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The 2017 New Statesman A to Z of the political year

A snap general election, you say – what could possibly go wrong? Helen Lewis, Anoosh Chakelian, Stephen Bush and Julia Rampen report.

A is for Ariana Grande

As the first reports of a terror attack in Manchester on 22 May began to trickle in, it became clear that an Islamist had targeted young girls in particular: fans of the US singer Ariana Grande. In the days after the attack, which killed 22, a black ribbon with bunny ears – a symbol of the “Arianators” – came to define the city’s refusal to be cowed.

Two days later, the Mancunian poet Tony “Longfella” Walsh captured the rebellious spirit with his work “This Is the Place”, performed at a packed vigil in Albert Square. “They’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets,” he told the crowd. “Because this is a place that has been through some hard times: oppressions, recessions, depressions, and dark times/But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit.”

A month later, Grande returned to the city for a benefit concert that was defiantly upbeat. “Tonight has been filled with love and fun and bright energy,” she told the crowd. “So thank you for that.”

B is for badger strangling

With the EU referendum in the rear-view mirror, Ukip had a dire election result – its only MP, Douglas Carswell, had already left the party and it failed to replace him with any new Kippers in parliament. Overall, the party received just 594,068 votes, prompting the immediate resignation of its leader, Paul Nuttall. Out of a huge field of candidates – including the “anti-sharia law” advocate Anne Marie Waters – the surprising victor was Henry Bolton, a former soldier who seemed to lack the blowhard charisma of Nigel Farage and the fantasist banter of Nuttall. When asked by Russia Today if there were an initiation ceremony for Ukip leaders and, if so, whether he would strangle a badger with his bare hands, Bolton (pictured below) replied: “I could probably do that.”

C is for cough

Approaching her conference speech in Manchester, Theresa May must have been nervous: the consensus was that she needed a bravura performance to kill off doubts about her leadership. Unfortunately, the one thing she didn’t remember to take along was a cough sweet. After being interrupted by a prankster with a P45, she began to splutter and, eventually, her cabinet colleagues mustered a standing ovation while Philip Hammond rustled up a Strepsil, which she ate onstage. The final humiliation came when the letters began to fall off the slogan behind her. What happened was so harrowingly bad that it distracted from a bigger problem: the extremely thin content of the speech.

D is for drain covers

The One Show is arguably the BBC’s weirdest offering (yes, even weirder than This Week). Its tone veers from Super-Serious Social Issues to light-hearted chat about a rollercoaster for horses in a way that leaves the viewer with whiplash. But it was in this environment that Jeremy Corbyn gave his best TV performance of the election campaign. Following Theresa May (who had struggled through a “relatable” anecdote about shoes), the Labour leader effortlessly bantered about his gap year in Jamaica, his love of jam, keeping his front porch tidy and his interest in decorative drain covers. The presenters gave him a quiz in which the questions were hidden behind drain covers – which he aced.

E is for energy price cap

This was the year when Ed Miliband bought an LK Bennett dress and became leader of the Conservative Party – or so you would be forgiven for thinking if you had listened to many of Theresa May’s policy announcements. Many people, including the former Labour leader, noted the similarities between his speeches and May’s. One source of Tory angst was the energy price cap. Before 2015, the Tory line was that it was unacceptable Marxist intervention in the markets. Under May, it became Conservative policy. Then it was abandoned, un-abandoned and then, perhaps, abandoned again. Watch this space.

F is for Florence speech

After losing her majority and spending most of the year irritating her partners in the European Union, Theresa May flew to Florence in September to give a speech designed to heal wounds with the EU27.

Her concession on paying the UK’s outstanding liabilities – widely known as the “divorce bill” – and the need for a transition period went some way to repairing the damage. However, she rejected both a Norway-style deal (“a loss of democratic control”) and a Canada-style one (“a restriction on our market access”).

G is for Grenfell

The fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower in west London was the greatest domestic tragedy since the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, when 96 football fans were killed in the crush. Seventy-one people died in Grenfell – a building supposedly designed to contain a fire in a single flat. The disaster prompted the resignation of the local council leader, and an angry crowd gathered when the Prime Minister visited the scene. The investigation into the spread of the fire is ongoing.

H is for Harvey Weinstein

The allegations in October about the sexual harassment perpetrated by the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein quickly led to a reckoning across other industries. The “Weinstein effect” gave dozens of women and men the confidence to speak out about how sex interacts with power in unpleasant ways. In Westminster, the then defence secretary, Michael Fallon, resigned for making inappropriate approaches to women, and several other MPs had the whip removed.

I is for Ivan Rogers

Ivan Rogers, a career civil servant who was the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, began a difficult year for Theresa May with a resignation email that leaked to the press on 4 January. He called on officials to speak truth to power, to “challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” and to “deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them”. He also warned that the British government was not ready for the withdrawal process, because “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply”.

His remarks were taken as coded criticisms of May and her joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (see N).

J is for jobs

In 2014, the then chancellor, George Osborne, memorably pledged to pursue a policy of full employment. It’s a promise he tried to keep even after leaving the Treasury – by filling as many jobs as possible himself. He has taken on seven roles, surprising Fleet Street by becoming the editor of the London Evening Standard – announced in March while he was still the MP for Tatton. (“Unless he is thinking about giving up sleeping, I just don’t see how it is feasible,” a baffled constituent said.) Osborne also advises the investment firm BlackRock, does private speaking engagements, chairs the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and is a fellow at the McCain Institute, a visiting fellow at Stanford and an honorary economics professor at Manchester University. It’s certainly one way to hit your employment targets.

K is for Kensington

On a night of extraordinary gains, Labour’s general election highlight was its victory in Kensington – the country’s richest constituency – for the first time. It followed unexpected triumphs in Canterbury, Battersea and Sheffield Hallam. Labour took Kensington in west London by 20 votes after three recounts, making it the last constituency to declare its result.

L is for Richard Leonard

When Kezia Dugdale quit as the leader of Scottish Labour one night in August 2017, Richard Leonard was sitting at home watching TV. After high-profile Corbyn allies ruled themselves out to become her successor, however, the recently elected left-wing MSP became the Chosen One. There were some early stumbling blocks, such as the fact that he didn’t use Twitter. He also had to sack his press secretary for accusing someone of “talking pish”. But these were overcome as McMomentum – also known as the Campaign for Socialism, Momentum’s Scottish equivalent – and almost every trade union swung behind him. The ex-GMB organiser narrowly beat the initial favourite, Anas Sarwar, in the vote among full members and supporters, but scored a resounding victory in the affiliated section. Dugdale’s gift to her successor was not a helpful one – she flew to Australia to join ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

M is for Martin McGuinness

At the age of 66, Martin McGuinness died on 21 March from a rare heart condition. Reactions to the former deputy first minister’s death were divided, with some unable to forgive or forget his long and brutal career in the IRA, and others describing him as instrumental to the Northern Ireland peace process. He had retired from his position in the Northern Ireland executive in January, leaving behind a collapsed government at Stormont – a crisis that remains unresolved.

N is for Nick and Fi

When Theresa May arrived in Downing Street, she brought with her not one but two powerful chiefs of staff – Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who had both worked with her at the Home Office. (Hill later became a lobbyist; Timothy was director of the New Schools Network, which helped set up free schools.) Both attracted a fearsome reputation, and in the wake of the election result, they were sacked following complaints from Tory MPs about their strategic and interpersonal shortcomings. Their replacement was Gavin Barwell, who lost his Croydon Central seat in June. So far, he has kept a far lower profile.

O is for “Oh, no, not another one!”

Unaware that she was about to become the voice of the nation, Brenda from Bristol (pictured below) was going about her day on a sunny April morning when a BBC journalist asked for her reaction to Theresa May calling the second general election in three years. “You’re joking,” gasped Brenda. “Not ANOTHER ONE?! Oh, for God’s sake. I can’t, honestly – I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?” Brenda from Bristol soon went viral, becoming the symbol of an electorate exasperated by the number of times it was being called to the polling booth. And so it transpired that a nation of Brendas swung from thrashing Labour in the local elections to depriving the Tories of their majority a month later.

P is for post-truth

The buzz phrase of the year, prompting no fewer than three books with the title. As 2017 ends, questions still linger about the extent of Russian misinformation on Facebook and Twitter, and its role in both the US election and the EU referendum.

Q is for quiet

Because of repair work to the Elizabeth Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben has fallen silent for the next four years. Conservative backbenchers have greeted this with considerable alarm. Even Theresa May weighed in on the issue, opining: “Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.” By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was relaxed about bringing a little more quiet to Westminster. “It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe,” he told LBC.

R is for rebellion

In the days when Philip Hammond’s job mostly involved sassing his predecessor George Osborne, he unveiled a plan to hike Class 4 National Insurance contributions for the self-employed. Cue a revolt from freelance journalists, entrepreneurs and Tory MPs who had campaigned on a platform of promising not to raise it. After a week of Tory backbench rumblings, the Chancellor U-turned. Almost exactly a month later, the Prime Minister performed an even bigger U-turn – by calling a snap general election.

S is for sin

The Liberal Democrats went into the election with high hopes that they would benefit from a “Brexit bounce” as the unequivocally pro-European alternative to Labour. However, their pro-EU campaign was overshadowed by whether their then leader Tim Farron (pictured below) thought that gay sex was a sin or not. He took several weeks to decide that it was not, and in that time, many liberal voters went off him. The party ended the night with just 12 seats and the defenestration of Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.

T is for Tristram

By January, two Corbynsceptic Labour MPs had announced that they would be quitting parliament midterm – Jamie Reed for a job in the nuclear industry and Tristram Hunt to be the high priest of the metropolitan elite (the director of the V&A). This triggered by-elections in the coastal Cumbrian outpost of Copeland and the Staffordshire seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central. Scheduled for the same day, 23 February, the votes were anticipated as a judgement on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. After more than 80 years of representing Copeland, Labour lost the seat to the Tories – but the then Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, failed to win in Stoke.

U is for Universal Credit

In the autumn, alarming noises were heard from both Tory and opposition MPs about the Cameron government’s flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit (UC). After years of pilot schemes, it was ready for a full roll-out. The flaws in the system – including an initial six-week wait for claims to be processed and the possibility of domestic abuse victims having to beg their partners for access to cash – became increasingly politically toxic. Charities warned that the policy of paying UC to claimants rather than landlords, coupled with the waiting time, was leaving thousands in rent arrears. Eventually, the clamour forced Philip Hammond to make a small concession in the Budget on 22 November: the waiting period would be cut by seven days.

V is for very large bung

When Theresa May lost her majority, there was only one party that could help her make up the numbers needed to get any legislation through the Commons: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Suddenly, commentators in Britain became experts on the priorities of the Northern Irish party, whose MPs had been mostly overlooked until then, even though they were instrumental in buttressing the Tories’ majority against rebels under David Cameron. Instead of a formal coalition, the two parties struck a looser arrangement, or “confidence and supply” agreement, with the DUP promising to back the government on confidence votes and Budget measures. However, the nuptials were not hassle-free. In an embarrassing gaffe, No 10 prematurely briefed that it had come to an agreement with the DUP before the deal was finalised. Eventually, the Tories bought their allies’ support with £1.5bn of funding for Northern Ireland.

There was, however, some pork barrel left over for the new Scottish Conservatives, with Philip Hammond announcing an extra £2bn for Scotland in his Budget. It was an acknowledgement that without the spirited campaign run by the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, which resulted in 12 Tory gains in Scotland, even a deal with the DUP would not have been possible. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon described the announcement as a “con”, prompting Davidson to reply that the First Minister was “acting like somebody has stolen her scone”.

W is for the White Stripes

If you’ve ever been in a football stand or at a teen house party since the early Noughties, you will have heard the distinctive opening bass riff of the White Stripes’ 2003 song “Seven Nation Army”. And now the thumping refrain has been resurrected – the roar of “Ohh, Jeremy Corbyn” was heard everywhere from the Glastonbury Festival, which Corbyn addressed, to the Labour party conference hall in Brighton. Even the deputy leader, Tom Watson, who wanted Corbyn ousted last year, sang it during his speech. It’s part of the new fandom growing around Corbynism, which even has its own lingo: “slugs” are political enemies, “melts” are centre-left commentators, “the absolute boy” is the 68-year-old leader, and “centrist dads” are patronising men hand-wringing about Brexit online. 

X is for a cross in the ballot box

Just before Easter, Theresa May went on a walking holiday to Wales. Somewhere between going to church and buying some slate coasters, she decided to call a snap election. (The 20-point Tory lead in the polls, the impending threat of another Scottish independence referendum and the frustrations of inheriting a Cameroon manifesto might have had something to do with it.)

May promised “strong and stable leadership”, adding: “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger.” Although she revealed that she was so dull that the “naughtiest thing” she had ever done was run through a field of wheat, polls during the election campaign seemed to support her gamble. Labour was predicted to lose heavily. Then, to everyone’s surprise, young people, angry Remain voters and social liberals alienated by May’s “citizens of nowhere” rhetoric turned out and took away her majority.

Jeremy Corbyn basked in praise from his activist base, who felt justified in placing their faith in him and Labour. On the night, Labour lost eight seats but gained 36, including six from the SNP in Scotland, leaving it closer to power.

Y is for yuge

On Friday 20 January, the world finally had to accept that, yes, this was really happening. The inauguration of Donald Trump was a microcosm of his presidency so far: an aggressive and erratic speech about “American carnage”, an unseemly row with the media about the size of the crowd (not as “yuge” as Trump claimed), and the unsettling realisation that, no, George W Bush was not as bad as it could get. “That was some weird shit,” the former Republican president reportedly said after Trump’s speech. Indeed it was.

Z is for zombie PM

No one has been more cheered by Theresa May’s troubles than George Osborne, whom she sacked as chancellor after she became Prime Minister, telling her old rival to “get to know his party better”. On 11 June, Osborne had his revenge, calling May a “dead woman walking” during an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show in the immediate aftermath of the general election. The “zombie PM” label has since stuck. Severely weakened but still in Downing Street, May ends a turbulent year as one of the politically undead. 

Photos: Rex, Getty, BBC

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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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 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special