Jack Russell: My Favourite Cricketer

Jack Russell: Top Dog of the Underdogs

Jack Russell: Top Dog of the Underdogs

OK, so he isn’t really my favourite cricketer, but Brian Lara had already been taken…

Anyway, it was a great honour to have a piece accepted for this cricinfo column, which has featured many of my favourite cricket writers (perhaps there’s a column in that?), including: Gideon Haigh (on Chris Tavare), Rob Smyth (on Martin McCague), John Hotten (on Geoff Boycott), Rob Steen (on Flintoff), Jarrod Kimber (on Bryce McGain), Malcolm Knox (on Allan Border), Alan Tyers (on Botham).

It’s well worth checking a few of these out. There are several other good ones: Lawrence Booth on Allan Lamb, Tanya Aldred on Shane Warne, David Frith on Ray Lindwall, Peter Roebuck on Harold Larwood, Andrew Miller on Gus Fraser…

Meanwhile, here’s my text, but without the mangled edit on one of the sentences (this in itself might provide a clue as to why Kack was my [second] favourite cricketer). Appropriately, it’s also perhaps my favourite piece for ESPNcricinfo thus far. The original (which I called Bristles in Bristol, so the editor redeemed himself somewhat) can be found here.

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Growing up in a minor county, my first in-the-flesh exposure to famous cricketers usually came in those sorely missed David-and-Goliath games of the old NatWest Trophy. Malcolm Marshall, Ezra Moseley, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Aravinda de Silva all came to play Staffordshire at Stone, my home town. And before them, in 1984, when I was 11, was Jack Russell, then an unknown member of an unglamorous Gloucestershire side who arrived to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of an inevitable victory.

I’d love to claim it was love at first sight, but the truth is I barely noticed him – which, conventional wisdom will (erroneously) tell you, is the hallmark of a good wicketkeeper. However, I do remember when the seduction process was complete, and it took a single ball to seal it. It was the moment the pleasantly attractive girl from your physics class turns up to the school disco in pink hotpants.

To this day, I’ve only seen one legside stumping off a quick bowler in Test cricket, probably fewer than the number of switch-hit sixes if I cared to think about it. Gladstone Small was the bowler, Dean Jones the man overbalancing at the crease, and Jack, with ninja-like celerity, hopping sideways while seeming stillness itself, the magician who whisked off the bails before gambolling like a lamb into the arms of Alec Stewart, later the quietus to his international career. Its unadulterated brilliance could be gauged from the reaction of the grizzled old pros converging upon him to celebrate: Ned Larkins, Eddie Hemmings, David Gower, Graham Gooch, all laughing at the absurd majesty of it all, a heist carried out to perfection. And that’s what a legside stumping feels like: pickpocketing the opposition.

My dad was a wicketkeeper. I wasn’t, although, strangely, I often seemed to find myself walking out in pads and gloves to do it. It was one long trauma. On one occasion, I lost a tooth; on many, I lost the plot. I endured a West Indian Test bowler pounding the ball into hotspots, broke several fingers (hands groping round the batsman’s backside for a lost flight path), missed three stumpings in a final off a leg-spinner who forgot the googly signal, and, worst of all, dropped three catches in a single over off one of Jack Russell’s future teammates, Jeremy Snape, while playing for Staffordshire Under-13s.

I’ve always thought wicketkeeping – specifically, standing up to seamers – the most difficult of cricket’s arts, with the possible exception of legspin, and so felt an exaggerated admiration for anyone who did it well. Jack’s silken glovework was, evidently, a marvel – the preternatural ease with which he took the awkwardly bouncing ball as it melted gratefully into those black mitts, body contorting yet hands smooth and slow, like an expert cocktail waiter sweeping through a busy room.

Neat and tidy as a keeper he may have been, but there was a meticulous scruffiness about everything else. The first year he sewed the three lions over the Gloucestershire badge on that trademark bucket hat was 1988, the second Summer of Love. He fidgeted his way to 94 on debut at Lord’s, each run an affront to the game’s aesthetics, and in the Ashes the following year made a maiden hundred in the city then known as Madchester. Little did my baggy-loving mates realize that my headgear was an homage not to the Stone Roses, but to a certain stumper from Stroud.

Jack's meticulous scruffiness

Jack’s meticulous scruffiness

Jack’s batting was not a thing of beauty. In fact, crouching over his bat as he shovelled, swept, sliced and slapped, it was almost deliberately ugly, a calculated provocation, as was so much of his cricket. Even his leave-alone was in-your-face, pulling back the curtain rail then, like some feral neighbourhood kid, staring straight into your living room to see what he could nick. Or not nick, as was famously the case in his epic rearguard with Mike Atherton in Johannesburg, which he later immortalised in a painting entitled The Great Escape, aptly for such a staunch flag-waver. Ordinarily, I’d have been turned off by such obstinate quirkiness and untempered patriotism (even his keeping technique resisted the Australian fashion, as he saw it, for taking the ball on the inside hip), but his glovework redeemed all.

Jack was the eccentric’s eccentric in a métier given to eccentrics. Insisting your Weetabix are soaked for precisely eight minutes; having the same meal 29 nights consecutively on tour; taking a suitcase full of baked beans away because you didn’t trust hotel food; washing your own kit in the hotel room because you didn’t trust the staff – none of this suggests a man comfortable with flux and uncertainty. Yet uncertainty is what hung over much of his England career, whenever the runs dried up.

As the insecurities grew, ever more quirks and tics were introduced. He began standing at forty-five degrees (and too deep, they said), facing cover-point. The consistency dropped, as were one or two straightforward catches, once prompting him to lock himself in his room for two days. There was evident frailty there – a brain scan would doubtless have revealed synapses held together with rubber bands and string – and sympathy duly morphed into empathy.

By the time the decade – and his England career – was done, Adam Gilchrist had transformed perceptions of the keeper’s role forever. In Test cricket’s futures market, legside stumping stock had been ditched for batting pugnacity. Russell was part of a dying breed. Perhaps, with a frontline bowler who could have batted at No7, he’d have won many more Test caps than the 54 he accrued (and never wore). Instead, Stewart donned the gloves in an attempt to balance the side.

Yet the unmistakeable hue of genius never waned, and it was at Gloucestershire, in his final years, before chronic back trouble curtailed his career, that his regal brilliance truly flourished. John Bracewell, his coach, believed that it was only when he stopped thinking about being selected for England that he became “unquestionably the best keeper in the world”. Prior to this, he felt, Jack had been too conservative, too keen not to make mistakes, too keen to go unnoticed – thus giving the lie to the old saw. Now, with the coming of autumn, he stepped forward, right up to the stumps, and gave full rein to his gifts, the ringmaster in an unheralded Gloucestershire team that won six limited-overs trophies in three seasons.

On pitches the colour of gruel, Ian Harvey, Mike Smith et al created the anxiety, the asphyxiation, and as the veins popped in batters’ heads there was Jack the mosquito, puncturing their flesh for a slurp of claret. Barking – oh, he was barking – relentlessly at his teammates, he would habitually walk in front of the stumps to applaud and chivvy, all a pretext for irritating the batsman, getting in his space. It brought new meaning to occupation of the crease – here, in the sense of an invading army. The pickpocket had become a mobster. A bailiff.

I admired his brazen, cartoonish villainy. Face inscrutable behind those sunglasses, that daft hat and his bristles, Jack would narrate the batsman’s anxieties for the benefit of his swarming team. He gave this reluctant and increasingly part-time wicketkeeper something to aspire toward. Sure, my Teflon glovework would always be found wanting, but I could always usefully piss the batsman off.

It was not genteel comportment, but then the cricket I played wasn’t genteel. The existential stakes were high: glory, ignominy and self-esteem, all were forged by this innings, that shot, a catch, a victory. There was no place to be genteel. My nickname then was Dog (as in Scotty…), and the cricket was dog eat dog. And in that there was no better example, no more terrorising terrier, than Jack Russell, top-dog of the underdogs.


Quitting Smoking

man_smokingAt the time of writing, it is 41 days since I smoked a cigarette. I’d started again during the early stages of last summer and by about August was fully-fledged: buying tobacco, needing tobacco, the old nicotine claws embedding themselves into my brain chemistry. I didn’t feel great about it: how on earth have I allowed that to happen?! So, I wrote a feature for Vice about it: The Next Time You Try To Quit Smoking Will Be Harder Than The Last. The version published there was a topped-and-tailed 1500 words, but the original draft was a 1900-word version that included a couple of personal yarns. So, here it is…

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Smokers, as any northern variety club comedian will have told you, are a dying breed. Apparently, just under 19% of British adults now voluntarily suck carcinogenic fumes into their breathing apparatus – mind you, if finding out about that shit doesn’t make you want a fag, nothing will – compared to 45% in 1974. Ciggies are being nubbed out under the sharply-swivelling soles of a generation that prefers the taste of fresh air to an air of insouciance, that somehow acknowledges the essential meaningless of the universe and pointlessness of existence yet still doesn’t take that as carte blanche to raddle the fuck out of themselves.

Yes, despite motivational gurus sparking widespread confusion with their winners never quit spiel, quitting smoking is a growth industry. E-cigarette shops are springing up like … well, like cancerous cells in our gutted provincial city centres, there amongst the pound shops, bookies, tattooists and bargain boozers administering Blighted Blighty’s soft addictions.

I’ve been successful at giving up smoking myself. Three times, actually. The first time I quit I was still a teenager, still immortal, before I came to realize that the cure for death – a.k.a. ‘religion’ – was a hoax. That baby-faced 14-year-old asking for “10 Hensons and Bedges” (the spoonerism clear corroboration I was running an errand for an adult) jacked it in while it could still be labelled a ‘teenage fad’. My abstinence lasted six months, until a broken ankle and boredom sent me on an epic, crutch-pivoting pilgrimage to the newsagent, and from there into a sustained period of unapologetic addiction, routinely undertaking 2am trips to the 24-hour garage, overwhelmed by the dread of having no tobacco should insomnia bite.

I enjoyed it for several years, too. Then I stopped enjoying it, but carried on anyway. Later, I read a book that told me I’d never really enjoyed it. All I’d done was assuage cravings and give myself temporary relief. That one after a slap-up meal? With the cappuccino and paper? Down the boozer with that first cold beer? All fleeting satiation.

The book’s title was The Easy Way to Stop Smoking [EWTSS], which I’d serendipitously spotted in the library the same day a forlorn NHS SmokeFree Quit Kit had struggled through the letterbox, promising to tackle one of the most addictive substances on the planet with a plastic hand toy called ‘tangles’. Apparently, over 13 million copies of EWTSS have been shifted – a fraction over the number of cigarettes its author, 100-a-day former accountant Allen Carr (not that one), had sucked the tar from over his 33-year smoking journey – while it claims to have helped 53.3% of its readers quit.

Carr’s counterintuitive gambit was to actively encourage you to smoke as you read the book (oh, go on then), while hitting you with short, sharp chapters containing the same percussive message: it’s nothing to do with habit, just straightforward chemical addiction, anthropomorphised as The Nicotine Monster. You gotta slay the Monster (more scientifically: stop nicotine hijacking the brain’s dopamine circuitry), and although he’ll be lurking with malign intent, after three days he gets weaker and after five you’re more or less free. (Incidentally, this is why e-fags, patches, gums and suchlike are, in Carr’s view, pointless: you’re simply swapping one dependency for another.)

There are no scare stories about poor health – “we smoke when we are nervous”, Carr writes. “Tell smokers that cigarettes are killing them and the first thing they will do is light one” – only the remorseless demystification of the so-called benefits and the hypnotically repeated message that, once you realize what you’re doing, stopping doing it is, in fact, easy. No hair-shirt sacrifice, no struggle, no mountain to climb; it’s a pleasure, a great release, a joyous gambol into the fragrant meadows of a snout-free future.

Initial scepticism long abandoned, I stayed up till 4am, determined to finish the book so that the ever-deferred tomorrow of non-smoking would finally come. A few pages from the end, one tab’s worth of parched baccy in the pouch, I came the nearest I’ll probably ever get to a spiritual experience when I popped downstairs for a piece of toast and broke out in goosebumps as I contemplated the question: “Is this my first meal as a non-smoker, or my last as a smoker?” In the end, it was the latter. Old time’s sake…

I was primed. And not by staring at images of emphysema on my fag packet. Nor by the prohibitive cost (not a powerful deterrent in its own right, as evidenced by the number of folk notionally living on £60-odd quid a week still impervious to a cost-benefit analysis informing them that not smoking for 37 weeks will get them a GroupOn weekend for two at a health spa. Nah, I’ll have the burners, ta). Nor the social stigma of skulking around in the smoke-cages, for there are still options, places where the smoker is still embraced, still valued: somewhere like Greece, say, where, just as in the UK, the ostracised minority are forced outside – the non-smokers, it’s true – and where Stigma’s just another cigarette brand.

smoking_skullNo, the impetus for quitting was wheezing. Increasingly, as the cold, damp fingers of English winter mornings reached in to tickle my chest, it sounded like a set of samples for some Aphex Twin concept album: the sleeping bag zipper; the plaintive seagull; the howling alleyway; the Peruvian pan-pipe band sound-check; the sliding tarpaulins; the basketball court jostling; the cellar door. Not an attractive post-coital soundtrack.

Four years I went without a cigarette – four years without the desire for a cigarette – only I didn’t completely slay the Monster. Like some slasher-movie psychokiller, he was waiting at the bottom of the garden for me to leave the door ajar. You allow yourself one here, a couple there (followed by the magic five days off to convince yourself you’re on top of it), and that’s it: his foot was not only back in the door; he was kipping on my sofa. Indefinitely. Fags: here to stay.

It was probably after about six months’ smoking as a non-smoker before I became a smoker again (it’s like the Sorites paradox: if you remove one grain at a time from a heap of sand, at what stage does it cease to be a heap? How many biftas? How frequently chugged?). And once my smoking was smoking – fully-fledged, dedicated, non-negotiable – that frisson of smug self-satisfaction you get from answering “no” when people ask “are you a smoker?” was nixed. Gone in a puff of smoke. And no matter how clean the next break, I didn’t think I’d ever get it back. Yep: back on the hamster wheel. Ich bin ein smoker.

Another resource I could no longer fall back on was the demonisation of the smoker, a central tactic of Carr’s that had not only helped wean me in the first place, but also cocooned me from relapsing. In moments of weakness I’d contemplate the old men with cracked leathery faces and brown teeth hacking up greenies outside pubs; I’d watch the smokers’ mugs – the mug smokers – outside A&E Departments, putting up with the rain, the cold, the noxious fumes of cars (well, y’know) for their urgent hourly tug, smoking as though about to board a twelve-hour flight. Smoking as if their lives depended on it.

Of course, shame makes you want to quit again almost immediately (as soon as those four cartons of duty free run out, anyway). So, you revisit your old saviour, your panacea: The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. Only, this time it’s not so easy. Suddenly, you’re immune to its rhetorical sledgehammers. Second time round, ‘the five-day rule’, previously a marker of the freedom on the horizon, becomes the point at which the Nicotine Monster rears its head, suggesting you have a reward for your abstinence: perhaps a few drags on a sweet, sweet ciggie…? The book became the self-help equivalent of a condom: usable only once.

And that was the paradox of it all: Easy Way made you realize that quitting smoking gets more and more difficult each time. First time, you’re faced with the improbability of a future free of those heavy chains. Second time, you know you’ve previously done it – and thought you’d beaten it – but there’s also the recent knowledge that you hadn’t beaten it. Because there you were doing it again, idiot. No worries, though. Since you’ve given up once before, you’re sure you can do it again. So you carry on smoking. Obviously. You get complacent. The sense of jeopardy is lost. Old Nic’ sneaks in again. And the more you smoke, the less confident you’ll slowly feel that you can ever pull it off, so the more you defer it… Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

A friend in the midst of an OD-flavoured nervous breakdown once said to me, somewhat surprisingly: “The thing that depresses me most is the fags”. They were of course symbolic of his self-destructive tendencies, yet he couldn’t take the risk of trying to quit because to do so and fail would be psychologically more harmful than contemplating one’s chronic inability to quit. At least while you’re smoking you have the hope that you’ll soon knock it on the head. When you’ve crashed and burned – crashed a fag, burnt your oesophagus – there’s only abjection. As the old proverb goes: better to have never tried than to have tried and failed. The addicted smoker tormented by, yet flirting with, quitting is thus always trying to get to the penultimate cigarette, not the last one (I’ve smoked a few last ones, and my last last one didn’t turn out to be my last after all, though maybe the next last one will).

And here’s the rub. Each time you succumb, trudging with guilty avidity to Londis for some smokes, the mountain gets higher, the slope slippier. You’ll always feel like shit for having fallen off the wagon, for having bought those last-gasp gaspers. You’ll feel like the Monster will never do one. So, don’t rush in. Be ready. Know your enemy. Read Sun-Tzu. Get it right. This is a worthy fucking adversary, and unless you treat it as such, you’re fucked. And remember: if you can stop, breathing will feel like a breath of fresh air.


Nicosia: The Last Divided Capital

Greek-Cypriot map of Nicosia, blanking out what's beyond the 'Green Line'

Greek-Cypriot map of Nicosia, blanking out what’s beyond the ‘Green Line’

Last November, I made a second visit to Nicosia, Cyprus’ equally eerie and charming capital city, which has been split since Turkey’s retaliatory invasion in July 1974. Whether you call it Lefkosia (in Greek) or Lefkoşa (in Turkish), many want to call the whole thing off. Some people who don’t want to give up on reunifying the island can be found at the Home for Co-Operation in the Buffer Zone, an interview there the ostensible reason for my three-day stay. But I also had plenty of chance to stroll around and get to know the place a little better, ultimately producing a piece for Vice. The original version, before their edit, is reproduced below.

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Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall was jubilantly torn down, 40 years after escalating ethnic tensions and inter-communal violence across Cyprus prompted an Athens-orchestrated coup d’état followed, five days later, by a retaliatory invasion by the Turkish army, Nicosia remains the world’s last divided capital, a city riddled with the physical and mental scars of the West’s longest running diplomatic dispute.

Roccas Bastion: Turkish and TRNC flags look down on 'the other side'

Roccas Bastion: Turkish and TRNC flags look down on ‘the other side’

At the Roccas Bastion, the ‘Green Line’ – the United Nations-controlled buffer zone that snakes through Nicosia, keeping the de facto ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (unrecognized by any nation save Turkey) and the Republic of Cyprus at arm’s length – is no wider than the hulking ramparts of the old Venetian walled city, intimate enough for Turkish-Cypriot youths peering through mesh fences and razor wire to pelt occasional marches of the Cypriot far-right with stones. At its widest, on the city’s western fringes, it swallows a now abandoned airport. (Beyond Nicosia, it encompasses the ghost resort of Varosha, held as a bargaining chip by TRNC in return for recognition of its statehood, but which now seems only to symbolise the recalcitrant wastefulness of the ‘Cyprus Problem’.)

For the most part, the Buffer Zone is a Call of Duty screenshot, a post-apocalyptic sliver of abandoned, crumbling, bullet-specked buildings dotted with spindly UN observation towers and concrete foxholes framed by oil drums and sandbags, with yawning soldiers in Cambridge blue berets watching Greek Cypriots watching Turkish Cypriots, and all with a half-hearted eye on intrusive tourist lenses. It’s a city with bad feng shui, a place of dead ends and otherness, a marriage soured by interfering parents in which neither party is inclined to admit their culpability in the tetchy bickering that slid into all-out bloody war.

Divided Nicosia: city of dead ends

Divided Nicosia: city of dead ends

Where the division of Berlin was overnight, ideological, and thus relatively simple to reverse, Nicosia’s schism, setting down its roots slowly and organically either side of independence from Britain in 1960, is a far more entrenched, entangled and complex affair to unravel. While Greek-Cypriot nationalists calling for enosis (‘union’) with Mother Greece mixed ambushes on British troops with sporadic acts of violence against the Turkish-Cypriot minority, the latter began to speak of taksim (‘partition’) as they retreated into barricaded enclaves across the city. Indeed, the ‘Green Line’ was named after the wax crayon used by the commander-in-chief of the British peacekeeping forces in 1963 to draw a ceasefire line through the capital. Throughout the countryside, mixed villages and relatively harmonious co-existence remained common, yet the tumult of 1974 saw the cracks become a chasm as busloads of people abandoned their homes in panicked mass internal migration and the definitive separation of the population ensued.

Ermou Street Nicosia

Ermou Street: military foxholes face each other across a Call of Duty screenshot

Cyprus has since stewed in decades of mutual suspicion, with few olive branches held out. The closest the island has come to re-unification was in 2004, a week prior to Cyprus joining the EU, when a blueprint for settlement drafted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan went to referendum on both sides. The ‘Annan Plan’ was accepted by 65% of Turkish Cypriots, but rejected by 76% of Greek Cypriots.

Thereafter has been a tale of frosty stalemate and diminishing hope, yet talks resumed earlier this year, the catalyst being Cyprus’s recent discovery of vast offshore reserves of gas and oil and a potential convergence of economic interest. By far the cheapest way to get the hydrocarbons to market would be through a pipeline to the Turkish coast, and with the US looking to diversify its energy supply and lessen dependence on Russia, experts felt that Washington would finally bring some pressure to bear on Turkey, a key NATO ally in the Middle East and a partner who has been hitherto indulged. Instead, Ankara sent a gunboat into the Cypriot ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ and belligerent rhetoric into the air, scuppering another pathway to peace.

UN Buffer Zone: Nicosia

The fracturing of the island’s common history has not only created these acrimonious and seemingly intractable barriers to reintegration – any political resolution and process of transitional justice must bring closure to the everyday traumas of war, particularly the question of missing persons, as well as address Turkish demilitarisation and the incredibly complex issue of property reparation – but also asymmetrical development either side of the border. If not quite the pickled cabbage versus Coca-cola of Good Bye, Lenin!, the contrast between the two sides of old Nicosia is palpable. While not without its drab quarters, buildings as grey and dusty as laptop vents, south Nicosia has all the neon-lit amenities of a modern city, its portion of the old north-south drag a pedestrianised commercial Everytown with its Starbucks, Debenhams and McDonald’s. Walk 20 metres through the Lidras Street crossing, amidst the “genuine fakes” of those brands in abundance to the south, and it feels as charmingly ramshackle and hand-to-mouth as a Middle Eastern bazaar. The sprawl beyond the walls accentuates this sense of two continents rubbing against each other, of a society irrevocably bifurcating.

Ledra Palace Hotel

Ledra Palace Hotel

When the border, closed for 29 years, was first opened in 2003 at the Ledra Palace Hotel – a once opulent six-storey sandstone structure a grenade’s throw from the old city, now pock-marked with the acne of gunfire and serving as a barracks for UN forces – it was, for those who could remember living together, like a mass sign-up to Friends Reunited. Ahmet, 70 years old and part of a steady trickle of Turkish Cypriots crossing each day to sample the West and its consumer palliatives, tells me that, despite returning to his village after 30 years to find his father’s grave at the bottom of a newly formed reservoir, his only desire is for the Turkish army to leave, “so that us Cypriots can sort our problems out”. It echoes Jonathan Miller’s take on his Jewish identity: he’s not a Turk, but Turk-ish.

Nevertheless, approaching the Ledra Palace checkpoint from the south provides a jarring reminder of the way in which the trauma of division is thrust into Nicosia’s everyday lived experience, for there you pass two large laminated posters of cousins killed brutally in the Buffer Zone in August 1996. Tassos Isaak was beaten to death by Turkish fascists after becoming entangled in barbed wire at the end of a biker rally protesting the partition, while Solomos Solomou was shot dead at the memorial three days later while attempting to shimmy up a flagpole to lower the Turkish flag. Clocking the CCTV, I ask whether I can take a photo of “the portraits”, to which the border policeman – misunderstanding, while making sure I’m not misunderstanding – replies: “They’re not portraits, they’re real”.

Ledra Palace Hotel crossing

The story of Tassos Isaak and Solomos Solomou, ‘the Deryneia Martyrs’, greets you at the Ledra Palace Hotel crossing

Many Greek Cypriots refuse to cross the border, resentful of having to show passports to an occupying force in order to move freely around the island and visit their old homes, scornful of compatriots that do pop over to gamble in the North’s casinos. (Mavros, a 37-year-old hotel receptionist, has never been over despite working a five-minute stroll from the Lidras Street crossing, blanking out the existence of the other side just as the Cypriot Tourist Board’s maps omit street names from the shaded area marked only ‘Area Under Turkish Occupation since 1974’.) Meanwhile, crossing in the opposite direction – past the twin flags of parent state and illegitimate child, past the banner proclaiming, in English, the ‘Turkish Republic of North Cyprus FOREVER’ – is a journey that many inhabitants in the North cannot make, for the ever-growing numbers of Turkish settlers aren’t issued with Cypriot ID cards and are thus barred from entry to the South.

"No to the pseudo-state": Cypriot Communist Party, AKEL, denounce the TRNC

“No to the pseudo-state”: Cypriot Communist Party, AKEL, denounce the TRNC

Rare is the public building in the North – mosque, bank, school – that doesn’t fly the Turkish and TRNC banners. With November’s anniversary of the declaration of the TRNC, the city is aflutter with flags, each a cipher of belonging, each a reminder of otherness. Members of ELAM, far-right sister party of Golden Dawn, stage a protest march, flourishing the blue-and-white Greek flag while alternating between anti-Turkish and pro-Hellenic chants – all forefathers, blood and death. In the evening, it’s AKEL, the opposition communist party, who hold a rally, raising Cypriot and party flags only. As their General Secretary addresses a crowd of around 500 in front of a backdrop proclaiming “No to the pseudo-state”, young activists follow the speech on their phones and, at pre-arranged intervals, strike up chants, including, in Turkish: “The Turkish of Cyprus are not our enemy, they are our brother”.

The largest flag of all – eight football fields in size – has been hewn into the southern face of the Pentadaktylos Range. Equally proud and provocative, serving simultaneously to unite and alienate, it is visible from any elevated position in the old city 15km to the south alongside the similarly vast inscription: Ne mutlu Türküm diyene (“How proud is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’”).

The somewhat provocative TRNC flag carved into the side of the Pentadaktylos Range

View from South Nicosia of the somewhat provocative TRNC flag carved into the side of the Pentadaktylos Range

However, beyond the ubiquitous reminders of segregation, beyond the sound and fury of political deadlock, the desire for rapprochement can still be heard – in the conversation that mingles with the muezzin’s call to prayer in cafes daubed with antifascist murals a short walk south of the Lidras Street checkpoint; in forums such as Cyprus Academic Dialogue and The Cypriot Puzzle, who are resisting the dead-end of Them / Us thinking and calling out the cheap demagogic potshots; and, most hearteningly of all, at the Home for Co-operation, base since 2011 for a clutch of NGOs working to build “empathy and critical thinking” on both sides – the original being the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, a group of formerly nomadic schoolteachers who would meet in restaurants to discuss how to teach Cyprus’s turbulent history in a sensitive manner, a small yet crucial part of the immense labour of reconciliation that this people must undergo.

Sitting opposite Ledra Palace, incongruously pristine amidst the general ruination of the Buffer Zone, H4C’s neutral location is important both symbolically and practically, allowing everyone on the island, whatever those political or emotional obstacles, to come along and interact in a more informal context: in the café, education rooms, or even fringe theatre. Amidst the general strife and trauma, it’s a heart-warming grass-roots attempt to transcend the mistrust and rancour, to erode the psychological barriers, to move on.

Home for Co-Operation: Buffer Zone meeting and educational facility

Home for Co-Operation: Buffer Zone meeting and educational facility

And yet the weight of history hangs heavy in the air here. For many, the ‘other lot’ will always be demons, “barbarians”, responsible – their scars are too deep, their animosity too visceral. If, as Churchill said, Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, surrounded by a mystery” then, thanks to its labyrinthine political and ethnonational intricacies, its disproportionate geostrategic importance, Cyprus is all that boxed in a puzzle buried in a conundrum.

If the puzzle is solved, the ancient husk of Nicosia could be a pearl of the Mediterranean, a walled city to rank with those in Valetta, Dubrovnik, with Rhodes or Ibiza Towns. Instead it sits, slightly forlornly, as a blighted, fascinating, charming, grisly spectacle of division, a touristic curio of two half-cities standing back-to-back while peering over their shoulders at the frayed bunting of nationhood atop those ruined buildings, and, beyond that, almost always, at the deepest blue sky.


Malaysia’s Student Activists

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADecember just gone I spent three weeks in hot, hot old Malaysia, where, on the sniff for a story or two, I befriended a young man by the name of Adam Adli who’d I’d found online by googling “Malaysia activism” and then tracking down on Twitter.

As it transpired, Adam lived in roughly the same part of town as I was staying – although, I was in a swanky condo at the top of Bangsar Heights (all the primo spots are on the city’s many hills), while he was in the “working-class district” in the valley, alongside the Bangsar LRT station – so we met for lunch and spoke for an hour and twenty minutes, before he had to dash off to give a talk somewhere. He did a lot of that. He was also in the second year of a law degree, having previously been kicked out of Uni for disobeying strict laws concerning political affiliation among students (the stringent University and University Colleges Act).

He had also been charged and convicted under the country’s notorious Sedition Act for inciting disaffection with the government. His initial sentence was 12 months, which he was appealing (should he lose, that could be extended to three years, a state of affairs about which he was phlegmatic, bordering on insouciant: “I think me going to prison could be the best thing for the struggle”).

He was using the time while the not-particularly-independent Malaysian judiciary sorted itself out by taking The Secret Room, a theatre production about yet another draconian Malaysian law, the Internal Security Act (recently updated), out on the road, teaching the country’s rural, conservative majority, the bumiputra who keep the ruling coalition in power. (I met Hishamuddin Rais, the fortysomething playwright, sitting on some crates in Bangsar, waiting to go to a student demo at the country’s most prestigious university. He looked like a South-East Asian Johnny Depp, an inveterate rebel with a glint in his eye.) He was also helping with a soup kitchen, taking part on pirate radio, helping defend urban villages against steamrollered gentrification, giving readings from his book, Molotov Cocktail. He was 25 years old. I was mainly worrying, getting smashed and playing cricket at his age.

Needless to say, I was hugely impressed by his courage and determination, while being increasingly appalled by the authoritarianism I saw in his country. Anyway, I wrote a short piece for Vice about Adam and the struggle.

Could Malaysia’s Bold New Wave of Student Activists Be on the Verge of An Uprising?


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A Night at the Badminton

Albert Hall auditorium for University of Nottingham vs Loughborough University in national badminton League

Albert Hall auditorium for University of Nottingham vs Loughborough University in NBL

Ever since it invented football in 1992, Sky Sports has received a fair dollop of grief for its role in the steady erosion of competition and upward mobility at the sharp end of our national game, with ever higher piles of TV lucre being funnelled to ever fewer clubs with a realistic chance of winning anything, these increasingly rich clubs forming a de facto cartel lording it over the rest – including, of course, our own, wee Nottingham Forest, winner of more European Cups than Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal combined.

On the other hand, Sky has given TV exposure and a cash injection to several niche sports – Gaelic football, darts, rugby league, netball, handball and speedway among them. And now badminton, with the formation of the National Badminton League, a six-team televised affair designed to bring the country’s fifth-largest participation sport to a wider audience – at least, to those with a Sky subscription.

So, it was with a sense of big-event anticipation that I skipped past the TV trucks outside the Albert Hall for Nottingham University’s derby clash with Loughborough University, before sweeping excitedly down through the lobby and up into the salubrious, intimate surrounds of the main auditorium – six hairpinned rows of Bondi blue leather seats flanked lengthways by a vaulted, richly carpeted concourse off which, in the Balmoral Gallery, various VIPs (according to their lanyards rather than their not-sure-I’ve-seen-you-in-Heat faces) nibbled canapés, while techy types gaffer-taped cables into place as the various pre-event activities unfolded, including the England Para-Badminton squad. The NBL’s marketing manager says there was a conscious push to move the games out of drab, boxy sports centres, and the Albert Hall certainly must look plush on the tellybox.

Anyway, with the business hour approaching, pastry flakes were brushed from lapels, TV lights were fired up, and slowly the auditorium filled – the crowd (which was definitely more hello daahling than eyup mi’duck) being allowed to sit wherever they fancied, aside from the spaces designated for the VIPs and players. A merry troop of UoN ushers milled about, yet it was all low-key, relaxed, its order spontaneously generated gently and politely from within.

This being very much a made-for-TV spectacle, however, the genteel pre-game atmosphere was not allowed to develop at its own sweet rhythm, nor to settle at its own organically hugger-muggering pitch. No, the build-up saw a raucous din positively browbeaten into existence, as the main sponsors had handed out some pom-pom air sticks, a few youngsters had brought along duck whistles that made the vuvuzela sound like a saxophone, and an MC sought to whip the crowd into a chanting lather. As I believe Oscar Wilde may once have quipped: “Hell is an obligatory Mexican wave”.

It all felt slightly forced and unnecessary – in fact, such artifice immediately makes you suspicious that the bells and whistles are there to mask the tedium of the actual show, yet that decidedly isn’t the case with top-level badminton, which is a relentlessly, breathlessly thrilling and athletic affair. The doubles in particular is a light-speed choreography of muscle explosion, split-second decision-making, sub-conscious geometry, peripheral vision and telepathic dovetailing, semi-verbal cajolings, physical contortion, and two-moves-ahead tactics – even though, in badminton, defence becomes attack, and vice versa, at bewildering speed. Which is why it’s such a compelling spectacle.

Chris Adcock leaps to play a smash

Chris Adcock leaps to play a smash

Thankfully, some of the pre-match cacaphony dissipates during the match, the crowd respectfully falling quiet for each point and allowing the plinking polyrhythms of the rallies to resonate around the hall: the rat-a-tat of service-line defenceattack suddenly giving way to some swooping drop shot, then a steel-wristed flick into the back court, followed by a clearance into the dusty upper atmosphere, the shuttle darting forward then dropping like a parachutist, from warp-speed to bullet-time. In the constant thwack, with the shuttle attaining speeds of 260 kph, feathers fly off as from game birds scared from trees and they get through shuttlecocks like a prossie gets through condoms.

Well, I say it falls quiet … It’s quiet except for Sky’s commentators – seated out in the open at the stage end of the hall, where a colossal church organ looms ominously over proceedings, dwarfing the cameraman perched on the scaffold-pulpit afore it – whose off-the-cuff critiques must be plainly audible on court: “Blair looking cumbersome in the back court there”; “that’s gotta be the worst serve since the 1948 Olympics”; “she really doesn’t want to get tight on this point now, does she?”

And it was quiet except for the drummer that Loughborough had in tow, although he didn’t have much to bang about during the first three rubbers, as the mixed doubles and both singles games went to the green-and-golds of Nottingham (this being somewhat surprising to myself, a former 1st XI cricketer at UoN and thus deeply conditioned to expect a pounding from the University of Athletic Excellence Pursued at the Possible Expense of Intellectual Development).

While doubles is rarely anything other than an explosive, high-octane affair, singles rallies contain their relative longueurs, as players jockey for court position until striking hard. It seems more taxingly physical and front-to-back, a game of stamina rather than (just) quicksilver reflex. The longer points invariably conclude with both players taking the scenic route back into position, burgling a few precious seconds to suck in the oxygen. (Perhaps this is also the reason the best rallies seem to finish with relatively sober micro-celebrations, lacking the fist-pumping ostentation of tennis, which would all be just too knackering.)

The ladies singles featured an all-Eastern European affair between two players picked up in the pre-season auction (at which Nottingham skipper and Commonwealth gold medalist Chris Adcock was the top purchase). Luffbra’s ringlet-haired Bulgarian leftie, Linda Zetchiri, annoyed by a couple of line decisions, threatened to go the full McEnroe until either she remembered she’s on TV or is somehow sedated by the soothing curves of the architecture itself. Shame. Even so, descent into near-radge cannot inspire her to victory over Belarusian Olga Konon.

After Kieran Merrilees had made short work of Loughborough’s Greg Mairs to seal an unassailable 3-0 lead, the purple-and-white-clad visitors breezed through the ladies doubles – significant, because each game, rather than overall result, is what counts in the league standings – before it was time for the final game: the men’s doubles, featuring Adcock, alongside the nerveless 18-year-old debutant Adam Hall (no relation to Albert), against the seasoned Loogabarooga tag-team of Peter Briggs and the exquisitely named Harley Towler.

Adcock speaks to Sky

Adcock speaks to Sky

It would be a thrilling climax to things – this a direct result of having the NBL go on (or go off) in front of the Sky cameras, the format having been televisually-tweaked to provide maximum, fizzing tension. The rules, basically, are that every point scores (as opposed to only scoring when serving), and if you lose a point you won’t be serving on the next one. Nine points wins you a set, three sets wins you the match. If it’s 2-2 in sets, then you play first-to-five in the breaker (or until a team has a three-point lead, if sooner). It’s all designed to create spectacle, and it succeeds.

Indeed, the men’s doubles encapsulated badminton’s exhilarating mix of finesse and power, touch and athleticism, the stretched sinews of each rally bringing carnal exhalations and James Brown-style grunts, the sound of some karate chopper going through a stack of roof tiles, as a Sampras-style slam-dunk smash is thraped from the back-court.

Then there were the rallies at close quarters, all last-nanosecond wrist contortion and torso torsion, the players squat-hopping to take the shuttle above the shoulders (with extraordinary, robot-like racket-head control), denying the opponent crucial time to recover balance. It’s a maelstrom of swerving and swaying bodies, like some high-speed capoeira routine or Persian sword dance, limbs flashed out to the point of dislocation to push back a malevolent flick towards the throat – the idea being, in this compressed and claustrophobic space, to hit the shuttle within their reach, too close for them to react (and there is just no space in the doubles: the intimidating stance of service receivers, waggling their racquets menacingly over the net, appear like trees over a forest picnic).

With the frenzied speed of the game and Habsburg opulence of the venue; with the coaches, back and forth with their clipboards, switching ends each game; with people wandering around the gallery, attention dropping in and out of proceedings; with other spectators with no assigned seat number moving about as though in some vast game of musical chairs – all this creates the sense of swirling fantasia, a three-hour carousel ride that resembles the opening skirmishes of a mescaline trip (a different type of Mexican wave).

On court, it is, all in all, a riotously joyous and good-natured affair. There seems remarkably little scope for gamesmanship or shittiness between the competitors, which helps. Indeed, the players’ faces, even after rally-ending errors, are invariably plastered with wry grins – the absence of that tightly-wound, scrunch-faced self-castigation emanating, no doubt, from the sheer exuberance of badminton’s predominantly instinctual play, play that often runs ahead of conscious calculation.

Anyway, having won a nailbiting fourth set 9-8 to keep the rubber alive, Nottingham duly clinch a thriller, 5-4 in the ‘breaker, and while it’s true that winners are grinners, everyone’s happy to have been involved. Grinners are also winners.

This was first published on LeftLion

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Lebowski: The Film That Made Me (VICE)

"Yeah, well, y'know, that's just, like, your opinion, man"

“Yeah, well, y’know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”

The fourth piece I wrote for VICE was another subject close to my heart: The Big Lebowski. Writing for the The Film That Made Me column, I recounted how the Coens’ stonercom masterpiece had intertwined with me life, particularly on a rookie voyage into the world of sales, in Turkey, with a best mate – also a Lewboskophile – going through something of a breakdown, and with whom several stomach-kinfingly funny moments arose as we found a Lebowski quote to fit the absurdity of our situation: two fucks, completely out of our element, purporting to be competent at a job about which we knew nussink.

I have to say, though: I preferred my Intro to the version they published. Whenever people are asked to name the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century – while making small-talk at a dinner party, say, or on Family Fortunes – the usual suspects will invariably be trotted out: Nazism, the Stalinist pogroms, the Khmer Rouge, sundry African dictators and Latin American juntas. All fine, of course, but not the top answer (Stalin would win you a weekend for two in a health spa, mind). No, the single greatest atrocity of the twentieth century was without question The Virgin Film Guide’s decision to award the Coen Brothers’ comic masterpiece The Big Lebowski a one-and-a-half-star rating (out of five).

Whenever people are asked to name the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century – while making small-talk at a dinner party, say, or on Family Fortunes – the usual suspects will invariably be trotted out: Nazism, the Stalinist pogroms, the Khmer Rouge, sundry African dictators and Latin American juntas. All fine, of course, but not the top answer (Stalin would win you a weekend for two in a health spa, mind). No, the single greatest atrocity of the twentieth century was without question The Virgin Film Guide’s decision to award the Coen Brothers’ comic masterpiece The Big Lebowski a one-and-a-half-star rating (out of five).

Only four movies – four! – of the hundreds and thousands in this rainforest-devouring tome were given a lower score: Pokémon: the First Movie, Babe: Pig in the City, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw. Films considered Lebowski’s equal take in such cinematic high points as Smokey and the Bandit, Showgirls, and The Blob. “What a reversal of fortune”, begins the wisely anonymous critic: “two years after Fargo, the film that will probably stand as Joel and Ethan Coen’s finest moment, they followed up with what is, without question, their worst.”

Yeah, well, y’know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.

And I also preferred the American ‘translation’ (which did well on the old Facebook thanks to Lebowski fansite dudeism.com linking through) to the English edit. Oh well, fuck it.


Professor Lars Wiesæth: The Man Who Crisis-Managed the Utøya Massacre

Lars Wiesæth [photo: Heike Bartel]

Professor Lars Wiesæth [photo: Heike Bartel]

In May 2012 I gave a paper at a colloquium marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands-Malvinas War. Held at the University Nottingham and invite only (lest any scurrilous local media wanted to create a storm in a teacup), it was attended by, among others: veterans of both sides; the Argentine ambassador, Dr Alicia Castro; a lawyer from the UN, and expert in sovereignty disputes; a couple of Islanders (or “kelpers”); and a smattering of academics of different stripes, including yours truly who, invited late and struggling for a relevant subject (the period of Argentine history covered by my PhD was 1943 to 1976), spoke about ‘Microfascism and Shane Meadows’ This is England‘. However, the most interesting paper, in my eyes, was presented by Professor Lars Wiesæth, a Norwegian expert in psychotraumatology who had been helping some British servicemen deal with their PTSD. So, when I heard he was visiting Nottingham in July last year, I took the opportunity to catch up with him for a chat, an abridged version of which was published by VICE. The following is a longer, though still abridged, version of our chat.

* * *

At 3.25pm on July 22, 2011, Anders Breivik, right-wing extremist and author of a 1500-page tract against multiculturalism, “cultural Marxism” and Islam, detonated a bomb in downtown Oslo outside the building containing the prime minister’s office, killing eight people. He then drove 25 miles to Utøya island, where the ruling Labour Party’s Youth Rally was being held, and began an hour-long shooting spree that ended up killing 69 more, most of them teenagers. It was Norway’s worst peace-time atrocity. Professor Lars Weisæth, for 20 years the incumbent in the world’s first academic chair in psychotraumatology and a pioneer in post-traumatic stress disorder, was asked to ‘crisis manage’ the fall-out.

Before we get to the events of 22 July 2011, could you tell me a little about how you came to be an expert in PTSD?
I am in the third generation of researchers in Norway in traumatic stress. Norway was actually the first country where researchers started to look at the consequences of the most severe trauma of World War II – the death camps. The Germans realized that to execute resistance fighters doesn’t work, because it makes people angry, instead of fearful. They understood that what might scare people is uncertainty, so they introduced this ‘Nacht und Nebel’ terror [literally, ‘Night and Fog’] and people disappeared, and were sent to the death camps where they should die slowly. When I was a student, from 1962, these studies were ongoing, and many of my teachers had been in concentration camps.

Part of my training was at the University of Oslo Psychiatric Clinic, where these studies were conducted, and that’s how I got into it. The first academic chair in psychotraumatology was created in Norway in 1978, a joint set-up between the medical faculty at the University and the medical corps in the military. My supervisor, Arne Sund, who got that chair, had his experiences from WWII and the Korean War, where they rediscovered “forward psychiatry”, which was developed in WWI to deal with shellshock… In forward psychiatry, the main idea with regard to combat-stress reactions was BICEPS: brevity, immediacy, contact, expectancy, proximity, simplicity. He reintroduced this in Norway in 1974, and then I started my research on trauma.

The new thing I introduced turned out to be very important, you might say, because it was a prospective method. Instead of looking back, I tried to follow people from the moment they had been exposed to the trauma. As soon as possible after a car crash, a rape, or whatever, you should be very precise in helping the person to grasp whatever has happened, so that it’s less liable to be influenced by secondary experiences. If you really are in trouble and ask yourself ‘why am I suffering so much?’ then you tend to attribute the cause of your problems to a concrete, discrete external event. ‘Since I’m really suffering so much, it must have been really bad’. It grows in your mind, in a way.

When did the wider medical community accept PTSD as an illness, and what, exactly, is it?
The PTSD diagnosis was introduced in 1980, and I had worked with it since 1975. I described the syndrome before it became a formal diagnosis. We had two diagnoses in the 50s and 60s from Norway that sort of anticipated later development of PTSD: ‘Concentration Camp Syndrome’ and ‘War Sailor Syndrome’. These two are aetiological diagnoses – the name of the illness points to the cause. And that is a tremendous relief. Instead of being an alcoholic, or a neurotic, or depressed, you say: “I suffer from the war sailor syndrome”. Much higher status. It guarantees that the cause will be treated – the event, and your experience of it.

The PTSD consists of three components. The first is re-experiencing the event, flashbacks, when it comes back to you in nightmares, recollections, intrusive memories, and so on. The second is the need to avoid reminders – there’s a natural tendency to avoid talking too much, thinking too much. The third component is the activation level.

This first component – in my opinion, why the brain has this super-memory of existential threat is that it’s adaptive to remember dangers. It helps survival. You digest it gradually by re-experiencing it. The avoidance response is also adaptive in that it helps you not to be exposed again, too early. And the third, the activation level, is an alarm reaction that guarantees that you will react swiftly if the event occurs. It’s a state of vigilance and alertness. However, if these reactions are strong, and they don’t recede, it may develop into what we call a post-traumatic stress disorder.

At what stage, then, were you called in to crisis-manage the terror event of July 22, 2011?
The same evening. I was on vacation in my summer house on the south coast of Norway, about 150 miles from Oslo. I was first called in by NRK, the national television station. They know me. I have been involved in all major disasters as a counsel, to give advice –I’ve been trained in hostage psychology, and I give advice to the police on negotiation with terrorists or kidnappers, and I was chief psychiatrist of the armed forces – that was combined with the chair – from 1984 to 2004.

Were you involved as the events were unfolding, advising about what information was made public?
No, I was driving back to Oslo. When I arrived in Oslo the situation was not clear. 10 had been regarded as killed but the big numbers weren’t out yet. Then I managed to talk to some of the victims during the night and on the next morning, so that I got a clear picture of what had happened. To give advice to the health authorities the next day – which I had to do; that became my role – I needed a clear idea, at the individual level, of what had happened. The details.

I advised on the establishment of an Information Support Centre, which was made in both places. That was a result of some planning we had made earlier. You need to invite family members to come to the site. You need to feed them, to house them, but most of all you need to inform them – ongoing information on what has happened, what is happening. You have to anchor families to the Information Support Centre, otherwise they will try to find out for themselves, by doing desperate things. This ISC was grasped by the World Health Organization in 1991 and included in the guidelines for how countries should respond to disasters.

When an event occurs, I diagnose it. There are three major types of large events: a company or organisational disaster, a local community disaster, when one community only is affected by an event, or a distant type of disaster – distant from the family – which this was.

If it’s a local event, you move your resources there. But it was clear immediately that the Utoya massacre was not. The 565 youngsters on the island came from all over Norway, and during the night we learned that 69 had been killed: 12%. You have families all over Norway, and they do not know what the fate of their child is. More than one thousand people met at this hotel, during the night and the next day.

So, whenever an event occurs, there are two questions I ask: Where is the family? And: Are these individuals who belong to a social system or did they just happen to be there? For example, if this had been an explosion at Oslo Central Station, it would have been all kinds of people. But I realized that both groups of people who had been attacked by Breivik belonged to very strong social systems: namely, the youth political organisation, or they are civil servants, and those are very strong identities. Based on the research that we have done, we have realized that if we manage to maintain the social system, and to utilize it, that would improve the therapeutic atmosphere.

Were there any tough decisions you had to make on the day of the massacre?
The main problem was that there were no exact numbers. In the government quarter, it was established that only eight people had been killed. But we didn’t know who had been there. There are 4000 people who work in this district – 70% of the Norwegian state apparatus concentrated within a radius of 300 metres, and 1700 offices were destroyed. But the main problem was on the island. It was dark. Nobody knew how many had been there. We learned finally that it was 565. So, the uncertainty about the number who’d been killed was the main problem. The police has a tradition – probably like the UK – that they only issue information that is certified. So, during that night, they only reported 10 people having been killed. But we had reason to believe it was many, many more. In my opinion that should have been said. Now they had created false hope. Of course, in the early morning hours, they could count the number of dead, you know. And that was really a shock. But that was the main problem.

Another problem was that – and today it sounds crazy – but many were hospitalised with serious injuries, and not all of them could be identified, actually. So when the police called the hospital to find out who had been hospitalised – because they were trying to establish control – the hospital refused to give out names. That’s an everyday thing, of course, but in a situation like this… It’s a typical symptom of stress: people cling to rules. They become more bureaucratic.

downtown Oslo shortly after the bomb explosion

How widespread was PTS?
In the governmental quarter, about 25% suffered from PTS after 7 months. On Utoya, it was 70%, although that is now down to about 25%, after three years.

Can a whole society get PTSD?
We have done a national study of how the Norwegian population reacted. Grief was the main response. Half of the Norwegian population actually cried, on the first weekend, when it became clear what losses had occurred. Then about 40% were angry. Fear, which Breivik wanted to create, was far less frequent – a bit more frequently among young people in the Oslo district.

Is it possible for the families to suffer PTSD?
Usually, the families suffer losses, so you will have grief responses, and, of course, anxiety about the fate of their next of kin. But in this case there was a particular additional and very severe stress: namely, that a large number of the parents had had telephone contact with their sons and daughters before they were killed. Actually, while they were being killed. So, in this particular terror incident, the families took part in the ordeal, more than usually is the case. And that increases the risk of PTS – in addition to the grief. Talking was of course itself a risk, because Breivik could hear them. And the mobile phones among the dead were going off all the time, too – families trying to reach their young ones.

I read that one young boy, Anzour Djoukaef, a Chechen refugee, who’d been hiding for his life on the island, was actually arrested and prevented from phoning his parents. That must have made you angry?
Yes. Many of the youngsters believed that war had broken out. And there were many rumours that there was more than one killer. And the people who helped rescue some kids on their boats – actually, one is a patient of mine – he was also suspected of being an accomplice of Breivik. He rescued 20 people from this island. Evacuated them. He had a cabin on the next island. He made three trips on his boat, the first when the shooting was going on. So, extremely dangerous. He was watched by the police as well, afterwards. He became a bit grandiose. But he also had every reason to feel that he was important.

The fact that Breivik turned up in a police uniform must have had a huge impact on their PTS?
It did. A group of these youngsters that I have talked to were hiding in a small cave. Breivik shot one of them, the furthest out, and then continued on his path. But when a boat came, with policemen calling out “We’re here to save you”, they didn’t believe it. They thought it was an exercise. Some of the first killings were because people approached him. It obscured conditions for ‘early event identification’. He also called out: “I’m here to protect you, because there’s been a bomb in Oslo”. And when they went up to him, he shot them. It was really evil.

Was he insane, in your opinion?
We still discuss whether he was psychotic. In Norway, if you’re insane, you cannot be sentenced. In most other countries, it’s not enough to be psychotic [to escape trial]. It must also be the cause of your murdering. There must be a link between the psychosis and the crime. Norway is a very liberal country, and we feel that many, even schizophrenics, know what they’re doing. I think Breivik was psychotic along three dimensions: his grandiosity, his feelings of being persecuted, and the lack of affect. That is not what terrorists are usually like. To me, this is a very sick person: he smiles and kills, you know.

But is it possible to plan something so meticulously over such a long period of time and still be deemed insane?
Very good question, and that’s the other side. Along these three dimensions, he qualified for what you would call a partial psychosis, a paranoia. And these people can be extremely rational, extremely logical, very good at arguing and long-term planning. They know the difference between right and wrong, and they know when they commit an act that it is wrong. And that’s the reason I think that, in the end, the court concluded that he was sane. Probably, if we had had a different law, we could both have said that he’s partially psychotic, but he knew what he was doing and is sane enough to be sentenced.

It came out that he gave his mother a dildo for her birthday when he was a teenager. I never heard that from any other family. It is really getting involved in one’s mother’s sexual life. To me that is a breach of a boundary between generations and sexes, an early sign that something is very wrong. You know, the whole family was observed in a child psychiatric department when he was four or five years old. It was clear that something was disturbed. The childcare agency was worried that he was suffering from negligence, that he was a deprived little boy. But the mother was allowed to keep him.

I think it’s important to get as much knowledge as possible about the background of a person who becomes so extreme – whether it’s ideological or whether it’s psychological. If it’s a very disturbed background, the reasons become less political, huh? Particularly if one can recognise that he was partially psychotic.

If you go into many extreme religious or political milieus, you’ll find a lot of people there who are psychologically disturbed, at least according to my notions. Breivik felt he had a mission on behalf of Norwegian society to defend the country. That was his defence in court. It’s almost like a religious crusade. The danger with this kind of cultural, ideological or religious sanction is that our actions are seen as loyal and justified. Most of the evil in the world today is conducted by people who feel they are doing a good thing.

Is there a qualitative difference between PTS arising from this type of event, an atrocity ‘out of the blue’, and that from other situations of extreme danger?
I have compared the different causes of danger, the source of why your life is at stake, and there is a scale: natural disasters, human error – let’s say in a traffic accident – human negligence, and finally violence: terror, war, criminal violence. With a natural disaster, nature is dangerous but not evil, so your self-esteem, your sense of value, is not harmed. There’s no-one to blame. Force majeure: an act of God. If you’re exposed to a natural disaster, that’s a pure danger. You’re not humiliated, so that’s less psychologically harmful. But there are two factors that are now changing this in the global perspective, First, people are discovering in the poor part of the world that natural disasters do not need to kill people. Earthquakes don’t kill people. Poor houses do, and that’s man-made. The second thing is the climate crisis. A flood, a storm, is it really natural? Or is it negligence?

I try to tell these youngsters that you’re an innocent victim. A murderer has tried to kill you, and your friends. But, because he attacked these two social systems, it was also an attack on Norway – particularly on the Labour Party and on the government. So you’re not just an innocent victim. You’ve also become a participant in an important struggle: an attack on our democracy. This has two effects. First, it provides a meaning, and that is crucial, because if I’m being maimed for life, it was not accidental, although I paid a heavy price.

What did you do in the aftermath?
My main work over the next weeks was to organise psychiatric support in the government quarter. We followed the company model: the employer takes responsibility, in this case the government. The employees are offered health screening by their employers’ services. The advantage is that they know these people well. They know the type of work that the 17 government ministries are doing. They have links to the leaders at all levels. The main challenge was to find suitable jobs that the people could manage, so they could still be productive and feel they were a part of the workforce. A primary family physician would not be in such a position to know the details, the possibilities to modify the work so that it fits with the person’s capacity.

PTS causes cognitive disturbances. It reduces your ability to concentrate. It affects your memory. So, intellectual functions are adversely affected.

What about with the Utoya survivors?
They went home, you know, and since they lived all over Norway, each youngster was assigned one person in their municipality’s crisis team – which usually consists of a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a teacher, a chaplain, a couple of nurses and social workers.

But, again, one of my main jobs was to arrange the return to the island. I had recommended that everyone who had lost someone on the island to visit there, and everyone who had survived to return. It was beneficial. We found that if the bereaved family is invited to the site of death, the large majority report that they get a fuller understanding of what had happened. For most it will make it less difficult to grasp and accept what happened – where Breivik had stood when he fired the shots, how rapid death came, etc.

The second thing we have found is that the site of death gives a sense of closeness to the dead person, almost like the grave. The third effect is that many families feel they have a duty to do this. It reduces the guilt. It’s like a service they owe the dead person. To find out what happened to you, and where did you die.

Then you have the symbolic, ritual effect on those kids, many of whom were quite scared before they did this. It is anti-phobic. Reality is less frightening than all the fantasies you can have. So that was a huge arrangement, with about one thousand people.

Was there any ‘survivor guilt’?
That has been a pronounced psychological reaction in many. Because we’ve found that in other disasters people struggle with difficult decisions – I call them impossible decisions – about their own survival, how much they can do to help others. That’s a very painful part of the post-traumatic stress syndrome in situations like this.

And, finally, how do people get over this?
The main ways of healing are the traditional ones. Psychotherapeutic. Working through the experience, taking part in the grief over your lost friends – it’s a gradual, long-term process. These are healthy people, so it’s likely that not that many will have chronic problems. But it’s like war – you can never guarantee that all soldiers will avoid permanent psychological injury. It’s too violent for that. You must have the memory, but you shouldn’t have the re-experiences, though. You need to turn the flashbacks into a bad memory from earlier in your life – not something that keeps coming back to you with the quality of “oh, it’s happening again”.

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DiY Soundsystem

005 DiY collectiveNottingham’s pioneering deep house soundsystem got started on November 23, 1989 with little idea of what they were doing beyond “throwing some of the best parties in human history” and remaining committed to an old anarchist dream of a free culture, both in the fiscal and psychological sense. Having been to a few of their parties and club nights down the years, as well as bought a few CDs on their record label, it was a pleasure to write a couple of pieces celebrating their 25th anniversary (celebrated in fine style out in a field near the Staffs-Leicestershire border).

The first, for VICE, was given the somewhat misleading title, ‘The Raving Crew Who Were Named “The Most Dangerous People in the UK”‘, when in fact that was a throwaway line, prefaced with the word culturally, referencing their radical rejection of the profit-motive. Still, it was a pleasure to get a second piece on to the VICE website, one that garnered some wonderful comments below the line and on Twitter, not to mention over 15,000 Facebook likes and shares (before the site was re-designed and you could no longer tell!). It was a show of respect for a cultural adventure-cum-experiment that gave a lot of pleasure to many. You reap what you sow.

The second piece, slightly longer and with a hint more politically informed cultural theory (don’t let that put you off), was for my beloved LeftLion. It was also well received – comfortably the most read piece during the month of its publication and one of the 10 articles of the year – and was able to bring to some younger Nottingham folks’ attention a collective that paved the way for a plethora of like-minded crews who followed in their free-party footsteps.

Finally, a (sweet and) sour note. DiY’s 25th anniversary rave was marred by a theft – records, generator, donations. The culprit was almost certainly the landowner and/or henchmen, who suddenly got cold feet in the wee hours when the realization of what he’d signed up for registered. Nevertheless, the extended collective rallied round – I posted a short piece, Doing it for DiY, on the LeftLion site – and offered simple cash donations or put cherished possessions for auction. A phenomenal £6000 was raised. You indeed reap what you sow, matey.

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FC Inter Avinit


The following is a 2400-word version of the first feature that I had published by VICE (it was 1800 words). A longer version still (around 5,500, if you dare) can be found here, at LeftLion.


Summer 1998, and The Big Lebowski is busy giving a generation of slackers a crash-course in how to survive the “strikes and gutters” of team sport – and of life, insofar as team sport is metaphor and preparation for the rigours of living. So his toe was over a little, who gives a shit? It’s just a game, man. In France, meanwhile, Zinédine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Youri Djorkaeff et al are giving Le Pen a mighty pork sword, showing that the beautiful game can bring people together like nothing else – nothing, perhaps, except a massive rig, loud music and optional adult confectionery.

Somewhere in Nottingham that same summer, Samovar sound-system – formed in the early 1990s and usually found playing pounding, nosebleed techno at squat parties, site parties or in dark, insalubrious clubs – decided they’d combine the two by entering a team in the South Notts Sunday Football League. It was never going to be staid. Think Irvine Welsh scribbling a story about parks fitba and you’re halfway there.

The team was duly called FC Inter Avinit – a none too subtle pun on Inter Milan and the ethos encapsulated by Liberator DJs mix CD, It’s not Intelligent…It’s not from Detroit…But it’s F****n ‘avinit! – and it was certainly a name fit for a techno sound-system Sunday football team. A name fit for an unfit techno sound-system football team, in fact. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent knocking about with techno sound-systems, but 10am on a Sunday morning isn’t really the time to catch them in their tip-topmost physical condition. Not as a rule. Mind you, on the plus side, there’s a good chance they’ll all be wide awake. Usually, that’s still awake from the night before, but the point stands. Occasionally, they’d still be awake from the night before that – although you’d have to be fucking mental to fancy a game of fitba after two nights on the jazz sherbert. And being mental helps in Sunday football. Obviously.

I got involved about a third of the way into the season. No ringer, I was just someone who happened to be available one Sunday when someone where I happened to be, happened to be called: “Yeah, fuck it. I’ll play. Why not.” And that was it: I just drifted into playing the rest of the club’s existence (or “the season”, as it’s often called). Mine was not an unusual tale, either. Inter Avinit had registered fourteen players, yet managed to get through over fifty during the season, not infrequently scaring up teams from sketchy after-parties and then assigning one of the original fourteen names in case of a yellow card: Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb. See, a booking was a £5 fine, as opposed to the £25 of cash-ouch and docked points (ha!) that fielding an ineligible player incurred.

Every month, Samovar and Inter Avinit co-founders, Nick and Allan (aka Nibble and Cheese), our wide forwards, would jink and swerve through meetings usually ending with the refrain, “Could Inter Avinit stay back, please”, but the league never cottoned on (and anyway, we weren’t seeking an advantage; it was simple sketchiness). However, the League was concerned to keep the, um, self-evident decorum of Sunday parks football in tact, so the old sausage who ran it once asked them, ever so politely: “I don’t have a huge problem with the spectators drinking cans of lager, but if the players are going to do it, could they be a bit more subtle?” Sunday morning football is clearly for running booze off, not tipping more back in the system, so half-time Stellas shared with our hardy band of crusty ultras was not exactly run-of-the-mill. “And can you try and keep the dogs off the pitch?” “Yeah, sorry Trev. Will do”.

'tech-no ball games' AOur strip was black and orange stripes – yes, football hipster, you can call us the gialloneri if you must – and quite itchy. It kept you warm in the warmth and cold in the cold, all static electricity and jogger’s nipple, exactly as nature intended it. It was certainly a strip into whose unforgiving man-made fibers were hewn the acrid stench of defeat. Literally, for this was not a team that raced through boxes of Daz. There was a game played on a boggy pitch somewhere (Sorry, Detective, that’s all I can recall), uphill and into a howling wind, and I’m pretty sure that not only did we not manage to get out of our half for the entire first 45 minutes, we didn’t get out of our half of our half. There’s a well-known saying in top-flight football: you’re always going to struggle when your goalkicks aren’t getting out of the penalty box. And so it proved. Never mind, though, because someone broke out the whizz at half-time to cheer us up! Splendid. Isaidthat’sfuckingsplendidnowcomeonwecanturnthisaround!!!

We didn’t turn it around, although we may have stopped their centre-backs from sitting on the halfway line. Moral victory. As for the result, it was up in the teens, perhaps 17-0. See, much as the Dude tells Maude Lebowski, post-coitus, when asked what he did at college, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember a lot of it: venues, opponents, scorelines, random teammates – much has fallen into the same fuzzy oblivion as the nights that preceded them.

There were three or four games that hit double figures, though. Against, obviously. We were the San Marino, the Andorra, the poor old Liechtenstein of Notts Sunday footeh. Not that these minnows would drink cans of Wife-Beater or dab jazz sherbert during the interval – at least, not as far as I’m aware. And I presume they don’t go into games having had 18 hours sleep – collectively, I mean (albeit shared between three players) – which was the prep for one of our tealeaf-confirming drubbings. Perhaps that un-somnia might explain our lack of tactical cohesion. Dress it up as an expression of anarchism if you like, but essentially we played the Brownian motion formation, occasionally reverting, as the lung capacity faded, to a 10-0-0 that wasn’t as watertight as it might have been. If we’d wanted to park the bus, you’d have thought we’d not have been short of options, given that many of our fanbase lived on them. Our only concession to tactical sophistication was that we liked to play between the lines: have a line, play, have another line…

'tech-no ball games' BThe batterings – on and off the pitch – continued through the winter. There may have been no points, but there was the odd improbable goal – have you ever seen a shinned lob from inside the 6-yard box? – to tie the conversation together. In one game, we even went 2-0 up inside the opening ten minutes, only then for the scorer of the brace to come up on the industrial-sized line of ketamine he’d surreptitiously hoofed just prior to kick-off, necessitating him having to be subbed off as he was just stumbling around in the opposition’s half, hallucinating and offside (an interesting interpretation of ‘playing in the hole’, for sure, although Zidane he was not). Not that he’d have been given offside, mind – mainly because his fellow K-snorter was actually running the line for us. At least, he was until he collapsed on a nearby pile of coats around the same time.

The defeats weren’t dispiriting – this was football for shits and giggles, after all, and we knew that sometimes you eat the bar and, well, sometimes the bar he eats you – but the hedonistic impulse did need feeding, so Samovar diversified the brand threw a couple of Inter Avinit club nights during this period, the second of which provided a sublime moment of team-bonding (management gurus, take note).

In a nutshell, our enthusiastic yet ultimately twin-left-pegged right-winger, Aussie Marc, had befriended a low-grade conman while working in a bar in town. ‘Phil’ said he was due to inherit £1m and wanted to open a superclub (this was the year both Fabric and the short-lived Home in Leicester Square opened). He roped Marc in to project manage, and Marc roped in three others from the team, some blagging, some kosher. After a fortnight either side of Christmas studiously avoiding giving this gift horse a dental inspection – during which roly-poly Frank Sidebottom look-a-like Phil lost his narco-virginity at a South London squat party and Marc realized the £8k cheque for his first month’s salary was nine-bob – the truth dawned and our amigo ‘Phil’ would undergo a savage public humiliation 45 minutes into a ‘progress meeting’ convened and expertly orchestrated by Marc.

Now, if ever a situation calls for being blunt as fuck, then Aussie is generally the way you want to go. After everyone gave their update, and after Phil had been allowed to gush imperiously on about suit fittings, mobile phones, company cars, site inspections, exorbitant salaries, global brands and the like, Marc came straight in with a two-footed reducer: “Yeah, that’s all fucken great mate, but we know it’s absolute bullshit”. Unlike his service in open play Forrest-Gumping up the wings, this set-piece delivery was bang on the money. “That cheque you wrote out: Eight fucken grand? Bounced into my account and back out again like a fucken kangaroo”. Lordy.

inter avinit flyer (front)Thanks to a strategically sellotaped dictaphone, the sample worked its way into Nibble and Allan’s live set – as No Ball Games, named after their sole stage prop, a sign half-inched from a local park (Zoo TV, it wasn’t) – at Nottingham’s notoriously decadent Marcus Garvey Centre, essentially a gangster-run village hall on the second floor of a council building in one of the city’s roughest ‘hoods. (That said, provided you avoided starting a drugs turf war, you could get bongoed to your heart’s content. And we did.) Up they bounded in their orange-and-black Inter Avinit strips and, in the time-honoured, no-frills approach of live, bangin’ techno, simply announced: “This one’s called ‘Bullshit’…” and were straight off into it. Up we all jumped, ‘Bullshit’ yomping and squelching along until its breakdown and the vocal sample whence it took its name: Like a fucken kangaroo… Like a fucken kangaroo… Like-a, Like-a… Like a fucken, A fucken kanga-, A fucken k-kangaaaa… Like a fuuuuckeeeennnn… Drop the kicks, the mid-range, the tchk-tchk-tchk of the hats, bar of silence, then, in faithfully un-timestretched fair-dinkum Strayan: That’s all fucken great mate, but we know it’s absolute bullshit. Yeeeeee-haaaaaaa!! 

Anyhoo, by the time the blackbirds were singing in the springtime, we’d failed to register a single point. Chipper still, but pointless. It’s the taking part, innit? Yes, the taking part. However, we hadn’t been taking part as often as the league fixtures indicated we ought to have been taking part, and so by April, due to the unusual amount of eleventh-hour cancellations – one fixture was abandoned after four players were arrested while driving back from a warehouse party, spending the night in Elephant and Castle cells and using their first permitted phone call to cancel the game – and despite bureaucratically fabricating the odd honourable 2-0 defeat at those League meetings, we still had a number of matches remaining (Who’s in charge of scheduling? I told those fucks down at the League office…). The fixture backlogue meant we would be playing Wednesday evenings and Sunday to catch up. And as you can probably imagine, the difference between weekend and midweek, performance-wise, given the lack of performance-detractors in the bloodstream, was as Big Sam is to Barcelona.

inter avinit flyer (back)For this late-season upsurge in form, Inter Avinit’s 70,000-stander stadium, the Forest Fields Recreation Ground, or Rec’ (for ‘wreckhead’), original home of Nottingham Forest, looked a picture. Our small but hardy smattering of streaker dogs and Stella-quaffing crusties, anarcho-hippies, travellers, New-Agers and others trying to sidestep capitalist drudgery had started to swell. Even folk indifferent to football were coming down for the crack craic, bringing their various bonce-modifiers with them. Someone even snorted synthetic mescaline at one game – it’s like fucking glaaaarse – which is kind of understandable, really, given that there were no steak and kidney pies or other refreshments on sale.

Anyway, the assortment of bemused officer workers and serial pub-haunters who turned up at the Rec’ to play us in our penultimate home game – the night Roy Keane reached into his heart of darkness to inspire United to a 2-3 win over Juventus despite picking up a yellow card that would keep him out of United’s Treble-sealing Champions League final (he should have given the ref a false name) – were unable to stop us picking up our first point of the season. A 0-0 draw! As it was a school night, we celebrated as would the Dude, with a “couple of oat sodas”. The oppo probably self-commiserated in the same way. Strikes and gutters.

Surfing the wave of confidence created by our one-match unbeaten run, we went into the last match of the season, against West Bridgford Albion, with an indomitably sprightly spring in our step (no, that’s not a euphemism). Hasta la victoria, siempre! And guess what happened? We won. We fucking won! Even if I were able, there’s probably little point giving you a detailed chalkboard analysis of the game, but the following has been glued together from the frazzled memories of its participants with all the artisan skill of an 11-Rizla spliff.

We opened the scoring around the hour mark – that is, about half an hour after we’d started to flag – Alex K lashing home with his swinger. We more than held our own thereafter. However, the 85th minute saw Oi-Ref! award WBA a penalty, Rolf deciding he’d go and handball their corner – a ‘Hand of Oh My Fucking God’ moment. In a techno-homage to Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘Jelly Legs’ from the 1984 European Cup final, our keeper, Wal, then pulled a series of gurns at the penalty taker, who promptly shanked his spotkick. I’m not sure what OPTA’s position is, but Wal was certainly claiming it as a save – long into the night, in fact – and just a couple of minutes later, opponents still pressing hard for the equalizer, Allan was put through one-on-one with their keeper, lifting the ball calmly over him and, with one bounce, two, three, into the empty net. Like a fucken kangaroo. Cue mayhem.

Allan wheeled away in an aeroplane celebration, his ten teammates, about forty crusties, and one or two dogs chased him across the Rec’ and eventually to the bottom of a joyous, writhing and slightly stinky pile-on. What a way to finish the season, the sole season in the life of FC Inter Avinit. As with the original football teams of this fair land, clubs forged in the shadows of industrial Britain’s terraced streets, we had helped bring a sense of pride to our community – slapped a big happy smiley-face on it, you might say. Top one, nice one, sorted.




Amis is as good as a mile

amisIt was an interesting experience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, where the highlight of my talk — I was chucked a bit of a hospital pass by the organisers: “Cricket, the perfect sport for a spot of philosophy” — was being interrupted by a bumptious Yorkshireman (is there any other sort?), who, shortly after I’d told the not especially philosophical tale of getting my foreskin trapped in my box by Dean Headley when I was 16 years old, barked: “What’s your best cricket story? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine…”

On the upside, I went to (my writing hero) Martin Amis’s Q&A in the main tent: The Times Forum. He was talking about his new Auschwitz novel, The Zone of Interest, telling several hundred guests that “the black hole in Hitler Studies was his sexuality” and speculating that he was “probably a pervert rather than asexual. Maybe a coprophile”. I was due to ask the next question from the floor when the session was ended — good job, probably, as my heart felt like I was just coming up on a steroid overdose.

An hour later, having told my colleagues from the Waitrose / Nightwatchman stand what my question would have been, while guzzling the complementary wine a bit too unselfconsciously, Amis walked into the writers’ hospitality lounge (out of my line of sight) and was momentarily stood alone. “Go and ask Martin Amis your question, Scott” said the editor, Matt. After a moment’s thought (about the same length of time I used to take at school when persuaded, or goaded, into doing the sort of idiotic though entertaining stunts that regularly got me put on daily report), I shot back, “alright then”.

“Hi Martin. So, I was going to ask you the next question when your session was wound up earlier.”

“Fire away”.

“Yeah, I was fascinated by what you were saying about the War being lost from 1941 and Hitler essentially spending the rest of it punishing the German people for their shortcomings. I once heard a definition of fascism as ‘a manic attack by the body politic against itself, in the name of its own salvation’. Does that chime with your knowledge of Nazi Germany? And, if so, was the average German complicit in that self-destructive delirium?”

He took a couple of steps away from me and put down his glass of wine. My ‘crew’ thought he was abandoning the conversation — and you couldn’t really have blamed him — but he then pivoted back and, after a beat, said: “Well, that definition might take some time for me to absorb, but there was definitely a lustful frisson [immaculately pronounced] in their administration of petty cruelties. They knew what they were up to, alright”. Then someone much more important and much less earnest than me caught his attention, and he was off air-kissing some Camilla or Priscilla in a Chanel suit.

I returned to the table, and received a small and un-ironic round of applause. “Did you take a photo of that, Matt?” “I didn’t, mate. I was too much in awe”. “No worries”, I said, secretly crestfallen. “But I’ve got to say, your body language was strong: hands in pockets, relaxed shoulders…”

Then Dame Judy Dench walked in. Heads turned. I had nothing for her, so went and got some more wine.

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