January 17 2005 / New Statesman
Early this month, I spent an unusually instructive evening in and around the press box at Highbury. I was there to watch Arsenal play Manchester City in a routine midweek Premiership match, but I soon became more preoccupied by those around me: the uncompromising tabloid reporters; the nearly forgotten former players who were freelancing as “expert summarisers” for distant provincial radio stations; the boys on their way up and the old men on their way down; the reporters over from Paris to watch Francophone Arsenal; as well as those, in the box, who moved with something of a swagger, were the main men on their papers, and liked to call themselves the “number ones”.
As a young boy, I was fascinated by the idea of life as a sportswriter. It seemed to me a good life. I was a talented sporting schoolboy, but not talented enough: I knew that I would never truly excel at any sport. But I liked to watch and think about sport, perhaps more than anything else. So why not one day write about it as well?
On leaving university in 1989, I began covering some football matches for the Mail on Sunday, usually between struggling teams of little consequence. There were no number ones at the inconsequential games to which I was despatched by the sports editor, but still I was expected to gather post-match platitudes and write hurried copy that would, inevitably, be mangled by unlucky sub-editors working the frenetic Saturday afternoon shift.
My interview for this minor reporting job took place in the basement of a bar just off Kensington High Street, near the headquarters of Associated Newspapers. Clearly the sports editor thought I was too refined, as he put it, for his world, and proceeded to test my resolve by battering me with expletives, the banter of the all-male changing room. I stared back at him, unblinkingly, and told him I especially admired the range and intelligence of his pages. It was a lie. The job was mine.
Yet no sooner was I out on the road than I became contemptuous of life in the press box - which, like the lobby at Westminster, seemed to me to thrive on little more than gossip and scandal. I did not remain in that reporting job for long.
Perhaps I was naive in being so hastily dismissive. For, during my visit to Highbury, I met up with the veteran journalist Brian Glanville. Limping following a recent operation, and characteristically dishevelled, Glanville looked as if he had wandered in straight from the set of a Beckett play. As chance would have it, we sat next to each other. Glanville is an engaging, if tyrannical, monologist. A polyglot and mimic, a novelist and scriptwriter, he speaks with a suave, modulated accent, like a well-educated actor from the 1950s. Scarcely pausing, he covered, in one flowing monologue, Jeremy Treglown’s recent biography of V S Pritchett, the “indispensability” of the back half of the New Statesman in the 1960s, the comedian Peter Cook, how he wears special socks to keep his feet warm during winter matches, and his old school, Charterhouse, of which he seemed inordinately proud.
Also in the box that night were the solemn David Miller - a “fellow Carthusian”, as Glanville delighted in pointing out, and the man who has reported on more football World Cups than any other British journalist (his reports have something of the piety of a church sermon); Oliver Holt, a supremely confident number one from the Daily Mirror, who is the son of a soap star; a mid-market tabloid bruiser called Steve Curry, who could be Desperate Dan’s elder brother; as well as an elegant man called Philippe Auclair from France Football who, with his rolled-up cigarette and glass of whisky, and his urbane and sophisticated conversation, seemed more like a cafe philosopher in the style of Bernard-Henri Levy than a man of football.
A more unusual group of characters, then, than one would ever hope to encounter in the Westminster lobby - and the gossip was more elevated, too. Did someone mention football?