Things I write about #2: quests (endless)

Frankin's Lighting Rods

I’ve been drawn, since I first started writing I think, to the idea of the endless quest, the uncompletable project. I’m not sure why. And I often don’t realise it’s happening. It’s only later, when the story is lying around in pieces around my desk and I’m beginning to assemble it that I recognise the shape of the narrative that has been there all along. It’s very easy to conclude that there is something sad in an endless quest. Sisyphus had a shitty deal. But when I spend time with people, or communities, who seem to have an infinite project in front of them, I rarely encounter a sense of futility, or despair. In fact, it’s often the opposite. One of the first endless quest stories I wrote was for The New York Times about a man called Walter Grutchfield, who has spent his retirement walking, and re-walking, midtown Manhattan, mapping and cataloguing all the fading signs — “the ghost signs” — of a century of closed businesses, high on the weather bleached bricks. Walter didn’t think that he was doing anything futile. The impossibility of what he was trying to do, the fact that he would never be done, was not a source of anxiety, or melancholia. It was, of course, a comfort, a purpose, scaffolding for a life.

My favourite endless endeavour is Clive Craik’s. In 1990, Craik began trying to protect the sea bird populations of western Scotland from the predations of escaped American mink, which were imported to the UK in the 1920s to set up fur farms. Every year since then, Craik has patrolled 1,500 breeding sites, trapping mink, counting eggs, a vigilante in the wilderness. In 2008, when I wrote the story, he was contemplating how long he could continue the fight:

Nineteen years (four cars, three boats, half a million miles at the wheel) later, age has become the deciding factor for Craik. Soon, it will stop him. Although sturdy and fit – he runs every day during the winter – Craik can only single-handedly launch his boat and lug the 36kg (80lb) outboard motor across wet beaches for a few more summers. Two years ago, he believes he escaped death by a 50-50 chance when he was thrown across his boat (rather than out of it) when he let go of the tiller.

But age compels him too. On my second morning in Argyll we visited Craik’s office, a curiosity case of mink skulls, gnawed eggs and books on coastal navigation. He sat at his desk and said that his quest to save the breeding colonies had become ultimately personal and aesthetic; and that it felt more, rather than less, urgent as time passed. “That is the driving force: beauty,” he said. “The loss of beauty that is so sad.”

But you can’t be naive about the power of the consuming project, the dominating obsession. Earlier this year, Harper’s published the biggest piece of reporting I’ve done, which was the story of Jude Le Grice, a tree worker and opera singer who was prosecuted for stalking and locked up in psychiatric wards for the best part of a decade. In Jude’s case, the quest was only ever chivalric. It was only ever impossible. And it became the vortex into which the rest of his life, and his family, fell.

Maybe it’s obvious why I like writing about impossible projects. They have an inherent tension: the weight of passion against the weight of reason. And we are naturally interested by obsession, I think — by the idea of someone being captivated. Because ultimately we all wish to be captivated by something, or someone. (But not captured). I also wonder, though, whether there is a relationship between the endless quest and the project of writing and reporting about the world, with its impossibility, its futility, the assurance that we will never get to the end. Here are four articles about impossible projects:

So many signs, so little time,” The New York Times, 4/7/2004
Walter Grutchfield and the ephemera of signage.

The birdman of Barcaldine,” FT, 19/7/2008
Saving Scotland’s seabirds from the marauding mink

Let there be lightning,” FT, 21/8/2010
The quest to understand lightning

A God more powerful than I,” Harper’s, 1/2/2014
Understanding a stalker’s love

Things I write about #1: sport (and life)

Goal on wall

When people ask me what I write about, I am not very good at answering. I tend to say that I write long articles, and hope that is sufficient. Sometimes it is. If it isn’t, I normally mumble something further about a mixed bag. The truth is there is no single subject, or obvious specialisation, which will presumably damn me in the end, but after writing these articles for a while, I can see themes emerging in the rearview mirror, as it were, questions or zones of human life that keep drawing me back. I’m going to put up a few posts in the coming months that group some of my articles according to these themes, and the first of these is sport.

I read sports articles every day, and steered clear of the subject for a long while as a result. Some of the things I like most about most sports reporting – the formulae, the submerged cliché, the gossip – are things that I do not like at all about writing. It is escape, before it is anything else. So when I have written about sport, there has tended to be something else going on at the same time, sport as a metaphor, or a catalyst, or an instrument of power or social change. In the stories below sport has been an intended agent of development (in east London, for the Olympics); an expression of an oligarch’s power in his homeland (for Suleiman Kerimov in Dagestan, via Anzhi Makhachkala); a token of splintering identities (in Glasgow, during the downfall of Rangers Football Club); a vehicle for national pride in a country that doesn’t want to be a country (Belgium’s World Cup team in 2014); and a social manifestation of dastardly excitement, bravery and Britain’s love-kill relationship with animals (in the Grand National).

So, the stories:

The Olympic Shadow,” Prospect, 14/12/11
Will the Olympic Games help or alienate east Londoners?

Uncle Suleyman’s Army“, British GQ, 6/3/13
Can a billionaire’s football team transform Dagestan?

Terminal Blues,” Prospect, 18/7/2012 ($)
The implosion of Rangers Football Club

Death and Tradition at the Grand National“, Grantland, 17/4/13
It’s Britain’s favourite steeplechase, but the horses keep dying.

The Rise of the Red Devils,” Grantland, 15/5/14
The meaning of Belgium’s extraordinary World Cup team

In 2014….

God More PowerfulIt’s been a busy time, and it’s about to get busier. So I wanted to post an update on some things I’ve written, and some things to look out for.

I spent time last summer with Romanian gypsies who were coming to London, living uncomfortably between prejudice and rural poverty at home and a big rich city that doesn’t want them. “Home Invasion” was published in the January issue of British GQ. I wrote a comment article, unusually for me, a month later, in Prospect, about our out-sized fears of the Roma. The book on the subject, in case you’re wondering, is Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing”. Outstanding, more like. Beautifully reported. Completely prescient.

In February, Harper’s published “A God More Powerful Than I” (subscription required), probably the story that I have worked hardest on in ten years of reporting and writing. It’s the story of Jude Le Grice, a tree worker and opera singer, prosecuted for stalking a woman, and locked up in psychiatric wards for the best part of a decade. It’s provoked a mainly positive response, despite the very divisive and troubling subject. Stalking and harassment is a new crime – a massive phenomenon in developed societies right around the world – that we haven’t got right yet.

More recently – a jolly profile of Col Needham, the founder of IMDb, for the FT. A nerd in his domain. And another travel junket, this time to the fresh and geologically beguiling mountains of Oman.

With the World Cup tapping on our shoulders, I went to Belgium to investigate the origins of the most exciting European team heading to the tournament, and the strange social reverberations of having a wonderful vehicle for national pride in a country that…. doesn’t want to be country. Feel The Belgitude. In Grantland – a great website for British readers, who might not know it.

With luck, this summer there is more coming in British GQ, Harper’s and the FT. And a baby. And a refurbished house and and////

They knew nothing of death in those days

Icebergs at Ilulissat

I went to Greenland on one of my travel junkets for the FT. I was, as the paper says, mesmerised. Partly (a lot) by the massive icebergs, but also (a lot) because I got very caught up reading Inuit folk stories by the light of the midnight sun. Knud Rasmussen, half-Dane, half-Greenlander, collected the stories on his epic Arctic travels in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and I found a 1921 English translation of the stories online. Below is a doozy, about the origins of light, life and death in the high North. Got to love the Inuit rendering of the Garden of Eden: “Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them?


OUR forefathers have told us much of the coming of earth, and of men, and it was a long, long while ago. Those who lived long before our day, they did not know how to store their words in little black marks, as you do; they could only tell stories. And they told of many things, and therefore we are not without knowledge of these things, which we have heard told many and many a time, since we were little children. Old women do not to waste their words idly, and we believe what they say. Old age does not lie.

A long, long time ago, when the earth was to be made, it fell down from the sky. Earth, hills and stones, all fell down from the sky, and thus the earth was made.

And then, when the earth was made, came men.

It is said that they came forth out of the earth. Little children came out of the earth. They came forth from among the willow bushes, all covered with willow leaves. And there they lay among the little bushes: lay and kicked, for they could not even crawl. And they got their food from the earth.

Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them? It is not clearly known. When did they find each other, and when had they grown up? I do not know. But the woman sewed, and made children’s clothes, and wandered forth. And she found little children, and dressed them in the clothes, and brought them home.

And in this way men grew to be many.

And being now so many, they desired to have dogs. So a man went out with a dog leash in his hand, and began to stamp on the ground, crying “Hok—hok—hok!” Then the dogs came hurrying out from the hummocks, and shook themselves violently, for their coats were full of sand. Thus men found dogs.

But then children began to be born, and men grew to be very many on the earth. They knew nothing of death in those days, a long, long time ago, and grew to be very old. At last they could not walk, but went blind, and could not lie down.

Neither did they know the sun, but lived in the dark. No day ever dawned. Only inside their houses was there ever light, and they burned water in their lamps, for in those days water would burn.

But these men who did not know how to die, they grew to be too many, and crowded the earth. And then there came a mighty flood from the sea. Many were drowned, and men grew fewer. We can still see marks of that great flood, on the high hill-tops, where mussel shells may often be found.

And now that men had begun to be fewer, two old women began to speak thus:

“Better to be without day, if thus we may be without death,” said the one.

“No; let us have both light and death,” said the other.

And when the old woman had spoken these words, it was as she had wished. Light came, and death.

It is said, that when the first man died, others covered up the body with stones. But the body came back again, not knowing rightly bow to die. It stuck out its head from the bench, and tried to get up. But an old woman thrust it back, and said:

“We have much to carry, and our sledges are small.”

For they were about to set out on a hunting journey. And so the dead one was forced to go back to the mound of stones.

And now, after men had got light on their earth, they were able to go on journeys, and to hunt, and no longer needed to eat of the earth. And with death came also the sun, moon and stars.

For when men die, they go up into the sky and become brightly shining things there.

My story is here.

Escape into Aintree

AintreeI’ve been working on an article about the Grand National for Grantland, which involved spending a few days up at Aintree earlier this month. I stayed at a cheap hotel by the docks and was woken up each night by senseless shouting in the corridors, the bleary hysterical voices of people who been drinking and gambling and gambling and drinking until they had come to a stop, at 4am, faced with a closed door and some intractable problem. Anyway. When I arrived at Aintree each day around lunchtime, it was my pleasure, my escape, to get out into the middle of the track, which is an ignored netherland of coaches, roads, a golf course, and traffic lights with buttons raised for the convenience of people on horseback. I got chapped in the wind and the sun and saw some wonderful things:

“I walked out in the middle of the course. One of the unchanging things about Aintree is its preposterous size. The populated part of the course is still clustered around a single corner of Lynn’s triangle, and the northeasterly wind quickly scattered the drone of the Tannoy. Out in this strange, inland territory there were ponds, bits of gorse and scrub that have been here since Sefton’s day, and men wearing bibs that said “Horse Catcher.” I was out there at 3:40 p.m. for the Fox Hunters’ Chase, one of two races run over a single circuit of the National fences days before the big race on Saturday. The Fox Hunters’ is for amateur and younger riders (one of Lord Daresbury’s sons was competing), and I went and stood by The Chair, the largest jump on the course. It looked like it had been built to hold back a river. It was the first time I had ever seen a Grand National fence jumped at close quarters, and as the 24 horses approached — the 96 hooves, the 12 tons of muscle and bone — I felt a shuddering sense of time and ground shortening. Then they cleared it. Actually, they smote it.”

Here is the article.

AHAP#5: Hearing live music (which you know and love)


I don’t listen to enough live music, but who does? (People who have to listen to live music for their jobs probably hear far too much and hate it. And I don’t think I would want to hear from those who have it Goldilocks-style, just right, booking their tickets months in advance, congratulations). And of the tiny amount of live music that I do go and see / hear, it’s even rarer that it is the real core material, the songs closest to the heart. I can think of only one or two experiences of that kind, and they have been almost as unsettling as straightforwardly enjoyable. I couldn’t really believe what was happening when Dylan began to bark out “Desolation Row” in his gondolier’s hat and minimal moustache. “At midnight all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do.” You? Genius? Here? In Brixton? It didn’t quite compute.

So I just don’t think I had many cultural or emotional references when we booked to go and see the Goldberg Variations (above) at King’s Place last month. Incidentally, what is even the right verb here? Do you listen to live music, see it, hear it, or just go to it? I know that you hear evensong, and I can see how classical music might fall into that usage, but I am not sure that you hear Bach. You certainly don’t see it / him or “go”. Who is travelling towards who? (On balance, I think you probably listen to Bach. You try to hear. You hope to hear). Anyway, we really didn’t think very much about the whole deal. We looked at the listings for Bach Unwrapped. Got excited. Clicked on the Goldberg Variations dates. Love Goldberg Variations. Listen to Goldberg Variations a lot. In the car. In the flat. Got nephew a book for Christmas purely because the title was a pun on the Goldberg Variations. Also got nephew the Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould 1955). Nephew two months old. Never too young for Goldberg Variations. Anyway, we got tickets in the front row, went about our business, occasionally said things like, “Can’t believe we going to Bach this week” and turned up a few minutes before it began.

If you haven’t been to King’s Place, it’s a bit like being inserted into the chamber of some large, as-yet-uninvented wooden instrument. We sat down, everyone was older than us, and then Miki Skuta, the pianist, appeared through a doorway onto the stage. In pictures, Mikuláš Škuta (Slovakian) looks like the knowledgeable virtuoso that he is. His website says it: “All-out gifted artist”. But that night he looked heavy, concerned, lugubrious; like a border guard about to begin a shift. I could hear his shoes on the polished stage. I was struck, panicked almost, by the intimacy: not just because of our proximity to Skuta, the sense of missing nothing, but because of the sudden preciousness of what he was about to pick up, and plunge into, and pull apart, and fill us with.

It’s still hard to figure out, almost three weeks later, why those first few notes, those utterly familiar clamber-up, clamber-down phrases, managed to be so shocking. P and I both looked away. Something hurt. It was as if Skuta was operating on a relative. We needed to be there. It needed to be fine. But there was an agony too. I think it has to do with sharing. Until that moment, I had only ever heard the Goldberg Variations on my own (mostly on my own) or with P. Like most of the Bach that I know, I find it intensely interior music. It gets in me immediately. The notes are like thoughts and there is such a pleasing simultaneous complexity and pattern that I find myself hooked up to something that feels like a larger and stronger mind: carried away and brought closer to myself at the same time. Going to Bach. Coming to Bach. Whatever it is, it turned out to be very surprising that Skuta was daring to play these notes, to interpose himself in the middle of this very private event. And not just Skuta, but the whole room – all these people with their cloth shopping bags and closed eyes. It is very childish but I had not realised that these were not my variations.

They were, of course, if they were anybody’s in that wood-wound room, Skuta’s variations. As he played (hands crossing over themselves, fingers spiderous) it began to occur to me – but only in the smallest way – what kind of a relationship that Skuta must have formed with the music. I don’t know how many notes there are in the Goldberg Variations, there must be thousands, but there was not a question of him being able to remember them. They had, over the years, in the unheated halls, on Slovakian public transport, in his sleep, become his thoughts as well. And while I did not agree with every single one of Skuta’s expressions – sometimes his playing was just a shade too technical, a micro-inch too precise for how I imagine the music (which, after all, is just the Glenn Gould version) – I had to confront the idea of an entirely different level of association, of inhabitance, of knowledge. I was listening to the Goldberg Variations, but I was also witnessing Skuta and his life with them.

And existing, somehow, in all of this was Bach. That was almost the most surprising element of the night – and also the most ethereal, so I didn’t quite grasp it: where did he fit into all of this? If the first thought that humbled me, amid the pleasure, was that there were, in fact, other people in London equally excited and equally moved by the idea of listening to the Goldberg Variations on a Thursday night in January and I would have to share Bach with them. And the second thought was that a Slovakian maestro called Miki Skuta had been playing the piano for more than 40 years before being able to offer a fully-wrought interpretation of this work. Then the third was about the mind that came up with these variations in the first place.

This is still far too large for me to get my head around. It would be like explaining the Milky Way, or Japan. But one very obvious, and new, thing did occur to me, watching Skuta, hearing Bach, was quite what an exhibition this music was. Until I saw those fingers, those hands, those shoes, I think my experience, my pleasure in the Goldberg Variations, had been in their construction – in the filigree, the pattern-making – but now I realised there was also the drama of their execution. This music was physical as much as it was intellectual and emotional, and there just aren’t that many people that can play it. This was something to make you gasp. Whatever else he was thinking in 1741, Johannes Sebastian, with his “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals”, was out to blow some tiny minds.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

In Dagestan


I went on a secret mission to Dagestan and was amazed by the almost martial tradition of hospitality. It was almost difficult to interview people, because they were so agitated by the possibility that you might not be being sufficiently well looked after. An old wrestling champion of the USSR called Magomed Magomedov, who had hands like mechanics’ tools, just couldn’t settle. When did we arrive? Where were we staying? Would we really not visit Gimry, where Imam Shamil made his famous leap (eight metres at least!) over the Russian soldiers that had surrounded him? Who was our host? All of these details before we could talk. When, finally, Magomed became convinced we were safe as guests in his land, he became calmer and we talked. We talked for almost an hour and when we rose I was amazed to find I was taller than he was. I made the mistake of pointing this out. “You are taller,” said Magomed, agreeing straightaway, “but I am higher.” Point made.