Donald Trump loomed large this year. Photo: Getty
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Books of the year 2017, part two: chosen by Nicola Sturgeon, Alan Johnson, Sara Baume and others

The New Statesman's friends and contributors recommend their top reads from the last 12 months.

Read part one of our guide to the best books of 2017 here.

 

Nicola Sturgeon

The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday) by John Boyne is a big, sweeping novel. We visit Cyril Avery at seven-year intervals, following his life’s journey from birth to an unwed Irish mother and adoption by an odd Dublin couple (“You’re not a real Avery,” they frequently remind him) to his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality and find a sense of belonging.

It is as much the story of modern Ireland as the story of one man. The novel begins in 1945 with Avery’s mother cast out of her community and ends just as Ireland votes to legalise gay marriage – a country making peace with its past and finally allowing Avery to feel at home. It is a beautifully written epic and will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

Ed Balls

With Donald Trump in the White House, American politics in chaos and US foreign policy bafflingly obscure, what better time to be the BBC’s North America editor? Jon Sopel is clearly having a ball, and If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes from Trump’s America (BBC Books) is entertaining and insightful in equal measure. Sopel reflects thoughtfully on what is going on and his chapter on the epidemic of prescription drug addiction that is sweeping America is especially worth reading.

John Burnside

Whenever Kay Redfield Jamison publishes a new book, a part of my world seems to be illumined, the colours become clearer and the shadows more distinct, and superstitions and magical thinking are dispelled. This year is no exception. Her wise and compassionate biography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf) not only reminded me of that poet’s particular gifts but made me think about the nature of creativity and the slapdash thinking we apply to those who endure the burden of an unquiet mind.

As for poetry, it was a rather thin year, but one book by David Harsent makes up for a great deal, and Salt (Faber & Faber) is a masterpiece.

John Bew

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the standout biography is about the man who lowered the hammer and sickle flag. Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster) is a fitting sequel to William Taubman’s previous biography of Nikita Khrushchev, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2004.

Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Allen Lane) began from conversations about family history with the author’s father. It fans out into a remarkable narrative that spans 20th-century Europe and pivots around the story of his Russian revolutionary socialist grandfather, Max, who fled to England in 1909.

Rachel Reeves

Harriet Harman’s autobiography, A Woman’s Work (Allen Lane), is a personal memoir but also the story of women in politics and public life. Since Harriet entered parliament in 1982 – pregnant with her first child – she has seen the number of women MPs increase to more than 200. Many of us are there because of her – but most important is her work to improve the lives of women across the country, from maternity leave to helping women fleeing domestic violence.

There is still a stigma associated with loneliness and the Jo Cox commission on loneliness, which I have co-chaired since Jo was murdered, shines a spotlight on its causes and effects. That is exactly what Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins), does, too. It is a beautiful, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking novel, and a reminder that there is a need in all of us for love, kindness and meaning.

Mehdi Hasan

Raise your hand if you think, like I do, that Donald Trump is madder than a box of frogs – or if the thought of his short finger on the nuclear button keeps you awake at night. Now we have a book featuring the verdicts of 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts to confirm our worst fears. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (Thomas Dunne Books) joins the dots between the US president’s “extreme present hedonism”, “malignant narcissism” and “sociopathic characteristics”. The book’s editor, Bandy Lee, told me that her concern is that Trump’s condition is “actually probably far worse than people are detecting now” and that “the worst is yet to come”. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

The Unquotable Trump by R Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly) reimagines famous comic book covers using real Trump utterances. Picture: © 2017 R Sikoryak

Susan Hill

In a year of outstanding non-fiction, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (Viking) shines. Her lives of past writers are meticulously researched but devoid of dryness. Now she looks unflinchingly back at her own life, scarred by griefs, struggles, turbulence and – for so calm and gentle a woman – occasional bad behaviour. This is a piercing book: honest, moving, vivid.

Celebrities who turn to writing children’s books usually do so cynically. Not David Walliams. Bad Dad (HarperCollins) is a blast. Kids will adore it. So did I.

Tom Holland

Richard Beard is a writer whose novels are as clever as they are affecting and as experimental as they are gripping – so it did not surprise me that The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker), an account of how, as a boy, he watched his brother drown on a family holiday, should be a misery memoir like no other. A study in bereavement, it is very much more than that: an interrogation of memory, of the English class system, of the limits of language. It also features a surprising amount of cricket. I read nothing this year that I admired quite as much.

Emily Wilson

One of the most striking new books about the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity is The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity by Johanna Hanink (Harvard University Press), which sets the Greek economic debt crisis against the cultural “debt” that modern Greeks still feel to antiquity and argues that idealising visions of it have had a damaging effect on contemporary European identity.

In fictional responses to the Classics, I very much enjoyed and admired Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus), a politically and psychologically acute novel modelled on Sophocles’s Antigone – but reworked as the story of two British Muslim sisters and their jihadist brother.

Alan Johnson

I have loved every Salman Rushdie book I have read and The Golden House (Jonathan Cape) is no exception. Woven into its rich fabric are huge contemporary themes: the suspicion of experts, gender identification, the Trump phenomenon. I have friends who can’t get past the first sentence of a Rushdie novel – but the glorious opening line here is almost worth buying the book for.

Alan Bennett must be tired of being described as whimsical. As A Life Like Other People’s (Faber & Faber) demonstrates, the adjective is insufficient. He is a superbly gifted observer of the human condition and this book moved me more than anything else I’ve read this year.

Ahdaf Soueif

I enjoyed two books in particular. One tells the story of a boy and a girl living in a small, specific, enclosed location; the other discusses the state of the entire world and why it is how it is today. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane) makes fresh and significant associations between historic moments in different parts of the world over the past 200 years.

William Sutcliffe’s We See Everything (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) is confined to a dystopian, circumscribed London, patrolled by the murderous drones of the enemy. Both books describe our world: a world where politics has almost ended and money and brute force have taken over.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Two books made me think about what it is to be human, from two different directions. In To Be a Machine (Granta), Mark O’Connell recounts his encounters – some hair-raising, some hilarious – with those who believe that the future of our species lies in a merger with machines.

While O’Connell’s engineers try to build computers that mimic our ways of thinking, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (William Collins) describes an intelligence so different from our own that it makes you question what intelligence means, in a book that is full of wonder and tough questions.

Sebastian Barry

I’ve always leaned on poetry as something more thrilling than… well, almost anything – religion, for instance. The older I get, the more essential poetry seems and, alas, the converse for the latter. Two books from this year give further proof of this: Sinéad Morrissey’s starry poetic engineering in On Balance (Carcanet) and Michael Longley’s angelic Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape), which was also proof, maybe, that Homer never died. Northern Ireland’s poets continue to outstare miserable politics and offer instead the better firearms of beauty and truth.

Jon McGregor

Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Hamish Hamilton) is a series of wonderful, thorny, scrupulous essays about writing and life, and the writing life. It is generous and fearless and difficult to hold in your hands.

Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Corsair) is an excellent collection of poems. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel as blazingly hymn-like as its title suggests.

Sara Baume

The book that left the most indelible mark on me was To Be a Machine (Granta) by Mark O’Connell, which describes the author’s journey through the transhumanist movement. After reading it, I dreamed of severed heads and super-intelligent robots. O’Connell’s style is at once sceptical and open and warm; his book is both frightening and full of humanity.

In the aftermath of Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press), I had to resist the urge to weigh every book in my house in order to find the heaviest. It left a gentler mark, but no less stubborn.

Rowan Williams

Among new novels, Marie-Elsa Bragg’s debut, Towards Mellbreak (Chatto & Windus), stood out for me – a closely observed rural family chronicle, a fierce indictment of the ignorant authoritarianism of government agencies in recent decades promoting untried, environmentally disastrous and lethally poisonous pesticides in the countryside, and an understated but strong celebration of spiritual discovery and resilience.

The other book to remember was the reprint of E Amy Buller’s Darkness Over Germany (Arcadia Books), first published in 1943: reports of her conversations with a wide range of “ordinary” Germans in the 1930s, pointing up what happens when national confusion, mistrust in public servants and public service, cynicism, xenophobia and economic chaos take over a society. If we want to know – and we ought to want to know just now – what prompts the collapse of law-based democracy, this is a good place to start.

Erica Wagner

I can’t choose Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) by George Saunders: everyone will, right? Still, it’s utterly astonishing. As is Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko (Apollo), a window into the world of Koreans in Japan, an epic family saga.

Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poems, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe), is heartbreaking: she was a poet always in her heart, and she left us far too soon when she died in June. And the second volume of Simon Schama’s magisterial history of the Jewish people, Belonging (Bodley Head), is a masterpiece of historical narrative.

Mark Cocker

The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (Oneworld) by Nate Blakeslee weaves together three narratives in one superb book. He tells of the intensely sociable and frequently violent world of the wolf pack. There are the naturalists studying wolves at Yellowstone National Park in the US, whose devotion to their totem animal borders on the religious. Then there are the ranchers, hunters, politicians and so on who hate and kill wolves so often that it is a miracle that any survive. Blakeslee’s triumph is to tell all three stories with deep sympathy and insight.

Vince Cable

I am a great fan of Robert Harris, who I regard as a role model for anyone who wants to get into political thriller writing. Munich (Hutchinson) is a wonderful tale of personal relationships and political drama, built around the Munich conference before the Second World War, when Neville Chamberlain produced the infamous “peace for our time” speech. This is a very, very good read.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta) vibrates with creative energy. It’s a chronicle of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and also a haunting fable of music silenced and of loves postponed, played out over the melancholy vastness of an imagined China.

In CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings (Fourth Estate), the breeding of racehorses provides a potent metaphorical language for the discussion of racism. In grand, lyrical prose, Morgan summons up the Kentucky landscape and tells a tale full of charismatic characters and idiosyncratic voices.

Mark Lawson

Seeking a template for these dark and strange days, many works (from the BBC series Doctor Foster to novels by Salman Rushdie and Colm Tóibín) have modernised Greek dramas. A particularly classy example was Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), in which Kamila Shamsie relocates Antigone by Sophocles to Western and Eastern capitals during the “war on terror”.

In The Feud (Pantheon), Alex Beam tells the improbably enthralling comi-tragic story of how the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov and the American Russophile critic Edmund Wilson ended up viciously duelling with typewriters over prosody and vocabulary in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane) draws on his experience of four controversial institutions – the Tory party, the Vatican, the Chinese government and the BBC – to swell the tiny list of intelligent and cultured memoirs by front-line politicians.

Helen Lewis

Looking at my Kindle history, two themes dominate: America’s racial divide and the ways that big tech companies are shaping our personal lives, society and democracy. On the former, Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press), Arlie Russell Hochschild’s warm, perceptive study of right-wingers in Louisiana, stands out, as do the collected essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (Hamish Hamilton).

On big tech, Everybody Lies (Bloomsbury) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a sobering guide to how much of ourselves we’re putting online and what private companies might do with that information.

For personal reasons, I loved Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy (Canongate), which started life as a New Statesman article and is now a funny, moving book.

Alexander McCall Smith

Memoirs of friendship have a particular appeal. They are often touching and not infrequently they throw a light on a life that a conventional biography might not supply. Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo (Polygon) is a charming, beautifully written account of the author’s friendship with Muriel Spark. The centenary of her birth is coming up, and there are plans to bring out a uniform edition of her novels. Taylor’s memoir is the perfect prologue to this celebratory year, providing a sympathetic and intimate picture of the author of such timeless classics as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Jim Crace

Much of my reading nowadays includes anything remotely Shakespearean. This has been a bumper year, including Fools and Mortals (HarperCollins), an absorbing novel by Bernard Cornwell that invents the life of Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, and Margaret Atwood’s wickedly wise Hag-Seed (published in paperback by Vintage). She casts The Tempest adrift in a prison and makes a magisterial case for the timeless, classless relevance of Shakespeare’s plays.

The work I most enjoyed and valued, in any category, was a first book by the economist Andrea Mays. The Millionaire and the Bard (Simon & Schuster) tells the gripping story of Henry Folger’s amassment of the First Folio and the establishment of his library in Washington, DC – a narrow focus, perhaps, but one that is not only fascinating about Tudor publishing but delves more broadly into Anglo-American relations and big business, obsession, privacy, marriage and money.

Peter Wilby

I suppose Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, A Life of My Own (Viking), is written by a member of the liberal elite (she is a former New Statesman literary editor), about the liberal elite, for the liberal elite. I do not recommend it to Nigel Farage since, aside from anything else, Tomalin is half-French. But no other book this year so moved and beguiled me. A life punctuated by glittering career success and personal disaster – a wayward husband’s death in his forties, a daughter’s suicide in her twenties, a son born with spina bifida – is recalled in translucent prose with honesty, modesty and a complete lack of self-pity.

Kezia Dugdale

The Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey – also known as Loki – wrote my book of the year. Part memoir, part manifesto, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (Luath Press) charts McGarvey’s life and the political life of his community in Glasgow’s Pollok housing estate. It covers addiction, abuse, depression, love and loss in raw, upsetting yet powerful detail. Somehow it retains hope and a sense of humour. Poverty Safari is a bold and ambitious work. No one in politics could fail to be shocked by it, or fail to see some light and guidance in its conclusions.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit