Chris Pilcher: An inspirational teacher

July 28 2022 / The New Statesman

​Sometimes you encounter, however fleetingly, someone who leaves a deep impression

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Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England by Jason Cowley

June 28 2022 / Politics Live

​Jason Cowley talks about his book Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England, which explores the turbulent politics of the last 25 years, from Tony Blair to the pandemic

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Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England by Jason Cowley

March 31 2022 / Picador - Pan Macmillan

​In this compelling and essential book, Jason Cowley examines contemporary England through a handful of the key news stories of recent times to reveal what they tell us about the state of the nation and to answer the question Who Are We Now?

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Matthew Syed: review of Who Are We Now? By Jason Cowley

March 27 2022 / The Sunday Times

​Jason Cowley’s wonderfully written, magisterial dive into the modern history of English politics and identity

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Observer Book of the week: Who Are We Now? Jason Cowley

March 2022 / The Observer

​Julian Coman on a subtle, sophisticated book about the condition of England

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The Last Game: Love, Death and Football - A memoir by Jason Cowley

May 2 2019 / New Statesman/Spear's Magazine

​Why 1989 was the hinge year in English football’s modernisation

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Tiger Woods's Late Style

February 5 2019 / Spear's Magazine

One spring afternoon in 2010 I was playing a round of golf with my brother-in-law at his pleasant private members’ club in the Ribble Valley when he challenged me to a bet. Tiger Woods, he said, would never win another major championship. He was finished. There was no coming back for him from the various sex scandals in which he was embroiled and which had destroyed his wholesome all-American hero’s image. I accepted the bet.

The golf majors – the US Masters, the US Open, the Open and the US PGA – have the prestige and lustre of the four grand slams in tennis. They are the tournaments that define the history of the game and every player of ambition wants to win. They were the tournaments Woods wanted to win above all else.

In 2008, he had won the US Open, in a play-off, while having a ruptured knee. He was in agony. He could scarcely walk. Yet he still won – and it was his fourteenth major triumph.

By this stage of his career, Woods was four short of the great Jack Nicklaus’s record haul of eighteen majors and he was still a young man. He was the game’s first true athlete, its first mixed race superstar whose presence on the greens and fairways of the country clubs of the Deep South was an affront to the bigots whose attitudes used to define the ethos of the game.

The son of a hard-driving African American marine and a Thai-Chinese mother, Tiger Woods was also sport’s first billionaire in the era of globalisation. Various Gulf states and Chinese oligarchs would pay millions of dollars simply to have him show up at their tournaments. Everyone wanted a piece of Woods – including (or especially) the women his handlers procured for his sexual adventures when he was out on the road, a long way from the mansion he shared in Florida with his blonde Nordic wife and their two young children.

Woods has “fallen faster than anyone else in history”, wrote Hank Haney, the golfer’s former coach in his book, The Big Miss, in which he betrayed all confidences about his former partner. It was a ridiculous and hyperbolic comment but you understood what Haney meant by it: the fall of Woods, when it came, from the summit of the game was astounding.

Long before then, all through his twenties, Woods had redefined his sport (if you can call golf a sport), bulking up in the gym to become fitter and stronger than his rivals as he thrilled galleries with his power and touch and last-day dominance of the most notable tournaments. He was world number for the most consecutive weeks (281) and most total weeks (683). He was the opposite of a choker: the finest final round finisher the game has ever seen. It was said, just as his rivals tensed up, Woods could lower his pulse at will, like some mysterious yogi.

In August 2009 Woods was narrowly runner-up in the US PGA. A few months later, he crashed his car in the early hours outside his house after his wife had challenged him about his serial infidelities, including an affair with a local waitress with whom Woods enjoyed rough sex.

The media picked up on the story and, having successfully protected his privacy for so long, Woods was exposed as a sexual adventurer and extreme narcissist: less a clean-living family man than a pumped-up sex addict. His fall was vertiginous. And his golf game – his reason for being – collapsed, not helped by the multiple injuries he suffered, the consequence perhaps of pumping so much iron in the gym.

For a long time, it seemed as if Woods was indeed finished, because of his chronic injuries, the severe pain he was in, and the four major operations he had on his back. But I always believed he would come back - and win another major. Last season, he worked his way into the top 20 of the world rankings and won his first tournament since 2013. He was even leading in the Open at Carnoustie deep into the final round.

It’s always poignant to watch a old master in the late phase of his career and it is no different when watching Woods. His power is much-reduced, his hair is receding fast and he’s had to remodel his swing and adapt his game as a consequence of the operations he has had on his back and knees. But he’s still golf’s first - and perhaps only true – superstar: the one guy the whooping spectators in the galleries really want to watch. And his talent - his touch, his timing - is not subject to decay, unlike his body.

In 1986 Jack Nicklaus won his final major, the Masters at Augusta, when he was 46. Woods is now 43 and is assiduously preparing for this April’s Masters, a tournament he was won four times and desperately wants to win again. Can he do it? Can he win another major so late in his career after all that he has endured? I wouldn’t bet against him.

Ernest Hecht: The death of a publisher, the end of an era

February 22 2018 / New Statesman

​As a young child he escaped the Nazis on one of the Kindertransport trains and was perhaps the last great emigre publisher in London

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Books of the Year

December 2007 / New Statesman

Set in America in the aftermath of an unexplained global catastrophe, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the first great English language novel of our new century. A father and his young son make their slow way through a burned and deathly landscape, seeking to find a way to the coast, where they hope to find ... well, they do not know what they will find there. There is infinite hope, wrote Kafka, but not for us. In McCarthy’s novel there is no hope: the human world is at an end, and most of those still living have regressed into barbarism. And yet the father and son go on, seeking to find meaning and purpose even as Planet Earth smoulders and sickens. McCarthy’s language is restrained and much sparer than usual, though some of his sentences have a Shakespearean grandeur. The Road is a warning, a lament, and a beautiful love story. I’ve read nothing finer for many years.

So much has been written about the origins and present danger of al-Qaeda by those who know little or nothing about them that one turns with exhilaration to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda’s road to 9/11 (Allen Lane). A staff writer on the New Yorker, Wright travelled extensively in the Gulf states and the Middle East while researching this book, the most complete account we have of the ideological journey taken by the jihadists, as well as of those in the CIA and FBI whose mission it was to prevent them from carrying out the spectacular attack on America that some in US intelligence knew was coming but could not prevent. During his research, Wright spoke to former associates and confidants of Osama Bin Laden and of his so-called number two, the Egyptian medic Ayman al-Zawahiri. He moves back and forwads in time, covering the arrival of the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) in America in the 1940s, the brutalisation in Egyptian prisons of al-Zawahiri and his followers, and the US-funded Islamic resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Looming Tower has the pace and tension of a great suspense novel and the rigour and discipline of the finest scholarship.

No book has enthralled and fascinated me more this year than Michael Finkel’s True Story: murder, memoir, mea culpa (Chatto & Windus). It is a book about many things. It is about the impossibility of ever fully telling the truth, to ourselves or each other. It is about the relationship between fact and fiction in journalism, and how we journalists too often distort and embellish as we seek to smooth the world into instant understanding. And it is about how one man, in small-town America, murdered his entire family because so addicted was he to telling lies that he no longer believed in the independent reality of his own wife and children. They were mere phantoms to him, figures lost in the blurred landscape of his imagination.

Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World (Jonathan Cape), is a work of wonderful erudition that can be read as an accessible introduction to the social and political milieu from which Shakespeare emerged and as an elegant guide to the astonishing poems and plays themselves. There is, inevitably, too much unsourced speculation about Shakespeare himself - about what he “might have” said and done and whom he met and when, and how these experiences may have directly influenced the work. The subjunctive mode. But you close the book determined immediately to open another: the Complete Works itself.

Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Canongate) is set in Rwanda before, during and just after the genocide of 1994. Mixing fact and fiction, and including character studies of those Courtemanche actually met and came to know well while he was making a film about Aids in Rwanda, it is at once the story of a a doomed love affair between a white man and an African woman, a work of journalistic witness, a fierce indictment, and an elegy for lost friends. Perhaps not since Baudelaire has a writer so viscerally made the link between sex and death. It is unforgettable. Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor (Atlantic Books), written with economy and grace and deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is an intriguing parable of the feelings of redundancy felt by many liberal whites in the new South Africa, a country destined, it seems, to be borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I admired Ignorance by Milan Kundera (Faber), a story about two emigres returning to Prague after a long absence, in which the author combines all of his old gifts for irony, essayistic digression and playful eroticism with a new and sombre awareness of transience and mortality. Published in France before the events of 11 September 2001, Platform (Heinemann; translated by Frank Wynne) is a work of thrilling confrontation, in which Michel Houellebecq once more proves the ideal chronicler of our disturbed modernity.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere is the account of a celebrated murder case in France. For 18 years, Jean-Claude Romand lived a life of elaborate deceit, working, or so his family thought, as a researcher at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. In fact, he had never qualified as a doctor, and had spent much of his student life as an impostor, a ghostly presence who attended lectures without ever having registered officially at the university. His deceit continued into adulthood. He swindled money from trusting relatives, claimed to be suffering from cancer, and left for work each morning, crossing the border into Switzerland, where he idled away the long, dead days in hotel rooms, at service stations or in aimless wanderings. On the point of being found out, he murdered his wife, her parents, and his own children. He then attempted but failed to kill himself. Carrere writes with imaginative empathy about the “vast beach of dead and empty time” where Romand spent most of his life, and about how we all create fictive identities, alternative selves to compensate for the people we never became.

My book of the year is Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (Duck Editions). A cultural conservative, monarchist and extreme pessimist, Reck-Malleczewen was a man out of time, at once listlessly estranged from mid-century German modernity and mournfully engaged with it. A Prussian aristocrat, he spent much of his life in rural isolation on his Bavarian estate. His diary - published for the first time in Britain this year, but widely known in Germany - covers the period from 1936 to February 1945, when, having refused a call-up, his elegant disdain for Nazism led to his being murdered at Dachau. Reck looked on helplessly as his nation was gripped by a mortal sickness. No one who reads this books will forget his hauteur, pessimism and contempt for Hitler.

With exemplary diligence to primary sources, Brigitte Hamann, in Hitler’s Vienna (OUP), destroyed many of the false assumptions about Hitler’s early life. The young Hitler emerges from her pages as he must have done in life: fervent, raging, electrified and determined on self-reinvention. Many of Hamann’s discoveries were incorporated by Ian Kershaw into his own widely read biography of the Fuhrer. James Wood occupies a lonely position as an old-fashioned public critic writing for an audience that has all but disappeared. Brought up among evangelical Christians, he lost his faith in his early twenties, transferring much of his religious fervour on to literature. His sentences can become, at times, tied up in metaphorical knots, but mostly in The Broken Estate (Cape) he writes well and with impressive acuity about literature.

Golf Dreams: But I know I can never be good ...

July 1 2007 / The Observer

Jason Cowley gave up his golfing ambitions 20 years ago. Now he’s back on the course, but finds his biggest challenge is not in the lie of the ball - it’s in the lies he told himself about his game

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Letter From Western Australia: the hipster winelands of the Margaret River

April 15 2007 / The Observer

How a former hippy hangout in a remote outpost transformed wine-making in Australia

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Letter from Saint Lucia: Paradise postponed

April 1 2007 / The Observer

As the ragga music blared and the tills rang at the open-air bars in Rodney Bay, Jason Cowley bumped into New Zealand and England cricketers intent on a good night out. Then the World Cup darkened into tragedy

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Letter from Germany: epic drama of pride, passion and then tears

July 2 2006 / The Observer

After the match, his final defeat as England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson seemed somehow reduced and much smaller as he prepared to take questions from his tormentors in the press.

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Letter from Germany: Lonesome Riquelme is Argentina's go-to man

June 18 2006 / The Observer

The playmaker sometimes seems to be playing a game beyond his peers

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Arsene Wenger: the French revolutionary

May 14 2006 / The Observer

Last weekend, Arsenal played their final league match at Highbury, an occasion that was at once a celebration and a long goodbye. No one seemed to be living more intensely through those last moments at the venerable stadium in north London than Arsène Wenger.

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London Notebook: The 2012 Olympic Games, smaller, greater, braver

July 10 2005 / The Observer

There is a tradition, at the closing ceremony of each Olympics, for the president of the International Olympic Committee to acclaim the Games that have just ended as the greatest ever. The then president Juan Samaranch certainly said as much of Sydney 2000. His successor, Jacques Rogge, perhaps recalling the empty venues and absent spectators in the opening week, was more circumspect about Athens 2004: the Games, he said, ‘were unforgettable, a dream’.

But what exactly does the IOC mean by ‘greatest’? The most profitable? The largest and most expensive to produce? (The cost of the Athens Games, for instance, is estimated at more than £6 billion.)

One is never quite sure. What is certain is that the Olympic rings are the most recognised symbol on the planet, yet what exactly are they meant to symbolise? ‘Take away sponsorship and commercialism from sport today,’ IOC member Dick Pound has said, ‘and what is left? A large, sophisticated engine developed over 100 years - with no fuel.’

That may be too cynical; but there is no doubt that the Olympic movement, riven by factionalism and tarnished by its relentless, devouring pursuit of profit and maximum exposure, has lost sight of its founding spirit.

This is why it is so encouraging that London won the bid to host the 2012 Games: Sebastian Coe, and his team, in their final presentation in Singapore and throughout the later stages of their triumphant campaign, offered an alternative vision of what the Games might once more become - something smaller and more modest in scale, less concerned with bombast and nationalistic posturing, than with a desire to unite all communities and, most importantly, to inspire the young, liberating them into a life of sport and activity.

Coe arrived at Raffles Hotel on Wednesday morning to deliver his final speech accompanied by a group of animated children representing the cultural and ethnic mosaic of London’s East End. These children may have been from one of the most depressed and neglected parts of Britain, but they were full of hope for the future regeneration of their city. What a bright difference they made from all the other assembled sombre-suited delegates and host city bidders!

Coe spoke, again and again, of his desire to inspire these children and hundreds of thousands like them just as he, as a 12-year-old watching on television in Sheffield, had been inspired by David Hemery winning gold in the 400m hurdles in Mexico in 1968. These were good words, good because sincere.

The 2008 Games, in Beijing, will be a huge engine of efficiency: Chinese authoritarianism will ensure that everything is completed before time and that nothing will go wrong or be left to chance. The Games will be a demonstration of Chinese power: They will be truly gigantic in scale and ambition as befits a nation where the power of the state is omnipresent. Nothing will be spared to ensure that Chinese athletes - so often disgraced by the scandal of experimenting with performance enhancing drugs - are the outstanding performers.

The London Games should not be like that. They should be true to the modesty and spirit of the original bid and to the progressive, porous city that London has become, a model of multiracial integration, of cultural tolerance and diversity. These Games should be organised and run with the quiet, understated efficiency of, say, Wimbledon, arguably the best organised sporting event in the world.

If the London Games are to be true to their desire to inspire the young, then tickets must be reasonably priced and available to all throughout the country. Coe and his team must resist the embrace of the corporate sponsors. Or at least, their wealth and power should be used to the advantage of all. And the volunteers should be drawn from all ethnic groups and across all age ranges.

Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, suggested in the aftermath of defeat that London succeeded not because of the quality of its bid but because of the intensity of its lobbying. IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg offered another perspective. ‘London,’ he said, ‘gave a great presentation and Coe was excellent. It was an emotional vote in there, and people went with their hearts and not their heads.’

Why did they do this? Perhaps because the august and pampered members of the IOC have, like so many of us, grown weary of what the Games have become while still believing in their undoubted transformative and life-affirming potential. People no longer wish to be present at a carnival of corporate excess: you need only visit a top Premiership football match, with its prohibitively expensive ticket prices and rhetoric of greed, to understand how starkly sport is becoming separated from its founding ethos. No, what people want is to be inspired, uplifted and reminded all over again of the dignity of this sporting life. London 2012 can help achieve that.

Patrick Vieira: Under pressure

May 8 2005 / The Observer

The Arsenal captain’s on-off move to Real Madrid last summer led to a season of frustration and lost form. What does he want now as he approaches the end of his time in London?

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David Sylvian: in conversation with Jason Cowley

March 2005 / An interview with David Sylvian

In March 2005, the journalist and literary critic Jason Cowley travelled to New York to meet David Sylvian for an article published in the Observer on 10 April. Their conversation continued over email.

JASON COWLEY: Why did you set up your own label?

DAVID SYLVIAN: I had become increasingly frustrated with Virgin [to whom he had been attached since 1980, first as part of Japan and then as a solo artist]. There was enthusiasm for my work from one or two people in the higher echelons of the company but there was no carry through. They were happy to get the albums but they wouldn’t know what to do with them. In the end, I felt that they really couldn’t care less if I produced any new work or not. What they wanted from me were compilations, which is what I ended up doing for about a year and a half. In truth, I agreed to do the compilations thinking they might let me back in the studio at some point. I was contractually obliged to put together a compilation but I managed to put them off and keep producing new work, which interested me more. So I went through the motions of producing compilations, as well as a re-mix of a live album, but it was a bad period. I felt creatively stifled. I was dying to start over again, but there was no support from the company. We finally managed to part ways with Virgin, and that was a release, on both sides. I’d just moved from California to New Hampshire and started to build my own a studio complex there, trying to become more self-sufficient. I knew with the way the industry was moving that it wasn’t really going to be supportive of the kind of work I wanted to produce. I thought the best thing to do was to become as self-sufficient as possible and start from there, and see how things developed. It took about a year to build the studio. My brother [Steve Jansen] came over, and lived with me for about a year with his family. We started writing together…

JC: But then something happened. You stopped writing with Steve and took time out to make Blemish, perhaps the boldest and most uncompromising album you have ever made. Tell me a little about what led to the creation of Blemish?

DS: Blemish took only six weeks to make. I knew it would be described in the industry as a difficult album, which is why I decided to put it out over the internet. I thought: we’ll create a website, we’ll put it out without any distribution, and those people who are interested will find it. But the first reviews that appeared were so promising - they generated an awful lot of interest. From there, distributors came on board and wanted to be a part of it, and so the notion of a label began to grow. In truth, we were struggling to keep up with everything that was happening. But it was a gratifying struggle, because we were able to do deals on our own terms, and things were just evolving beautifully. At the end of this period we had a label, we had distribution, and everything seemed to be set up for the future. It’s now very gratifying to have a label and to be able to offer a platform to artists we admire, such as Harold Budd.

JC: I was impressed and moved by Budd’s release on Samadhisound, Avalon Sutra. He has said it is to be his final album - and these pieces of music, so fragile and full of longing, convey a sense of last things, of an artist coming to the end of something. When did you first hear them?

DS: Amazingly, I first heard the album in 2001, when I tried to help Harold find a deal for that album. Everyone turned it down. I finally met Harold for the first time in 2003 in LA, and offered to put out the album on our label. I think that period of refusal of some of his best work may have had something to do with his desire to call it quits at this point in time.

JC: How does it feel no longer to be with a major label? Is it liberation or loss?

DS: When I was in Japan, Simon [Napier-Bell, the band’s manager], would talk to me endlessly about what we were capable of and what we could achieve, as if I should automatically want to pursue the same goals as him. A wit and raconteur, he enjoyed nothing more than attempting to extract large sums of money from record companies…. He could charm his way out of the most difficult situations. I had to find another, less commercial way of working, which was why during the recording of Tin Drum [Japan’s fifth and final album] we kept Simon as far away from the studio as possible. We locked the door on him. Simon wished for me to see the industry through his eyes. He manipulated because manipulation was more entertaining from his perspective than a more passive (he would argue less creative) form of management and while this was quite an education, once I’d been given room to breathe, to gauge the situation, to size up the music business for myself, I realised that I could make it work for me in ways devoid of cynicism and crass exploitation, and that there were potentially greater returns in establishing relationships in the industry based on trust (I had a particularly long standing and productive relationship with Simon Draper at Virgin lasting almost two decades, a rare thing in music industry in the late 20th century) rather than taking the money and running. From the 1980s onward I never spoke of compromise and consequently compromise was never asked of me.

JC: I saw you perform Blemish at Festival Hall, in London, in the summer of 2003.Your audience listened respectfully, as they always do. But I remember at the start of the second half of the show, when you began by singing one of your old songs, The Other Side of Life, from Quiet Life, there was a huge cheer. It was so loud that you could have heard it from the top of the Millennium Wheel.

DS: It was probably a cheer of relief [we both laugh]. Blemish is an album that people have to work at it. That people are prepared to do just that, to spend some time getting to grips with it - well, that’s an act of true generosity on their part.

JC: What do you think of the remix album, The Good Son vs The Only Daughter?

DS: I’m happy with it. Remix albums are, in general, only ever moderately successful: the person commissioned to do the remix would generally prefer to be working on his own material than being paid to work on someone else’s. In this instance, the remix gave us an opportunity to build relationships with artists like Akira [Rabelais] and Burnt [Friedman] that could lead to future collaborations. It gave us a chance to discover if we spoke the same language, if you like.

JC: To listen to Blemish is to discover an artist engaged in the complicated process of remaking himself. I was shocked when I first heard it. It sounded like nothing you had done before.

DS: When I began work on Blemish I had an incredible desire to eradicate the past and to find a whole new vocabulary for myself. At first, you are working from pure intuition. You are not sure where you are going; later, you begin to understand where the vocabulary is leading you and how to make it speak for you in a more profound way.

JC: The form of the pop song no longer interested you?

DS: For me those old forms reached a natural end - or shall I say their pinnacle - with Dead Bees on a Cake. Without the benefit of having to face my catalogue as I had to when putting together those compilation albums [for Virgin], I would never have been able to make such a radical break. In the end, I was too familiar with my own material. I’d toured with it, I knew it too well. I was happy to put it to rest and never face it again. I still enjoy the challenge of writing a well-structured pop song, but the stimulus for doing so usually comes from outside - someone will offer me a project or will offer to collaborate or give me a song to write a lyric to.

JC: You are in the process of completing an album with Steve Jansen and Burnt Freidman. I’ve heard the title track, Snow-borne Sorrow: much more accessible than Blemish but still bold and innovative and rather beautiful. How did this come about?

DS: Steve and I had been working on a project, and I’d also been working on another a project with Burnt. From there, the two projects just came together in the most natural way, and began to develop into something very impressive. The project will incorporate some of the strongest material I’ve ever written with Steve - that’s for sure, some really beautiful pieces. It’s a very confessional album. It has that same confessional edge as Blemish had and some very powerful and emotional qualities to it. The structures are rather repetitive, similar to Blemish, but, yes, far more accessible. But I’m looking forward to putting this one to bed and moving on. At times the speed at which I work causes me great frustration…so many other ideas to pursue.

JC: How comfortable are you about writing so nakedly of your own emotional experiences? Blemish can be listened to on many levels - but most notably and affectingly as an anguished confession, a tortured expression of interiority. One has a powerful sense of you grappling with feelings of regret and loss arising from the failure of your marriage to Ingrid. I felt your first solo album, Brilliant Trees, conveyed a similar sense of bewilderment and longing, but without the same intensity of feeling.

DS: The work I find the most gratifying is the work in which I’m most revealed in a way. When I was writing Blemish I was still in the midst of a difficult emotional experience. I wasn’t in a comfortable position from where I could look back ... I didn’t know how to handle the emotional side of things. Once I got into the studio and closed the studio door, I felt a certain sense of safety, of liberty, to deal with the emotions, emotions that were primarily negative and all to do with my relationship with my wife. I wanted to delve far deeper into them than I would in daily life. How far can you go with that sort of feeling and where does it lead you? At the same time, I’m delving into something that one should be wary of delving into, because you don’t know how readily you will be able to re-surface from it at the end of the day. There was a sort of trepidation involved.

JC: Were you listening to other musicians at this time as part of your struggle to find a new way of expression and to make it new, as the modernists used to say?

DS: I went back to listen to artists I’d been listening to for decades - artists like Nick Drake, those evergreen artists you go back to decade after decade and still find a kernel of emotional truth in their work - but it wasn’t there for me anymore. The old emotional tug had gone. It was as if the whole language of the pop song was no longer valid. You cease to engage in the emotional content of the song because the form is too safe. Or perhaps the whole requirement of pop music is that it doesn’t provoke too much; it’s not designed to be provocative or unsettling. Yet I had these emotions to which I wanted to give voice. How to do that? How to make what you are doing relevant to now? All I knew was that I had to move on from these traditional structures - forms with which I’d been working for decades.

JC: The process you were going through sounds very painful, in every sense. Had you ever experienced anything like this before: the acute self-questioning, I mean, and the experience of deep loss - as well as the desire to remake yourself, artistically?

DS: I went through something similar in the late Eighties, at the end of a very important personal relationship [with Yuka Fujii]. I was completely numbed by that experience. I couldn’t write about it at all. It wasn’t even an option. The whole thing took me at least five years to work through, psychologically. I saw a psychiatrist; I needed help to get through it. I don’t think I could have got through it on my own, the feeling of guilt, unhappiness and grief were too great. When someone dies you have the actual physical loss of that person. But when an important relationship ends that person is still present in your life to some degree, and that confuses the issue enormously. At least, it did for me. It took me a long time to see my way through it.

JC: And now you are going through a divorce… the end of something important, something that once brought you great happiness and domestic contentment?

DS: This time I felt better equipped to face these emotions head on. I guess going through a period of analysis in the late Eighties gave me the tools with which to recognise certain idiosyncrasies that I needed to focus on. I was more adept at dealing with certain emotions as they surfaced. I began to recognise all the familiar traits and was able to work through them myself without the need for help. I am very involved in certain forms of meditation and ritual worship and so on, and I think having those practices gave me a relatively well balanced frame of mind, which helped me to look deeper into the darker aspects of my own emotional make up, and to emerge from it.

JC: You said that you were unable to write during the first period of profound emotional upheaval in the late Eighties, following the release of Secrets of the Beehive?

DS: Yes, music wasn’t a solace. I don’t think I would have worked at all if Robert [Fripp] hadn’t called and asked me to get involved with a project he was working on at that time. It was a very difficult time for both of us, for different reasons. In retrospect, I’m surprised that any work came out of that period at all. The work I produced then was quite raw, and I guess I was trying to find a voice for what I was going through. But I don’t think the context was quite right for me, and as much as I love Robert and admire him, I don’t think our collaboration was right.

JC: But the second time, when you entered a period of intense emotional turbulence, music provided an outlet and a release?

DS: This time, music was all that I had to fall back on. It could be of service to me in the way that it wasn’t back in the late Eighties. I’d just finished work on the retrospective for Virgin. I was ready for a complete break from all of that. And having built by own studio at home in New Hampshire, I was able to enter into a space that was entirely my own. I had the freedom to explore my own ideas and without the usual time constraints. I gave myself six weeks to work on Blemish but I could have gone on for as long as I wanted.

JC: You speak about the constraints of time: I presume you mean fiscal constraints, imposed by a record company?

DS: Money has always been an issue, yet somehow I’ve managed to survive without compromise. What was important for me was to find a voice for these particular emotions. There was this interesting contrast: as I’d end a day’s work, I’d be on a creative high, I’d feel that I’d really covered some new ground, but at the same time I was feeling utterly drained because I’d put myself through the grind of trying to give voice to these powerfully conflicting emotions. At the end of the recording, I felt a sense of pure catharsis. There was a real beautiful clarity to everything. I’d looked as deeply as I dared look at the side of myself that I’d prefer to keep hidden. It all sounds far more dramatic than it is, but the last few years have been very difficult to live through.”

JC: Can we talk more about the past - the past from which, it seems to me, you have long been in hiding. I’m talking about Japan, of course, and your years of pop celebrity.

DS: People say that I could have been as big as I wanted. But I was never interested in notions of fame or celebrity. It wasn’t in my nature. I didn’t have that drive, and I didn’t like the kind of personal attention I got, which might seem ironic when you consider the image [of David and the band]. But to me the image was part of the game of playing in that genre… I enjoyed that up to a point. But in the end nothing excited me about tomorrow with Japan. I thought we’d reached our peak.

JC: With Tin Drum?

DS: Yes. Making that album strained relations within the band considerably. We were beginning to close off from one another, which meant that we couldn’t give musically to one another. There were differing ambitions, and I was at odds with the band in my reluctance to perform live. They were also very dependent on me to write material. I was interested in material of a more Ghosts-like nature; we had such a strong rhythm section that they didn’t share that interest. Everything had to be of a more driving nature. Richard [Barbieri] and Steve were prepared to give it a go for another couple of years, but I’m not sure about Mick [Karn]. He’d already begun work on his first solo album while at the same time wanting to remain in the band as a kind of safety net. That was a luxury I didn’t think we could afford at the time.

JC: I was very curious when, in 1991, I heard that the band had reformed to make an album as Rain Tree Crow. But it didn’t seem to work out for you - and the old rancour, rivalries and disputes returned.

DS: Everything began well. We had so much fun working on the new material and hanging out again. But we took too long over it. We let it drift too long and we began to fall apart even before the album was completed. We had differences of opinion and money was a big problem, which put a lot of pressure on the band. Before then, we had been talking about doing a second and third album and live performances. Then the old tensions and frustrations re-emerged and you could see that there was no point in us taking it any further. In life, relationships run their course - that’s the case with me and Mick - and there’s no point trying to breathe new life into them. My brother and I didn’t speak for about five years after the end of the Rain Tree Crow project. This coincided with my moving to the States. Looking back, I’d say it was a healthy break.

JC: Will you return to live in London?

DS: It’s a possibility. I certainly feel more in tune with the cultural mood of Europe. When I first moved to the US, I lived in Minneapolis for five years. Those were years of domestic bliss such as I had never experienced before. We then moved to California, primarily to be near an Indian holy woman who was living up in the Napa hills. Then we were looking for a bigger property, where I could become more self-sufficient and build my own studio, which was why we moved to New Hampshire. The place we bought was a former ashram and it just had the most beautiful spirit to the land and property, even though the property itself was held together by little more than love, string and glue. Our house is on the side of the mountain, buried deep in the woods…

JC: It sounds remote.

DS: It’s not that remote. We’re only one hour and 15 minutes from Boston and four hours from New York.

JC: Are you frustrated with American politics, especially American foreign policy? Your song World Citizen was an old-fashioned protest song: a cry of anger.

DS: Well, there was so little dissent in the country during the build up to the war in Iraq, even in the New York Times. I was frightened by that. I wanted to write a song that would appeal to an American audience, [a song] that might even get some college radio play, and would have absolutely no ambivalence about it. It wasn’t really an artful exercise. But that whole period was enormously frustrating for me. Yet nowadays it is possible to create your own cultural environment, if you live as remotely as we do, what with the internet. You can avoid the worst excesses of America.

JC: Television, in particular, is awful here, isn’t it?

DS: Yes. Terrible. I don’t have one.

JC: How do you reflect much on your childhood in Beckenham, Kent? What did your father do?

DS: My father was a plasterer, a labourer. He was very meticulous in his work. He cared about what he did, but trying to provide for three children put enormous strain on him and he’s still paying for that today, physically and emotionally. I’m now very close to my parents. There was a time when I wasn’t very close to them but I don’t look back on my childhood as a happy period in my life. I meet people sometimes who speak of their childhood as the happiest period in their life. I can’t relate to that at all. I always had a desire to get away, to escape, and to try to nurture what I thought was missing from my home environment - aesthetics, a sense of beauty.

Later, over email, David returned to the subject of his childhood.

DS: Looking back there was a brutality to life in the suburbs of London. I’m sure it still exists. At home we were quite close as a family but not in an overtly intimate sense. Maybe it was a dependency based on fear, fear of what the outside world was able to inflict upon us. Steve and I inhabited a world of our own making as far as that was possible but allegiances could be swiftly switched and those in whom trust was placed could turn against you in an instance. We were always on our guard to some degree. The pressures on my father to support the family were immense or at least, at times, they felt that way to him. He fought hard to maintain the most basic of lifestyles. The strain occasionally showed in his relations with the children. Personal reinvention was a means of escaping from the environment that threatened to identify, classify, and therefore limit or suppress you. There was a tendency to allow oneself to be defined by others; by reinventing the self there was the possibility of escaping this definition and entering into the world of the imagination in which the possibilities for changing one’s life and environment were far greater. I suppose it was a case of bringing imagination to bear on reality: not just reinventing oneself but also potentially the world around you. Initially, the response was a protest against the absence of beauty. Later, it was an attempt to find beauty where there previously had appeared to be none. Despite my innate shyness I possess a strong will and an intuition, in which I implicitly place my trust, of how things should be approached artistically and achieved in a business generally indifferent to my output. Since the early-to-mid Eighties I’ve held the reins of my “career” (terribly inappropriate term for the trajectory my life and work have taken but I can think of no other) in my own hands, working in tandem with Richard Chadwick [of Opium Arts] as my confidant, business adviser, and facilitator, of the ultimately humble paths I’ve chosen to explore. As I mentioned to you when we met, I think the handicap of my shyness has spurred me on to attempt to communicate through the work in ways I was unable to communicate in life, to enter into conversation with the culture at large. Terribly important to my sense of well-being and my productivity.

JC: What about Japan: you never seem to speak well of the music you made then. But so much of it was good, for the era: the mood of records such as Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum is very seductive.

DS: The trouble was I couldn’t write nakedly just as I couldn’t perform as myself on stage: I could only perform through some kind of image. Yet there are still some songs from that period that have a certain kernel of emotional truth…

JC: Like The Other Side of Life?

DS: Yes, that song, and Ghosts.

JC: Is it true that you considered giving up music while you were making Dead Bees to dedicate yourself to spiritual concerns?

DS: On asking Shree Maa whether I should abandon a life in music, a public life, I was told that music was my sadhana, my means by which growth is achieved. Both [my teacher] Ammachi and Shree Maa pushed me back out into the world to continue my engagement with it. It renewed my focus and gave me a different slant on being a pubic figure, however minor. I may have been guilty up until that point of separating the spiritual aims and those of my public life. I recognised that nothing falls outside of spiritual life and practice - nothing at all - and it’s this realisation that enables me to maintain perspective and balance in all that I do, and in all the roles that I find myself playing. At root comes the notion of surrender and from this everything else follows.

JC: I don’t quite understand what you mean by surrender.

DS: The notion of surrender is counter intuitive, at least for me. It is maintained from moment to moment by conscious awareness. This makes the practice a form of meditation. The commitment to those things undertaken is still 100 per cent; it’s only in the completion of the work, in one’s duties and responsibilities, that one relinquishes control, doesn’t invest heavily in a desired outcome. By performing ritual worship or puja at the start of each day, particularly while recording Blemish, I was able to maintain the perspective of witness, or observer, to my own predicament while simultaneously being immersed in the true emotional and psychological experiences that governed my life at that time. This allowed me the strength to go deeper into exploring these states without the fear of being utterly overwhelmed by them. I have to be honest and say that on some days it was a close call, but ultimately the practice saw to it that I was able to extricate myself successfully from the intensity of the experience.

JC: Did the life of a pop star never appeal to you - the celebrity, adulation, the money, the girls?

DS: I rarely partied hard. My sexual partners were few. During this period I remember spending much of my time alone whether at home, in various modes of transport, or in hotel rooms around the globe. Even in a crowd I was relatively isolated. Not an altogether undesirable state as far as I was concerned. I did have a problem with drugs during the period of the break-up of Japan, with cocaine. But that was more to do with my psychological problems than with any rock star excesses. I had a sleeping disorder whereby I couldn’t stay conscious for more than four hours at a time, and I was looking for some medication to help with that. This went on for months, and that’s when I became cocaine-dependent. In the end, I reached such a low with the drug that I knew I had to stop or face the consequences. For too long, when I was in Japan, I’d lived in a glass cage of my own devising, had grown up in public to a large extent and I simply wanted out, wanted the freedom to move, grow, unencumbered by fame and pop media interest. I had seen how necessary it was to invest almost equal amounts of energy in both the music and the personal profile to sustain the interest of the media. I couldn’t invest time in my celebrity: the notion had become anathema to me. I was fully aware that the avenue I was about to take musically couldn’t possibly compete with Japan’s success. I wanted to avoid the impression that this new direction had therefore failed me. I turned my back on the spotlight, such as it was, and moved to the more suitable dusk-like lumination of the spotlight’s periphery. The periphery is the area I inhabit in every aspect of my life. I used to resent this fact and fight against it often with disastrous results. I’ve now come to embrace the notion that this is my rightful place.

JC: How were the results disastrous?

DS: I guess that phrase sounds melodramatic but that’s the way I experienced these occasional forced deviations from what I now perceive as my natural place (periphery) towards the centre. You could usefully look at the entire trajectory of Japan’s career as being a result of such a deviation. It’s difficult to give personal examples of this. I can only elucidate a little by saying that when all the free-floating elements that constitute my life and work come to settle in place this is where I find myself and I’ve come to appreciate an intuitive “rightness” to this outcome. I might even apply this theory to my current divorce and where that places me in the context of the family although I feel far from passive about this.

JC: I met your brother recently and he said something that

I’ve been thinking about. What he said was this: “Throughout his adult life, Dave has shut himself off, with a partner, in quite an isolated situation…” I wondered what he meant by that?

DS: My brother is a bit of a conundrum himself, a dark horse, but a good man… dependable in life and work. It’s true that I don’t have a need for vast numbers of friends. I wouldn’t only apply the “shutting myself off from others” to my adult life either. This has been something of an ongoing theme since childhood but as Steve was my closest ally through much of that period he may not recognise the continuity into adulthood as such. In fact I’d venture to say that my isolation was greatest from childhood through to my early twenties until the break up of the band. My relationship with Yuka (Fujii), which commenced around the time of the break up, simultaneously narrowed my social circle but opened up my world in terms of cultural absorption, imagination, spirituality. The inner life. Yuka also brought me out of myself by introducing me to the mundane world, the simple day to day aspects of daily life. I suffered from a social phobia so profound that I was unable to enter a store or public transport without experiencing intense anxiety attacks. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it back then nor the professional help: I simply experienced the world as a fearful place. Yuka was the first person in my life to help me deal with these issues although she too had no background knowledge to help her understand my predicament. In Portrait of an Invisible Man/the Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster says of his father: “ in the sense of protection then, not pleasure. Having been without money as a child, and therefore vulnerable to the whims of the world, the idea of wealth became synonymous for him with the idea of escape: from harm, from suffering, from being a victim. He was not trying to buy happiness but simply an absence of unhappiness… Money not an elixir then, but as an antidote: the small vial of medicine you carry in your pocket when you go out into the jungle - just in case you are bitten by a poisonous snake.”

I read something of myself in this. It accounts, in part, for my ambition, against all the odds, as a young man. It was survival.

JC: I was thinking, because of what has happened between you and your wife, how you feel about finding yourself outside of a marriage and alone again. You gave the impression that as a young man you sought solitude, but is prolonged solitude something about which you are anxious, especially in mature adulthood?

DS: No, I can’t admit to being fearful of prolonged solitude but I do value friends and family. I cherish my solitude but also love to break that isolation frequently for brief periods. I guess that’s also what draws me to working with others - the spirit of community, camaraderie, shared objectives, the exchange of ideas, personal and collective challenges.

JC: What about ageing and death as you approach what… middle age?

DS: Late middle age now [he laughs]. They hold no anxiety for me. Death - it’s life that I’ve always found frightening.

JC: So you are not fearful of finding yourself alone?

DS: I have a greater fear of hurting others. People that get close to me have a tendency to get very close and I go through all kinds of torment attempting to step back a little from what I sometimes find to be the cloying or suffocating aspect of the relationship without causing hurt or rejection in the hearts of others. This hasn’t always been easy in my experience. Having said that I want to stress that I by no means take these relationships for granted. They are among the most treasured. That said, I’m uncertain if your question refers to a personal, loving relationship, or friendship in general. I adore sharing my life with a lover, companion, and sparring partner but I’m not afraid of finding myself without such a relationship although at times I yearn for it, miss it terribly. No, it doesn’t register as fear though. That’s not to say that one day that yearning couldn’t develop into fear of absence.

JC: Or perhaps your resilience and freedom-in-isolation arise from your faith-based awareness of the insubstantiality of the self and from a desire to be liberated from its primary emotions, if that is ever truly possible?

DS: There are challenges inherent in both solitude and relationship with others. It would feel cowardly to back away from either one for the sake of a more peaceful existence. Ultimately it should be possible to rest in either condition with equanimity. During this period of separation leading to divorce I’ve felt the need to call upon the friendship of others more frequently than at any other time in my life. I had powerfully conflicting emotions, the majority of which related to the incapacitating fear of hurting my children. So absolute solitude in these times has been welcome and beneficial. Partial isolation (still residing in the family home) has not.

JC: How are you feeling now? It seems as if this is a good time to have met you, both creatively and emotionally?

DS: I try to live on a fairly even keel. I don’t believe in being taken up too high or taken down too low, because at some point or another you’re going to swing back the other way. I genuinely believe that I’ve found direction for myself, in the short term at least, that I’m entering a period that is going to be enormously gratifying and challenging for me as a writer.

Racism in South Africa

February 7 2005 / New Statesman

Apartheid, not the ruling regime, brought race into South African cricket

Read more

Vijay Singh: Swing of confidence

November 28 2004 / The Observer

Is there a more miraculous journey in contemporary sport than that undertaken by Vijay Singh, the Fiji-born ethnic Indian Sikh who, as he turned 41, an age when most golfers are declining into affluent middle age, this year won nine tournaments, including the USPGA, his third major, and more than $10 million, to become officially the best golfer in the world?

As the member of an ethnic minority in Fiji and as an unclubbable Fijian in America, Singh has spent much of his life marginalised and as an outsider. There are two prominent golfers of colour on the US tour - Singh and Tiger Woods - and they are, respectively, ranked first and second in the world in a game that for too long sought to exclude and isolate black golfers.

Yet Singh, unlike Woods, who, in his unease and isolation, is fast becoming the Michael Jackson of golf, continues to be viewed largely with suspicion even, it is said, by some of his fellow professionals. Singh is respected rather than admired, his achievement at reaching number one disparaged rather than celebrated. Oh, he is number one only because he plays so many tournaments, they say, and because the new equipment - allied to the natural advantages of his height and strength - allows him to hit the ball so far.

How to explain this? First, Singh is a true obsessive, a fanatic even. Golf, it seems, is everything to him: his life, his work. He practises harder than any other major player on the US tour. When he is not playing, he returns to his Florida base to practise: his swing, his stance. His wife has complained about his dedication and his attention to detail - she cannot drag him from the range. Steve Elkington, who knows Singh from when they played together as young men in Australia, speaks of his ‘mindless’ devotion to practice. Whenever he arrives at a new hotel, Singh immediately rearranges the furniture in his room so that he can refine his swing and his putting stroke.

The second reason for the breeze of unpopularity that continues to buffet Singh is that in 1985 he was accused of cheating and was banned from the Asian tour for two years. What happened was that Singh was found guilty of altering his scorecard at the Indonesian Open. He says that he did not do it, that someone - not him - made a genuine and honest error. Whatever the truth of the incident, and whoever was culpable, the card was altered and Singh was banned. From there, for two years, he retreated to a remote golf club in Borneo, where, earning £25 per week, he lived and gave golf lessons. That period of personal and professional exile was, you suspect, the making of the man. ‘That really was the lowest point of my life,’ Singh has said. ‘It never occurred to me out there in the jungle and out of competitive golf that one day I would reach the top. But then I knew that I had nowhere to go but up. So every day for two years I taught golf and hit practice golf balls.’

He has continued to hit practice golf balls ever since, travelling the world, winning tournaments in Africa, Asia and in Europe - until, at last, he won a place on the US tour and began his relentless pursuit of the highest honours in the game.

What is Singh like? Who are his friends? What does he think about when he is not thinking about golf? It is difficult to answer these questions, because Singh has an uneasy relationship with journalists: he does not trust them and instead of answering questions about himself he would rather play competitive golf. Or at the very least practise.

How long can he remain at number one? Can he continue to improve? Of any other golfer you would say that, at 41, the best is behind him. But with Singh, this complex, private man who once worked as a bouncer at an Edinburgh night club as he tried and failed to qualify for the Open, you would have to say that anything is possible.

Nor is he likely one morning to wake up and decide, as David Duval did, that golf is meaningless, little more than an exercise in futility. Because golf for Singh can never be meaningless: it is the means through which he remade himself, the means through which he pulled himself out of that jungle retreat in Borneo and on into a world of unimagined riches and achievement. There won’t be any stopping him next year.

Letter from Athens: the crying Games

September 5 2004 / The Observer

Tears, wrote Voltaire, are the silent language of grief. They can also be a public expression of joy. Tears are mysterious and uncontrollable. They are universal and can often say more about you and how you feeling than any words, which is why the ritual of the immediate post-race interview should be ignored or, better still, scrapped altogether. How do you feel? BBC interviewer Sally Gunnell asks in her screechy voice. The answers are inevitably banal. ‘I’m gobsmacked,’ Kelly Holmes said after winning gold, her second, in the 1500m. In truth, we already knew from what was written on her face how she felt: delighted, amazed, relieved. We did not need any hasty words of confirmation.

The 2004 Athens Olympics were certainly the Games of tears. In triumph and in despair athletes openly wept - for themselves, for what they had won and lost. Here were people of all nationalities competing before a worldwide television audience and in extremis. ‘I have worked so hard for this,’ sobbed forlorn swimmer Sarah Price following an accident, in which she gashed her shins on an underwater camera. Her injury no doubt contributed to her finishing last in her semi-final. When Paula Radcliffe, humbled and exhausted, began to cry after stopping in the marathon, her tears were edged by a sense of an ending - not just of this particular Olympic marathon but for her arduous career-long pursuit of an Olympic medal. She knew that her chance would not come again, which was why, despite her capitulation in the marathon, she pluckily chose to run in the 10,000m, only to drop out once more.

The tears of Matthew Pinsent, at the end of the final of the coxless fours, and of Hicham El Guerrouj, both at the end of the 1,500m and again on the winners’ podium, were those of exhilaration and relief. I was in the stand watching as Pinsent drove on his team to narrow victory over a powerful Canadian team. In the immediate aftermath of that victory, he was inconsolable. He knew how much he had demanded of himself for this, his fourth gold medal, and just how easily the race could have gone against him. His weeping, like the man himself, was hugely open and expressive, ostentatious even. The tears of El Guerrouj were, by contrast, almost like an expression of private grief. It was almost as if in victory the Moroccan could not stop himself from recalling the trauma of former Olympic defeats; he seemed at once elated and forlorn.

These were, on the whole, a good Games for the British. The team won 30 medals, including nine golds, its best haul at a Games since 1924. But we still finished behind France and Italy, countries of comparable wealth and population, as well as, more predictably, behind Germany and the sport-fixated Australians.

Athens itself is a city of spectacular dereliction and of monumental ruin. It must be difficult for modern day Athenians to move forward when, almost at every corner, the very architecture of the city returns you ceaselessly to the past and to the contemplation of a former greatness. And yet Greece is moving forward. These Games - so efficiently run and harmonious - were testament to that.

There is a tradition, at the closing ceremony, for the president of the International Olympic Committee to acclaim the Games that have just ended as the greatest ever. The then president Juan Samaranch certainly said as much of Sydney 2000. This time, Jacques Rogge, perhaps remembering all those empty venues in the opening week, was more circumspect. He simply described Athens 2004 as ‘unforgettable, a dream Games’.

Few who had the good fortune to be present at the Olympic Stadium or who watched the drama on television would disagree.

Andrew Flintoff: the boy of summer

September 5 2004 / The Observer

Once in a generation, if we are lucky, a sportsman emerges from the ranks to become, through sheer exuberance of personality, a national hero, celebrated even by those who have little interest in or knowledge of sport. This summer was expected to have been an especially quiet one for English cricket. New Zealand and a moribund West Indies side were touring and Euro 2004 and the Olympics bookended the short, damp summer months. What chance for cricket, then, when there was so much noise elsewhere?

Well, every chance, as it turned out, because not only are England nowadays a rather accomplished Test side, they have in Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff perhaps the most exciting all-round player in world cricket. He is the first Englishman since Ian Botham whose very presence on a cricket field is received with restless anticipation; the first Englishman from whom, again and again, we expect the truly unexpected and who people will travel long distances to watch, helping to fill cricket grounds on the traditionally more quiet first and last days of a Test match.

Flintoff is a product of the Lancashire leagues, having scarcely played cricket at all while at school in Preston. He is a big, uncomplicated man, rooted in the soil of his native county: an honest yeoman. There is a wonderful candour about him, in personality and in action. He is no fanatic or monolith of motive. He has none of the narrow-eyed calculation of Steve Waugh, or the sullen insolence of Brian Lara. He plays the game as he sees it: with boundless enthusiasm and spontaneity. And he never seems to forget that cricket is merely a game, to be played hard but with the appropriate spirit of adventure. To watch him leave the field on the Friday afternoon of the Edgbaston Test having scored 167 against West Indies, his bat, held by the blade, raised in simple celebration, was one of the great moments of the sporting summer.

Flintoff has spoken of being given the ‘gift of cricket’, as if unable to explain or understand how he does what he does, and so well. Like anyone naturally talented in any discipline he played almost from the beginning as if the game were too easy for him - a knack, a gift. In June 1998, he scored 34 off one over from Alex Tudor of Surrey, during a county match. It would not be too long before he was a Test cricketer.

Yet by the time he made his England debut, against South Africa at Trent Bridge six weeks later, he was struggling - with injury, with his weight, with loss of form. Much of the exuberance that had marked him out as so remarkable in late adolescence seemed gone. His bowling was significantly reduced and his batting was too often erratic: one or two big hits and out. It was little surprise when he collected a pair and bowled indifferently in his second Test, at Headingley, and was then dropped. So began a long exile from the team.

Today, revitalised, he is a thrilling and disciplined batsman, an outstanding close catcher and hostile and accurate fast bowler who is admired even by the Australians, against whom he is yet to play a Test match. Perhaps we demand too much from him - a match-changing innings, a clatter of wickets - and he has spoken of the ‘pressure’ he sometimes feels to entertain.

Yet this summer he has played without pressure: he has been wilful, insouciant, daring. Above all, he has played with a smile and with a sense of fun. Evidently, he has been enjoying himself, and we have enjoyed watching him against West Indies: scoring that century at Edgbaston, bowling Lara for a duck at Old Trafford, hitting sixes and snaffling catches at Lord’s, striking boundaries round The Oval…

Sebastian Coe: Olympic dreams

August 8 2004 / The Observer

Whenever I used to see Sebastian Coe in his role as a minor Conservative MP or, more recently, as the dark-suited chief-of-staff to William Hague, I thought of the character Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby . Buchanan is a former champion athlete who is described, by the novel’s young narrator, as being ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterward savours of anticlimax’.

Except that there was nothing limited about the sporting excellence of the young Sebastian Newbold Coe, even though much of his life since retiring from top-flight athletics must surely have savoured acutely of anticlimax. Coe was truly great - perhaps the greatest British athlete of the last century - and must have entered politics knowing that nothing he would ever do could recapture the intensity and grandeur of his sporting life; that the best of him, and long before his 40th birthday, was already in the past.

‘I won a marginal seat in 1992 and lost it in ‘97,’ he tells me when we meet. ‘In truth, I knew within 30 minutes of winning the seat that I would lose it again at the next election. Events were moving against us, and the arithmetic was unsustainable. Thirty six per cent of the vote in a three-way split was not something to base a career on. But I don’t agree that my life since I retired from athletics has been an anticlimax. No, not at all. If I pull this off, for example - well, this would be huge.’

He is referring to his role as chairman of the bid to bring the Olympic Games back to London in 2012. He was appointed following the surprise resignation in May of the previous incumbent, American entrepreneur Barbara Cassani. ‘This is the greatest challenge I have ever faced,’ Coe continues, with forgivable melodrama. ‘This chance will not come round again in our lifetime, and we must do everything we can to win. Bringing the games to London would leave such a powerful legacy, in terms of the environment, in terms of urban renewal and in inspiring interest in sport among so many children and young people.’

I am sitting with the good Baron Coe of Ranmore on a decrepit wooden bench at the British Airways Sailing Club in west London. Coe, who is tanned and wearing shorts, a white sports shirt and dark sunglasses, is waiting for Richard Branson and Rod Eddington, chief executive of British Airways, to arrive so that they can climb into a canoe for a publicity stunt to promote the London bid. BA and Virgin Atlantic are sponsors of the bid.

There is something remarkably boyish about Coe, who is 48 in September. He is lean, he moves quickly and his hair remains thick and dark. It is still easy to imagine him dressed in the white vest of Great Britain - and running very fast. ‘I still sometimes run more than 40 miles a week,’ he says.

The bid to bring the games to London has been blighted by the obligatory infighting (the resignation of Cassani and its subsequent fallout), by the alleged corruption of the bidding process (BBC1’s Panorama this week exposed how easily votes could be bought from members of the International Olympic Committee), and by prurience (Coe’s appointment coincided with tabloid gossip about a mistress and ‘late-night romps’ in his car).

All this had led me to expect that Coe would be anxious and harassed - an expectation reinforced when I received a call from his office, shortly before our interview, requesting that I ask him nothing about his private life.

What do you mean by his private life?

‘You know,’ the voice said.

I said that no, I did not know.

Then I discovered that a ‘minder’ from the London 2012 office had been assigned to sit in on our interview, as if to lead me not into temptation and the baron away from danger. But the minder, Fran Edwards, turns out to be very charming and Coe seems largely unconcerned by all the fuss. ‘I’ve been around a long time,’ he says, removing his sunglasses. ‘I was selected for the national athletics team at the age of 18, I was an MP for five years, I worked closely with William Hague - I’m too long in the tooth to worry about what the press are saying about me.’

He is perhaps being slightly disingenuous. After all, he unsuccessfully applied for an injunction to prevent his former lover, Vanessa Lander, from revealing the secrets of their affair in the Mail on Sunday in May - that, for instance, Coe paid for her to have an abortion while his wife, Nicola McIrvine, from whom he has since separated, was expecting their third child. ‘Seb was very unhappy about this story coming out when it did,’ one of his friends told me. ‘He felt there was nothing of interest to the public in knowing about what had happened in the past.’

The only problem with this explanation is that, at the time of his affair, Coe was a whip in a Conservative government led by a prime minister who, espousing a spurious puritan morality, was determined to ‘get back to basics’ but who turned out to be, like so many of his senior colleagues, an enthusiastic adulterer himself. The Conservatives remain stained by the scandal and corruption of the late Major years. Even Coe, who describes himself as necessarily ‘politically neutral’ in his present role, concedes that the party requires a ‘new narrative’. ‘Parties must understand,’ he says, ‘that it’s not simply that people’s aspirations change, but that the entire language of politics changes. When we were strong, the world was more certain. Politics was about the East-West divide and issues such as privatisation versus nationalisation. Now there are fewer certainties and perhaps we, the Conservatives, have not fully understood that.’

London is thought to be behind Paris, the favourite, and Madrid in the competition to stage the games. When the shortlist of five from which the winner will be chosen in July next year (the other contenders are New York and Moscow) was announced on 18 May, the IOC criticised many aspects of the London bid, notably the capital’s shambolic transport infrastructure. ‘But I don’t think transport is a negative for us any longer,’ Coe says. ‘In fact, I think it can become a real positive. I’m not here to win arguments about under-investment, over-investment or sideways investment in transport. What I am here to do is to provide a transport plan. Can I do that? Yes. Can I get 240 trains on 10 lines going into Stratford in 2012? Yes, I can. Can I get them in from Kings Cross in seven minutes on 15 shuttles an hour? Yes, I can. With the East London line in place, can I get them from Trafalgar Square into the heart of the Olympic complex in 15 minutes? Yes, I can. And I know that in eight years I can offer the best transport plan that has ever been put forward in an Olympic Games.’ Well, it’s useful, as Philip Larkin once wrote, to get that learnt.

Coe speaks with the smoothness and ease of the career politician. He is evasive when necessary, such as when I ask him why exactly Barbara Cassani resigned (friends of Cassani told me that she believed that London could not win, that she was disappointed by the lack of support from the government and that she disliked the forced affability of the Olympic circuit and the sycophancy that is necessary in the race to win votes), and has instant recollection of all the right statistics and supporting detail. He is effusive about the support of Ken Livingstone, and circumspect when discussing Tony Blair’s reported diminished enthusiasm for the London bid. ‘The perception may be that the Prime Minister isn’t behind us, but I know that he is absolutely committed. How do I know this? I’ve had private conversations with him.’

Coe is most animated when I ask him about the glorious summer of 1979 when, over a period of 41 days, he broke the 800m, the 1500m and the mile world records - the first athlete to hold all three records at the same time - and about fellow middle-distance runner Steve Ovett. His rivalry with Ovett, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enthralled, enchanted and infuriated in about equal measure. It enchanted because they were so good; it infuriated because they refused to race each other outside international championships.

They could not have been more different: Coe was the intense, articulate graduate from Sheffield, coached by his father, Peter, and a model of middle class rectitude and stubborn determination. Ovett, from Brighton, was something of a free spirit, as audaciously talented as Coe but more naturally rebellious, which meant he was always more popular than Coe, perhaps because he appeared to care less. Together they redefined the art of the possible in middle-distance running, exuberantly winning Olympic gold medals, recklessly breaking world records. British sport had never seen anything like them, and never has since.

Today, Ovett lives in affluent seclusion in Australia while Coe remains a very public figure and quintessential establishment insider: politician, bureaucrat, ambassador, diplomat. It is fascinating to hear him speak about his great rivalry with Ovett because his recollection of it all is so startlingly fresh, as if he never ceases thinking about it. ‘I don’t think people ever appreciated how talented Ovett was,’ he says, with wonder his voice. ‘I’m not sure even Steve fully understood. Here was a guy who could win a national cross-country championship but also hold the English schools title at 200m. A week before he won the 1500m World Cup in 1977, one of the greatest runs at the distance of all time, he got bored and ran the Dartford half-marathon. He had phenomenal range, probably more than me. The only problem was he lacked confidence in his ability. I’m sure he could have run even faster, a lot faster, if he’d had more confidence.’

In 1988, Coe, age withering him, was left out of the British team for the Seoul Olympics, thus being deprived of a chance to win his third gold medal at consecutive Games (he won gold in the 1500m at Moscow, in 1980, and at Los Angeles, in 1984). ‘I would have won, I would have won,’ he says now of the 1500m final in Seoul, then gently raps his fist on the table. ‘You know, when I was left out, I was offered the chance to run for any number of other countries, including India, because one of my grandparents was Indian. But I couldn’t really do that, I couldn’t…’

There is doubt in his voice and you know that he knows that he should have accepted the offer to run for gold in Seoul, even if it meant draping himself in an Indian flag.

The Athens Olympics begin on 13 August. Yet never in recent memory has a British athletics team set off for an Olympics with such low-toned expectations, nor had so few individuals of national renown. Our champion sprinter Dwain Chambers is banned for taking the steroid THG, and the era of our dominance of middle-distance running is long gone. ‘I think track and field has a real problem because it’s such a tough sport to sell,’ Coe says. ‘We live in an odd culture now where you can go on Big Brother and become a household name. All this makes it that much harder for a coach to turn to a 14-year-old and say, “We think you’re very talented and if you stick at this, keep working hard, you might, by the time you’re 21, be making a few ripples on the pond.” Too many people want everything now and aren’t prepared to work. But the fundamentals of athletics - being able to run fast, jump and throw - are the fundamentals of all other sports. Master these and you have a chance at everything else.’

So can Coe bring the Olympics to London? If he does succeed, and the odds are against him, it would surely redeem all the disappointments of the recent past - the failure of his political career and the humiliating defeat of William Hague at the last election - and enable him once more to experience the adulation of victory. ‘To bring the Olympics to London would be much bigger than anything I achieved before. Winning an Olympic gold impacts upon yourself and your friends and family and, for a short time, your chosen sport. But this would impact upon the whole nation. It would be monumental, stratospheric.’

With that, he leaps up to shake the hand of a departing Richard Branson. He’ll have many more hands to shake before discovering whether he has won the longest and greatest race of his life.

Letter from Harare: The death of cricket in Zimbabwe

May 17 2004 / New Statesman

A couple of years ago, on a visit to Harare, I met Ian Smith for afternoon tea at his home in one of the more affluent suburbs of the city. His house was detached, had four or five bedrooms and a large open-plan sitting room in which we sat by a window that looked out on to the well-ordered garden. In the kitchen, mostly out of sight, a black maid worked diligently. She was preparing old Smithie’s supper while the former leader of Rhodesia explained, in his unmistakable, still powerful voice, that “they had not even invented the wheel here when the first European settlers began to arrive”.

We could have been in Surrey, Kent or Sussex in a house on any one of the new model executive estates that were built in the early 1970s - the prejudices were certainly the same. And that, I guess, was the whole point. For here, architecturally, was a vision of England in Africa, a place that even the stranger could recognise and find familiar.

The white enclaves of Avondale and Borrowdale were a short taxi ride from Smith’s house. Here, barricaded behind high-security fencing and walls topped with razor wire, the last whites of Harare were struggling to defend their positions of privilege and to preserve their own receding vision of England in Africa.

Once crucial to this vision was sport and, in particular, cricket. Yet to visit the Harare Sports Club, the home of Test cricket in Zimbabwe and far from the townships where most Zimbabweans in the capital live, is to understand why the game has no future in this part of southern Africa.

Cricket in Zimbabwe is a white game, played by and for an ever-decreasing number of whites. There may be black players and, following the dispute that has led to the sacking of the 15 so-called rebel white players, ten of the present team are black. But very few, if any, black spectators attend one-day and Test matches.

As you travel around this blighted city, it is hard to find anyone at all who cares about cricket or even knows which international team is visiting and when. Football, in contrast, is hugely popular, as it is throughout most of Africa, and, unlike cricket, seems untainted by the old colonial associations.

An African friend of mine once told me that she became upset whenever she saw Indians playing cricket, not least because cricket, with its rituals and languor and its white clothing, was perhaps the most English of all sporting pastimes. The game reminded her too much of a past she would rather forget - a past of colonial subjugation.

I explained that cricket was no longer an English game or indeed an expression of English character, that its power base had long since moved from London to the Indian subcontinent and that the Indians, with their wrist and finger spinners, and their fabulous, fluent batting, had given a once-foreign game an entirely indigenous Indian idiom. But cricket for her would always be associated with a particular image of England, and of England overseas: proselytising, bullying, prescriptive, superior.

One hopes that the present Zimbabwe team, led by the admirable young wicket-keeper Tatenda Taibu, following the resignation of the rugged white farmer Heath Streak, will eventually emerge stronger from the present crisis. One hopes that this team can use cricket as a source of inspiration, unity and pride to the impoverished young people of Zimbabwe, as it once was to the people of the Caribbean.

In bitter truth, this will not happen. This inexperienced team, no more accomplished than an average minor-counties side, will be beaten hollow by Sri Lanka, Australia and England in the months ahead, in a series of matches that will demean the very essence of international cricket as competitive sport.

These humiliating cricketing defeats will serve as a metaphor for the wider defeat of Zimbabwe itself, a nation that has been turned into a vast prison and continues systematically to conspire against and murder its own people, black and white, but especially black.

So pity the people of Zimbabwe and curse all others who have the audacity to embark on cricket tours at such an unhappy time.

Steve Waugh: the will to greatness

January 12 2004 / New Statesman

How many standing ovations can one man have before the adulation becomes meaningless? For Steve Waugh, this winter has been a procession, one of the longest farewells in sporting history. From wind-buffeted Perth through to his final game against a resurgent India at the Sydney Cricket Ground, this Australian captain has been applauded, cheered and celebrated, his every walk to the crease an act of exaggerated homage.

It is rare in international sport, at the highest level, that you have the opportunity to choreograph your own retirement, to choose the exact moment of your departure. Most sportsmen, fearful of what might happen once the music stops, play on for far too long, oblivious to what time has done to them. Too often a great career expires in disappointment. My abiding memory of Ian Botham is not of the young all-rounder who astonished with his verve and swagger, but of the overweight, mediocre performer he became.

Waugh is no ordinary sportsman. Ruthless and stubborn, he remade himself in his early twenties, after a series of failures against the fearsome pace bowling of the West Indies, as a batsman of singular determination. He was first selected for Australia as an all-rounder, a useful medium-pacer who was also a flamboyant batsman. As he matured and after those early failures, he attempted - unlike his twin brother, Mark, who was dedicated to attack - to eliminate unnecessary risk from his game. He became more defensive, eschewing the hook and the pull. He was at his best when his team were in greatest danger. Coming in at number five, he felt compelled to rebuild an innings, cajoling and nurturing tail-enders to support him as he grafted his way towards another century.

Australian cricket is in thrall to its own mythology. Rather as the nation itself constructed an identity founded upon the defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, so the Bodyline series of 1932-33, when Douglas Jardine led England to a great victory, has come to define Australian cricket. Australian cricketers thrive in adversity; they understand how much it means to wear and play for the “baggy green” cap.

Is there a more mythologised article of sporting clothing than the Australian cap? When Australia lost in Adelaide to India in the second Test of the recent four-match series, the Australian coach John Buchanan wrote an open letter to his players, suggesting their failure was “unbaggygreen”, as if the cap itself, rather than those who wear it, was the key determinant of performance. There was no mention of the majestic Indian batting line-up, perhaps the greatest in the history of the game, whose mastery of the Australian bowling has enticed me from bed too early and too often over recent weeks.

There is no prouder wearer of the baggy green than Waugh - his own cap is tattered, frayed, sun-faded. And so as he took the field for his final innings, it was fitting that, with two spinners in operation, he should be wearing not a helmet but that baggy green cap. He perished in that final innings for 80, caught on the boundary as he chased a century with the match safely drawn and his own future as one of the greats of the game secure. It was a noble end to a career in which, in 168 Tests, he scored nearly 11,000 runs at an average of 51.

Waugh may have been uncompromising and ruthless on the field; he may have been a consistent and enthusiastic sledger; he may have mocked the feeble Poms too often for my liking; but, when it mattered most, he showed humility and led his team with dignity. As a captain, he transformed the way Test cricket was played, urging his players to score at four runs per over and always to seek victory, never the easy consolations of a draw. As a philanthropist, he helps to fund a hospital in Udayan, India, for the children of leprosy patients. But it is as a batsman that I shall best remember him: courageous, prolific and, above all, immovable.

Phil Tufnell: Out of the Jungle

June 7 2003 / The Observer

Before he became a celebrity, Phil Tufnell was a cricketer. With a nice looping action and considerable control, he bowled, should we ever forget, slow left arm spin for Middlesex and, with intermittent success, for England. He was never what one might call a celebrity cricketer: there have been so few of those in recent times, certainly in England. Ian Botham, Geoff Boycott perhaps - er, that’s about it. But if Tufnell wasn’t a celebrity, he was the next best thing in the monochrome world of English cricket - a personality. He may have been a public school boy, but he was also a bit of a lad, a latter-day artful dodger who spoke in a wised-up, street-smart demotic. He experimented with drugs. He drank and smoked heavily. He didn’t train too hard, would go missing late at night while on tour with England and was often in trouble with women, which made him popular with the tabloids - popular fodder, that is.

Amid the bland uniformity and general mediocrity of the county circuit, he was different. His teammates called him ‘The Cat’, because he could sleep whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted: up all night, asleep all day, they used to say. Everyone else called him Tuffers, even those who had never met him. With his long chin and curling, mischevious smile, his floppy fringe and shrewd eyes, Tuffers, you sensed, was a fun kind of guy. It did not really matter that he could scarcely hold a bat or that he was slow and unathletic in the field. At least, in the English way of old, he didn’t take his sport too seriously. All this made him suspect with many of his fellow cricketers but, to the fans, he was always one of the boys. And now he is King of the Jungle. Could any man ask for more?

Tuffers and I are sitting in a bar at the Oval cricket ground. In an open-necked striped shirt and casual, loose-fitting cotton suit, he is fashionably dishevelled. He may be hungover, having had a very late night, or perhaps he’s simply tired. Later this evening he will be presenting his weekly cricket show on Radio 5 Live so, for now, he is sensibly drinking nothing stronger than orange juice. Out on the green field below England are taking on a young, inexperienced Pakistan side that has arrived for an entirely meaningless three-game one-day series.

Tuffers, who is seldom without a cigarette, isn’t that interested in the cricket. He has many more important things to do today, such as offering his thoughts, live on air to Simon Mayo of Radio 5, on life, cricket and his life in cricket, as well as meeting accountants and management consultants as they enjoy a day of corporate entertainment in a hospitality box. The accountants have booked their hospitality through a company called Paragon, which Tufnell runs with his brother, Greg, and his amiable agent Mike Martin. A personal appearance by Tuffers is the little extra that Paragon can offer its clients. Tuffers carries out all the duties asked of him, no matter how banal, with patience and good humour, because, as he keeps telling me, these are ‘happy days’ for him, days of glory.

Since emerging from an Australian jungle as winner of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here, during which he was forced to eat bugs and proved adept at building camp fires, Tuffers has been ceaselessly on the move, travelling across the country in search of even greater celebrity and, no doubt, some very good pay days. In the past few days alone he has dressed up as a character from The Matrix outside Earls Court exhibition centre, judged a barbecue competition between rival teams at a London pub (a perk of celebrity, this one), been paid to visit Ascot, agreed to become a team captain on BBC’s They Think It’s All Over, and been followed by a Sky documentary team, as well as somehow finding the time to meet any number of would-be sponsors. How are you enjoying your new life, Phil? I ask. ‘I’m having fun, mate. You’ve got to enjoy it while you can. Happy days!’

They certainly are. Mike Martin assures me that Tuffers is truly a man of our times, popular with all age groups. ‘Grannies stop him in the street, and so do young men,’ he says, with pride. His appearance fee alone, since returning from Australia, has increased from £2,000 to anything up to £15,000. For a man who claims to be be so poor that he doesn’t have even a ‘pot to piss in’, Tuffers may soon be very rich indeed. ‘I’m not so sure about that,’ he says. ‘People keep telling me I’m going to be a millionaire but I’d like to see some of the money first before I believe them.’

Twice divorced and the father of two young girls, Tuffers, who is 37, lives with his latest girlfriend, Dawn (‘my Dawnie’) in a small two-bed terraced house in Sutton. He tells me that he owns what he calls a ‘big house’ out at Chigwell in Essex, but ‘I’m not allowed to live in it.’ Why not? ‘Because my second wife lives there and she fucking hates me.’ There is bitterness in his tobacco-scorched laugh.

As we walk through the lunchtime crowds at the Oval, Tuffers banters with those who pause to shake his hand or congratulate him, he signs autographs and shows no displeasure when one man shouts out that he should enjoy his ‘15 minutes’ while he can. ‘I don’t know why people keep congratulating me,’ he says, oblivious to the odd passing shout of ‘idiot’ and worse. ‘I didn’t really do anything special in the jungle. I was just being myself out there, and having a bit of a laugh.’

Tuffers was first approached to appear as a housemate in Celebrity Big Brother but he was still playing for Middlesex at the time and this offer didn’t quite fit his schedule. But when Middlesex showed reluctance to extend his contract beyond the 2003 season and with his Test career over, Mike Martin advised him to accept ITV’s offer of a fortnight of potential humiliation, in an Australian jungle, in the company of the diminutive Ant and Dec and other creepy-crawlies. What did he hope to achieve by taking part in the show?

‘I just thought it would be a bit of a laugh,’ he says, laughing. This, it seems, is his standard response to questions.

Why does he think he was chosen?

‘I dunno.’

Was he paid to go to Australia?

‘What kind of question is that?’ he says, irritated. ‘Well, I was given a few quid.’

Was he concerned that only comic grotesques, those with dysfunctional personalities or with troubled histories, were chosen for such shows? ‘Look, mate. It never occurred to me to consider what I might get out of it, if that’s what you mean.’

Much later, however, long after England have beaten Pakistan and we are sitting in an empty stand, he says: ‘There were times when I would wake up in that jungle in the night and think: “What am I doing here? What’s going on?” Now, when people congratulate me, I ask myself this: “What have I won really?” I’ve won nothing. The whole experience - especially with what’s happening to me now - is completely surreal. I don’t know what’s really going on or what I’m going to do next.’

How seriously should we take Phil Tufnell? Simon Hughes, the Channel 4 broadcaster and a former Middlesex teammate, says that while his public persona is not an elaborate act, he is much shrewder than one would think. Hughes believes that sport is much more revealing of personality and character than any game show and the truth about Tufnell the sportsman and indeed the man is that he is deeply insecure. ‘He needs constant reassurance, praise, encouragement. You really have to treat him with kid gloves,’ he says. ‘When we were playing together, he was always asking if the ball was coming out of his hand all right. “Am I turning it? Am I being cut?” he would say. “How did I do? Was I all right?” When he was batting, he would always be worried that he was backing away, especially from the fast bowlers. He had a lot of skill as a bowler but not much self-belief or confidence. He was unreliable, both as a bowler and as a teammate. You never knew what mood he would be in. And he was always getting himself into scrapes - with women or the law. His relationship history is very twisted. He’s never had the right girl. Money was also a worry to him; he had a reputation for being rather mean. I guess, in the end, Phil is a very vulnerable and insecure man, and it is this that causes him to self-destruct.’

When I mention Hughes’s comments to Tufnell, he becomes, for the first time, rather diffident. The hectic banter and jack-the-laddish posturing give way to a more restrained, contemplative delivery. He seems distracted and, as he removes his sunglasses, I notice that there is an odd distance in his inflamed, sun-strained eyes. ‘The thing about cricket,’ he says, after a long hesitation, ‘is that I’m sure it saved my life. If I hadn’t played cricket, I don’t know what would have become of me. It was the only thing I could ever do well. When I was on a cricket pitch, even when I was having a bad day and not getting any wickets, everything seemed to be all right. It was when I left the pitch that everything in my life seemed to become chaos.’

He remembers the camaraderie of the Middlesex dressing room - the banter and teasing - with affection, but has no regrets about having broken his contract to be free for his jungle adventure. ‘The club were offering me no real security.’

Earlier, on arrival at the Oval, Tuffers went straight to the Radio 5 commentary box where, quite unexpectedly, he met his former Middlesex captain Mike Gatting. Alec Stewart, who as England captain was instrumental in the decision to exclude Tufnell from the 1998 tour of Australia, was also in the box, and it was amusing to observe how all three of them immediately assumed their old adversarial roles, as if they were once more together in a dressing room, with Tufnell - or ‘Cat’ as they preferred to call him - defending himself against a tirade of mockery. Tufnell mentions in passing that he has been given a new sports car. ‘Who gave you that then, Cat?’ Stewart asks, astonished. When Tufnell is asked a question by Mayo, he turns towards Gatting, once he has answered, opening his arms in exasperated helplessness, as if to say: ‘Look, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing.’

When I asked Tuffers later how he felt to be excluded by Stewart from that 1998 tour, he said: ‘At the time, you are very hurt and deflated. More than anything else as a cricketer you want to play for your country and it’s hard to be left out of the team or from an important tour. But what can you do? You can either give up, or fight twice as hard to get back into contention.’

But you were never renowned as a fighter?

‘I don’t know about that,’ he says. ‘What I wasn’t was an enthusiastic trainer. I put in my work in the nets, but I couldn’t see the point of training fanatically, spending all my time in the gym and the rest. I liked a drink and a fag and I didn’t see why I should hide that. I’ve seen grown men hiding in the toilets while they have a fag because they don’t want the coach to see them. That’s ridiculous.’

Tufnell learnt very early on just how unpredictable and capricious the life of a cricketer could be, something which influenced his whole approach to the game. ‘If you are a sprinter your duty is to run as fast as you can. There isn’t much that can stop you getting on with what you do. But there are so many variables in cricket - the weather, the pitch, whether someone drops a catch or not - so much that is outside your control that you never feel fully on top of the game.’

Gatting, while frustrated by Tuffnell’s lack of application and dedication to his craft, still praises his natural talent. ‘If he had worked harder, he could have achieved so much more,’ he told me. It is said that Gatting got more out of Tufnell than any other captain, certainly more so than Graham Gooch, who was easily exasperated by his nonchalance and swagger. Angus Fraser, who played under both Gatting and Gooch and toured regularly with Tufnell for Middlesex and England, describes Tufnell as having been driven by extremes. ‘He could be amusing and engaging but he could also be incredibly frustrating and often unpleasant, especially when you had to spend long periods away with him on tour. There was one tour - the 1994-95 tour to Australia - when he ended up seeing a psychiatrist, so disturbed had become the relationships in his life. He was gifted all right, but lacked a certain work ethic. He could have done so much better with his ability, but his basic insecurity always got in the way.’

Tufnell was a talented junior schoolboy cricketer, both as an opening bowler and batsman. In his teens, while being coached at the MCC, he was encouraged, because he bowled left-handed, to experiment with spin; he responded with enthusiasm and soon discovered that he had a natural gift for flight and for turning the ball away from the right-hander. It was about this time that his mother died from leukaemia. He was very close to her and, for a period, he stopped playing cricket altogether as his home life in north London became more disordered. He realises now that he spent much of a troubled adolescence - he was expelled from school - mourning his mother; indeed, there is a sense, when you speak to him, that he may be still mourning her even today. As winner of Celebrity, he received £400,000 to donate to charity; he chose leukaemia research. He spoke to me often of his mother and said that, although he did not believe in benevolent destiny, he felt that ‘somewhere somehow my mother is watching over me’.

For such a naturally gifted spinner of the ball, Tufnell had a disappointing Test career, taking 121 wickets at an indifferent average of 37. He twice bowled England to victory at the Oval, against the then powerful West Indies in 1991 and against Australia in 1997, when, on a pitch that was taking extravagant turn, he bowled as well as anyone can remember, finishing with match figures of 11-93. ‘Those days are what you play the game for,’ he says, ‘but they are so rare. You have to take the good times when they come because, in cricket, you know they won’t last long.’

Tufnell, you sense, is an instinctive pessimist: too much, starting with the early death of his mother, has gone wrong in his life for him not to be. Beyond cricket, he has never had any clear career aspirations and he says he lives each day as he finds it in the hope that the future will be better. What frustrates him most about his new-found celebrity is that he may have to let friends down. ‘I agreed to play cricket for an old friend. Then the other day some bloke rings up offering me 10 grand to stand on his stall. I had to take the offer, because you have to nick a few quid while you can, don’t you? But it meant letting my friend down, which is hard.’

The world of professional cricket is peculiar. It is quite unlike any other sport. Small groups of men, not all of whom like each other, are condemned, because the game continues to adhere to rituals and patterns of behaviour established long before the age of commercial jet travel, to spend long periods away from home together in a closed, artificial environment. If a cricketer is out of form on tour, he can easily become isolated, frustrated and depressed, as Tufnell was on numerous occasions. ‘If you ever expressed doubts about your game or your form on tour, or confided in someone about your fears and anxieties, that was often seen as a weakness, which can’t be right,’ he told me. ‘The whole thing should be about working together, but it often wasn’t.’

If Tufnell rebelled against the uniformity and general weirdness of life on tour, it was because he is very much a free spirit. (He says the claustrophobia of life on tour was the ideal preparation for life in the jungle.) He may, since returning from Australia, have become something of a parody of himself, but, in person, he is genuine and amusing. The insecurity about which his former teammates speak is there for all to see (he pleaded with me, for instance, to have copy approval for this article; when I declined, he spent 10 minutes apologising for ever having asked) as are the unpredictability, tantrums and mood swings that have so delighted the tabloids. Yet there is nothing calculated about him; he is rather guileless and gauche, which is why, perhaps, he ended up winning Celebrity. ‘The thing about Phil,’ says Linda Barker, a fellow captive in the jungle, ‘is that he’s just a really nice, unaffected guy. What you see with him is what you get: we all liked him.’

Much gossiping takes place behind the scenes at an international cricket match, particularly in the media centre, where players-turned-broadcasters restlessly patrol the corridors, murmuring into mobile phones or aimlessly swapping jokes. Tuffers was received with warmth by Ian Botham and Dermot Reeve but more circumspectly by David Gower and Mark Nicholas, the self-contented frontman of Channel 4’s cricket coverage. When I spoke to Gower, he was gently dismissive of Tufnell the broadcaster and indeed of Tufnell the media construct.

Was Gower perhaps just a little disappointed at being replaced by Tuffers as a team captain on They Think It’s Over?

‘Do you want the official or unofficial line?’ he said, and then answered his own question. ‘The official line is that I’m moving on to new projects.’

And the unofficial line?

‘You can work that out for yourself.’

It is late in the evening now and, as the sun sets on a long hot day, Tuffers is posing for photographs when he suddenly notices Ian Botham making his way slowly across a deserted outfield. ‘Oi, Beef!’ he yells out. ‘Beefy, all right?’

Botham raises a lazy arm but doesn’t stop to talk. Now, Tuffers isn’t laughing.

‘Something’s got to him,’ he mutters to himself as he watches Botham disappear into the shadows at the other end of the ground. ‘Something must have got to him.’ There is panic in his voice.

He turns back to the camera but is distracted by an attractive young blonde. They have a brief conversation.

‘Do you know what she called me? She called me the king of cheese.’ He is delighted. ‘And you know what? She’s right - I am the king of cheese.’

Happy days indeed.

Robert Bailey: an honourable cricketer

August 12 2002 / New Statesman

Perhaps only the most ardent cricket fans will know of Robert Bailey, who announced his retirement from the county game this month. Unlike David Gower, he has never appeared on a television game show. Never, like Geoffrey Boycott, written a column in the Sun, or, like Ian Botham, been asked to endorse anything from breakfast cereal to the anti-euro campaign. He has never been a regular on Test Match Special - which, in any event, increasingly resembles nothing so much as a prep school tea party.

A tall, hard-hitting batsman, he played cricket professionally for 22 seasons, for Northamptonshire and, most recently, for Derbyshire. He spent his final days in the second XI, performing before a dozen or so spectators, and his retirement passed largely unreported - I learnt of it only after reading a short item on Ceefax. Yet Robert Bailey was a cricketing hero, the only player of his generation who refused the opportunity to tour apartheid South Africa as a highly paid member of a “rebel” England squad.

In 1989, as England were being thrashed by Australia during a long, miserable summer, South African agents were in Britain recruiting for a second rebel tour (the first had taken place in 1981-82). Some of the finest English cricketers of the era, notably Graham Gooch and John Emburey, went on that original tour, as well as ageing mercenaries such as Boycott. The punishment for taking the South African rand was a four-year ban from international cricket, which meant that Gooch was in effect banished to the wilderness of the county circuit during potentially the best years of his career. But he had his money as consolation.

This week, I spoke to Robert Bailey. That summer, he said, he was offered £100,000 tax-free to spend one winter in the sun as a rebel cricketer. He was not a member of the England squad, though he hoped to be, and here was an opportunity to earn what was, for a county cricketer (the average salary was about £8,000 per year) a life-transforming fee.

Bailey’s dream - something he shared with every youngster with an enthusiasm for sport - was to represent his country. Could he risk going to South Africa and thus deprive himself of the chance of fulfilling his greatest ambition? Many of England’s brightest young cricketers of the day - Matthew Maynard, Alan Wells, Paul Jarvis - as well as established Test players such as Emburey (yes, him again), Mike Gatting and Neil Foster, who were that summer competing so abjectly against the Australians, were also offered the chance to tour the apartheid state. They all accepted (as the only player to go on two rebel tours, the disgrace of Emburey is total). But Bailey alone refused.

I did not ask, during our conversation, if his decision was founded on moral opposition to the repugnant apartheid regime - because, I think, I already knew the answer. His was less a political than a romantic decision: he was consumed by the dream of playing for his country. “There was no way I could go,” he said. “To go was to be banned. I couldn’t let that happen.”

In the event, Bailey never established himself as a Test cricketer, playing only four times for England. Does he now regret not going to South Africa? “I played for England, I went on one tour to the West Indies, and I had 22 fantastic years as a pro. I made the right decision.”

As for the future, he plans to become an umpire. We should wish Bailey well and remember him not only as a fine cricketer, but also as one who brought dignity and grace to the English summer game during that terrible year of disgrace and betrayal.

Footballers' lives

June 2002 / Prospect, Issue 75

I was on the terraces of the old North Bank at Highbury on that warm spring afternoon in 1989 when English football changed forever. A final year undergraduate at the time, I had travelled to London to watch Arsenal, in contention for their first championship since 1971, play Newcastle. The crowd of less than 35,000 was disappointing-the capacity of Highbury was 55,000 in those days of banked terraces, when you could wake on a Saturday morning and decide, as I had, to watch a top-flight football match. But it meant there was space to move on the terraces that afternoon, and a terrific sense of restless anticipation-even if, elsewhere in the country, a more important game was to be played: Liverpool v Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield.

I recall just before kick-off how an amplified voice, emerging from somewhere deep in the stadium, announced that the match at Hillsborough had been postponed because of a disturbance. This aroused a predictable chorus of “We hate Scousers/We hate Scousers.” Then the same amplified voice, at once more urgent and sombre, interrupted the boisterous banalities: there had been “fatalities” at the game, it said. I shall never forget the initial bewilderment and silence inside Highbury and then the whispered unease that began to sweep through the crowd as wind sweeps through a forest of trees. Arsenal won a subdued game 1-0 and we returned home to be confronted by television images of what had unfolded at Hillsborough and by newspaper photographs the next morning of the suffering of those crushed against the security fencing. Don DeLillo, in his novel Mao II, described the scenes at Hillsborough as being like something from a great religious painting, “a crowded twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could could paint it.”

What has since become memorialised simply as the Hillsborough disaster was the final act in a decade of misfortune for English football, which had included the violence by Liverpool fans that led to the death of 39 Italians when a wall collapsed at the Heysel stadium in Belgium before the 1985 European Cup final. The English game had reached a terminus, the point at which it had to modernise if it was ever to become anything more than the preserve of the white urban working-class male, a theatre of hate and of violent, often racist, excesses. The fortunes of football in this country were thus rather like those of the old Labour party: riven by factionalism, in thrall to the past, unattractive to women and urgently requiring a consensus-breaking transformation.

Today, as a result of Rupert Murdoch-inspired television money (£600m into the Premiership alone last season), English football is now at the end of the gaudiest spending spree in its history. Football is at the very centre of our style-driven, thin-spun, entertainment culture: a symbol of aggressive meritocracy, of the embourgeoisement of society, of our fascination with money and celebrity, and-in the shape of the small army of foreign players and managers-of a deracinated cosmopolitanism.

The leading English players-David Beckham, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard-are icons beyond their sporting context, young men from working-class families whose fabulous incomes have freed them from all mundane constraint, their lives an index of thrilling possibilities, both on and off the pitch. They are, as one director at a leading club explained, “cosseted by the clubs as never before and surrounded by a team of advisers, accountants, dieticians, image consultants and lawyers, offering them constant advice. As a result, they lead lives totally removed from everyday reality.”

But what happens when you have everything you can possibly want, when all economic needs are sated before you have reached the age of 30? What does this do to a young man of little education, to his desire and motivation? What are the dangers-and the privileges? “Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity,” writes John Gray in his new book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Granta). “It is to keep boredom at bay. Where affluence is the rule the chief threat is the loss of desire.”

Tony Adams, in his memoir Addicted, offers a fascinating portrait of the life of the successful modern footballer, in both the pre- and post-Hillsborough eras. For him what motivates top footballers is not fear of failure but-as Gray says-fear of boredom. Adams is one of the most accomplished players of his generation: a former captain of England, he has been the inspirational captain of Arsenal throughout a period when the club has won ten major trophies, including this year the FA Cup and Premiership “double.” But his life, before he declared himself to be alcoholic in 1996, was characterised by isolation and intermittent depression. In Addicted, he writes candidly about the lassitude and inertia in the life of the professional footballer and of how an arrested education prevents most players from knowing what to do with their abundant leisure: the empty afternoons and long evenings away from the sound of the crowd and the camaraderie of the training ground. For Adams and others like him, drink and gambling, the twin blights of so many traditional working-class lives, offered release.

Yet, like a latter-day Jude the Obscure or Leonard Bast, Tony Adams has since remade himself through education. In Addicted, he writes of his enjoyment of poetry-of Hardy, Keats and Shakespeare-of his interest in travelling, the theatre and fine food, of his desire to learn French and of his piano lessons. Unusually for London-based footballers, who usually gravitate towards the affluent suburbs of Hertfordshire and Essex, he has bought a house in Putney to be close to the museums, galleries, restaurants and theatres of the city centre. “Today I am not just Tony Adams the footballer, I am Tony Adams the human,” he writes at the end of Addicted, a ponderous, mock confessional, new age kind of expression perhaps, but a moving admission all the same of past insularity. You close the book impressed by the courage and the peculiar grace of the man.

Adams recently announced that he would be donating £500,000 from his end-of-season testimonial against Celtic to the charity Sporting Chance, which he co-founded to support footballers with addictions. This followed Niall Quinn, of Ireland and Sunderland, who became the first footballer to donate the entire £1m earnings of his testimonial to charity. The system whereby players receive the gate receipts from a testimonial match in the form of a tax-free payment was introduced in the era of the maximum wage, when the life of the footballer was drastically constrained and often curtailed by what today would be considered routine injuries. The testimonial system in an era when the average wage in the Premiership is nearly half a million per year, excluding bonuses and endorsements, and when the top players at clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool earn between £40,000 and £80,000 per week, is a grotesque anomaly that ought to be abolished, or at least taxed. Perhaps Adams and Quinn will shame their fellow professionals into following their example.

Listening to Adams, interviewed before the cup final, you wondered if he might just be the emerging archetype of a new kind of footballer, the dedicated self-improver who uses his wealth and leisure to transcend the limitations of his background, becoming culturally middle class in a way that old socialists envisaged would happen once people were freed from hardship and toil. Or is Adams an exception in a world of stylised decadence? Is the truth of the modern game really that portrayed in the recent ITV drama Footballers’ Wives, in which the contemporary footballer was caricatured as a monolith of base behaviour and vulgar motivation?

Footballers’ Wives was a carnival of materialist excess. The characters-Chardonnay, Tanya and Jason Turner, Kyle Pascoe-and the plotlines, including attempted murder and kidnap, were lurid, cartoonish. But Footballers’ Wives sought to remind us of the self-confidence of the moneyed working class: people with no interest in becoming culturally middle class.

Liz Lake, producer and co-writer of Footballers’ Wives, was attracted to writing about football because of its popular glamour. “There’s been an absence of glamour from our screens since the days of, say, Dallas,” she told me. “We were commissioned to produce a series that was intelligent, entertaining but above all glamorous. Football offers glamour and celebrity. It’s about young men who are physical thoroughbreds and skilled at what they do, who are surrounded by beautiful girls, but who have no education and more money than they know what to do with-a combustible combination. Not all footballers are like Jason Turner [the hard-drinking, violent, promiscuous anti-hero of the series], just as all oilmen aren’t like JR Ewing. But our characters weren’t meant to be caricatures, either. We wanted the viewer to be appalled, but occasionally moved as well. The show is consistent with the context of its time. It could not have been written ten years ago.”

She is right about that, not least because ten years ago the continental sophisticate who, in the series, was a kind of Arsà¨ne Wenger-Sven Goran Eriksson compound, would not have managed her fictional football club. Liz Lake agrees that the greatest change to football in the era of the new television money was the influx of so many overseas players.

The english cup final has long been celebrated as a great national event (although it is now played in Wales). This year only seven of the starting 22 players were English. But the ethnic diversity of the Chelsea and Arsenal squads passed scarcely without comment: the transformation of the top English clubs into efficient, largely harmonious groupings of multinational, polyglot, multimillionaires has been achieved with remarkable swiftness and scant complaint. In this, football is a model of tolerant inclusiveness. The effect has been to civilise the supporters-despite sporadic hooliganism at Millwall, Cardiff and Portsmouth-to encourage a greater acceptance of difference. If a player is good enough and works hard, he is celebrated by the supporters, whether born in Senegal, as in the case of Patrick Vieira at Arsenal, or in Romford.

Gordon Taylor, chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, told me that just under half of the 896 players registered in the Premiership were now what he called “non-nationals.” He concedes that there was initial resistance from some British players to the foreign invasion, players sceptical of any change to an indigenous football culture founded on booze and blokeish bonding. Paul Gascoigne, in a notorious television outburst, accused foreign players of not understanding English passion. But in this, as in so much else, Gascoigne seems like the last maverick embodiment of an earlier footballing age, rather than the symbol of renewal that he seemed to be when he first emerged in the mid-1980s.

Of course, not all the foreigners have been a success, says Taylor. “There have been many instances of players arriving with great fanfare through the front door and then slipping away quietly through the back door, at great financial cost to their clubs. Another downside is that there are now fewer opportunities for young home players. Clubs are less willing to take a gamble on an unfinished lower division player when they can buy a more experienced international from abroad. The days when some of our best players-such as Ian Rush and Kevin Keegan-were bought from the lower division have gone. The transfer money now just circulates within the Premiership, or goes overseas.”

Taylor is impressed, however, by the sophistication of continental coaches such as Arsà¨ne Wenger at Arsenal and Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, both of whom are university graduates. These French managers have introduced new forensic training methods and approaches to diet, nutrition and exercise; they work rigorously with statistics and computers to analyse individual performances, from the number of tackles a player completes in a game to the distance he runs. They are as adept at working with the media as they are at moving between different languages. I was once present at a press conference when, without hesitation, Wenger switched from English to French and then answered a further question in German (he is, after all, the son of Strasbourg café owners).

As a student in the late 1960s, studying for an MA in English, Houllier spent a year in Liverpool while writing a thesis on inner city deprivation. He recalls standing on the Kop at Anfield, a place of romantic wonder for football fans. Houllier was enchanted to find himself amidst so much spontaneity and song: “The noise, the singing, the moving. It was swaying all the time; you could hardly see the game!” When later he returned to the city as manager of Liverpool, he was determined to reinvent the club but without violating its traditions. “Liverpool has a tradition of passing football,” he told John Williams, director of the centre for football research at Leicester University and editor of a fascinating book of essays about the game called Passing Rhythms (Berg). “It is linked to the fact that the passing is a language between people-it’s a bond between people. Everybody involved in the passing, everybody working for the same aims, and so on. Has this got something to do with tradition? It must appeal to the ‘imaginary’ of the people in Liverpool. All I know is that having been a technical director in France, it is not the same there and it couldn’t be the same. And it has got something to do with the way of living, the culture, the history of Liverpool.”

It is hard to think of an English manager speaking about the “football imaginary”; but the emergence and acceptance of Houllier, who is as much a sports scientist as he is a motivator of players, is another encouraging sign that the new cosmopolitans are winning the cultural war within the game. When he was technical director of the Institut National du Football in France, Houllier helped to establish an academy system, based around regional centres of excellence, that has resulted in the creation of a generation of exceptional, technically gifted French footballers most of whom play outside France and have an ease, range of reference and ambition that distinguishes them from the largely monoglot, monocultural British player. For too long British footballers were encouraged to subordinate individual skill to the hurtling demands of the team. English football, certainly in its late modern manifestation, was traditionally played at a ferocious, unrelenting pace; tenacity and endeavour were valued more than technique. The game was resolutely patriarchal, anti-intellectual and indifferent to continental European influence. In England, for example, we have no tradition of the libero, the gifted playmaker who invents the game from the back; superbly articulate in the language of football, he creates his own style and idiom.

Many of the most successful club managers of modern times-Don Revie at Leeds, Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, George Graham at Arsenal-were remote, authoritarian figures who assembled squads of rugged, uncompromising British and Irish players, and then ruled them through force of personality and a culture of fear. These were teams in which the individual was subsumed into the collective. “These managers created a siege mentality among their players,” says John Williams, “and much of their bonding was done in the pub. It was very hard to integrate foreign players into such an environment. When Houllier arrived at Liverpool he wanted to blend the best of the British tradition-the aggression, the pace and intensity-with improved discipline and technique. Which meant he had to break up his largely British squad, removing disruptive elements such as Paul Ince, David James and Robbie Fowler. He believed that some of the English players weren’t serious enough about the game. They didn’t think enough about their careers and what they wanted to achieve, the kinds of people they wanted to become. It was as if they were simply enjoying an extended adolescence.”

Since the mid-1990s, English clubs have begun to introduce their own French-influenced academy systems, a consequence of which is that gifted young players are becoming not only more technically adept but also more prepared for the multiple challenges of the new game, with its hard media focus and improbable riches. “From an early age players receive the kind of good guidance that is dragging them towards a greater responsibility,” says John Williams.

Yet, poignantly, many of the new footballers are prisoners of their wealth and celebrity, liberated only into a life of seclusion, sterility and repetitive routine. “They buy their flash houses with their high walls and spend most of their time in them, playing their computer games or their expensive DVD systems,” says Ian Ridley, the football writer and co-author of Addicted. “The demands of the modern game are so great that players can no longer live as they once did. If they attempted to go down the pub or travel on public transport, they would be thumped.”

But will the riches in the new game draw in footballers from a wider social background, as is the case in some European countries? “Footballers here have always been drawn from a narrow section of society, and that is unlikely to change,” says Ridley. “I used to coach a local team in Hertfordshire. They were a nice bunch from middle-class homes but I knew that whenever they played a team from a rough area they would lose. Why? It was because the culture of football is ingrained in these people’s lives. They are shrewder, more streetwise, they seem to understand the game better, its demands and mentality.”

Which means that, if Ridley is right, little Brooklyn Beckham will never become, like his father, a professional footballer. The England captain has spoken again and again of how he wants his son to have a “normal life” and be able to attend the school of his choice free from interference. Beckham imagines waiting for his son at the school gates, as his parents once waited for him at his comprehensive in the east London suburbs. That will not happen; Brooklyn Beckham is destined, like so many children of the new football plutocrats, to attend an elite fee-paying school, where he will receive the kind of education that prepares him for anything but a life in football.

Of present Premiership professionals it is thought that only one, Matt Jansen of Blackburn, attended a public school. But when I spoke to a former player, Alan Smith, who now writes for the Daily Telegraph, about players’ attitudes to education he said that all but one of those with whom he used to play at Arsenal send their children to fee paying schools, as does Smith himself. Smith is something of an oddity in the English game: grammar school-educated, he was in his first year at university when he joined Leicester City. “I’m not sure that we are going to see a new, more culturally rounded footballer,” he says. “Most players are from working-class backgrounds and from the ages of 12 to 16 all they want to do is play football. But I did both: I played football and concentrated on my education.”

Does he think that more players will donate substantial sums to charity? “Players like Adams and Quinn are very much the exception. When I first knew Tony, he was a typical Essex lad who liked a drink. Since then he has altered beyond all recognition, but that’s as much to do with his own personal difficulties as it is to do with changes within the game itself. When I was with Niall Quinn at Arsenal, he always had socialist principles and did a lot of work with the charity Shelter. That’s the way he is.”

When Alan Smith retired in 1995, all the Arsenal players were “earning roughly the same.” Within three years, Smith’s former teammates, such as Ray Parlour, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Adams, had seen their “salaries quadruple” to about £1m per year. Smith has no regrets about missing out on the hyper-wages-“I had a great career, and I won things,” he says. “In any event, I was very well paid and managed to put something aside. But I still have to work.”

The young players of today at clubs such as Arsenal and Manchester United, so long as they remain free from injury, will not have to work when they retire from playing football. But what kind of people will they be? How do they envisage their roles in wider society? For whom will they vote (when the England World Cup squad of 1982 were asked their political preferences only one player, Paul Mariner, said that he voted Labour)? What, if any, will be their cultural aspirations?

Perhaps the future belongs neither to the Tony Adams self-improvers nor the unreconstructed Jason Turners-or his real life equivalents like the Leeds pair of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate known for their boozing and brawling. Perhaps, rather, the future is represented by players like the robotic Michael Owen, players who seem as bland and stilted off the pitch as they are creative on it. Owen comes from a football family, and from early adolescence he has been groomed for life as a professional. In everything he does, the way he speaks and behaves, he is the definitive new footballer as product, a footballer who has, like Alan Shearer and many others, all the spontaneity of canned laughter, so controlled is the environment in which he moves.

The past decade has been the belle époque of the professional footballer. From 1992 to 2000 the combined wages of all Premiership players rose from £54m per season to £319m, according to Deloitte & Touche. Meanwhile, the average season ticket has risen in price by nearly 30 per cent in five years. The world’s best players are earning as much as £100,000 per week, and many millions more through endorsements and sponsorship. At the same time, ten of the 20 clubs in the Premiership and 90 per cent of the 72 clubs in the Football League are now operating at a loss. And 600 professionals from the lower leagues in England and Scotland were expecting the sack this month, partly because of the collapse of ITV Digital and the projected fall in television income.

Despite the shake-out, football will remain rich and glamorous-at least at the top. But many fans think that something is missing, there is nostalgia for the certainties of the old game with its rugged tribalism. If you read the new football literature and the fanzines of the most committed supporters you will find expressed the belief that the game has lost its soul: the football may be more stylish but somewhere in the rush to embrace modernity much of the charm has disappeared. More than in the past, money buys success and the established metropolitan clubs can insulate themselves against challenges from below. It is no surprise, perhaps, that only 6.3m people watched this year’s FA Cup final on television, the lowest ever figure and fewer than watched the final of the world snooker championship the following day.

Yet the persisting appeal of football is that, in the end, it provides a dramatic narrative, a consistency of interest through time. It is, in our secular, post-ideological age, the closest thing we have to a national conversation. There’s something mystical about fandom that defies rational explanation. Supporting a football team is about faith. Once you have chosen your team, which usually happens in early childhood, that’s it: you have crossed a border that, for true fans, is irreversible. The players, managers and even the stadium may change, the chairmen and owners come and go, but something endures about a football club, something akin to the Aristotelian idea of metaphysical substance behind all mutation. When Houllier speaks of the “football imaginary,” of a romantic attachment between Liverpool football club and the city, its history and struggles, he exhibits an empathy with the fans that many of football’s modern mercenaries, moving from city to city and country to country, no longer understand.

I was at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when Arsenal lost 2-1 to Liverpool in the 2001 FA Cup final. The London team controlled the game but conceded two goals from Michael Owen in the last eight minutes. It was a melancholy end to an entertaining game; but I was not too disappointed-because I stayed on to watch as Houllier and his young team thrilled to the Liverpool supporters as they swayed and sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” their famous anthem of loss and reconciliation. Here against the brilliant blue of the sky of a May afternoon was a kind of secular worship with its own eschatology, not exactly redemption for what happened at Hillsborough, but a testament all the same to the enduring wonder of the game, no matter how debased by commerce-a football imaginary indeed.

The Long Shadow of Bobby Moore: haunted by the ghosts of '66

July 3 2000 / New Statesman

I shall never forget the damp, cold night in February 1993 when I heard that Bobby Moore had died. My father was born in Upton Park, in the East End of London, not far from the home stadium of West Ham United, for whom Moore played for more than two decades, and I grew up in a household in the nowhere zone of the Essex-Hertfordshire borderlands in which Moore was a revered and iconic presence. And why not? He was, after all, a stalwart captain of West Ham and England, and the only Briton ever to hold aloft the Jules Rimet trophy. (One of my father’s happiest anecdotes was how he had once spent a long flight back from Hong Kong with Moore and his then wife, Tina. Acting as cocktail-fixer in the upper-deck bar of a jumbo jet, Moore had repeatedly got my father’s name wrong, calling him “Tel” instead of Tony. This, for some reason, amused my father enormously.)

The night after the day Bobby Moore died, I drove out to the East End and mingled with thousands of people as they laid scarves and floral tributes to him outside the gates of Upton Park stadium—in its way, this event was a smaller, more local precursor of the spontaneous mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana. There were photographs and posters pinned to the gates of Upton Park that night in which a young, blond-haired, red-shirted Moore was shown receiving the World Cup from the Queen, on that July day in 1966, a day that for ever now seems to be scorched into our national consciousness, even for those, like me, who weren’t born or were mere babies when England won the World cup for the first and only time.

My father had died, suddenly, two years earlier and, that night in Upton Park, his and Moore’s death seemed somehow inextricably linked in my mind—the end of two lives, yes, but something more than that, too: something to do with the 1960s themselves, when, as my father once told me everything in the country seemed bright and new and young; when Mary Quant, the Beatles, the miniskirt, the pill, the World Cup, Carnaby Street fashions and the beginnings of a mass consumer culture transformed Britain into a place to get excited about.

Nowadays, there is much bluster about how a “new” Britain has been modernised and remade by a “new” Labour Party; but Britain doesn’t really feel like a new country. In fact, it feels old, haunted, hag-ridden by the past. It feels like a country that wants to look back, not forward—and, in particular, to 1966, when everything was bathed in that authentic glow of cool: swinging London, the swinging Sixties, and all that jazz. After all; it was on 15 April 1966 that Time magazine published its famous cover story on London and announced that, “in this century, every decade has its city ... and for the Sixties that city is London.” A few months later, the World cup was won, an act setting a kind of standard, the benchmark against which the England football team would ever after be measured and found sadly wanting.

Today, the lingering myths of ‘66 have conspired to create an entire culture of self-savouring romanticism, as exemplified by the popularity of Baddiel and Skinner’s football song “Three Lions”, with its fey nostalgia and chorus of “30 years of hurt” (cannily appropriated by Tony Blair before the last election); and by the way in which Kenneth Wolstenholme’s brilliant line of commentary—“Some people are on the pitch/They think it’s all over/It is now”—has entered the language as definitively as any line from Shakespeare. It doesn’t even seem to matter much that, under close inspection, the myths of ‘66, as is the way of such things, begin to crumble. For instance, it is often remarked that Harold Wilson’s landslide victory of that year was achieved against the general euphoria of the World Cup win. In fact, the election was held before the World Cup, in March of that year. It is worth recalling, too, that 1966 may have been the high point of “Swinging London” but it was also the year of the Aberfan sla g-heap disaster and of the sentencing of the Moors murderers (a terminal violation of England’s innocence, if ever there was one).

As a child growing up in a suburban new town in the dull and economically depressed 1970s, in the era of power cuts and the three-day week, I could never understand how anyone could think that England had once been an exciting place in which to live. For a start, we never seemed to win or excel at anything—and football, through which people found a vicarious expression of wounded nationalism, was dangerously violent. (The first time my father took me to a match, there was a huge fight on the terraces.) The emergence of punk rock, with its stylised disaffection, seemed an authentic response to the mediocrity, boredom and failure I saw around me, manifested in the squalor and bad architecture of the public spaces through which I moved, the charmlessness of the people I met, the appalling food served to me at school and our repeated national failures at sport. (Having won the World Cup in 1966 and impressed at Mexico 1970, we failed to qualify in 1974 and 1978.)

I never met Bobby Moore, although I did once have a long conversation with him. He rang the local paper on which I briefly worked after leaving university to speak to a colleague, Sue Thearle, who now works for the BBC. I happened to answer her phone when she was out on assignment, and, seizing an opportunity, promptly asked Moore his views on the England team and related matters. Later that afternoon, I sold his burnished quotes to a national tabloid—an act for which I thereafter became bizarrely known in the office as the “freelance thief”.

Not long after, Thearle met Moore in the press box at an England match, and was shocked by what she saw. For, by this time, he was ashen and weak through cancer. Within a matter of months, he would be dead at the age of 5l. In the weeks after his death, as old footage of him lifting the World Cup was repeatedly replayed, the beginnings of a cult of Bobby Moore and, more generally, of the summer of 1966 began to take shape; and this cult continues mysteriously to deepen and intensify each time the England football team fail at a major tournament, having set off not so much in hope as in expectation of ... well, victory. “We have the quality to win this tournament,” Kevin Keegan said at the beginning of Euro 2000, thus repeating the self-delusive mantra spoken by all his predecessors since Alf Ramsay stepped down, defeated and bewildered after England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.

When Moore retired from football, after playing more than 1,000 games at senior level, he seemed to have everything he wanted—wealth, good looks and a sackful of the best contacts. He was expected to prosper in management, in business or as a freelance talking head. It never happened. The trajectory of his decline seemed powerfully to parallel that of the team he once captained so confidently. His only attempts at management were humblingly parochial, with non-league Oxford City, from 1979 to 1981, and then with Southend United from 1983 to 1986. And the last phase of his life, when he spent three years as sports editor of the repulsive Sunday Sport and as a fast-talking summariser on Capital Gold, had a peculiar melancholy of its own. So in the end, perhaps, he had nothing left but the memory of his talent to sustain him—and the pictures he carried in his head of that afternoon in July 1966, when it must have seemed as if the whole world was watching and admiring him.

In his own way, then, Bobby Moore was as much a victim as the rest of us of the myths of the summer of 1966: that thin-spun summer when class boundaries seemed to dissolve and the country floated on an invisible cloud of self-celebration. Nothing would be as good again, certainly not for Moore, nor for the rest of the players who have long since remained imprisoned by their achievement. Nor for the country, either, which, for all Blair’s bluster about modernity and renewal, remains haunted by an inexplicable sense of loss; not of present loss, but of something bound up with feelings that the best has gone—and it will never be so good again. That is, until we stop dreaming of 1966, stop reflecting on those “30 years of hurt”, and learn instead to accept, as Troilus does in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, that the “will is infinite and the execution confused/that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit”.

So the summer of ‘66 is dead; long live the summer of ‘66.