A couple of weeks ago, The Economist’s feature-magazine sister 1843 published my profile of Jimmy Anderson, the most successful fast bowler in the history of cricket. (At least in part, the piece is also about the byzantine complexity of playing cricket in lockdown.) Here it is — and don’t be discouraged by the appearance of a paywall-like barrier; you can register to read it for free.
I spoke to Anderson for about 10-11 hours for the piece, all on Zoom. I don’t know if it was the inherent artificiality of the Zoom call, or if Anderson himself is just a quiet, reticent chap, but these conversations were difficult ones. As I wrote:
His father described Anderson to me as “a reserved character. It’s just his upbringing, I suppose. We’re not particularly outgoing – not particularly expressive sort of people.” Glen Chapple, a former bowler for Lancashire where the pair were teammates, told me that his first impression of Anderson was that he was “quiet, very, very quiet. He didn’t say much at all.” Only with the exposure of international cricket has Anderson grown “to be more comfortable in social areas”. When we talked, he was polite and thoughtful, but he always chose his words with transparent caution. Others might have loosened up in the eighth or ninth hour of conversation, fired off a joke, asked some questions, argued, gossiped. Anderson remained as taut as a bowstring.
To have this kind of time with an international cricketer, or with any kind of celebrity, is rare today. I was lucky. I didn’t have to set it up; my editor at 1843 talked to a press officer at the England and Wales Cricket Board, who in turn persuaded Anderson to be this generous with his time. Now, since Anderson agreed, I presumed he was eager to talk, and that he perhaps even had particular things he wanted to say. But that didn’t quite turn out to be the case. While wrapping up one of our last calls, I asked him about this, out of curiosity. Why had he agreed to be profiled? He said, quite candidly: “Because I want people to know what our lives are like. What it’s like to be an international cricketer.”
I thought there was something both wise and cheering about that. Let me explain why.
When I quit full-time cricket journalism back in 2003, I did so in part because it was turning into a game of access. I’d been lured into the field, I suppose, because I’d read rich literary accounts of cricket in which writers managed an extraordinary closeness to the sport. That was disappearing. There were too many journalists to accommodate, and cricketers had become too big to permit outsiders into their world.
Since 2003, this phenomenon has only accelerated, and not just in cricket. The growth of social media is perhaps the biggest factor here. Earlier, cricketers (and movie stars, and politicians, and pop icons) talked to journalists because the press was their only avenue of communication to the public. Now, they have Twitter and Instagram; they make their own TikTok and YouTube videos. They say what they want to say without any intermediaries, and they reach the people they want to reach. I suspect they think that they don’t really need journalists writing about them.
On an episode of 81 All Out, a cricket podcast, the journalist Sharda Ugra had a very thoughtful response to that. I paraphrase loosely, but: Ugra pointed out that perhaps these celebrities don’t realise how ephemeral social media is. That no one from the year 2045, wanting to learn more about Virat Kohli or Cristiano Ronaldo, will excavate their Instagram posts. They will turn (Ugra believes, and so do I) to written, published accounts. And these accounts won’t exist, in the way that they do for stars of previous generations. For people who care about their legacy — about their deeds being remembered, even celebrated — this seems to me to be a massive impoverishment.
But maybe Ugra and I are both wrong. Maybe celebrities have thought about this trade-off and decided it’s more important to them to control their public image now, at the height of their fame, than to worry about being memorialised in the future. Or maybe there will indeed be some deep social media archive that subsequent generations can consult. Or — and I say this quite sincerely — maybe they just think that writers do an insufficient or downright terrible job of capturing their characters and their lives.
Which is why Anderson’s response was so uplifting. He has a million Twitter followers, half a million Instagram followers, and lord knows how many listeners for Tailenders, a podcast he co-hosts. Nonetheless, he saw some value in being written about. He believed, in some way, in the enterprise of non-fiction, and in its unique ability to convey some truths that last.
While we’re talking about the power of non-fiction, might I recommend this moving, brilliant piece by Tom Lamont for the Guardian Long Read, about a 90-year-old butcher and his 300-year-old shop being driven out of business by chains and “artisanal" shops? See, here’s something we know, in theory: that the small business is suffering, that it is fading. But we don’t realise the tragic cost of it until we learn it through the story of real people, human beings. This is why Tom’s piece is so good. It patiently traces what we lose when a shop like this closes down for good.
The magazine that puts out the best “special issues” is Bloomberg Businessweek, which does several of them every year. Last year, they celebrated the Periodic Table with a whole issue devoted to each of its elements. (I had a piece in that, about the impending end of the Table — if it hasn’t ended already.) Last month, Businessweek did a special issue on vaccines. I wrote, in it, about organisations making sunny promises to track Covid-19 vaccination programs with biometrics — and about the darker, dystopian implications of such ideas. I wrote also about all the other essentials we need for a vaccination program to work: needles, syringes, vials, adjuvants. An adjuvant is a chemical additive that enhances the effect of a vaccine:
The new adjuvants, however, until very recently had to be distilled from natural sources, which took time, patience, and abundant supplies. The active ingredient in QS-21 comes from the soapbark tree, which grows in the mountains of Chile; its bark has to be harvested in the southern summer, turned into a slurry, and processed. Squalene, another new adjuvant, is derived from shark liver oil. To obtain 1 billion doses “would take a lot of sharks, and a lot of hunting, for a long time,” says John Melo, CEO of Amyris Inc., a biotech company based in Emeryville, Calif.
If the salvation of the human species depends upon trees in rainforests that we’ve been hacking down or sharks we’ve been driving into extinction, that’ll just be finest irony to cap this goddamned year.