Listen to this article
In 2008, at the age of 29, I went to a soccer game in Mozambique. The country’s national team was hosting Botswana in a preliminary playoff in the capital city Maputo, with both squads seeking to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Neither country had a chance, but nationalist enthusiasm in the run-up to the game was feverish.
I am not a soccer fan — to me, “football” means men in pads with concussions — but I was eager to view the national spectacle. I was working in Mozambique as a consultant for an anodyne international NGO, the rudderless finish to a busted career in finance. I spent my professional life staring at spreadsheets in an air-conditioned office with other expatriates. I spent my social life at overpriced restaurants with the same crowd. I wanted to try something different.
The game was held at the Estádio de Machava: a shallow, terraced bowl, moulded from concrete and lacking actual seats. Surrounding this was a 10-ft chain-link fence, topped with razor wire. Surrounding that was a ring of tailgaters. I joined in the drunken revelry a few hours before the game, then joined my friends in the long walk to the entrance.
The supposed capacity of the stadium was 30,000 spectators; maybe twice that number showed up. Lacking tickets, they crowded around the fences and began to push. I stood some distance away from the turnstiles, holding my ticket stupidly. Hundreds of people began swarming toward the gate, and towards the front I could see the fences straining under the crush. I wondered if I was witnessing a disaster.
A broad-shouldered man with a commanding bearing emerged from the crowd. He was unarmed but sharply dressed in camouflage fatigues and a military beret — perhaps a veteran of Mozambique’s brutal civil war. He seemed to share my sense of panic. Moving decisively, he began grabbing street urchins out of the crowd, assembling a small platoon of barefoot teenaged boys in ragged T-shirts. Once he’d recruited about a dozen, he marched them off to a nearby stand of trees.
They returned bearing sticks. The military man directed the street boys to the gate, and they began to swing. His deputised riot-breakers took obvious pleasure in this activity, thrashing at people with exuberant yells. One young sadist seemed particularly suited to this activity, and I watched him hit an old woman, aged about 60, with a heavy tree branch, full-force, right in the back. Eventually, they managed to clear the crowd. The rest of the game proceeded uneventfully, with Mozambique losing 2-1 in a heartbreaker.
In my air-conditioned office the next day, I was confronted with an overdue project — a particularly dreary financial model designed to attract investment capital to some doomed agricultural venture. I couldn’t focus; my professional duties seemed meaningless compared with what I’d witnessed before the game. The military man was vicious, but I respected him: he had acted quickly to save people’s lives. Six months earlier, 11 people had died in a Congolese crush. Six months later, 22 would die in Côte d’Ivoire. In both cases, the deaths were precipitated by ticketless fans bum-rushing the gates.
The near-stampede, and subsequent random beatings, seemed to get at the primal political dilemma: the arbitrary cruelty of order versus the perils of unrestrained populism. I punted on work and spent the next week drafting a report of what I’d seen. I had no training as a writer, my perspective was immature, and I was hopelessly under-read. The finished account reflected these shortcomings, more than 5,000 words of windy political tangents and boring descriptive passages that any sensible reader would skip. I recognise this now as my first attempt at narrative journalism.
Seven years of professional flirtation followed. Furtively, I moved away from finance toward journalism — first as a blogger, then as an essayist, finally as a long-form author. Needing training in the interim, I attended graduate school. Needing depth, I read a million words of Proust. The first taught me how to investigate, how to organise documents and interviews to look for an emerging pattern facts. The second taught me something simpler, the open secret of narrative: it’s just people, moving through time.
This year I published my first book. I’m officially an author now — bona fide, New York publishing house and everything — but I still can’t call myself a “writer” without flinching. When do I get to stop? When my fifth book comes out? When I get a residency? When I pass a thousand Twitter followers? Writing is my only source of income, but people are always disappointed when they learn that I’m merely a journalist. They don’t want a reporter; they want Samuel Beckett. Or, better yet, George RR Martin.
Why bother? Writing to secure a legacy is a hopeless endeavour — all is vanity. Most books will be forgotten within 10 years; almost all within 50. Over a longer period of time, our pages will crumble to dust; our ebooks will demagnetise even more quickly. Longer still, and only our genetic legacies will remain, and even these will eventually be wiped out by some exciting new microbe or a passing asteroid.
The other day I re-read my account on the near-catastrophe at the soccer game for the first time in seven years. I was happy to see it was as bad as I remembered. That means I’m improving. I was also startled by how dated it was. 2008 was a long time ago; the pace of technological and political change is rapid. Today I wouldn’t even write this account — I’d shoot it on my smartphone.
From a cosmic perspective, it’s futile. But so what? Here’s the real secret: I loved writing my book. It was fun. Well, not “fun”, exactly, but not terrible either. With luck, I’ll do it again. When I say this to other writers, they regard me with incredulity. Most of them regard writing as a form of torture. Then again, most of them have never worked a real job. I’ve been on the other side, and can say this with certainty: no matter how much you dread looking at that half-finished manuscript, it’s better than waking up each day to a spreadsheet.
‘How Music Got Free’ by Stephen Witt has been shortlisted for this year’s Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
Illustration by Toby Whitebread
How to enter the 2015 Bodley Head/FT essay competition
Win £1,000 — and have your work published.
We are proud to announce the launch of the Bodley Head/Financial Times essay prize, which is now in its fourth year and attracts hundreds of entries and uncovers outstanding new talent each year. Entries will be judged by a distinguished panel, including Simon Schama, historian and FT contributing editor, Lucy Tuck, editor of FT Life & Arts, Caroline Daniel, editor of FT Weekend, Will Hammond, editorial director at Bodley Head, Stuart Williams, publisher at Bodley Head, and Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House.
The judges are looking for dynamic, lively and authoritative non-fiction essays of no more than 3,500 words, which cannot have been published before and which must be written in English and can be on any subject. The winner will receive £1,000, e-publication by Bodley Head, and a mentoring session with Bodley Head/FT editors. Two runners-up will receive £500 each and have their work published as an e-book. The three top-placed entrants will receive a selection of Bodley Head books and a year’s free digital subscription to FT Weekend. Entrants must be aged 35 or under and the closing date is November 29 2015. For an entry form, full terms and conditions and to read essays from previous winners, visit ft.com/essayprize2015