A talk I gave at the 2017 Hay Literature Festival that was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
While reading my kids a bedtime story tonight I came across this passage. It seems rather apt for recent events.
“They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”
“But, heaven and earth!” said the King, “haven’t we always been told that she was the worst enemy of all? Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?”
“Perhaps,” said Nikabrik in a cold voice. “Perhaps she was for you humans, if there were any of you in those days. Perhaps she was for some of the beasts. She stamped out the Beavers, I dare say; at least there are none of them in Narnia now. But she got on all right with us Dwarfs. I’m a Dwarf and I stand by my own people. We’re not afraid of the Witch.”
C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (1951)
In Narnia there were more beasts than dwarfs.
I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game (2012)
This is both a gripping and a deeply frustrating book.
In terms of its aim of lifting the lid on the hidden world of football it’s very good and better probably than every Premier League autobiography. It’s far most honest and open than is the case with almost everything else written from within football. There’s much here on the shenanigans, the money, the mindset of players, their relationships with people outside football and about the playing of the game itself. Every fan will learn something from it.
But, in terms of trying to understand the secret footballer himself, the book is deeply frustrating. It’s not so much the fact that he’s anonymous but that so much of the detail is left out.
He talks a lot about money and about figures but at the same time is vague enough that you don’t really understand whether he’s very rich from his investments or broke from his tax bill (or both). Understanding the trajectory and nature of his career is impossible because he, understandably, doesn’t give too much away in order to protect his anonymity. This means understanding quite where he’s coming from is very difficult, as is understanding why he suffers from depression.
Indeed, building up some sympathy for the writer is almost impossible. He comes over as rather arrogant but I guess that’s inevitable with any highly-paid, high-profile elite athlete. He seems to see himself as both an insider and an outsider within football culture but how that affects his relationship with his teammates is never as explicit as it might have been. His wife is virtually absent from the book, despite the talk about the impact of home life on performances. You get the sense that while he might not want fans to know who he is, his identity within the game isn’t a secret. For all the discussion of his wages and his depression, he’s holding back.
This is shame because there was the potential here for the best book ever written about football. The writer is clearly intelligent, reflective and insightful. He could have written a very open autobiography that told us about his personality, his life, his career and the game itself. That was never going to happen though because he’s still playing and wants to stay in the game.
What he’s given us is very good but it leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. He’s just had to leave too much out in order to protect his identity and, presumably, his reputation within the game.
I recently finished a 1977 novel called Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. It’s a tale of Britain a few years after a catastrophe that has wiped out of most of the human race. A violent and oppressive government has sprung up to govern what’s left of England.
Wales, however, holds out against this new militaristic regime. Communities there realize that the English revolution is based on using the guns, food and technology of a civilization that is now over. Instead, they try and build a (Welsh-speaking) society that is not only fairer but more sustainable and self-sufficient. What enables them to do that, and hold off the advances of the English revolution, is retreating to the mountains and fighting a guerrilla war. It’s a military tactic that was familiar to medieval Welsh princes.
The geography of Wales has shaped its history. Indeed, the opening line of Owen M. Edwards’ influential 1901 history of the nation was ‘Wales is a land of mountains’. The mountains divided north and south, undermining a sense of national unity. But they also kept out not only invaders but migrants too. Only slowly did tourists, industrialists and railways open up north Wales to Anglicizing influences. Mountains were key to why Wales survived into the modern world.
But modern technology and wealth undermined that, as people by the 1950s were only too aware. In 1961, the nationalist writer Iswlyn Ffowc Elis complained (in Welsh):
Wales is no longer a haven beyond the mountains, but an open playground for hordes of motorists and cyclists and hikers, and an experimental field for the Government’s technology. The teeth of her defensive mountains have been drawn, her valleys drowned by the English, and the innards of her rural society ripped out. She now stands naked before the world.
Ironically, mountains are now seen as important to the future of Wales precisely because they bring in the spending power of tourists.
That’s surely a good thing. Wanting to close our border and deny outside influences can only harm Wales, both economically and culturally. Welsh identity survived in the post-war period because it embraced the modern world rather than rejected it. Once ‘the teeth of the defensive mountains’ were drawn, Wales reinvented itself as nation built on the present rather than the past. Thus while a few opposed the building of the Severn Bridge in the 1960s because it would open Wales up to the world, far more embraced it for exactly the same reason. Wales was a redefined from a land of hymns and pubs that were shut on a Sunday to one of pop music and personal freedom.
In Survivors the new Welsh society is welcoming of refugees from oppression in England. Those refugees have to agree to live by the ways of the new society but it’s also recognized that the incomers can bring new ideas and news ways of doing things. The best way to protect a culture is to ensure it does not stand still.
Survivors: Genesis of a Hero is out of print but there are pirated pdfs online. There’s a review of the book here.