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////

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.

In Icelandic waters

I have an article coming out in Prospect this week about a schism in Icelandic fishing. It came about because the country’s financial crisis provoked a hunger for a social reordering; a sign, please, that the firmament of power will be rearranged. After all this, are you telling me that nothing is going to change? The feeling is less sharply articulated in Britain but it is in the air, no question. A banking commission does not feel sufficient. In Iceland, fishing has become the national experiment, the object of utopian as well as simply redistributive instincts, and no one is enjoying it. The article was difficult to write – there is a lot of information but arrange – but the star of my reporting was a fishing captain called Gísli Marteins, from a village called Ólafsvík in western Iceland. Marteins is in the story, but I wanted to print a small section that, for space reasons, never got beyond the first draft. Among the things that I failed to convey was the residual danger in fishing, the coldness and hardness of those seas on the edge of the Arctic circle, and the never-failing sheerness of the wind:

‘Marteins wanted to show me the tiny village of Rif, further down the peninsula from Ólafsvík, which was little more than a street of houses, next to two enormous fish processing warehouses. As we drove I asked him what he liked to do when he was away from the sea, not fishing.  “I like to fish,” he said, “in rivers.” In Rif, Marteins drove up to a new lifeboat station that had recently been constructed, from contributions from the local fishing captains, to rescue crews that get into trouble. Just under ten years ago, in December 2001, four men from the Snæfellsnes died under the cliffs where I had been fishing earlier in the day, after their engines failed. “They could rescue one man, who was tied up on the top of the bridge,” said Marteins. “The weather was crazy.” For a moment I was reminded of what the act of fishing in Iceland actually entails, the pulling of wild things from wild seas.

‘Later that evening, after Marteins had gone, I went to see if I could find the graves of the men he had talked about. I drove up a hill to a church that looked out over the peninsula. A sign said that people had been worshipping at the Ingjaldsáoll, as it was called, since 1207. Almost seven hundred years later, it became Iceland’s first concrete church. I got out of the car. The door was locked. A very strong, flat wind blew across the exposed ground. Twice it blew my glasses off my face. In the graveyard, humped with the grassy knots of the dead, I did not find the memorial to the fishermen. Instead I came across a rock engraved with an earlier disaster: the deaths of nine men, aged twenty-three to fifty-five, who died when their boat hit the rocks at Hellissandur, the tiny headland where I was staying, in 1909. “Rest in God’s Peace,” it said at the base. I hurried, bent over, back to my car. It was well into the evening but there was light everywhere as I drove back down and saw, half a mile offshore, a trawler making its way through a heavy grey sea, mopped with white. The boat was also grey, and seen from a distance, its movements had a terrible slowness, as it rose, and then fell, emerging clear on every wave, and then disappearing into the spray.’