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Michael Wolff: a dandy hitman and the very best gossip in the business

GQ editor Dylan Jones opens up on his friend Wolff, who The New York Times branded the world’s most famous journalist after his incendiary book on Donald Trump.

I first met Michael Wolff in the early Noughties at a Condé Nast conference in Venice. He was the star attraction, delivering motivational (and actually rather inspirational) talks on the back of his successful 1998 book, Burn Rate, which was about his failed experiment as a digital entrepreneur.

He was a terrific, if slightly laconic, speaker, and I loved him. We stayed in touch and would see each other occasionally when one of us was in London or New York. He always made a point of visiting Savile Row to stock up his wardrobe and was always the best-dressed diner at the Wolseley in Piccadilly. I was told not to trust him, not to tell him anything I wouldn’t want anyone else knowing and certainly never to hire him. 

So obviously I hired him. Michael, now 64, started working for GQ in 2010 when he was still writing for Vanity Fair, although I think both of us knew that his time there was nearing its end. Michael and I would gossip about everything – media, politics, Hollywood, society – but I rarely asked him about his professional relationships, not least because he was always falling out with people.

True to form, he fell out with the Guardian, left Vanity Fair, and I assumed that one day he would fall out with me. Heigh-ho, I thought, what the hell. He was a terrific journalist, always good company – he hosted a dinner party at his apartment once in New York and I was more than impressed by the number of media luminaries he managed to corral – and he wrote like a dream.

He would skewer anyone: Rolling Stone, Tina Brown, Vice, the Guardian, the New York Times, Jeff Bezos, Uncle Tom Cobley. If you dared to stick your head above the parapet then at some point you’d see Michael on the other side of the drawbridge, about to launch a water cannon at you for a profile in the pages of our magazine.

He was pretty fearless too, as his current confrontation with Donald Trump – and remarkable bestselling-book Fire and Fury – have shown. When Michael wrote his biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, ten years ago, he was celebrated and vilified in equal measure. He took repeated kickings from the Murdoch press. At the time, various people associated with the Murdochs on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged me to stop using him – some quite vociferously – but in my mind, this was the sort of contentiousness that made him a great journalist. This was business, I told my friends who were trying to make me fire him, not pleasure. Actually it was pleasure as well, but mainly it was business.

Michael is, without doubt, the very best gossip in the business. Of course, by dint of its very nature, gossip is a slippery beast: the easiest way for conjecture to become fact. But isn’t that why we gossip?

I was first told by Michael that he was writing a book about Trump at the beginning of last year. I was in New York for a dinner, and we had breakfast in the midtown hotel where I was staying, just around the corner from Trump Tower. As we ate, it gradually dawned on me that he was claiming to have been granted access to the White House, where he would be spending the first 100 days of the new presidency.

When I asked how he had pulled off this feat, he replied it was something he had been trying to wangle for some time. When I asked him if they had actually ever read anything he’d written, and were they actually mad, he gave me a classic Michael Wolff look, making a face with his eyebrows and mouth without saying a word, the gist of which was plain to see: “Yup, they are damned fools, but let’s keep that between ourselves, shall we?”

Over the next few months, I would receive emails, often at strange hours of the day, giving me titbits about what was going on in the Oval Office. I would be lying in bed reading, when my phone would light up and there would be a message from Michael that said things like, “Tony Blair has just walked into the White House” (which was weeks before the story of Blair’s visit hit the press). He told me other things, too, but these will remain between me and Michael.

I saw him a few times before Christmas, and he seemed relatively sanguine about the publication of the book. Michael had given GQ its own exclusive extract (which we quickly had to put online when the story broke), and he talked in some detail about the launch. The UK publication of the book was initially planned to coincide closely with the anniversary of the inauguration, but its incendiary content forced an earlier simultaneous release. As swiftly became clear, this book, this story, is one of the defining chapters of Trump’s first year in office. The New York Times has observed that Michael Wolff  is, right now, the most famous journalist in the world. And rightly so. This is more than a coup, it’s a coup d’état.

There were always certain stories that he couldn’t do. There are two or three organisations that I’ve always thought would make good features for GQ but, like all of us, Michael has his favourites, his arrangements. There were relationships that he needed to foster in order to keep his job, plates that he needed to spin in order to carry on being Michael Wolff. This in itself is something of an art. If the work of a journalist is a combination of guile and craft, initiating and keeping relationships is something altogether more sophisticated, and something that Michael is remarkably good at. 

Not least because he has fallen out with more people than you can shake a stick at. And Michael certainly has a very big stick. 

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and the author of “David Bowie: A Life”

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist