Vox in the Box: Mike Calvin

Mike Calvin is the chief sports writer at the Independent on Sunday and has held similar positions at The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday. He has won numerous industry awards, including Sports Writer of the Year for his despatches as a crew member in a round-the-world yacht race. His last two books, The Nowhere Men and Proud, have been named Sports Book of the Year. His new book, Living on the Volcano, is published in August.

Brian Glanville said that this is a golden age for football journalism, possibly the best generation so far. Do you agree with that?

I think the great thing about journalism is that if you’ve got a sense of wonder and a degree of imagination, you could become a really great football writer. I think each era produces its own generational talent. And, irrespective of the medium in which that talent manages to manifest itself, there are always writers who pull you up short. I think it’s futile to look across generations and say well, ‘that one was better than this one’. A bit like saying, “Are you a Messi man or are you a Maradona man?” Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Who inspired you when you were growing up?

Ian Wooldridge. I was really lucky that I got on well with Ian. He was a hero who became a friend.  He was an absolute genius with words, a gentleman in spirit. To me, he embodied everything that is good about the culture of journalism, the way of life of journalism. One thing I always say to young journos is, never underestimate how lucky you are to be doing what you’re doing. Because really, it’s the ultimate job. It’s the ultimate job, because it’s actually not really a job.

It was said that Woollers had a contacts book so big that you could dump him anywhere on the planet and he’d know people.

Yeah, and quite a few cocktail waiters! He was incredible. He challenged Idi Amin to a boxing match, he did the Iditarod, that crazy sled race in Alaska. That was an inspiration, one of the reasons why I joined up with a crew to sail around world in a yacht when I was with the Daily Telegraph. I trained for two years for it, I was hopeless. But I was able to write about it. And he was able to identify with that ambition.

How on earth were you filing copy when you were going around the world?

There was something called Inmarsat. I used to type on this little keyboard, but the boat was at 45 degrees, it was mental stuff. It was interesting that a couple of years after that, Woollers said to me, “That might have made you, but it’s in danger of breaking you.” And I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because you’ve been through such extreme things, you can’t take anything seriously anymore.” And I got what he meant. Because the first job that I came back to was Ian Botham’s last game as a cricketer. It was up in Durham, and I went up there to do the entire back page of The Telegraph. Botham came out and said he didn’t want to do any interviews. He was in the tent drinking with his mates, and I saw the reality of it all. I thought ‘You arsehole. What are you doing?’ So I wrote this piece about a tainted farewell, blahdy blahdy blah. So the next morning, out of the nine daily papers, eight were ‘Oh, the hero departs’, and then there’s me with ‘the horrible shitbag’, you know. And, I got what Woolers meant. When I read that in later years, I was almost trying to be too pure. Because I’d come from somewhere where you’re forced to recalibrate what you do and who you are.

What was it that made you go on the yacht and and not just stay on the football circuit?

The thing about journalism, it gives you the opportunity to one, show off, and two, to be yourself. Or to be your perception of yourself. I know it’s quite arrogant to say this, but if I am interested in something, there’s half a chance that the reader might be as well. That’s why I’ve tried to look beyond the ordinary. We went round the world the wrong way, against the wind and tide. The first time it had ever been done, but we managed to survive. There was a suicide en route, and one or two other tragedies, but we got round. It was a great privilege to get to do it. It taught me a bit about myself. It was such a visceral experience. The weird thing about it was I felt similarly when I did the book, Proud, with Gareth Thomas. We said, you know, this could actually save people’s lives. Now when you put that in cold print, it sounds pretentious, pretty crass. But actually, it’s real.

You must have been getting some letters about that book already?

The feedback on that book has been amazing. Gareth had thousands of letters during the process of coming out. We did a speaking tour once the book was out. In every event that we did, we spent literally hours afterwards talking, because people wanted to relate their own personal experiences. It touched people on a very basic level. We had people telling us things that they’ve probably never told anyone else. I do particularly remember one evening, where there was a guy in the front row. He never took his eyes off us. He was there half an hour before we started, already in position, front row. During the hour or so we spoke, he barely blinked. He was about half way in the queue to get his book signed, and when he got to the front, he spoke to Gareth about the passage where he’d described the cliff top where he was going to end it all. He said to Gareth, “Why didn’t you jump?”  Gareth said, “Well, I had this vision of my parents weeping over my grave and I couldn’t do it.” This guy just said, “Yeah, I went to Weston Super-Mare and I saw my kids in my mind’. And with that, he was gone. He was in such a hurry, he nearly forgot his book. We looked at one another and thought, Jesus. This guy has probably never told anyone that.

You moved away from journalism for a period. Why was that?

There was a sense that the sands were shifting. I was really lucky as I went to Fleet Street as a kid. I was 25 when I joined The Telegraph. I was 27 when I became chief sports writer there for however long it was, 12 or 13 years. I worked with some really good guys at The Times and also the Mail on Sunday. But I was getting to a stage where it was the Bob Geldof moment. ‘Is that it?’ Then Steve Cram called me and said, “Look, we’ve got this idea. We want to set up the English Institute of Sport based on the Australian model and we want you to help build it. It was an incredible experience, but journalism is a bit like the Catholic Church. If you leave it behind, the guilt factor is immense and it will eventually drag you back, and that’s what happened. I missed deadlines, massively. I’m a deadline junkie. I love that ball-aching terror of it. I love it.

Even a match report? Where you’ve got to file on the 85th minute?

Oh, yeah. Again, I’m lucky because I can appreciate that. Because I come from an era that was only one step removed from bloody carrier pigeons, you know? So when I started off as a journalist, it was a different world. It was ab-libs, and I was actually pretty good at that.

When you say ab-libs, you mean picking up the phone to the sports desk and just…talking the match report?

Yeah. It comes in handy and I’ll show you a good example of it. I was at the Six Nations Championship, England vs France and my laptop froze just minutes from the end. I had 1,000 words and it was right on deadline. It was like ‘oh, shit’. I picked up the phone, spoke to the desk and there were no copy takers, only a poor sub. My sports editor, Matt Tench, who has been around a bit as well, said to me, “Look, you’ve done this before mate. Chill.” And that’s what you want. As a guy in the field, you’ve got a sports editor who’s not panicking. So I’m walking around the back of the press box at Twickenham, cursing modern technology like you wouldn’t believe. It’s amazing, like getting back on the bike… bang. 1,000 words.

All off the top of your head?

Completely. It was funny, because I woke up the next morning and read it. I thought ‘yeah, that’s all right’ and I liked it. It’s a great discipline to have. Terror is the greatest aid to creativity you can have, trust me.

Glanville still does it, doesn’t he?

It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to watch, and frankly if you’re sitting next to Brian, you’re going to hear it anyway. He’s a wonderful guy. Each generation, and we’ll go right back to the first question, each generation produces its icons. I hate it when I hear younger guys, guys with talent and new ideas, who don’t respect the old guard. I think Brian Glanville should be preserved in aspic and placed in a journalism museum.

We’re all products of our time. I sound like Steptoe, but the first World Cup I covered was 1982 in Spain. This is how bizarre it was. When we got to Bilbao, we got a lift to the hotel in the England team bus. I sat next to Ray Wilkins. Wilkins was one of the youngest members of that squad and I was the youngest journalist. So I was saying to him, “Do you get stick off the old guys?” and he was saying, “Like you wouldn’t believe.” Now that’s 35 years ago and we still remember that journey. Today, journalists haven’t got the privilege that we had, the chance to actually know players as people, as opposed to commodities. I look back at those opportunities with fondness. Because now we have the mixed zone, that unseemly scrum which passes as social contact between journalist and writer, which I think is mutually damaging.

Do you do the mixed zone?

Under pain of death. I’ve got immense respect for the guys that do it. That is the front line of sports writing. There are some great pros at work in there. I admire what they do, and I wouldn’t do it for a billion pounds.

You did something extraordinary in 2010. You wrote ‘Family,’ a book that made tens of thousands of people instantly stop hating Millwall.

I fell in love with the club, honestly. It was because of the values they represent.  Being in the dressing room, being on the bench, being everywhere, living that season with them, was a privilege. Hunter Davis with Spurs all those years ago was probably the last time a writer had that sort of access. Kenny Jackett and I grew up on the same council estate in Watford and I knew his brother, Alan. He was telling me about Kenny and Millwall and he just painted this picture of a club, of an absolutely unique club, and I thought ‘I want some of that’. So I phoned Kenny and said, “Look, I’ve got this idea, I want to do a book. But I have to have complete access everywhere, because I really want to capture what this football club is all about. I need to be with you, I need to be with the team, I need to be in the dressing room, I need to be in the board meetings, I need to be everywhere.” And he paused for about five seconds and he said, “Yeah, we’ll do it. I’ll speak to the chief executive, speak with the owner, I’m gonna say we can do this.” He was as good as his word. And the great thing about the book is the immortality it confers. There’s something about being in between those covers, that takes you into a different dimension, more permanent than a piece on cyberspace or a newspaper on a stand on Wednesday morning.

And this is something you’ve tried to do with ‘Living on the Volcano’ as well?

The feedback from readers is that they want the veil to be dropped. The modern football industry has cast iron shutters that go down at every opportunity. I think they’re missing a trick. All my books are about people. That’s why with the manager’s book, I made a conscious attempt to say, “Look, this is not going to be a brilliant tactical book. This is a study of people. Who are these guys? Why do they do it? How do they do it? What are their lives like? What are their formative influences?” And what I found by doing Family was that there was a degree of respect from the managers that I might not have had as just another journalist. They said, “Look, you’ve been there, you’ve seen it. You know what we’re talking about.” The other thing that several of the guys said to me was, “We get judged as people by people who don’t know us.” This book, hopefully, will address that balance. It won’t discuss the merits of a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, but what it will do is give you an insight to a guy who was broken up because his mother died. Or, had his outlook to life changed by working on a building site.

The book opens and ends with Martin Ling, who was the manager of Leyton Orient for six years. He got them up, then went to Cambridge United and Torquay. While at Torquay he really began to suffer badly with depression, contemplating suicide. The book starts with him having electroconvulsive therapy in hospital. He loses his job, but does get better. The last chapter starts with him addressing his fellow managers, talking about the lessons he’s learned. Sometimes you go beyond professional protocol. When he was talking to me, he was reapplying for jobs again. And I said, “Look, if I’m your son, I’m saying, ‘Don’t do that, Dad. Please don’t do that.” But he’s sorted now, and I wanted to bookend his story because I thought it was amazingly human. As he says, “I’ve still got a coffee stain on my CV because of this.” I wanted to show what sort of man this guy is. I don’t want him to be judged on stereotypes or whispers. It’s him. Hopefully, that’ll stack up from the book.

This book captures guys at their lowest depths, literally when they’ve just been sacked. You know, they’re in a car park, having a father-son conversation with their kid who’s in tears because his dad’s just been sacked. So, it really addresses things on a basic level. I wanted to show people, that the men who are viciously dismissed in 140 characters have got beating hearts, and that they’re good people. They are people with ambitions, with families.

Some of the things these guys put up with you would not believe. Social media has dehumanised them. Karl Robinson (MK Dons manager) told me this one story. MK Dons had lost the day before. He took his eight year old daughter for a walk around a local lake on the Sunday morning. They were just laughing and joking as a dad and a daughter do, and this guy came up to him and said, “I suppose you think losing is funny, do ya?”  Unbelievable.  If, by giving such insights, this book gets one person to pause before they do something like that, it’s all been worthwhile.

Living on the Volcano will be released in August and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

You can follow Mike Calvin on Twitter (@Calvinbook)


Vox in the Box: Mike Calvin
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