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match of the day meets piers morgan’s life stories

When one of their number peeps above the parapet to talk about their emotions and vulnerabilities, sporting folk like to call it “brave”. There was plenty of bravery on show in Freddie Flintoff’s documentary on depression in sport, The Hidden Side of Sport, last night on BBC1. It takes extreme courage for anyone to expose themselves to Flintoff’s interview technique:

Graeme Dott: I think I’ll be on them [anti-depression] pills forever. I’ve tried to come off them, and I’ll gradually fall into a horrible …
Flintoff: Are you enjoying your snooker now more than ever?

Man on an Arsenal scheme to tackle depression: I was diagnosed properly when I was ten or eleven, with depression. I’ve always been pressed with suicidal thoughts.
Flintoff: How did it feel?

The rest of the programme was similarly frustrating. Flintoff spoke to various sports names – Ricky Hatton, Vinnie Jones, Barry McGuigan, Shane Warne – who all agreed that feeling bad was bad. Some, like Jones, had personal experience of depression, but their views were never placed in a wider context, and the whole thing quickly devolved into Comic Relief-ish meaninglessness. I found myself more interested in Ricky Hatton’s loft conversion than in his lows after defeats.  Maybe Flintoff was too, as he troubled Hatton with the tester:

When you got your gloves in your first professional fight, did you think you’d have all this?

When things did get edgy, the programme was anything but brave. Flintoff claimed throughout that he was “doing it for Steve”, his friend Steve Harmison, who spoke very movingly about his own depression at the start of the programme. But when he was asked (by Piers Morgan – yes, it was that sort of programme) about his own culpability in Harmison’s difficulties – he was England captain when Harmison was struggling with depression; why did he pick him to play? – Flintoff was shocked. Nothing wrong with that – a bit more shock, a bit less cosy banter, and we would have had a better programme. But why was there no follow-up? Did Flintoff regret his actions? What would he have done differently? What did Harmison think about it? We never got to find out. It was anecdotes only, Match of the Day meets Piers Morgan’s Life Stories.

The express point of these programmes is to promote understanding. What they actually promote is toleration, superficial acceptance. I suspect that in five years time, Steve Harmison will be thinking: “I told the nation about my depression, because I thought it would make a difference. And everyone was very nice and told me how brave I was. Then they went back to ignoring me, or treating me like I was a bit strange.”

Link to programme on iPlayer (available until 18 Jan)



Everywhere I turn at the moment, there’s someone telling us what we need to do to repair our financial system. Martin Wolf is the latest to try his hand: his Fixing Global Finance is reviewed this week by Robert Skidelsky in the NYRB.

I’m not qualified to comment on the detail of Wolf’s plan, but it seems that he is pessimistic about the possibility of reform in the short term; Skidelsky shares that pessimism. Both fail to come up with radical options for change. I can’t help but wonder if this failure (and of course not everyone will see it as a failure) has anything with the identity of Wolf and Skidelsky. They are about as eminent as financial experts get, but they are firmly placed inside the system. It may seem natural to consult established experts, but is their worldview preventing us from seeing different futures?

This might be an obvious point, but I was particularly struck by Slavoj Zizek’s way of putting it in his clever little book On Belief. In order to move from a situation where politics is considered merely as a series of pragmatic interventions to a politics of Truth, Zizek advocates not a return to Marx – already a cliche, as he points out – but a return to Lenin.

Two features make Lenin the right man for our times, Zizek says (although he was talking more generally – On Belief was written in 2001).

First, his position outside Marx’s inner circle (Lenin had never met Marx; moreover, he came from a land at the Eastern borders of “European civilisation”):

It is only possible to retrieve the theory’s original impulse from this external position; in exactly the same way St. Paul, who formulated the basic tenets of Christianity, was not part of Christ’s inner circle, and Lacan accomplished his “return to Freud” using a totally distinct theoretical tradition as a leverage … in the same way that St. Paul and Lacan reinscribe the original teaching into a different context

Lenin is also a man for our times because of his explicitly political outlook (the reinvigoration of Marx, by contrast, is deeply apolitical). What Is To Be Done?, Zizek says, is

the text which exhibits Lenin’s unconditional will to intervene in the situation, not in the pragmatic sense of “adjusting the theory to the realistic claims through necessary compromises”, but, on the contrary, in the sense of dispelling all opportunistic compromises, of adopting the unequivocal radical position from which it is only possible to intervene in such a way that our intervention changes the coordinates of the situation. The contrast here is clear with regard to today’s Third Way “postpolitics”, which emphasises the need to leave behind old ideological divisions and to confront new issues armed with the necessary expert knowledge.

I am not as willing as Zizek to embrace Lenin: the consequences of his kind of political intervention are rarely pleasant, and often deeply unpleasant. But the end of Skidelsky’s review – where he castigates Wolf for his lack of historical perspective – does make me think that something along these lines might come to be pass, market theory and politics are readjusted in painful ways:

A willingness by the US government to end macroeconomic imbalances depends on its willingness to accept a much more plural world … Whether, even under Obama, the US is willing to accept such a political rebalancing of the world is far from obvious. It will require a huge mental realignment in the United States. The financial crash has disclosed the need for an economic realignment. But it will not happen until the US renounces its imperial mission.

Hugo Chávez says he intends to give What Is To Be Done to Barack Obama, the definitive Third Wayer, at their next meeting. Somehow, I’m not sure this will have the desired result…

UPDATE (21.07.09): Raincoat Optimism (a fellow member of Bloggers Circle) has more on the Zizek-banking connection, as well as some (rather complicated) reflections on compassionate conservatism.


Hazlitt’s “The Fight” reminded me of Norman Mailer, himself a great pugilist, and author of a book of the same name. Here he is (in King of the Hill) on his favourite activity:

There was only one way in which boxing was still like a street fight, and that was in the need to be confident you would win. A man walking out of a bar to fight with another man is seeking to compose his head into the confidence that he will certainly triumph – it is the most mysterious faculty of the ego. For the confidence is a sedative against the pain of punches and yet it is the sanction to punch your own best.

The logic of the spirit would suggest that you win only if you deserve to win; the logic of the ego lies down the axiom that if you don’t think you will win, you don’t deserve to. And in fact, usually don’t; it is as if not believing you will win opens you to the guilt that perhaps you have not the right, you are too guilty.


The great essayist and author of “The Fight” was an obsessive and violently competitive sportsman, according to James Fenton (subscription protected). In “On Great and Little Things“, he writes [about rackets, a precursor of squash]:

I have sometimes lain awake a whole night, trying to serve out the last ball of an interesting game in a particular corner of the court, which I had missed from a nervous feeling.

Rackets … is, like any other athletic game, very much a thing of skill and practice: but it is also a thing of opinion, “subject to all the skyey influences”. If you think you can win, you can win. Faith is necessary to victory.


Only the most assiduous readers of this blog, those who sit there refreshing my about page every five minutes to see what new likes and dislikes I have decided to define myself with (you know who you are), will know about my lifelong passion for Dianna Wynne Jones. Even they won’t know how far it goes.

Dianna Wynne Jones (DWJ) is the only author whose characters I know back-to-front and off-by-heart. I have read almost all of her 50+ books more than once, in some cases a lot more than once (we’re talking over ten here). Don’t ask me why. She’s just the best.

(If you’re wondering who DWJ is, then shame on you. Read this immediately. Then buy this. It’s her best book, I’d say, or at least the best one to start with).

Anyway, the point of all this is to encourage – implore would be a better word – anyone I know who’s reading this to join me in my most exciting recent discovery of the last year: the Dianna Wynne Jones character quiz. I know it might not mean that much to you, but for me it will be beyond fascinating. And if you do I’ll dig out the relevant book and let you know just what sort of person you are.

In case you’re wondering, I came out as Chrestomanci in any book apart from The Lives of Christopher Chant. Those familiar with the books will know him – among other things – as the best dressed man in town. Naturallement.


I’ve argued before that confidence inevitably leads to overconfidence. A new hypothesis suggests that it may just as inevitably lead to depression. Randolph Nesse, a psychologist and researcher in evolutionary medicine, suggests that, just as pain stops you pursuing harmful physical courses of action, so low mood stops you pursuing damaging mental ones. In particular, he says, it stops you chasing after unreachable goals.

If The Economist is to believed, this theory is backed up by the evidence. It describes a study by social psychologists Carsten Wrosch and Gregory Miller:

Their conclusion was that those who experienced mild depressive symptoms could, indeed, disengage more easily from unreachable goals … the new study also found a remarkable corollary: those women who could disengage from the unattainable proved less likely to suffer more serious depression in the long run.

Persistence, though necessary for success and considered a virtue by many, can also have a negative impact on health … Depression may turn out to be an inevitable price of living in a dynamic society.

The same point can be made about confidence. Confidence encourages persistence, because it encourages you to believe in yourself and your abilities. Is depression – like overconfidence – part of the price we pay for our need for self-belief?

There is also a deeper story here, one that Nesse understands more fully than The Economist. In his talk (video) earlier this year, Nesse said (23.00 onwards):

I do look forward to the day when a patient comes to me and says “Dr. Nesse, I have a serious problem: I don’t have enough anxiety. It’s deficient, I know it’s wrecking my life, I’m getting arrested, I’m losing jobs, I can’t stay in a marriage, I know it’s a problem, I don’t have enough anxiety – do you have any good drugs for me?” I’m not sure this will ever become a big business, but I wish we would think about these things in this way.

I’m not sure if I would want this to be a big business, but I agree: it would be better if we thought about things this way. Part of the problem, it seems to me, lies in our estimation of virtue. Think about it this way: has anyone ever said to you that it’s possible to be too good? Or too happy? Or too heroic? Or too confident? We recognise and warn against overconfidence, of course, but is this the same thing? Often, it seems to me, overconfidence is defined more as having the wrong sort of confidence than it is having too much of it.

What is the difference between confidence and overconfidence? Or confidence and arrogance? Let me know your thoughts.


One of the many strange and contradictory things about the land of the free: it is the country whose citizens complain most about their own unfreedom. Here’s my favourite Independence Day story, told in the lapidary prose of the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Thoreau went to Walden Pond on the anniversary of America’s declared independence from Britain — July 4, 1845, declaring his own independence from a society that is “commonly too cheap.” It is not that he is against all society, but that he finds we meet too often, before we have had the chance to acquire any “new value for each other”. Thoreau welcomes those visitors who “speak reservedly and thoughtfully”, and who preserve an appropriate sense of distance; he values the little leaves or acorns left by visitors he never meets. Thoreau lived at Walden for just under three years, a time during which he sometimes visited friends and conducted business in town (it was on one such visit, to pick up a mended shoe, that he was arrested for tax avoidance).

It’s all in the brackets. Happy July 4th.


Some wise advice. A guilty pleasure from my teenage years:


It’s too beautiful to blog. Or to work at all. So I didn’t. I went and had a swim, then watched a bit of Murray. Lovely.

But don’t think I wasn’t thinking of you, reading this in your sweltering office. What could I give you, to make your life a little bit more like mine? For a while, I thought there was nothing. Then it came to me: what could express the beauty of a summer’s day better than John Cheever’s great short story The Swimmer?

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. “I drank too much,” said Donald Westerhazy. “We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. “It must have been the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that claret.”

Thanks to Kirty for the tip. Read it and weep.

ps. If you’re hot, just watching this is incredibly cooling.


John Craig-Sharples dissects an advert:

Beneath the statement, ‘NOW I INVENT INSTEAD OF PREDICT.  I AM A VISIONARY’ a silver-haired senior excutive sits at the shoreline of an expansive lake, gazing out to the horizon.  With his strong chin and resolute expression, the man seems poised to get up and walk across the water, bring peace to the Middle East, solve the world’s energy crisis and reform MPs expenses all before lunch.

I appreciate that if you want to attract people to your expensive management programme you need to make it sound impressive.  ‘I USED TO STEAL ALL MY BEST IDEAS FROM COLLEAGUES BUT NOW I’M A SELF-SUFFICIENT MUDDLER-THROUGHER’  clearly doesn’t have the right ring to it.

Adverts are strange things. If anyone said, in everyday conversation, “I am a visionary”, you’d think they were a psychopath; you’d probably be right. But we’ve come to accept hyperbole in advertising. And not just professional advertising. Everyone knows that people dissemble and exaggerate in their CVs, or on their blogs or MySpace pages. We might not like it, it’s just the way things are.

Self-promotion is a vicious cycle. In this, CVs are like MPs expenses. When everyone’s lining their pockets, you’re a fool not to; when everyone’s exaggerating their abilities, the same applies. If you want to get that job, you’re obliged in some way to play the game.

To my mind, the party leaders were to blame for MPs expenses. They had the power and the position; if they’d taken a lead others would have followed. As it was – and I know this for a fact – senior members were giving party members instruction in how to game the system. Backbench MPs were guilty of cupidity, greed and blindness, but who among us can be absolved from those sins? It’s the people with responsibility who should take the blame – not that they are.

Compared to self-promotion, however, expenses are an easy fix. Where are the leaders in society as a whole? What are the solutions? Companies could insist on honesty, I suppose. But that request would be a bit like an assessment at work: no matter what they say, the rule is never tell the truth. Why would you? Instead, the best tactic is to feign honesty, while continuing to cover up your faults. Except for that perfectionism, of course. And that insistence on working too hard, goddammit.

Call me a pessimist. But I’m afraid the future only holds more bullshit.


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