From apartheid to the Ardoyne, McRae still telling life’s most interesting tales
Author and journalist has been honing his sportswriting craft for 35 years
Donald McRae: “I do think that quite unusually as I’ve got older, I’ve become less judgemental.” Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
When Donald McRae left South Africa for London in the early 1980s, he knew where he was going and he knew what he was going to do. He just didn’t know what he was doing. Or how he was going to do it. He figured he’d find out along the way.
We can take it he did. McRae’s 11th book carries the same thread of quality as the likes of Dark Trade and Winter Colours and In Black And White did before it. In Sunshine Or In Shadow – How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles is jaw-dropping at times, brutally sad at others, an essentially typical Don McRae sports book throughout.
Yet he has written books on sex workers and trial lawyers and heart transplants before as well. His career path has been anything but predictable.
“I left South Africa because under apartheid I would have had to go into the army,” he says.
“I was working in Soweto as a teacher in my early 20s and I just kept saying to my parents that I was going to London to escape the army but also to become a writer. And they were saying, ‘Who do you know in London?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know anyone.’ Then they said, ‘How are you going to do this?’ I don’t know. ‘How does publishing work?’ I don’t know. So it took a while.
“I got some work for the NME and I wrote a piece about South Africa for them. When I first went into Soweto, I was this pampered suburban white kid. I was thinking, ‘This will be a good gig while I’m staying out of the army. I’ll go in, finish my post-grad studies, earn a bit of money, hang out with some beautiful black girls and just have a nice time.’ But the closer I got to it, the more I thought, ‘F**king hell, they’re going to kill me.’ If it was me, I would want to kill me!
“But when I got there, they brought me into this shebeen at eight o’clock in the morning. There were pictures of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston and Jesse Owens everywhere on the walls. Pictures of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, all those guys too. So right there, I had sport and I had music and I could talk about these things.
“So I wrote this piece about my time in Soweto for the NME and it was spotted by an agent living in London who was South African. She called me up and started talking about getting me to do a book and straight away, because she was South African, I was thinking, ‘Oh God, she’s going to want me to do the definitive book about apartheid and I just don’t want to do that.’ But no, I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
It turned out the agent lived next door to a Danish woman who ran an escort agency. McRae was 24-years-old when the agent brought him to meet her in her house, to be met at the door by this woman in full bondage gear. This was in Surbiton, in quiet, leafy southwest London. This was the book the agent wanted him to write.
“I had gone in with such a clichéd idea, that these women would all be junkies and whatever. But these were girls around my age, maybe late 20s, who had been to university and they were just talking to me about all kinds of things, about life, about everything. So I spent four years doing this book.
“It’s not a particularly good book, the language is so overblown. But it made me look at the sex business, both the men and women who were sex workers, plus their clients, in a new way. It made me see them as human beings. And most of them were f**ked up. I became less judgmental along the way. I was 24, 25 when I started that book and these people opened my eyes to so many things about life.
“I think I’m getting better at seeing people as I get older. I have all the signs of getting older – the hair, the body, everything. But I do think that quite unusually as I’ve got older, I’ve become less judgmental.
“Usually, people tend to go the other way, I think. But the older I get and the more people I meet, the more I understand how little I know about things. It makes me a bit more, ‘Oh, I want to learn about this subject’. And I think that book was very important in that.”
Dark Trade followed a few years later, one of the great boxing books, bringing him wide acclaim and allowing him to make book writing his day job. In the early 2000s, The Guardian asked him to do some sports interviews for them. It started off at one a month and in 2003, it became a full-time affair. The books continued but he gradually found he was fitting them in around the interviews, rather than the other way around.
The interviews are never less than required reading, regardless of who’s at the other side of the table. In the past four weeks alone, he has run pieces with characters as broad and varied as Frances Tiafoe (tennis), Virgil Van Dijk (football), Jason Holder (cricket), Thomas Bjorn (golf), Manny Robles (boxing) and Robin Smith (cricket).
Actually, that’s not the list. Here’s the list. Frances Tiafoe (son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, now playing against Nadal and Federer). Virgil Van Dijk (worked as a dishwasher two nights a week aged 20, PFA player of the year aged 27). Thomas Bjorn (Ryder Cup-winning captain, laid low for six years by mental terrors brought on by golf). Jason Holder (West Indies captain, advocate for worker’s rights for cricketers). Manny Robles (illegal immigrant aged six, US citizen aged 34, qualified carpenter aged 38, coach of world heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz 48). Robin Smith (cult hero England batsman of the 1990s, alcoholic and depression sufferer in retirement).
You would be hard-pushed to find anyone in journalism – sport or otherwise – who racks up such a spectrum of characters and gets so much out of them at such a clip. A while ago, they got on to him to get him to pick a big name to mark his 1,000th interview. Then they sat down and counted them up. Turned out he had long since passed 1,000 without him or them realising it.
“They asked me to do the interview of the week and initially I turned it down. I just thought, ‘Oh God, how can I continue with the books and do this as well?’ It’s been one of the best things for me. I’ve loved it. It’s been an opportunity to meet so many people and so many different people.
“Journalism has changed. When I started, I was quite didactic with them. I was like, ‘Look, I’m doing my books, I’m happy to do the interviews but I don’t want to set them up. Can you do all the organising and I’ll go and do them then?’ And they did that for the first few years. But as the years went by, there were so many cuts in journalism and also it just wasn’t fair on the people working on the sports desk – they have so much other important work to do day to day. So within a couple of years, I took it on myself and now I do it all.”
If McRae was ever pushed to make the choice, boxing and boxers would be the sandbox he’d play in forever. He was 13 years old when the Rumble In The Jungle happened. To people on this side of the world, it was a fight with such impossible mystique, taking place as it did in the dead of night in far-off, unknowable Zaire. Think of how cut off from the rest of the world Africa was in 1974. Now think of the effect on schoolkids across the continent of the most famous man in the world coming to fight there.
“There was no one like Ali and there hasn’t been ever since,” McRae says. “He came to fight Foreman in Zaire and that was it. He was coming to fight in Africa. Our teachers were like, ‘Oh, Cassius Clay! ’ They still insisting on calling him Cassius Clay. ‘What a man! What a man!’
“And we were completely thrown by this because you never heard them talk about a black man like that. They were so racist. I was 13 years old, just going to high school. I wouldn’t say I was political but I had a consciousness, an awareness of the hypocrisy of these men. Because we could see how some of these teachers would talk to the cleaners in the school, who were black. It was just despicable the way the teachers would talk to them and about them. And yet they loved Ali.
“Not all of them. Some teachers were enlightened and they’d show us subtitled films, Italian and French films to open our eyes to the world. But a lot of the teachers were just racists. Yet Ali, they fell for. And we would say to them, ‘How do you square this?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, he’s not like our blacks.’”
That spark, lit nearly 45 years ago now, has kept him burning to this day. In Sunshine Or In Shadow is the latest step along the road, built around one of the properly great figures in Irish sport, Gerry Storey.
Apart from the deadening bleakness of the times, the thing you are struck by all the way through is how truly incredible it was that Storey was able to traverse both sides of the sectarian divide throughout his life in charge of Holy Family boxing club. Even now, hundreds of interviews later, McRae marvels that it was possible at all.
“A lot of the fighters told me different stories of being in the Holy Family on a Wednesday afternoon and there would be gunplay – as they euphemistically called it – going on outside. And when Gerry’s old Cortina would come up the road, the gunplay would stop. But as soon as he got into the gym, pap-pap-pap-pap, the gunplay would start up again. And he would just laugh at this.
“I kept wondering how this could be. I didn’t doubt it obviously but I couldn’t understand it intellectually or emotionally. Why would they allow this guy to be treated differently to everybody else?
“And it was [Barry] McGuigan who said to me, ‘You have to understand that the gunmen adore boxers because they adore the violence of boxing.’ They see boxers as hard men. The mythologise themselves, first of all. Most of them are gangsters, with no compunction about blowing somebody’s head off. But they can mythologise it politically and in terms of, ‘My community has suffered, we are a hard people.’ And they transfer that across to boxers, who are genuinely hard people. So they gave boxing allowances.”
It’s an astonishing life, an often miraculous story. Exactly the sort of tale that has driven Donald McRae’s career for the past three and a half decades.