A statue of James Joyce in Dublin. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: navigating Dublin with a literary map in my head

I had gone to Dublin with the express intention of understanding a city that to me has always seemed incoherent – and even a little minatory.

Standing on a patch of induced greenery, I stared first at the vast and glassy curvilinear buttocks of Dublin Airport’s newish Terminal Two, then at the shiny cars being shat out from between them along the approach road. I turned and saw the entire sweep of Dublin Bay open out before me: I could see the Wicklow Mountains to the south; the city centre with its hugger-mugger of recent building; the Brobdingnagian bodkin spearing up from O’Connell Street and the triangular roofs of the assemblage of office blocks that Dubliners – with typically irritating self-deprecation – have named “Canary Dwarf”. To the north was the massy brow of Howth Head and before it the long promenade of Dollymount Strand. Out in the bay, the Bull breakwater lanced through the waves. All was in order, all was legible: I had achieved my objective . . . or had I? I stubbed out my cigarette, turned on my heel and headed for the terminal. In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and here was I, lapsing yet again into the troubling reverie of international air travel.

I had gone to Dublin with the express intention of understanding a city that to me has always seemed incoherent – and even a little minatory. As I wrote about Manchester a few weeks ago: I never feel I have the measure of a city until I’ve walked across it and felt its heft with my feet. I’ve travelled to Dublin enough over the years, beginning in the early 1980s, when, if my memory serves me, there was as much horse-drawn as motor-propelled traffic on the roads, and the alleyways off the main thoroughfares seemed preternaturally gloomy after dusk. The problem is if you ask Dubliners to take you for a walk around their manor, they invariably concentrate on the Georgian squares, St Stephen’s Green and the immediate purlieu of Trinity College, but pretty as all of this stuff is, it’s no more indicative of the city’s realities than a walking tour of Bloomsbury would be of London’s. To forestall such clichés I arranged for my friend the writer Carlo Gébler to meet me at the airport: we would walk from there out to the Bull and take up our stance where Dedalus, in his earlier Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man incarnation, sees the so-called “heron girl”, and so experiences the earthy epiphany that gives him the impetus to “fly by the nets” of Church, language and nationalism.

There was only one problem with this high-flown promenade: Carlo, not being the most experienced of urban promenaders, had brought a road map rather than a topographic one. Soon enough we were floundering around in a scrubby realm of playing fields, waste ground and cemeteries as we tried to follow the course of a brook across the M1 motorway and towards the coast. We ended up describing a wide and fruitless gyre, before finishing up on the arterial grimness of Swords Road. Neither of us minded – we hadn’t seen one another for nine months and there was plenty to discuss. Besides, this was natal territory for Carlo, whose Bohemian forefathers arrived in Dublin shortly after Dedalus flew the coop, and he was able to point out specific streets that figured in the family history.

All this personalisation helped, but what was more informative still were the feet-that-are-facts on the ground. When Nabokov gave his celebrated lectures at Cornell University in the 1950s he would draw a map on the board to begin with – the “two ways” of Marcel’s Combray, or the floor plan of Mansfield Park – as a prelude to discussing them. I tried the same thing for the students I taught Joyce’s Portrait to last year: sketching out the locations of Clontarf chapel, the wooden bridge, the Bull and the island of dunes that has formed in the past 200 years to its north, so that they can imaginatively place themselves in Stephen’s footsteps. It may not have worked for them but it has for me; in Portrait Stephen encounters a bevy of beefy seminarians as he crosses the wooden bridge, their muscular-Christian footfalls shaking the entire structure. Carlo and I were pushed to the parapet by tearaways automotively goosing one another. The Bull had become, he told me, a favoured spot for such antics.

We sat out at the end of the breakwater for a while, appreciating the salty zephyrs licking our cheeks. It’s said that another big bodkin, this one topped by a statue of Our Lady of the Sea, was deliberately implanted on the Bull as a faithful rejoinder to the paganism of the epiphany Joyce’s protagonist experiences here – but that seems a little far-fetched to me. True, as we made our way that evening into central Dublin there was plenty of evidence of the festivities to come: on Monday it would be Bloomsday, and folk were gearing up for all the mummery associated with this bewildering bouleversement, whereby one of Hibernia’s most recusant sons has been wilfully co-opted as a national bard.

But really, Joyce himself – in his life and his work – deployed the most effective possible tactic when it comes to comprehending Dublin: he left.

 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times