January’s a pretty dismal month.
There’s the obligatory detox for dry January or Veganuary and, for the second time running, we didn’t even have the traditional festive sports derbies to brighten up the start of 2022.
Christmas seems a long way off now, but I’ve been reflecting on what made the festive season of 2021 somehow surprisingly nice.
I’ve decided that, in large part, it was about making the best of not being able to do things. Meeting in big groups for work dos risked missing more important family Christmases, so most of us decided to hunker down and enjoy some home comforts instead.
Now, no parent would deny the incredible joy and fun that children bring to our lives and Christmas is a special time when that is even more evident. But most of us are also prepared to be honest and to wistfully concede that there are some things that we miss as a consequence of having young kids.
Lovely as it (mostly) is, it’s basically relentless, isn’t it? At times, carving out 15 minutes to have a shower feels like a challenge on a par to swimming the channel or undertaking a solo expedition across Antarctica.
This Christmas, our daughters’ much-loved Auntie Emma from Ystradgynlais stayed with us. As the decorations came down, we all resolved that, in an ideal world, children should have at least three parents. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
Sharing the kids reminded me of the old Christmas luxury of a lazy day in front of the fire reading a novel. It made me realise that having proper time to read is the thing I miss most about life with a four and an eight-year-old.
Obviously as an academic, work-related reading continues unabated, but what I really miss is the entirely curious, speculative picking up of a random book and just reading it with no expectations other than an anticipation of enjoyment – books by authors that someone casually mentioned in the pub or from a casually-browsed book review in the weekend papers.
I feel a bit guilty confessing that, for the past few years, my reading has been almost entirely dominated by sport and football. I guess that’s because it’s easy and pleasurable, fast food for the brain. I’ve indulged myself with sports biographies and autobiographies, ranging from Geraint Thomas to Neville Southall to Johan Cruyff (the latter beautifully entitled My Turn). Coming out as the best of the bunch would be Leon Barton’s Brian Flynn, Little Wonder, Andrea Pirlo’s I Think Therefore I Play and Paul Ferris’ The Boy On The Shed. The worst was Ruud Gullit’s bore fest How To Watch Football.
I also enjoyed How Football (Nearly) Came Home, Adventures In Putin’s World Cup by one of my favourite authors, Guardian journalist Barney Ronay. I devoured this book in one sitting and it is a good counterbalance to a World Cup that no one had particularly looked forward to in a country where there’s as much to be slated as its successor host, Qatar.
Understandably, Ronay’s account is all about Gareth Southgate’s men, but its readability comes less from accounts of matters on the pitch and more about its insight into a shifting public consciousness that, in 2018, England might actually ‘do it’ after years of predictable underperformance.
Reaching the semi-finals in Russia was a turning point in popular affection for England (despite the inherent arrogance of the ‘it’s coming home’ nonsense) and paved the way for the team’s subsequent success at Euro 2020.
For me, I recalled England’s fans in Lens in Euro 2016 and the contrast to the Cymru supporters who revelled in the experience of supporting our nation. Whilst we applauded every touch of our global superstars like Bale and Ramsey, but also David Edwards and Simon Church, England fans spat venom at their players who looked progressively terrified until Iceland did them a favour and knocked them out.
Next, I turned to When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson. There’s plenty to dislike about football these days and it was refreshing to read Henderson’s account of a very different post-war world when players’ wages were capped and footballers were regarded as little more than commodities. The book is rightly dedicated to Jimmy Hill and its first chapter entitled Six Pounds A Week! You Can’t Ask For That! which kind of sums it up.
When players and fans caught the bus to matches together, when, as Henderson says, “the game’s biggest names earned barely more than a plumber or electrician”, little wonder there was such a different and far more intimate bond between players on the pitch and fans on the terraces.
I’ve long seen that there’s more politics in sport than there is in conventional politics, even during the latter’s current febrile climate. Reading The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot To Buy The World Cup reinforced what I knew, but evidenced it with some brutal new truths. Using whistle blowers’ insights and a Sunday Times investigation led by journalists Heidi Bake and Jonathan Calvert, the book catalogues the sordid story of how the desert state ‘won’ the contest to host FIFA’s mega event later this year.
For the first time in its history, the World Cup will kick off in November to avoid Qatar’s up to 50C summer heat. Now, we are all hoping and praying that Wales beat Austria (and then Scotland or Ukraine) in 10 weeks’ time to reach our first World Cup finals since the Pele and John Charles tournament of 1958. But, come on, do any of us really fancy the trip to Qatar? Never mind that systemic accommodation shortages and that it’s a dry country, 6,500 mostly migrant workers have been killed during stadia construction, homosexuality is outlawed and domestic abuse legal. The bid’s boss, Mohamed bin Hamman is the central villain in this horribly enthralling read but, in truth, the book shines a brutal light on football’s flawed governance systems that have forced us to make decisions about whether to go to Qatar.
Even at a time of over-indulgence, I recognise the danger of obsessing with sport, so I also fitted in a few new authors from my favourite fictional genre, crime. I discovered a new (to me anyway) Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen, and I’m working my way through his back catalogue.
I managed some ‘serious’ reading too – honestly! Three books stood out.
First, The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart. Sieghart’s argument is that systemic sexism continues to shape the world and so women – professionally and personally – are still taken less seriously than men. Through interviews with women who have ‘made it’ like Christine Lagarde, Janet Yellen and Baronesses Hale and Kennedy, Sieghart recounts how even they suffer from the understandable confidence deficit that plagues women.
Her thesis is based on how deep-rooted this is. Therefore, how natural it is for men to be in charge and, ergo, how ‘unnatural’ it is for women to ‘muscle in’.
So much of this book rang true for me. We are treated differently, listened to differently, subject to different expectations and judgements. A particularly fascinating chapter covers the told experiences of trans people. Talking to those who have lived as both woman and man offers a different and fascinating insight.
Academic Ben, who transitioned from female to male, told of his shock at just being “taken more seriously”. Hilariously, one faculty colleague was overheard saying that Ben’s work was so much better that that of “his sister” (his ‘sister’ being Ben before he transitioned!).
For me, the best ‘takeaway’ from this book was to think again about the advice we’ve been given as women (and often absorbed) – ‘lean in’, be more assertive, develop resilience etc. The problem with all that is that it is addressing the symptoms not the causes and it’s unlikely to change anything so long as women are judged so fundamentally differently to men. We can ‘lean in’ until we topple over as long as a gendered socialisation process teaches us all that men are intrinsically better than women.
Then I read Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I stumbled upon this book, ironically after my dominant introvert tendencies have at times been stretched to breaking point by having kids. It’s not a new book (published a decade ago) but, blimey, for me this was a case of a book properly hitting the spot.
I love my own space and relish time alone. I quite enjoy seeing no one for a week or two (although I haven’t been able to test it much beyond this, admittedly) and nothing sends shivers down my spine more than big get-togethers or crowded parties. Both professionally and personally, I’ve always felt I have had to adjust my ‘natural’ and instinctive behaviours to cope with the dominant cultural and social norms which overwhelmingly favour the extrovert.
Superficial professional leadership skills are almost always modelled on extrovert traits. Outdated notions of charismatic (usually male) leadership rest on these and, even at the most basic level, it’s pretty obvious that extroverts draw their energy from others, whereas we introverts don’t. The introverts v extroverts divide was devised by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and, while it is not a simple binary, it seems to me that there’s plenty of truth in terms of a fundamental differentiation in our personalities. My partner is an undisputed extrovert, so I have my own live case study to prove it too!
Finally, The Madness Of Crowds by associate editor of the Spectator magazine Douglas Murray. I don’t profess to be a massive fan of Murray, but reading him almost always makes me think and, occasionally, to re-evaluate views. For me, that’s enough to justify a read. Thinking doesn’t always mean changing one’s mind, but the stimulation is an altogether good thing in my book.
But if you’re put off by the prospect of reading someone who’s lauded by the likes of Lionel Shriver and Jordan Peterson, the best you can hope for is to enjoy not enjoying this read. I mostly did, though. Murray’s counter narratives and alternative viewpoints are ones that few other intellectuals would articulate although, disappointingly, they’re often drawn from the selective, click-bait style of the journalistic right – albeit written up in a more genteel way.
His dominant hypothesis is that conflict and herd mentality not only dominate but suffocate all reasonable, rational discourse and engagement. Murray’s over-reliance on the ridiculous and hackneyed term ‘wokeism’ is grating, but there’s still plenty to provoke thinking.
Of course, reading and children can be complementary. Both our daughters love books. Their favourite story is still Gelert – as the ripped and tatty pages of the book testify. I love the morals contained in the story of Llywelyn stabbing his beloved hound, assuming his baby son has been killed by Gelert, only to find a wolf dead alongside the upturned cradle where his baby son lay safe. Llywelyn was said to never smile again. Has hasty emotional judgement ever been more vividly and horrifically portrayed?
BC – before children – Christmas and summer holidays were opportunities to over-indulge in books as much as booze and food. My reading has been severely curtailed PC – post children – but, during this Covid-restricted festive season, this eclectic array of books offered me both pleasure and education.
A few were pure escapism, some reinforced what I already believed, while others challenged my thinking. Most of all, though, these books convinced me that finding time to read is as essential as finding time to eat and drink.
* Laura McAllister is a sports-mad academic from Bridgend. She is Professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and former captain of the Wales women’s international football team.