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.

AHAP#1: Looking at holiday pictures

I am a poor photographer. It’s not that I take absolutely terrible pictures (sometimes I get on a jag – a phrase P used on our recent holiday in Sicily and I’m sticking with) it’s more that I don’t take them at all. The camera stays in the bag, or on the shelf above my desk, its memory card stocked with the evidence of soft-paparazzi binges (P brushing her teeth, P emailing, P putting up the laundry) and then nothing at all. But that does not disqualify me from an honest appraisal of the pleasure* of showing or looking at holiday pictures. There is no disputing that this is advertised as a pleasure: I have been invited around to people’s houses for specifically this purpose, although more often holiday pictures are introduced as entertainment sometime between being given something to eat and being offered a hot drink / shown out the door. They are rarely offered up with the accompaniment of alcohol, which might be something to think about.

The main and obvious problem with being shown someone’s holiday pictures in the year 2011 is to do with technology. We are in a bad technological place, a foul quarter, screwed by a misalignment which means that we have the equipment to take a basically unlimited amount of images on unlimited number of devices and yet no safe and pleasurable way to receive them. I don’t care about the tiny crew who know how to plug their computer into the television, the way most of us look at holiday pictures these days is arranged around a laptop (the third person cannot see the pictures, don’t pretend) or on the back of someone’s camera. With two people this is at least physically possible, but it is not a good enough way to look at the pictures, unless they are not worth looking at.

The bigger point though is not about how to technically display the images, it is about how to comprehend them. We are dwarfed by our recording capabilities, how much we can capture. It’s like the moment in the Cold War when the Russians and the Americans realised they could destroy themselves and the world many times over. We can now photograph ourselves without limit. There is no hold on us. As a result, we are in the psychologically frightening position of having more pictures than things worth taking pictures of. We have far, far more images than stories. What is an average number of pictures from a weeklong holiday taken by a modern British couple with at least one half (imagine two!) snapping away? I think it’s probably about 150, more than 20 a day, the business end of a picture an hour.

There is no narrative, unless the holiday was like Moby Dick, to accommodate this many visual prompts. So to be shown someone’s pictures now involves a marathon of clicking, a diminishing of explanation and context until we are just racing through, “Oh yes, that’s the same place.” “Didn’t we go there in the morning, before the market?” (No. The camera knows when you went). “That’s the hire car again.” And if you don’t take anything like this number of pictures, I am afraid there is a nagging expectation that you should have. Not being good at remembering my camera, I took a mere 69 images on our holiday to Sicily. Last week I had lunch with my mother and showed them to her. I knew she was disappointed. It took about a 69 seconds to go through them, presumably because we were both tuned to the higher processing speed you need to get through a normal batch.

Of course it wasn’t always like this. And it seems likely to me that the supposed pleasure of showing your own, or sitting through someone else’s holiday pictures, is one of those pleasures whose identity is basically historical. Its official status as a pleasure has persisted long past the point when it stopped being so – like air travel. On Saturday morning, in the European manner, we had coffee with two friends of ours, one of whom is an Austrian actor who grew up in Vienna in the 1950s and 1960s. He is also a keen photographer (when we left the café we lost him briefly on the street, he was taking a picture of some metal). The Austrian actor pointed out that the ritual of showing one’s holiday pictures arose after the Second World War, in the union of full employment, working class tourism and the Kodak Instamatic camera in the US and the Agfa Isolette in Europe. Film was expensive, meaning that each holiday normally had to be recorded in 12, small, black and white images, crimped with zigzags at the side.

The homely, imagined version of this ritual sees a family and friends arranged around the table, with these twelve images lying around, each one inevitably missing the actual moments of interest on the trip to Cologne, but fulfilling their purpose as fragments of veracity, points of light in the story, strange, condensing compositions. In this idyll, holiday pictures are there to support a larger narrative, an involving story of travel and incidents in places that are yet to be seen, which is the real reason why everyone has come over. Back in those days, the editing was obligatory: 12 pictures to frame a story. Who edits their holiday pictures now? Who works out what they are there to tell?

It wasn’t all sunshine and sepia back then. Our Austrian friend, who spent his summers in the Alps, told us that the holiday snappers back in the 1960s were normally Germans, whose economy was recovering faster and whose clothes and cameras were better his own. It became a trick, when the tourists were swimming or had their stuff lying about as people did back then because they were so innocent, to steal their camera for a few minutes and take pictures of your naughty bits which they would not discover until they got home (but presumably before they had invited their friends over).

Even then, in the pre-digital days, technology was about to turn things darker. Soon, by the 1970s and 1980s, the lights were going out all over Europe because people started taking their holiday pictures as slides, giving rise to perhaps the most exquisitely bad version of this pleasure, the curated-by-father holiday picture slide show, whose only, barest redemptive quality was the fact that you could close your eyes and no one noticed. The door was shut though, to keep out the light, and you knew this.

*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.