BIG TALK: The FCF meets Michael Calvin
In the first episode of a new series, we speak to Michael Calvin – author of the brilliant Family: Life, Death and Football: A Year on the Frontline with a Proper Football Club – about writing, sport and other things.
The FCF: How do you see the state of football writing and sports writing, and the direction in which it’s going?
MC: I worry about the lack of respect in which it is held by the industry’s bean counters. Sports desks are contracting. Exceptional journos like Paul Kimmage and Paddy Barclay have been victims of cutbacks. There’s a growing sense that print journalism is steam engine journalism. Look at the Indy’s recent Rooney story – MU’s denials were floated on Twitter, and confirmed and circulated by 10pm. The paper, when it turned up on the doorsteps the next morning, was an historical document. Having said that, though, the essence of a writer’s trade – the ability to communicate, entertain and educate – is as valid as it has ever been. Only the medium will evolve. I love the challenge of presenting vodcasts on Life’s a Pitch, BT’s football site. It’s me and a rotation of a dozen writers, discussing the issues of the day. They’re terrific pros, with an insight we tend to take for granted.
The FCF: And what of journalism and writing in general? Who and what do you enjoy reading?
MC: I enjoy watching new talent blossom. I spotted Sam Wallace’s potential by reading a six-par piece he did for the late David Welch, on the Telegraph. I think Rory Smith will emerge as a marquee football writer, once he settles into the rhythm of a paper. In a broader context, I have always enjoyed American sports writing. Don’t judge that on the work of politically-correct robo-nerds, who are fact-checked to within an inch of their lives. I was weaned on retrospectives of Red Smith, the Big Daddy of daily columnists. Over the years, I’ve loved Dave Anderson, David Halberstam, Rick Reilly, Mitch Albom and Michael Lewis. My current favourite is Bill Simmons.
The FCF: What do you think about newspapers asking people to write for free, and writing for free?
MC: I’m uncomfortable with it, but understand the merits of the exposure it brings. I loathe the exploitative cut and paste mentality of certain websites, which lift content, without acknowledging sources. I hate the distinction drawn between so-called bloggers and journos. Without wishing to be trite, I respect anyone who writes something, and hits the send button. There is some Godawful stuff out there in cyberspace, but also some real, if unrefined, talent. I see young writers finding their voice and developing their style. It reminds me a little of my formative years, when I devoured the NME, and the gonzo journalism of Thompson, Wolfe and Capote. It dared me to be different. The trick is to sustain that freedom of spirit, when you are in the mainstream,
The FCF: Do you do anything to improve your writing?
MC: I read. Anything, anyone, anytime.
The FCF: Why have you chosen to take a sabbatical from print journalism to concentrate on longer-form stuff?
MC: The Mirror wanted a downmarket columnist, which is not my style, but I’d still love the opportunity to write occasional opinion pieces, or conduct in-depth interviews. I have a broadsheet background and mentality, but learned a lot working on a red top. Brevity is essential. If you can’t say it in 600 words, it is not worth saying. Ironically, the disciplines of Twitter made me a tighter writer. I want to concentrate on longer-form work, though, because writing Family made me realise the limitations of my trade. Journalism is a dispassionate business, in which a writer is routinely denied the time to truly know his subject. I was given that time by the Millwall players, the coaching staff, and everyone at the club. I want to get into the DNA of my subject, and that is not an overnight exercise. I also believe there is a gap in the market for emotionally-intelligent, well-researched sports books.
The FCF: How do sport and football shape your life?
MC: This might get me in Pseud’s Corner, but in a sense they are my life. I’ve worked in more than 80 countries. I’ve seen polio victims shuffling, on all fours, across the national football stadium in Mali. I’ve seen icebergs in the South Atlantic, shelving glaciers, and the impact of deforestation in the Amazon basin. I’ve declined the opportunity to buy a machinegun and a two kilo bloc of cannabis resin in the Khyber Pass. I’ve seen extremes of wealth, and poverty. Sport introduces you to the best and worst of human nature. It has outraged me, appalled me, and turned me into a kid. All in all, it’s the best way to make a living.
The FCF: What about the world of football, sport and world makes you optimistic. And pessimistic?
MC: Optimistic? Watching a YouTube video of Lionel Messi aged 10. He’s in a tournament against a Peruvian team. He’s unplayable, an innocent with a killer instinct. At the end, when everyone has lost count of the score, an opponent crumples to the ground in tears. Messi is the first to reach him, and falls to his knees to give him a hug. You can see the man in the boy. Noble, humble. A genius.
Pessimistic? Gargoyles like Sepp Blatter and Kia Joorabchian. Amoral PR men and assorted lobbyists. Joey Barton’s inevitable evolution into a social commentator, and style guru.
The FCF: Were you surprised by how insecure footballers are? Do you think the insecurity extends to the highest level?
MC: Not particularly. Sport institutionalises insecurity, but there are different types of pressure. The consequences of failure were greater in Family. Watching the cull of the scholars was gut-wrenching. The survivors, senior pros, live from contract to contract. Obviously, Premier League players have a financial comfort blanket. But, if they have a modicum of professional pride, their lives are still shaped by the tyranny of the team sheet.
The FCF: Did being in the dressing room affect your vocabulary and patter, in the way, say, watching The Wire might, yo?
MC: Fucking right it did.
The FCF: What did you expect from the experience of writing Family, and how was it different?
MC: I asked for the impossible – unrestricted access – and got it. Writing Family has given me a unique insight into the realities of a game that we tend to judge on superficialities. I’m not sure I’m worthy of the compliment, but managers and players who have read the book tend to treat me with a respect that is routinely denied to football writers these days. Relationships have changed, fundamentally, in my career. In 1982, my first World Cup, I remember travelling from the airport in the England team bus and sitting next to Ray Wilkins. I was the youngest member of the Press corps and he was one of the youngest players in the squad. We spoke about our respective positions. That sort of intimacy of contact has gone now. It’s us versus them.
The FCF: Kenny Jackett is a childhood friend of yours, and you obviously formed a strong bond with the players. Do you think this affected your objectivity, and does it matter?
MC: Objectivity? That would be me sprinting from the bench at Wembley like Roadrunner on acid, wouldn’t it? Guilty as charged. But I never lost sight of the big picture. I’d find myself thinking ‘Christ, this is some story’ as events unfolded around me. To be honest, I think the intensity of emotion I felt helped me as a writer. I identified with these players. I’d shared private moments with them. I had the privilege of their trust. I wanted them to succeed, but knew there are few happy endings in football.
The FCF: Has the experience of writing Family changed you as a person? Have Millwall values influenced your outlook?
MC: No they have reinforced them. I suppose I’m a typical working class, Grammar school kid. I was brought up to work hard, and to treat people with respect. I’ve also been a bit of a maverick – I persuaded the Telegraph to let me sail around the world as a journalistic project – so it is not so surprising that I feel at home at the Den.
The FCF: What is the difference between Watford and Millwall? What is specifically Watford, what is specifically Millwall? Why do you affiliate more to one than the other? When did you know you’d turned, and why?
MC: Each club reflects its community. Millwall exists in a social bubble. It is a wonderfully old fashioned club, trying to protect its core values in a changing world. The Den is in an area of London where deprivation co-exists with gentrification. Watford is a little more suburban. Football seems to matter a little less. I love the community element of the club, but the nature of the club has changed. My tipping point came in September, when Watford beat Millwall 2-1 in a truly awful game at Vicarage Road. I was introduced to Watford’s new owner, whom I instinctively loathed. I heard the home fans whinge, and then go into happy-clappy mode when they scored two late goals. I realised, then, I wanted “ my “ team to lose. That has got me a lot of stick – from both sets of fans, intriguingly. But I had to be honest. That is the thread which runs through Family.
The FCF: What are you working on next? (if you can say)
MC: I’ve just started work on a prequel to Family, provisionally entitled “Real Wall”. That’s the phrase Millwall fans use to describe the spirit of the club. It means different things, to different people, so I asked the fans to tell me which players embody that spirit. Nearly 1,000 gave me their top ten Real Wall players – I am going to interview their top 30, drawn from across the generations, to see if there is a common denominator. Some of the stories from the Old Den are brilliant….
I am also doing a Manchester United project, and am in discussions over a third book. This will be another “behind the scenes” football book, a golf project, or an adventure story. Watch this space…..
If you’ve the remotest interest in football, sport or people, buy Family this instant.