Brian Clough, my dentist and me

Ol’ Big ‘Ead

When I started getting obsessed with football in the late ’70s there were two great sides in England: Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. I was too young to appreciate the simple fact that unlike Liverpool, Forest were not supposed to be up there with the very best. I just grew up watching them win two back-to-back European Cups as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Their manager, Brian Clough, was very opinionated and often acerbic in tone whenever I saw him on the TV. I was probably a little scared of him.

Many years later the magnitude of what Clough, and his faithful assistant Peter Taylor, had achieved suddenly dawned upon me: they had taken a small provincial club to the top of Europe – a truly astonishing achievement that one doesn’t have to be a football fan to appreciate.

But how was it done? That Clough was a disciplinarian is well known, but it was when I remembered that I had seen him affectionately kissing his own players a penny dropped. Clough was a ‘benevolent’ dictator, an alchemist capable of turning average players into world-beaters, or ‘Pig iron into Rolls Royces’ (as one of his biographers put it), and the love was a two-way street. The secret was that Clough’s man-management was based upon an intuitive understanding of human nature and motivation, underpinned by the fact that he was a self-proclaimed Labour Party socialist. This was combined with a genuine awareness of his own limitations (his reliance upon Peter Taylor was not something he denied) and the limitations of his players, including a psychological appreciation of their motivations and personal proclivities. From here he forged a team. Rather than making players fit into a preconceived abstract plan, the players were ‘the plan’ – an honest assessment of their varying abilities made it possible to mould them into a winning force. However, this wasn’t Clough’s first time, and like most people blessed with a touch of genius, his strongest attribute – man management – had blown up in his face with his ignominious failure at Leeds United when he was sacked after only 44 days…

 Dr Bill

Thirty years ago my dad returned from a visit to the new local dentist assuring us that he was a ‘madcap’. Apparently, he had been ‘singing and shouting’ whilst examining my dad’s teeth. From that moment on it was almost a pleasure to visit the dentist. Over the years Dr Bill invited patients to ‘bring their own music’, or they would have to listen to his – with him singing over the top of it! Even when I lived in northern England for many years, I did not change my dentist. As soon as one walked into the waiting room, one could hear Dr Bill’s dulcet tones competing with the noise from the intermittent drilling punctuated by ‘Open gob’, ‘Shut gob’ and ‘Have you flossed?’ The atmosphere was more akin to that of a comedy show than a dentist’s waiting room. People ordinarily apprehensive of dentists would sit with smiles upon their faces almost champing at the bit to get in to the dentist’s chair! Dr Bill oversaw my sixth-form years, university and beyond, and we always seemed to pick up the thread of the previous conversation. He would ask me about politics and I would reciprocate with questions about dentistry (secretly hoping for some amusing anecdotes), I was always sad when he told me to ‘bugger off’ and vacate the chair for the next patient. ‘I’ve got loads of you lot to get through’, he once exclaimed in a tone not too dissimilar from John Cleese’s centurion supervising the mass crucifixions in Life of Brian.

One time I turned up for an appointment wearing my heavy metal-studded denims. In the waiting room with me was an elderly gentleman who went in first. When it was my turn, Dr Bill spoke in an excited hushed whisper. ‘You know that old boy who was just in before you? Well, he wanted to know what a punk rocker was doing here! Don’t worry, I put him straight and told him that you were not a punk – you’re METAL!’ And he did know the difference too – having been at university with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson!


But it only dawned upon me recently just how influential Dr Bill had been in my life. He was the only professional I knew who could clown around yet remain deadly serious. I came to realise that Dr Bill had subconsciously legitimised my own ‘clowning around’ teaching style when I taught in further education. We both combined amusing ourselves with putting the patient/student at ease and giving the best service we possibly could. For me, comedy was the only serious approach to education worth taking. I daresay the same was the case for Dr Bill. I once asked him if dentistry ever bored him. ‘Nah, I was born to drill!’ was his response.

However, I never fooled around in his company so he probably had no idea what I was really like. I was just the serious politico who predicted the economic crisis at every appointment in the five years leading up to 2008. It didn’t go unnoticed. ‘You said something like this would happen. You were right!’ It was difficult to verbally agree because he was scraping my teeth at the time. It then occurred to me that both of us may have been a little bit like Brian Clough: honest, outspoken, with a general disdain for the professional hierarchies; yet with a genuine passion for our careers (football, dentistry, teaching) and all those involved (players, fans, patients and students).

It was with these thoughts crystallising in my mind that I entered his practice for the last time exactly 30 years after having first entered it – Dr Bill is hanging up his drill and taking early retirement. As I lay on the chair, my eyes were stinging with tears, hoping he wouldn’t noticed. I started to sketch this article in my head.

‘Are you done with teaching then?’ he asked through his green face mask. ‘Yes,’ I replied, aware of the fact that next to his relatively smooth and successful career-path mine had been a comparative failure. ‘Far too stressful,’ I squeezed out from my enforced open mouth. ‘You backing Corbyn?’ he whispered, bringing his masked face slightly closer to mine. ‘Yes.’ ‘Good lad,’ he said.

It was then I attempted to articulate my Brian Clough ‘theory’ – that we or he was worthy of such a comparison. Brian Clough believed in relaxing players in the same way Dr Bill believed in relaxing patients, in the same way I believed in trying to put students at their ease. A famous example was when Clough took his Nottingham Forest team on holiday as part of his preparation for the European Cup Final. For Clough, if you relaxed people you got the best out of them – inducing stress and fear were counter-productive.

We were also bowing out in Clough’s style. My teaching career had ended, and although I didn’t miss it, I considered myself to be good at it. I had an original style which served me well before I outstayed my welcome in much the same way as Clough outstayed his. He had fallen out with Peter Taylor and they were not on speaking terms when Taylor died in 1990. (Some argue that this situation exacerbated Clough’s already existing drink problem. His career petered out as Forest were relegated back to the second division. Within a few years he was also dead.)

Turns out Dr Bill’s career was ending on a similar note. ‘Brian Clough? That’s interesting darling,’ he said as I explained my theory. I let go and told him what I had wanted to say all these years: how he had been a massive influence on me and I had only just realised. ‘They don’t like it,’ he said, as he jabbed his finger skyward: ’The hierarchy.’ I told him that things would never be the same now he was retiring – his patients would be distraught.

He pulled his face mask down and planted a tender kiss upon my forehead.

‘Thank you darling,’ he said.

The books that last

Early one morning, around a week ago, I opened the front door to take a draught of clean morning air when I detected something in the breeze that awoke a cheer in the heart. There was in the wind an unmistakeable autumn quality – a new chill, the smell of damp earth – that had not been there even the morning before, and that meant two things. Firstly, and most obviously, it meant that autumn was here, and autumn has always been my favourite season. Second, it reminded me of an event that always happens at this time of year. There is in my memory a certain someone who famously waited for the autumn before setting off on a perilous quest: someone who felt, surely correctly, that summer was the time for relaxing and making the most of the comforts of home; autumn for journeying and adventure. That someone went by the name of Frodo Baggins. This year, as in so many of the years since I first attempted it, and despite the terrifying perils that await any who do, I decided once again to join Frodo on his quest.

I am talking, of course, about JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. It may seem odd that a (relatively) grown-up and (sometimes) serious person should spend so much time, year after year, reviewing yet again a tale concerned mostly with furry-footed creatures that first made their appearance in a children’s story. Of course, many people get obsessed with silly and trivial things and build a life around them – we have learnt to tolerate this or even admire it as part of “geek” culture. But a decision to reread Lord of the Rings regularly is not that, or not in all cases at any rate. It goes deeper.

In my life I have read many books that deeply moved and affected me in various ways, and I have not forgotten them. I am grateful for the lessons they taught and the pleasures they gave. But I never go back to them now. They were books of the moment, and the moment has passed. Enid Blyton enchanted my childhood. But there’s no going back now. Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx fomented a rebellion. Revolutions can’t last for ever.

Other books are not books of the moment: they are for ever. They do not just satisfy passing needs and fancies but have depths unguessed of when one first reads them. They are like a deep well – you go to them and draw as much water as can satisfy the needs of the moment; you carry away with you according to your capacity. But when you go back, you’re surprised to find that more can be drawn – ever more, to satisfy the soul-thirst of a lifetime.

Again, that The Lord of the Rings is such a book may surprise some. Perhaps they tried it in the past or know it by reputation and just can’t get on with fairy tales or take seriously hobbits and elves and goblins. Perhaps they enjoyed it on the level of the story as a child, and never went back. Perhaps they have learned to despise the book, as have several miserabilist and materialist critics, finding that the book appears to their intellect as too simple-minded, too reactionary, a glamorisation of war or apology for class division or backward-looking, petit-bourgeois romanticism – even fascism.

The latter cannot have read the book at all, or not very closely – they certainly cannot have read in it deeply.

The Lord of the Rings is very much like the Bhagavad Gita. On the level of the material events of the story, it is indeed a tale of a war. On the intellectual level, it is full of aphorisms that provide much food for thought and stories providing entertainment and amusement. Whether these appeal to you in the manner presented may well be a matter of taste. But the real force, the real meaning, of the book is deeper and more spiritual. The Gita and The Lord of the Rings both are really about the inner war for the individual soul.

The Ring of the title is a magical object that gives its bearer and all who use it great worldly powers. (It’s something like a mind fixed on worldly goals then.) All who hear of it greatly desire this power – they want to get their hands on this magical and precious object, have it for their own, use it for their own ends – and, from the first, perhaps they genuinely desire such power that they may do good with it. But desire and the lust for power have their own logic, their own demands, and these all too easily overpower one’s more noble intentions. You seize the Ring intending only good; but only the smallest missteps lead one away from the path and into the dark forest, where the undergrowth of tangled wants will ensnare you for incarnations. The path to evil is paved with good intentions.

The corrupting influence of such desires on all the heroes of the book at every step in their quest and battles gives the lie to the notion that this is a simplistic and simple-minded tale of a battle between good people and evil ones. The evil are not inherently evil, not even Sauron, but are fallen angels – they started out just as we all do, as the heroes in the book do – as ordinary beings with contradictory desires and impulses. They choose the wrong path and go over to evil, ever more irrevocably as they progress down the wrong path. The good are not inherently so, and again and again must struggle with their own inclinations and lack of courage to do the right thing. Even as you progress in this righteous quest, your strength may fail you in the end – as it fails Frodo. In the battle over your soul, you turn again and again to the places where you might find comfort and strength – to your friends and comrades and loved ones, to your hearth and home, to guidance from the wise, but always in the end to the hero inside yourself, your own resources and courage and faith that choosing good will always in the end be its own reward, just as much as evil will in the end be its own punishment.

Such deep moral issues belong to no one age of man nor to any particular historic period. That is why books that deal with them seriously are not books of the moment, but of eternity. The road goes ever on and on – and as long as it does, a map and a guide will be helpful, particularly in dark and treacherous spots, in heavy weather, when you are lost or despair of ever reaching your goal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that The Lord of the Rings is such a book. Keep it by your heart always.

Corbyn: a conservative response to the neoliberal crisis?

‘This is hardly revolutionary,’ said John McDonnell, as he summarised what a Corbyn administration might look like at a recent Momentum rally. Student debt reduction, social housing, rent controls, dignity at work (with anti-trade-union legislation repealed) and ending the privatisation of the NHS. If this stuff is deemed to be radical, the question is: just how far have we fallen?

Even by the turn of the ’90s, student debt (as we currently understand it) did not exist. The main battle with Thatcher at the time was over the size of the student grant, and the fact that certain welfare benefits were starting to be restricted. Sure, council housing was being sold off and not replaced (as rent controls were abolished), yet even as trade unions were clamped down on, all manner of battles were fought on the industrial field. As for the NHS, the Tories boasted that the ‘NHS is safe with us’ and that record funding was being ploughed in to it. In other words, the Thatcher administration was merely laying the foundations for a revolution that was to be continued and embedded by every subsequent government. But if Thatcherism was a conservative (radical) attempt to resolve the crisis of the 70s (the end of the so called post-war consensus), might not Corbyn be seen as radical (conservative) attempt to reconstitute society by retrieving many of the things lost, yet that still live in the minds of many?

There are two main reactions to the crisis in neoliberalism outside of what can be called the political mainstream: Corbynism and ‘kipperism’ (the broad appeal of UKIP). In order for Corbyn to be electorally successful, the rising tide of ‘kipperism’ amongst the working class in Labour’s traditional heartlands must be stemmed. This must involve a realistic assessment as to the nature of the elephant-in-the-room: immigration and perception of non-integrated communities. A blasé liberal internationalism whilst shouting ‘refugees welcome here’ with the implicit implication that any objections are merely ‘racist’ will not suffice. Indeed, it was this type of contemptuous attitude which fuelled the Brexit vote. From our own perspective, we must show empathy and understanding towards attitudes we intuitively withdraw from. The concerns echoed in the Brexit vote were longstanding and deep rooted in social despair and alienation. So if part of Corbyn’s plan to end austerity shores up the labour market, this in itself may undermine certain employment practices associated with the ‘mass migration’ from the EU and other places. In other words, deal with the problem from the demand rather than supply side, putting the responsibility for good employment conditions onto employers and away from migrants. Hopefully this will undermine the traction the ‘kipper narrative’ has amongst many vulnerable elements in our society.

Going into the rally, someone proffered that Corbyn could not win a general election because of Labour’s 1983 defeat on a similar left platform. However, this was a different time and Labour were seen (rightly or wrongly) as offering a return to the bad old days of the 70s, and Thatcher’s universal acid had not finished its revolutionary renewal. But now we have now come full circle. The neoliberal experiment has long since run aground and we are living with the consequences. This is one thing that ‘Corbynistas’ and ‘kippers’ (even if many elements of Ukip don’t) agree on. But simply returning to the old ways will not suffice. Momentum talks of a ‘new kind of politics’, which must mean, for example, that a nationalised railway service does not repeat the kind of mistakes which made the case for its privatisation unassailable in the Thatcher period.

The vision of an outward looking, inclusive multi-cultural society is in danger of being lost. It is Corbyn’s job to continue and renew this one aspect of the neoliberal worldview (intended or otherwise) that we actually like and value. The consequences of a socio-cultural victory of ‘kipperism’ are too dire to contemplate.

Coming soon…

It’s holiday season for us here at Negcap, but soon we will have for you an interview with one of our favourite political economists. It’s shaping up nicely. It will not be anything like what passes for economic commentary in the mainstream, but rather an in-depth discussion that goes to the root of capitalism’s eternal problem: the reproduction of the working class through the wage system. Also, a report from a Corbyn rally. This and much more soon. Stay tuned…