Show Hide image

It’s not fame that Freddie Flint off is addicted to, it’s the rush

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

I have drugs on my mind. I’ve just read The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s bleak autobiography about doping in professional cycling. It contains more than enough about injections of the hormone EPO and bags of blood sitting in the fridge next to the milk, waiting to be transfused. But it makes surprisingly little mention of arguably the strongest, most addictive drug of them all: adrenalin.

We have just witnessed more proof of the dangerous draw of adrenalin. Last week, Andrew Flintoff, the former England cricketer, fought a professional boxer in Manchester. After finally escaping all the pain that comes with a career as a fast bowler, Flintoff volunteered to step into a professional boxing ring. Madness? Absolutely. Surprising? Less so. Flintoff has always struggled to maintain focus and self-discipline without the prospect of a serious adrenalin rush around the corner. He said his life was “drifting”. With cricket gone, he was searching for a new dealer.

Boxing offers the most guaranteed form of adrenalin: that which follows from being in real and immediate physical danger. The exchampion boxer Barry McGuigan, who helped train Flintoff for his fight, has described the unmatchable thrill of stepping into the ring. McGuigan is unusually well-adjusted but nothing in the rest of his life has come close to equalling it.

The new normal

It is much wider than boxing, or even sport. The distance between “normal” living and life fuelled by adrenalin is almost as great as the gap between sleep and wakefulness. After a real adrenalin rush, the rest of life resembles a somnolent haze. That is why depressives are often prone to adrenalin addiction. Indeed, Flintoff recently made a programme about depression that revealed his own struggles.

When I was a cricketer, I never thought of myself as being ruled by adrenalin. But I can now see that the veneer of self-control and rationality was quite thin. In my darkest moments, it was adrenalin that I relied upon. Once, just before the start of a crucial one-day game, I thought I wouldn’t be able to play at all. I felt swamped and exhausted by team politics and tensions. I was about to open the batting, and even after I’d put my helmet on – the final signal to switch into competitive mode – I felt only diffident emptiness. I went through my usual routine. I always tried to find a moment of peace before I batted, a mini-meditation. Not this time. I couldn’t escape feeling burdened and heavy, and my head sank against the wall behind me. It was one of the only times I walked out to bat expecting to fail.

I was rescued by a flash of confrontation early in my innings, followed by a surge of adrenalin. A chance remark by an opponent lit a fuse inside me. I suspect adrenalin can be fuelled by three different sources: first, the feeling of being on the stage; secondly, competitiveness or conflict; finally, the elation that comes with pushing your physical limits. Suddenly, all three were working together. Mental exhaustion gave way to alertness, heaviness was replaced by lightness, diffidence turned into sharp focus. If you’d told me when I’d been waiting to bat that I’d soon feel on top form, I would have replied that it wasn’t possible.

Even now, when I’m in the middle of a run of speeches in the space of a few days, I feel certain that I won’t be able to get “up” for the next one. But the surprising truth is that it is often much easier to get into performance mode when you are burned out than when you are fully refreshed and rested. The adrenalin, perhaps, remains nearer the surface when you’re tired: your mind, anticipating another emergency, is ready to respond with a shot of the drug that will get you through. In cricket, we used to use the phrase “worn in”, meaning just tired enough to play at your best. Paradoxically, I came to fear feeling 100 per cent healthy and rested. It was often accompanied by complacency out on the field.

The uncomfortable logic follows that you often perform at your best when you feel at your worst. And it is a cumulative phenomenon: deeper lows, higher highs. The point is that many people live almost their whole lives in that state of flux. They are literally addicts. Anyone who has visited an actor’s dressing room after a play will have been shocked to find not a star glowing with the elation of triumph, but a pale, ill-looking shadow of the person you’ve just admired on the stage. As the adrenalin drains away, you are watching a painful transition: from performer to civilian. The highs of alcohol may soon follow; but they will turn out to be an inadequate alternative. The only real solution is yet another performance. The same cycle of dependence applies in business, politics and the arts. The stage is universal –whether it is a boardroom, podium or concert hall.

Escape to victory

The adrenalin addiction can trip into potentially lethal self-delusion. That it has worked before does not mean it will keep on working indefinitely. Muhammad Ali overcame improbable odds to regain the heavyweight world title a record three times. They said he was mad to fight the younger, stronger George Foreman in 1974. But Ali suffered and triumphed. Why shouldn’t he repeat that pattern yet again against Trevor Berbick in 1981? It was an appalling spectacle: slowed in speech and step, punch-drunk and drowsy, he stood almost stationary as punches rained down on him. Why wasn’t he talked out of it beforehand? Because those gifted with unshakeable selfbelief don’t listen. That is what makes them great. And what makes them so vulnerable to terrible misjudgements.

Many have judged Flintoff’s motivation cynically, suggesting he is merely seeking for another dose of the limelight. Surely there are many easier ways – that do not involve risking being pummelled by professional fighters – for a celebrity to boost his public image?

No, the addiction is much more fundamental. It is not fame, it is adrenalin. I only hope he can find another, safer outlet. Sadly, only one result was more worrying than defeat last weekend and it happened: victory.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.