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Aftermath

July 3, 2014
Magteld sepia

It’s just over a month now since Magteld went away. Thirty-eight days that have gone by in such a haze that I often suspect time has gone haywire. The house that the boys and I moved in to nine weeks ago is already packed with history: the two weeks we spent going back and forth to the hospice, the two weeks we lived here as a family and celebrated Euan’s birthday, and the last five weeks, when we’ve had to cope with the shock and aftermath of Magteld’s abrupt departure.

I say ‘went away’ in the absence of any more suitable words. She died, obviously, but that fails to cover the impact of her loss. The day she died, when the boys and I stood by her hospital bed and watched her take her last breaths, seems etched in history, already distant, like a picture in a school textbook. The frantic days afterwards, of arranging the cremation and writing and translating eulogies, and drinking prosecco in the sunshine in the back garden, in keeping with her last orders: all this too is locked away in the past. But in other ways she is still present. I still leave her half of the bed unoccupied; there are three dressing gowns hanging by the door (Magteld had a summer and a winter one) and drawers full of her clothes; her shoes lined up neatly on the floor, her jewellery in a box on her bedside cabinet, next to her iPad and the books she will never finish. None of it has had time to gather dust.

This staged withdrawal is in many ways the hardest thing to deal with. It defies reconciliation. A few weeks ago I chucked a punnet of mushrooms out of the fridge and realised I’d bought them the last time we went to the supermarket together. How did these mushrooms manage to last longer than my wife? I wondered as I flung them furiously into the bin. Every time I call a bank or a utility company or a government office to tell them what’s happened I come off the phone dazed and exhausted by the sheer effort of articulating the words: she died. I tick boxes marked ‘one-parent family’ and ‘widowed’ and shove the papers in the envelope in haste, before the grief becomes endemic.

It’s commonly observed that death is not an event but a process. Like an earthquake: there is the immediate impact, the chaos and disruption, followed by a long, grinding process of recovery. Grief is always there, lapping at the shoreline and occasionally breaking through in waves before retreating just as quickly. The need to let go clashes with the urge to resist anything that offers proof of finality: I cannot entirely banish the absurd idea that I should keep her possessions in order, ready for the day when she strolls back in the door, a bemused smile on her face, and asks: “Where did you think I’d gone?”

The first things to go were the last to arrive: the wheelchair and Zimmer frame she was given just before leaving Glasgow, which meant that, curiously, nobody who knew her in Scotland ever saw her in the chair, while those who met her during her short time in The Hague had never seen her out of it. Only a month earlier we had gone to Edinburgh, for our copper wedding anniversary, and walked for nearly two miles through the city’s crooked streets. Hard as it might sound, I hated her disability. I despised what the cancer had reduced her to so swiftly: a cracked caricature of a healthy young woman who couldn’t get out of bed or use the toilet without assistance. And I can say it because she hated it too, and our shared loathing mutated into some fearful rows. On the first night she stayed in our house – Magteld’s house, the gorgeous, spacious apartment she found for us – we woke in the middle of the night and fought like cat and dog. It escalated to the point that she started hitting me with her arms, by now so crippled by cancer that she couldn’t raise them above the elbow. I remember the desperate, awful, pathetic (in the true sense) slaps, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the argument was about, and that only deepens my shame. Is this the start of the process of forgetting? And is that why I find it so hard to say goodbye to her clothes and shoes?

I came across a book lately: Klaas ten Holt’s The Complete Widower, by a Dutch newspaper columnist who lost his wife to cancer and wrote about the aftermath. (You could call it fate: I call it the human instinct to seek order in chaos. But let’s not quibble: the important thing is I bought it.) In one of the first entries Ten Holt describes how he has to fight the urge to call up the first woman he can think of “in the hope that she’ll stay with me and keep me from this debilitating loneliness”. I was reassured by that, because all through Magteld’s illness, and especially in the days after she died, I often felt like jumping into the arms of the nearest female friend and pleading with her to take me away from all this horror. And I can see how that could be misinterpreted. Even now that I know she will never again complete the other half of our bed, it feels like a betrayal. Even though she said to me, a few months before she died, that I deserved to be loved. Yes, really: my dying wife, in her final months, was trying to ease the pain of living. That’s another reason why I can never replace her.

Flag days

June 17, 2014
Dutch Flags flying in the street on Liberation Day, May 5.

For a nation that’s supposed to have raised itself above petty nationalist sentiment, the Dutch have a curious affinity for flying the flag. Since moving to The Hague less than two months ago I’ve lived through four official flag days and a host of unofficial ones. Red, white and blue flags flutter from balconies, from the roofs of shops (the hardware store round the corner has three six), from restaurants and cafes. When teenagers pass their exams they ‘hang the flag out’ in celebration, often with their old school bag perched on the end of the pole. The first herring batch of the season is landed with much pomp and ceremony in mid-June, on a day known as “vlaggetjesdag” – Flags Day – when the Dutch congregate on the quayside in Scheveningen to eat raw fish with onions, drink beer and potter around traditional market stalls without buying anything. And, of course, there is a football tournament on at the moment, which means streets are festooned with orange bunting, ribbons, banners – and flags.

This being the Netherlands, the etiquette of flag-waving is meticulously regulated. There is even a page on the Dutch government’s website dedicated to the question: “When can I hang out the national flag?” The short answer is “whenever you like”, but the full text runs to 700 words detailing the difference between “limited” and “extensive” flagging, the buildings where flags are obligatory, and the correct proportions for the standard (a ratio of 3:2, should you be inclined to obtain one). Flags should not be raised during the hours of darkness, touch the ground or impede the flow of traffic. Because if there’s one thing even more sacred to a Dutchman than his flag, it’s his bicycle.

The flag is flown on the birthdays of the king and queen, their daughters, Veterans’ Day at the end of June and, perhaps most poignantly, Liberation Day – May 5 – which marks the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945. The day before is known as Dodenherdenking (Remembrance Day) when all the victims of war are remembered, and flags are flown at half-mast. And yes, the Dutch have a protocol for that as well:

“If the flag is to be flown at half mast, it should first be fully raised. Thereafter the flag should be slowly and stately lowered until the middle of the flag is at half its normal height. The flag is then secured to the flag line. The flag should not be tied. On lowering a flag from half mast it should be slowly and stately raised to full mast before being taken down in the same manner.”

Vlaggetjesdag at Scheveningen - the ceremonial opening of the herring season.

Vlaggetjesdag at Scheveningen – the ceremonial opening of the herring season.

It’s fascinating to move from a country where any display of national flags prompts dark mutterings and gnashing of teeth about “nationalism on the rise” to one where flag-waving is seen as an unashamedly joyous gesture. To quote the government’s website again: “The Dutch flag is the symbol of the unity and independence of the Kingdom of the Netherlands”. It would be easy to conclude that the Dutch flag is less tainted by its history than others, but to do that you have to turn a blind eye to the Netherlands’ grim colonial escapades in Indonesia and elsewhere. What is true is that the Dutch have come to associate their flag with moments of liberation –from Spain in the 16th century, Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th. Hooligans, isolationists and religious zealots have been unable to claim it as their own.

The other curiosity is that while most households seem to own a flag, I’ve yet to see one for sale. Are they handed out on the last day of secondary school? And why are they all so clean and impeccably preserved? I imagine that on May 3, the day before Dodenherdenking, the Netherlands reverberates to the thrum of washing machines as every Dutchman and woman over the age of 25 diligently washes, irons and presses their flag ready to hang it at half-mast the following morning (but not before dawn, obviously).

A Dutch flag with a school bag at the end of the pole to denote a student who has passed their exams.

Dutch teenagers celebrate passing their exams by hanging their school bag on the end of the flagpole.

Perhaps the answer lies in the instructions regarding the colours, which are specified as “vermilion, clear white and cobalt blue” – I can only assume there are special washing powders to preserve the correct shade. The good news for migrants is that other national flags can be flown alongside the Dutch banner, but heed must be paid to the correct order, which is decided by the first letter of the country’s name in French. Yes, French. That means that Scotland (Ecosse) should properly take precedence over the Netherlands (Pays-Bas), which sounds like a diplomatic incident waiting to happen if we Scots vote for independence in September (both countries, incidentally, would trump the Royaume-Uni, but defer to Angleterre). In any case, I’m storing this information away safely, in preparation for the day when I finally track down a flag stockist.

Correction: This article originally stated that the hardware store close to my home had three flags flying from its gantry. In fact it sports six pristine, well-manicured tricolors. My apologies to the owners.

Magteld Darroch-Jansen (1976-2014)

June 1, 2014

Magteld Darroch-Jansen

My beautiful, dearly beloved wife passed away on Monday, less than two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer and eight weeks after our family moved to her native Netherlands. This is an edited version of the eulogy I delivered at her cremation yesterday, May 31, in The Hague, with an English translation below. Read more…

Alpha Papa: Norwich sticks it in the back of the net

August 16, 2013
Cromer pier and town, viewed from the east.

Cromer pier, long overdue a supporting role in a major motion picture. (picture: Gerry Balding)

For a native of Norwich, one of the secret joys of watching Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa was seeing how my home city looked on the big screen. More specifically, I grew up in the North Norfolk hinterland which Alan has called home ever since his primetime career exploded in the moment it took to punch a television executive in the face with a semi-stuffed turkey. Norwich and Partridge have become inseparable in the public mind over the last couple decades, but it wasn’t always thus. During the chat-show years the city was little more than a totem for Alan’s little-Englander provincialism: a modestly appointed town of no great resonance which he absurdly promotes as the centre of the universe (summed up in the pithy assertion: “Norwich is an attitude”). The city had to wait until the Christmas special for its first cameo role, a whistle-stop tour of landmarks including the cathedral cloisters (Alan’s favourite jogging-cum-negotiating spot), the famously pedestrianised city centre (scene of a “bloody big fight”) and my birthplace, the venerable Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (since demolished).

The early episodes of I’m Alan Partridge was largely filmed in Hertfordshire: I felt slightly cheated when I found out, having spent hours trying to identify the stretch of the A11 that Alan strides along while singing the theme tune from Goldfinger, or the bit of ringroad where he makes his fateful decision to invest in tungsten tip screws. But as the series have gone by, Norfolk’s landscape has become part of the Partridge furniture. One of the treats of Mid Morning Matters is the way East Anglia’s ungainly yet evocative placenames (Hickling, Terrington St Clement, Spixworth) are woven into Partridge’s rambling monologues. (Impressively, Coogan has managed to dodge the many pronunciation pitfalls lurking on the map such as Happisburgh, Costessey and Great Hautbois*). Yet the exact location of North Norfolk Digital has always been disconcertingly vague: Wroxham? North Walsham? Cromer? Surely not Fakenham?

I’m always amused to hear Norwich’s civic leaders asked if their city feels slighted by the existence of Partridge. The jokes are clearly at the expense of the character, not the city, though that hasn’t stopped a few humourless local councillors taking umbrage. It’s more as if there’s an extra gag written into the backstory specially for Norvicensians. It goes like this: Partridge is a universal misfit, and that extends to his home town. His constant absurd efforts to big up Norwich founder on the city’s indifference to self-aggrandisement. When he stands in Norwich Station listing the stops on the way to London (Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central, Shattered Dreams Parkway) he’s rewarded with not so much as a sideways glance. The signs at the boundary (as featured in Alpha Papa) proclaim: ‘Welcome to Norwich, a Fine City’. To me that’s always summed up the city’s sense of itself: it doesn’t go in for puffed-up chest-beating or in-your-face marketing. A fine city, self-confident but unpretentious. If you think you’ve got better places to be, get yourself off there.

In Alpha Papa, Norfolk at last claims a proper supporting role. The film-makers deserve much credit for making the most of the location’s dramatic potential. Cromer Pier, with its old-style rotunda theatre and ornate Victoriana stacked up on tall, jutting cliffs (Noel Coward take note), is a natural movie star that’s waited too long to be discovered. The equivalent, perhaps, of a once-promising Hollywood starlet who went on a downward spiral of drink and drugs but can still do a convincing turn as a dottily  appealing mother-in-law. It stages the opening shots, featuring waves crashing into weathered breakwaters, and the tragicomic denouement. Similarly the coastal towns, with their fading Victorian seaside splendour, meandering clifftop roads and caravan parks, perfectly fit the downbeat-thriller tone. Even the mismatched architecture of the city centre, where the 1930s City Hall scraps for attention with the medieval flint-fronted Guildhall and the clutter of the market stalls, suits the crazy-paving plot. Alpha Papa is characterised by a kind of kitsch nostalgia: for old-school hostage movies, radio roadshows and leather jackets. It’s a yearning for an England we didn’t think we’d miss and wouldn’t really want to return to, but acquires, in retrospect, an appealing simplicity. And Norfolk’s gentle, unassuming landscape, with its flashes of savagery round the edges, is the ideal setting for such a journey. Partridge has truly made Norwich his permanent nest. May he never migrate.

* Pronounced respectively ‘Haysburgh’ [silent ‘p’s], ‘Cossie’ and ‘Great Hobbis’.

Politics, an unavoidably twisted affair

August 5, 2013
The winding staircase around the tower of the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen

The winding staircase around the tower of the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen. (Picture: Katrin Lorenzen/ Flickr)

One of Copenhagen’s most famous landmarks is the tower of the Church of Our Saviour with its external helter-skelter staircase. The church itself is a Renaissance colossus, an elegant brute in the Dutch baroque style with Greek and Italian inflections, and it boasts northern Europe’s largest carillon, but it is the tower specifically that captures the public imagination. It owes much of its charm to an urban legend inspired by the peculiar detail that the staircase winds in an anticlockwise direction. This is peculiar because in Renaissance times, in popular culture, left-turning spirals were associated with the devil. The architect of the tower (but not the church), Lauritz de Thurah, is said to have been so furious with himself when he realised his mistake that he climbed the spiral staircase, invoking Satan with every step, and hurled himself to his death from the top.

The story is demonstrably bollocks. De Thurah died peacefully in his bed seven years after the tower was finished. I know this because the legend was recounted as part of a canal boat tour of the city I went on. Yet the ease with which it is can be disproved has not diminished its appeal. The church tower is one of two Copenhagen landmarks on the route that are so famous that the canal boat actually pauses beside them to allow tourists to take photographs (the other is, of course, The Little Mermaid). This interests me. Our tour guide fed us the whole story of the church tower and its fabled bungling architect, complete with the detail that he actually died peaceably some years later, because 21st-century tourists, being somewhat more sophisticated than their predecessors, are supposed to revere irony above superstition. I think this sense of intellectual superiority is misplaced. The fact that people still gain enjoyment from the ludicrous but colourful story of the suicidal architect reveals, I think, something significant about human nature.

Also while in Copenhagen I was coming to the climax of Adam Thirlwell’s novel, Politics. I was enjoying it. I know I was enjoying it because it was changing the way I thought about things. Exceptional books have that effect on me, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or the novels of Milan Kundera, a writer Thirlwell acknowledges as an influence. One of the characteristic features of Politics is its intrusive narrator, who tells the story in a highly didactic, fastidious and downright irritating manner. Often he suspends the action at a vital moment to digress about the Russian revolution, disputes in Czech revolutionary circles or Stalin’s avuncular telephone calls with intellectuals he will later stitch up good and proper. These digressions are important but profoundly annoying at the same time. As this paragraph perhaps is for you. Were I still a pretentious literature student I might reel off half a dozen impressive-sounding names for this narrative device, many of them culled from magisterial works of criticism such as Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis (a work I often cited in my undergraduate essays without ever taking the trouble to read it). Instead I’ll fall back on my own terminology and call it a Pain In The Arse.

There is a lot of sex in Thirlwell’s novel, but it is constantly interrupted by less pressing matters, so that despite being adventurous by most conventional standards, it doesn’t feel in the slightest bit erotic or sexy. I should have hated the novel and its opinionated, self-satisfied, prurient, disingenuous, tedious pain-in-the-arse narrator. But the weird thing is I loved it. And I loved it, I think, for the same reason I loved the story of the architect of the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen. It defied me to enjoy it against my better judgment.

For some reason the absurd tale of the architect’s non-suicide prompted another, quite different, urban myth, to float to the surface of my mind as I was boarding the plane home from Copenhagen later that day. This one is about a passenger on a jumbo jet who calls over the stewardess just as the flight is about to take off. The woman is very agitated and demands to be moved to a different seat, even though the entire economy class section is full. “You can’t possibly expect me to sit next to this man here,” she fumes. When the stewardess asks why, the passenger replies: “Because he’s black! How can I spend the next seven hours sitting next to a black man?” Nobody says a word, not even the shocked and stunned man she is demeaning, so she continues with her racist tirade, oblivious to how uncomfortable all the other passengers are becoming and what an egregious persona she is displaying to all the world. When she is finished the stewardess smiles and says: “Just a minute, madam, I’ll see what I can do.” And a few minutes later she comes back and says: “Madam, I’ve spoken with the captain, and he’s decided that the only way to deal with this situation is by way of an upgrade.” “Good,” says the woman, an appalling smile smeared across her face. “So if you would like to step this way, sir,” the stewardess continues,” there is a seat waiting for you in First Class. And the captain has asked that you receive a complimentary glass of champagne in recognition of this inconvenience.” And she gestures to the black man, who gets up, strides towards the front of the plane without so much as a backward glance to his racist neighbour who is still standing, fuming and open-mouthed, in the centre of the aisle, surrounded by silently smirking travellers, all of whom can’t wait to get home and spread this story around their circles of friends.

This story, like that of the church tower and the architect, is almost certainly bollocks too, though it’s not so easily disproved. I’d argue that that doesn’t matter: the point is that it’s a highly appealing story even so. What’s interesting is that we relate to it in a different way than to the story of the architect. Both stories are about knowledge and judgment. The architect is supposed to have killed himself because despite his skill and expertise in his professional field he commits a basic, catastrophic error that brings about his ruin. We enjoy the story because despite his elevated position, we can feel superior to him. Only someone ensconced in the ivory towers of academia could have overlooked such a fundamental piece of popular superstition. In the story of the racist passenger, the person using his skill and judgment is the captain of the plane (or possibly the stewardess, if you believe she acted on her own initiative and merely invoked the captain’s authority as a cunning device).[1] The captain acts like a benevolent dictator, summoning his worldly wisdom to identify the true victim in the scenario – the blameless black man – and punish the woman for her imagined grievance so that she loses all credibility in the eyes of her fellow passengers (none of whom, you’ll have noticed, actually bothered to leap to the man’s defence initially). All of us, I think, fancy we would have been as courageous and intellectually nimble as the captain in this wholly fictional story. He appeals to the good side of ourselves. Whereas the architect appeals to the mean side of ourselves: we envy his status and proficiency, and his unreal but literal downfall prompts a pang of Schadenfreude.

But that’s not the point either. The point is that both stories remain hugely appealing even when we either strongly suspect, or know for sure, that they are untrue. We think of ourselves as reasoning beings, but much of our enjoyment – indeed, much of our emotional lives – involves suspending reason. It’s what makes it so hard for us to agree on anything, even when the evidence points strongly in one direction. And that may solve the puzzle of why Adam Thirlwell’s novel Politics is so enjoyable – or at least, why it was for me. It’s a novel that contains a lot of unsexy sex and some rather fleeting political ruminations. Neither the sex nor the politics is satisfying on its own. And it’s all told by a pedantic, wearisome authorial narrator who seems to have been created for the specific purpose of spoiling both aspects. But the juxtaposition of the sex and the politics is done artfully and with wit, so that I, the reader, was led on a leash, scowling all the way like the architect on his imaginary journey up the anticlockwise staircase, or the racist passenger as she watched her nemesis retreat towards the First Class section of the cabin, towards its denoument. It was one of the most disquieting, original and pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in ages.

There is another reason I think Politics works. A lot of people will disagree with this theory, and I suspect Adam Thirlwell would disagree more vehemently than most. But that doesn’t invalidate it in my estimation. Politics is, both because of and in spite of itself, an intensely political novel. It was published in 2003, and so written in the first half of the New Labour era. Tony Blair came to power promising a democratic revolution in politics that he termed the Third Way. It was supposed to be an end to the old confrontational politics of the Cold War and era: not Left versus Right, but a fusion of the two that sought its legitimacy in pragmatism and practical outcomes. There were to be targets and mission statements and performance reviews and all kinds of managerial innovations. But it didn’t eradicate the old ideological disputes at all. It just made them much duller. It was a revolution in style that left the fault lines of politics intact. Blair simply wallpapered over the cracks (in what now seems a richly ironic detail, wallpaper was at the heart of one of his government’s first serious controversies when one of Blair’s cabinet ministers, Lord Derry Irvine, was criticised for extravagantly redecorating his official residence). That’s what Thirlwell illustrates in Politics. On the one hand he reduces the ménage à trois, generally considered a decadent and ambitious arrangement, to the level of a mundane kitchen-sink drama, just as Tony Blair in his pomp made political debate as riveting as an accountants’ convention. And yet the inherent flaws in the sexual trio remain unresolved (and I won’t spoil the book any further by spelling out how they affect the characters’ fortunes), just as New Labour failed utterly to make politics any more honest or straightforward. The Pain In The Arse narrator portrays himself as a sweetly reasonable mediator who will make everything clear, but his machinations just fuck the story up. In both sex and politics, pragmatism is offered as a solution only to end up complicating things still further. All that redeems him is the writer’s skill in deploying him. The entire novel is a brilliant and subtle political parody. It says that politicians who endeavour to take the politics out of politics are the most dangerous politicians of all. That’s what I got out of it, at any rate. You may very well disagree.

[1] Incidentally, I don’t see anything sexist or meaningful in the genders of the complainant and the victim. You could plausibly swap them over. It just allows attentive listeners to anticipate the twist by picking up on the stewardess’s use of the word ‘sir’ a few moments before the man rises from his seat. Award yourself a glass of imaginary champagne if you noticed it.

How I found the Olympic spirit in Santo Domingo

August 10, 2012
Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic

Santo Domingo (picture by Andries3/Flickr)

I’ve been enjoying the London Olympics far more than I expected to. Before the Games started I’d feared, like many people, that the commercialisation of sport had got out of hand, that the traffic was going to be a nightmare, that anyone without a Visa card would be effectively banned from spending money, or that the Olympic courts were going to stock our prisons with people who’d gone out in the wrong type of shorts. But since Danny Boyle’s bizarre magical-modernist opening ceremony (topped by the trompe l’oeil of the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter), my disbelief has been suspended. When it comes down to basics, the Olympics, despite the marketing men’s best efforts, is still all about the sport.

And sport, as it hardly needs saying, is about competition. It creates a space in which the rules are tightly defined and referees and invites people to prove their worth on equal terms. To beat your opponent you must be faster, stronger and more skilful (yes, the developed nations have an advantage in the more technical sports involving bikes, boats and horses, but the athletics stadium is still one of the few arenas in the world where people from every continent line up as equals). Competition in this sense is not merely about winning. The men’s 100 metres, one of the events that draws the greatest number of athletes to every Olympic Games, featured no more than four athletes who genuinely had a chance to win the gold medal. Under the ‘winning is everything’ mentality that is gaining ground, the others might as well not have bothered to turn up. Yet still they did. The final was memorable not just for the heroics of Usain Bolt, but because he had to overcome seven athletes, who in turn had risen above thousands of other aspiring sprinters in every country of the world, all of them pushing themselves to their limit.

The Olympics is a world of stories. For a writer who likes sport, it’s like spending two weeks in Disneyland. In the early days I enjoyed the variety of events and the chance to watch sports that never otherwise catch the spotlight. The downside of the British team’s success has been the diminution of the television coverage to a relentless parade of homegrown success, eclipsing everything else. I don’t find it offensive, just inadequate. Much as I’ve enjoyed the feats of Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and all the rest, it misses something essential about the complexity of sport. Other competitors have become increasingly incidental, so that at times it was difficult to remember that anybody else was in the race. When the British men’s sculls pair narrowly lost a nerveless battle with a Danish crew, there wasn’t a word of acknowledgement of the achievment of the other team, only a misplaced apology for the viewers back home who had been deprived of their fix of British Gold. Increasingly I started to drift away from the BBC’s straitened coverage to seek out other strands of the narrative. There was the remarkable semi-final in the women’s football in which Canada went ahead three times, conceded a late penalty and then saw the United States snatch a winner in the last seconds of extra time. The turbine-like power of the Dutch freestyle swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who two years ago was in hospital fighting off meningitis. The astonishing solo run of the Kenyan David Rudisha, who broke the world record in the 800 metres with the graceful ease of a flock of geese in flight. And the brilliant twist in the final of the 400 metres hurdles, as the former champion Felix Sanchez reignited a career that seemed to be in permanent decline with a run of dazzling fluidity.

Sanchez would go on to have a far larger influence on my experience of the Olympics than I could possibly have imagined. I knew he had been untouchable for a few years on the running track, winning the 2004 Olympic crown in 2004, before injuries and poor form brought him down. It was widely assumed he would never hit those heights again and was simply winding down his career. Yet like every Olympic competitor, he was still driven by the desire to do better – perhaps more so, having a memory of what it was like to be the very  best. And on Monday night he vindicated all those efforts, stopping the clock in exactly the same time he managed eight years before. Track athletes are in the business of running in circles, but eight years to get back to the same point must be some kind of record.

I don’t care much in general for national anthems. The worst thing about the British success has been the endless playing of God Save The Queen, a plodding dirge whose lyrics equate happiness with imperial conquest. There’s been a debate going on in the UK about whether athletes should sing as they collect their medals, as if this were somehow the true measure of achievement. When Felix Sanchez stood on top of the victor’s podium and reflected on the previous eight years of pain and frustration, he wasn’t singing either. Instead he cried, tears of joy mingled with relief, as the sounds of his country’s anthem rang out through the stadium. And the tune itself was a pleasant surprise, like a flower in the desert, strong and delicate at once, a thing of rare and unexpected beauty. On the spur of the moment I sent a Twitter message of appreciation:

At the time I didn’t think medal ceremonies were much more than a courtesy to the winners, an epilogue, a chance to bask in the limelight after straining in it. As I began to realise in the next few days, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The words I’d written chimed with the sense of pride resonating around a nation which had rarely tasted success in the Olympic arena and was determined to savour it. A trickle of messages became a flood; in three days I gained 600 followers from a Caribbean nation of 10 million people. It occurred to me that, not for the first time, I’d dismissed the resilience of the Olympic spirit.

It’s easily done. We’re encouraged to think that sport is only about winning: that second is nowhere. That true sportsmen and women are possessed by a merciless, almost sadistic desire to dominate and humiliate their rivals. For the most part it’s a poisonous myth. One of my favourite Olympic stories is about Jesse Owens in 1936. Not the one about him upsetting Hitler, significant though that is. It’s about the German long jumper, Lutz Long, who saw the American struggling in the qualifying rounds and went over to help him with his run-up. Owens qualified with his final leap and went on to win the gold medal. Under the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality Long’s action was unforgivable, more or less an act of sabotage. But the German was simply adhering to the basic code of sportsmanship. He wanted to win but win properly, by proving his mettle against the strongest competition. Victory in Owens’s absence would have been diminished. Instead he won (or “settled for”, as we say these days) an honourable silver.

Sport verbroedert, as the Dutch say: sport forges brotherhood. True sportsmanship implies respect for the opponent. I find it revealing that tennis, one of the most starkly individual of sports, generates some of the closest friendships among its players. When Novak Djokovic visited Scotland recently, he turned off from the A9 to visit Dunblane, the home town of Andy Murray, and then sent his bitter rival a picture to prove he’d been there. It’s heartening to know, when Djokovic and Murray are bursting every vessel to outscore each other on the court, that underpinning their rivalry is a sincere appreciation of the other’s crafstmanship. It’s because your rival is so good that you want to beat them. Sport isn’t just war without the shooting: it’s the civilisation of the warrior instinct. It brings people together across boundaries and conflicts and makes them compete according to an agreed set of rules, on a basis of mutual respect. To win you have to know your opponent intimately, and once you’ve learned to appreciate an opponent’s qualities it’s much harder to dehumanise them.

I discovered in the next few days that Quisqueyanos Valientes, the national anthem of the Dominican Republic is more than just a fine tune. The lyrics, by the lawyer, teacher, politician and poet Emilio Prud’Homme, convey the pain as well as the pride of a country whose history contains a long and bitter struggle to free itself from slavery. To raise itself up, in the same way that Felix Sanchez climbed back to the top of his event after years of struggle. It was supremely appropriate, in the same sense, that Usain Bolt’s triumph should coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. Nobody would wish to return to the days of colonial rule, when the aggressor nations believed it was their God-given duty to humiliate on the rest of humanity. The Olympic spirit is the antithesis of that. Its proper context is the clean fight in which the winner is first among equals. The glory of victory comes from the drama of the contest, from overcoming opponents of the very best calibre, from the respect and kinship that true competition engenders.

When the Games started I feared that the Olympic values were being corroded: that commercial exploitation and the blinkered focus on results were crushing whatever nobility was left in sport. But by accidentally tapping into the national mood that swept around the Dominican Republic in the wake of Felix Sanchez’s victory, I discovered that the Olympic spirit still exists where it matters: in the hearts of those who take part, whether as athletes or spectators. One gold medal, one flying lap of the track, made ten million people on the other side of the world rejoice. And when that rarely heard jewel of a national anthem filled the stadium, the whole country could share in Sanchez’s triumph, and the whole world could share in the country’s story. That turned out to be the inspiring moment of the Olympics for me, because I was lucky enough to have a part in it. A moment when a few hundred Dominicans helped me discover the truth of that Dutch motto, sport verbroedert.

On slow writing

March 30, 2012
Harlan Ellison at his typewriter

American sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison ponders his next word.

My New Year’s resolution to write every day is currently working out at somewhere between five and six days a week. Not an unqualified success, but a great improvement on last year, when I could go months without writing a word and didn’t start a single new piece of work. The rule I created for myself of writing for at least half an hour each time solved a crucial problem that I didn’t know I had: I’d failed to adapt my writing goals to my lifestyle. I used to work in intensive spells of an hour and a half to two hours, once or twice every couple of weeks. Having two demanding children as well as working full-time means I rarely have the luxury of such unbroken spells of time. So I began to perceive that I ‘had no time’ to write, when in fact I just needed to divided my time differently.

Writing in shorter, more concentrated spells has also taught me another thing about myself as a writer. Take the last few weeks, which I’ve spent revising a short story I first drafted about three years ago. In that time I’ve taken the story up from just over 2,000 words to almost dead on 3,000. Yes, that’s right: 14 days of tinkering increased my word count by a colossal 1,000 words. That’s an average of about 75 a day. And I worked hard just to keep up that level.

So in addition to changing the way I allocate writing time, this is the second thing I’ve learned to accept: I’m a naturally slow writer. Specifically this means I’m a contemplative writer. I’m deeply envious of people who can slap down 2,000 words in an hour and bash it into shape in a couple of revision sessions. But I just can’t do it – at least, not when it comes to fiction. As a former agency journalist I can hammer a keyboard like a ten-year-old playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon when I need to. If anything, though, that only increases my tendency to pick over words when I get the chance. If I can’t get a sentence right I either sit and wait until the words fall into place, or go over it constantly once it’s on the page until it fits. And even then I’ll go back over the words again and again, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, until I’ve run out of ways to improve it. And in between writing sessions I like to dwell on developments, map out the next stage in the plot and fill in loose bits. Shorter sessions in some ways suit this more contemplative approach, because it gives me more opportunities to pull back and study the full picture, rather than becoming sidelined in the minutiae.

I’ve heard the advice that you should plough through the first draft without editing or looking back. Like much writing advice, I’ve opted to ignore it. It doesn’t suit the way I write. The best thing about writing every day is that I’ve got a much better sense now of how I build stories and weave plot, character, theme and language. What I find is that they all influence each other and develop in tandem, in the same way that a tadpole doesn’t grow its head, legs and abdomen in sequence, but all at once, evolving as a complete organism. If I concentrate on one element of a story to the exclusion of the rest I end up with a malformed, one-dimensional, unsatisfying piece of fiction. Of course, I might end up with that anyway, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

In the past my writing has ground to a halt not for lack of inspiration, but for lack of structure. I have so many different ideas going that I don’t know where to begin, or I idly start to speculate on one story, only to break off and switch to something else the moment I hit a snag. It’s much easier to start something new and bursting with promise than to grind on with a story that’s already 4,000 words long and riddled with narrative holes that need to be plugged. There is an inevitable point in every piece of writing where it ceases to be a creative act and becomes an exercise in plumbing. At this point the seductive power of those unvarnished nuggets of inspiration is almost irresistible. Writing in short, frequent spells has helped to inoculate me from it. It forces me to focus on the pile of half-formed, leaking stories, pick something out from it and give it a more coherent shape. And now and again I find, partly by sheer force of will but mainly because I’ve run out of alternatives, that I’ve actually finished something. I may never write fiction by the bucketload or tear through three novels a year, but I’d rather have the sense of completion that comes from the production of intricate miniatures. Slow progress is still progress, as long as you keep it going.

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