us closer together. If you’re looking for a miracle, look no further that your most recent belly laugh. Maybe a friend made you clutch your sides till you shook with glee; maybe an old episode of Frasier had you howling on the carpet. Either way: in that moment you were immortal. And that, my friend, is as sacred as it gets.

It’s also as uplifting as it gets, for Brooker. No wonder liberals are in a demographic death-spiral. If Frasier is the liberal justification for existence, the conclusion they reach seems to be: the fewer children we have, the better. And note that the steely-eyed and cynical Brooker appears to understand the sadistic and thought-policing role of humour as little as Richard Dawkins understands the sociological role of religion. Brooker’s contribution is in the “Philosophy” section of this book, where you’ll also find the bleatings of the execrable A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birbeck College in London. If, like me, you think that 95% of philosophers are 99% twat, Grayling isn’t going to make you think again. Like David Baddiel’s comedy, Grayling’s prose is excellent propaganda for the theistic cause:

For Christmas-disliking folk, the dream is a Christmas spent in a warm country where they do not celebrate Christmas. They would revel in the absence of Christmas music, decorations and symbols, together with exhortations to spend money on trivia, ephemera and excessive quantities of food and drink. They would be refugees from iterated “Jingle Bells” and other carols that play on a loop in every department store, driving the staff mad… No such escape is available to those with young children, for whom Christmas is a bonanza of acquisitiveness and indulgence, and yet to whom we all wish to give the traditional experience of acquisitiveness and indulgence. It is in large part because of our children that Christmas has accumulated its hybrid and generally over-the-top contemporary form, together with its sentimentality and excesses. It has become a piety to approve of this, so that to call it into question is to invite being called a Scrooge or worse.

As usual, Grayling sounds like a dim vicar preaching a boring sermon. The “Science” section of the book is more intellectually rigorous, but not much more convincing. You’ve seen part of Dawkins’ effort and it doesn’t get any better than that. Simon Singh sings a psalm to science in “The Sound of Christmas”. I’d rather hear a real psalm. Brian Cox tries to big-up “The Large Hadron Collider”, but I think the Middle Ages spent its money better in building cathedrals. They’re certainly better to look at and easier to understand, but then part of the appeal of atheism to liberals is its intellectual elitism and epistemological rigour. Or so they fondly imagine. I suspect G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis will prove far better and wiser guides to life, politics and culture than anyone here.

Like the old religions, the new religion of liberal atheism is mostly overseen by men, but the book’s editrix, Ariane Sherine, does provide a useful visual guide to two of the key core components of liberalism: its narcissism and its autolatry. For the inside back cover she poses in tight jeans and a tight, white “There’s Probably No God” T-shirt, displaying her slim and attractive body for the edification of the faithless. The flesh is important to people who don’t believe in the soul. But those who live by the flesh often also die by it, as AIDS proves. Nor is Christianity to blame for anorexia, self-harm and “raunch culture”. As Christianity is increasingly pushed out of public life and porn is increasingly pushed in, I think there’s good reason to wonder whether secularism is good for women. Islam certainly isn’t good for women, but none of the atheists here do anything effective to oppose Islam’s increasing presence and power in the West. They’ll kick Christianity till the sacred cows come home, but grow curiously muted in the presence of the mullahs. Or not so curiously, given what can happen to the critics of Islam. Religions are not all the same and not all equally harmful. I think that the overt religion of Anglicanism is much less harmful than the covert religion of liberalism, for example. Unbelievers aren’t all the same any more than believers are. I’m an atheist, but I think The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was written by idiots for idiots. It’s smug and smarmy, mawkish and maudlin. It’s desperately jaunty and jauntily desperate. I’m almost inclined to thank God that Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens didn’t contribute to it too. If this book were the worst liberal atheism can do, the religious would have nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the worst liberal atheism can do. The atheidiots here aren’t confined between its covers: they’re all over British public life and influencing public policy in all sorts of ways. The Church of England puts up no resistance to their societal subversion and sapping: nowadays, it’s part of the liberal suicide-cult too. A good way to understand life is to read one of Richard Dawkins’ books on biology. A good way to enjoy life is to avoid one of his attempts at humour. Avoid David Baddiel’s attempts too. In fact, avoid David Baddiel altogether: his appearance, tone and manner don’t so much weaken the case for a benevolent God as strengthen the case for a malevolent Satan. Charlie Brooker is an eyesore too, but he can be funny. Not in a sunny Wodehousean way, though. And he isn’t funny here. Nor is anyone else. Where liberal atheists and atheist liberals are taking the West will definitely prove funny. But I suspect none of the people here will be laughing.

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The talkSPORT Book of Premier League Legends, Bill Burrows with Derek Hammond

I’m interested in art, I’m interested in maths, I’m interested in biology. How could I not be interested in football? Easily. But I am interested in football and I enhance my appreciation by looking for aesthetic, mathematical, and biological patterns in the game. Sometimes they’re easy to see: the curve of a Beckham cross combines both art and maths; the under- and over-representation of blacks as goalkeepers and forwards, respectively, says something interesting about human biology. So, less obviously, do football’s origins in the rule-worshipping, world-conquering folk of nineteenth-century Britain. Football and English are Britain’s two most popular exports, though if football spoke English it would have an odd accent, sounding as much Celtic as Saxon and more European than either. This book reflects that: the top ten legends in an English league consist of a Scot, a Welshman, a Dutchman, an Italian, two Frenchmen, and four Englishmen, at least one of whom has Irish ancestry. That’s discarding the Russian at number 7, Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who isn’t a player or a manager. And hasn’t necessarily been good for the game. Fernando Torres, the Spanish legend at 77, is a good player, but was he worth £50m of Mr Abramovich’s hard-insider-dealt cash?

More pertinently, is Torres a legend? I wouldn’t say so, but hype is a keyly core, and corely key, component of modern football. “Premier League” is marketese for “First Division”, after all, and talkSPORT is a commercial radio station. I’ve barely listened to it, but the impression I got made me pick up this book expecting a lot of exclamation marks and a lot of illiteracy. I didn’t get either: the potted biographies of the legends, both for the league as a whole and for individual clubs, are well-written and interesting, though Borrows or his simul-scribe should learn what a hanging participle is. There are blasts from the past, like Georgie Kinkladze of Manchester City, who were then dosh-dry, not dosh-drenched, and current comets, like Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, who have been dosh-drenched for decades. Kinkladze was Georgian, Rooney is Anglo-Irish, and both challenge the genetic theory that links athletic ability to symmetry and symmetry to attractiveness. In fact, Rooney’s challenge threatens to break both its legs: he plays like an angel and looks like an orc. But I think his body, if not his face, would support the theory and biology is about tendencies, not absolutes. For example, men are taller than women, on average, and that has great biological significance. The significance doesn’t disappear because some women are a lot taller than some men.

Some women are also a lot better at running and jumping than some men, but that doesn’t change the statistics. At the extremes – the far tails of the bell-curve – one sex can hugely outnumber another and this book is about human beings who have exceptional athletic ability. Accordingly, although the average man is not hugely more athletic than the average woman, the only woman who turns up here is Delia Smith, the TV-chef and Norwich City benefactrix who clocks in as legend no. 99. But, just as cooking involves more than a sensitive palate, football involves more than athleticism. A footballer’s brain has to deal with much more than a sprinter’s, so running ability isn’t all a footballer needs. Sometimes he can do without it: legend no. 6, David Beckham, wasn’t known for his speed. He doesn’t challenge the symmetry-and-attractiveness theory either: he’s famously good-looking. And famously well-rewarded for it: the Beckham photo chosen by the authors shows him in a room crowded with photographers as he promotes an aftershave. But Beckham, often mocked for his verbal indexterity, does challenge the theory that football requires intelligence. I’m sure, though, that, despite his clumsy way with words, he does have an above-average IQ. I’m also sure that his brain is above average in other ways. All the brains in this book must be, including those of Roman Abramovich and Delia Smith. You need an above-average brain to be successful in a field that doesn’t depend purely on luck. Business and cookery don’t, and neither does football.

But luck is a big part of what makes football interesting: the book is full of might-have-beens. How high would legend no. 79, Darren Anderton of Tottenham Hotspurs, have gone without all the injuries? And what would have happened to legend no. 8, Sir Alex Ferguson, if, as seemed more likely than not, Manchester United had sacked him in 1990, “following defeat against [Nottingham] Forest in the third round of the FA Cup”? But the defeat didn’t happen: a late goal by Mark Robins saved Fergie’s job and started the avalanche of silverware that means Manchester United are now the most successful club in British football. The might-have-beens of legend no. 15, Matthew le Tissier of Southampton, are different: it wasn’t injury that stopped him moving to a bigger club, it was loyalty and laidbackness. As he himself says here: “Perhaps I’m in the nought point one per cent of footballers who don’t give a toss about unlimited money.”

He was another player who wasn’t good to look at, but was good to watch. Very good: his goals, like Beckham’s passes and crosses, were things of beauty. The aesthetics of football appeal even to the most lumpish fans, but le Tissier the aesthetician belongs with legend no. 10, Dennis Bergkamp of Arsenal, not with Beckham or legend no. 16, Cristiano Ronaldo. Beckham and Ronaldo are wonderful to watch, but they perform off the field too and bring the tedious worlds of fashion and celebrity into their footballing careers. Le Tissier and Bergkamp didn’t, which makes them my favourite players in the book. My favourite manager is legend no. 13, Arsène Wenger of Arsenal, but the most interesting manager, or even most interesting man, who appears here, Brian Clough of Nottingham Forest and Derby County, isn’t one of the legends. He’s discussed in the section devoted to legend no. 61, the manager Martin O’Neill, who played for Clough at Nottingham Forest. Clough himself never managed a team in the Premier League, but he did achieve remarkable things with medium-sized clubs in the old First Division. He also achieved remarkable things as a player, scoring 63 goals in 74 games for Sunderland in the early 1960s, before breaking his leg and having to retire young.

What might have been there? Clough’s goal-rate is reminiscent of the prodigious run-rate of the Australian cricketer Donald Bradman and, like Bradman’s, it doesn’t seem to have been a statistical fluke. Legend no. 56, Kevin Phillips, also scored at a remarkable rate for Sunderland, but after 30 goals in 36 games during his first season, he reverted to the mean and ended his career with a unexceptional 92 goals in 259 games. He was another good player who doesn’t genuinely count as a league legend, but his place in the section on club legends is taken by Kevin Ball. If you’re thinking “Who?”, join the club. Burnley’s club legend isn’t even a player: it’s the “super-fan” Dave Burnley, who has clocked up 480,000 miles following every Burnley game since 1974 and who named his daughter “Clarette in honour of the team’s colours”. Another exceptional person in a book about exceptional people. The book itself isn’t exceptional, but it is entertaining and unhysterical. The premier league gets only the first of those right. Crowds in the German Bungesliga are bigger and the skill in the Spanish league is greater, but the international audience for Fußball and futbol is much smaller. English football, though increasingly less English, is the most popular in the world. That is proved by trivial mathematics, but more subtle and powerful mathematics, which governs the movement of rocky spheres in the heavens, also governs the movement of airy spheres on football fields. Those spheres can still create music at the feet of men like le Tissier and Bergkamp, and the muzak of hype and hysteria doesn’t drown it. That’s what makes this book worth reading through and reminiscing over.

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