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!

Me

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.

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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.

The world just is

For the past two mornings, sunlight has streamed through my window – great shafts of light with thousands of dust particles dancing around. What a sight! And in January, one of the gloomiest months – such indulgence! My immediate conclusion (without thinking or reflection) was to smile and say out loud ‘How beautiful! The world is beautiful’, before making the mistake of thinking about it. My mind flicked to one of England’s most beautiful counties; Cumbria, and images of some its villages submerged under water filled my mind. That wasn’t beautiful at all, quite the opposite. No, nature (and the world) is both beautiful and ugly, or if we flip it around: neither one nor the other. It just is.

What this really means is that the only way we objectify the world is by our subjectivity. Sunlight can destroy just as it can nourish, and the same can be said for the wind and the rain. From this perspective, to fetishize nature (or the world as it is) is a mistake and a false attachment. However, we are also part of nature, as is our subjective consciousness, which enables us to navigate life’s travails and pleasures, and indeed, to decide which one is which.

The desire to find objective beauty, happiness, or contentment, is the same desire to find objective meaning and God. From here, we feel confident making moral judgements; separating the beautiful from the ugly; good from evil; and the holy from the profane. But herein lies the rub: by which external standard are we to derive an objective understanding?

The world is all we know, and no matter how far science advances, we will never be able to know what Kant called ‘the thing in itself’. Many religious people seem to agree with this to a certain point. What they do, however, is substitute science’s natural limitations with an all-encompassing theology which claims to solve the problem. It doesn’t. It just moves the question along. The proclamation of divine knowledge, espoused with idiotic certainty, is best demonstrated with the God-as-first-cause argument.

I have had many conversations with credulous Christians and Muslims who think that this is the best weapon in their arsenal. Science, they say, can never reveal the ‘thing in itself’ (although they never actually use this phrase.) When I point out that merely postulating a Creator God doesn’t deal with where he comes from; they genuinely don’t seem to understand. The same can be said for the ‘finely tuned universe’ argument. If just one of the cosmic settings – if one of the numbers in the equations that seem to determine what nature is were out by a mere fraction – then the universe as we know it couldn’t exist and it would be curtains for all life forms, they opine. The obvious rebuttal is: why did the Creator God make the world with such inbuilt precarity?  With no other comparable standard, what they are really doing is theologising an existing objective reality.

It’s just the world As It Is. We live on a permanent knife edge.

What sense does it make to think of ‘first causes’ anyway? A beginning, a middle and an end – how very western. But if one looks closer, the metaphysical trick is revealed: before the beginning there was infinity (God), and the end is also infinite because God can never end. As far as I know, theoretical physics postulates a beginning of time; a ‘big bang’; a singularity. At a certain point, all these discussions merge into one: different attempts (some more ingenious than others) to crack the nut of the ‘thing in itself’.

The ‘thing in itself’ remains uncracked.

Time is an endless river. It never started and it will never end. There can only be endless cycles of life: death, decay, resurrection and so on. This is our best assumption, anything else either collaspes within its own logic, or lies beyond our ken. Beauty, ugliness, good, bad, happiness, sadness are inextricably linked in every object, relation and phenomenon. Attempts to separate them are merely idealist attempts by humanity to objectify what will always resist such crass categorisation.

And when we realise this, true meaning may be found, and a moral compass. The pressure is lifted if we accept that we are only brief candles in the dark. Thus what we experience, think, feel, hate and love will ultimately pass, as all things must. Here we can find true meaning mediated by our temporal existence within the infinite.

Tomorrow I will pray again for those shafts of light, or perhaps an orange sunset. For although time is infinite, it is also running out.

New Year Resolution: don’t just do something – sit there!

The New Year is a time for reflection – on where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we might be going. It’s a time for new beginnings and resolve to do better. There’s nothing wrong with this and we’ve been indulging in it as much as anyone. But it’s wise to reflect too on resolutions past – and why none of them ever came to anything.

We have been through many rebirths, many previous lives – does not yesterday strike us as a previous life, and this very morning, this very New Year, as a rebirth, even before we realise that, just an eye blink ago in evolutionary time, we were but fish? Or star dust? We have been, I say, through many previous lives, many rebirths, and what it is we want changes with the seasons and the ages. But is there some common essence in all the apparent variety of things and states of affairs we lust after? Some common thread that links all our previous lives, makes sense of our earnest seeking? A good contender I would suggest is “freedom”.

As human beings, we want to be free. Or we claim we want to be. But could our very desire for freedom itself be a kind of tyranny? Do we in fact want to be free, or do we actually rather like it in our cosy little cocoon of a cell, muttering to ourselves and running once again through all the treasures we’ve stored up in our minds, like a miser over his gold? Is freedom even possible? What does it look like if so?

When I was a child, I remember wanting, longing, praying to be free to go out and play. Parental authority was a terrible thing. But looking back I can reflect now and see that without parental authority I wouldn’t have survived or grown up to be the person I am. My desire for freedom caused me much suffering, and yet it was at the same time a delusion – just a thought, not possible of realisation. Even in the moments of freedom and play, I soon found myself at the same time a terrible slave of passions and feelings – to anger and jealousy, to shyness and insecurity. I wanted freedom, then resented it when I had it for not quite living up to my great expectations.

As an older child, I realised I could medicate the shyness and insecurity away with alcohol and drugs, making playtime more fun, perhaps, than it had ever been before. But then I became a slave to them – and to the need for constant entertainment. All the things I had previously found meaning in – sporting prowess, learning and academic achievement – fell away in the pursuit of fun in my newfound freedom from parental authority. And thanks to the conditions I found myself in, due in large measure to luck – not least the luck of being born in a rich country – fun was to be found in abundance. I revelled in it – and attached to it aggressively. When, through the process of growing up, society tried to take the toys away, I was like a hungry dog growling over a bone. And yet, just like a pet dog, my living was dependent on the labour of others, my good humour to how often I was petted. Take our bones away and all the aggressiveness of our natures snarls out unbidden. And in any case, humans can not thrive as pets. They must be independent.

So, forced by economic necessity and social pressure to take a job, I then became another kind of slave – to work, yes, although work is intrinsic to life, but particularly to the feeling that this particular form of work was just not for me, that its imposition in ways not in full accord with my will was a tyranny. So began the hankering for freedom once again – this time, freedom from the toad work that squatted on my life. This led in time to my becoming active in various socialist circles – believing that socialism was the only way to true human freedom, to freedom from work. But the pursuit of social freedom just turned me into a slave to ideology and the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual accumulation – later to largely ineffectual activism and evangelising. And the wheel turns, turns, turns.

In short, the pursuit of freedom is itself a form of bondage. We put something in front of ourselves and then run after it. We’re restless if we can’t have what we want, dissatisfied and soon bored if we get it. We live in a state of anxiety and stress, and given how restless we are when not under stress, begin to wonder whether we don’t prefer it that way. Our resolutions to change never come to anything much because we don’t ever change anything fundamental – we just change what we want to run after, we take different shopping trips to acquire what it is we think we want or need. We are furious and angry about all the things in the world that aren’t to our liking, and yet will do precisely nothing to change what it is within our power to change – namely, our minds, our attitudes, our strength of character, our mental reaction to whatever it is that’s going on.

The secret to real freedom was given by my favourite philosopher, Jiddhu Krishnamurti. Do you want to know what my secret is? he once asked, in one of his talks. His acolytes perked up, sat forwards in their seats, eager to learn at last what the real secret behind his enigmatic-sounding teachings really was. “You see,” he said, “I don’t mind what happens.”

This is the kind of freedom that really is possible and you can have it right now (it’s available at no other time). Certain things are conditioned – our feelings, the arising of thoughts and emotions, sensations both pleasant and unpleasant, whatever it is that happens in the world. But remarkably, if we are awake and aware, the reaction of our minds, and hence our actions, are not – freedom, in other words, is not an external state of affairs to be achieved in the future, but is a matter of choiceless awareness of all that is, and of love, of compassionate action. Could we make that attitude of mind our non-goal for the New Year? To not react like a dog to whatever takes place, but instead to accept it totally, find a way to make friends with it, to take care of the situation, and of ourselves, of others? Is such a life of peace actually possible? Don’t take anyone’s word for it – it’s entirely a practical question, a matter of practice not theory. We shall certainly be non-striving to make it so.

Whatever it is you are hankering after this new year, dear reader, we wish you every success and happiness on your journey. But you might be happier still if you can remember that there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

Man is created for happiness

“In his prison shed Pierre had learnt, through his whole being rather than his intellect, through the process of living itself, that man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within, in the satisfaction of natural human needs, and any unhappiness arises from excess rather than deficiency. But now, during the last three weeks of the march [as a prisoner of war], he had learnt another new truth that brought great consolation – he had learnt that there is nothing in the world to be frightened of. He had learnt that just as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, neither is there any situation in which he should be unhappy and not free. He had learnt that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and those limits are never far away; that a man who has felt discomfort from a crumpled petal in his bed of roses has suffered just as much as he was suffering now, sleeping on the bare, damp earth, with one side freezing while the other side warms up; that when in former days he had squeezed into a pair of tight dancing shoes had has suffered just as much as he was suffering now, waking barefoot, his footwear having disintegrated long ago, with his feet covered with sores. He learnt that when he had married his wife by his own free will (so he had thought), he had been no freer than he was now when they locked him up in a stable for the night. Of all the things he identified as painful, though at the time he was hardly conscious of them, the worst thing was the state of his bare feet, which were blistered and scabby. (Horse-meat had a nice taste and did you good, the flavour of saltpetre from the gun powder used as a salt substitute was really rather nice, the weather was never very cold, it was always warm when they were marching during the daytime and at night they had campfires, and the lice that made a meal of him gave him a pleasant feeling of being kept warm.) His feet were the only things that hurt during those early days.

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering.

“Karatayev! The memory [of his friend being shot dead] flashed into Pierre’s mind. And suddenly Pierre had a vision, like reality itself, of someone long forgotten, a gentle old teacher who had taught him geography in Switzerland. ‘Wait a minute,’ said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing, a shimmering ball with no fixed dimensions. The entire surface of the ball consisted of drops closely compressed. And the drops were in constant movement and flux, sometimes dissolving from many into one, sometimes breaking down from one into many. Each drop was trying to spread out and take up as much space as possible, but all the others, wanting to do the same, squeezed it back, absorbing or merging into it.

“‘This is life,’ said the little old teacher.

“‘It’s so simple and clear,’ thought Pierre. ‘How could I have not known that before? God is in the middle, and each drop tries to expand and reflect Him on the largest possible scale. And it grows, gets absorbed and compressed, disappears from the surface, sinks down into the depths and bubbles up again. That’s what has happened to him, Karatayev: he has been absorbed and he’s disappeared.”

Tolstoy, War and Peace