Book Review: Nobody Ever Says Thank You (2011) by Jonathan Wilson

At the end of this biography Martin O’Neill is quoted, in paying tribute to his former manager, that Brian Clough would be insulted to be summed up in three volumes. Jonathan Wilson manages to cover Clough’s brilliant career in 550 pages.

Nobody Ever Says Thank You is a comprehensive survey of Clough’s life in football. It is broken up into five logical parts covering the main phases of Clough’s journey (with some spectacular epigraphs provided), but in practice I read through it season-by-season over the forty or so years from 1953-54 to 1992-93.

This does give the book a linear flow along with the cyclical quirk of history repeating itself: Clough’s method and strategy achieved similarly spectacular results in meagre timeframes at Hartlepools, Derby and Nottingham Forest.

Wilson’s style is to provide a deep foundation of detail, which is periodically embellished by observations and insights. The detail is provided by painstaking newspaper archive research, which takes us through the results and contemporary reports virtually game-by-game over forty years. Over five hundred pages this becomes heavy going (although mercifully it thins a little during the post-Peter Taylor lost years between 82’ and 88’) and as a result the book isn’t one to zip through, perhaps more to dip into at the various phases of Clough’s life.

The quotes, anecdotes and reflections are as entertaining as you would expect and fascinating – I found Stan Anderson, Johny Giles, Colin Todd, Mark Crossley and Lee Glover’s to be the most interesting (and Dave Mackay’s reminiscence of the differences between life at Tottenham and Derby to be striking). Clough’s uniqueness is focused upon through the course of the book: his inner drive and attitudes are explored in his initial days as a prolific goalscorer, then his charisma and genius are laid out in his early jobs at Hartlepools and Derby. He then self-destructs before (almost literally) resurrecting himself at Forest. He then plays out his working life in a kind of (booze-soaked) limbo, still achieving results beyond comprehension (especially given that Forest have long since returned to earth with a thud).

Wilson doesn’t, I feel quite get the measure between providing facts and insight; his detail heavy approach obscures the readability of his prose. Thus the most rewarding passages of the biography are the digressions offering insights into Clough’s philosophy, his strategies (for example the preference for mental over physical preparedness), his contradictions (Wilson is even handed in dealing with Clough’s constant hypocrisies and his terrible behaviour along with his kindnesses and empathies) and his relationships: his man-management of players, which worked to perfection at Derby but is then diametrically tested to destruction at both Brighton and Leeds; and of course the crucial partnership with Peter Taylor.

The high points of the book are the interregnums: the period of doubt and fear after his injury on Boxing Day 1962 (Clough’s present and future, as he vainly tried to build his shattered knee running up and down the Roker Park terraces, appeared Sisyphean) and a dozen years later, the disastrous 44 days at Leeds. Wilson relates how Clough blundered repeatedly, in neglecting and alienating the Leeds squad and doesn’t flinch in implying that his anxiety and self-doubt overcame his legendary self-confidence.

Nobody Ever Says Thank You is a very good biography that calmly and diligently handles a majestic subject. It has flaws, but covers the life of Brian Clough proficiently enough and I agree that it is worthy of being a standard work.

Backlog #1: Four Lions (2010)

I’m a little surprised by my choosing Four Lions as my favourite film; as on the surface I wouldn’t have thought that given the reputation of the films I would watch, that a contemporary domestic comedy would be my preferred choice from the thirty or so I watched.

Well, assumptions and reputations can do one: I rated these films by personal enjoyment and I found Four Lions to be a blast – really funny, fantastically funny in fact (rather more so than a film like Le Diable Probalement). Along the way it’s also extremely touching in places, managing to balance tragedy and farce on a tightrope.

Four Lions is a situation comedy about a group of five would-be Islamic suicide bombers, who fumblingly hatch and carry out a terrorist attack. It’s an ensemble piece; with an air of Dad’s Army: their bumbling in attacking day-to-day life isn’t at all different than that of the Warmington-on-Sea platoon in trying to defend it. There are also some similarities with the early Carry On films (only here the redemption is of a markedly different air). We can laugh out loud at the farce: the bazooka being fired the wrong way around, Barry being locked in the car boot, the transporting of the explosives across town by car and foot.

The only competent character is the leader Omar, who is calm and dignified but ultimately has bitten off a lot more than he can happily chew, with the result that most of his time (and gravitas) is spent controlling the egos of his men (in particular the mutual mistrust he has with Barry) through taking charge when they banter and bicker with each other – the dialogue is wonderfully vivid.

The characterisations are excellent: Barry is a belligerent moron (a wonderful realisation by Nigel Stepney of the white working class gone completely potty), Waj a loveable fool, Faisal and Hassan endearingly naive in their differing ways (one is an overgrown child, the other thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is).

As splendid as the humor is, the power of the film is in how it handles the subject matter and where it shifts from the farce to tragedy (or from larfs to danger): sharply where Faisal perishes, movingly in the scenes which demonstrate Omar’s absorption of his fate as a martyr into his family life – demonstrated by the understanding of his wife – their parting scene at the hospital reception is heartbreaking.

It’s a film where there its characters contradictions are laid out on the lawn – as a more traditional Muslim, Omar’s brother is much less integrated into society than him, but he is rigidly opposed to his brother’s extremism. Omar himself is an ordinary bloke: his wife is a hospital receptionist; one of his work colleagues on the security desk is running the marathon he plans to bomb. Faisal is confused so much that he conflates jihadi and hip-hop culture. Barry’s plan for going about things is to attack the local mosque. Omar and Waj travel halfway across the world on holiday, but to a jihadi camp in Pakistan (Omar attempts to convince Waj into martyrdom by analogizing it with the rides at Alton Towers).

As a comedy, Four Lions is a triumph. As a dark comedy, it also covers Islamic life in Britain in a dignified manner and its relationship with domestic jihadism. I found the contradictions it passes over to be perhaps the most interesting element: of how all our thoughts and actions don’t have to (and cannot even) cohere with each other.