2015 – Done and Undone

Standard

I organised myself to do some additional regular stuff in 2015, as is my wont. I also stopped doing a couple of things in 2015, as is also my wont.

I carried on using the Seinfeld/Chain method for habit-forming to drive the sort of repetitive behaviours I want to have. Here’s what.

Things I did, every day…

As throughout 2014, I wrote for at least 15 minutes of every day of 2015. Sometimes there were prolonged periods of working on one thing, sometimes it felt very scrappy as I scratched around for something I felt like writing. One way or another the words piled up. I wish I’d been a little more focused with some of it but, to give an example of how much is reasonably possible with a little commitment, amongst dozens of blog posts, scraps, poems, bits and bobs, I also wrote 36,000 words of a novel that I had not even conceived this time last year, almost all of it done in sessions of only 15 minutes at a time. I make no claims for the text (seriously, none at all) but at the very least, and possibly the very most, it’s close to half the length of a credible novel and if I keep that up for another year then, sitting amongst the pile of other words may be something that resembles a shoddy first draft of something none of you will ever read, but that I think I may be pleased at least to have written.

I also did 15 minutes of chores of one description or another every day this year. I don’t have a record of what I did, but it feels as if I did much less housework and much more admin. Not sure that’s the balance I’m after, but either way it’s kept things ticking along and kept that nagging swarm of ‘things to do’ mostly shooed away.

Stuff that was different, or new

I switched ‘daily exercise’ for ‘daily exercise OR guitar practice’. Not sure quite how that has worked out. My guitar playing has got better, but is still essentially hopeless. I’ve done enough to realise that just working through Russ Shipton’s books and trying to find easy things to play from Ultimate-Guitar.com does not a virtuoso make. I probably need lessons and if I can ever get organised to do that then the discipline to give 15 minutes practice each day will presumably be just what I need.

Exercise has been fine, but introducing the musical joker card has probably meant I did less cardio work this year than any of the preceding 20. Would like to do more in 2016.

I read every day, which was great. The pile of books I finished isn’t that high, partly because fully 3 months of the year were devoted to chipping away at the 700 pages of ‘The Magic Mountain’, but just doing it was, of course, pleasurable and sustaining, encouraging the sense that I was keeping a flame alive and adding just a little bit more to my life every day.

I drank a litre of tap water every day. This presented more of a physical challenge than I had expected. Without wishing to go into too many of the details, it took me 6-9 months to adapt to be able to handle this sort of increased input and even now, unpredictably, some days I am able to absorb it much better than others…

I’m glad I did it and I’m going to carry on, but I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed any great health benefits. I felt sick as a dog for most of the first 5 or 6 months of the year, which may have obscured any water-related gains, but generally I think I feel the same as before. Just a little moister inside, I guess.

Managing

Overall it became easier to discharge these duties. Now, two years into using this approach it rarely takes a lot of mental effort to remember that I have these fixed things to do. Certainly during the last half of this year the nagging sense that there are things left undone in any given day has started to recede. Getting the five ticked off each day has become much more natural, much less forced. That, I hope, is the feeling of something becoming an ingrained habit, rather than an externally imposed requirement.

Stuff I didn’t do

I like to stop doing things almost as much as I like to do things in the first place. This year my aim was to go through the entire year without buying a single drink in a disposable cup or bottle. I almost achieved it.

Not buying bottled water was pretty easy, although this was largely due to my decision to drink a litre of water each day, which meant I carried a drinking bottle with me almost everywhere I went. If you can get into that habit, then it’s a cinch to take the extra step and just not buy plastic bottles just to recycle of landfill them. As soon as you begin you’ll realise just how many of these pointless, wasteful things you can churn through in a day or week without even thinking about it. So, a whole year went by and I didn’t buy, or have bought for me, a single disposable bottle.

Disposable coffee cups are, somehow, even more annoying. In practice, many are now compostable or recyclable, but I think there’s still something distasteful about them. It has to do with the way they are carried as a soggy status symbol declaring, essentially, ‘look at me, I’ve bought some big brand coffee, and now I have a big cardboard cup, a plastic lid, a corrugated cardboard sleeve and also a couple of napkins and I’m going to bin the whole lot somewhere after ten minutes’ use’. Hurray for you.

So, this year I bought a Joco cup and kept it in my work bag. It’s slightly more onerous to remember than the water bottle, and quite a few times I’ve found myself sitting among other people drinking coffee, unable to join them because I forgot to bring it along, but ultimately that’s no great hardship.

I slipped up three times across the year. Firstly in a sports centre cafe in Plymouth where I ordered a coffee and instead of serving it in one of the china cups they had stacked behind the counter, they brought it out in a paper cup, which is stupid. Secondly when a colleague bought me a coffee for a meeting and I forgot to specify not to get a paper cup, which is my fault. Thirdly when buying a coffee for another colleague and tea for me I got distracted thinking about how crap the coffee there was and forgot to think about what they were making it in.

So, could do better, but by trying I reckon I saved around 50-100 cups from the bin, which sounds like not very much. However, doing this and thinking about the consumption of coffee as I went, really sensitised to how much we waste, to the point where I began to have unkind, santimonious thoughts when I saw passers-by brandishing their big label brew in compressed paper pulp containers.

It does seem to me like disposable cups and bottles are so easily avoided that it’s almost criminal not to do so. A quick google suggests that in the US they use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. Here’s the other thing: water is better for you than almost anything else you’re going to be able to buy in a plastic bottle, and buying water when you can get it for free from the tap is just stupid. I drank 1 litre of water every day this year. Another google tells me that this would have cost me 65p per day if I’d bought Evian from Tesco. Over the course of the year that would have cost me £237.25 and left 365 bottles for recycling or landfill.

I’m not one for proselytising, but come on, buy a reusable bottle and a reusable cup and save a bunch of money and waste.

2016

I’m pretty happy with where I am in terms of these habits, so I’m going to stick with them for the next year. I’d like to focus my writing a little more, so we’ll see how that goes.

There’s only one new thing I’d like to try to introduce and that’s mindfulness meditation. I’ve been meaning to give it a proper sustained go for a couple of years. It does seem as if there’s quite a lot of evidence for it as a stress-reducer, and that’s something I could benefit from. I’m really not sure where I can fit this into my day, particularly not in the ways I squeeze the others in during snatched 15 minutes in the midst of the hurly burly, but I’m going to start by trying to get up 15 minutes earlier and to begin working through the sessions in the Headspace app and see where that gets me.

So that’s me. I hope you have a rewarding 2016 and that you help someone else to have one too.

Advertisements

Okay! I Give Up!

Standard

This is my last post on giving things up. For now, I give up.

If I were to pinpoint a time when the person I am now was made, it would be the transition between high school and college, between O-levels and A-levels, between 16 and 17. Deliberately reinventing yourself is, as far as I can see, pretty hard. Consequently I only did it once.

I left school a pasty-faced swot, who had secretly and determinedly rebelled against classroom orthodoxy by refusing to wear his tie with top button undone like all the other kids. They never realised! In your face other kids!

The Smiths, The Fall and Joy Division were already in my life and by the time I was a couple of months into college I had spiky hair, a reclaimed dinner jacket and a sense that I could put stuff like that together and make a new facade, behind which I could become a new person. Let’s be clear, this was no bold striking out for new territory. I’m not even sure I knew it was happening, but happen it did. Nowadays, some 25 years later, I may look more like the 16 year-old swot than the 17-year old punk, but inside I’m still that black-clad weirdo.

Part of this transition, not at all pegged to it but just happening at the same time, had me giving up eating meat, giving up drinking and making some sort of decision never to smoke or try drugs. Whilst vegetarianism was a conscious choice, the others were more instinctive. As a result I was essentially straight edge for 20 years, although I never self-identified as such (hey, I had paracetamol when I had a headache and coffee all the time. SELL OUT!).

I wonder now, looking back through the Giving Up prism, whether the die was cast back then. Ever since that time I have, to some significant extent, defined my sense of who I am by the things I don’t rather than the things I do.

I wanted to write this series of posts to describe the process and experience of giving up specific things I had previously enjoyed.

I wanted to tell you that football might seem important but if you decide it’s meaningless, it pretty soon becomes meaningless.

I wanted to get some stuff off my chest about the way Twitter had started to become toxic to me, and how it felt to remove myself from the global conversation.

I wanted to explain how strange it was to discover that it’s relatively easy to just not eat for extended periods of time and to rebalance your relationship with food.

I specifically didn’t want to write about myself as I didn’t want to bore people and public self-absorption is never less than self-indulgent and tedious, but along the way I’ve started to wonder about that ‘personality disorder’ comment. I’m still wondering.

Am I a refusenik? A curmudgeon? Am I winding down, working my way into nothing, disappearing into thin air? Or just another slow-burning mid-life crisis without the balls to do something truly spectacular?

I think I’m all of these things to come extent. More than these though I think I may just be all-or-nothing, subconsciously aware that I need to do things with complete devotion, or not at all.

That explanation covers both my competitiveness, which I guess can be unhealthy in some circumstances, and also the creeping suspicion that I may be a latent addict, ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into anything I commit to.

When I chose not to drink or take drugs, I was consciously rejecting the temporary loss of control which most users are seeking and of which I was terrified. I think it’s likely that at the same time I was subconsciously rejecting the complete subjugation which could follow. I didn’t know it then but it turns out I’m not a dabbler. In which case, choosing to avoid drink and drugs probably saved my life.

Still, I’m left approaching my mid-forties with a long list of things I don’t do. Nay-saying may be a necessary survival strategy but it inevitably leads to absence rather than presence. What did you do with your life Rob? Nothing!

Time to start, maybe? Maybe not?

Maybe?

I Give Up: Eating

Standard

On 6 August 2012 I watched ‘Horizon: Eat, Fast and Live Longer’, an examination of the science behind the practice of fasting by the BBC’s Michael Mosely.

For the following 24 hours, I ate nothing. Every week since then, I’ve eaten nothing for two of the seven days.

If you’d like to watch the programme, it’s here:

Giving up eating, at least for part of each week, was a revealing and, ultimately, rewarding process. There is a scientific basis to intermittent fasting and there is good evidence for some long-term health benefits. It’s worth checking out. For me there was a more immediate effect, essentially a significant shift in my relationship with food.

I eat a lot. Luckily for my waistline, over the last 20 years I’ve also exercised a lot. I’m also vegetarian and have always blithely assumed that this gives me some sort of head start in maintaining a healthy diet, by significantly reducing the amount of fat I take in incidentally.

Beyond refusing to eat meat (strictly speaking a moral choice rather than a dietary one) I have never controlled my food intake in any way. I’ve always eaten what I like, when I like. I cook a lot, and, with my wife, I usually eat everything I cook. I’ve come to the conclusion that recipes which state ‘serves four’ are calibrated for people half my size.

I snack. I eat crisps by the massive-bag-full (by the way crisp makers, the heart surgeons of this world say ‘thanks’ for super-sizing those bags of yours – once you pop, you can’t stop stuffing your entire recommended daily intake of salt and fat down your neck). I eat chocolate when I need help livening up a cup of coffee. I eat cake and our office is usually full of cake. I’m lucky in that, somehow, I don’t get much bigger.

The day after watching the documentary, I found myself leaving the house without eating breakfast. I then refused the birthday cake I was offered at 10.30am and, by lunchtime, was feeling odd. It only took a couple of weeks to get used to not eating for long periods and, during this time, I don’t think I ever honestly felt ‘hungry’. I just felt weird.

I drank a lot of tea and coffee those first few days. Again, I had a leg up as I take them both black and therefore calorie-free, so can drink as much as I like. Certainly for the first few weeks my liquid intake went up significantly. I felt strongly that I needed to be taking something in, so constant hot drinks seemed my only option. After a while, this dropped off and now I drink the same amount on a fasting day as a regular day, which is to say barely anything apart from constant black coffee.

But it wasn’t just my stomach which felt it needed something in it. My hands were pretty freaked out too, which took me completely by surprise. When lunchtime came around, I felt an overwhelming urge to use them for something. I realised that their muscle memory was telling them to pick up a sandwich and help me to eat it.

Seeing this was a key moment for me. My immediate thought was that this must be how smokers feel when they have to reach for stress toys because their hands, regardless of what their heads are telling them, simply want to be manipulating something, preferably a cigarette and lighter.

I came to see that a fair amount of my eating was habitual, rather than necessary. Indeed, once I’d gone through several weeks of intermittent fasting, my perspective on the need to eat had changed significantly. Surprisingly, my body was already ahead of my mind. By the time I realised that I’d been eating because I could, not because I should, I’d already stopped.

I don’t feel anything like the urge I used to to grab food just to be eating something. Just to be clear, cutting that sort of snacking out is not a stricture of the intermittent fasting approach. So long as you stick to your two fast days per week, you can each as much of whatever you want during the rest of the time. It’s just, in my case, I suddenly didn’t seem to want to. Now, when I eat, I eat less.

As it happens I lost about 7 or 8 kilos in weight. That wasn’t one of my objectives but weighing the same as I did in my early 20s is okay.

So what were my objectives? What could I want so much that I would begin a fasting regime on the strength of a single TV programme?

As far as intermittent fasting and other forms of calorie restriction go, the projected health benefits include significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer and other chronic health problems. Ultimately, reducing the chances of developing these conditions increases the chances of living healthily for longer.

So that’s good, and it has to be said that i’m not the only one who has tried intermittent fasting following that Horizon film, and the publicity and books and website which appeared in its wake. 

I can’t point to huge health benefits, partly because I didn’t have blood tests done before I started, but I do feel a little better. I’d had a nagging stomach pain for some months before I began fasting and that, I realised after a few weeks, seemed to clear up.

However, i’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that part of the attraction for me, perhaps the major part. Here was a regime which promised significant benefits yet did not require me to change what I did at all. It just needed me to stop doing it for defined periods, with no other hassle entailed.

And that, I can do. I give up.

Notes:

When I say I eat ‘a lot’, I mean I eat as much as you do, more than likely.

This post is about me stopping eating, not the specific process of intermittent fasting. But if you’re interested, here are the bare bones of what I do

On Mondays and Thursdays (usually, sometimes I shift the days around) I get up in the morning, make coffee and skip breakfast. I skip lunch too, and don’t snack or eat anything else during the day. By the time I get home in the evening it’s more or less 24 hours since I last ate, the previous evening. I have an evening meal of less than 600 calories and then eat nothing else until breakfast the following day.

And it’s fine. I play sport on both days, and that’s fine too. In fact on the odd occasion i’ve played the same fixtures having eaten through the day, i’ve felt sluggish and tired by comparison.

I Give Up: Twitter

Standard

I joined Twitter in 2008. At that point the only person I knew there was @tomstyles. I didn’t really understand it, so I let it lie.

On 29 July 2012, more than 4,000 tweets laters, I got so fed up with Twitter that I decided to give it up.

In practice it took a little time to get out. Twitter had become my main mode of remote communication. Friends carried on asking me questions which I felt I should answer and on one or two occasions, particularly as the London Olympics continued, I found myself sharing my thoughts almost involuntarily. Eventually however, I left it behind.

It seemed at that time that half the internet was made up of people blogging about how they were giving up social media, whilst the other half was people on social media singularly failing to miss them once they’d gone. I didn’t expect anyone to care whether I was there or not and, indeed, no-one really noticed my absence.

Nonetheless I’ve been meaning to explain ever since, even if only to ask myself whether I did the right thing.

One thing in particular persuaded me of the value of Twitter.

It was the view expressed by Graham Linehan that the service’s value was in the provision of a view of the vast and unknowable internet, perhaps even the vast and unknowable world, filtered, interpreted and brought directly to you by people you specifically selected to trust and follow.

Three things in particular persuaded me it was time to stop.

1. Of all the hundreds of the aforementioned ‘social media break’ blogs, I came across this one, recommended by @katiemoffat, on Twitter of course. It struck a chord.

When I started to get enthusiastic about using Twitter back in 2009 I remember feeling strongly that it could be a rewarding creative outlet, forcing me to think carefully about what I believed and what I wanted to say, opening me up to new people and new topics, allowing me to shape and curate a persona, if I wished. I guess that’s still true, it can be and do those things.

In reality it’s mainly true if your ambition is to be creative in the medium of Twitter. Some people do that really well, and they are fun people to follow.

For some people Twitter becomes the end, rather than the means. Saying something wise, insightful, funny, outrageous, unorthodox, or simply before anyone else, is difficult, but still it’s never enough. The real thrill is the dripping promise of possible approbation from your peers or, whisper it, someone famous. How many Twitter poets can honestly say they don’t spend the ten or fifteen minutes after they post each perfectly-crafted word parcel wondering who will retweet, reply, favourite or just quietly admire it?

Is that healthy? Isn’t it just showing off? Narcissism?

Which brings me to…

2. http://www.ollyfactory.com/polly

It’s a little box you plug into your computer. Every time someone retweets something you’ve posted, it gives you a sweet.

Is that… healthy?

Sure, it’s a novelty widget, but the first time I saw it I felt crystallise something which had been troubling me for a while.

Is this what we are happy to be? To do? To sit in front of our screens sending out words in the hope that someone, anyone, will like them (not necessarily ‘value’ them, or ‘be inspired by’ them or ‘cherish’ them or ‘learn from’ them) enough to retweet them so that we will be rewarded? With a sweet?

3. And then there was Tom and the Troll. Remember that?

Let’s be clear about what happened here. A teenage boy was horrible and abusive to a famous sportsman. Roughly speaking he was about as abusive as most football crowds are to opposition footballers week in week out. Let’s also be clear, he was being horrible, as are they.

If he’d been horrible to Tom Daly in the street, we would never have known and, most likely, nothing would have come of it. But he was horrible to him in a far less personal, far more public arena. And people climbed on his back. My Twitter feed that day, presumably like most Twitter feeds in the UK, was full of people calling this kid all the names under the sun. Being horrible. Perhaps he deserved it. Perhaps he didn’t.

And then people started shouting that ‘something must be done’. Because a teenage boy said something horrible.

And then, the next day, the police arrived at his house and arrested him. Arrested a teenage boy for being horrible to someone. How does that work, Twitterers? Should we be arresting every teenage boy who says something horrible? Because it seems to me that’s every teenage boy. It seems to me that’s what teenage boys do. Or do we only arrest those who say something horrible to one of the nation’s darlings?

A kid said something horrible and stupid, and twitter users, who are from all stripes and stances, but who in part pride themselves on being part of a free and open exchange of words and thoughts, who jump to follow and retweet any random revolutionary so long as they live far from where we live, couldn’t cope with it. And the next thing you know, the police are dragging him out of bed.

No. No no no no no.

There were other factors too. Like most frequent users, I became compulsive about checking my feed. Compulsion is the right word here. Particularly once Twitter became hard-wired into smartphones, there grew a palpable, physical urge to keep checking what was being said. It was irritating, but almost irresistible. I came to hate it, and to hate myself for caving in to it several dozen times each day.

Moreover, and more disturbingly, I was looking at my life as a series of things I might tweet about. I was experiencing significant events through some twisted, reflected third person perspective, no longer thinking ‘what did I think about that?’ but ‘how would that sound as a tweet?’ That’s pretty bad.

By Summer 2010 genuinely I found myself thinking in pre-packaged clumps of words. If I’d carried on, I suspect I soon would have been subconsciously counting the characters and ensuring my thoughts were below the 140 limit.

All this. So I gave up.

It’s been fine. Just another lack growing dimmer with time. I can’t honestly say that any spare time I may have accrued since has been filled by hitherto untapped wellsprings of creativity. I can say, fairly certainly, that a post like this would have taken twice as long to write before as I would have been checking Twitter repeatedly and getting distracted often. So maybe, all told, I’ve done more stuff.

I do still believe that Twitter can be a great place. When I think about it (and it’s impossible not to, it’s mentioned everywhere, all the time) I feel like an outsider, kicking about the car park whilst an amazing party is going on inside. The idea of being able to hear from fascinating, funny, thoughtful people, direct and unfiltered, and to communicate with some of them, is still hugely appealing. It’s really an incredible opportunity, a thing of wonder we’ve built in just a few years.

I also miss the playfulness, the jibe-trading, the keeping up with what my friends and colleagues are up to. I live near… no-one. Apart from when I’m in the office I don’t get to immerse myself in inconsequential chatter, which I believe is one of life’s great under-appreciated pleasures. Twitter can help with that.

But not for me. For all the eye-opening, inspirational, fun things it can do, I still can’t get over how it left me feeling in the Summer of 2012. I know I could go back, pick my follows more carefully, put Twitter in its proper place. But no. Not for now. Not for me. I gave it up.

I Give Up: Football

Standard

FootballersI grew up with football.

As a boy I chose to support my local team, which just happened to be Manchester United. In this I went against my Dad who, though born and raised in Rotherham, had fallen hard for Bill Shankley’s Liverpool. I spent my pocket money on Shoot! magazine, started and started-then-forgot their League Table ladder each season. I collected and swapped Panini stickers and pestered my parents to buy me replica shirts, which decorated my bedroom walls once i’d grown out of them.

I played football too. For my junior school, which essentially involved joining one of two opposing Ant Hill Mobs scuttling about the pitch, a tiny, rock hard Mitre ball concealed somewhere beneath that riotous millipede. I still remember my first ever proper goal, a scuffed affair from the edge of the area which somehow crept through a forest of legs and past a diving goal-keeper who, in my memory, was wearing his grey wool school jumper. I can’t honestly remember loving playing football for its own sake, perhaps I did, but I sure loved the competition. I can clearly recall the thrill, the tightening in my stomach as our Cub Scout team waited to take the pitch in one of seemingly countless five-a-side competitions. The nerves were almost overwhelming, the disorientating rush of the ten minutes’ pitch time addictive. Most of all, the winning, or the tantalising prospect of it. Family photo albums are well stocked with pictures of our team, often having just lost a tournament final. All the other boys will be smiling and proudly showing their silver medals. Inevitably, I will be crying.

I stopped playing, other than in the street or the park, when I got to high school. I guess I must have failed to make the school team. I carried on following United and, as these things seem to go, as boys develop to use talking about football as a proxy for other more difficult conversations, their success, week by week if not at that stage year by year (by the time I was 18 I had seen them win just two trophies), became increasingly important to me. Following football results on TV became part of life.

Football wasn’t actually on TV all that much in the late 70s, early 80s, but the vidiprinter was there as the results rolled in every Saturday at 4.45, the weird names of unimaginable teams intoxicating to an 8 year-old boy, and once a year there was a whole day’s worth of TV coverage on FA Cup Final day. The World Cup, when it came around, was mind-blowing, a genuinely exotic jamboree.

By the time I was in high school football was part of my life. I was distraught when Maradona cheated us out of a World Cup final, distraught when Waddle and Pearce missed their penalties. By the time I got to college I was spending much more time listening to music and actually hanging out with friends. Eventually, around age 17, I started to develop a different sense of who I was, or could be, and instead of waiting for football results to come in, I was listening to John Peel and learning reference points from the NME and Sounds.

It went away, and then it came back. I came off the educational conveyor belt at 21 and had to get a job, which involved spending time with other people. People who weren’t interested in The Fall or Pavement, but who seemed to be interested in football. I can clearly remember deliberately rekindling an interest in the professional game in my early 20s as a tactical measure to enable me to get into and hold conversations at work and also when meeting people for the first time. And once those acquaintances had been made, then a shared interest in football, with the ready-made wrapping of needling and rivalry in which it comes delivered, was part of their foundation. So I had to keep it up and, eventually, it got its hooks into me once more.

I accidentally punched my girlfriend, now wife, on the chin when Sheringham and Solskjaer won the European Cup for Manchester United. The commentary still gives me shivers. When Sol Campbell’s headed goal against Argentina was disqualified I was half way through an emphatic knee-slide. I sulked for about three days afterwards, just as I had after Paul Gascoigne slid past the ball in extra time against Germany two years earlier and England went on to lose a penalty shoot-out once more.

By now BBC 5 Live was running almost constant commentary, as the fixture schedule fragmented to take advantage of a product that could be sold into a multi-platform media. You could listen to football most days of the week, and sometimes it seemed like I did. I’d have it on in the kitchen, in the car, and then i’d find myself hanging out in the kitchen doing the washing up for 90 minutes instead of 15, just so I would know whether West Brom or Sunderland had won, even though that had next to no bearing on my team.

Football detail changes constantly, but football is knowable. If you want a steady stream of facts and viewpoints with which to build conversations and opinions of your own, with next to no thought necessary or philosophical risk entailed, then football provides, forever and ever, Amen.

Marx described religion as “the opium of the people” and we seem in part to have taken notice of him and begun to shake off that particular oppressive habit. But if you’re looking for an activity which consumes enormous amounts of human energy, commitment, thought and passion (and money), to no great end, then look no further than professional football. Sure, I know, some of you think it’s ‘the beautiful game’, but anything with patterns and human endeavour and inherent triumph can and will appear beautiful if you invest in it sufficiently. If you tell yourself that it is, it can be. And sometimes that can be wonderful. And sometimes it can drain your time and your passion and leave you with nothing.

To be clear, I have no problem if you or anyone chooses to make this particular investment. We all need to pass the time, and one of the secrets to passing it happily is finding activities which can fully absorb you. Following football can, and clearly does, offer that possibility. I do, however, have a problem with the pervasive notion that it is somehow intrinsically important. And yes, I know that culture is a large part of what makes us who we are, and football is part of our culture, but lots of aspects of our culture could magically disappear and we wouldn’t feel compelled to reinvent them.

Ultimately, professional football is a theatre, a shadowplay watched by willing millions, which provides endless fodder for pointless thought. How many dystopian fictions feature sport as public spectacle, designed to take up the time and energy of the people to stop them worrying about what is really going on? The future is now and professional football does that job pretty effectively.

I knew all this even as I carried on following, even as a growing sense that I was willingly surrendering my time to something ultimately meaningless. Then in 2010 two things happened. Firstly, a genuinely dismal showing by England in the World Cup. This time we didn’t even exit with a sense that we could have done well. As fans we all inflated our dreams, as we are required to, and the team gave us nothing in return. Previous World Cups had let us down from a great height. This one never even lifted us off the ground. England were never going to win the World Cup, and to tell myself they might was no longer taking a whirl on a fairground ride. It felt like a huge waste of emotional capital.

Secondly, some months later, Wayne Rooney started talking about leaving Manchester United because thet weren’t successful enough. I wrote about how that made me feel, and realised that football was taking my time, my energy, my thoughts and giving me nothing back other than the occasional poke in the eye or punch in the guts.

I stopped watching, listening, following there and then.

I have to tell you, it seems like it’s been easy enough. Once you set your mind against something, there’s a sharp, acidic pleasure to be found in denying it, in realising that you could easily go towards it, but you’re deliberately turning away. Finding that, in part, is the secret to quitting.

Since then I’ve watched perhaps two games, just to see whether I cared. I think one of these was a Manchester derby. I can’t remember what the result was. I still hear match reports on the radio, but every time I do, the skin which has grown over that part of my heart which used to beat for football adds another layer. I surprised myself just how quickly and completely I was able to cut it out of my life.

It turns out there are other things to talk about, and that most people don’t bring up football unbidden. Perhaps they too are just using it as conversational material. Perhaps they too know it’s a hollow charade.

2 footnotes:

1. This, from Mitchell and Webb.

2. Ironically, I started playing football again a couple of years ago, joining regular five-a-side games at work. And I absolutely love it. It’s not my sport, but I can run around with no expectation or pressure and just enjoy the competition, the physical expression, the comedy and trying to get better. I leave each game with a huge smile on my face. Football can be a beautiful game.

I Give Up

Standard

I’m beginning this on the first day of 2014. It’s a day when many people will be starting periods of stricture, cutting out bad habits, squeezing down their time spent to make space for something else. We’re told often that New Year’s resolutions fail much more than they succeed, and that seems likely. If it’s doing less of something, or doing more of something, there are usually more effective ways to force a habit than going all out from the start of the year.

When it comes to stopping, to cutting things out, New Year’s resolutions tend not to be necessary for me. I’ve come to realise that over the last 3-4 years (and, realistically, going much farther back) I’ve given up a string of things, most of them things which formed at least some significant part of my life. Things like following football, using twitter, even eating to some extent. In every case these were activities I enjoyed, but which I came to realise, or at least to persuade myself, had become detrimental to me in some way. So they went.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that there was a pattern to this (and perhaps there isn’t) until a colleague described it as a ‘personality disorder’ and set me thinking. Is there something else going on here?

I don’t know, but over the next week or so I’m going to write about some of the things I’ve stopped during the last couple of years and see if anything suggests itself.

You might want to give up reading now.