Headstuff Article on class and reading

Headstuff published a short feature article of mine today on their site about what it means to be a reader from a working-class background. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for many years, but haven’t had the courage until now to tackle it. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since I first started thinking about class way back in my teenage years. Books like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy have helped me think through the meanings of being a working-class reader and the uses to which I put my own literacy. Here’s a short extract from the full article, which can be read here:

This is what happens to the self-conscious, the working-class reader: their education – set by those who they seek most to impress – teaches them to reject out of hand, because of its register, the place where they might actually first engage with reading – the only place perhaps.


Books of 2016

As I did last year, I am going to list off the ten books I’ve read in 2016 that I think are worth hearing about. Many, if not most, are – like with my 2015 list – not actually necessarily published in 2016. I just happen to have read them in the last year. As it was with 2015, what I’ve enjoyed reading in 2016 has been motivated in part by the fact that I have once again moved countries; this time from the Czech Republic to Norway, and so some books I’ve read since coming here and have been using to help me learn more about my new home are present.

As usual the struggle with reading is tied up in the struggle with writing and the constant struggle to widen the horizons of the kinds of books I read. Such a list is also affected by the fact that it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve read probably in the last 3-6 months of the year than in the first half, but here goes.

Claire Louise Bennett – Pond

I’ve already written a long piece on the blog earlier this year after reading this book. A string of connected short stories, Pond is a powerful examination of secluded living. Absolutely essential piece of fiction.

Karl Ove Knausgård– A Death in the Family

The biggest name in Norwegian literature there is at the moment, Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a title which self-consciously invokes comparison with the title of Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, is anything but. A Death in the Family is the English-language title of the first book in the series and, broadly speaking, revolves around Knausgård coming to terms with the death of his father although that hardly begins to do the novel justice. The fifth volume has just come out in English, and the sixth is on its way. The series has cemented Knausgård’s reputation and many more books are available in Norwegian and English of his. I am also currently reading his Home and Away, a series of letters he wrote with a Swedish author friend around the 2014 World Cup.

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

A book I’ve been vaguely aware of for years, I read this in the first few weeks of moving to Norway and I enjoyed it immensely, I read it just after finishing the next book on the list, and the centrality of a character named Wednesday, in homage to Odin, suited my new surroundings well. It is, I think the first piece of fantasy I have read in many years, and it was a thorough page-turner. A party I’m very late to, but glad to have arrived at nonetheless in the end.

Robert Ferguson – The Hammer and the Cross

Ferguson has just released a new book, Scandinavians, which reflects on his many years experience of life in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I picked up this book, The Hammer and the Cross, to get some better historical bearings on the viking period and the shifting sands of Norwegian and broader Scandinavian history. An excellent read, it provides a great overview of the impact that Viking invasion had not just on the countries they invaded but also the impact those places had on Viking belief systems in turn. A good companion book is Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a history of the world from the point of view of the North Sea.

Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century

This Pelican introduction book, which was based in large part on the recent Great British Class Survey was assembled by a team of sociologists. It is an extraordinary attempt to map class as it appears in modern Britain (with parallels for Ireland and elsewhere). Attempting to define class in an age when someone may be economically less well off while having significant cultural and social capital is difficult but this book makes a fairly successful stab at asking questions around what things like the precariat really are and how it is that new forms of cultural capital actually operate.

Stephen King – On Writing

In an effort to spur myself into writing more again, I picked up this hugely entertaining memoir that while offering advice on writing in parts, is really the story of how to build writing into your daily life regardless of the motivation for that writing. It’s not a style guide or a strategy to write your first novel, but as a well-written book about the craft of writing, it provides its own fine example.

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Spurred on by the positive experience I had with Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally went on to read this book which has recently been adapted as a TV series by the BBC. Among the most fun aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and the entire world of magical scholarship which Clarke builds into the narrative.

Alberto Manguel – Curiosity

The first Alberto Manguel book I bought a few years ago was The Library at Night, a book which many of my friends will know, is among my favourite works of non-fiction. Here in Curiosity, Manguel uses Dante’s inferno and his guide in Virgil as the basis for an exploration of different forms of human curiosity. As you’d expect from Manguel if you’re familiar with his writing, it is erudite, philosophical, playful and ultimately affirming.

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

I had several years ago considered buying MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, his walking tour of Britain’s lost, old or obscured roads and routes but put it off. Living in the Czech Republic and now Norway, my interest in walking, and the kinds of knowledge it gives has only increased. So, when I saw this book by him which considers the words-we-don’t-use-much-anymore to talk about landscape and features of nature while out walking, I couldn’t resist. Although it focuses on words and names related to the British Isles, it is such a treasure trove of writing, and a brilliantly curious book, that it will make walking anywhere – through any place name – a much more interesting experience.

Frederic Gros – A Philosophy of Walking

As I continue to do more walking, and to think more about the pleasures of walking and hiking, this book provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical aspects of what different kinds of walking mean. Whether you are keeper of assiduous habits always walking the same route at the same pace at the same time daily, are an ambler, stroller, parader or conqueror, this book will give you pause for thought about what it is we are doing, what we are actually after when we go out walking.

Are any of these in your top books of 2016, or any time? Anyway, here’s to a year of good reading and to a year of good reading to come in 2017!

The Wrestler: the disposable bodies and lives of athletes

As a young boy and teenager, I loved Friday night. It meant WWF (later, and now WWE) Raw on Sky Sports. Popcorn and Coke. Two and a bit hours, sometimes three, of bigger-than-life characters, crazy fights and crazier storylines. Heels, faces, turns. It was an entire world unto itself and I loved every second of it for years. I had wrestling actions figures, even had the SmackDown! ring as a toy. I bought the wrestling magazines. The videos. Got my parents to pay for the pay-per-view events, set the VCR to record in the middle of the night to have it watch later in the week.

My favourite wrestling characters were The Undertaker (although I was terrified of him as a child, I loved his transformation into the American Badass), The Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Jake The Snake Roberts, and Mick Foley in his many and varied guises. I remember viscerally hating Chris Jericho, Triple H and a host of others. I watched so much wrestling as a kid, I remember figuring out that the guy who used to go by The 1-2-3 Kid became X-Pac. It was a first clue to the gap between the wrestlers and the characters they assumed.

Professional wrestling taught me a lot about what it means to play a role, a character, about the extremes of personality. It also taught me that commentary tables were very shoddily made. It taught me a little bit about breaking the fourth wall before I ever even knew there was such an idea. One of the watershed moments for any wrestling fan of my generation I think must have been the death of Bret Hart’s brother Owen, during a botched stunt during a live pay-per-view event in 1999. I remember the buzz in the playground at primary school that week. I can remember conversations about whether it too was real or fake. It was of course, all too real. Wrestling, for all that it was fake, we learned, still needed real people and real bodies to perform and their performances were physical, athletic, and demanding.

1999 documentary that looked at life outside the ring.

What brought home the reality of wrestling to me most  though was the documentary Beyond the Mat, released in 1999. Following Terry Funk, Mick Foley and Jake The Snake Roberts in particular, the film, though far from perfect was at the time eye-opening for an 11-year old. It showed what a deeply unglamorous business wrestling could be for the majority of practitioners. It also showed that while fame, and fleeting fortune, could be part of the professional wrestling game, for many it was a worklife with no seeming end in sight.






Mickey Rourke in a scene from 2008 film The Wrestler.

I was reminded of all these things over the weekend when, amidst Olympics fatigue, I finally sat down to watch the 2008 film that revived Mickey Rourke’s acting career: The Wrestler. Although the character took a deal of inspiration from Mick Foley, his story parallels moreso that of Terry Funk in Beyond the Mat since Rourke’s character The Ram is in his early 50s and despite a beat-up body, apparently unable to retire – neither wanting to give up the fading reflected glory of his own past nor being financially able.

A deeply sad film in many ways, it is also a moving account of the way in which sporting glory can fade quickly. Perhaps the most depressing scene is that in the American Legion hall where there is a near empty meet and greet with fellow ex-professional wrestlers, many carrying injuries which might seem more appropriate to war veterans.

The Will Smith-starring Concussion, released last year, tells the story of Dr Bennet Omalu and his fight against America’s National Football League in their attempts to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by professional football players. The film opens with the death in 2002 of Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, whose life after playing was plagued by physical and mental health problems lived out of his pick-up truck. In many ways, it is a real-life example of what The Wrestler explores.

Criticizing this aspect of our professional sporting culture is not so new, in the movies or via other media. In the past, however, it was the lives of boxers which tended to be examined most closely. Films like recent efforts from Cinderella Man or The Fighter and classics like Raging Bull ask us many questions about the impact of sport and violence on people’s lives and the lives of those around them. Songs like Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore? or Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer do much the same.  Books like War, Baby: The Glamour of Violence which tells the story of the Nigel Benn and Gerald McClelland fight which left McClelland all but brain dead, and Allyson Pollock’s Tackling Rugby which presents strong arguments for understanding rugby injuries endured at school as a public health issue, all add to the growing body of work that shows that after the career ends, and after the money dries up, and the fame and glory fade, sport can leave behind in its wake discarded and damaged bodies and minds.

One of the interesting developments I remember when watching professional wrestling was the emergence of mixed martial arts  (MMA) fighters first like Ken Shamrock – who came to professional wrestling after a successful career with UFC  – and later Brock Lesnar who would swing back and forth between the two worlds. Although there is still huge money in professional boxing, MMA is increasingly popular, with UFC the biggest promotion with Forbes reporting a profit of close to $158 million. World Wrestling Entertainment (as the WWF is now known), had a profit last year of $24.14 million. While the WWE now apparently helps any former employees fighting substance addiction, the UFC is increasingly under fire for where it leaves its fighters in retirement, with the Chris Leben story in 2014 being a perfect example of this. While a certain amount of the themes are dealt with in the 2011 film Warrior starring Tom Hardy, this film is a far cry from The Wrestler but it seems that in the coming years it will be UFC fighters who are the focus of filmmakers who want to understand the lure of the limelight and the violence of sport.


Novel Notion: Reflections on History and Fiction

The historical novel is one of the most significant literary trends of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am an avid reader of historical fiction, particularly those set usually in Victorian British or American contexts, which revolve around a mysterious murder. History as a source of literature has been around as long history has; one needs only to remember that Homer’s Iliad, as well as being literary, is historical; or think of Shakespeare’s great historical plays from Julius Caesar to Henry V. In the case of a historian like Edward Gibbon, writing before the novel as a form had really taken hold, to write history was to entertain as well as enlighten. Continue reading “Novel Notion: Reflections on History and Fiction”

Steadfast and True: A Book Endures


One of the great things about studying history is that you can bring your historical knowledge and understanding to bear upon your own personal, family history. You can give context to your family’s past. And yet, history can remain something deeply personal. The best history is usually about people, their lives and times. I recently attended a symposium in the National Library of Ireland, hosted jointly by the National College of Art and Design and IADT. The topic for the day was “Small Histories”, the history of material culture that made up the everyday lives of people in the period 1870-1921. I gave a paper on Dick Fitzgerald’s How to Play Gaelic Football, but the personal nature of some material put me in mind of a book which my family still have that belonged to one of my grandparent’s when they were young, growing up in the 1920s. Continue reading “Steadfast and True: A Book Endures”