Simon Barnes on the stress of his day job versus the joy of nature

I love writing about sport... but it's not enough, says The Times' Chief Sports Writer


I am writing these words in the press centre at Wimbledon: dark, bustling, relentlessly crisscrossed by stressed journos. In a few hours I will be writing 900 words about Andy Murray, filing by 9.30pm whether the match has finished or not. I am chief sports writer at The Times: a job not without its tensions.


A few days earlier, I was at Hickling Broad in Norfolk. I had just seen a swallowtail butterfly: vast black and yellow things as big as your hand, honorary birds as they fly boldly over the reeds in their sexual gavotte. I raised binoculars: a mile away, but unmistakable, a crane, preposterous neck sticking out in front and absurdly long legs trailing behind like an afterthought. These rather special birds, birds who dance for joy when the spring fevers hit them, went extinct in this country after starring in a few too many medieval banquets. Quite spontaneously, they returned in the 1970s and there is a tiny breeding population in what is left of their ancient places.

It was a sight of such beauty and calm that I sighed for the secret joy of it. And then I wrote about it in The Times, because I also write two weekly columns about the wild world for that newspaper. And no, it’s not a contradiction, not to me. More like a completion.

Serenity indeed! I was asked to help Hardeep Singh Kohli on his quest for serenity on Radio 4, and it certainly gave my family a belly laugh. A computer malfunction on deadline doesn’t inspire in me a calm Buddhist acceptance.

But too much calmness would be out of place in a sports writer: you need to be excited, stimulated, full of passion and anger and joy and wonder, and bursting with the desire to get it all onto the screen of your laptop.

Being nervy, edgy and hyper-aware of passing time is not something we need to apologise for: they are basic entry requirements for the job.

But there I was with Hardeep, having somehow persuaded this dazzling urbanite to sit with me in the middle of a Maytime marsh in Suffolk at dawn, in borrowed wellies and gentle but insistent rain. It was when we sat for a while on the bridge that I think he got it: nightingale, cuckoo, half-a-dozen species of warbler, each one of which I introduced him to personally. Soft, squashy landscape, a small lost world, a fragment of what this country once had in endless acres: a soundscape that filled the heart and soul and one that made you want to sit there for ever, or at least until the call of the full English became irresistible.

It was serene all right, and I felt pretty damn serene myself. But that’s not why I venture out to the wild. That’s not why I contemplate the Luangwa river in Zambia, and it’s not why I have walked endless miles across many rich teeming landscapes, or why I have made pilgrimages to the world’s wild places.

I’m not seeking serenity: I’m seeking life. Serenity, when it comes, is a by-product: welcome enough, but hardly the point of the journey. Perhaps an unconscious self-healing urge drives me to the wild world to find this much-needed, this medicinal serenity, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.

Besides, sometimes the wild world is far more stressful than anything that happens in the press boxes of the sporting world. I get regular nightmares about lions after one close encounter too many. I have been ridiculously close to bears; I have been in a tiny open boat with a humpback whale a few feet away, the tail flukes making that great dripping Y in the sky above my head.

But serenity is there and part of it and good: sundown in the Luangwa Valley, the elephants moving into the river to drink, the dusk cries of the water dikkop and African fish eagle, the awaking frogs, the spine-tingling whoop of hyena, the distant crump of lion: give me one more Mosi beer and I’ll sit there until I can no longer see the bottle before my lips.

Serenity is a kind of completion to those of us who do exciting and stressful jobs. But the wild world offers a completion to all of us who, of necessity, have our beings in the tame world. We seek a wilder form of existence without being fully aware that we are doing so.

Walking in the country, with and without dogs, is the most popular leisure activity in the country. We move out to the suburbs, we spend weekends in the country, we garden, we fish, we spend holidays by the sea: we need the wild world because it’s what we evolved for and where we evolved to do so. City and civilisation are a frighteningly recent development and our secret selves are in constant revolt against it, needing the meaning, the challenge and the serenity of the wild world.

People ask: what do you like best, sport or wildlife? I love sport and I love writing about sport, because it’s a wonderful way of writing about humanity. But it’s not enough: not because sport is not enough, but because humanity is not enough. And if sport were abolished tomorrow, I expect I’d find another way of writing about humanity. But if wildlife were abolished tomorrow – alas, a far more likely scenario – then I wouldn’t want to live.


Hardeep Seeks Serenity is on Radio 4 from Monday to Friday this week at 1.45pm