My Dad: Mr Electricity
Ian McRae

My father died in the early hours of Sunday 12 July. His funeral will be held in Johannesburg this afternoon. The Covid-19 crisis means that I cannot fly back to South Africa but I will join the funeral remotely as we say goodbye to a remarkable man.

Ian McRae, my dad, was often called South Africa's Mr Electricity. He had so much energy and clarity of vision that a newspaper headline once extolled him as 'The Man with Volts in His Veins.' Ian was the former fitter and turner who, after more than 40 years of hard work, became the Chief Executive of Eskom, South Africa's national power utility. I think he would have been the same whichever path his life had taken – but his journey from the workshop to the boardroom meant that Ian was steeped in humility and had that rare ability to talk easily to people from all walks of life.

Ian McRae

So while he was quietly subverting apartheid with his revolutionary 'Electricity for All' programme, in a sustained bid to bring light and power to every corner of South Africa, my dad would also be helping the son of a black gardener continue his higher education. The great public initiatives Ian led were accompanied by private gestures which few outside of our family knew about as he funded and helped so many people less fortunate than us.

He was also, simply, my dad. He was the dad who sang Hello Dolly to me, doing his best Louis Armstrong impression, when I was very small and capable of laughing hysterically when he swapped Dolly's name for mine. He would infuriate me in later years when, while I just wanted to nurse my hangover after a riotous night at a teenage party, my dad would burst in, fling open the curtains and break into song again – choosing a cheesy ditty like When You're Smiling or the old Scottish jig Donald Where's Your Troosers?

This was the same dad who taught me how to catch and kick a ball. The same dad who showed me how to bodysurf giant waves in the Cape and the same dad who took me to play or watch sport every weekend and who nurtured a love of movies and the theatre – whether he was taking my mother, my big sister Heather and I to see one of his favourite Clint Eastwood films or an Athol Fugard play which laid bare the complicated country he so loved.

Ian McRae

In later years, when I left South Africa, my dad never missed a Saturday morning when he sat down and wrote a long letter telling me about his week while offering so much support and love for all I was trying to do, alone, in a strange and teeming city like London.

My dad and I really discovered each other again in those letters. I felt able to tell my parents when I was anxious or sad, about my latest mishap with a girl or my hope that I was on my way to becoming a writer. They wrote back in turn – and I remember being so moved every time I opened a letter from my dad and his spidery scrawl burst into life. He didn't use flashy words. He just wrote as he spoke – calmly and with great understanding. My dad made me feel that I was doing well even when, in truth, I was floundering. He had this gift of ensuring I never felt lonely because, despite the six thousand miles between us, I always turned to him.

Heather and I needed my dad a lot over the years. He baled us out of various scrapes without ever being judgemental. Our dad knew that we were on a different path to him and that we had to forge our own careers – writing for me and working with animals for Heather.

All this time, Ian kept doing his ground-breaking work. I was in my thirties before I began to really appreciate the magnitude of my dad's work in South Africa – and how my mom, Jess, had supported Ian every step of the way. They were an unbreakable team.

Ian McRae

Twenty-one years ago Ian became more than a visionary and a leader. He also became more than a husband, father and much loved father-in-law to my sister's husband Ross and to my wife Alison. Ian became Grandpa to our three children. He found such delight and pride in Bella, Jack and Emma whether he was talking to them in our garden in England or showing them a lone Fish Eagle, a stray warthog or a mighty herd of elephants when we were out in the African bush with my parents.

Ian McRae

All these memories are a great consolation when we already miss him so deeply. This, after all, is the father who taught me so much about life, people, politics and sport with a light and compassionate touch. How can I feel anything but lucky to have had him for so long?

Over the last few years I came to value his giant stature in even more moving and intimate ways. On the surface these were years of hurt and loss, of illness and death. In truth, they were inspiring and uplifting.

When my parents flew from Johannesburg to London in August 2014 calamity struck. About two hours from landing, Ian sensed that something was awry. He could not hold a fork as he tried to eat his breakfast on the plane. A numbing loss of sensation spread down one side of his body. He tried to hide it from me when I met them at the arrivals gate at Heathrow but, on the journey from the airport, my dad could not conceal the fact that his speech had become slurred. The suspicion that he had suffered a stroke was soon confirmed.

The next few weeks, which he spent in hospital, were amongst the hardest of my life. There were deep concerns about his health, as well as paying the vast hospital bills, but it was my dad who lifted us. He worked so hard and responded so well to all the occupational and speech therapists who taught him how to walk and talk again.

On his first morning out of hospital I felt heartbroken as I helped the shuffling, stricken figure of my dad to the shower. He was hunched over, and unable to stand on his own, and I could have cried when I saw how much he had been reduced by the stroke. But as soon as I turned on the taps, and my dad felt the steaming water cascading down, he lifted his head. He closed his eyes and let out a blissful sigh.

"Oh, boy," he said softly, "that's beautiful..."

A simple shower felt so restorative to Ian that any idea of lamenting his stroke was pushed away. "Beautiful," my dad kept saying with a light slur as I towelled him down, "beautiful…"

His capacity to find beauty and even joy amid seeming catastrophe made me admire and love my dad even more. That same strength helped us again when, in September 2018, we lost Heather far too young. She had suffered for so long but she always retained the resilience and hope that defined her dad.

Ian was devastated by the death of his daughter but he never showed anger or self-pity. Instead, he remembered all the great work Heather had done and reiterated his pride and love for her.

Less than a year later, last August, Ian lost Jess to cancer. They were just weeks away from celebrating sixty-four years of happy marriage together. Amid her final months he poured everything of himself into caring for Jess. When the pain was harsh my mother would make a little moan and reach out. Ian was always there so that his hands could envelop hers. He would sooth the worst of her hurt.

When the end came for Jess, Ian was again free of bitterness and regret. He showed me how to feel the good fortune, the love and the gratitude that we had had Jess for so long.

Ian was diagnosed with cancer himself that same week we lost Jess. He took the news calmly, as always, and said he would just make the most of however long he had left. I was with him last August, and again this January, when I returned to South Africa to be with him. My last visit was full of happiness and peace.

His health was relatively good and all his great qualities were just as clear as they had always been. The same curiosity and tolerance, kindness and intelligence shone out of my dad. I often took him out for coffee and lunch and Ian loved meeting new people. Even at the age of 90 he would be keen to find out more about our waitress or waiter. He would say hello, thank them for their service and then, without being intrusive, gently discover their names and ask how life was treating them that day. I would sit back and marvel at the positive way people responded to Ian.

It would be the same when we got back to the car and the black parking attendant would rush over to greet Ian and say how long it had been since they had chatted. And off they would go, asking about each other's health and even discussing the state of the world. Little jaunts out with my dad invariably turned into busy social occasions.

During those last 10 days together we also watched a lot of sport on TV – and almost as much news from around the globe. My dad's worldly nature meant that we would move from local channels to CNN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera. Rather than becoming inward and decrepit Ian continued to look outward with interest and optimism.

We spoke most days on the phone and I can still remember my dad's enthusiasm when he told me that the new chief executive of Eskom had arranged to visit him at the care home to discuss the company's crisis. My dad stressed that, despite Eskom's woes, he was determined to avoid saying how better things had been back in his day. Rather than looking back at past glories he preferred to live in the moment and see if there were practical suggestions he could offer.

As the new CEO told me in the days following Ian's death, it was a long and productive meeting. He stressed the humility and wisdom of Ian and how, rather than being critical, my father had been full of positivity and useful advice. It felt like a circle had been completed in regard to my dad and the company that, for so many people, defined Ian McRae.

Ian McRae

The next day he told me a sobering story. One of the black nurses who looked after him so well at St George's had been mugged on her way to work. I think I was the only person he told but, in his typical way, my dad quietly gave the nurse a significant chunk of the money she had lost that morning.

"She has been so good to us," he said on behalf of Jess and himself.

Covid 19 then swept across the world and the lockdown hit all of us. My dad, who so loved people, found it hard that his daily stream of visitors was suddenly blocked. Towards the end, even his walks around the care home complex had to be curtailed. We spoke often about the fact that I could not, as usual, plan my next visit home. My dad urged me to stay cheerful.

"This time will pass," he said, even though he had no illusions about its scale and severity.

In the end, my dad was stuck low by the virus but at least he was spared undue suffering. It has meant that, owing to the lockdown and restrictions on flying, I can only join his funeral today by a video link. But I can still say my public goodbye to a remarkable man this afternoon.

He didn't like computers much and, in ordinary times, Ian always wanted to break down barriers and distance between people. But my dad would understand and support the nature of this funeral. I also know that he would not want us to mourn him. He would want us to live in the moment, and to savour everything that he loved about the world.

Mr Electricity did not have volts in his veins but he lit up the world. And so I can put my sadness to one side. Rather than gloom or darkness, I still feel the warmth and see the light of the man I was lucky enough to call my dad.

Ian McRae

A Mighty Mother: Jess McRae
Jess McRae

Jess McRae

My mother Jess McRae died on Thursday 8 August, 2019. Her funeral is this afternoon.

Maya Angelou, the great American poet, wrote about life and death in a simple yet profound way. 'I've learned that people will forget what you said,' she wrote. 'People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.'

I think everyone who knew my mother, Jess, will always remember how she made us feel. For my dad and I, who have just lost an unforgettable wife and mother, it is even more personal. We clearly remember the words and deeds which defined the woman we loved.

I have spent the eight days since my mom's death feeling lucky all over again. This good fortune does not just reside in the comforting truth of being lucky enough to have had a mother like mine for 58 years. It does not end with the knowledge that, had she lived, this coming Tuesday would have marked my parents' 64th wedding anniversary. I have also felt lucky because I've seen again how deeply my mother touched so many people's lives.

Jess McRae

There is a photograph of my mother I have always loved. It is a black-and-white snapshot of the young Jess singing at the piano. She is surrounded by many male admirers. My dad is among them and he got lucky – because my mom had already chosen him.

This photograph was taken long before my sister Heather and I were born. But it helps me understand again how Jess made people feel. It is a very happy photograph and it reminds me of our summer holidays every December.

Heather, Jess, Ian & Don McRae

Heather, Jess, Ian & Don McRae

For years we went to East London, a sleepy little town on the South African coast. We stayed at the Queens Hotel, close to the beachfront. Most evenings, once Heather and I had been put to bed, my parents returned to the lounge and mom would sing. As soon as he'd heard that she had sung professionally in Johannesburg, in Oklahoma, the pianist had persuaded her to sing for the guests.

Her speciality ditty was called Little White Dove – which my big sister and I would mimic in mock-operatic voices. But we were still stunned that our mom, who was just over five feet tall in her heels, had the confidence to sing to a lounge full of strangers getting tipsy on beer and miniature bottles of Baby Cham.

On one memorable holiday the pianist arranged for us to visit a recording studio in downtown East London so that he and mom could cut a crackly version of Little White Dove. The studio gave us a 7 inch record, a 'seven single' as we called it back then, which we could play for fun when we got home to Germiston.

Heather and I ribbed my mom endlessly for singing a song as uncool as Little White Dove but, secretly, we were proud of her.

The next morning, as usual, mom was out in the sea as all four of us surfed the booming rollers. My dad, Heather and I liked to body surf but my mom used a boogie board. She made quite a sight as, in her bright yellow cap, she came hurtling down the huge curve of a wave. The roaring surf would carry her all the way to the beach. People always noticed her – you couldn't miss the sight of a middle-aged woman surfing in a yellow cap – but no-one else knew that she was also the Germiston diva who had just recorded Little White Dove.

My mom should have gone to university because she was fiercely intelligent – but there had been few opportunities for women when she was young. Yet Jess always wanted to learn and get better and she gained a richer knowledge of life and of people just by being herself.

At Eskom, the state electricity company where my dad, Ian, worked his whole career, they called Jess 'The Little General'. When it came to rallying support for Ian's various causes, or setting up fund-raising campaigns, she was a peerless organizer. And if she needed Eskom or some other corporate body to sponsor the orphanage or old-age home she had founded in the black township of Alexandra, Jess kept at them until they relented.

I had worked in Soweto as a very young English teacher in the 1980s but they had been innocent days. I was young and foolish. I raged at my parents about our lives as white South Africans without really understanding then how far they had come from the casual racism we had all displayed in my childhood. My father, in particular, was about to do remarkable and truly radical work at Eskom in electrifying the townships and rural areas of South Africa – before helping light up so many other countries in Southern Africa.

Ian McRae

In contrast, for all my fine talk, I did little but have one of the best times of my life in Soweto One day, at the end of another long Friday session in the shebeen, my friend and fellow teacher Josh Sepheto took me all over Soweto, showing me more about township life than I'd ever dreamed of learning.

Ian McRae

My mother woke at three o'clock the next morning to discover I had not returned home. Shaking my dad, she was convinced I lay dead in a township ditch. Dad was used to me stumbling in at all hours but he knew that a Friday night in Soweto was very different to hanging out at a dingy club in Johannesburg. He walked down to the garden gate, in his dressing gown, hoping to catch sight of my battered old car weaving slowly home. After he had stood forlornly there for five minutes he wandered back inside. It was 3:15 a.m.

'I'm calling the police,' my mom said.

A black constable at Soweto's police station heard that I had been in the township since eight o'clock the previous morning. My mother told him she was sure I'd been attacked, or killed. The black policeman assured her no report had been made in regard to any young white man in Soweto.

'My son is missing,' my mother shouted.

'Madam,' the black constable said patiently as he slipped back into the vernacular of South Africa in the 1980s, 'maybe your boy is just having a good time.'

A few years later Alex was far more dangerous and impoverished than Soweto. 450,000 people were crammed into eight square kilometres. The most vulnerable were the very young and the very old. Jess wanted to help these often forgotten people. Just like my dad, Ian, who was inspired by his vision of electricity for all, Jess had become consumed by the work she did in Alex.

It was not easy. Even when they managed to form a small committee to raise the finances, none of the white men felt brave enough to enter Alex. And when Jess enticed overseas visitors to join her on a township tour, her car was broken into and the army arrived. They insisted on using a heavily armoured Casspir to escort her and her guests out of Alex. Afterwards, her relieved European visitors said they would dine out on their township story for years to come.

I think this is why they called my mom the Little General. But, above all, The Little General had a heart. Years before my mom had been asked to present the awards at a power station function in a deeply conservative community. Apartheid was enshrined, and many at the power station were uncomfortable with Ian McRae's policy of instigating multi-racial evenings. The two racial groups sat apart but Jess liked looking out at a sea of black and white faces.

Ian McRae

A wave of white managers, engineers and maintenance men appeared on stage, beaming with pride, as Jess handed out their prizes. But, near the end, the names of two women in the administrative department were announced. The first, a young Afrikaans woman, swapped handshakes with my mother, who also pecked her on the cheek.

A middle-aged black woman was called to the stage. It jarred with many that she should be allowed to climb the same steps as the white workers of Eskom.

Jess smiled at the woman and stretched out her hand. The black lady accepted her handshake and bowed her head. Jess had not planned anything but her instinct took over. She congratulated the woman and then, as she had done with the Afrikaans girl, Jess leaned closer.

The silence thickened as people watched her. Jess McRae, the wife of Eskom's future chief executive, did something unthinkable then. She kissed a black woman. Gasps echoed around the hall.

Later, Jess was cornered by an Eskom executive. 'Hell, Jess,' he said, 'why do you have to kiss that girl?'

'I just think we should treat everyone the same,' my mother said.

These were just small moments in a great life – but they typified Jess. They also explain why Heather and I felt so lucky and proud to have had her as our mother.

Jess always told us how lucky she was too. She had Ian and she had us. My dad and I worked out the other day that he started to go out with Jess in 1949 exactly 70 years ago. Over the last year, travelling back and forth from London to Johannesburg, it has been moving and inspiring to see the love and care which Ian has shown Jess as her health declined.

Of course in the last days of her life my mom was just a shadow of the woman we loved. As her cancer took hold we were relieved that her pain was dulled by the steadily increasing doses of morphine. But the morphine robbed us of her wit and vitality. As a result my mom did not talk much over the last few months at the care home where she and my dad lived.

On one of the last days I was with my mother, six weeks ago, she surprised me. My dad was being showered by the nursing staff. It was around seven in the evening and Jess and I sat in front of the television. I always talked to my mom but, this time, out of the silence that surrounded her, she spoke to me. She told me how much she loved me.

They were short, simple sentences but they carried such power. I knew it had taken a deep will for her to say them.

Last week, a few days after Jess's death, Ian was visited by Mildred Mngoma – one of the lovely nursing sisters. After my dad reassured Mildred that he was at peace, he explained that he was sustained by his memories of Jess.

'Yes,' Mildred said, 'I have my own special memory of Mrs McRae.'

Mildred explained that, a week earlier, she had brought my mother's morphine. After she had given the medicine she was startled by Jess's voice. It was ragged but quite loud.

'Thank you for looking after me so well,' my white mother said to the black sister.

Mildred patted my mom on the arm and smiled. It was only when she walked down the empty night-time corridor that she realised how hard it must have been for Jess.

Mildred Mngoma

Mildred Mngoma

When I asked Mildred about it a few days ago the striking word she used was 'fervour'. She said my mother had expressed her gratitude with such fervour.

I remembered how other black nurses called my mother 'Queen' or, even more intimately, 'my sister'. This is how Jess made people feel. She carried that love and fervour inside her.

My dad is also full to the brim with the same fervour and love. I am not alone in noticing how special he and my mom have been their whole lives.

A few nights ago, before bed, my dad was being showered again by one of the black nurses – the amazing Thandeka Dlamini. During these tender and vulnerable moments, my dad spoke about my mom. He told the nurse that he felt happy to have had Jess as his wife for 64 years.

'Shew, doctor,' Thandeka said, 'that's amazing.'

Thandeka Dlamini

The young black nurse began to tell my old white father how she had spoken about him and Jess the previous night. Thandeka had told her boyfriend about the extraordinary love and compassion Ian showed to Jess. She made my dad smile while she said she had instructed her poor boyfriend that this was the kind of example she expected him to follow forever.

I think it is going to be tough for Thandeka’s boyfriend to match my dad – and for me to match Ian and Jess when it comes to living life the way it should be lived until the very end.

Ian and Jess McRae

When she reflected on the life and death of her own mother, Maya Angelou spoke beautifully:

'I am grateful to have been loved, and to be loved now, and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn't just hold. That's ego. Love liberates.'

Jess McRae

My mom gave us the same healing and liberating love. She lifted me up when I was down and allowed me to find the path for my own life. She and my dad encouraged and allowed me to become a writer a long way from home. We became closer and closer with the passing years.

Jess was a cherished wife, mother and grandmother. Her funeral is this afternoon, on a sun-filled day just outside Johannesburg.

I know it is time to liberate the mighty Jess from the suffering of the past nine months and to give thanks for her wonderful life – and for the example she set in the words she said, the deeds she did and, most of all, for the way she made us feel so happy and so very lucky.

A Giant Called Small: Heather Simpson
Heather, Jess, Ian & Don McRae

Heather, Jess, Ian & Don McRae

Heather Simpson died on Saturday 15 September 2018. She had been seriously ill for a long time but her death was still a shock. This is what she meant to me.

Heather was my big sister but I used to call her 'Small'. When we were young and living with my mom and dad in South Africa I had many nicknames for Heather. For some inexplicable reason I spent years calling her 'Wilson'. Heather didn't mind because she knew that I revered her. 'Small' was the nickname that lasted the longest. She might have been just five foot two tall but Heather had huge intelligence, enormous compassion and a mighty drive to do her best.

I had nicknames for everyone in my family. My dad put up with me calling him Hamlet for years while I tagged my mom 'The Little Wall' because I used to bounce a tennis ball off her head while chatting to her and Heather. I remember Ross, Heather's beloved husband, first visiting our house in Germiston. I was 17 and Heather and Ross were both 20. Ross would tell me in later years that he was bewildered when he saw me bouncing a ball off my very calm mother’s head while I asked Heather if she could help me with an English essay. Of course Heather always did.

All these years later, and still just finding a way to accept that Heather is no longer here, I can see even more clearly how my sister helped me be myself.

At first, when we were both small, Heather simply looked after me. She allowed me to tag along with her and the older kids and whenever I got tired or frightened Heather made sure I soon felt better. She also spent hours on the tennis court with me. Even though I cried when she kept beating me, she always told me that, one day, I would find a way to win. Heather was much better than me but she gave me belief that I would also do well if I kept working and trying. She was a teacher even then.

Heather taught me how to body surf and so, alongside my dad, and my mom on her boogie board, we had amazing family holidays every December in Port Elizabeth or East London. I would be shocked when we were dumped by a huge wave but then I would see Heather. She would surface from the roaring waters and call out to me. Another monster wave was on its way. We should try to catch it and surf it properly. We usually did.

Heather & Don McRae

When we were teenagers, Heather loved books and music and she opened up these worlds to me in a way that changed my life forever. Heather seemed impossibly cool to me. She was listening to David Bowie and reading Simone de Beauvoir when she 16. I was 13 and I was amazed by everything she told me. David Bowie was a man but he wore make-up and called himself the Thin White Duke. Simone de Beauvoir was a feminist. These were concepts that went straight over my head in suburban white South Africa. But Heather took time to explain what they meant. She played me all her favourite records, until they became my favourites too, and she spoke to me about the books she loved.

She was a magnificent singer. Heather was so talented that her singing teacher believed she would become a great opera singer. She wanted Heather to leave Germiston for Vienna to study opera. Heather was that good but it was also a step too soon. She was very young and so she chose a different path.

Heather went to university to take a Bachelor of Arts degree – specialising in English Literature. She went on to do her honours and Masters in English and I remember being mildly stunned when I read her thesis on Jonathan Swift.

By then I knew I wanted to become a writer and Heather was the first person in whom I confided my secret ambition. It was a wild and crazy plan. I was going to leave Johannesburg and travel to London so that I could become a writer. My mother and father, who backed me and Heather every step of our lives, were obviously concerned. I knew no-one in London. But Heather bolstered me. Heather believed in me. Heather told me I could do it.

Heather, being such a compassionate person, developed a political consciousness. She was the first person to really make me think about apartheid and the cruelty of racism. When I decided I could not go into the army and do my national service, Heather saved me. The alternatives were limited. I didn’t want to go to jail for six years and I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving my parents and South Africa – seemingly forever. My mom and dad were incredibly understanding and supportive – but in the earliest days it was Heather who sustained me. It was Heather who drove me to the airport. I cried because I was leaving my mom and dad but Heather gave me the courage I needed.

Heather and Ross followed me later that year and, while we missed my parents terribly, we did our best in London. It was hard and lonely at first and you can guess who kept me going. Heather was such a huge presence in my life that I stopped calling her 'Small'. She was just Heather – the person I always turned to when I had doubts or worries.

Heather had many great personal and professional achievements in the UK. One of the first woman to trade in the City of London’s Financial Funding market, she worked successfully for a few years on deals that were worth hundreds of millions of pounds. But Heather didn’t like the city or share the same values as many of the traders she met. In 1992 she walked away from that lucrative career and devoted the rest of her life to animal welfare. She returned to university to begin a three-year post-graduate veterinary course alongside fully-qualified vets. Twenty-three vets and Heather started together and just three of them completed the course. Heather was one of them. She had just finished writing her subsequent PhD thesis when she succumbed to the final stages of her illness.

Yet her great passion, the Natural Animal Centre, which she ran in Wales with Ross, remains a place of learning today – and her legacy of enhancing animal welfare continues.

Heather Simpson

Amid all this Heather still found time to help edit my first few books and, decades later, even when she was so ill, Heather would always want to hear about my next book. She has been there from the start and, now that she is gone, it feels hard. But I will draw on these memories of her and on the love my remarkable parents, Ian and Jess, still show to us today.

I will also never forget her courage and strength in withstanding such ill health for so long. The last time I saw Heather, two months ago, I spent a memorable afternoon with her. She was in a hospital bed but she was warm and animated, full of life and hope. I said goodbye to her, not knowing it would be the last time, and I felt amazed all over again by Heather. Memories of that afternoon, and all our years together, make me understand how lucky I was to have had her with me from the very start.

I might once have called her Small but my big sister Heather has always been, and will always remain, a giant to me.

One-To-One: 15 Years Of Interviews
Marvin Sordell


I have been mildly worried when facing a tricky situation with an alcoholic boxer who has just been beaten up and no longer cares if his attackers turn up again and shoot him in the house where we are sitting. I have admired the honesty of a professional footballer who endured depression and attempted suicide before his ambition to become a writer saved him. I have noted the compassion of a former goalkeeper who supports sex workers before railing against Vladmir Putin and calling Piers Morgan "a massive cock". I have nodded when the manager of Liverpool has lamented Brexit while describing his "helping syndrome". I have seen the courage of a woman who survived the trauma of a gang rape to recover and celebrate her strength and talent. I have been told that it is harder being the pope than the most famous cyclist in the world. I have struggled to interview a racer who has lost his father, his uncle and now his brother in tragic accidents on their terrifying motorbikes. I have listened closely when a grieving fighter has told me about the terrible night when his fists took the life of his opponent.

Paul McErlane


In a simpler list this means that, over the last six months, I have interviewed Eamonn Magee, Marvin Sordell, Neville Southall, Jürgen Klopp, Paige VanZant, Peter Sagan, Michael Dunlop and Dale Evans. These are just eight of the thirty people who have sat down and answered my inevitably long lists of questions since early March 2018.

Jürgen Klopp


Their varying levels of fame have mattered less than their densely layered personal stories. They offer a six-month snapshot of the kind of interviews I am lucky enough to write for The Guardian.

Fifteen years ago this week, on 14 September 2003, I interviewed Michael Vaughan who was then the new England cricket captain. It marked my debut in The Guardian’s Interview of the Week slot. Now, a mere 180 months later, I have just completed my latest interview with Marvin Sordell. Apart from showing the difference in layout and presentation on The Guardian’s website, it feels like a small milestone.

I met Vaughan in an office in Canary Wharf, arranged by his publishers, while I spent the afternoon in Kings Cross with Sordell. We ended up sitting in a secluded park, adjoining a church and a graveyard, and he told me his extraordinary story. A bond was forged and he opened himself up. The words flowed from him, calmly yet powerfully, and I felt absorbed and moved by the interview process all over again. This 15th anniversary of my one-to-one Guardian interviews was a reminder of how privileged I am to be in this position of hearing people, all of whom carry some sporting renown, express some of their deepest fears and hopes in conversation.

Of course it does not happen every time. At least one in five interviews sees me digging into the old box of conversational strategies to change the mood from defensive or bored to something more involving and interesting for both of us. But every year, among the 60 odd interviews I do annually, only one or two will be a dreary grind.

As I write a minimum of 46 setpiece 1-2-1s a year, with around a further 20 shorter interviews for the long-form features I love working on, it’s a safe bet to say that about 65 people talk into my Guardian recorder from one September to the next. Some years have been busier than others but if we stick to the 65 annual guesstimate then I am closing in on a thousand Guardian interviews. 15 years x 65 = 975 interviews.

I am usually too busy thinking of the next interview, or still mulling over the last one, to have had the time to count them up exactly. Yet in my fifteen years, asking all these questions, I need less than ten fingers for the disasters or disappointments. Less than ten stinkers in almost a thousand is not a bad record and it shows how fortunate I have been in the interviewees I’ve met.

There has been occasional troubles with agents and lawyers, which is to be expected in these draconian times of "image management" and "content control" in professional sport. I have lost also many prime interviews because I am not willing to offer "copy approval" or limits on the kind of questions I am allowed to ask. In pragmatic terms we have understood that some interviews are only granted because of a tag-line at the end. Even that very first Vaughan interview came on the back of a book promotion. But the England captain spoke honestly and openly that day. He was exhausted and he suggested rightly that the heavy workload of international fixtures was unhealthy. "You just wish they’d stop drilling us into the ground," he said of cricket administrators who, 15 years on, should still pay attention to those words.

We did not spend a long time discussing his book – which was a decent sporting read – and I enjoyed our interview. He might have looked frazzled, as I suggested in the opening four-word sentence of this long run of interviews, but Vaughan was good company.

"Professional sport is about confronting doubt," he said early that day, in a line echoing through so many interviews I’ve done since 2003. It has not mattered if my interviewees have been as famous as Pelé or Usain Bolt, Johan Cruyff or Michael Phelps, Venus Williams or Mike Tyson, Sachin Tendulkar or Pep Guardiola, because doubt always rises. The great ones usually find a way to quash doubt, or overcome it, but they are intelligent enough to accept its presence in their sporting lives.

I’ve always been more interested in the human being rather than the icon – in the real man or woman rather than the sporting star. Some interviewees try to hide behind a shield but, in the end, they are all human and, slowly, glimpses of their real self unfold the longer we talk. Sometimes we don’t really get too far and the interview feels routine. So when the breakthrough comes, with the best ones, it feels special.

The dramatic events listed in the opening paragraph might suggest that these interviews are always on the hunt for the darkest moments. I hope that’s not true because it’s the small and endearingly human moments which stay with me the longest. Once we reach the point where we are just talking, as one person to another, rather than sticking to a rigid question-and-answer pattern, we always seem to peel back the most layers.

Even if some of these special little moments don’t translate into a great interview they remind me to savour each encounter. Luck is involved too. When I met Guardiola in October 2016 it was less for an interview than an experience. I had been asked by a publisher if I would conduct a bookshop Q&A with Guardiola about Johan Cruyff – and a book written in the voice of the great Dutch visionary. I was asked, partly, because I had been one of the last people to have interviewed Cruyff in depth – four years ago this very week in September 2014.

I said no, at first, because I am always more comfortable in a 1-2-1 setting than up on a public stage. But I guess I am shameless, too, in pursuing my interviews so I said that I would do it if I could also interview Guardiola. It was a very long shot, deep inside in my own defensive half, and after much negotiation I was offered a paltry prize of a ten-minute interview slot with Pep after we had done our bookshop work. You need at least 40 minutes to produce an interview of real depth and so I shook my head – but said 'Okay, let’s do it.’

Pep Guardiola


The afternoon was planned with precision by the publishers and I met Guardiola in a hotel in Bloomsbury before the bookshop event began. We were soon joined by Jordi Cruyff, Johan’s son, but fate intervened. A flight from Barcelona carrying Danny Cruyff, Johan’s wife of 48 years, had been delayed and so I ended up spending most of the afternoon with Guardiola. We spoke freely, without a recorder, and that relaxed conversation ended up being just as intriguing as any antipathy Pep felt towards José Mourinho or his clinical jettisoning of Joe Hart.

I liked hearing him talk about travelling to London by train before he remembered his rigorous sabbatical when he was between positions at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The zeal with which Guardiola recalled "many hours of homework" while learning to speak German in New York melted into a lofty appreciation of the language. Guardiola was almost poetic in describing how, once you move beyond the harsh cadences a foreigner hears, "the beauty of German surprised me".

I was surprised, in turn, by Guardiola once we finally heard that, an hour later, Mrs Cruyff was being taken directly from the airport to the bookshop. The publishers had arranged a couple of fancy cars to drive us to Waterstones but Guardiola looked out at a sunny October afternoon. "Why don’t we just walk there?" he said. "Are you OK with this?"

It seemed typical of Guardiola’s mood as we made the short walk to Tottenham Court Road, receiving a few wide-eyed stares from people wondering if a Pep lookalike might have been out for a stroll. He spoke about feeling free on an otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon in London.

After an hour together on a bookshop stage, with Jordi, Guardiola suggested we walk back to the hotel again.

Pep Guardiola


He said how emotional he had felt, talking about Cruyff, his mentor, as we ambled along some side streets. Guardiola kept talking, asking me about my books and The Guardian, and the impoverished state of newspapers, as well as chatting about my team, Arsenal. "A good choice," he said with a grin as he already knew how far Manchester City were ahead of the beleaguered Gunners.

The formal interview at the hotel was monitored by his brother Pere, the football agent, and so it was limited. But, still, an afternoon in London with Guardiola had been fascinating. He loved football intensely but, in such a laidback setting, that passion felt like enjoyment too.

It recalled another line Vaughan had said to me in 2003 after he explained how the death of the young England cricketer Ben Hollioake had changed his mentality. "When I think of Ben I stop taking it all so seriously," Vaughan said. "Maybe I've also been putting myself under the cosh too much. It’s hard enough just playing for England without beating yourself up over your batting or the captaincy. I sometimes need to remind myself that I'm lucky. I'm very lucky that, for my living, I'm just playing a game. It doesn’t get much better than that."

When I grapple with reduced word counts, or the tedious hoop-jumping that some interviews require before they are agreed, I also remind myself how lucky I am to interview people about their lives rather than just the games they play. I love sport, and always will, but it feels important to ask questions that move beyond the pitch or a track, the court or a ring.

I wish I could say that Marvin Sordell marked my 1000th interview for The Guardian because, in many ways, it means more to me the most. Marvin travelled south by train to meet me in London. It had been his idea to talk about mental health and football, about depression and the threat of suicide, and there were no plugs to make or products to endorse. He knew it was important and he wanted people to listen. I think he knew I would listen to him, closely and with empathy. Despite the dark subject it feel easy to talk.

It was touching to hear Marvin say how much he loved playing football, and how it offered him freedom, just as it was sobering to listen to the way in which he documented the brutality of the industry in which he works. We spoke about football and depression – but we spoke even more about books and writing.

Sitting on a bench under a giant oak tree we spoke for a long time after we had turned off the recorder. Marvin then asked if he could show me the short film he and his friends had made. It is based around his poem, Denis Prose, which is an anagram of depression.

Creative Directors: Marvin Sordell, Will Miller & Maxwell Harris-Tharp. Filmed by Maxwell Harris-Tharp

As we sat in the September sunshine, grateful that the shade of the tree above us shielded the young footballer’s laptop screen from the glare, we watched the film twice. We spoke about using it as part of our Guardian interview and how it would help show people that Marvin Sordell, the footballer, was also Marvin Sordell, the writer. We had moved a long way from football and depression – and we had moved a long way from a typical sports interview.

I felt happy. I felt privileged. And, most of all, I felt very lucky that I meet and interview people like Marvin Sordell.

Jo Cox: More In Common
Jo Cox: More In Common

Working with Brendan Cox on the memoir of his wife, Jo, has been as profound as it has been moving. It has been one of the most memorable experiences of my writing life because, beyond the sadness and the loss, I came to learn so much about the humanity and compassion of a woman I never met. Jo Cox: More In Common is published this week.

A year ago today, on 16 June 2016, Jo Cox woke up in a small cottage in Cleckheaton in West Yorkshire. Jo, the 41-year-old MP for Batley and Spen, faced another busy day in her constituency exactly one week before the British public voted to remain in, or leave, the European Union. The previous afternoon she had kissed Brendan, and their two small children, Cuillin and Lejla, as she watched them leave their house boat and take to the water in a dinghy so that they could have some fun while Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof insulted each other with loud hailers over the EU referendum on the River Thames. Jo wanted to join her family in a typically madcap adventure but she had urgent work to do.

Just after 8 a.m. that Thursday, on a beautiful morning, her colleague Dathan Tedesco picked her up at the cottage. Jo was very cheerful but she pointed out a problem. Her black tights were laddered.

'Could we go to Tescos quickly to pick up some tights?' she asked.

At Tescos, the MP for Batley and Spen bought some new tights and changed in the supermarket loo. She was laughing as she raced back to the car.

'That was speedy. We're not too late are we?'

'Just a little,' Dathan grinned. They headed for Jo's first appointment, a visit to a local school, and Dathan was entertained by her upbeat mood.

'I've not had a sleep like that for weeks because of the kids having chicken pox,' Jo said. 'I went out like a light. I feel incredible.'

Jo was remarkable that morning. After she had amused the kids at their school assembly, she had been lovely with the elderly men and women she then met at a Care Home. Jo spent longer than usual talking to everyone. There was a much more formal encounter next as Jo met with fifteen businessmen. They were worried about the impact European manufacturing was having on their businesses and they were all committed to the Leave campaign. Jo listened to their concerns and then she began to turn the argument around. She helped the men to consider the referendum from a different angle. Jo discussed the economic dangers of Brexit and the advantages of staying within Europe. Dathan watched the men listening closely to her and he was gratified when a number of them admitted they would reconsider their vote. Jo had opened minds which had been previously shut to any option but a narrow future marked Brexit.

The meeting was so constructive they ended it ten minutes late. Dathan needed to get Jo back to the office in time for Fazila Aswat, her assistant, to drive her to Birstall by 12.45.

Jo Cox: More In Common

Jo finally opened her office door at 12.35 p.m. that ordinary Thursday afternoon.

'Hellooooo!' Jo shouted up the stairs to Fazila and Sandra Major. 'It's me...'

Sandra, who had become increasingly worried how they were ever going to make it to Birstall on time, waited at the top of the stairs. 'You're late again, madam,' Sandra said.

'I know,' Jo said as she ran up the stairs. 'But I had such a fantastic morning.'

Fazila and Sandra smiled helplessly. Jo brought such energy and enthusiasm that they could never be really cross with her. Fazila, in particular, was used to it.

'We are a little late,' she confirmed. 'But I guess you're starving?'

'You know me so well,' Jo laughed.

'I made a pasta bake for the kids last night, and I did some extra for you,' Fazila said as she brought a Tupperware out of the fridge. She heated it up in the microwave as Jo got her papers ready. She had a surgery in Birstall which they would follow with some EU campaigning alongside university students the rest of the afternoon.

Fazila presented Jo with a bowl of her pasta bake. 'Amazing,' Jo said as she began eating.

Sandra was already walking downstairs. 'You can eat in the car, Jo,' she said. 'We've got to get going.'

Jo's mouth was too full for her to answer but she opened her eyes even wider and nodded at Fazila while making blissful sounds as she ate. It was one of Fazila's finest pasta bakes. Jo kept eating as she walked down the stairs.

Fazila had just locked the office when she remembered she had forgotten the box of Remain leaflets. 'Sorry,' she called to Sandra. 'I forgot the leaflets. One minute...'

By the time she had picked up the box, locked up again and reached the bottom of the stairs Fazila could hardly believe it.

'You've wolfed it all down already?' Fazila said in surprise.

'It was that good,' Jo said as she placed the empty bowl and the fork on the bottom step.

Jo and Fazila kept chatting and, ironically, the topic of their discussion was security. That morning Fazila had considered how best they might increase the safety of their office. For the previous few weeks Fazila had been called repeatedly by a man. He was very aggressive in his dislike of their political views. Jo had urged Fazila to contact the police and earlier that week they had sent him a formal warning.

'That's good,' Jo said as they reached Fazila's car.

Fazila opened the doors to her Vauxhall Astra. Sandra climbed in next to her and Jo sat in the back. While Fazila drove them from Batley to Birstall, Sandra ran through the key points of each case Jo would discuss with her constituents. Jo believed that two of the cases could be pertinent to topics she was planning to raise in Parliament.

Birstall is usually a nightmare when it comes to parking; and so Fazila exclaimed in relief when she saw an open bay just outside Birstall library. She looked at her watch. 12.50 p.m. 'Only five minutes late,' Fazila said. 'Incredible.'

The last minutes of Jo's life were a blur. Sandra and Jo got out of the car first. Fazila opened the back door to collect her handbag and the papers and leaflets. She had just pushed the door shut with her foot and locked the car when she saw a confusing sight.

Jo lay on the pavement. Sandra was near her, screaming.

Fazila stood for a moment on the road, on the driver's side of her car. She initially thought Jo must have fallen. Fazila took a step towards her. She then saw the man.

He stood over Jo. Fazila shouted at the man. Hazy images of Cuillin and Lejla were in her head.

'She's got two little kids,' Fazila shouted. 'Get away from her.'

The man didn't even seem to notice Fazila. He stared down at Jo.

Sandra had seen him shoot Jo at close range. It was then that Sandra started to scream, in horror, but also in hope that people would help them.

The man had taken a knife out of his bag. Sandra lashed out at him with her handbag, trying to stop him stabbing Jo. Fazila ran towards Jo, her raw instinct driving her on in an attempt to save her friend.

The murderer turned to Sandra and Fazila. He was ready to stab them too. Sandra could hear Jo's cry, weak but insistent.

'Get away!' Jo said to her friends. 'Get away you two! Let him hurt me – don't let him hurt you.'

The man turned back to Jo. He attacked her even more viciously. He then stood up and waved his knife at Sandra and an Asian man who had run to the scene. They were forced to back away.

Fazila crouched over Jo. 'I really need you to get up and run, Jo,' she said.

'I can't run, Fazila,' Jo said. 'I'm hurt.'

The killer had retreated; but now he came back. There were gunshots. Jo slumped down. Blood seeped across the concrete.

Fazila turned cold. The man's voice chilled her even more. She heard him talking clearly.

'Britain first,' he said. 'Britain will always be first.'

Fazila can still hear his voice now, as the nightmare revisits her often. He sounded calm, and utterly certain. There was no remorse.

Fazila cradled Jo in her arms. Her hands and her clothes were covered in Jo's blood. A young policewoman ran towards Fazila and Jo. Fazila was crying.

She had sensed Jo's last breath. Fazila felt her sigh and then slip away into silence and stillness.

Fazila was sure Jo was already dead. But she wanted to believe she was wrong. She looked into the face of the policewoman who could not have been older than 22. The policewoman carried out CPR on Jo, pumping her heart desperately.

Standing up, in a daze, Fazila knew they needed a miracle. She saw Sandra running towards her. She told Fazila the paramedics had arrived.

'She's not breathing Sandra,' Fazila said. 'Jo's not breathing.'

Sandra held her. 'There's nothing we can do,' she said softly. 'We must just pray.'

Fazila's phone rang. She looked at the name on the screen.

'Brendan,' Fazila said helplessly as she answered.

'I've just heard Jo's been attacked,' Brendan said in distress. 'What happened?'

'Jo's been shot, and stabbed,' Fazila said. 'I'm so sorry Brendan.'

'But she's going to be ok?'

'I don't know,' Fazila said. 'The paramedics are doing everything they can.'

There was silence on the phone. And then Fazila heard the sound of Brendan running.

'I'm leaving London now,' he said. 'Call me Fazila. Please call me...'

Like Jo Cox's parents, Gordon and Jean, her sister Kim, and so many of her old school friends, I had planned to spend the afternoon of 16 June 2016 watching the European Championship football match between England and Wales. I had never met Jo and so I saw the whole game. Her family and closest friends, however, were informed of the murderous attack soon after it happened. Gordon and Jean turned away from the televised build-up to the football in muted shock and drove to Birstall. The two pensioners had to run the last mile because the roads into town had been cordoned off by the police. When Kim heard the news she headed straight for the hospital. But Jo had died even before the ambulance left the scene of the attack.

I can still remember how upset my wife and I, and our three teenage children, had all felt when we heard of Jo Cox's death. We watched the television news and the tributes to a woman about whom we had known so little until then. It was terrible to hear that she and her husband had two small children aged five and three. We tried to imagine how Brendan and his little boy and girl might be feeling both then, on a desolate summer night, and in the bleak weeks and months ahead. It seemed as if the whole country felt the same concern and pity for a stricken family.

Of course I had no idea then that, five months later, I would be asked by Brendan Cox to help him write a memoir of Jo. We met a couple of times in London to discuss Brendan's hopes for the book and I was struck by two facts. Firstly, he wanted the book to avoid anger and condemnation. Instead, Brendan wanted to honour Jo and her belief that, as she said in her maiden speech in parliament, 'we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.' He also wanted to turn the focus away from the man who murdered Jo and to write in celebration of her life. Brendan wanted to document Jo's vivacity and joy and to capture the spirit of their lives together – which saw them climbing mountains, living on boats and exploring countries as diverse as Cuba and Romania, Albania and America, Bulgaria and China. He also wanted to write about their shared political work but, most of all, about the sheer humanity and great empathy which defined Jo.

Brendan told me early on that, in contrast to Jo, he was not particularly good at expressing the depth of his emotions. He was also worried how he might structure the book. We spent day after day, for many months, talking about Jo and their lives together and, slowly, it became clear how such a book could be pieced together. While it was important to chart what happened to Jo in the immediate prelude to her death, and to reflect the grief Brendan has felt this past year, he was empathic that this should be an uplifting book too...a tribute to Jo which, one day, might also be read by Cuillin and Lejla.

Their boat on the Thames sometimes felt to me like a steel cradle that rocks with the changing tide. It was rarely still. Like the river, like all our lives, the boat kept moving, usually gently but, occasionally, with tumult and upset.

He might be a contained and rational man, but Brendan soon opened up. He spoke beautifully about Jo and the kids, as well as his sorrow and hurt. The words flowed and, sometimes, he cried a little. It was immensely moving – especially on two raw occasions when he remembered hearing about Jo's death on a train and, the next night, when he relived the first time that he put his children to bed without their mum.

Jo Cox: More In Common

At lunchtime on 16 June 2016, after talking to Fazila Aswat, Brendan snapped off his phone and ran harder to the station. He was thinking of his wife – and he said to me it felt as if he was talking directly to Jo.

'Just be okay,' Brendan said in his head. 'It doesn't matter how badly hurt you are. We'll get you through this. I'll look after you and we'll build you back up.'

At the station he jumped the barriers, and got on a train to Leeds. Brendan started calling people, numbed and frantic at the same time. He began with Kim, Jo's sister, who hadn't heard anything. It was hard but he had to tell Kim what he knew. Brendan tried next to call Jo's mum and dad but couldn't get through. He learnt later that they were already on their way to Birstall.

Brendan tracked down some of Jo's friends and heard that news of the attack had seeped out on social media. His phone began to hum and buzz. He answered a few calls but shut them down almost immediately. Brendan called his mum and dad and told them what he knew. He could hear their disbelief.

The train had picked up speed and the carriage was quiet. Brendan looked out of the window. The countryside rushed past in a hazy green blur.

His phone lit up again. He looked at the screen. Kim.

'Kim,' Brendan asked, 'what's happened?'

There was a pause, small but deadly, before Kim spoke softly. 'I'm sorry, Brendan. She's not made it...'

Brendan remembered that he began to cry. The tears ran down his face and onto his shirt and the plastic-topped table where he sat. The train kept moving; but his life had ground to a stop.

The man across the aisle, whom Brendan had barely noticed before, touched his arm. 'Let me get you some tissues,' he said.

Brendan kept his head down. The man returned. He had brought tissues and a glass of water. Brendan looked at him, this total stranger. He managed to thank the man. Brendan wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He was not thirsty but he sipped the water the kind man had given him.

Is this what you are meant to do when your wife has just been murdered?

'If there's anything I can do...' the man said, his voice trailing away. He knew there was no point stopping the train. They needed to keep hurtling towards the place where Jo lay dead.

'Thank you,' Brendan said.

His parents had loved Jo so much, and she had loved them. Cuillin and Lejla would be with them soon. Brendan felt calmer talking to his mum and dad and he told them not to say anything to the kids about Jo. He would get back that night and, somehow, he would find a way to tell them in the morning.

'Just be normal with them if you can, mum,' he said.

Brendan called his sister Stacia next, and some of his closest friends. He asked for help. Could they find a child psychologist who might help him work out how best to explain to Cuillin and Lejla that their mum, with whom they were besotted, was dead?

This felt more important than anything else he might ever do again.

Jo Cox: More In Common

On a Friday afternoon in December 2016, a week before Christmas, Brendan and I sat together on the boat. Darkness has begun to spread across the Thames and the river made the boat sway from side to side. We knew each other well enough by then to talk openly. Brendan had just explained how he had broken the devastating news to Cuillin and Lejla.

He told me that, on 17 June, they had made it through supper, and bath time, and then the crash came. Cuillin and Lejla cried bitter, painful tears. They were distressed, wanting to see Jo, calling for her, needing her more than ever. Brendan tried everything he could think of but, in his exhausted sorrow, nothing seemed to work. When he began to sing they became even more upset. They wanted mummy to sing to them, not daddy.

Then, something extraordinary happened.

Cuillin likes to make up songs. It's a gift he gets from Jo who always created new worlds for Cuillin and Lejla at bedtime. She weaved together long stories she dreamed up about her imaginary hero, Finley the Fieldmouse, and thrilled the kids with his surreal new adventures every night. Finley would be engaged in wild boar hunts in the woods in-between dancing with moles and fighting off marauding monsters. Jo had a vivid imagination. Cuillin and Lejla absorbed everything and loved it, especially, when their mum acted out the roles while entrancing them with her rattling yarns of Finley.

That night, not much more than 18 hours since her death, Cuillin asked his dad if he could sing a song. 'It's my new song about mummy,' he said.

Brendan told Cuillin that he would love to hear his song. Lejla, her chest still heaving, nodded. She would also like to hear Cuillin sing about mummy.

Cuillin asked if daddy would sing with him. His dad hugged him. 'Of course.'

On the boat, remembering that night, Brendan told me how he and his children had talked all day and he'd tried to answer their questions honestly. He had to say, no, he couldn't dream up a way to bring mummy back to the boat. He explained to Cuillin that his good idea that scientists might be able to inject life into her wouldn't work. They also couldn't make a new version of mummy out of wood, as Lejla suggested, and they weren't going to see her in another world. Brendan told them that Jo was gone but that she lived on in our hearts and heads. They would never forget her because they would always talk about her. They would always love her.

There were times when Brendan wasn't sure if his well-meaning words were sinking in – such was their torment – but he would soon see they had understood. That gift came from Cuillin.

I felt privileged to share that gift when Brendan asked me if he could play me the recording.

"I'd like to hear it," I said, not quite knowing what to expect.

Brendan turned to his phone. He found the recording and just before he hit 'Play' we looked at each other from across the small wooden table where he and Jo had sat so often. My own recorder sat between us, recording this exchange with his little boy.

Cuillin's voice seeped out of his dad's phone. 'Are we ready?' he asked.

'Yes, we're ready,' his dad said softly on the recording.

Cuillin, like an instinctive musician, counted out the start: 'One, two...' And then he started.

'I really love my mum,' he sang in a husky little croak before he stopped. I heard him ask his dad a question: 'Can you sing it with me?'

'Yes,' Brendan said.

The small boy and his dad slipped into an echoing call-and-answer routine. Cuillin's voice was soft but clear, high but strong. Brendan's voice was a much lower burr, thick with tears, and love, as he repeated his son's words in a husky half-spoken sing-song.

Cuillin: I love my mumma.
Brendan: I love my mumma.
Cuillin: But now she's dead.
Brendan: But now she's dead.

I took in a sharp breath at the use of 'dead' in a small child's song, but Cuillin concentrated with such purity. He sang louder:

Cuillin: She used to be so kind.
Brendan: She used to be so kind.
Cuillin: But now she's dead.
Brendan: Now she's dead.
Cuillin: But she will still be with us.
Brendan: But she will still be with us.
Cuillin: We'll carry her in our hearts.

On the boat I looked across the table at Brendan. I felt close to tears myself but I remember smiling and nodding as they sang on his phone.

Cuillin: I love my mummy.
Brendan: I love my mummy.
Cuillin: I will not leave her behind.
Brendan: I will not leave her behind.

Hope and belief were now surging through Cuillin. His voice was stronger than ever.

Cuillin: That's a very big promise to you.
Brendan: That's a very big promise to you.
Cuillin: But I really, really promise it.

Brendan was so impressed and uplifted that he added his own lines:

Brendan: Promise it, da do do do.
Cuillin: So we will not leave her behind, will we?
Brendan: We'll never leave her behind – she's in our hearts.
Cuillin: Oh, what a time it was.
Brendan: Every day, in every way.
Cuillin: We'll talk about her. We'll sing about her. All times.
Brendan: We'll love her every day of our lives.
Cuillin: So that is a promise. We just love our mumma but now she's dead.

'That was a beautiful song,' Brendan said on the recording. 'Did you just make that up?'

'Yeah,' Cuillin said, sounding shy.

'That was the most beautiful song,' Brendan said again.

'Can we listen to it?' Cuillin asked.

'You want to listen to it now?'

'Yeah,' Cuillin said.

On the boat, Brendan switched off his phone. He wiped his eyes.

I sat in silence for a while and then I thanked Brendan for sharing these moments with me.

'This could also be a beautiful book,' I said.

The sadness was overwhelmed by the beauty – and the sheer vivacity and sense of adventure with which he and Jo lived their lives.

Jo Cox: More In Common

There were so many other moments on the boat – or at Brendan and Jo's cottage where my wife Alison and I spent time with him and his wonderful parents, Gordon and Sheila, as well as Cuillin and Lejla.

I was just as moved when I travelled up to Yorkshire to meet Jo's mum and dad, the amazing Gordon and Jean, and her sister Kim. They touched me, and inspired me with their acceptance and empathy, and all their memories of Jo. It was the same when I met Jo's old school-friends Louise and Heidi, and while talking to Eloise, Steve, Sarah, Fazila, Suzy, Sonia, Joanna and everyone else who cared so much about the woman they loved: Jo Cox.

Jo Cox: More In Common
Jo Cox [third from right] with her friends in 2004

Of course I never met Jo myself but she – and everyone who loved her so much – are much in my thoughts today. The loss of such a gifted and caring woman remains distressing. But what a life she and Brendan led...what special children they created. I loved hearing about her compassion for people in Syria and Batley, about the mountains she climbed and the music she loved, about her adventures and mishaps.

And so today, on 16 June, a day which is so resonant in the history of South Africa, I will also think of my old home country. Jo Cox understood the significance of 16 June 1976 in South Africa – as this was the day when the students of Soweto rose up against apartheid – for she came to love the country.

When she visited South Africa as a young woman, Jo was shaken. She was stunned by the beauty of the country, and Cape Town really is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, but far more startled by the disparity between white and black South Africa. Neither the grand opulence of suburban Cape Town nor the grinding poverty of Khayelitsha could be escaped. The majesty of Table Mountain was clearly visible from the dirt streets and corrugated shacks of the township, but it belonged to a different world. Table Mountain was part of white Cape Town, with its plush, high-walled suburbs like Bishopscourt and Constantia and beachside beauty spots at Clifton and Camps Bay; while Khayelitsha defined a lack of opportunity and hope in much of black South Africa.

Jo Cox: More In Common

The people she met remained defiantly good-natured and surprisingly cheerful. Even if they lamented the crime and squalor, the residents of Khayelitsha inspired Jo with their warmth. But she felt the crushing inequality of their lives. Those almost overwhelming feelings rose up most vividly in her when she visited a township clinic. Jo went to see one of the doctors and he looked desolate as he showed her his near empty dispensary.

'We have almost nothing,' he said.

Jo was carrying a first aid bag and she opened it up. The doctor smiled wryly and said that it looked as if she was better equipped than his clinic in Khayelitsha. Jo felt like crying but the black South Africans around her cracked a joke and everyone laughed.

The fact that she witnessed such a moment in post-apartheid South Africa, not too many years after the country had been held up as the model Rainbow Nation, forced her to step back and think politically. All the rumours of corruption in the new ruling government, with the African National Congress looking bereft without the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela, were now stacked against the poverty and desperation she witnessed in close up.

South Africa was the richest country on the continent; but Jo knew her allegiance lay with the people of Khayelitsha and all the other disadvantaged communities that crisscrossed the globe. In her own small way she vowed to do all she could to change the world around her.

Until the day she died, Jo used Khayelitsha as the password to her phone. It was a daily reminder to never forget all she had seen in a ragged township on the fringes of a sumptuous city in Cape Town.

Jo Cox: More In Common

And so today I will think of the moment I went home to South Africa last year, just before Brendan and I began serious work on this book. I was interviewing people in a township, and I noticed four photographs pinned together on a wall.

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Beyonce and Jo Cox made a black and white line.

I walked over to the wall and ran my finger over the four different faces. I stopped when I reached Jo. I looked at the woman who owned the tiny shack.

'Jo Cox,' I said.

'Yes, baba,' the young black South African woman said. 'That is Jo Cox.'

On a sweltering day in South Africa, the woman paused, and then spoke again. 'We like her. She was a great person.'

ROBERTO DURAN: More than 'No Mas'
Roberto Duran
Photo: Chris Thomond

I knew it was him from the moment he walked into a hotel lobby. Wearing a tight black leather jacket and a black cap, 65-year-old Roberto Durán still cut an unmistakeable figure. He is, after all, probably the greatest lightweight fighter in the history of boxing and a man who fought professionally in five different decades while tasting euphoria and desolation in equal measure.

Durán was the kid from Panama City who knocked down a horse to win a bet for $100 and a bottle of whisky. He was the wizard who won his first world title, aged just 21, when he beat Ken Buchanan at Madison Square Garden. Durán defeated Sugar Ray Leonard in one of many 'Fights of the Century' – only to suffer the ignominy of quitting against him in the eighth round when he was alleged to have said 'No más' as he turned away in surrender just five months later in November 1980. He came back and won two more world titles, at two different weights, before a car crash finally ended his career at the age of 50. Durán admits that he would have probably kept fighting for a few more years had that accident not forced his retirement. The end of his career in the ring saved his health and it means he can be as entertaining as he was with me in Leeds last Saturday night.

It was one of those interviews which, again, reminds me how lucky I am to claim such surreal yet compelling encounters as 'work'. It's also easy to peel away the legendary status of a fighter when he's a genial old man in the mood to yak about anything you like. Durán was no longer the beast of fight mythology, or even the bloated wreck who kept boxing for money. Instead, he was warm and effusive and full of compassion for other fighters.

As I've written so much about Mike Tyson it was intriguing to hear Durán reminisce about the former world heavyweight champion who always revered him. "When I met Tyson he said, 'Durán, I am going to tell you a story. You were fighting in Madison Square Garden and I was in the cheapest seat in the house, high up in the stadium. But when you won that night I got so excited, I started throwing punches. I was shadow boxing in the Garden, pretending I was Roberto Durán. You inspired me to become a fighter.'"

He nodded at the memory but Durán also told me how he had helped Tyson in later years. The Panamanian, who was so ill-disciplined between his fights and ballooned in weight, rolled around in his chair in mirth as he remembered trying to act as Tyson's trainer in the dog-days of the heavyweight's decline.

Before his final fight against a mediocre journeyman called Kevin McBride, in 2005, Tyson urged Durán to train him. "I tried to lift him," Durán recalled. "But Tyson was not up to it. He was not into it anymore. We got to the gym. I asked Tyson: 'Do you want to hit the heavy bag?' Tyson says no. Do you want sparring? No. So what do you want to do? Tyson says: 'Just the mitts.' Afterwards I say, 'Now we work.' Tyson says: 'No. I hit the speed bag.' OK. What next? Tyson says: 'I skip.' So he did that and that was the end of the session. I said, 'Look, Tyson, you only did the mitts, the speed bag and skipping. Tomorrow must be different. We've got to start working hard. We've got to start sparring sessions.' Tyson said OK. But then he shakes his head. I sit him down. We have a big 1-2-1 conversation. Tyson said: 'Durán, my mind is not in boxing. My body is – but my mind is all over the place.' So I say: 'OK, Champ. Take a break now and we'll talk more tomorrow.'

"Tyson then calls me at three in the morning. 'Durán, Durán! I am very happy!' I say: 'OK, I am going to come get you – we go running.' He says: 'No, no Roberto. I am happy because my wife just had a baby – a son.' So I say: 'OK. Beautiful. Great. See you tomorrow downstairs. We go to work then.' And he says: 'No, Durán, you must come to me.' I say, 'Yeah, I will. I'll be at your hotel room.' Tyson is laughing. 'No, Durán, I am actually in Arizona right now. Come see me here. You'll see my kid.' Tyson didn't care about any fight. I was happy about his kid but I didn't go to Arizona. I went back to Panama. I told his manager: 'If Tyson calls you and asks me to train him, don't bother phoning me. It's hopeless."

He finishing laughing hard and then, growing more reflective, Durán remembered a very different call from Tyson at the dead of night. "When Tyson lost his daughter [in 2009] he called me again. At 2 am the phone rings."

Roberto Duran

Durán acts out the scene – switching between himself blearily holding his phone and a crying Tyson talking to him. "He said: 'Durán, Durán, it's me. Tyson.' I thought I was dreaming. I said: 'Who? Tyson? The boxer?' So he says: 'Yes, yes, me. The boxer. I need you to help me, please.'"

Tyson still idolised Durán and, at his lowest point in a life filled with such despair, the former heavyweight turned to him. He asked Durán if he could convince the Panamanian singer, Flex, the reggaeton artist who used to call himself Nigga, to perform at the funeral of his four-year-old child. "His daughter loved Flex and Tyson said: 'Roberto I will pay Flex anything he wants but can you convince him to come?' I said; 'OK, Tyson, it's two in the morning but I will find out and call you tomorrow.' Flex had another booking on the day of that funeral but I told him. 'This is Mike Tyson – who is still the most famous boxer in the world. But he is also a man, a friend. We have to help him.' Later, after he went and sang at the funeral, Flex came back. He said; 'You know, Roberto, you were right. I didn't take a cent from him.' He understood. It was about Tyson and his grief. It was important to help him. That was more important than money and fame."

That same compassion prompted Durán to visit Esteban de Jesus on his death bed – when the first man to beat him in the professional ring was dying from Aids. Durán kissed and held de Jesus with great tenderness, encouraging his daughter to do the same, and a famous photograph was taken of the two fighters by another former boxer José Torres. It can be seen here:

Durán said his sweetest night in the ring was against Buchanan – because it meant he became a world champion for the first time in June 1972. He saw the Scot just a few weeks ago on his tour around Britain. Durán shrugged when I asked him what Buchanan thought of their fight now – as he ended up writhing in agony on the canvas in Round 13? Buchanan insisted he had been felled by a low blow by the merciless Durán.

"He knows I won that fight," Durán said of his rival. "I won most of the rounds before the knockout. A big body punch. But, you know, Buchanan was an excellent fighter. Really, really good. It was a great night to beat him and become a world champion. So sweet."

Buchanan, who fought under the snazzy alias of The Fighting Carpenter, turns 72 next month. How did he look when Durán saw him in Scotland?

"Same as all of us," Durán said, sounding just a little sad. "Old. We all get old with time."

And then he brightened as he told me again how happy he felt, just a month short of his 66th birthday. He had won $60m in the ring, and lost it all, but he didn't mind. The old fighter remembered a night when he sat in Panama City with Don King and Carlos Eleta – his promoter and manager whom Durán alleges fleeced him of a lot of money. Did he feel any resentment as he sat alone with King and Eleta?

"If they stole from me that's ok," Durán said "I don't suffer from hatred. All is in God's hands. I live my life with no regret, no hatred."

Durán had once been the most intimidating man in boxing but now, on a cloudy May evening in suburban Leeds, he seemed strangely peaceful and happy. "It was good," Durán said after a couple of hours and just before we went to take some photographs.

I looked at him, not quite sure what he meant. "The interview," Durán said. "It was good."

"I thought you were talking about your life," I said.

Durán bunched his fists, those famous hands of stone, and he smiled again.

"The life turned out great," he said softly. "Amazing".

Craig Hodges

Last month, in two very different exchanges, I interviewed Craig Hodges in Chicago and Chris Hughton in Brighton. Both men were rooted in the present, in the bruising here and now, and Hodges told me how one of the young basketball players he coached at Rich East High School had been shot a few days earlier. Hodges promised that, "We'll win all our battles in the end. Until then I'm just doing what I can to keep children out of harm's way as much as possible."

Chris Hughton

Hughton, meanwhile, was engaged in a less dangerous sporting battle. Brighton had just won promotion to the Premier League and he was intent on maintaining the motivation of his players so that they might go up as champions by winning one of their last two games of the season.

They were both engaging and fascinating men to interview – partly because of all they had endured and overcome in the late 1970s and '80s. Hughton remembered the ritual terrace abuse that echoed when he was the only black footballer for Spurs at away grounds in the old English First Division. Meanwhile, Hodges was part of the imperious Chicago Bulls and he reminded us how most of his black teammates, great NBA players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin, did not share his social concern.

Hodges spoke up against injustice and he was effectively shut out of the NBA. His career came to a shuddering and premature end. He has only really recovered in recent years – but, with his typical mix of profound gravitas and optimistic philosophising, he remains as politically engaged as ever.

Hughton is now one of only two black managers, out of 92, in English football. He made it clear that, off the field, he will continue to talk out against that "incredible imbalance" and strive to encourage the emergence of more black managers and boardroom directors.

Listen to a section of the interview with Chris Hughton...

We're all in our fifties now – Hodges, Hughton and me – and we grew up in diverse worlds. Hodges comes from the projects in Chicago Heights, Hughton from a working class background in east London while I lived in suburban white South Africa during apartheid. They both smiled and nodded when I explained my past. "So you understand," Hodges said.

In the present, right now, Craig Hodges is trying to save lives and teach basketball. Today, and in the weeks and months ahead, Chris Hughton will be preparing Brighton for their first season in top-flight football in 34 years. I am doing my usual thing, scrabbling around, writing and interviewing. But, for a brief while, it felt important to go back to the past and remember how, as the old Chicago maverick said, "it keeps on informing the present."

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I'm back again, in a room high up in the MGM Grand on the Strip, staring into the glittering darkness of Las Vegas. One Vegas hotel room looks like another but it feels as if I'm on the same floor when, all those years ago, in 1996, a giant image of Mike Tyson's head turned menacingly on a metal cube outside the brightly-lit green MGM just before he crushed Frank Bruno to become world heavyweight champion once more. I know it doesn't matter. It just feels like I'm back where I belong – getting ready to meet Tyson and preparing a new section for an updated edition of an old book called Dark Trade.

Tomorrow afternoon, at two o'clock, I'm due to meet Tyson again in his office in Henderson, twelve miles from the MGM.

The same old uncertainty rises up inside me. Tyson is now, incredibly, forty-seven years old. I am fifty-two. We're both embedded in the strangeness of middle-age and so much has happened between then and now. Yet the first time we met I wondered whether Iron Mike would live to see the age of thirty.

He is now more than just a crazed fighter. Tyson is an actor, a one-man stage-show performer, the co-author of a grimly riveting autobiography and a boxing promoter with his own company, IMP, Iron Mike Productions. I need to start planning my questions but where do I even begin with Tyson?


My own life has changed beyond compare. Since Dark Trade was published in 1996, Alison and I have had three children. I've written six further books and the kids are old enough to recognize that a murky corner of my life is called 'boxing'. In our house, it's a source of mirth. Even our son, a sports-mad teenage boy between two arty sisters, laughs in bemusement at my boxing life.

Yesterday, a Tuesday, I returned from New York and a research trip for a new book about an old boxer. I landed at nine am and in the afternoon, when they got back from school, I had to tell them that I had just heard I needed to fly to Vegas the next morning – twenty-four hours after arriving home from America – to see Tyson.

My son sounded doubtful. "Tyson?" he said. "The guy who bit off someone's ear?"

The old conflicted feelings have returned in Vegas. Why am I immersed as deeply as ever in boxing – at a time when most reasonable people dismissed it years ago as a tawdry joke? I still love movies and books and music, and sport, and I live an ordinary life with my family. But boxing continues to consume me.

I still meet fighters whenever I can. I pay my BoxNation television subscription every month and, most days, scan the major boxing websites and trawl my Twitter timeline for news of Floyd Mayweather, Gennady Golovkin and new favourites of mine like Carl Frampton, the Belfast bantamweight, managed by Barry McGuigan. Every time there is a big fight on TV Alison sits down to watch it with me, for old time's sake and as her way of supporting me in my enduring madness.

It could be seen as a disease, I guess, but it's an integral part of me. Just as I am a husband, a father and a son, I remain an addict of the ring. I am still lost in boxing.

So this is how it should end, or begin again, back near where we started, feeling different, but the same.

Waiting again for Tyson, I remember other fighters from these pages and beyond. I have been here before. Other circles have been completed or broken. They are not all happy endings because this is boxing. This is still, in Tyson's resonant old phrase, the hurt business.


James Toney had been my favourite fighter for a long time. As the years slipped away, however, his Lights Out nickname became less a threat to his opponents than a summary of the way in which darkness had begun to shroud Toney's life. He kept fighting because, at least in his mind, he had no other choice. Toney tried to tell himself, and us, that he was still a great fighter but whenever he opened his mouth his words sounded muffled and slurred. It became impossible to ignore the damage done by twenty-five years in the professional ring.

I only needed to listen to some of my early interviews with Toney to remember that he had always spoken with a drawling, almost mumbling swagger. But it was a shock to hear again the clarity and wit that rang out of his gruff voice from those past interviews. Toney's mazy speech eighteen years later was lost in the creeping slurry of too many fights, and too many punches to the head.

It was painful to even imagine how I would write about Toney, and everything that had happened, for a revamped Dark Trade.

I remembered how I had read the news that Toney had been enticed to England in November 2013 to add some flabby stardust to Eddie Hearn's Prizefighter tournament with a mournful sigh. The idea that Toney was about to fight in London for the first time would have once entranced, rather than depressed, me.

The reality was bleak. Toney first faced Matt Legg, a white novice from Milton Keynes who had a professional fight record of 6-1. Yet Legg had had just one bout over the past five years. It was a measure of how far Toney had fallen. Of course he made it into the Prizefighter semi-finals where he was joined by three journeymen in Michael Sprott, Brian Minto and Toney's former sparring partner Jason 'The Sensation' Gavern – a policeman from Ohio.

Lights Out faced The Sensation – the youngest of the remaining Prizefighters at thirty-six. The combined age of the four semi-finalists was 156.

I still had to write about the ensuing charade – which was made even more ludicrous by the fact that Gavern decided to emit some high-pitched whoops and shrieks whenever he landed a half-decent punch. Around the arena hundreds of jokers chose to echo him by making their own "Woo!" screams. It was one of the least amusing nights of my boxing life.


I sit alone in Mike Tyson's office on an ordinary Thursday afternoon in Henderson. All the jittery and jet-lagged uncertainty I had felt the night before has melted away. I'm back in the old fight-game routine.

Tyson, of course, is late. Nearly an hour has slipped past, as if in homage to all those afternoons I spent waiting for him in Las Vegas in the 1990s. But time has been filled by a conversation with Steve Lott, one of Tyson's oldest friends and now his assistant at Iron Mike Productions. Tyson and Lott are striving to build their boxing promotions and it feels easy to sit back and listen. Lott is a shy man, who still tells lots of jokes inbetween remembering all that he and Tyson have been through since they first met at Cus D'Amato's house in the Catskills over thirty years ago.

When Tyson texts Lott, confirming that he will be with us in five minutes, I settle down on my own. I sit at Tyson's desk, looking at his books and glancing up at the giant mural of D'Amato that stares down from the wall. I bring out a sheet of paper covered on both sides by my sixty-five questions. I suspect that Tyson will understand. Sixty-five questions should just be the starting point for such a tangled life.

It's still a small shock to see him in person. He walks towards me and I feel surprised again by how short he is compared to the massive heavyweights I've met – like Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers. Tyson is smiling, just a little, and he tilts his head to the side, as if to match his apology for being late.

As soon as we sit down I can sense that something special is about to unfold inside Tyson. Within minutes, Tyson has begun to talk with the same raw immediacy that gripped me all those years ago. We talk for hours about his life and boxing and books...


A day later, I return to Tyson's office. He is due to make a television advert for WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] but, as if to showcase the difference in his own life from our past encounters, he jokes that we need to babysit his four-year-old daughter Milan and her friend.

"They're finger-painting," Tyson says while we watch the two small girls hard at work in the reception area. "And we're in charge..."

Tyson is at his warmest and most generous on a blue-skied Friday afternoon. It's easy to like him as we fritter away the hours. We even talk about his facial tattoo. "I just hated myself then," he says. "I literally wanted to deface myself. I went to this tattoo artist and said I wanted my face to be covered in stars. He refused. He said I have a good face."

The tattoo artist suggested, instead, that he ink a Maori tribal design onto the left side of Tyson's face. "It looks awesome. That tattoo is me. Sometimes I see people with tattoos on their face and I'm like 'Woah, this guy is crazy!' I forget I've got one on my face."

Tyson laughs. "In the beginning, some people were scared by it. But the bikers would shout: 'Oh, that's beautiful man, great ink!'"

Eventually, to the delight of Milan and her friend, the make-up artist arrives for the WWE shoot. It seems poignant, remembering his past brutality towards women, that Tyson should have his face covered in make-up while his daughter croons, "Don't worry, daddy, she's gonna make you look pretty!"


Tyson looks bashful while the make-up artist powders his tattoo. "Lipstick! Lipstick!" the little girls chant, gleeful at the thought that Iron Mike needs lipstick for television.

We walk to a conference room where the WWE commercial is being shot. Tyson winks at me before he addresses an autocue filled by words he needed to say out loud while being filmed.


The autocue has pages and pages which he has to read. His only mistake on the first take is to pay homage to 'Cold Stone' Steve Austin – rather than the wrestler's 'Stone Cold' nickname. He does it again and again and again. By the fifth take Tyson the pro nails it – only for the producer to inadvertently cough during the last line. Tyson needs to do it again and so he tells the unblinking camera that one of the highlights of his career was being elected to the WWE Hall of Fame. He reels off the long blurb a sixth time, perfectly, only to hear that someone had knocked on the window when they walked past.

Take Seven, however, is unbeatable. He's done it.

"I need a break," Tyson says. He leads me back into his office as if he does not know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, Tyson looks at me and smiles. "Imagine if that happened twenty years ago," he says of his repeated WWE takes. "I would've smashed up their cameras."

The former champion ponders the damage he would have done and, then, Tyson lets slip a soft laugh. "Maybe I'm making progress. Maybe, after everything, I'm doing OK."


I'm down to my last hour in Las Vegas now. Three nights and two days in this city, especially on the Strip, are enough. I've had my latest boxing fix, and it's been the most memorable encounter of a book I began researching and writing 23 years ago. I did not see a punch thrown, or watch one man beat another in a ring of shared hurt. There had been no press conferences or crowded arenas. But my belief in boxing has been restored.

It seems curiously apt that such conviction emerged in the company of Mike Tyson. He was not Tyson the destroyer or Iron Mike or Mad Mike or the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world or the criminal or the addict. All those truths and personae helped create the fantastical story of his life. But out in Henderson, in his low-key office, he was just a man.

I was struck again by how much Tyson still loves boxing – despite his contrasting feeling that he had also been deformed by the fight game. Boxing had cultivated the darkest traits in his character, and fed off his past misery, while fuelling his fire and rewarding him for his terrifying brutality and lack of morality. "Boxing made me," he said, "and then it disfigured me."

Tyson told me some dark stories about Joe Louis and Sonny Liston in Las Vegas – as well as snappier anecdotes of his past friendship with fighters like Joey Maxim, the light-heavyweight world champion who, in 1952, had become the only man to stop Sugar Ray Robinson. "I loved Joey," Tyson said, "even if, like Joe Louis, he ended up working as a hotel greeter in Vegas. I loved hearing his stories. They don't make white guys like him no more..."

He cackled and then grew more animated as he began to tell me about his inspiring encounters with Emile Griffith. Tyson knew I'd been working for years on a book about Griffith, who was torn between the ring and New York's gay underworld in the 1960s and '70s. After his personal stories of how Griffith bolstered him, there had been a surreal few minutes when we sat together and he read my chapter breakdown and I tried to explain how I had structured the story.

I learnt more about Griffith from Tyson in an hour than I've sometimes gleaned in a day from a dusty archive. His encyclopaedic knowledge of boxing was at his most irresistible when Tyson zipped from one great old fighter to another, from Ted 'Kid Lewis to Alberto 'Baby' Azizmendi, from Harry Greb to Jack Britton. He spoke in detail about one of his favourite fighters, Panama Al Brown – the freakishly tall bantamweight of the 1920s and 1930s who had a tempestuous affair with Jean Cocteau.

"Can you imagine," Tyson said his eyes widening at the unlikely pairing of a Panamanian fighter who became the first Hispanic world champion in boxing history and a French experimental writer and film-maker, "Panama Al and Jean Cocteau! Only boxing gives you these characters..."

As the sun slipped away in Nevada the shadows spread across Tyson's tattooed face. The fading light made him look younger than he had seemed earlier that day. Yet I also knew his unbridled love for boxing had replenished him.

"Hey Steve," he shouted to his old friend. "You still there?"

Steve Lott wondered in from next door, confirming that everyone else had left. "I'm still here – someone's got to work while you guys do your yakking. But I heard...Panama Al Brown!"

We retreated to Lott's computer. Tyson began to bounce up and down, as if getting ready to spar again, while Lott searched for the film footage he had stored of Brown. It took just a few minutes before Panama Al Brown, who died in 1951, at the age of forty-nine, came back to life.

Panama Al flickered across a screen while Tyson marveled at his skill and venom. "Oh wow, look at his style," Tyson crooned. He seemed happier than I'd ever seen him as he entered into a fiercely informed debate over the amount of bouts Brown had in a career which, starting in 1922, lasted twenty years. They settled the argument by checking the Boxrec website. Tyson was right – Brown had fought 162 bouts.

As they dug out rare footage of Ted Lewis, the London fighter known as 'The Aldgate Sphinx' before he picked up his 'Kid' nickname in America, Tyson began to chart another epic boxing life. Ted 'Kid' Lewis, like Panama Al Brown, also fought for twenty years, from 1909 to 1929, and he became world welterweight champion – but Lewis' fights against Jack Britton fascinated Tyson the most. They met an incredible twenty times in the ring which was unsurprising, Tyson remarked, when Britton had had at least 350 professional fights. He also remembered that Britton's bout against Mickey Walker at Madison Square Garden, in 1922, inspired Ernest Hemingway's short story, Fifty Grand.

Tyson only lamented the absence of any known film of Britton or Harry Greb. "I bet it's out there," he said, "disintegrating in someone's garage. Steve and me will track it down. Don't you worry..."

As they moved onto their next fighter, and another slice of archive material, the ghosts of the ring seemed to replace the haunting darkness of his own past. "Fucking boxing," Tyson eventually said, "you just can't match it..."

It was then, in that giddy moment, that I felt ready to write again. I had pages to fill and fighters to remember. At last, I could go back to Dark Trade. Where else but in boxing would I have met contrasting characters like Michael Watson and James Toney, Barry McGuigan and Mike Tyson? Where else would I have found resonant links between Belfast and Las Vegas, between race and sport, glory and infamy?

It's always said that boxing will never be quite as great or as meaningful again – but they complained about that truth in the 1990s when harking back to the 1970s or while disillusioned fight fans in the 1950s lamented the lost power of the game back in the 1920s. It was always better in the past and yet, for those of us still lost in the maze, there is always another fighter to follow. A new version of an ancient story is always waiting to be told. And so, even if Tyson might fall again or Toney climbs back in the ring, the darkest trade of all will keep on turning.

I leave the MGM Grand and head down the gaudy old Strip. As I walk away in the early morning sunshine of Las Vegas, a familiar old boxing truth consoles me. This is not quite the end.

The new and updated edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.

A NEW OLD DEVIL: Kevin Spacey as Clarence Darrow
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Clarence Darrow has come back to life in London. We've just been to the Old Vic to see Kevin Spacey play Darrow in the one-man play which first got me hooked on the hunched and compelling attorney for the lost and the damned. Spacey has also had a long fixation with Darrow and he and Chris Cooper were terrific together when they played the lawyer and the union leader Eugene Debs in a film for PBS in 1991.

In the round, at the Old Vic, with Spacey steaming and sweating and becoming Darrow just a few feet away from us, it seemed especially apt to be so close to this subject again. Ninety years ago this week, on 2 June 1924, Darrow agreed to represent the notorious Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb as they faced the death penalty for killing a boy called Bobby Franks with carefree malice.

Darrow had to find a way into two frightening young minds that had shocked a city accustomed to violence. The savagery of gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio had already turned Chicago into the slaughterhouse of America. There had been assassinations and bombings, abductions and even castrations among the 177 killings that blighted the first six months of that year in the Loop. But one murder gripped the nation. It took two boys, with their sharp suits and gleaming hair, slicked-back in a snappy Valentino-sheik style, to fix minds on a new depravity – the thrill-killing of a boy.

When Darrow asked why they had ended Bobby's life Leopold offered a chilling answer: "The killing was an experiment. It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin."

Leopold and Loeb, the unrepentant sons of millionaires, would do anything to alleviate their boredom and become famous. Their story perplexed Darrow because the boys were highly intelligent and had more money and prospects than almost anyone their age – and yet they squandered everything with the 19 year-old Leopold suggesting that he and Loeb were had been inspired to murder by Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and Dostoevesky's Crime and Punishment.

Darrow had met them on the morning after their confession. Staring at the famous old man, Leopold thought: 'So this is Darrow? The finest criminal lawyer in America?' He cut a rumpled figure with an egg-stained tie hanging loosely around his neck. His face was a worn canvas of seams and crevices which revealed all the suffering he had seen over the years. Yet Darrow's enduring magnetism resided in the romantic implication that he was far too busy saving lives to be bothered by trifles of appearance.

Much of Darrow's brilliance in the courtroom, and greatness as a man, resided in his ability to find redemptive qualities in everyone he represented. He was a master at establishing a context of forgiveness in which to defend the accused. Hate the sin, he always said, but never the sinner.

Spacey captures the righteous passion of Darrow and he is suitably crumpled. But there is also something magnificent and unsettling when, turning the theatre into a courtroom, he bears down on us to ask some blunt questions. I was there because I'd been asked to write about Darrow for the play's programme. The rates for a programme-writer are on the quiet side of low but it was easy to say yes when it was the Old Vic and Spacey asking – and there was also the bonus of two tickets for a sold-out run in the week that a new version of my Darrow book is re-issued.


And, as a South African, it seemed right that Spacey should approach our specific row and turn us into the all-white jury at the trial of Ossian Sweet and his family – a 'Negro' doctor and ten black people who were charged with murder in 1926 after they had defended themselves against a Ku-Klux clan lynch mob that surrounded their house soon after they had moved into a white neighbourhood in Detroit.

Darrow produced his greatest performance when exposing the prejudice that scarred America and prompted Dr Sweet to say: "I faced the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race."

David Rintels' play, which was written in 1972, is well-crafted but he does depict Darrow as a saintly figure and ignores his infidelity and darker schemes. He skirts over the uncomfortable truths embedded in Darrow's bribery trial, when the attorney was almost ruined and his reputation was tarnished for years.

Rintels also does not have Darrow ask us white 'jurors' in this recreation of the second Sweet trial the questions which made the Detroit courtroom echo with gasps in 1926. "If you had a choice," Darrow asked the real jury, "would you lose your eyesight or become coloured? Would you have your leg cut off, or have a black skin?"

In May 1926, during his closing address, Darrow's words rang out as they had done for so many decades in defence of the accused. After seven hours on his feet, he turned to the jury one last time: "I ask you in the name of progress and the human race to return a verdict of 'not guilty'."

When the foreman led the jurors back into court, the swiftness of their deliberations suggested that Darrow had lost. The old attorney's huge head jutted towards the jury box as he waited.

The foreman paused when asked if they had reached a verdict. "Yes," he said, before crying out the two words that mattered: "Not guilty!"

Ossian Sweet buried his face in his hands while Darrow almost collapsed in exhaustion. The prosecution lawyer Robert Toms rushed to catch him but Darrow, his eyes glinting darkly, laughed: "Oh, I'm all right. I've heard that verdict before." At the age of 69, and after the two most tumultuous years of his life, in which he had also saved Leopold and Loeb from deathrow and dominated the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, he had sealed his legacy as the greatest trial lawyer of the twentieth century.

It was not quite as dramatic at the Old Vic – but Spacey as Darrow still made a riveting fit. And I thought that Darrow, if not Ukip, would have been thrilled that the man we sat next to happened to come from Romania. Our new pal did not need to speak to us about prejudice for he was simply swept away by Spacey and Darrow. "Incredible," he said soon after introducing himself and before he ended up sounding like a proper Londoner as he lamented the cost of renting a flat in this city. "The play is so human. It feels more real than the movies."

Nigel Farage, of course, was not there – but we were happier in the company of our Romanian friend, Kevin Spacey and Clarence Darrow.

A new edition of The Old Devil – Clarence Darrow: The World's Greatest Trial Lawyer is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.

A DIFFERENT RACE: Remembering Joe Louis & Jesse Owens
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Joe Louis was born one hundred years ago last month – in May 1914. Jesse Owens, his great friend and ally in glory and despair, would also have been exactly 100 years old. They were both dead by April 1981, gone within a year of each other, but it's still hard to shake images of them from my head.

I've been lost in researching a new book for a long time now. Sometimes, it has been a little confusing. Deep inside a very different story, I have also needed to update new editions of old books. And so Jesse and Joe keep echoing through the days. Earlier this year, in his office in Henderson, just outside Las Vegas, Mike Tyson held up an old American edition of my book about Owens and Louis

The US version of In Black & White had been called Heroes Without A County. I never cared much for the American title, chosen by a New York editor much savvier than me, because the word "heroes" often makes me wince. It can seem a cheap word, overused and stripped of any real meaning.

But, strangely, the book and its clunky title seemed to fit in the hands of Tyson. He had travelled a wild path to the world heavyweight title, as an apparent monster and anti-hero, and his reverence for Owens and Louis was touching. He understood what they had done for him and every major black sporting figure who had followed them.

Tyson sighed at both the beautiful and the tragic in the lives of Owens and Louis. He lamented the fact that, in December 1936, less than six months after winning four Olympic gold medals in Berlin, Owens had raced a horse in Havana. "Can you believe that shit? How could they do it to Jesse Owens?" And gazing at photographs of his great predecessor he said, with aching simplicity: "Oh, Joe Louis..."

Reflecting on his bleak and violent childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where his mother had offered him little love, Tyson said: "When I told my mom I was going to make something of my life, that people believed I'd become the best fighter on the planet, she just shook her head. She said, 'Son, ain't you ever heard of Joe Louis?' There's always someone better than you.' With Joe Louis she was right."

I walked through Brooklyn that same month, in January 2014, and Jesse and Joe transfixed me again. I started at Avenue H, on the Q train, and the black man in the ticket booth cackled mournfully when I asked how long it might take to reach the outer fringes of the Bronx.

"You goin' all that way up into the Bronx?" he asked. "You sure, mister?"

I nodded, without telling him I was on my way to visit Billy Johnson, surely one of the last men alive who had seen Owens run competitively and Louis fight in a world title bout. Johnson was in his late-eighties and I had stumbled across him by chance – while researching this new subject.

"You got to talk to Billy Johnson," I was told because he had seen most of the champions who had fought in New York from the 1930s to the 1980s. Johnson had hung out at Gleasons Gym and, later, at the Times Square gym which another compelling old fight character I knew, Jimmy Glenn, managed for years.

Yet it was only when I discovered that Johnson had also seen Owens in New York in 1935 that it became imperative to travel across the sprawling breadth of the city. Where else would I meet someone still alive and able to talk about his memories of Owens and Louis at their peak?

When I told Johnson that I was based in Brooklyn he laughed. "You got a journey ahead of you," he promised me down the phone. "You won't get no taxi to take you up here."

I was happy riding the subway and that week I had travelled from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Harlem and Long Island. "For the Bronx," Johnson said, "You just go into the city and take the 5 train all the way."

Johnson told me that once I moved out of Manhattan and headed up into the Bronx it would seem as if "the 5 train turns into a black train."

In Harlem I'd interviewed Bobby Miles, a cousin of Ezzard Charles, the former world heavyweight champion who had beaten his idol, Joe Louis, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Harlem had been Louis's playground but the south Bronx had been his battlefield – from the night he knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938 to the more crushing defeat he had suffered twelve years later against Charles. Miles lived in a beautiful house in Harlem and he made me feel as if I was back in the days of the Brown Bomber.

But only Johnson, I was told, could talk about Owens and Louis with equal conviction. And so on that crisp yet icy Saturday I clattered along the Q track. We rumbled forward and reached Atlantic Avenue – a clear sign that we had left Brooklyn behind for Manhattan.

At 14th Street Union Square I switched to Billy Johnson's favourite 5 train. The further along the line we went, moving from one station to another, the more apt his description became as the 5 train turned into a black train. Eventually, deep in the Bronx, I was the only white face left in a quietly swaying carriage.

It took an hour-and-three-quarters to get to Johnson's apartment in the Bronx – but the long trip from Brooklyn was worth every stop on the subway for, inside the spry old man's home, I found a small treasure-box of an archive. Johnson, who lived alone but was looked after by his daughter from across the street, had transformed each of the three rooms into a sporting shrine. As he took me from one to another, pointing proudly to the photographs and posters of black icons of the past, from Owens and Louis and Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jordan, he gave me a detailed history lesson with a light touch. His stories brought back each event to life – especially when he reached for his files of cuttings.

He showed me some old newspaper articles, a few of which I remembered from my own trawl through the New York Times and the Amsterdam News, which recorded Owens's achievement in breaking three world records and equalling another in the space of forty-five minutes in Ann Arbor on 25 May, 1935.

"That was the greatest act of sporting excellence the world has ever seen," Johnson said, before grinning shyly at a grand statement. " least in my humble opinion."

Johnson then told me how, in celebration of his tenth birthday, his parents had taken him to see Jesse Owens run just six weeks later. "It was right here, in the Bronx, on July 9, 1935," Johnson said, the lucid, almost poetic words rising excitedly in his old voice. "I remember it was a rainy Tuesday night. But it could have snowed for all I noticed of the wet. To be allowed to go out at night, on my birthday, and see the great Jesse Owens run was the best present a ten-year-old boy could have ever had."

I thought Johnson might start to cry amid the painful sweetness of his memory and so I asked him where Owens had run in the Bronx. "Ohio Field," he said softly, and I briefly wondered if he had become confused, as Jesse ran for Ohio State in 1935. Johnson repeated the name. "Ohio Field, on the banks of the Harlem River, right here in the Bronx. It was University Heights, and NYU played college football there. That night Jesse came to town and he took on a sprinter you may have heard of – Eulace Peacock."

Johnson said Eulace Peacock's name with such delicacy that the story I'd written all those years ago lit up inside my head again. I remembered how Peacock had beaten Owens repeatedly in the summer of 1935.

"Five times in six days," Johnson said. "He had Jesse's number all right."

What happened on the night of Johnson's tenth birthday when Peacock and Owens raced at Ohio Field? "I remember one thing more than anything else," Johnson said. "I damn near burst with excitement."

He chuckled and dug deep into his collection to find the cuttings which described that race. "Look here," he said. "They all talk about the rain. It rained and rained. I don't think Jesse minded because, about a week before, he'd married Ruth..."

Did Johnson believe that the distraction of being newly-married might have been a reason for Owens losing so often to Peacock? "Now that's a colourful question," he chortled. "Peacock was just quicker than him for a while. You got a story that you could write right there. The Eulace Peacock Story. That kid might have done what Jesse did in Berlin...and won at least three golds on the track. But fate worked another way. The running gods wanted Jesse Owens to beat the Nazis.

"Even though he lost to Peacock that night, by less than a step over 100 yards, I still loved Jesse. He had that stardust. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He might have lost a few races to Peacock but, damn, he was unstoppable every other time. He lifted us right up. He gave us hope we'd never had before."

I asked Johnson about Joe Louis. Had he seen Louis knock out Schemling three years later at Yankee Stadium, again in the Bronx? "No I didn't," he said sadly. "My parents loved boxing, like we all did, but they were worried about the huge crowd that night. I was only thirteen and so I stayed home with my mother and my younger brothers. But my daddy went. We listened to the fight on the radio and I was convinced I could hear my daddy's voice hollering after it was all over. I know it's crazy but that was the kind of belief we had in Joe. He made us think everything was possible."

The fight that Johnson remembered most was Louis's comprehensive points defeat to Ezzard Charles. "I was twenty-five in 1950 and so I was a man. But I still cried that night Joe lost to Charles...even though I admired Charles. He was a fine heavyweight and a good man. But he sure wasn't Joe Louis. So isn't that strange? The strongest memories I have of Jesse and Joe in the Bronx were both from nights they lost. But that matters about as much as the rain that fell on my tenth birthday. You'll have heard this before, but it's true. Every one of these men [Johnson waved to the black sportsmen on his wall], and all these kids today making their millions, owe it to Jesse and Joe."

I asked Johnson what he thought of African American sportsmen today, mentioning my three encounters with LeBron James – who had since won successive NBA titles with the Miami Heat. The little old black man shrugged. "I ain't got nothing against them. They're making money and living this incredible life. Eighty years ago they would have turned to boxing or the track. But now they have much more opportunity. I just hope they don't forget who made it possible for them. I just hope they don't forget that the rest of black America is not a football field or a basketball court. The rest of black America is still struggling."

Johnson looked up and nodded shyly again. "Well, that's just in my humble opinion..."

I made Johnson laugh when I said, after a couple of hours, it was time for me to catch the "black train" out of the Bronx. "'ll turn back into a black-and-white 5 train once you hit Manhattan again."

He was right. For fifteen minutes we rattled through the Bronx on a subway filled with black faces. It was Saturday lunchtime and the mood was sleepy as the train swung from side to side. I knew Jesse and Joe would have recognized the familiar old American divide.

In 2014 Barack Obama was already deep in his second term. He looked a much older and wearier President with all the joy of his reaching the White House having been drained by the more disappointing realities of politics and real life. "I don't see it changing the lives of too many people," Joe Frazier had told me in his gruff but sage way when I interviewed him in Washington D.C. the day after Obama was first elected – in November 2008. "But, still, it's something," Frazier had murmured in his downbeat celebration of America's first black president.

Two particular sentences from that interview still rang out. "We had water for white folks, water for coloured folks. White lines, black lines," Frazier told me as he described his American childhood. Those words evoked my own past in South Africa, under apartheid. And they seemed resonant again on a wintry day in the Bronx on the black train.

There were just black faces on one part of the 5 train, up in the Bronx, and many more white faces further down, near Manhattan. It was the same old black-and-white wound of America, South Africa and other countries too.

Sport had always been a playground, and so it was easier in American football and basketball to turn a fantasy of equality into the reality of riches earned by LeBron James and his contemporaries. If some black men had become coaches, rather than just players, it was still clear that almost all the owners of clubs were resolutely white. In time that might change – even if there won't be a romantic new rainbow nation as once imagined for post-apartheid South Africa or an Obama-led America.

The 5 train moved on slowly towards Manhattan and, with every stop along the way, the faces around me merged into different colours. Accents changed and tourists drifted into our carriage. The black and white lines were no longer so clearly demarcated. I plugged in my earphones and started to listen to the gravelly old voice of Billy Johnson on a battered and tiny recorder.

"Life might not be perfect but, without Jesse and Joe, it would have been unthinkable," he said. "That's why I never get tired talking about them. Jesse and Joe started a whole new story. It's not over and who knows where it will end. But they gave us the start. It always comes back to them..."

The new and updated edition of In Black & White: The Untold Story Of Joe Louis & Jesse Owens is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.

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Sometimes, on a gloomy day on the fringes of north-west London, the British Newspaper Library in Colindale looks more like an asylum, a hospital or a prison. A stark brick building, fenced in by iron railings, does not resemble the inky mine of treasures so many writers have discovered over the years.

This week, however, feels strangely poignant as I make the daily trek on the Northern Line to the remote archive which has shaped so many books I've written. On Friday, 8 November 2013, just before five p.m., this bizarre old building, which opened in 1932, will shut to the public for the last time. Eventually, next March, the British Newspaper Library will re-open in a swanky new setting in St Pancras. Our surreal mob of time-travellers and writers, historians and vagabonds, will turn up there, too, and we've been promised "bang-up-to-date research facilities and amenities." But jobs will be lost and, somehow, it won't be the same as Colindale.

During the last few weeks, especially in the early mornings, while waiting in the grimy lounge for the security guard to give the formal wave at 10.01 so that we can swarm up the corridor and take the stairs into the inner sanctum of a worldly microfilm collection beyond compare, it's been intriguing to listen to the lament of those who have grown to love this unlovely old building.

"I don't quite know why," an old Scotsman wheezed last Friday morning, "but I fucking love this place."

"It must be all the years you've spent here...," a refined young woman replied dryly.

I knew the feeling and, while the Scot serenaded the dour dankness of Colindale and reminisced over all the glittering jewels of previously forgotten information he had uncovered, I felt an almost painful nostalgia for something that was still not quite over. I remembered how I first came here early in a new century, in the first few months of 2000, when I'd just given up on the idea of becoming a novelist. I'd written three previous books and for an idiotic year I had tried hard to convince myself that my future awaited inside the unwritten pages of a novel.

We had a toddler then, and a couple more would soon follow. Without much money and not really willing to work for a living in an ordinary job, I was in trouble. My agent at the time had suggested that I return to non-fiction and she conjured up the name of Jesse Owens. I groaned aloud to my wife and got very drunk on the night I abandoned my terrible novel.

The next morning, with sombre expectations, I made my first pilgrimage to Colindale. I found the archive a confusing place. There were so many pieces of paper that needed to be filled out to reserve a few reels of microfilm containing newspapers from New York, Chicago and Cleveland in the 1930s. And when the small boxes finally arrived it was even more bewildering trying to thread the loops of film onto the bulky metal machines.

My first morning was spent sweating and swearing quietly before I gave in and retreated to the desk to ask for some help.

Thirteen years later, I've become pretty nifty at loading each fresh reel before spinning and whirring my way back through time. I've even picked up a few tricks and, like a B-movie private eye, I sometimes feel as if I've learnt the knack for picking out clues which will lead me to the next chapter of my latest story. More importantly, it only took about a decade for one of the librarians to give me a knowing nod and whisper that, actually, I was wasting too much time peering at the blurred screens that occupied the first row of micro-film readers. The best machines were in the back room where the smartest wizards of the archive worked quickly and quietly, furtively eating peanuts or chocolate while they raced back through the years. Desk 83 became my archival home.

My spiritual conversion to Colindale had happened on my very first day when, while avoiding the obvious route of looking at Jesse Owens's Olympic exploits in Berlin 1936, I jumped ahead a couple of years. I had no idea what had happened to Owens after he had won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, while Hitler and the Nazi high command glowered down at his shyly beaming face. So, taking a long leap of my own into the unknown, I asked for four reels from the early summer of 1938. I liked gazing at the surreal old adverts and reading the front and back pages, as well as all the book and film reviews. I lost myself in the first two tapes of microfilms - but there was no mention of Jesse Owens.

Then, suddenly, Colindale was illuminated by a thrilling glare. It was only a small article, running for just a few hundred words in a black American newspaper called the Chicago Defender, but it gripped me. That brief story described how, on 4 July 1938, Joe Louis had beaten Jesse Owens in "a 60 yard dash". Only two weeks had passed since Louis, the world heavyweight champion, had demolished Max Schmeling, whom the Nazis loved even though he was a good man. A grainy image of the frozen-faced and flat-footed boxer racing against the flying feet and smiling face of 'The Fastest Man on Earth' flummoxed me. Why, and how, as the headline suggested, had Joe actually beaten Jesse?

I started reading each reel of tape more closely and soon, even though I was in Colindale in 2000, it felt as if I was lost in Chicago in 1938. I then returned to Berlin in August 1936, following Jesse next to London where he was about to be banned from competing ever again. A few months later, in December 1936, I even travelled with Jesse Owens to Havana, Cuba, as he raced against a horse. He had been reduced to a circus performer – just five months after he produced the most significant series of performances on an Olympic track in defiance of the Nazis.

Colindale being Colindale, of course, opened up the story every step of the way. When I asked doubtfully if they might store any newspapers from Havana I was swiftly offered a selection. I was on the path and, in that dark old library, I tracked Jesse and Joe through debt and drug addiction, consuming fame and FBI scrutiny, alongside the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X , and on and on until I finally reached the obituary pages which gushed praise over their previously beleaguered lives.

Inevitably, newspapers only skim the surface of a story, and facts get mangled, and so I could never rely on Colindale for anything more than an irreplaceable start to a book. I soon realized how imperative it was to leave my microfilm reels far behind and fly to America in order to talk to the Owens and Louis families and to those surviving friends who had known them so well. Jesse and Joe came alive in a way that Colindale could not match – but I would never have had the skeleton of the book I eventually wrote, In Black & White, unless the bare bones had been gathered first in my cherished newspaper archive.

One book led to another. I wrote about Chris Barnard, Norman Shumway, Richard Lower and Adrian Kantrowitz as they all raced to transplant the first human heart in 1967. Once again, this book, Every Second Counts, was made vivid by the three American surgeons who gave me so much time when I visited them over and over again in Stanford, Richmond and Detroit. But Colindale provided the map we needed. Colindale provided the shadowy outline of a dramatic story which the surgeons told in their own words.

I wrote next about Clarence Darrow, in The Old Devil, and the same routine unfolded. The groundwork was laid in Colindale as I read voraciously about Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes Monkey trial, and the tragic case of Ossian Sweet which unfolded within the space of two tumultuous years from 1924 to 1926. I was amazed to see how Darrow dominated newspaper coverage like a brilliant showman – and felt exalted that I wrote non-fiction. Where else, but in Colindale, would I have met such contrasting characters in such diverse settings and eras?

It felt more personal when, while writing a book about me and my family, Under Our Skin, I spent many months in Colindale reading old copies of South African newspapers from 1981 and 1982 as I relived the horrendous detention and death of Neil Aggett – which forms a separate section of a memoir which is as much about South Africa than just my family. I could remember reading some of those same articles I pored over in Colindale when I had been 19 or 20 and living in another country.

And now, deep into my ninth book, I have been back in Colindale a long while again. The difference, this time, is the sad urgency I feel. There are just days left now and the old building is crammed with time-travellers on the same mission as me – trying to squeeze out as much information as we can before the heavy wooden doors shut for the last time on this unforgettable version of the British Newspaper Library.

Most of us still waste time poring over the adverts that hold only passing relevance to our chosen subject.

There is still nowhere to get a decent coffee or sandwich in Colindale, and it seems to rain more here than anywhere else in London. The building remains dark and gloomy on the outside – but, once inside and at Desk 83, its quietly humming machines and microfilms light up my work like nothing else. My research for my new book has taken me from New York to Miami to Havana, and from Johannesburg to Los Angeles and back again to New York. I've been in many other places as well, as least on my library research reader and in my head, as I've criss-crossed the years yet again.

This time, I've also felt rooted in Colindale. I can't help myself looking up every hour and gazing around the old place once more. I remember then that it's cold and bleak outside in Colindale on a wet November day in 2013. Yet this ancient archive burns with light and a kind of magic, too, and every day this week I think how much I will miss it once it has gone forever. Time-travel will never be the same again.


A version of this blog was first published in Boxing News on 29 August 2013 – in a feature called The Dark Prince.

Seventeen years ago, on a sultry night in London in August 1996, I phoned James Toney for the last time. Of course we would speak again in later years but we knew this particular conversation marked the end of a book called Dark Trade. Five years had passed since I began working on a project that had consumed me while I followed fighters like Toney, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and Naseem Hamed. .

"Damn those British bums," Toney snorted for old time's sake as he wondered again why I'd spent so much writing about boxers he loved to dismiss. "Come back to L.A.," Toney instructed me from his suite in Beverly Hills. "Or meet me in Vegas. Jus' jump on a plane, man!"

Toney meant more to me than any other fighter and I was tempted to fly back to America for our final interview. But unlike Toney, then a boxing millionaire, I was almost broke. I could no longer justify spending yet more money on flights to and from America, on cheap hotels and small car rentals.

I had just a few thousand words left to write of an obsessive book that would be published in October 1996. And so I reminded Toney instead how anxious I'd been before our first meeting when his reputation as a crack-dealing, gun-toting gangster preceded his subtle skills as a defensive ring master. Toney had been regularly depicted as boxing's most ferocious character; but I soon discovered he was also one of the most amusing fighters in the business.

We settled into contented nostalgia on the phone, thinking of our time together in Tulsa, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Ann Arbor.

"Yeah," Toney decided, "it's been good."

The previous five years, for me, had been more than "good". They had changed my life forever by giving me the chance to write about boxing. Dark Trade ran so deep inside me it had become a kind of madness as I engaged in seemingly private conversations with my chosen fighters. Yet I had recovered from the blunt dismissal the book had received in the form of a proposal, and sample chapters, a few years before.

When I first tried to sell the idea to ten different publishers in London, nine of them rejected it. The book was apparently un-publishable. Dark Trade had "no obvious market potential" or, more personally, "it's not quite for us." Only Mainstream, who had published my first book, and believed in me as a writer, offered a small advance of £8,000 for a desolate subject like boxing. Over five years that would work out to be a princely amount of £1,600 per annum to fund my research trips.

The rejection hurt. But I was young and determined and, instead of immediately signing with Mainstream, I decided to concentrate on the fighters, and the writing, rather than worry about publication. The book was already burning inside me. In truth, it had been waiting to be written for years.

Dark Trade was forged in South Africa – where I grew up during apartheid. It was then, in the 1970s, that I began to understand the power and majesty of boxing. Muhammad Ali, inevitably, was the glittering cornerstone of everything that I loved about the ring. How could you not be fascinated by such a brilliant and funny guy when you were 10 years old and saw his impact on everyone around you? I looked at men who I'd hearing venting spleen about "the bloody blacks" and I was as stunned as I was amused that these same bone-deep racist crooners were besotted with Ali.

"Boy, he's so handsome," one Afrikaner said in an awe-struck voice when he showed us a photograph of Ali. "He looks a million dollars."

As a boy I did not understand Ali's conversion to Islam, or his embrace of black consciousness, but I realized there was something extraordinary in his hold over white South Africans. The closest any of those men came to voicing the contradiction at the heart of their love for Ali was when our woodwork teacher, a bruiser who gave us the odd klap [slap] with a stick, spoke simply of the world heavyweight champion. After Ali had rumbled George Foremen in deepest Africa in 1974 my teacher said: "He's not like our blacks, man."

I was only 13 then but I could recognize the defining difference between Ali and black South Africans. Ali had won his freedom; while most of South Africa remained warped by apartheid.

Two great black American fighters, Bob Foster and Emile Griffith actually visited South Africa in the 1970s. Foster was near his peak when, for the second time, he coolly held off our brave white hope, Pierre Fourie, in 1973. Griffith, in contrast, was in the dregs of his career in 1975 when he lost in Soweto to Elijah 'Tap Tap' Makhathini. Yet Griffith and his white trainer, Gil Clancy won a more important battle against the South African government which had tried to stop them working together in the ring. It was illegal for Clancy to enter a black township but he and Griffith held firm and the government surrendered – again making me admire the strength and decency of the best men in boxing.

Long after I had been forced to leave South Africa I actually met Ali and Forster. But those encounters stemmed from me being a fan rather than a writer.

The great Bob Foster, in Albuquerque, spars a starving yet worryingly chunky author, then surviving on a pauper's diet of doughnuts and takeaway pizza

I only felt ready to begin writing about boxing in 1991 when Dark Trade gathered momentum over a tumultuous few months.

Shortly before I interviewed Tyson in June of that year he had promised his opponent, Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock, that, "I'm gonna make you my girlfriend. Don't you know that you're really a transvestite?"

The "girlfriend" jibe was jailhouse slang; and Tyson's sneering ended with him repeating, "It doesn't count if he isn't dead, it doesn't count if he isn't dead..."

I was uncertain how Tyson would react when I interviewed him but he turned out to be fiercely lucid. He spoke of his feelings of impending doom and about the fate of some great heavyweight champions who had preceded him – Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. I was transfixed for he was one of the most extraordinary men I had ever met.

A week later, as he strode to the ring behind The Mirage hotel and casino, with the sun sinking over a gleaming Vegas skyline, Tyson wore his usual fight uniform – black shoes and trunks and a white towel, out of which a ragged hole had been cut so that that it could fit crudely over his head. There were no satiny robes or sparkling sequins for Tyson.

The fight against Ruddock was not much prettier. Tyson had lost much of the blurring hand speed and elusive head movement which had once defined him. He could still punch, however, and after 12 rounds Ruddock's face was grotesquely puffed. His jaw had been broken and Tyson shook his head in admiration of such courage. The fighters embraced as the trainers poured water over their steaming heads. I thought again that no other sport could quite match boxing for its raw appeal.

I left Las Vegas on 30 June 1991, the day Mike Tyson turned 25, and I resolved to write seriously about boxing. I had already met Watson and Eubank and I wrote a feature about two very different fighters preparing for their rematch. The seeds of this book had been planted.

Then, on 7 August 1991 Tyson was indicted in Indiana on four charges of criminal conduct, confinement and the rape of Desiree Washington. It was not exactly shocking – but it still made his graphic desolation in Vegas seem eerily accurate.

Watson, meanwhile, was seething with resentment after their first fight had ended in a controversial win for Eubank. "I've never seen another black man try so hard to look and sound white," Watson said of Eubank. "He very weird and confused. That's why this fight is so important. Eubank says it's about money. But it's about respect – and our futures. Eubank knows this. He's preparing for a hell of a fight."

I returned to Hove to see Eubank again. In an attempt to curb his infamous bluster I asked him which five words he would use to describe himself?

Eubank chose his adjectives in alphabetical order:


"But Chris," I protested, "that's six words."

"I'm the fighter," Eubank said firmly. "I'll settle on six."

The six-pack wordsmith then shook his head gravely: "It's a terrible thing, boxing, a terrible thing..."

On 21 September, 1991, boxing truly did seem a terrible thing. At White Hart Lane that night I had been riveted by a masterclass from Watson, who was one of my favourite fighters, as he outclassed Eubank for nearly eleven rounds. He scored a knockdown near the end of the eleventh – only for Eubank to rise from the canvas and unleash a devastating uppercut that would soon send Watson into a coma.

As I headed for the tunnel leading to the dressing room, I remember seeing Eric Seccombe, Watson's former trainer, shaking and crying. His pale face twitched as he stared at the stricken figure of Watson on a stretcher. "No Michael, no....," Seccombe cried.

The next week engulfed this new book in suffocating sadness. I was not sure I would, or even could, write about boxing again. Tyson was in jail but, far worse, Michael Watson was close to death. The idea of even watching another fight seemed hideous. I felt close to giving up on a book I had hardly even begun.

Those doubts uncurled inside me whenever another tragedy blighted this book: Bradley Stone died on 28 April 1994; Gerald McClellan slid into a coma that turned into blindness and dementia on 25 February 1995; Jimmy Garcia died on 19 May 1995, as did James Murray on 15 October 1995.

Each catastrophe had a profound impact on me. I thought of those fighters when I settled on the title of Dark Trade. They were all dedicated professionals, trading blows in the most dangerous business of all, but they suffered the darkest of fates.

I became determined to highlight the way in which fighters like Watson, who somehow survived and slowly began to rebuild his shattered life, still loved boxing. Watson made me feel it was right to continue writing this book to try and honour the courage and resolve of all fighters. My respect for them grew rather than diminished with every year I was "lost in boxing."

My girlfriend, Alison, who became my wife before this book's publication, was both a comic foil and moral touchstone for me. Initially, when we met, I almost felt embarrassed to tell her that I was immersed in writing a book about boxers. She was an architect who loved art and fashion and knew nothing about boxing. I wondered if she would think I was deeply troubled to love a business as violent and crooked as boxing. But it did not take Alison long to recognise the compelling nature of the ring and, most of all, to admire the fighters she met in my company. She was also, like me, a sucker for big-time boxing.

And so, in an effort to offset the grim fatalities and injuries I had to document, I included small snippets which explained how Alison also "lost" herself in boxing. It seems hopelessly indulgent now but it was true to the nature of us, and our suddenly shared love of boxing, that a cultured Home Counties girl would fill our flat with rip-roaring imitations of Michael Buffer's "Let's Git Ready To Ruummmblleeee!" or step straight out of bath to do nude impersonations of Chris Eubank or Naseem Hamed. We knew each other well enough by then that I'd sometimes have to gently remind her that I was watching a replay of an Arsenal goal and could she, a naked girly Eubank impressionist, shift a little to the left to allow me full sight of the television screen while she did her crazy boxing dance.

Our most amusing times together were in the company of Sherry and James Toney – especially when the fighter's mother told us how she used to discipline him in the most beautifully profane language. We got so close to the Toneys that Sherry used to Fex-Ex us pastries and cookies from her Speciality Cakes & Pies Shop in Ann Arbor. It was a warning of the way Toney would balloon in weight in later years.

I think the book really began to fly on the night, in Tulsa, in October 1993, when Toney defended his IBF Super-Middleweight world title against Tony Thornton. Toney agreed that I could spend the last few hours with him before the fight. As time drifted past, a stone-cold look settled on Toney's face in his hotel room on the seventeenth floor. In the room next door, a maniac with a taste for irony played Gene Pitney's 24 Hours to Tulsa over and over again.

"I hate this shit," Toney snarled.

Finally, Toney stood up. It was time for him to fight. He wore a hooded tracksuit and heavy boots. A solid gold choker glinted on his muscled neck. He thrust his fists deep into the pockets of his top.

"You ready for this?" he drawled.

I nodded. "OK," he murmured. "Let's go...."

The next few hours unfolded in a blur of intensity. I sat with Toney in his dressing room while we listened to Dr Dre's The Chonic over and over again. We liked it a lot more than Gene Pitney.

I asked Toney how he dealt with the tension. "This is boxing, baby..." he answered quietly.

When the door swung open, a sound man barked "Showtime!" Toney looked straight at me.

"Okay," he said, "let's go..."

I followed him on the long walk to the ring, with Dr Dre's High-Powered thudding in our wake, and wondered if many other writers got this lucky.

Afterwards, once Toney had won comfortably, he came over to where I stood, sinking a beer I really needed. "See, man, I'm not so bad," he crooned as the sweat flew from him. He was on his way to becoming the world's number one pound-for-pound fighter. "We gonna do this again?"

I nodded, almost in disbelief. "OK," Toney said. "We got a deal. And now, baby, it's time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers, 'cos I'm James Toney – champion of the world."

Toney stuck to his word. He ate so many cheeseburgers that his career soon curdled. I was again with him both before and after his life-crumbling world title unification contest in Las Vegas against Roy Jones Jr when, in October 1994, he suffered his first defeat. He was never the same again, having lost a fight when victory would have guaranteed him $30 million, and we both knew it.

I spent time with Jones, too, but my heart was always in Toney's corner. I could never shake from my mind his utter desolation at that post-fight "party". He arrived three hours late and bit his lip as everyone applauded him, their clapping strengthening the longer he stood there in mute silence. You could tell that he had made up his mind that he was not going to cry, at least not in front of us.

"I take my hat off to Roy Jones," he eventually mumbled. "I gotta also say Jones did a good job of running from my power..."

There were shouts of support; and I smiled helplessly at Toney. What else could I do? My favourite fighter had been exposed.

He took my hand with a wink. "Hey big boy," he said. "You still here?"

We swapped some sad words and then Toney broke away for some food. Comfort eating was all he had left that night. His mother still kissed him. "I'm proud of you, boy," she said gravely.

It soon became less dignified. A day later Toney talked about shooting his manager, a middle-aged Jewish woman called Jackie Kallen. Murder, fortunately, was avoided but Toney and Kallen stopped working together. The James Toney bandwagon began to slow under his increasingly bloated weight. I still stayed loyal to him.

When I made the final call to Toney, to end this book, Sherry had just asked me to submit a sharp letter of rebuke to Boxing News. Jim Brady, who was then this magazine's American correspondent, had reported on Toney's lackadaisical victory over a journeyman called Charles Oliver in July 1996. In his previous fight, Brady acknowledged, "Toney looked superb battering Earl Butler. But once Toney weighs more than 12 stone 7, his hand-speed diminishes greatly and he loses his sharpness."

It was an accurate assessment but I agreed to pass on Sherry's fiercely protective letter to the editor Harry Mullan and it was duly printed in Boxing News under a 'Leave My Son Alone!' warning of a headline.

"Those British bums had better watch out for my mom," Toney said darkly before he lapsed into his familiar growling laugh. "We're almost done," he said. "And we had some fun."

I had a lot of fun writing Dark Trade, despite the darkness, and the book assumed even more meaning to me when it won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in November 1996. The pile of rejection letters no longer mattered. It had turned out all right in the end.

Seventeen years later it keeps on rolling and every time I get a kind email or tweet from someone who has just read Dark Trade, and liked it, I'm reminded of the surreal days that fuelled its writing. Next year it will be relaunched by another publisher, Simon & Schuster, who have just bought the rights from Mainstream.

The 2014 edition of Dark Trade will, I hope, follow Toney's final retirement from the ring. It is a source of sadness to see him still attempting to fight on – a once brilliant technician of the ring reduced to a beaten-up heavyweight. But there's still enough wit in Toney for him to probably raise a dubious eyebrow at the notion that some people might still want to read this old book of mine. "Some bums, usually British bums, will read anything," he once told me with a wise old grin.

I always think of those words when I see the boxing glove Toney gave me as a gift after Dark Trade was first published. He had worn it during his 1997 world title defeat of the great Mike McCallum, another defensive master of the ring.

That old red glove hangs from a white wall in my garden shed, where I work every day, reminding me of all those lost yet beautiful years when I was obsessed with extraordinary fighters like James 'Lights Out' Toney.

Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is currently published by Mainstream as both a paperback and ebook. It will be re-released in the spring of 2014 by Simon & Schuster

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Driving along a red dirt road in Mozambique last week, with the lush green leaves and tall coconut trees on either side accompanied by the occasional pink or yellow-fronted shack selling bananas and tomatoes, it was initially hard not to think in black-and-white. Nostalgia is a terrible vice and this was no different. I remembered the days when I was a boy in South Africa and my big sister was addicted to the staticky sound of LM Radio. LM stood for Lourenço Marques – which has been called Maputo ever since Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal in 1975.

I was only dimly aware then that Mozambique's war of independence was being waged because words like "Frelimo" and "communists" and "terrorists" echoed dolefully from the state radio my father played every morning at breakfast. To me at 14, Frelimo could have been the name of the marmalade dad slapped down on his toast while he read the more liberally-inclined Rand Daily Mail as that newspaper tried to probe some of the inequities of apartheid.

LM Radio was much more mysterious and beguiling. Whenever I went into my sister's bedroom it seemed as if she was sprawled on her bed, reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir while cranking up the volume to LM. She was about to turn seventeen and her pink walls were covered in posters of men who either looked like pretty women – David Bowie and Marc Bolan – or, in the surreal case of Alice Cooper, were named after girls.

Bowie was the king, or the queen, of my sister's bedroom. Rebel Rebel blasted out of Mozambique four or five times a day and captured the illicit blurring that made LM sound so thrilling and different.

You've got your mother in a whirl

She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl

Rebel Rebel, you've torn your dress

Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess

Rebel Rebel, how could they know?

Hot tramp, I love you so

Rather than wearing a dress or reaching for the make-up like any of LM's glam-rockers, I loved playing football and cricket and rugby and tennis. But I also felt at home surrounded by my sister's posters and books and pop songs. I think my eventual decision to escape years of conscription into the South African army, and leave the country forever for England, was forged on those long afternoons listening to the imported decadence of Mozambique's LM Radio.

The station was shut down in 1975 and, within two years, the newly independent Mozambique was engulfed by civil war. The rebels were called Renamo and they were backed by a South African government keen to destabilise the Soviet-backed Frelimo government. Military service for all white South African boys intensified as Angola followed Mozambique into bloody independence in November 1975.

Yet those black-and-white memories were soon swamped by the colour of Mozambique in August 2013. Winter days of blue skies and sunshine, on empty beaches whose shimmering white sands stretched for miles, were also framed by the people we met and the places we visited. There were brief echoes of South Africa and a reminder that Lourenço Marques was once an exotic holiday destination during the bad old days of colonialism and apartheid when white families swooned at the taste of peri-peri chicken and jumbo prawns scooped just hours before from the very blue Indian Ocean. We never made it to LM ourselves before the war came but, like it's maverick radio station, Mozambique seemed to shut down to the outside world. For a long time death and poverty prevailed. As recently as 1996 UNICEF declared that Mozambique was the poorest country in the world. Last year the IMF reported that Mozambique had risen to a position of 113th, out of 182 countries, in terms of its Gross Domestic Product.

Part of that slow recovery is due to tourism and so one night last week, having walked down a blackened dirt track for twenty minutes, feeling strangely safe with our little torches, we finally found a bar called Charlies on the road to Inhambane. Our kids were as bewildered as we were amused to discover that it had been taken over by a dozen couples from Pretoria who had persuaded the black barman to pump out their tape of traditional Boeremusik – Afrikaans folk music I'd once derided as a snotty English-speaking teenager.

There was a kind of stately grace, however, in the way that the Afrikaans men and women took to the dancefloor at Charlies inbetween devouring the equally traditional peri-peri chicken and big fat prawns. And my wife and I discovered another form of nostalgia when the Pretoria mix-tape suddenly segued into Dexys Midnight Runners. Kevin Rowland might as well have washed up on a Mozambique beach as one Afrikaans woman in particular hollered "Come On Eileen" as if she was sharing the mic with the surly and preachy old frontman from Birmingham.

We ended up, purely by chance the next day, even going out to sea on a boat with her and some of her fellow dancers from Charlies. As we flew across the bumpy surf, riding up and down waves before we reached calmer waters, she yelled out again and again, with a kind of exhilarating abandon that rarely happened during apartheid, "Dit is vokken lekker! [This is fucking great/sweet!]"

We all thought it was vokken lekker, and only a little scary, when our boat puttered alongside six humpback whales far out at sea. The smallest whale was 14 metres long but the black guy at the helm exuded such calm that we soon felt almost as serene as he did while the humpbacks rose out of the ocean, water spraying in the air alongside their massive tails, within touching distance of our very wet boat.

I thought even less of LM Radio and the imaginary Mozambique of my past when we were back on land. A different and far more tangible country enveloped us.

Of course there is still impoverishment and it could be seen in the sometimes desperate faces of the black hawkers on the beach trying to sell their homemade bangles or paintings for any loose change. Yet even here, with boys as young as ten insisting that they were called John Wayne, a mordant wit framed the persistent beseeching. We gave in easily to the boys who spoke about going to school the next day before, sounding suitably middle-aged, we handed down earnest homilies to our own kids about how lucky they are in comparison. There was no need. Our girls and boy have eyes of their own.

They loved the moments when a man called Safromento [pronounced as a very snappy-sounding homage to an American city in Sacramento] took us to his village and taught them how to climb a very high coconut tree.

But they were quieter when Safromento explained that, for his own children, coconut milk is often the only form of medicine they can take when malaria invades the unbearably hot summer days of December. The closest hospital is six kilometres away and a parent has little choice when the coconut milk proves helpless against malaria – he or she has to walk with their fevered and sometimes dying child in their arms in the hope that they can be saved by a doctor.

Safromento showed us how to make a house out of palm tree leaves – which will be handy if all else fails and we end up living forever in Mozambique. We also learnt that, while things do go wrong in Mozambique, life always goes on. So there was no real drama when the road inexplicably flooded one night, despite the absence of any rain; and there was definitely no problem during another power blackout the next time we went to Charlies. The waiter simply shoved a candle into an empty can of Sprite and continued serving us one plate of seafood after another while telling us how much he loved supporting Barcelona rather than Arsenal.

In much the same way local fishermen would spend hours in the morning trying to haul in their huge nets, bulging with thousands of sardines, and shrug when a gang of them still struggled to bring their catch onto the beach.

They kept pulling and tugging, occasionally persuading even a beefy old white man like me to lend them a hand, while mugging for the camera. I didn't mind helping but I did purposely choose the line of men who were not anchored by a guy in a Man United shirt with V.PERSIE and the number 20 plastered across his back. My Barcelona-supporting pal from Charlies would have understood the reason.

There was something romantic in the way in which, after the fishermen had heaved and sweated for three hours, a procession of women walked down the length of the beach. They wore brightly-coloured long dresses and carried empty basins on their head which they would fill with sardines.

But the elegant picture soon erupted into screeching noise as, gathering furiously around the main fisherman, they haggled and cackled and screamed over the price.

He looked as if he was about to surrender to an army of fishwives before, bolstered by his grinning pals sprawled out in exhaustion on the beach, he began to shout back. It looked to us as if Mozambique's economy was, at least here, a competitively thriving business.

We slipped away into more indulgent pleasures where the only real headache was that our similarly competitive games of beach cricket kept being interrupted by a black Labrador called Chopsticks – who was adept not only at pulling off stunning catches but then trotting away amiably with the ball. He enjoyed the game so much that we gave in and abandoned the cricket altogether and threw the tennis ball instead for Chopsticks to chase and bring back in all his slobbery glory. On the day we left we donated the ball to Chopsticks, who lived with the divers in a shack of an office on the beach, and thought how lucky we had been to have visited Mozambique at last.

All my impressions of the country were cast in colour, rather than the monochrome images of apartheid-era South Africa, and I no longer thought much about LM Radio. And, instead of David Bowie and Rebel Rebel, or even Boeremusik and Dexys Midnights Runners, the soundtrack of our week in Mozambique was provided by a black man called Dennis who introduced us to the most gorgeous and slinkiest-sounding music this side of the hottest soukous from the old Congo. Dennis played his music on a battered MP3 player and he scrawled down some names of local bands – none of whom have made it to YouTube or Amazon.

Dennis said he would take us into deepest Inhambane to track down some tapes the very next day. And, when we explained that we would have left by then, he just smiled.

"Why don't you stay another week in Mozambique?" he asked.

And in that blurring moment, a long way from Rebel Rebel and LM Radio, we almost wished that we could linger just a few days more alongside Dennis, John Wayne, Chopsticks and everyone we'd met at a dark roadside joint called Charlies. It felt, at last, like we had truly arrived in Mozambique.


Last weekend we had a different kind of Saturday lunchtime. Normally, at home, chaos and noise and kids surround the table with the only certainty being that we all sit in our usual places. It was different at Ascot, especially in a formal setting like the Authority Box, where we needed to scan a board to pick out our names and confirm exactly where we were expected to sit down for lunch. We rarely get invited to such events and so, skulking in a corner at first, my wife and I were able to indulge in suitable gawking at a very healthy-looking Sir Alex Ferguson and even wonder what would happen if he had the misfortune to be seated between us.

At that point, and still too shy to talk to anyone, we actually texted the kids to tell them we were, sort of, "lunching" with Fergie. The real truth was that, according to the seating plan, he would be two tables away from us. At least Fergie would be spared some bad jokes about my taking a Suarez-sized bite off his plate in recompense for all the pain he had visited on Arsenal over the years. I was soon more intrigued to hear that we would be having lunch with the German family who owned Novellist – considered one of the strongest contenders in that afternoon's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Over breakfast we had already decided that Novellist, even with two 'ls', was my chosen nag for the day. Of course I didn't know anything about the horse at all. I just liked the name and, as a writer, felt compelled to back him. The size of the bet would depend on how much I had drunk by 3.30 that afternoon – twenty minutes before the start of the race. So it seemed an especially good omen that, at lunch, I would be sitting next to the owner of my new favourite horse.

Dr Christoph Berglar turned out to be a charming and witty man. He was also disarmingly open. Soon after we sat down he told me that he was the father of six children – "all with the same wife" he chortled as he waved, romantically, to a very elegant woman smiling demurely at the opposite side of a big round table. It turned out that the decorated doctor, who was actually a lawyer-turned-businessman, was primarily interested in the scientific art of breeding horses. He had discovered that the key to equine breeding resided with the dam – whom laymen like me still call the mare or, at our most confused, "the lady horse".

"Just like real life then?" I asked.

"Exactly," Dr Berglar exclaimed with a laugh as he pointed out the similarities between his wife and three of his good-looking children who, ranging in age from 17 and 32, shared our table. His youngest daughter, a couple of seats away from us, spoke German, English and Arabic with almost equal fluency. She was also taking a post-graduate degree in anthropology at Cambridge University. All of his other children were apparently just as intelligent and polite.

"They have a very special mother," the good doctor said by way of explanation.

Doctor B said he'd also had a lot of luck in breeding for the track. The very first horse he had bought had not cost him much money – "mainly because she looked like a German Shepherd!" But all his winners since then had descended from this great dam disguised as a German Shepherd. I silently thanked the masters of the Ascot Authority Box for seating me next to such an entertaining man.

The doctor could also be profound. When I asked him what he liked most about racing he thought carefully for a few moments before suggesting that he valued the lessons he had learned from such a singular sport. He said that, for the vanquished owner, defeat always imparted more knowledge than victory.

"There are a lot of rich people in racing," he said, realizing that he looked a very wealthy man himself. "They are used to winning and getting their own way. Racing teaches all of us to accept defeat."

Racing, in a way, is good for the soul. And so around two o'clock last Saturday afternoon, as we clinked our final two glasses of red wine together, I wished Dr Berglar luck for the King George. I also said that he looked remarkably relaxed when the small prize of £474,564 awaited the winning owner. The lessons in defeat might seem invaluable but almost half-a-million quid would be a nice way to round off his Saturday afternoon at Ascot. Wasn't he, at least on the inside, aquiver with tremulous anxiety?

"I'm trying to stay very neutral," he said with a wry smile. "And whether you win or lose you end up saying the same thing."

"What's that?" I wondered.

"Thank you," the doctor said, spreading his hands wide. "It seems enough just to be here today..."

He also explained that, as racing in Germany was of a much lower standard, he would only know how fast Novellist could run once he saw him on an English track. His horse had defeated Cirrus Des Aigles, the clear favourite, at the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud last time they met. But the King George would be different. Cirrus Des Aigles had finished second to the unbeatable Frankel last year and Novellist had never run in England before.

I decided to double my bet on Novellist – as some kind of tribute to such a cool customer in Doctor B. So, despite having won nothing from the first three races, I went for a whopping £4 each-way bet. The last of the big-time gamblers, I was ready to lose a few more pounds in exchange for another erudite defeat at the hands of the bookies.

As the eight horses approached the starting gate, Fergie, Princess Anne, Shane Warne and Liz Hurley entered our small box overlooking the finish line. It was that kind of day. We stood right behind Fergie and Anne but waved instead to the Berglars on our left. Dr B nodded graciously but, yes, he suddenly looked a little nervous.

The King George is a mile-and-four-furlong race for horses that are three years and older. Cirrus Des Aigles looked haughty and highly-strung. Novellist, however, had a canny old fox on his back, a great jockey in Johnny Murtagh, whom I've always wanted to interview. Maybe the doc could swing it for me if Johnny and Novellist had a lovely ride beneath the summery thunderclouds and streaming sunshine that stretched across Ascot – making it look prettier than ever.

Below the posh seats the punters, the lost and the damned of the racetrack, grew more ragged and raucous as they yelled early encouragement to the horses. Novellist was handily placed, lying fourth. Glancing at the doctor I noticed how intently he watched the race. His wife and children, including his lovely daughter-in-law bouncing his first grandchild on her knee in time to the thundering hooves, were much more animated.

They all began to holler with just over a furlong left. "Novellist takes over," the trackside commentator yelped.

Dr Berglar no longer appeared so composed and philosophical. He had actually begun a Grandad dance of amazing elan. His hands did disco-dancing circles in the air, as if he was jiving to Chic in a Cologne night-club in 1983 rather than busting some moves alongside Fergie and Princess Anne at Ascot.

I knew then that Novellist was about to win the King George. Doctor B danced with such sophisticated assurance that victory was inevitable. His hands kept waving above his head as, down on the track, Johnny Murtagh hunched low over the flying black horse, the Irish jockey smiling dryly at the ridiculous ease of another big win.

Dr Berglar fell into the embrace of his family. By the time he rose to also greet us his face was glowing with such happiness that it seemed as if he had been lit up from the inside.

"Thank you," he said, pumping my hand, "thank you..."

Shane Warne galloped into the main box where more champagne was waiting. "I got first and second," Warnie yelped as if this mattered more than the joy he felt after bowling the Ball of the Century all those years ago.

Dr Berglar looked at Warnie in a daze. He had just won almost half a million pounds and the King George with a writerly beauty of a horse. My £27.90 winnings felt pretty sweet as well – if nothing like the apparent golden Warne haul. It still did not seem quite the time to explain the sporting significance of Warnie to Berglar.

The doctor from Cologne turned to me with one last smile before he bounded down the stairs to find Murtagh, Novellist and a trophy-wielding Princess Anne.

"We did it," Dr Berglar said simply, with the awe of a man who, in those wonderful moments, understood that, for all the profound lessons tucked away in defeat, there's nothing quite like an amazing win.

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It now seems fitting that my very first interview for The Guardian was with a poet and writer who loved boxing. Published in December 1991, almost twelve years before I began my current sports interview slot, it was a one-off freelance gig that turned out to be the perfect opening to a strange new world in which two people, who have never met before, sit down and start talking with varying degrees of intimacy. I got lucky. This first apparently serious interview was fuelled by four bottles of red wine and the gravelly voice of Charles Bukowski – the great old American reprobate and spinner of some dark yet beautiful stories and poems. So, instead of interviewing Bukowski in a formal way, I got drunk with him.

Bukowski called me 'baby' most of the time. He instructed me to call him Hank. His wife, Linda, sat with us while Hank made sure we all kept laughing and drinking.

I remember that, in tandem with the increasingly drunken fog in my head, Hank Bukowksi seemed to disappear beneath a cloud of smoke. In the room where he typed out his poems and books, upstairs at his home in San Pedro, not far from Los Angeles, he looked like he does in the above photograph we took as he smoked and drank, drank and smoked.

"Beautiful, baby, beautiful...," Hank kept saying as he talked about writing and women, about being a gifted bum who became the subject of a movie, Barfly, directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Mickey Rouke. "You would've done a better job, baby," Bukowski said, as one ugly man talking to another, knowing that I would avoid the camera at all costs. "That would've been a beautiful result, baby...."

Bukowski told me how, even though he was an old man, women still pressed their naked bodies against the cold glass of Xerox machines so that they could copy blurry images of their breasts and behinds for his imagined pleasure. "It's not always so beautiful, baby...," Bukowksi murmured. "I'm no longer available but they keep sending their Xeroxes to me. It's strange, lying butt-naked on a Xerox machine so you can send the copy to some 71 year-old guy. But, to them, I'm 'Bukowski – the poetic genius...'"

He cackled at the surreal difference between his writerly image and his real self. It was then, after the fourth bottle of red, that I decided I liked this interviewing lark. Bukowski told me that, normally, he didn't do interviews. Linda also explained that she'd been forced to hide a mat that Hank had bought with the intention of placing it outside their front door. It said, simply, 'Go Away'. Linda worried that the mat would upset her mother – more than all the hacks and groupies who wanted to meet her husband.

Bukowski complained that he'd made the mistake of allowing Sean Penn to interview him – in his last disastrous encounter before we met. He liked Penn but the actor was married then to Madonna and she insisted on joining him. "She kept asking me which poets I liked," Bukowski sighed. "You're doing well, baby. You've avoided that question. Keep doing that – because we're getting along fine..."

It might not have been a great interview but Hank, Linda and me enjoyed ourselves. I've hopefully since learnt to keep myself out of most interviews and to talk a little less and ask a lot more questions. But Bukowski also taught me a lot that night. He helped me forget that he was a famous and deeply-mythologised writer. We spoke about all kinds of subjects and, rather than slipping into a creaky question-answer routine, we had a real conversation about horse-racing and books, drinking and homelessness, Germany and America, girls and poets, boxing and old age.

I think of him often when, trying to escape the shackles of the humdrum sporting interview in a very different world, I try to ask the people I meet about different topics beyond the tried and tested. I also strive to listen closely to these almost always impressively sober sportsmen and women. Sometimes I still ramble because, for an essentially shy old man, I do chatter and chunter in an often bizarre way. While I cringe when those moments have to be heard during the laborious grind of transcribing, Bukowski would like those encounters which become conversations rather than interviews.

My interviews in Dark Trade, and those in my third book, Winter Colours, led to the Guardian offer of a weekly sporting slot. So, in September 2003, my first interview in this new role was with Michael Vaughan – who had just been appointed England's cricket captain. It was very different to a drunken night with Bukowski...but it was also interesting. Now, ten years later, I feel just the same. I'm always looking forward to the next interview.

Charles Bukowski, of course, would have liked the fighters and the jockeys most of all...