Gideon Haigh

Gideon Haigh is an independent journalist. He has been in the trade for more than thirty years and has written extensively on business and sport.

While he is best known for his sports writing (twenty of his thirty books are about cricket), he is an acclaimed writer regardless of subject.

A selection of his award-winning work includes:

  • Certain Admissions: A beach, a body and a lifetime of secrets (2015), awarded the Ned Kelly Award for True Crime
  • End of the Road (2013), a long form investigation into the car industry, was shortlisted for the John Button Prize
  • On Warne (2012), shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Biography of the Year, the National Biography Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award
  • The Office: A hardworking history (2012), winner of Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards)
  • Asbestos House: The secret history of James Hardie Industries (2006), winner of the Harry Williams Prize for Promoting Public Debate (Qld Premier’s Literary Awards) and the Gleebooks Prize (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards)
  • The Cricket War: The inside story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (1993), listed as one of The Times’ 50 Greatest Sports Books.

Gideon has contributed to The Age, The Australian and The Times, among other publications.

Related episodes:


Nic Brasch: Gideon Haigh is one of the country's most prolific and highly regarded non-fiction writers. He's written extensively about cricket and business, though all of his writings shows the craft that comes from training and practising as a journalist. Gideon, welcome to The Garret.
Gideon Haigh: Nice to be here.
Nic: What was it that drew you towards journalism in the first place? When did you first decide that that's the...?
Gideon: I sort of backed into journalism as I was reeling away from the prospect of going to university. I didn't want to go to university when I left school, and I felt as though I'd done sort of enough formal education. I really wanted to move out of home. I wanted to get a job. And frankly, in those days, journalism was one of the very few vocations that didn't require tertiary education. As I sometimes say, it was either that or digging ditches, and I didn't have the physique for digging ditches.
Nic: That aside, there must have been something about either about the craft of writing or interest in news and the creation of news that at least piqued your interest in journalism. At what point did that come about and where and why?
Gideon: I think I probably discovered that when I started being a journalist.
Nic: Okay.
Gideon: It quite sort of suited me temperamentally. I was quite a shy and bookish youngster, but I was intensely curious about things. Journalism suited me because it licenced that curiosity. You're entitled to ask questions as a journalist that in other context would get you a punch in the face, and people feel strangely obliged to answer them. Once I started doing it, I thought, ‘Oh, this is really quite good. Having arrived here by a process of elimination, I think I could have a go at this. I could get used to it’. And frankly, I've never been bored, in all the time that I've been a journalist, which is now since the start of 1984, I've always woken up and looked forward to my day's duties, and they've remained remarkably flexible and liberal and versatile and stimulating.
I think unlike say, moving through a profession like law or medicine where after a while, I guess you don't really stop learning but you kind of plateau and it becomes much more about earning money, I feel as though I get a little bit better in journalism every year.
Nic: You're constantly learning.
Gideon: Yeah. I do consider myself to be journalist rather than a writer. I don't have any sort of formal education, certainly not as a historian or as a scholar of any kind. I just do the basics. I do the basics of journalism and they are very simple basics. I reckon you can learn them in about six weeks if you're half intelligent, after that, it's all detail.
Nic: We'll come back to that in a minute. I'm just interested, going back a little bit further, was there any family professional or personal interests in journalism, in books and in writing at all?
Gideon: Well, my mother was a big reader. My mother was a school librarian. We grew up surrounded by books. Perhaps, when I was growing up, I didn't realise how unusual that was. It was just part of our upbringing. They were always adult books, they were uncompromisingly adult books. I don't think I had many kids books. I sort of immediately began to read quite precociously. I'm interested that my daughter is kind of doing the same now. She wants to read above her immediate level. She wants to be kind of tested by her books. She feels proud when she masters something that is at an age range a little bit beyond her, and I probably felt the same way.
My mother is still a prodigious reader, and we still have very strangely similar tastes. We're both big non-fiction readers. We both like reading things that are new to us. I read probably in a slightly more systematic and disciplined way because, part of the art of journalism is reading around a subject, just getting a composite view of a subject from multiple viewpoints. So, I'll read a streak of books about a particular subject and then, because journalists are also about moving on very quickly from the topic they’ve just explored, I'll throw them over my shoulder and forget all about them.
Nic: That's right. Are you always reading about what you're writing about or do you also have time to read for interest's sake?
Gideon: No, not necessarily. I will when I'm writing a book, I'll read books that aren't necessarily about the subject but that might help me find the right voice to write in that area. I noticed that you've got a copy of Stroke of Genius over there, my book about Victor Trumper and George Beldam's photograph of him. Well, I wasn't reading about Victor Trumper when I was writing that book, I was reading about photography, which is not a domain that I'd written in before. I wanted to kind of arrive at a critical aesthetic sensibility where writing about photography was concerned. Even though there's a very sophisticated critical analysis of a photography out there, very little of it seems to have been applied to sport. So, I wanted a kind of a grammar to import to the area that I was looking into.
Nic: Just going back into that family home and then, and those books, do you remember some of the early books that you read, either from your Mum's shelf or you got from the library that made a impression on you?
Gideon: When I was... We had a very good library at school. That's absolutely vital to any reader's upbringing. I feel very passionate about libraries. I grew up in a small provincial town – well, not small but Geelong – and the library was very much my window on the world. As far as, at home, I remember, certain snapshots of the shelves in the room. They're actually the same room as we had the television, but I was constantly being pulled away from the television by the desire to read The Collective works of Edgar Allan Poe. We had a collected Poe, we had a collected Oscar Wilde. I remember reading the The Ballad of Reading Gaol, being very moved by that, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. They were actually more than names to me at that stage, having them within arms length was very useful.
Nic: Back into journalism now in the early days, and you spoke before about, you can learn all there is to learn, all the most important lessons in six week, what are some of those things you learned as a cadet and as a early career journalist that still apply today.
Gideon: I think the main lesson is that you learn by doing. I'm very sceptical, I have always been of tertiary courses in creative writing, journalism, media studies, because I think you just learn journalism by doing it day in day out, and you take a little lesson from each piece that you do, each opportunity that you get. I think it's much better studied in a practical than a theoretical sense.
I did nothing for the first four or five years of my, what I laughingly refer to, as my career in newspapers, just doing news stories. Just writing very simple plain news stories that prioritised the salient facts that explored at a level of detail that was accessible to a daily reader. It was just a constant reiteration of the importance of getting it right, getting it straight, being accurate, getting it on time, getting it into length. Even now those things are, they're so imbedded in my writer's routine, I would no sooner miss a deadline than I would die in the effort.
Nic: Publishers love ex-journalists writing because it's instilled in them, they never miss deadlines, they never...
Gideon: No, we don't.
Nic: No.
Gideon: We're also writing for publication.
Nic: That's right.
Gideon: I'm not writing recreationally.
Nic: Yes.
Gideon: I've never written recreationally. I've never kept a journal. I've never kept a diary. I've always been about telling a story with an audience at the end of the process in mind.
Nic: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Were there any particular mistakes from those early days that stick with you today? Some big mistake that you never repeated but you learnt a lot from?
Gideon: Well, I do remember an admonition from a subeditor, an overheard admonition. I was a young business journalist. I got sent to the business section after six months of... And, never kind of got out, really.
Nic: That's right.
Gideon: I spent the rest of my time in daily newspapers in and around the business section, not that I had any particular aptitude for it, not that I even had decent mathematical skills. I failed mathematics at high school. But I do remember once sitting at my desk and overhearing a subeditor, Steven Hall, lovely man, had this very fruity English accent. I heard him saying, ‘Where's Haigh, Where's Haigh. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. If there's a piece of jargon lying around Haigh goes to it like a fly to shit’. And I thought, that's a good, that's something to take on board.
Sometimes, particularly when you're mastering a kind of technical knowledge the desire to kind of flourish your technical chops is very appealing to a youthful imagination. I thought, ‘No, you're right. I need to pull back from that. That's a lesson learned’. Ultimately, it's not about you, it's about the reader.
Nic: Did you have any mentors back then or, even just great journalists that you look up to and admired at that time.
Gideon: Yeah. There isn't a lot of mentoring in journalism, certainly not in the period that I was there. You weren't taught it, you learned it. And you learned it by trial and error. I remember my business editor Malcolm Schmidtke, I don't think he necessarily taught me very much about the hands on experience of journalism but he was just a very decent, humane, caring man. Funny thing about journalism is that very few people go into it because they want to manage other people. They go into it because they want to write.
Nic: Yes of course.
Gideon: Then they get promoted to positions of management and they're no bloody good.
Nic: No, that's right. Exactly.
Gideon: They're kind of technical virtuosos who don't necessarily have a particular aptitude for dealing with people's different temperaments, which is strange because journalism is full of wildly different temperaments. It is a highly individualistic pursuit. But Malcolm was a very caring and very thoughtful and protective manager to me in my early days. I haven't found too many others like him, frankly.
To be fair I haven't been in daily journalism since 1995, I left it. So my kind of, editorial interactions these days are very limited and rather sterilised.
Nic: How is journalism different today? I mean, I know you're not in to on a day to day basis like you were but you still obviously write for papers.
Gideon: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: How's it different today than it used be, both good and bad?
Gideon: It's a big question. Well I think one of the, obviously, the fundamentals of it, the economic model has got broken, and they can't make ends meet anymore. We grew up in a rather indulged era, the era of the rivers of gold at Fairfax. They were always prepared to pay what it took to produce journalism.
I think what I have noticed over the last ten or so years is a bifurcation in journalism between a group of rather privileged star names and a bit of a sweatshop mentality at the lower levels. The middle has disappeared in daily journalism, which, I think is a huge loss for the community, for the readers. The proprietors don't really care. But I think it represents a... It has a deleterious effect on the daily reading experience. You don't get the interaction with subeditors that you had when I began.
There seems, these days, a tendency to push work into print without it going though an intermediary set of eyes. It is absolutely bizarre, the number of misspellings and literals that go into papers these days. It's shameful.
Nic: Almost every article has...
Gideon: Almost every article.
Nic: Almost very article is...
Gideon: Yeah. It's because no one's looking.
Nic: No.
Gideon: No one's looking, no one's reading. The art of headline writing is gone into steep decline. The connection between the headlines and the articles these days is often quite tenuous. It's a pretty demoralising experience, I find, reading Australian newspapers. I think, probably The Australian, which I worked for isn't... It's got its faults but, at a basic level it probably does those basics just slightly better than the competition but ...
Nic: Sure, sure. There still seems to be that as an outsider – I'm talking about business journalism here and I read business stories but not forensically – there still is some very good business journalism being done. There are some very good people in that area and breaking some fantastic important stories.
Gideon: There is, and it's because detail really matters in business journalism.
Nic: Yeah.
Gideon: Because, nothing discredits you more quickly than getting facts wrong.
Nic: Sure.
Gideon: In other areas of journalism the attitude is I think a little bit more casual. You're not likely to... If you get something wrong in a business story, a corporate spinner is going to pull you up on it. It doesn't necessarily work the same way in politics and certainly doesn't work as well, work the same way when you're writing about community affairs.
Nic: Yeah. By the same token, a few years ago I read a survey that had been done on the prevalence of public relations based stories in newspapers and how many. What frightened me were the number of business stories.
Gideon: Yes, yes.
Nic: It was over 50 per cent that were coming from press releases.
Gideon: Yes.
Nic: To me that was really concerning.
Gideon: Yes.
Nic: How do you feel?
Gideon: Yeah. Well, I mean, interesting. I wrote a book back in 2005 about the James Hardie case. And one of the revelations to me in the course of that book was reading an internal memo from James Hardie, which came out during the Royal Commission where Greg Baxter, the spinner how was working for James Hardie, was giving advice to the board about how to introduce the topic of the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation, this underfunded, closed end fund that the James Hardie generated to place a cap on it's tort liabilities where sufferers from asbestos related diseases were concerned. One of the things he said very clearly was, ‘Make sure that this goes in the business pages. This will be treated like a corporate finance transaction. Do not allow it to go into the general pages of the newspaper where people will get fussed about the social implications of the story or the political implications of the story’.
He was exactly right. Because when the story came out, it went into the business pages and it wasn't picked up immediately. It took a long time for that story to come into focus. It didn't get anywhere near the analysis that it deserved by business journalists that came back to it later on and gave Hardie a tougher ride but it slipped straight past them the first time.
Nic: You've written many books and wonderful books. I particularly enjoyed your one on the history of The Office, which was fantastic, great idea. Your books obviously involve a huge amount of research. Is researching a process you enjoy more than writing, less than writing? Is that something that just has to be done?
Gideon: Well, no. It goes hand in hand with it. I do like the chase, there's no doubt about it. I do like looking around and surveying the literature and drilling down deep into a subject and going to find people and putting things together, the jigsaw, the mosaic.
You can do research in two ways or you can do a research based book in two ways. One of them you talked about The Office there, that's kind of bringing a vast corpus of material together and writing about it from a certain altitude, if you like, that allows you a perspective on the subject.
There's also the book that you write where there's a great scarcity of material, where there's nothing really very much to go on. There's just a few clues, maybe a photograph or a paragraph here or a memory there. I quite like those books too, where you have to build up the research, where it's not immediately obvious where to look.
Nic: How do you fill in some of those gaps? How do you know how to do that?
Gideon: Well, you never know when you start. You never know where material is going to be. You never know how much there is. You never know how many gaps that you're going to have to fill, although you know that there will always be gaps. There's no such thing as working in an environment of perfect information. If you think you are, then you're deluded. Often it's a case of drawing a line between a fact here and a fact there and an impression here and a kind of a parallel here and a sort of a broader historical perspective there.
In a way it's... I often call my books stories rather than histories. I don't like histories, it can be a little bit pretentious to call it history. That seems to assume an environment of perfect information. Everything you do is kind of narrativised. The difference between that and fiction is that non-fiction keeps you honest. You can't just make shit up.
Nic: Exactly.
Gideon: You actually have to... You have to be frank with readers about what you do know and what you don't know. You have to say, these things are nearer speculation.
Nic: You've got to upfront. Yeah, yeah. How do you know when enough is enough when it comes to research. Is it purely that impending deadline or...? You could go on forever on some topics.
Gideon: That's right. That's right. Well, I've done it often enough now that I kind of recognise the way in which information surrenders itself or gives itself up to you. You're sort of working along a... It's like an asymptote. The line kind of flattens out, but never quite reaches the axis, the horizontal axis. You're never completely informed but after a while you're not extracting the grade of information that's really significant enough to justify the continued expenditure of your time.
As I said before, you're always writing with publication in mind. That's a discipline. You have to understand that after a while, the chances of your finding significant new material, they're a long shot, they're a long shot. It's a long shot not really worth taking.
Nic: What's the most surprising thing you've ever uncovered while doing research? Something that you just didn't expect or that just blew your mind?
Gideon: Look, I'm always finding things. I just I pinch myself because I just think it's like the best job in the world.
Nic: It's the joy of appreciation, isn't it?
Gideon: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: Finding those little things that you just came from there.
Gideon: Yeah, I do love working in public records. I do a lot of work at the Public Record Office of Victoria.
I'll tell you one I found recently, which just absolutely staggered me. I was... This book that I'm doing at the moment, which will come out in April, it's a book about a murder in Melbourne in 1930. I was looking at... I did a chapter on... It's a young woman. So, I decided to write a chapter on young women, issues confronting young women. One of the issues was control of fertility. What happens to a young woman who didn't control her fertility? I noticed that one of the detectives who had investigated my victim's case had recently received commendation for identifying a badly decayed body found in a blanket in a field in Langwarrin. Her name is Irene Argent. I thought, ‘Okay, well, I'll pull out the inquest file for Irene Argent, at PRO’. It turned out that she had been identified by her teeth. She'd had her teeth filled recently and the detective in question had...
Sorry, just to explain, she'd been a victim of a botched abortion.
Nic: Right, okay.
Gideon: That, the abortionist had disposed of the body in this field. The detective had interviewed 215 dentists to find out the precise fillings in her teeth to match them to the body. Lo and behold, the bloody teeth are in the file.
Nic: Oh, really.
Gideon: The teeth were in an envelop in the file.
Nic: How amazing.
Gideon: I pick up the envelop and I go, ‘Huh, I know what these are’.
Nic: Wow. Geez.
Gideon: Put them on the desk. Blimey.
Nic: My goodness me. Goodness me.
Gideon: There was a letter from her father in the file. There was a telegram that she'd sent. There were affidavits and statements and a map of her mouth and I guessed no one had thought of Irene Argent since 1929. But there I was to, be a witness to her death.
Nic: Wow. Wow. Fascinating. How disciplined are you as a writer. I mean, in terms of your work day – and let's forget about taking time off to do interviews and what have you – but are you an 8 hour a day worker or... How do you work around it?
Gideon: No. Somewhat sloppy. I'm a sloppy, undisciplined writer who just kind of just drifts through it. I don't start out the day with any particular set of objectives. It just, it does go a bit on whim.
You sort of know. You've got deadlines impending. I know I've got to do two columns this week for The Australian. I'm just kind of thinking about what I'm going to do and I've chatted some people about the subjects that I'm interested in. I vaguely know what subjects they're going to be, but, news events change in the course of a week and they affect what you dedicate your time to. I've also got two or three kind of longer form pieces that I've got to do in the next two weeks and I'll find time to do those. I tend to get up early in the morning. I'm an early starter. I'm usually at my desk by 6:00am in the morning, so that's an aspect of my daily routine that's pretty fixed. I sort of started doing that when I became a parent. I've got an 8 year old daughter now with my wife, and it's good to get in a couple of hours work before they're up and about.
Nic: Absolutely. Yeah.
Gideon: It's an undisturbed time. The phone's not ringing. Email's not a distraction. You can get quite a lot done in that period. I wrote a lot of The Office between the hours of 5:00am and 9:00am in the morning, frankly and between the hours of 8:00pm and 11:00pm at night. That was around about the time that I became a father. And of course, 8 year olds don't necessarily understand that Daddy is busy at times. They just want to wander in and they want to do stuff.
Nic: That's right.
Gideon: I'm not going to be the one who ever sort of says no to that.
But I work at home. I work in a study at home. It's on the first floor, so, you have to climb stairs to get to my room. That's probably a slight barrier between me and the rest of the household, not a particularly effective one, but that creates a neutral space, if you like where I can follow my muse. Although frankly, I don't wait for my muse very much. I just sit down and write. Some days the muse rushes you off your feet, other days it doesn't come at all but you still got to produce something.
Nic: Are you strict about only working at home in that space or do you sit with the laptop on the lounge and do...?
Gideon: Sometimes I come to the State Library to work, sometimes if I really want undisturbed time. Of course lot of my time is spent writing in press boxes.
Nic: Yes, of course.
Gideon: Which is interesting because – I hadn't thought of this until quite recently – I'm used to being in the writing in the hubbub of the presence of others. I don't necessarily need to be completely solitary to do my writing.
Nic: Having a child helps as well in that respect.
Gideon: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: You learn to write.
Gideon: You do.
Nic: With that action around you.
Gideon: You do. I did write my book On Warne... We did a renovation of our house and we moved out of the house into a small flat for about 11 months and I didn't have a desk, so I wrote everything on my lap. I wrote the Warne book in about five weeks on my lap, on the lounge at home.
Nic: Are you a long hand writer or do you, straight on to the computer?
Gideon: Straight on the computer.
Nic: Straight on the computer, always?
Gideon: Yeah.
Nic: Even when you're doing research, you go into the computer and type the notes.
Gideon: I'm always opening new files and putting headings on them and stuffing around and moving things here and there. Just palping the material, letting it run through my fingers, familiarising myself with it.
And then, I remember reading about Alan Moorehead, how, when he finished research he really just tried to sit down and write without ever really referring to his research, so that the facts that had impressed themselves on his mind as the most important naturally went immediately into the text. Actually, I'm not good enough to do that but it struck me as a thoughtful way to approach your work.
Nic: That sort of happens to some extent when you're doing that research anyway, because you're remembering the things that are most important and you're going, 'This is definitely going in the book’, and when you get to it it finds it’s way in.
Gideon: Yes. Sometimes of course you can fall in love with a piece of research that you like so much that doesn't quite fit.
Nic: That doesn't quite fit. Yeah, yeah.
Gideon: Often the test of how well you're doing a book is, how much you're prepared to do without that thing that you're particularly proud of, that actually is a little bit pointless and is of interest chiefly to you and to no one else...
Nic: I find that the most painful part of writing.
Gideon: Yeah. Yeah.
Nic: It's like, 'I'm never going to use that. Damn’. Are you able to switch off easily when you're in the middle of a project or does it all consuming, at home, in your leisure time, if you're writing, let's say, Victor Trumper for instance. Were you able to forget about Victor Trumper and the photograph and all the history?
Gideon: Not really.
Nic: No.
Gideon: No. I'm pretty bad. I do long books quite intensely. I do set aside longer periods to do those. It can take you a little while to get into the swing of writing a book. You might, when you're starting off, you might spend half a day on writing a book, half a day on other things. And then those other things fall away and hopefully by that stage you've got sufficient momentum up to carry you through the project. Of course, the other thing that dictates how you write books is, economics, because frankly books are never going to pay for themselves.
Nic: They're not.
Gideon: You have to keep on doing dishes or taking in other people's washing to keep you going through. It's not a bad thing necessarily. It keeps you fresh, it keeps you hungry to go back to the subject. As time goes on you begrudge those periods when you're away from the book more and more. And that's a good sign, that means that you are actually kind of, you really want to get this thing done.
But I don't mind that active kind of dynamic budgeting of time on a daily basis. That's the way I've always done it. Journalism conditions you to operating in that way.
Nic: Are you able to switch off entirely like over summer for a week or two?
Gideon: No, I'm pretty bad at that, I'm pretty bad at that. I think as I get older I get more jealous of my reading time. I don't want to read rubbish these days. I don't want to read stuff to just switch off. I actually want to read really good stuff. I want to read things that make me a better reader and a better writer, that broaden my horizons, that take me places I haven't been before. Hence, I actually find it difficult to justify reading fiction these days, I'm afraid, unless it's very, very good fiction, unless it's fiction that's road tested. It's stood the test of time. Contemporary fiction, I'm very poorly informed, I'm afraid.
Nic: What have you read recently, either non-fiction or fiction that really grabbed you, really enjoyed, the last couple of books that you really, really enjoyed.
Gideon: I just read a book, which I'd meant to read for a long time called, I May Be Some Time, which, the subtitle is, Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford who I think is a fantastic writer, who writes in this interesting area, not necessarily between fiction and non-fiction but he borrows fictional tropes for writing in a nonfictional way.
He wrote a fantastic book a few years ago called Red Plenty, which is a series of interlinked short stories set in the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1970, using real characters and real predicaments, deeply researched, extensively footnoted but, completely imagined. And I'm very interested in the Soviet Union, it's just one of my bizarre passions. And I loved the way in which he brought that subject to light. I went back and I read this, one of his very early books, which is about pursuit of the Golden Era of Antarctic and Arctic exploration and how the desire to explore satisfied certain cultural preoccupations of Britain at the height of Empire. Very skilful book, wonderfully, well written. He's just incapable of writing a dull sentence.
Nic: Who decides what your next book is going to be about, you or a publisher?
Gideon: It's me.
Nic: It's you.
Gideon: On odd occasions ideas have come from publisher and they've sometimes they've been quite good ideas. The James Hardie book was an idea of Henry Rosenbloom's at Scribe. The Warne book was an idea of Ben Ball’s at Penguin. In general though, the books that I've been most passionate about have been the execution of my own ideas.
Sometimes the ideas don't quite come off. Sometimes you're groping for exactly what the idea is. It's almost as though you have to write the book in order to find out what the book is about.
Nic: Have you had to abandon books a fair way in because it's not right what you thought?
Gideon: No. I can't afford to do that. I'm not independently wealthy. You kind of have to make them work. But, sometimes they bare very little resemblance to book that you originally imagined.
Nic: Okay, okay.
Gideon: Yeah.
Nic: You write a lot of history. How do you go about making the story – about let's say Victor Trumper for instance, who lived 100 and plus years ago – how do you go about making it relevant today?
Gideon: I think where Trumper was concerned, what interested me was that he was kind of the first cricketer of the visual age. We live a visual age now. But he is the first cricketer who we understand chiefly through an image, in a single image in a single stable image. I had no idea when I began writing that book how unusual that was.
Nic: Right.
Gideon: That kind of, that photograph by George Beldam was so unusual in the annals of photography and how Beldam created the whole grammar of action photography sui generis, and I had no idea how interesting a man George Beldam was. In some respects the photographer was more interesting than the subject.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Gideon: I only understood that because I'd given myself the opportunity to research that subject. You kind of get a sense that this is an interesting route to travel down. I'd always wanted to write something about Victor Trumper. He was a great, historical favourite of mine, the first historical cricketer that I was really captivated by. It was just a question of finding a way to write about him that was original and diverting. I tended to think also that cricket history has kind of hit this, become, not a ghetto but, it's become a bit of a cul-de-sac. A lot of it is about putting together the bare bonesthrough statistics, which is what sportsmen tend to leave, their statistics.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Gideon: I don't think it's enough anymore to track down a historical cricketer through the annals, even of the descriptions of him or the memoirs of others. What you have to do is, you have to work out how he loomed in people's imaginations, and why he connected with the public, and why he ended up being remembered, because that was what is remarkable about Trumper. He died in 1915 but in a way it's all about the memory of him. If I'd written a conventional biography of Trumper, it would have ended in 1915.
Nic: Exactly.
Gideon: Just when he was about to become really interesting.
Nic: Yes, yes. It comes back to what you were saying before about it not being about the history but about the story and the narrative. There's a million narratives in the one book.
Gideon: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: Lots of different paths you go down to. If you rewound 20 to 30 years, you'd go back, what would you do differently now in regard to your writing process now that you've learned, now that you're more experienced, what would you... Would you change anything you did then? What have you learnt over the years?
Gideon: Well, the trouble is that you have to, you do have to learn, and that involves in making mistakes, and if you don't make the mistakes then you haven't learned.
There are certain tendencies in my writing, which I have to be aware of, that have to lean against. I love detail. I'm fascinated by detail. Sometimes I can fall in love with detail to the expense of the story. I always have to encourage myself to think in bigger sweeps and in connection to a wider world. Detail is a strength of mine. It's also a weakness of mine. As I go on, I probably get better at dealing with that weakness than I have been but, I wouldn't want to lose the fascination with detail because that's half the fun.
Nic: Do you make fewer mistakes now than you used to or do you still...?
Gideon: I still feel very anxious about writing. I still feel just as anxious as I ever did, even in areas where I'm quite familiar.
Nic: Right, okay.
Gideon: Partly because that's a desire just not to go on doing the same thing. You want to write a bit differently and a bit better and a bit more spaciously and adventurously, and that comes with its own set of anxieties. I sometimes say to people in journalism that the best and the worst moment of all is the one immediately after you've pressed the send button, because at last the burden is… you can let it down, but then you immediately begin the mental effort of rewriting it in your own head
Nic: Of course.
Gideon: And thinking of how you could have done it better. Some nights that doesn't stop.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Gideon: Some nights you get on the tour and you can't quite get to sleep because you're so busy rewriting that piece and thinking about why did you do it that way and how you could have said that there and why did you use that word and you've done that before. But frankly, if you're not your worst critic, then, you're trying very hard.
Nic: Exactly. I was just saying to someone recently, ‘Thank goodness for publication because at least that makes you stop’. You have to stop. You have to stop thinking. Nothing's ever perfect. You would rewrite for ever.
Gideon: Yes. Yes.
Nic: Could you have done anything else other than dig ditches or as you said before you couldn't dig ditches?
Gideon: No. I'm too tiny for that.
Nic: Could you've seen yourself doing anything other than being a journalist?
Gideon: People have sometimes said I would have enjoyed law because I'm quite comfortable standing up and speaking, I'm quite systematic, I'm quite diligent, but I tend to think that I would probably have got bored doing it.
Journalism is great because you just get the range of opportunities, the range of stories that can come across your horizon. It's just so enormous. It never feels as though you're doing the same job. It feels like you're doing a different job every day, because it has a different set of disciplines and a different approach and a different field of study and a different set of people to meet.
I'm slightly unusual in that I have this specialist area, which I go back to again and again and again, which is cricket. I know a lot about that. I've invested lot intellectually and creatively and I know it quite intimately and in quite a granular way.
But, I also have this other axis where I write in different areas that I don't know very much about. They're often, very small areas interspersed with huge provinces of ignorance, little tiny principalities interspersed with provinces of ignorance. And that's kind of fun actually.
If you look at my library at home, you see lots of little concentrations of books about quite narrow subjects, because of periods of study that I've had to do, educating myself and orient myself in certain area, only then to leave them behind. There's a line in Geoff Dyer's book Out of Sheer Rage, his book about failing to write the book about D. H. Lawrence, which is a fantastic book for any writer. But he talks about how he wrote about D. H. Lawrence in order to finish thinking about D. H. Lawrence, so he could just put the book up on the shelf and never think of D. H. Lawrence again. I feel much the same way about my subjects.
Nic: Well, it's always a joy reading your work and the detail especially but, thanks for giving us the time today, taking time out. Thank you for writing and continuing.
Gideon: Sure.
Nic: It's been a pleasure. Thanks Gideon.
Gideon: Thanks.
Nic: Cheers.