Jaroslav A. Polák
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My Hebrew Tuesdays, why modesty is overrated, and how I became a grand dame

In this week's diary, Julie Burchill explains why she's returning to the shul – and her secret to good health.

International Happiness Day is on 20 March. There is something inherently funny about this, implying as it does that the rest of the year may be wilfully abandoned to misery. It reminds me of the slogan that my adored adopted home town is keen on: “Brighton and Hove – no place for hate”. Perhaps the originators could tell us where in Sussex, then, we may give full rein to our rancour: Steyning, Fulking, Pease Pottage?

When we are stroppy teens, we often declare mulishly that we’d rather have an interesting life than a happy one, seeing cheeriness as something suspiciously shallow. Each time we hear the vulgar street exhortation “Cheer up, it might never happen!” we dig our dismayed heels in further. But before we know it, we’ve gone from exquisitely doomed youth to grumbling old git. Look at poor Morrissey! Like Maoism and love bites, miserabilism only looks good on the young.

The country with the best “happiness equality” in the world is Bhutan, the United Nations tells us. I’m not sure how happy I’d be in a country where homosexuality is illegal, where abortions are so hard to get that many women have to cross into India to find even a backstreet termination and where citizens married to foreigners are not permitted to hold civil service positions. Is it just because Bhutan is so cut off that no one knows any better?

The position of those on the left when it comes to immigration is strangely inconsistent. On the one hand, they like to present England as a joyless hellhole (which I always think says far more about them and their joyless mates than the country I’ve had such a smashing time in during my long, lush life): on the other hand, they want everyone to come here. Is this what the young people call “humblebrag”, perchance?

 

Dirty little secrets

A gorgeous young starlet meets a hot male model on a reality show. They hook up on camera, she gets pregnant when they emerge blinking into the real world, they break up, he accuses her of sleeping around and casts doubt on the paternity of the tot, she has the baby, he takes a DNA test on daytime TV, they kiss and make up – every step of this madcap minuet of modern manners played out in the scandal sheets.

So far, so good. I love drama (“Anything that is worth doing is worth doing in ­public,” as Joe Orton once wrote), to the extent that when a tabloid reporter doorstepped me and my girlfriend after our ­sapphic elopement back in the 20th century, I rapped sharply on his car window to wake him up when, finally ready to take a dolled-up sunshine promenade, we noticed that he was taking a nap. But then the starlet puts a message on Twitter: “Appreciate simplicity. Be grateful and authentic in every­thing you do.”

I don’t have anything against people selling their stories. Modesty is an overrated virtue, especially in women, who have had it forced upon them under threat of death for most of history. What I have an issue with is the way in which such types pretend, in essence, to be Quakers on social media – or the InstagrAmish, if you will. If you’re going to live a look-at-me life, own it. Be blatant, be flagrant, be shameless, but please don’t pretend to be Gandhi on Twitter.

 

Playing the fool

I’m all for acting in an immature fashion. It’s my proud boast that, professionally, I’ve gone from enfant terrible to grande dame without ever growing up. But the idea of reading a book called Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invig­orates the Soul – and of setting aside time in which to play – strikes me as so pedantic and buzz-killing that I’d rather break rocks in the hot sun. If play does have “a positive effect on health, relationships and creativity”, you’re probably not doing it right.

Another sign that you’re a member of this monstrous regiment is the “adult colouring book”, the latest atrocity in this line being the “Scribble Lunch Bag”, which will allegedly provide “colour therapy for the working day”, according to Psychologies magazine. If I was a boss and I saw someone at their desk colouring in jungle animals on a lunch bag, I’d sack them on the spot. Banging on about being playful, rather than having immaturity come naturally, is surely a sign of a soul that was born menopausal.

 

Cure for wellness

Wellness: that’s another thing the sort of softie who likes to “play” will be keen on. I’m very healthy, despite my wicked ways, and I think that this is largely down to not fretting about my health. I’m writing this shortly after binning yet another letter from one of the doctors at my GP surgery demanding that I have a smear test, but I was not fast enough to avoid yet another of them on the phone asking why I get cystitis so often. “My husband’s 13 years younger than me,” I snigger, immaturely.

During my life, I’ve been nearly struck off by three GPs – not for ceaselessly cadging drugs, as you might think, but because I used their services so little that they thought I’d moved away. Frankly, I find hypochondria repulsive; I once walked on a fractured foot in Benidorm in Spain for five days after kicking a mobility scooter that blocked my path, believing that I’d only stubbed my toe. Though I understand that the Well Woman industry is feminist in intent, I can’t help feeling that it makes fussing ninnies out of us. Give me a Tough Broad over a Well Woman any day.

 

Back to shul

Tuesday night is Hebrew night! I had to leave the shul I attended some years ago for being too pro-Israel and drop out of my conversion, because I figured that though I didn’t mind being a bad Christian (it’s all about sin, forgiveness and redemption anyway), I would be sad if I was a bad Jew. But now, by learning Hebrew, I can stay connected to the people I admire more than any other without going to the effort of living up to their high standards. Truly, “Yesh li ooga sheli veh ani ochelet otah gam.”

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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