<![CDATA[John Toomey Books - BLOGAWOGGLE]]>Sat, 07 Apr 2018 19:55:37 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Sergei Magnitsky, Bill Browder, RED NOTICE, HARRY POTTER and Everton 1-3 Manchester City]]>Tue, 03 Apr 2018 23:16:59 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/sergei-magnitsky-bill-browder-red-notice-harry-potter-and-everton-1-3-manchester-cityPicture

Well, the annual excursion to Merseyside had a very different feel to it this year. I should have known it was going to be something different when my matchday sidekick, my nine-year-old son, requested ‘a big game.’

‘Right so!’ I said.

He’d been warned by local Evertonians on each of the last couple of years – when Villa were nudged pathetically over in 4-0 victory two years ago and when Bournemouth were eventually put away 6-3 in last year’s epic encounter. ‘It’s not like this every week, kid!’ they warned him, almost winking. Preparing him for the lifelong reality of being a Toffee.

But a big game is what he said he wanted and a big game he got – Man City, two games out from the title, breaking every statistic imaginable.

Being a big game, of course, it got moved for TV. This too changed everything. The later kick-off meant we had to stay overnight.

So we got out of bed at four a.m., stood in the rain waiting for the Aircoach for twenty minutes, and shivered our way to the airport on Saturday morning. At the airport we went in search of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, the last remaining book in the series that my sidekick had not read.

But it was not in the airport book shop.

Heads went down. The rain, the literary disappointment. The day was stacking up badly.
And then the plane took-off late. The outlook was bleak.

But somehow, through some miracle of flight, the same Ryanair flight that left fifteen or so minutes late arrived in Liverpool John Lennon Airport five minutes early! Either Ryanair gave themselves a fat old window or the pilot that day was on top of his game.

No matter, it felt like our luck had changed. Although neither of us had yet been willing to bring luck so early into the equation.

At the airport we picked up a cab easily enough and with the fleet-footed flight-time still in mind, not even the unusually gruff demeanour of our cab driver rattled our burgeoning optimism. The good people at the Crowne Plaza John Lennon Airport Hotel greeted us with what we have always been met with on our trips to Liverpool – warmth, hospitality, wit and decency.

Normal service resumed.

But it was eight o’clock in the morning, or just after, and even early check-in to the room was still a few hours away.

‘Go down for breakfast,’ we were told. ‘And I’ll come and get you as soon as the room is ready.’

So down for breakfast we went. A muffin and some bacon and two helpings of apple juice for the little fella was enough to elicit, ‘Great trip so far!’ And quickly followed by, ‘Can you send Mum a photo?’

‘The wonderful optimism of him!’ I thought. And sure we sent off not just a photo but a quick video as well.

On the back of this optimism I set myself the task of resolving the HARRY POTTER quandary. We had two hours before check-in to our room, at least, and he had no book and I was halfway through Bill Browder’s RED NOTICE and eager to put a meaningful dent in it over the course of our twenty-four hours in Liverpool.

‘Let’s Google it,’ I said to him. ‘Nearest book shop to the Crowne Plaza.’

Answer: just over 450 metres away. 1 minute walk. WHSmith.

Bingo!

But also trepidation. Too good to be true, surely. As we approached WHSmith it looked like about the best Easons you could imagine – a load of stationary, a pile of cook books and celebrity biographies and a scattering of other random titles. But nothing you might actually want to read.

No sooner had our hearts begun to collectively sink than I spotted the HARRY POTTER shrine along the side wall. We rushed over. There were multiple copies of them all – each of the instalments with a variety of cover art; cloth editions; paperbacks editions; all sorts.

Except for THE DEATHLY HALLOWS.

There’s just one, final copy of the very one he’s after. I see it and point at it and he snatches it up.

The elation!

I quickly look around to see is there any chance there’s a nice hardback edition – happy to shell out because, after all and thank the cosmos, he’s a reader and they’re a species worth investing in, aren’t they?

But there isn’t. I hesitate. Momentarily disappointed. ‘If only,’ I say.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says, resting his hand on my arm. Beaming. Delighted. In thrall to the very cover of the book before a single sentence has been read.

We buy the book and make our way back to hotel, his feet already soaked and the day only started. ‘That was lucky,’ he says, as he leaps over another puddle. ‘But we better save the rest of our luck for the game.’

My heart sinks. I feel a little fissure of guilt or regret, an emotional tear to the muscle of the soul.

‘That’s me talking,’ it occurs to me. ‘Not him.’ That’s my fear, my pessimism, my instinct to protect and close-off. In some small but profound way I’ve infected him with my fear.

But he’s better than that, I think. He’s his mother’s son. And so I rally. I intervene.

 ‘Luck is like money,’ I say to him. ‘The more you have the more you can make. What you need to do is reinvest.’

He likes that and he smiles, and we skip back to the Crowne Plaza, our respective books calling out to us.

Back at the hotel we sit in two tub chairs in the empty bar, his wet socks dangling from the side of a table, my phone charging in a nearby socket, and we read. For two and a half hours we are both lost to our respective literary worlds – HARRY POTTER and RED NOTICE. The only interruption to this is when we are brought complimentary refreshments and he is presented with an Easter Egg by the lovely woman at reception.

He can’t believe how the day is going. ‘Reinvesting, Dad,’ he says. ‘I think we’re going to win.’
By eleven we’re in our room. He wants more photographs for Mum and the younger two back home. The whole staying in a hotel aspect of this trip is new to us but as we settle down to read for another two hours I suspect we’re both secretly thinking, ‘It would be nice to just stay here, in this room, and read our books.’

By this stage I’m just arriving at the awful, horrific and inhumane treatment of Sergei Magnitsky in Russian custody. The story has me where it wants me: Browder’s account pushes me to the brink of tears several times over the course of the next twelve hours, as I dip in and out of it. The corruption and the brutality of Putin and the regime around him is flabbergasting. Flabbergasting! A word I thought I’d probably not ever have cause to use, to be honest. But the extent of the fraud and the inhumanity and the cynicism of these events, and in particular what happens to Sergei Magnitsky, is beyond appalling.

Towards the end of the book, Browder, on the subject of why he has decided not to back down in the face of Putin and Russian mafia threats, writes: “So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can.”

I read that and I thought, as I had on numerous occasions before as I was reading RED NOTICE, I must write about this. If even a handful of people read my blog and decide to go and read RED NOTICE or find out about the story through a Google search or through Browder’s YouTube films, then that’ll be something. Books like this make you wonder why we bother with fiction. They make me think about Arthur Miller thought about the story behind A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, that the story was enough in itself. It didn’t need to be adorned or dressed-up because the events themselves were so shocking and so compelling that you can’t but listen.

RED NOTICE was given to me by my brother-in-law. Once upon a time the same brother-in-law also gave me Nelson Mandella’s THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. That’s some strike rate. If he was in the hedge fund game, he’d be working for Bill Browder and ten bagging it all the way.

As regards the game of football, well, one of the best books I’ve read in a long while was juxtaposed with probably the worst Everton performance I’ve seen in the flesh. I could dissect it but I think I’ll just leave it at this:

"Really? They’re going with two in the middle of the park? And one of them is Rooney?”

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<![CDATA[The New Everton]]>Fri, 07 Jul 2017 00:06:15 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/the-new-evertonPicture
From afar, my quick-capsule review (as the late-great Bill Hicks would have said):

Michael Keane: I think he’ll work out. Got the right profile for an Everton player. Raised in a bigger club, experienced disappointment, went a level or two lower, fought and improved, now ready to deliver on the potential somebody saw in him when he was in his teens. Hungry and could grow into a real player, one that the club may struggle to hold onto if they aren’t able to make serious in-roads in the next couple of years. The prospect of a Keane-Williams partnership at centre-half, with a couple coming through, is encouraging.

Jordan Pickford: Everton needed a new keeper. Pickford looks promising and confident and resilient. It’s been a while since Everton have had a keeper with these qualities and, therefore, this potential.
 
Davy Klassen: to be fair, I’m working off statistics here and Koeman’s judgement. The one game I actually watched him play (Europa League Final against Man U), he was swamped, out of his depth and unable to influence the game. One game, though, does not make a player. His statistics, his youth, and the fact that he has at such a young age been the captain of Ajax suggests people see things in him. And if the Dutch stereotype is anything to go by, he will, at least, be a more consistent and thoughtful alternative to Ross Barkley.
 
Sandro Ramirez: given that all I’ve seen of him are YouTube clips, let this be tempered by caveats of all sorts – the stated and unstated. He looks more mobile than Lukaku. He looks (on YouTube) a better finisher, a harder worker and a better fit for the kind of team Koeman is assembling. Will he score goals consistently? Or at all? Remains to be seen. His brief history suggests 1 every 2 games. On a par with Lukaku. Final caveat – apparently, he needs love. Koeman doesn’t always do love.
 
Two to be loaned out; Mathis and Henry Onyekuru: neither going into the first team, apparently. In fact, Onyekuru is on his way back from whenst he came. But they’re strikers and they’re young. Good business, or potentially so.



The rumours; Rooney and Giroud:
Rooney? If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said that Everton don’t need him. His legs are gone, his best years are gone and he’s nothing to offer even a club at Everton’s level (just below the top 6). Now that it’s been mooted (most-likely fuelled by nostalgia) I’m beginning to think – just maybe! Could Rooney offer Everton some kind of experience they don’t have? Could he see it as his final hoorah and, for 18 months, get himself fit and deliver by virtue of motivation and regular football? Could he be the mentor the younger players need in the big moments, a vital bit of experience in Europe, and an important if intermittent presence in a year or two of transition? Might he be motivated to be fit by the idea of finishing his career as a hero at his boyhood club? I’m almost convincing myself. I want to believe it. I think I nearly do. Does anybody else, even at the reported £200,000 a week?

Giroud: I spent three years of my life living in close proximity to the old Highbury and Arsenal, during the dawn of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. I’ve a not so secret affinity for Arsenal – so long as Everton aren’t in the equation - and as such I’ve followed them closely over the years. I agree that Giroud is not the answer to Arsenal’s questions, but I think he’d be a hell of a player for Everton. I think if you give him extra games and surround him with pace and power of the type Everton are assembling (Bolasie, Ramirez, Lookman, Mirallas), coupled with the central players like Schneiderlin, Davies, Klassen, and the advancing full-backs like Baines and Coleman, you might just be onto something. In an organised and structured team (like France, for example, as opposed to Arsenal’s helter-skelter), Giroud has thrived. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about Koeman, it’s that he likes structure.



The Lukaku soap-opera:
Lukaku is long gone, psychologically long-long gone. Let him go. Take no less than the £75 million being talked about. I’ve said it previously and I’ll say it here again whilst also saying he needs to be sold - he’s probably as good a striker as Everton could hope to have at this stage of their evolution. However, he is not (as some media outlets have reported) a hard worker. Never has been and, in my opinion, never will be. This is why I’d have my doubts about him in Jose Mourinho team. He’s not a Didier Drogba. He doesn’t use his physical presence like Drogba did. Lukaku, contrary to what you will often here him described as, is completely playable. He doesn’t like tight-marking. He doesn’t work particularly hard. His first touch isn’t great. He’s best when you’re already two-nil up. But…but…but…he’s only 24….But and however…he’s also gone, my fellow Evertonians, gone in his heart and mind and his legs. So, let him go. Take the money, buy Giroud, surround him, the French man, with legs and love, and let Rooney back him up. And then gauge how the kids are coming through. Perhaps make another two signings, a full back and another central midfielder (because Barkley, too, is gone).



The Barkley soap-opera: he was offered a bumper contract. He didn’t sign it. It might be because he doesn’t care too much about Everton and being an Everton boy in the end of the day, or it might be because he doesn’t get along with Koeman and hasn’t appreciated the public criticisms of him. But it in the end it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t want to be at Everton and despite the fact that he has improved (as Lukaku has) under Koeman, there are still a lot of questions as regards Barkley; his final ball, his decision making in key moments, and his positional sense.

In conclusion:
I’ve watched both Barkley and Lukaku on the TV and in the flesh, several times, and while I see their potential I’m not yet convinced that either will ever be what the optimists believe they will become. For me, Lukaku lacks that killer element, that ruthlessness and dirtiness of a Diego Costa; his closest contemporary. He’s certainly no Drogba either. And Barkley, I can see the Gazza comparisons, except Barkley is actually more dynamic and powerful, but he lacks Gazza’s vision and deft touch and fluid beauty. You can say a lot of things about Paul Gascoigne, but his football intelligence was supreme. Purely and exclusively instinctive but none the less sublime. Barkley is no Gazza. So, sell Barkely too, I say. If for no other reason than because he doesn’t want to be there. Not enough. If he did, it might be different and I might consider him different to Lukaku. But the truth is that both players are the better and more valuable for having had a season under Koeman and we Everton supporters should think about that and give Koeman time to work with these new players and see what he can do.


Overall impression in early July 2017: cautiously optimistic (Doesn’t get much better at Everton, does it?)
 

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<![CDATA[THE GREAT GATSBY: PART I – an essay, review, reflection or some such something]]>Wed, 28 Jun 2017 21:28:01 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/the-great-gatsby-part-i-an-essay-review-reflection-or-some-such-somethingPicture
My literary ambition (however unrealistic) and my emotional sensibilities, in a literary sense, are based almost entirely on my formative reading experiences with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know how cliché this is and I know I’ve said the same of Dickens in the past. But bear with me.

 I was plunged, involuntarily, into GATSBY, before I could read (read in a real way – I could technically read long before I met the book, of course, but I was barely reading at all, I now realise) and before I learned to discern what styles I admired or how one differed from another. The choice was not mine but my teachers. I was just gone eighteen, I believe, when Terry Dunne put this slim but mighty book before us. It was the story, the actual narrative, that grabbed me. This seems an important detail to me now, in light of a contemporary taste for deriding plot and dismissing it as something just a little bit twee. But that’s the kind of attitude that has frightened readers away from the great books.

It was the plot though, the love story, and what the book had to say about the illusion of love, that spoke most profoundly to me at eighteen. Nothing more than that. I would come to love Fitzgerald’s writing and to see him as the greatest of all the great stylists in my narrow library. His sentences do things that I don’t see in any other writer. They speak to me in a way that other writers’ sentences just don’t. It’s entirely subjective, of course. I recognise this. I’m not saying Fitzgerald is the best (I’m not well read enough to make any such claim with any degree of credibility). I’m just saying he’s my best.

I think, too, that it’s important to say that for at least half of my relationship with Fitzgerald I knew nothing more about him; knew nothing of his other writings or what anybody else had to say about him. In that sense, our relationship is a very old fashioned one – notoriety and reputation and PR have nothing to do with what goes on between me and Scott Fitzgerald.

It was love at first sight, and love in a vacuum; just us, eying each other up and learning to love each other while alone in a room. Philip Roth would be fucking delighted! There were no critics or reviewers or literary theorists – just me and the book.

Of course, in time I have come to read more of Scott Fitzgerald – This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, the unusual and peculiarly cobbled together Tender is the Night – and have learned about his life and his place in the literary world. I’m a true-blue literary convert now. I’m indoctrinated and obsessed and in awe and can consider myself, at this stage, the worst of kind of advocate for anything -  the fan with a typewriter (how dated even this sounds!).

So I knew nothing of Fitzgerald’s troubled private life when I fell in love with him. This was no X-Factor relationship. It’s pure, in a way that barely any other literary relationship has ever been or can be. Like first love, we only get one shot at our first literary crush.

I’m trained now, as a reader, to one degree or another, of course. I can never read books again the way I read GATSBY. This is what makes it both a sentimental giant of my world and a wonder; a wonder because it is one of those elements of my youth that haven’t diminished under the cold eye of time and maturity. In fact, it trawls even deeper waters now, the older I get. Most of what we love and admire in our youth goes on to disappoint us – GATSBY has managed to dodge this bullet. I suspect this is because it possesses just the right amount of cynicism to survive adult reality and just enough idealism to keep us dreaming; the golden ratio. A great book.

- What’s a great book?
-  GATSBY is.

That’s what I tell myself when I begin writing another one of my own. That’s what I tell my students. I think that GATSBY might well be the reason that all my books fall apart after 50,000 words. My literary upbringing has me attuned to the fifty-thousand-word novel. After that I’m over-reaching, I’m waffling. In fact, some of them see fifty thousand on the horizon and fall apart a few thousand short, so overwhelmed are they by the pressure to produce profundity in concision.

I’ve stayed away from writing about this book for so long because – simply put - I didn’t know where to start. Didn’t know what to leave out and where to begin. Then I thought, I’m just going to write everything I know about it. I’m going to keep writing about it until the words stop coming. Something I can’t do when writing a novel but feel free to do when writing an essay. When the words stop coming, I’ll know I’m finished.

So that’s where we are now -  the beginning of that. And here comes GATSBY, the review, by a fan with a typewriter – and, worse still, a fucking website!

To be continued…

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<![CDATA[Everton 6-3 Bournemouth]]>Sun, 05 Feb 2017 21:01:08 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/everton-6-3-bournemouthPicture

This was the fist time I've seen a Ronald Koeman Everton in the flesh, so to speak.

What I'd be worried about:
It's far too easy to get between Everton's centre-halves. Even allowing for the cleverness of Wilshere's pass for Bournemouth's first goal, it was just too easy for Josh King to find space between Williams and Funes Mori. The entire midfield standing off Bournemouth didn't help but this is not the first time I've seen teams get at Everton like this. It's a problem whose origin finds itself beginning with Lukaku and working its way back through the players in midfield.

Lukaku scored four. What can you say? Well, you could say this: defensively he's a bit lazy. He makes half-arsed attempts to close down centre-halves or the deepest sitting midfielder. Maybe this can be forgiven because he spends so much time up there alone but it has the effect of letting the opposition knock the ball around a bit too easily. When the midfield then sits back, this is compounded. This is what happened yesterday and all of a sudden Bournmeouth outnumbered Schneiderlin and Barry. Once they outnumbered them, they started getting in between the full-backs and the centre-halves, as the Coleman and Baines were forced to step out to try and close down the Bournemouth's onrushing midfielders.

Spaces appeared everywhere because the front four were strolling through the game, switched-off at 3-0.

That's not tactics, it's a mentality issue. It's concentration and desire. And it looked, for fifteen minutes, like the worst excesses and naivety of the Martinez era were still with us.

That Everton won 6-3 in the end just demonstrates the fine lines between success and failure in football.

Things to feel good about:
In the end, the team imposed itself on Bournemouth and killed them off.

Lukaku is about the best striker a team in Everton's position could hope to have.  Barkley's final ball and decision-making is improving all the time. Coleman is at his peak.

Tom Davies looks, right now, like he should be starting every game. Schneiderlin has settled well. McCarthy looks like he has some confidence back. Lookman has a few touches and may grow into a player.

Gueye still has to come back into the frame. Holgate might have something about him too. Baines is performing steadily, without really being what he once was.

This Everton team have a little bit more steel about them right now than they did over the last few years.

So: 6-3. Exciting game, unnecessarily close. Got away with it. There are still signs of the Martinez complacency at times but, equally, there are signs of improvement.



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<![CDATA[The new book]]>Wed, 01 Feb 2017 22:22:17 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/the-new-bookSo the new book is due in March - SLIPPING.

Another one-word title beginning with 'SL'. I like one-word titles. They have a figurative range that multi-worded titles just don't. I like the title of my third book and I like the book itself. Is it okay to say that?

But, you see, as a somewhat unconvinced, and unconvincing, want-to-be writer, what is present the third time round is a sense of satisfaction. A comfortableness with what I am and what I've produced. This is a new experience for me. On the first I was airborne, enveloped by naivety and delusion, and on the second I was lamed by uncertainty and a certain crisis of identity.

But the third is different. Like a third child, I'm taking it all in and living in the experience.

I enjoyed writing this book - the characters, the darkness, the humour and story itself. It is what I'd intended. Exactly what I wanted it to be - imperfections and all. It is also the best I could do, in this moment. Or that moment, rather, given that I finished a year and a half ago.

So I hope you - whoever you are - read it. And I hope you enjoy it.

It's funny and it's short - sure what more can you ask for?



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<![CDATA[As things stand - Everton 2016/17]]>Fri, 12 Aug 2016 13:40:04 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/as-things-stand-everton-201617So Paul Pogba has gone to Manchester United in a stupidly big transfer deal. Is he worth €100 million? No.

So let’s forget about him for now and move onto another stupidly big transfer deal – John Stones to Manchester City for close to €50 million.

Is he worth that money? No, he isn’t, but from what I’ve seen he is and will be a seriously good player.

It was clear he wanted to go to City but he kept quiet, got on about his job and Everton now have enough money to go and buy a few other stop-gap players while Koeman builds. I think that in this case, we Everton supporters just have to hold up our hands and admit that Stones is a player who at this moment in time is probably deserving of being at a bigger club, playing on a bigger stage. Once we can acknowledge that we can then make our peace with the transfer and say, ‘Thanks,’ to City, for the money, and hope we turn them over the next time we meet them, maybe even with a John Stones own goal in the mix.

But this Lukaku fella is a different kettle of fish altogether. I think Everton should take €65 million for him, if anyone is willing to pay that, and should invest in somebody with more bottle and graft. Somebody who turns up for the 45-50 odd games a season that Everton play.

Right now, on Friday the 12th of August, it looks to me that Everton’s best line-up will consist of Coleman, Baines, Williams, Jagielka/Kone (if transfer goes through) in defence. I think that is strong enough but a goalkeeper is required behind them. Neither Robles or Stekelenburg are good enough.

Best case scenario in midfield might be some variation of Bolasie (if he can be secured), Lennon, McCarthy, Gueye, Barkley/Deulofeu (playing centrally, just off the centre-forward, bursting through the middle at pace at every opportunity. Roaming free, maybe.).

Then there is Lukaku up front (if he can be retained). Why Everton might look to contain him is the fact that there are no other options up front. None. Unless you change the system to a 4-3-3 and utilise Bolasie, Deulofeu and another pacey somebody brought in to replace Lukaku. Unless you play Mirallas up there, which might be worth a punt.

On the bench? Possibly Kone, Pennington, Galloway or Holgate as defenders. Some experience and some potential. There is also Funes Mori. In midfield, all I can see are Deulofeu and Mirallas, and Barry as an extremely static and sitting buffer in front of the defence. Tom Davies too, maybe.

Up front? Well, as said above, there’s just nothing there, as far as I can see. Perhaps one of the young players that we haven’t seen yet, but based on what we have seen playing at this level, there is just an empty space once you get beyond Lukaku.

Looking at all this it seems to me that the weaknesses should be obvious to Koeman. To us all. A goalkeeper and a top striker are urgently required. And a real quality central-midfielder is fairly high on the priority list too.

Given that acquiring these are far from certain, I think it was a mistake to let Leon Osman go. I admire Gareth Barry a lot but I think had his contract been up then he’d be gone too. The legs simply aren’t there. His only function can be as a sitting midfielder. Osman, on a one-year contract, could have provided further cover and it would have been prudent to retain him too, I think. He was a good ball player and he had experience.

Major players whose time has come and gone? As I see it, here they are - Gibson, Arouna Koné, Cleverley, McGeady, Niasse. They all could have futures elsewhere but as Everton players, at the level that the club, with Koeman in charge and Farhad Moshiri bankrolling, are aspiring to be at, they have had their time.

The younger players not mentioned here still have it all to play for, I suppose, and who is to say which of them will swim and which will just tread water.

How will Everton do in 2016/17? I think if Koeman secures Kone from Sunderland, Bolasie from Palace, and (here’s the big stretch) a quality keeper and central midfielder (Mata has been mentioned), and we don’t lose or can adequately replace Lukaku, then Everton might spring a few surprises. Positive ones.

But from this vantage point, those are two smallish ifs and three great big ones.
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<![CDATA[Brexit]]>Tue, 05 Jul 2016 12:05:09 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/brexitGiven that cosmopolitan London and Scotland fell mostly on the remain side, and the fact that most of the voices from both the Tory party and the wider network of support for Brexit appeared to me to be English, I’m coming at this from the position that I see Brexit as having been actualised by the English rather than the British.

Just to clarify from the off.

As an Irishman, I willingly confess to two things: firstly, I’m no kind of nationalist. I just don’t find the concept of nation particularly affecting; and secondly, I’m a bit of an Anglophile. This second admission seems to me to be in direct contradiction with the pleasure I take in England’s failure on the sports’ fields of the world, and none more so than the football pitch. But this strange antipathy I find rising inside me for all teams English is more about the repeated arrogance of the players and the press as regards their place in world football than it is about history or nationhood. I like to see the English football team fail in the same way I enjoy seeing all rampant egos fail. But this antipathy is almost exclusively saved for the English football team, the thuggish fans, and on occasion England’s tennis players during Wimbledon season.

But in other regards, as I say, I’m quite the Anglophile. Many of my favourite writers are English. There are a lot of TV programmes, particularly BBC and Channel 4 productions, that I feed voraciously on in whatever downtime I have available to me. Music? The Rolling Stones, The Smiths. And I lived in London for five years and retain fond memories of the place and the people. As an Irishman – that being a man with an Irish accent and therefore identified as something other by those around me, as opposed to any sense of national distinction I felt within myself – I can remember only two or three occasions when anything remotely racist or sectarian was said to me. But love as I do the repeated failures (ironic italicisation here is to indicate the bigger story, to be saved for another time, regarding whether these performances are actually failures or simply a falling short of unrealistic ambition), I like the English. I like England.

And having lived among the English (as if they are all the same, each one of them), I concede that the vote to leave the EU inching over the line did not come as a great surprise to me. In the swagger of that nation’s gait there lies just enough deep-seated colonial delusion for this to happen. It’s not rampant but it is a significant trait. A trait that finds its’ origins in blind faith, unquestioning acceptance of what their history books tell them. There is a strange contradiction screaming from the English psyche, in my experience; on the one hand suspicious of Johnny Foreigner and yet proud of the history that brought him to England in the first instance.

Brexit, to me, is unfortunate but no real surprise.

I think it unfortunate because on a quasi-ideological level my intuition tells me we are better off together than working in isolation. I don’t want to sound like a new-age guru or a medium for frilly liberalism but the move towards integration and unity and compromise is one that speaks more loudly to me. I think we as individuals and as a society are better for being in the EU. And while I sympathise with those who see the failures and the undemocratic nature of the workings of the EU, fundamentally I believe by staying together we can improve our living standards and the peaceable nature of European and world politics. And by staying in we can influence and improve the EU itself.

But this has not solely been a racist, elitist, little-Englander vote either. I blame the national governments and the EU politicians for this vote too. Because this is a protest vote. It’s a Fuck-you to the system. A political system that has marginalised large tracts of society, imposed austerity in the areas of public health, education, social welfare and often targeted society’s most vulnerable, while saving the rogue speculators whose ideology and practises did most to cause our most recent economic catastrophe. The political system championed by the EU and the national governments of our respective countries has created structures that favour economy over society, that have demonstrably punished the poor and the vulnerable, squeezed the middle and let the wealthy elite off the hook. It has been said before and I’ll repeat it here – what we have seen in the last decade is not capitalism, it is not the market regulating itself. If it was, then all those banks we bailed out, all those big money companies that were allowed to survive, would have gone down too. Like the ordinary people who gambled. But they didn’t, did they?

This fundamental unfairness has deprived national governments of the moral imperative required to take whatever steps are necessary to re-balance society. And it has fostered a suspicion and a resentment towards the EU. The effect of all of this has been to cause widespread dissatisfaction, distrust of politicians and politics, and big business, and the very mechanics of the European and world economy. Hence, the protest vote.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the architecture of the economy, national and international, is designed to protect the rich and exploit the poor. We don’t need many facts and figures here either, we just have to look around our own lives to see the disparity, to see who is paying for the mistakes and who is not. Just turn on the radio, listen to whichever mouthpiece of a minister the government puts forward on any given issue, and observe how they respond to the difficult questions. Observe how they squirm and regurgitate the platitudinous and vacuous bullshit contrived by their PR consultants. Meanwhile hospitals and schools go underfunded as the banks get back on their feet and squeeze the pips from all those who managed to just about hang on through everything. For those who survived, who dug in deep to get through it, this is the reward: to be kicked again with higher interest rates and premiums, with rising property prices and lower standards of living.

In light of all this, and there certainly are questions for the EU to answer here, and the ingrained sense of national greatness that often exists in England, it is hardly surprising that you get this kind of protest vote. The irony, of course, is that the very demographic who pushed Brexit through, the working class in the comparatively poorer areas in of Northern England, the squeezed middle, or the disenfranchised North of Ireland, are the ones who will suffer most as a result of Brexit.

A Tory party, a political party born of and interested almost exclusively in protecting the privileged, whose leaders and leading thinkers speak openly about free-market policy and their beliefs in organising society around the economy, the agendas of big business, will be no friends to the poor and the disenfranchised when the economic shit hits the fan. That’s for sure. They never have been. They never will be. In fact, it is more likely that Brexit will serve to neuter these vulnerable groups still further. Beyond the censure and influence of EU labour law, the poor and the disenfranchised are wide open for unbridled exploitation.

Which brings us to Noam Chomsky. As Brexit was breaking, I happened to be watching a documentary on Netflix and these words of Chomsky leapt out at me. They seemed chillingly apt, especially in light of the lies and misinformation that Farage&Co peddled in the run-up to the vote:
“The public relations industry, which essentially runs the elections, is applying certain principles to undermine democracy which are the same as the principles that applies to undermine markets. The last thing that business wants is markets in the sense of economic theory. Take a course in economics, they tell you a market is based on informed consumers making rational choices. Anyone who’s ever looked at a TV ad knows that’s not true. In fact, if we had a market system, an ad, say for General Motors, would be a brief statement of the characteristics of the products for next year. That’s not what you see. You see some movie actress or a football hero or somebody driving a car up a mountain or something like that. And that’s true of all advertising. The goal is to undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices and the business world spends huge efforts on that. The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices. It’s pretty reasonable and it’s so evident you can hardly miss it.” – Noam Chomsky

Brexit?

All I can think is, what awful commonality could bring this motley crew together: Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, the Austrian Far Right leader Norbert Hofer, and then the trump of all trump cards – the Donald Trump.

Politics right now is a borderless asylum (the irony in this metaphor is delicious, of course) and there are lunatics everywhere! Tread carefully, I say, for your ire, no matter how just, may be turned against you; you may be destroyed by your own anger.]]>
<![CDATA[Euro2016 - a blog of two halves]]>Mon, 13 Jun 2016 19:21:02 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/euro2016-a-blog-of-two-halvesIt’s Ireland v Sweden this evening. In Paris. My expectations are as such: I think we’ll get a draw and if we can deprive Zlatan of service and send him into the sulky zone after sixty minutes or so, then we might even sneak a win.
 
I would like to see Hoolahan play in the middle, getting close to Long, feeding Long and the wingers and full backs where possible. I think we should do what we always do when we’re at our best – we should harass them, harangue them and make life uncomfortable. And when we have the ball we should be direct and aggressive. This, of course, is the hallmark of all Martin O’Neill teams – directness coupled with aggression.
 
Direct doesn’t mean long-ball, mind. It means you look to play the ball forward as soon as possible, you hit your wide men quickly, they get down the line, you follow-up on crosses and win the dropping ball. They call this kind of thing all sorts of names these days but fundamentally football is about getting to the goal as quickly as you can. That means passing effectively (not just aesthetically) and running a lot. And when you lose it, you get up off your arse and you get after the opposition. I think we’ll do this and I think we’ll get a positive result.
 
First half concluded. Time for a pie and a cup of tea.
 
Please note the second half will commence promptly in roughly twelve hours – when the game is over and the kids are in bed. (The Blogger would like to unreservedly apologise for any confusion caused by the contradictions in sentence just past.)
 
13/06/2016 20:11
Ireland 1-1 Sweden.
 
The verdict? Played really well, I thought. Did all of the above but once we scored the plan seemed to go out the window. That’s not tactical, I don’t think. It’s either psychological or the Swedes raised their tempo and we couldn’t stay with them. I think we just lost our shape a little and backed off; afraid of the lead. Which is classic flaw in all underdogs.
 
It feels disappointing but might prove otherwise. Italy v Belgium has just kicked off and I hear it in the background. I may live to regret these words but I’m not at all sure about this Belgium side and what exactly they’ve done to merit their reputation. Admittedly, their individuals when down on paper seem like they should be formidable but to date they’ve done nothing as far as I can see. They’ve not been a team. They may well evolve into one, and if they are to achieve this, this tournament is certainly their moment. They floundered at the World Cup and their relative youth made that just about forgivable, but potential stops being potential and starts being wasted opportunity at a certain point. And I think Belgium might just be at the juncture in their evolution and I’m not fully convinced, based on what I’ve seen, that they have the balls to take on that responsibility.
 
So the verdict on our result then? If Belgium flop like I think they might, I think there might just be a win there for us somewhere in this group. And a stalemate against the Italians.
 
Sorted. Knock-out stages here we come.
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<![CDATA[Why teach?]]>Mon, 06 Jun 2016 11:02:50 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/why-teach
I’ve wanted to write about teaching for a long time. But I haven’t. Because I’ve not known how. I want to write about why I teach and about what the job really is about, but it’s hard to broach this subject without meandering into enemy territory and finding myself on the defensive: the CAO system; the points race; League Tables; the Department of Education and Skills and the warped agenda currently driving educational policy, including but not limited to industry and the economy; the role of students themselves; their parents; the burden of adminstration placed on school management and attempts of policy to more or less pit management and teachers against each other; the erosion of teachers’ rights and entitlements, pay and conditions; the contempt with which teachers are discussed in the media, and by your average Joe who really knows very little about education other than their own individual, and entirely singular, experience of education X amount of years in the past.

So, as you can see, it’s hard to enter this discussion without anticipating and inviting hostile fire, from any number of vantage points. Us teachers are paranoid, of course, but like the CIA, it behoves us to be so. Myopia certainly hasn’t done us any favours. Or our students, for that matter.

But I’m going to try to explain why I teach, in terms as clear and simple as I can. That’s the question I’m addressing, but I hope that in addressing it I will perhaps contribute to the general understanding and appreciation of what we, the vast and overwhelming majority of us, do as teachers, and why we do it.

My father was a teacher. That’s one reason I’m a teacher. I saw what he did. I saw his life, and on occasion, as a child, I watched what happened when he’d meet a past pupil in the shop or on the street. I saw how people talked to him. It seemed like a nice life, on that level.

In the darkest days of my teens, sitting in those old classrooms in Clonkeen College, I used to look up at teachers and think, ‘I might be back here someday. Doing that.’ I imagined, and have always been imagining, I realise now, ways of working with people and fantasising about being a positive influence on somebody’s life. Just think – what a waste! The things I could have been fantasising about.

Post-Leaving Cert, I eventually made my way to university.  To London; University North London it was called at the time. I took English to try and make-up for the fact that I was an awful reader and I knew I needed to do some considerable catch-up if my vain ideas of being a writer were to come to fruition. It wasn’t just teacher I wanted to be. I’m not saying that. Footballer, writer, even actor for a while (even though I’d never so much as looked at a flyer for an acting class or drama group, and suffered from a painful lack of confidence). These are just some of the idle fantasies I entertained. But teacher was always in the background. Even as I pursued English for the purposes of making me a better writer, I thought I could teach while I was waiting for that inevitable success to happen.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that teaching for me is genetic and pervasive and environmental. It feels as if it is all over my life. All through my life.

As I neared the end of my degree in English, my girlfriend at the time had already begun applying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). She too was on a road she seemed to have always imagined, but she was clearer in her focus. So I took her lead, applied where she applied, did the mock interview, as she had done, and all of a sudden I was on the road to being a teacher without really having given it much thought. It was more an instinctive thing. On the one hand, teaching was where I’d always been headed, but on the other it was just a stop-gap until I ruled the literary world.

I completed my PGCE, hating every minute of teacher-training and just wanting to have my own classes and get on with it. I felt like I knew what I wanted to do with a class and knew how to do it. I just needed the leash taken off.

​I taught in London for a year, at Crown Woods School in Eltham. An emotionally tumultuous year, I recall, and while much of the administration involved in teaching in the English system – the Yr 9 SATs, the literacy initiatives of Greenwich County Council with their myriad of wacky ideas and the arcane array of educational jargon they were so fond of employing – was mind-numbing, I still remember my time in the classroom very fondly. I had a group of Yr 10s who I did A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE with that I was very fond of. I had a tutor group who I really liked, and an A-Level group that I liked too; kids maybe six years younger than me, who worked well for me as I found my feet as a teacher.

In the many evenings where I socialised with my colleagues at Crown Woods, the conversations were lively. And often, surprisingly, for all we protested about talking shop, they centred around education: our respective subjects; why the initiatives were missing the point; and ways we were working to make it better. We were teachers, we were young and naïve, and we really wanted to just teach. We almost did it despite the system, I feel now, as I look back.

I came home to Dublin in the summer of 2001, determined to stay only briefly, with my heart set on travel and seeing the world. Hell-bent on avoiding any measure of responsibility, I took a job in HMV for a month. Officially it was a month, but to the best of my recollection I was only present for eleven days of the month before I did what I was always going to do - quit. I quit to watch the 9-11 coverage on SKY NEWS. I sat in front of the TV for the guts of two weeks.

Then in late October I went for a small, short-term job as an EAL teacher in a Gardiner Street Primary School. I began just before Halloween and expected to be gone by Easter. Five years later I was still there.

I loved working with those kids but as the years slipped by I found myself being moved closer to the role of mainstream Primary teacher. Teaching primary-age kids English was one thing, but the thought of being in the mainstream classroom and trying to teach subjects that were really beyond my expertise left me feeling jumpy. Added to which, I had begun to feel unfulfilled and wanted more of a challenge, but one more suited to my training and my ability.

So, with a hard-won Contract of Indefinite Duration (CID) on the table at Gardiner Street, and my wedding imminent, I turned my back on that security and headed off in the direction of my alma mater, on a temporary and part-time contract.

Clonkeen College – September 2006. I remember my first day in Clonkeen, as a teacher, for a number of reasons. But the most significant was the moment I left the staffroom for my first class. I paused on the corridor, just outside my father’s old office, and looked down the corridor. It was so familiar and there was a physical sense of belonging for me. Something palpable.

I’d looked down this corridor so many times before, over so many years, but not in a long time. It hadn’t changed much. It hadn’t changed at all, in fact. It still hasn’t; although in the next year it will as a new build is completed.

As I watched the students filing erratically up and down the corridor, and the light streaming into the corridors from open doors, I just felt like this was where I was meant to be. ‘It feels like coming home,’ were the actual words that I thought. I wrote them down a few minutes later, when I got to my first class.

But I felt nervous too.

However, before I had time to think too much about that one, Mary Sommers, one of my old teachers and then a colleague, came out of the Principal’s Office. I was looking at my watch, trying to sync it with the bell. ‘Relax,’ she told me, somewhat bemused by my over-eagerness as I stood braced for the first lesson of my tenure. ‘The bell hasn’t even gone yet.’

​Mary retired soon after this, and sadly passed away during this last year, but in the year or two we worked together she, as a senior voice, is somebody I remember being most supportive, as I tried to find my feet and my identity, back in my own school, but in a new capacity.

That was nearly ten years ago and I’m still a teacher and still not even nearly a writer. My vain hopes in that regard are so significantly diminished as to be mere wishful thinking. But the funny thing is that now I’m of the opinion that even was I to be a writer that I’d still be a teacher. I think I might need, in some small way, to teach.

​I love the classroom. I know a lot of my colleagues may wince at that kind of mawkishness, but I suspect that cynicism is a mask most of us wear out of necessity and that most of them also understand what I mean. There are other aspects of teaching, like all jobs, that I could gladly do without. But I genuinely love the classroom. I love teaching, and specifically English. And even more specifically, Leaving Certificate English.

And why? Because, I believe, I’m doing something that I’m reasonably good at. I think that I am able to enthuse students about my subject. I think that the atmosphere in my lessons is supportive, encouraging, sometimes demanding, and in it we, the students and me, engage with literature but also life. I believe that I communicate my passion to my students and that they respond to it. I believe that they improve both their appreciation for literature and their ability to write by virtue of being in my class. And I believe that these are things that enhance their lives in ways that none of us can quite understand, and that only one of them is their Leaving Certificate.

I teach because I find fulfillment and enjoyment in trying to enthuse students about language and how we use it. I teach because it is rewarding for me and because it helps my students. I enjoy the challenge of the classroom too, working with different personalities and group dynamics. There will always be students we can’t reach but I believe that I go out of my way to try and reach every student in my class, irrespective of their ability or their past sins. Teaching is a job where you must bury the hatchet on a daily basis.

I believe that I’m a good teacher. And what’s more, when I look around my staffroom, what I see are a room full of teachers who are all, each of us in our own distinct ways, doing our very best for all of our students. We teach because we actually like teaching people. We want to teach.

This is why turning on our televisions or radios and hearing our efforts and our profession rubbished, or snide comments made by parents, or sometimes by students, no doubt students whose parents who do this round the dinner table, is so demoralising.

I never expected much money from teaching but I did expect, and feel I have the right to expect, a certain level of respect. When I hear people discuss things like League Tables in the context of education, when I see different sets of results being compared against each other (as if all groups and every student is the same), I feel sick.

I have students who have worked their hearts out, and for whom I have given my all, who may get a C in their Leaving Certificate. But that C, if it comes to pass, will be as significant and as worthy as any B, A or anything else in that set of results. League Tables and statistics have as much place in the discussion of education as the weather.

I used to think that if somebody wanted to question us, as teachers, on the basis of results, then they should sit down with us, a let us go through them one by one and explain who did his work, who didn’t, whose attendance wasn’t great, who suffered a bereavement that year etc, etc. But in recent years what I’ve come to think is - Why are we defending ourselves all the time? We’re doing a good job. Why not let the students talk?

I would be happy for anybody to talk to my students and ask them how they feel about my classes. About their result, why they achieved as they did, about how I did or didn’t support them.

I’m not suggesting I know everything or that I am “the go to guy” for my subject. I’m not suggesting anything, in fact. But what I’m saying is that I know my subject and I work, to the best of my ability, to support the learning and the general well-being of every student who finds himself before me.

And, to be frank, I resent being questioned on my integrity in this matter. By anybody.

The only thing I have ever heard that even approached expressing my views in any meaningful and concise way was an interview I happened across recently. About a month ago I was in Armagh, with my wife and her extended family, for a family reunion – Armageddon! There was an interview from an RTE television programme (from the 70s, I think) with my wife’s grandfather, Seán O’Boyle; a wonderful and generous school master, by all accounts. He was asked in the interview about his impression or reaction or opinion about the new education system and the move towards standardisation and testing (this is my rough recollection, mind). His response struck me as being as a good a summation of what I believe teaching is about as any I’ve ever heard. I’m paraphrasing here but I believe what he said was that he didn’t really think much about it. He felt that his job, as a teacher, was simply to communicate his passion for his subject to his students. As simple as that.

My frustrations in teaching stem from a feeling that we are being judged on doing a job that we never signed up for. And that we don’t believe in.

I believe in education, not 'results.' I believe in process and learning as an ongoing, often immeasurable, process. It makes us better even when we can't show or quite put our finger on why or how. Sometimes it goes well, others not so well. But the process is what we're after. Education and real learning.

​So, when I’m annoyed and frustrated and feeling under-appreciated these days, I think of Seán O’Boyle’s words. They make me feel better. Because I think that I do teach in the spirit that he encapsulated. I communicate my enthusiasm for my subject and I look after all my pupils – all of them! That’s the job I’m paid to do. And it’s a job I do well.
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<![CDATA[The Martinez Dilemma]]>Mon, 15 Feb 2016 12:25:55 GMThttp://johntoomeybooks.com/blogawoggle/the-martinez-dilemmaRoberto Martinez – where to position one’s self as a long-suffering Everton fan.

Under David Moyes, Everton were largely solid, uncompromising and organised. This was usually good enough to secure a top ten finish and on occasion a top six, and once even a top four. Which was promptly squandered against a Villareal, of course, in the qualifying stages for the Champion’s League.

But I liked Moyes. I liked the work ethic of his Everton teams and I liked knowing they wouldn’t embarrass themselves or be wasteful. They eked out all they had from the ability they possessed. They were evidence of what I believe is most beautiful about football – in the end, you get what you deserve. But in that security there was also an inherent and somewhat debilitating banality. A depressingly humdrum pragmatism – you never really fancied them against the top teams, or to actually win anything. It was nobody’s fault, though. They all worked their socks off, they just hadn’t got the means.

Roberto Martinez is an altogether different kettle of fish. The swagger of his first season was impressive, as he fused Moyes’ pragmatism with invention and flair. Since then, the pragmatism has waned as Moyes’ spine has shuffled off into retirement or have begun to slide from their peak.

In his defence though, Martinez’s Everton play with creativity and freedom and bravado. And I think any criticism of Martinez should be tempered by the acknowledgement that there are players currently at Everton, players who by anybody’s estimation could be deemed Everton’s most talented players, who wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him. It is Martinez’s charismatic manner and the brand of football he steadfastly endorses that has secured the services of Lukaku and Deulofeu, for example. I’m not sure these two would be with Everton if David Moyes was in charge. Equally, it’s hard to imagine the ever-cautious Moyes giving Ross Barkley as many minutes and as much responsibility as Martinez has gifted him. Seamus Coleman, too, always seemed to play within himself under Moyes. Moyes seemed not to entirely trust Coleman as a defender, but under Martinez, when fit, Coleman has been as good a full back as you will see in the Premier League.

So where are we then with Martinez, following three 3-0 victories and then a one nil defeat at home to West Brom?

​One of the points that Martinez’s cheerleaders used to cite in his defence, while he was at Wigan, was that he didn’t have the necessary quality of player to be judged fairly. They said that he got limited players to play attractive football and if he had at his disposal better players that the rest would fall into place. Ex-Liverpool player, Danny Murphy, was recently heard lamenting the Everton fans' growing impatience with Martinez’s team, citing their comparative youth and their potential as reasons for staying the execution.

I tend to agree with Danny Murphy, as it happens. For now, at least. Although I always wince and sigh the moment I hear anybody defend a footballer on the grounds of potential (to be fair, Murphy may not have used this word but it was intimated, I think). Football is a game almost solely for the precocious. If you’re not a winner, if you’re not playing regularly and performing regularly, if you’re not dedicated and ruthless at 21 or 22, the truth is that you probably won’t ever be more than a journeyman. No mean feat that either, to make a career out of playing a sport you love; not to be scoffed at. But to be blunt, there is a point, and in football it comes earlier than in most walks of life, where potential becomes irrelevant and the only true indicator of your value and your likely achievements is what you have already and are presently delivering. The future is now! This should be the mantra of any young footballer with ideas about himself.

This Everton team is right on the cusp of this critical moment. That’s my view of the situation. Are they too young and is it too early for anybody to be judging them? Yes, probably, but only just. I think that in twelve months if they haven’t delivered some tangible sign of progress, of success, that we may begin to ask the hard questions of the manager. And, equally, the players that are being so lauded.

So, for now, I watch with a degree of scepticism at the defensive frailty that has been a hallmark of any Martinez team I’ve ever watched, while hoping that ultimately the flair and the beauty will mature and evolve, adding a necessary ruthlessness to its swagger. Twelve months, one more season.

And then?

Well then, I think it’s simple. Bring back Sylvain Distin.

​I once watched Distin warming up and marvelled at the awkwardness of his passing, for a professional footballer. But as a defender he was exceptional. Moyes' best ever signing. He made everyone around him better. Jagielka, Baines, Coleman, Hibbert, Howard. Whenever I watched Everton in those years what I saw was that everyone in the Everton defence, or taking up defensive positions, took their line off Sylvain Distin. He was fast, strong, he read the game well and he kept things tight. He was, in my opinion, pound for pound, Moyes' best signing. And Martinez could use somebody like him right now.
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