23 February 2018 - Paris Review piece on portraiture
A piece long in gestation ran today. In early 2016 Moussa David Saleh, a university friend and artist, asked a group of his friends to sit for him as he expanded his practice from illustration to portraiture in oils. I was one of his sitters, and agreed to the project as long as I could record our conversations and subsequently write about the process. That process was long and tumultuous, but we got there in the end. My story in the Paris Review is here.
23 February 2018 - FT travel piece on Mt Elbrus
Last winter the travel editor of the Financial Times asked me to join a ski mountaineering trip to Mt. Elbrus in southern Russia. 5,642m (18,510ft) Elbrus is the highest peak in Europe, depending where one draws the boundaries of the continent. The expedition was eventful. We reached the summit, but also triggered an avalanche and I was caught in a major rockfall. My story is here (registration may be required).
26 October, 2017 - Outside piece on Scottish skiing
I had a major feature in the American Outside magazine on the Scottish ski scene, examining the tight knit group of individuals that are determined to pursue skiing in Scotland, a country that by most rational, and all North American, standards is climactically marginal for winter sports. I made three trips to the Highlands in the winter of 2016-17. After a series of good years last winter – inevitably perhaps, given I had chosen to write about the scene then – proved remarkable even by Scottish standards for its inadequate snowfall. I went once to the Cairngorms and twice to Ben Nevis. Alongside the character-driven narrative the piece takes in the impact of climate change and the potential analogy between the Scottish skiers' determination to proceed even in the face of unpromising conditions and the similar approach taken by the Scottish independence movement. The piece, accompanied by Ben Read's excellent photographs, is here.
28 September, 2017 - Bleacher Report piece on football prodigy
As a follow up to my Bleacher Report investigation into the death of Patrick Ekeng, I was asked to profile one of the countless young footballers touted on the internet as the 'Next Ronaldo' or 'Next Messi.' I wrote about Lewis Towns, a six-year-old in Ashton-under-Lyne on Tameside in Greater Manchester who, at the time I spent with him, was training in parallel with Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton and also could not tie his own shoelaces. The piece is here.
8 October, 2017 - Always Take Notes podcast
Always Take Notes, the London-based podcast on writing that I co-host with Kassia St Clair, continues to gain ground. Recent guests on the fortnightly show have included Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Alice Fishburn, editor of the Financial Times magazine, Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist, literary agent Patrick Walsh, historian Peter Frankopan and Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors. Upcoming guests include Kiran Millwood Hargrave, winner of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2017, Oliver Franklin-Wallis, associate editor at British Wired, and Nick Summers, the London features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes here. If you enjoy the show please leave a review – it really helps.
19 June, 2017 - New York Times Book Review
Following my residency at the Carey Institute earlier this year I spent some time in New York renewing connections with American editors. One of my meetings was at the New York Times Book Review, for whom I had written some years ago. An upshot was to review Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo’s novel Some Rise by Sin in June. As a story of gringo moral compromise in Mexico, the book aimed high, staking a claim among Malcolm Lowry and Cormac McCarthy. I felt it did not quite reach that level.
22 May, 2017 - Businessweek piece on barrister's clerks
Another major feature - this time on barristers’ clerks in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. The piece examines the tribe of middlemen in legal London who intercede between solicitors, broadly equivalent to American attorneys, and barristers, the other type of British lawyer, who traditionally wear wigs and gowns and argue in front of judges. Clerks hail from the peripheral counties around the British capital: Kent, Hertfordshire, and above all Essex, a location that in British culture occupies a directly analogous position to New Jersey in the US. For a job that you can enter with no qualifications clerking is spectacularly well paid – the top individuals make upwards of £500,000 per year, or $650,000. The piece probes a subculture, but is also an essay on the English class system and the baroque power dynamics within it. Barristers, traditionally and still disproportionally upper class, theoretically employ working class barristers, who sometimes still call them 'sir' and 'ma’am.' Yet, in particular as a junior barrister, a bad relationship with your clerk strangles your supply of work. It is profoundly unclear who works for whom.
11 May, 2017 - Bleacher Report story on death of Patrick Ekeng
I've just had another big feature run in the US sports publication Bleacher Report. Last year an editor there read the piece I had written for British GQ on the deaths in Sweden of the British guitar band Viola Beach. He contacted me to ask if I could look into another tragic premature death overseas, the case of Patrick Ekeng, a Cameroonian footballer who collapsed while playing for Dinamo Bucharest in May 2016. I travelled to Romania in September last year and, working with an energetic fixer, investigated the situation. Subsequent reporting involved extensive research into 'Young Sudden Cardiac Death.' I spoke to a host of doctors and asked several cardiologists to independently examine post-mortem documentation. This story was one of the most complex reporting tasks I have ever undertaken, but the results were powerful. I uncovered a litany of incompetence and mistakes, ranging from a dead battery in a defibrillator to a failure to apply proper resuscitation procedures, a botched autopsy and an attempted cover-up. The piece is here. Since then Bleacher Report have contracted me to write several other major pieces for their longform vertical.
5 April, 2017 - Swiss challenge for the Financial Times
Alongside my book work and more conventional magazine commitments, this winter has seen me re-engage with ski mountaineering, a sport that I undertook extensively in the army and later at university, but which fell into abeyance when I worked in Africa (there snow was at a premium). Since the end of last year I have been working on a major piece for Outside magazine in the US on the backcountry ski subculture in Scotland. There a group of hardy enthusiasts are determined to ski in a country that is by most rational, and all North American, standards climatically marginal for winter sports. I have made three trips to the Scottish Highlands since January. I have also been working on several pieces for the travel sections of the Financial Times and the Guardian. Later this week I fly to Russia for the FT to join a ski mountaineering expedition to 5,642 m (18,510 ft) Mount Elbrus, which is Europe’s highest mountain, depending where the edge of Europe actually is. While in upstate New York I investigated the local ski hills in a piece that will run in the Guardian next winter. Finally, in March I competed in the "Vertical Up" race in Wengen in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. The objective of Vertical Up is to ascend a downhill World Cup ski run—any means are legitimate as long as strictly muscle-powered. My report on that event just ran in the FT in April—registration may be required.
12 March, 2017 - US writing residency
Earlier this year I spent a fantastic five weeks in the US while a fellow on the Logan Nonfiction Programme at the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville in upstate New York. I lived in the US for 16 months on my Fulbright year in 2008-9 but had not returned since, a failure that seemed immediately negligent on touchdown at JFK. Even at a time of profound political uncertainly I found it tremendously invigorating to be back in America. At the Carey Institute, which when I arrived in February was decked with Narnian quantities of snow, I completed the fourth of six sections of my book in first draft. The fellow writers in residence were distinguished and supportive; I made tentative inroads into the local ice fishing community. I then had a busy stint in New York City and Washington meeting editors and interviewing a range of US military figures and an Iraqi general for my book. I would thoroughly recommend the Logan programme to other writers. Applications are submitted here.
13 November, 2016 – Bloomberg tech bro weekender
Earlier this year an editor at Bloomberg asked me to travel to Greece in the company of an organisation called, quite genuinely, the International Conclave of Entrepreneurs. Born out of a London tech sector mailing list in the late 00s, ICE organised its first ski trip, to Verbier in Switzerland, in 2009. Since then they have travelled to a slew of other alpine resorts, as well as summer excursions to South Africa and Israel.
The ICE trip acquired a reputation for smashing the German digestif Jägermeister at altitude and other boozy antics. “Like a stag party without the stag,” one attendee summarised past outings to me. My destination in September was the Aegean party island of Mykonos. Here the organisers had repurposed the expedition; on board came yoga teachers, a mindfulness guru and two executive coaches. The new focus was personal development and, as I put in the piece, “that choice hashtag of the moment, #wellness.”
The fact that the founders were growing up, acquiring families and other responsibilities, was clearly in part behind the change of direction. Yet other factors were also at play. Venture capital spending, the fuel that drives the tech merry-go-round, is down in London. The Brexit vote earlier this year raised the prospect of losing talented staff on European passports.
This piece is shorter than my recent magazine work; within its tighter frame, and accompanied by striking imagery from Athens-based photographer Loulou d’Aki, it aims though to reflect the curious point of inflection when a tech bro decides to grow up.
In other news, I have just submitted the second section of my book manuscript to my editor at Random House. Journalistically, I am wrapping up one feature for Bloomberg Businessweek and starting work on another for Harper's. The new longform shop established by the American sports publication Bleacher Report asked me to write another major piece on cardiac arrest in football. I travelled to Romania in September to investigate the death of Patrick Ekeng, a 26-year-old Cameroonian midfielder who collapsed while playing for Dinamo Bucharest in May. That piece is currently in edit too.
Meanwhile, I have begun working with Kassia St. Clair, a writer who has just published a book on colour with John Murray, on an exciting project in a whole new medium. In December we will relaunch the writers' drinks and talks series that I began holding a couple of years ago. First up we will be speaking to Jonathan Beckman, author and deputy editor of the Economist's 1843 magazine - more details to follow. Alongside the talks, Kassia and I are collaborating on a podcast for and about writers and writing. We'll speak to a diverse range of people in the industry, everyone from literary agents to screenwriters, and cover topics including the challenges and rewards of freelancing, how data are changing the ways newspapers do business, and how to pitch a book.
19 July, 2016 - GQ piece on Viola Beach
I spent several months earlier this year working on a major piece for the British edition of GQ magazine on Viola Beach, the British guitar band who died in a car accident in Sweden in February following one of their first ever overseas concerts.
The four piece group - their combined age 85 - died along with their manager when their hire car fell around 25 metres (82 feet) from a lifting bridge into a ship canal in Södertälje outside Stockholm just after 2am on 13 February. To report the story I travelled to Sweden in March. I also visited Warrington, the post-industrial town equidistant between Liverpool and Manchester in northwest England where the band originated.
The piece reconstructs Viola Beach's formation and musical career, the chain of events during their final hours in Sweden, and investigates the possible causation of the crash.
Alongside these forensic elements, and as I always aim to with longform projects like this one, I explore a number of other themes: the fallen cultural status of British guitar music, the mechanics of attempting to break through as a musician in the age of SoundCloud and Spotify, and the longstanding binary between rock music and death. That pairing runs back at least as far as Buddy Holly gone at 22 in a crashed Beechcraft Bonanza in a cornfield in Mason City, Iowa in another February in 1959, and takes in Cobain, Joplin and Winehouse.
The piece also probes the type of stories that we, as a species, tell ourselves in the aftermath of premature death. In this case much of the immediate post-accident coverage suggested the band were bound for inevitable stardom. That sentiment is a profoundly understandable one but does represent a post hoc rearrangement of the facts: Viola Beach were unsigned and largely unknown at the time of their deaths. While they were hungry and doing all the right things success in music, as in other creative ventures, is notoriously hard to forecast.
The 5,000-word story ran in print in the July 2016 issue of GQ. In accordance with the magazine's policies it is now, a month later, published online. As ever, at this stage there are numerous thank-yous I would like to make. Firstly, and most importantly, to the families and friends of the band who were willing to sit with me and share their experiences and stories at a juncture when their grief was extremely raw.
Secondly to Theo Lundgren, who served as an outstanding 'fixer' or journalistic guide during my time in Sweden. Theo, a highly respected reporter and writer in his own right, is extremely well-connected and together we were able to navigate the overlapping worlds of Scandinavian law enforcement, accident investigation and music promotion. I wholeheartedly recommend his services if journalistic colleagues are seeking local expertise on Swedish, and wider Scandinavian, assignments. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Numerous others provided assistance on a broad range of matters ranging from the particular culture of northwest England, the current configuration of the music industry, the functioning of car safety systems and the influences reflected in the group's songs. At the magazine likewise thanks to editors Jonny Heaf and Ellie Halls for their work on the story.
Following completion of this GQ assignment I am now working on a major story out of London for Bloomberg Businessweek...
15 March, 2016 - Guardian long read on the IFS
For the past four months I have been working on a longread for the Guardian on the Institute for Fiscal Studies and its role as the de facto umpire of British politics. I became interested in the subject two years ago when Finlay Young and I were writing about the Scottish independence referendum: in a highly politicised debate in which both sides threw numbers at each other the IFS sat in the middle, treated by the media as an oracle. Last autumn I arranged access to the IFS for the period around the Autumn Statement. I shadowed the institute's director Paul Johnson as he watched George Osborne's Westminster speech, before completing a marathon round of the Millbank television studios to offer a hot take on the statement.
I then accompanied Johnson as he rode his Brompton folding bicycle back to IFS headquarters, where a crack squad of young researchers worked into the night, fuelled by takeaway pizza, to find where the Treasury had buried that year's bodies. The next morning, bleary-eyed, the IFS staff rehearsed before delivering their findings in a 1pm presentation that is extraordinarily influential: it becomes the public narrative of what the government has actually done.
The piece weaves this human story of a race against time, conducted through the cells and columns of Microsoft Excel and in the innards of TAXBEN - a huge computerised model of the British tax and benefits system - with an exploration of the history of the IFS, its (often vexed) relations with government and the professional civil service, and the media's extraordinary reliance on its work. That phenomenon pinions in part on the average reporter's extreme phobia of numbers.
I also examine a more conceptual question: what can - and cannot - be objectively umpired in economics. The collision between a caveat-bound, academic discipline and the media's atavistic, and ultimately deeply human, need for a simple answer, is a complex and occasionally hilarious one.
As ever a piece of this scale and ambition would be impossible without the co-operation and help of a large number of people. In this context almost all of them would not want to be named due to the sensitivity of their professional situations. Still, many thanks indeed for your assistance with a story that I found fascinating to both research and write.