Writing in 2016

A week or two ago, I finished an interview with Nigel Farage, the right wing populist and former leader of UKIP, and wandered out into the streets of Westminster, genuinely adrift in the chaos and shapelessness of politics in late 2016. Six months earlier, I thought, I would have known how to write about Farage: an important, but not that important, figure in British political life. Now I had no idea. And worse than that — the feeling that trying to write objectively about the world, about our complicated reality, may not even be merely futile any more, there is a possibility that it could be actively harmful. The bubbles that we occupy. The labels that make me sceptical (Fox, Breitbart, The Mail) vs the ones that I write for (The Guardian, The New Yorker) with their equal and opposing associations. The year has made me sad, but it has also made me think, and that is where I am now, trying to be introspective, trying to challenge myself for the writing to come.

Stories from 2016:

The Bouvier Affair,” The New Yorker, Feb8&15
The story of an art world insider, who took a Russian oligarch to the cleaners.

How Uber Conquered London,” The Guardian, Apr27
The $60bn taxi firm started out in the capital with a single employee.

Enter Left,” The New Yorker, May23
The astonishing rise of Jeremy Corbyn

The Duo That Dominates Dressage,” The New Yorker, Aug8&15
How Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro revolutionised equestrian sport.

The man who brought you Brexit,” The Guardian, Sept29
Daniel Hannan’s 25 year quest to leave the EU

Nigel Farage and his friendship with Trump,” newyorker.com, Nov30
The ultimate 2016 bromance

Alan Yentob — the last impresario,” The Guardian, Dec13
The fall of a BBC giant

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Things I write about #3: the complicated

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I sometimes have this feeling in airports — normally big ones — where I suddenly don’t know where I am going. I look up for signs and they only spray you in directions you don’t want to go: prayer rooms, baggage carousels, slow, toy-like transit systems heading out into wastelands of tarmac and marsh. The process of travelling by air has been steadily infused with panic in recent decades so I’m often on edge for no reason even before this happens but I try and console myself with this thought: sure, this place is complicated; planes are so heavy they shouldn’t by rights be taking off anyway; but you can figure it out. The airport was designed for humans. You are a human. You can do this. This feeling recurs when I find myself reporting and writing about something very complicated as well. I have always been attracted by subjects that are, by any reasonable definition, too knotty and intricate to write easily about. Maybe I mistake their complexity for significance. Just because something is hard to figure out doesn’t make it interesting. But when that complicated thing is somehow public — and often I have found myself writing about arcane international institutions — then that airport reflex kicks in. A little panicked, a little sick, but the same instinct: this is for humans, humans should get this. One of the first magazine stories I ever wrote arose almost solely from this thought. It was about the International Standardization Organisation, the guys who used to regulate the sizes of screws and who now determine everything from environmental standards to software formats and do it without anybody understanding that the hell they are up to. Humanity’s response to climate change has been another fertile district for befuddlement, nowhere more than the negotiating halls of the UNFCCC itself, saving the world in a language, a ritual culture, almost, all of their own. Last year I got my fair share in what is complicated by returning to climate change and writing about REDD+, a fantastical UN scheme to try and halt deforestation around the world with a mixture of satellites and financial incentives, and the happy-go-lucky world of public sector outsourcing, in which I spent far too much time inside Serco, one of the UK’s more notorious, and less understood, companies.

The stories:

Everyone Needs Standards,” Prospect, 28/3/2008
Inside the International Standardisation Organisation

Eleven Days in December,” Prospect, 21/10/2009
Meet the climate change negotiators trying to save the world

The Incredible Plan to Make Money Grow on Trees,” The Guardian, 24/11/2015
On the elegance, and impossibility, of a UN scheme to stop deforestation

Can Winston Churchill’s grandson save Serco? And is it worth saving?“, The Guardian, 2/7/2015
Inside the UK’s most notorious outsourcing company

 

Taxi Driver in Athens (2012)

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I have a rule about not talking to taxi drivers who pick me from the airport. They are the first person you meet on a trip, when you are at your most anxious for information. You begin to ask questions because you are stuck on their back seat for an hour and try as you will there is nothing to infer from the billboards, the lanes of tarmac, the construction junk at the side of the road that are the more or less the same wherever you go in the world.

The problem is that they are taxi drivers. And like the globalised sameness of the airport road, taxi drivers have the same life everywhere: they spend their days and nights waiting for fares and in that time they do whatever the local version is of listening to talk radio and finding information that corroborates their windscreened view of the world. They talk to other cabbies and stew in their discoveries and the slights they have suffered in their lives. They drive and wait and stew some more. Often they drive and stew simultaneously. So by the time you ask them a question about the country you have just landed in, you normally get an answer that has been boiled three times over and distilled into a description of reality that you never hear again.

George Nicholas – the anglicised name my taxi driver at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens gave himself – didn’t give a shit about any of that. He drove a Mercedes. He was dressed in a blazer and loafers, like he’d just stepped off a yacht, and was doing me a favour by giving me a lift into town. Once he had made a show of working out where my hotel was (he never fully knew) George Nicholas ignored all of my careful reticence and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing in his country. We weren’t even out of the airport yet. It was about nine o’clock on a Sunday night and the roads were empty. This enabled George Nicholas to turn around and look me straight in the eye when asking questions. I said I was a writer. “A rider? What do you ride? You ride horses?”

A writer. “A reader?” George Nicholas began to list things that I might read for a living. “You read books? A reader!” He had not heard of this. He seemed impressed. He drove faster as if to spur his thinking. We accelerated past the five illuminated rings installed for the Athens Olympics of 2004 which is now regarded by many Greeks as the very high point – both blissful and delusioned – of their country’s modern history. “What are you reading about?” I am writing about Greece. George Nicholas finally understood. He took his hands off the wheel and turned round to shake my hand. The car moved to the left. “Well what do you want to know? You should talk to me. Taxi drivers are always in the middle, always at the core.”

There was no stopping him. I didn’t want to listen and I soaked up every word. There was no crisis in Greece. I shouldn’t believe what I had seen on the TV. I would see it with my own eyes while I was here: the cafés were full, people were out, having a good time. People have money. Greece is a rich country. Okay, so things aren’t as good as they used to be. Yes, there had been some protests. Did I know how many immigrants there were in Athens? A million. Refugees. Yes, a million. Did I know about Dublin II? (The EU’s regulation on the free movement of people, and something you hear a lot about in Greece). This was the real cause of the crisis. They were the ones burning down buildings. But even that it is not a real crisis. Because it’s all been constructed by the politicians. “It is technical theatre!” said George Nicholas, delighted with this phrase. “Technical theatre!”

He nodded and drove and talked. The logic of his explanations was like his driving: fast and full of swerves. George Nicholas said the problem of the Greek people was not that they had become terribly, irredeemably indebted as a nation but that they had become too rich! They had just been getting to the point of throwing off centuries of dependency: to the Ottoman Turks, to the Americans, to the families of politicians who have ruled them for generations. “If you are earning €5,000 a month for many years and you only need €2,000 to live on then you are a dangerous man,” said George Nicholas. “Independent.” He nodded. “You can say to your boss, ‘Fuck You!’” George Nicholas yelled this in the taxi. He took his hands off the wheel and slapped one into the other elbow and yelled it again. “Fuck you!” This is what had been about to happen: Greeks got so dangerously close to prosperity and individual fulfilment that the international order – represented by the IMF, the EU and, of course, their puppets in the Greek government – had done the only thing open to them: which was to impoverish the population.

I asked George Nicholas why this was necessary. We were descending off the main road now, in among the lit streetfronts and sporadic columns of downtown Athens. He acknowledged that this was an important question. “I tell you something,” he said, solemnly. “You write it.” Then he turned to face me, and George Nicholas fixed me with a particular look that I had not encountered before I went to Greece but which became familiar because it recurred in so many conversations that I had over the following days. The look, if it needed to say anything, said this: Wake up. Forget whatever pleasant assumptions you might have been operating under about the way the world and society works because the sooner you realise that the only organising principles in this life are deceit and power and screwing the next guy the easier it’s going to be for you to get along here. I received this look from many Greek faces, and in many forms. It occurred on George Nicholas’s face as one primarily of concern. He was helping me out. “You know who controls humanity?” He asked. He waited for a reply. “You are not a boy. You are a man now. Who is controlling the planet? Tell me now, who is controlling this planet? Who?”

“I don’t think anybody is.”

George Nicholas ignored this answer. “Who is controlling? The bankers controlling? The rich people control? For money, who?”

“I don’t think anybody is in control.”

“No,” he shook his head. “Somebody controls. Somebody is behind of them.”

This went on for a few minutes: George Nicholas suggesting, hinting strongly, that I give up my innocence and think of groups of people who might be playing with all of us like the hopeless marionettes that we are. (“I think you believe that everything, all of the crisis, is because some people like to make more money?” He probed). George Nicholas did this until he couldn’t stand it any more. “I won’t tell you too much. But for the last ten thousand years the same people control the planet. The same people,” he said. “Of course not the same people because people do not live ten thousand years. But these people ten, or twenty people…” And then George Nicholas gave me the essential information about the Masonic conspiracy that has been in charge of humankind for all this time, migrating from empire to empire, surfing the waves of wealth and continual destruction, dividing humanity needlessly for their own unimaginable gains, leaving their enigmatic symbols along the way. The financial crisis, the humbling of Greece, it was so plainly part of the Masons’ eternal campaign of domination that it barely needed to be spelled out. “London is the Mecca,” said George Nicholas with something like reproach. Was I sure I didn’t know about any of this stuff? “The Illuminati? White brothers and black brothers. You know these guys? You know these guys?”

“I don’t know them,” I said. “It sounds a bit like the Da Vinci code.”

George Nicholas nodded. I wasn’t a completely hopeless case. “Something like this,” he mused. “Da Vinci. Something like this.” We were in the neighbourhood of my hotel now, on the eastern side of Syngrou Avenue, the main drag that runs through the heart of Athens, not far from the Acropolis. George Nicholas was gunning his Mercedes up and down increasingly narrow and steep roads, asking directions from men sat on chairs outside empty bars and shops. He did this while expounding on the Masons, Nato (if the Greek people rose up, the war would be over within a month) and one-ness of humans and animals (George Nicholas was a vegetarian). Finally we got within sight of the sign of my hotel. It was up another tight street and I decided to get out and walk the last few hundred yards. George Nicholas and I said goodbye. He short-changed me by ten euros. I did not want to have a conversation about it.

I had half an hour to think about my ban on talking to taxi drivers. I had arranged to meet Joanna Kakissis, an American journalist based in Athens, for dinner, and she was coming to my hotel. I unpacked and went out on to the small balcony outside my room. There was a freshness, a fragrance of trees in spring that I was not expecting in a large city. Half a mile away, floating above the city, the Parthenon stood like bones floodlit upon a table. I did my best to put George Nicholas out of my mind. Surely he had been a one-off. But it was difficult to forget what he had said. The out-thereness, the complexity of his thinking – how far away it was from my own understanding of the economic crisis in Greece and how I had expected Greeks to talk and think about it – had caught me off balance. I went down to the lobby to wait for Joanna.

A television was on in the corner. It was showing a documentary, in Greek, about “Tourkokratia” (Turkish rule), the Ottoman occupation of the country from 1458 to 1821. Modern reconstructions showed Greek peasants running through olive groves, pursued by eastern soldiers. The only other person in the lobby was the receptionist. A Greek man in his forties, he had thin black hair in a bold, pompadour wave and strong glasses. After a few minutes, he asked me where I was from. “Is there really a city named Wolves?” Was his first question about England. He had been watching a football match involving Wolverhampton Wanderers. I drew him a crude map of the amazing clusters of football teams in the Midlands and Lancashire. There was a slight pause and then, in the mysterious way that it does in Greece, the conversation began to slide, like a stream towards a hidden sea, down into the crisis. Before I knew it, the receptionist was giving me the same look that George Nicholas had given me in the taxi just before he started talking about the Masons.

This time, though, the look was of simple surprise. I didn’t know about the oil under the Aegean Sea? As much as Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know about the diamonds in the mountains? The gold? I didn’t know this? Was I sure? Well, the Germans knew about it. And so did the Americans. They have known about Greek’s mineral wealth for years, for decades, and they have been waiting for just this moment – just a hint of vulnerability – to put the country on its knees and come and help themselves. Of course this was how it works. You can’t have a war in Europe. Especially not after Iraq. This is how you conquer a country in the 21st century: you pump it full of cheap loans, wait for it to default and then get all its assets on the cheap. “We will be like Nigeria,” said the receptionist. All you need is a certain amount of international organisation – Angela Merkel has a castle outside Berlin where she makes her plans. (I didn’t know this either?) – and few collaborators on the inside. And in Greece, the Germans and the Americans could not have hoped in their dreams for a better stooge than “Pappy”. The receptionist spat the nickname of George Papandreou, the country’s last Prime Minister.

To my mind, until this point, Papandreou had occurred as a slender, rather hapless man who had admitted to the world a few weeks after his election in October 2009 that Greece’s finances were roughly twice as appalling as anyone had previously realised. For the next two years, Papandreou had traipsed from crunch summit to crunch summit, wearing a thin moustache and begging for international assistance while managing to convince very few people that he would able to able to sufficiently reform the Greek economy to be able to pay them back in the end. Eventually, in November 2011, he had been forced from office after a bungled attempt to put the country’s second bailout from the European Union – and the host of accompanying tax increases and budget cuts – to a national referendum.

The receptionist could not believe I had been taken in by all this detail. “We have big heroes,” he explained, “everybody knows this about Greece. But we also have big enemies, big villains. And this is Pappy.” The man was, simply, a traitor. Then the receptionist repeated the phrase that hangs around Papandreou in Greece like a shadow that he will never throw off: “We have money.” Papandreou, who used to lead Pasok, the country’s socialist party, said this during his election campaign in 2009 and he will never be forgiven for it.

“Why did he say there was money when there was no money?” The receptionist asked. He was becoming furious just thinking about it. Maybe Papandreou didn’t find out how little money there was until he became Prime Minister, I said. “Of course he knew.” When was I going to grow up? “His blood is American blood,” said the receptionist, referring to Papandreou’s transatlantic upbringing and doing an alarming impression of slashing his own wrist. (Papandreou grew up in exile in the US while his father, Andreas, helped lead the movement that brought down the Greek military dictatorship in 1974). I told the receptionist that there was a chance I would be meeting Papandreou later in the week. I asked if there was anything he wanted to me to say on his behalf. “If I could, I would kill him,” said the receptionist quietly. “I am not the only one.”

The man’s only hope, it turned out, was this fury. “The CIA, the FBI, they have files on every country,” he said. “Germany, France, UK…” as he mentioned each nation, the receptionist mimed the thickness of each file between his fingers. “Greece is like this.” He used both hands to signify the biggest file of all. “I told you,” he said. “We are crazy. It is very difficult to plan for us. They don’t know what we are going to do.” He went outside for a cigarette. I was eager for Joanna to show up, but there was no sign of her. So I followed the receptionist out into the street. He smoked and considered the quiet, small smells of the night. Today had been Greece’s national day. For the first time that he could remember, even during the military rule that lasted from 1967 to 1974, the ministers in the procession had been separated from the people by thick ranks of riot police. “A revolution is coming,” said the receptionist. Every now and again the Greeks rise up, he said: two hundred years ago, they rose against the Turks, in the Second World War they rose against the Nazis. “This is what is happening now,” he said. “The middle class is being destroyed. Right now he still has some money in the bank, under the bed, but when this is run out, he will be on the street. He will destroy everything he sees.”

Finally Joanna called. She had been delayed because she had to file a last minute story on Greece’s subdued national day festivities. Now she was on her way. I went inside and watched the documentary on the television. Every now and again, English-speaking academics would be interviewed, and the programme became suddenly comprehensible. “Travellers who came to Greece,” said one of the professors, “were struck by the corruption of the local Ottoman officials.” The receptionist went back to his desk. I decided not to continue our talk. Clearly my taxi driver rule didn’t hold in Greece: they were not so unrepresentative here. I was going to have to prepare myself for a week of wild interpretations, for descriptions of politics and economics that I had not heard before.

It was not long before midnight by the time Joanna arrived. She was small, tough reporter for NPR. We searched for somewhere to eat. When we found a hotel that would serve us, I told her about my two conversations in Greece so far – about the Masons, the CIA, the oil under the Aegean and Merkel’s castle outside Berlin – and Joanna gave me the “wake up” look for the third time that evening. This time, it was a look of consolation. She had been reporting on the Greek crisis for more than two years, and it hadn’t got any easier. The intensity of the blame and the distrust in people’s minds made for a continual labyrinth of explanations for what was happening in Greece that often left her in despair. Last week, she said, when a taxi driver had started out on the Masonic treatise for the hundredth time this year, she had asked him, please, to stop. When he did not, she gave up and started to cry.

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

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?

THE COMING OF MEN, A LONG, LONG WHILE AGO

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.

In Dagestan

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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.

Rousfeti and Eleni

Earlier this year I tried to write a book about the human experience of the European financial crisis. It didn’t work out. But my mind was turned back to the subject this weekend by a fine story in the International Herald Tribune about the crazy difficulties of selling off Greece’s state-owned assets and then talking to a friend today who spent last week in Spain on business. “Grim,” she said. Here is part of the chapter I wrote about Greece and some its social specificities around capitalism and a girl called Eleni:

“After a couple of days in Greece, I began to pay attention to customs and traits that no one thought were outrageous but were suspected nonetheless of being part of the economic edifice that had brought the country to where it was. This is what people talk about when they talk about Greek culture, and the Greek way of life. It constitutes an approach to living that ranges from the way that the entire property market works – there is an acknowledged, tax-dodging difference of about 30 per cent between what Greeks call the “objective” (false) and the “commercial” (true) value of their houses – to the way that people I met insisted on asking me round for dinner, or offering me wine at lunch. If we could not talk over food, then cups of coffee or frappés would always be magicked up from somewhere. If I was in an office – or once, a hospital – these would normally appear on a tray carried by a liveried waiter from a nearby café. I never saw money change hands. This was the world often denoted by the word rousfeti – literally, “spoils” – favours, gifts of patronage, a socialised way of doing business that extends from the most awful political corruption to the way that everyone in Greece gets their jobs.

One afternoon in Peristeri, a large working class neighbourhood in western Athens, I met a young woman who explained how an office position in a nearby municipality was arranged for her through rousfeti. It was an election year, a customary period for the trading and swapping of favours, and her boyfriend’s father – in exchange for roistering twenty votes for the local Pasok [socialist party] mayor – was offered a back-office job for the girl who might turn out to be his daughter in law. “‘The month goes in, the month goes out, and you get your money.’ That’s what they said,” said Eleni. “I remember it like it was now. It was so easy and simple.” To the anger of her boyfriend’s family – and the amazement of her own – she turned the job down. She did not know why, but she had decided that she wanted to make her own way in the world. Five years later, Eleni worked as a secretary in a shoe company, and was supporting the rest of her family as they prepared to close down her father’s autoglass repair shop. He had worked as a mechanic since he was fourteen years old. She wore t-shirt that said: “While I breathe, I hope.”

“People in Greece disagree about the origins of rousfeti. Some blame the Ottomans, of course. (The word has Turkish roots). But most people acknowledge that it is basically the remnant of a face-to-face, village culture, built around the family and bonds of friendship. It is as obviously incompatible with 21st century capitalism as it is a logical defence against it, an injection of blood and emotion in order to control things that are not supposed to be controlled. Since the economy began to unravel in 2009, rousfeti has been the virus that Greeks have blamed loudly for the sickness of their country and the vaccine that they have quietly searched for to help them survive it: a measure of protection in their jobs, support from their friends and relatives. It stands for human weakness and human strength at the same time, and it shows its different qualities according to your predicament.

“Over lunch one day in Athens I talked about this troublesome dose of humanness with a young Greek photographer called Eirini Vourloumis. Eirini’s father is an economist who used to run OTE, Greece’s national telephone company. He oversaw the company’s transformation from a loss-making state-owned rousfeti machine to a privately-run, salvageable enterprise 30 per cent owned by Germans. Naturally, he was pilloried for it, another Greek traitor. Eirini shook her head thinking about the screams and thunder her father went through to achieve what would be regarded as a rational business project in any western European country. “He almost went to prison,” she said. “It was like the mafia.” Partly as a result, Eirini had decided to try and capture this state of mind in her own work, when she came back to Greece to start documenting the economic crisis in 2010. She had started taking pictures of public buildings and offices, seeking out the markers of behaviour that make Greeks different, more resistant to the impersonal norms of markets and rules that have ended up governing other places. And in describing these signs – a huge, ultraviolet altar to Jesus in the office of an Athens police detective; a large fish-tank, backed with an image of a leaping cat, in the city’s fraud department – Eirini could not help smiling at the humour, the individuality, the imprint of personality on system which they characterised. Her favourite, she said, was a portrait of Che Guevara that she came across hanging in the ministry of development. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Nowhere else is this possible,’” she said.”

I got an email this afternoon from the talented young Greek journalist, Nikolia Apostolou, who introduced me to Eleni (“While I breathe, I hope”) and helped me during my reporting. “How’s the book going?” She wrote. “Eleni was asking me. She just got fired from her job.”