The shame of waking up in bed with the succubus Mistress Motivator

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, while the Beloved is away, I find myself once again sharing the bed with a large and varied assortment of reading matter – “the scholar’s mistress”, I believe it’s called, for the books assume the contours and the active gravitational mass of a human body. (Yes, pedantic scientists may point out that the gravitational pull of a body roughly 60 kilogrammes in weight is negligible, but then there are bodies and there are bodies.)
 
It is, indeed, an eclectic bunch: a selection from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, edited by Kevin Jackson; the last three issues of the TLS and the last two of the LRB; the last-but-one issue of Viz (it had a fake reader’s letter about, of all things, piccalilli, which was so funny that when I tried to read it out to a friend I found myself gasping on the floor for breath, eyes streaming with tears); a beautiful, leather-bound edition in two volumes of Browning, embossed with the arms of Trinity, Oxon, which had been won by an M Davidson in 1904, but which I picked up in a second-hand bookseller’s on Bell Street in central London for £34 (I have not got much further with “The Ring and the Book” than I did in my student days but it smells lovely); a complete set of Peanuts strips from the years 1967-68, its golden period; Marcus Berkmann’s A Shed of One’s Own; and . . . and . . . Jesus Christ, what’s this?
 
It’s as if I had woken up not with a beautiful woman by my side but with a deformed and cackling succubus. The book is by Laura Vanderkam and is called What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. It all comes back to me. Oh, the shame. Not mine, though: the shame is Penguin’s. It has started bombarding me – whether out of a spirit of malice, or satire or ignorance, I do not know – with the kind of book that goes in the motivational parts of the business section of bookshops. I am, as they say, a long way from my comfort zone here. Opening it roughly in the middle, for I imagine successful people do not bother with the first half of things, I see the words announcing a section, “What the most successful people do at work”, and the chapter heading on the next page is “The secret of astonishing productivity”. These are in capitals in the original but I will spare you. As far as I can see, the main thrust of the book’s advice can be summed up as: “Get up at 5am.” No good for me, I’m afraid.
 
I flick through further and discover what “may be the most important tip in this book”: to plan “something fun” for Sunday nights. Again, no good for me, since I lost all track of what day of the week it was some time during the first Blair administration. (It is, I have discovered, surprisingly difficult to find out online what day of the week it is and I have at times resorted to calling a friend and then nonchalantly, as if in passing, saying, “Ha, ha, what day is it again?”) Sometimes I’d do the Uxbridge Arms quiz, which was on a Sunday, but lately I have started losing horribly at that and do not consider arriving home broke, furious, miserable and bursting for a pee to be my idea of fun.
 
Then there’s Life’s a Pitch: What the World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All by Philip Delves Broughton. He also wrote What They Teach You at Harvard Business School, which I concede, if it really is what they teach you at that institution, could represent a significant saving; but if it isn’t, then it might be doable under the Sale of Goods Act.
 
And what’s this? The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Start-Ups by Randall Stross. (This didn’t make it to the scholar’s mistress but I did find it on the chairdrobe, which gives you a little peek, if you ever wanted one, into the state of my bedroom.)
 
The sub-imprint for this series, I note, is called Portfolio. Its logo is of a man poised to chuck a javelin – at an angle to the perpendicular of about ten degrees, which, as any mathematician will be able to tell you, is about 35 degrees away from the most efficient angle to chuck something if you want it to go anywhere far.
 
A couple of days later, I’m in the pub with the Beloved, enjoying a pint. It is about 6pm and the tables are crowded with office workers. My eyes brim in pity. How many of them own these books, or would be interested in buying my copies if I offered to sell them? But I won’t, because these books represent everything that has gone wrong with society since the end of the Second World War and I wouldn’t want to encourage them. 
A bed full of books at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era