Vox in the Box: Jonathan Liew

Jonathan Liew is a columnist and feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, covering football and a number of other sports that aren’t quite as good. He was also on Countdown a few years ago…

You started on the Telegraph as part of their graduate scheme…

The way it worked back then – this would have been 2009 – you did a month on each of the sections, news, features, business and sport. And out of the five of us doing it I was the only one who was interested in doing sport. I got on with the editor – it was David Bond who then went to the BBC – and I was drifting over to sport during my other placements and going ‘Hey you got anything you need to do?’ And the deal was sealed in the gents in about November. I went in, David Bond was in there and he said “Do you know what you’re doing at the end of the scheme? If you fancy doing sport then there might be a place for you” and I went “Oh, that’s great.” So I walked into the toilet with my future uncertain, shake shake, zip zip, walk out with a job offer, pretty much.

My memory of reading your stuff from a few years ago was it wasn’t very ‘Telegraph’ in tone – were ever you asked not to do that or was that just your style and they let you?

Yeah, it felt kind of fun and transgressive to be using silly, and in many ways quite ‘un-Telegraph’ words. I think I may possibly be the first person ever to use the word ‘bootylicious’ in the Telegraph sport section. I don’t think it was a deliberate thing, it’s just that I was 24 and that’s kind of the way I wrote at the time. To their credit they never really discouraged it, but there wasn’t really a great culture of funny sports writing there at the time. Obviously there had been people like Martin Johnson in the past but as a whole, and certainly in the couple of years before I got there, there wasn’t a whole lot in the Telegraph like the kind of stuff I was doing. That worked quite well and I think it helped me to stand out.

What’s the place been like since Henry Winter left (for the Times at the end of last year)?

Henry is the Geoffrey Green of his day. People thought the advert was really silly, and we all could laugh over it but I think: isn’t it great, in this day and age where celebrities are made by quite vulgar means, that a football journalist can have an advert on telly and be the star? It’s actually something that is quite inspirational, even though the advert itself is a little bit tongue in cheek. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if you’ve never heard of a football journalist before and you see that advert and you think ‘Who?’ but after you’ve seen it, you know one football journalist, and that is Henry Winter.

You are occasionally put on ‘Five things we learned’ duty. Those features get a lot of stick, but it’s still writing, there’s still room in the two or three hundred words you write for each point to warm to a theme.

At its worst it feels formulaic and contrived and nakedly attention grabbing, but at its worst any form of journalism is all of those things. It’s just a skeleton on which to hang something that you want to write about. I quite enjoy them actually. I think that they’re possibly over-used – there are games where nobody could learn anything except never to put your faith in football to entertain you ever again. But that’s how people process knowledge. That’s how people process information. They process it in bits which is why bullet points are more readable and more accessible than just a block of text.

One of the things you’d probably struggle to make into a ‘Five things…’ is Jamie Vardy. You wrote a Facebook post about him. Why did you do that rather than try and put it on the site or in the paper?

Because it was too personal I think for the Telegraph. He’d scored against United (to break the record for scoring in consecutive Premier League games), and I tweeted this. and there was a lot of blow back from that, a lot of people who wanted to quibble over the word massive, over the magnitude of racism. Anyway, everyone knows there’s a load of idiots who reply to all this kind of stuff, but there was some also quite racist stuff. So I thought I’d address it in a Facebook post. The reason I didn’t do it for the Telegraph is because I foresaw the potential for trouble – not necessarily legal trouble, but…I wanted to insulate my employers from that as much as possible. It was also not something I felt should have to come under the Telegraph banner – it’s my personal opinion.

The responses fell into three main categories. People going ‘damn right spot on.’ People – mostly Leicester fans but not entirely – going ‘You are an awful, awful person.’ And there was a third group, as large as the other two saying ‘I didn’t know Jamie Vardy had done this’ or ‘you’ve spoiled Jamie Vardy for me’ or ‘I had no idea’. So it seems to me that unlike Luis Suarez, unlike John Terry, there was a huge constituency of people cheering on Jamie Vardy as a hero who did not know this. And I think you need all the facts at your disposal.

I think if you ask most people and they’ll say ‘Oh yes, racism is very bad and people shouldn’t be racist.’ But then if you say, ‘OK, this person has been racist – how do you think they should be punished?’ then that’s when you start to get into problems and people start to make excuses. People seem to be generally of the opinion that racism is bad, but at the same time are unwilling to do anything about it.

Yeah, I think people are very worried because at any time, at any stage, you can say something that might be construed as racist. There’s a Wikipedia page called ‘Controversies over the word niggardly,’ which as readers will know means parsimonious, frugal, but there have been people – in America, mostly – who have been sacked over using that word. People are incredibly worried about inadvertently being offensive. They say ‘shit, have I inadvertently said anything racist?’ Not that Vardy did it inadvertently at all; he knew exactly what he was doing. That’s why I think there is such a negative reaction to the Facebook post.

Was there a sense that you had a kind of responsibility to write something about it?

Yeah, it’s certainly a counter to the prevailing narrative which was ‘Wow, here’s some footballer who three years ago was literally playing in a bog heap, smelling of shit and now he’s in the Premier League’. And that’s the narrative and it’s a great story. Personally I don’t think that story is invalid, just that there are other narratives that you can tell. And so I suppose it was an attempt to counterbalance the way that everybody else was seeing Vardy at the time. I don’t begrudge any of the positive coverage he’s got, at all – but I think that this story also needs to be told.

I had this same conversation two days ago (EDITOR’S NOTE – this interview took place in December) with Leicester, who in their eternal maturity and wisdom banned me from a press conference. We’re not banned as a paper but it was made clear that I would not be welcome there. We talked about it and they said ‘It was all in the past, he has apologised for it, it was widely covered at the time on the front page of the country’s leading Sunday newspaper.’ They didn’t use the words ‘move on’ but that was very much the gist of it. They thought it was cheap and opportunistic – and they objected to the tweet, not the Facebook post. They objected to it being brought up at the moment that he had beaten the Premier League record for scoring goals.

It seems bizarre that they would object to one journalist, not even writing something for a paper, talking about it.

And it’s not even appeared in a newspaper, apart from when it happened, when no one was really paying that much attention to football because the season hadn’t got going yet. It’s not received anything like the amount of coverage it should have done. People wish that racists didn’t exist – people just wish that it would all just go away and sometimes they can pretend that it doesn’t exist.

[Screeching tone shift] Are you quite conscious of not imitating people you admire in your writing?

I shamefully try to imitate them. For example, one of the first writers who I truly truly fell in love with was Bill Bryson and there are times when I think ‘I’m just going to steal a phrase from Bill Bryson.’ It’s fine. Daniel Kitson, the comedian – I think he’s got an amazing turn of phrase and I’ve cheekily borrowed ideas and sometimes just a tone from him. The guys who I currently like reading the most are people like Brian Phillips or Barney Ronay, so sometimes I will say – and this probably makes me look like an awful, awful writer – but I’ll say ‘Hey, you know what, what if Brian Phillips wrote about, for example, Joe Root. What would that look like?’

In many ways it’s very similar to when songwriters say ‘you know what I’m going to do a Motown song but in the style of Run DMC or whatever’. And you create something completely new but the genesis of it isn’t original at all. But you’ve created something original through it. It’s an influence. In the way music has influences. But it’s good, because you’re thinking about different styles of writing and it adds more strings to your bow. It adds more styles and tones.

I can’t ever remember you saying who your team is…

Off the record – entirely off the record – Spurs. Actually, you know what, you can write that but you have to also write the full story. And that’s that my first team is Spurs and my second team is Arsenal. It’s a very clear one-two. They’re not joint favourites by any means, but I do like them both.

How does that happen?

I come at things very logically and rationally. And while Spurs is a very emotional thing, that came from school days, as I grew older I started to question ‘why do I instinctively have to hate Arsenal? I admire their manager, I admire their football.’ And Spurs and Arsenal are demographically the same, there’s no sectarian split there. They’re the same. They should merge. They really should merge. I’m a North London fan.

North London Rovers.

Yeah, North London Rovers. Spursnal. Arsenham. Do it. They should share a stadium. They should play in each other’s kits when they go away from home. That should be the next step. Arsenal should play in a white away kit and Tottenham should play in a red away kit. Eventually they’ll turn ever so slightly pink and then suddenly one day, nobody even notices, they’re both wearing the same colour shirt, with the same sponsor and they’re called Arsenham. That’s the dream.

You can follow Jonathan Liew on Twitter (@JonathanLiew)

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

Vox in the Box: Jonathan Liew
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