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.