Monday 22 June 2009

The Truth and Michael Schumacher

From the drafts file. I agreed with Mike Atherton:

"Those who line up to crucify Hamilton are doing so not because he has failed to live up to his own standards but because he has failed to live up to the expectations of others that have been created for him by a pushy father, an agency keen to milk the holy cow for all it is worth and a Formula One team for whom disappointment is measured in millions of dollars rather than the tarnishing of an image. Everything that Hamilton has done on the racetrack has projected a different image, so the reaction to the events in Australia says more about our gullibility than it does about him. "

In a previous life I wrote an internet column about F1 racing, which included a sort-of race report and a sort-of field guide to the drivers of the time (this was for a few years from 1997.) I was young, I was bored, I had finished my education and was wondering what I was meant to do next. I was exploring the concept of actually daring to have a real opinion on something rather than just go along with the essay-writing game. I'd also made a curious discovery; if you write down the bleeding obvious, and you write it well, people laugh.

Being profoundly ignorant of engineering - though it awes and delights me - I largely stuck to the human side.

My approach was very simple. I watched the race on television, and usually the qualifying, rather carefully. I watched the press conferences and grid interviews. I also referred, for a bit of extra colour, to Italian, German, and occasionally French magazines and newspapers.

I almost ignored the British press. I might look at what they said, but not until after I'd written at least the first or second draft. As a consequence, their specific mythological world-view didn't influence me much, while I made good use of the equally deranged but, crucially, foreign insights of the magnificently bonkers Gazzetta dello Sport and the Not Safe For Work Bild. (Which has toned down its internet front page a lot since those days. The last time I looked, they only had a video of the woman who jumped into the polar bear enclosure at Berlin Zoo, and she was fully clothed - though admittedly sopping wet, ample of figure, tenuously suspended on a rope, screaming, and in imminent danger of being eaten by polar bears under the eyes of a fascinated audience.)

I then wrote down and published whatever I was fairly sure sure was both true and funny. I sometimes wrote what wasn't funny, but I carefully deleted anything that, on reflection, I didn't really think was true. Especially if it was also funny, because that way lies Bullshit. And there is enough Bullshit.

At that time, the approach of the humorous writers was to write witty falsehoods, which in my opinion fails because they're always less funny than the truth. The approach of the newspapers and magazines was to elaborate on prevailing mythology without reference to facts. Which makes you refer to Michael Schumacher's blue eyes.

I read about Michael Schumacher's blue eyes many, many times in English and at least once in Italian. A glance at any photo shows that they were - and presumably, still are - hazel. You might say a rather greyish hazel, in certain lights; but not blue. It's simply not possible that any writer who wrote this had in fact looked at the colour of Schumacher's eyes and concluded that they were blue. Now, it is possible that some writers, themselves uninterested in Schumacher's admittedly-plain face, had heard someone else make the same reference and repeated it without asking themselves whether it was literally true. And perhaps it's even possible that their professional editors made the same mistake. But it's more likely they were referring to blue eyes in a non-literal sense which I didn't think then, and don't think now, bears very close examination.

Which kind of drivel do you prefer? I found it hard to decide between them, and preferred to make my own.

Quite a few of my small pool of readers - perhaps a hundred regular readers at the peak - were at least briefly convinced that I was an insider. I was told that one of them guessed I was Becky Herbert.

In fact, I only ever even went to about two races (I enjoyed the experience, but I was young, and alone, and it's terribly expensive). Apart from not being entirely ignorant of two or three languages taught in English schools, I had no access to any information that hadn't been seen by everyone who watched on TV. All I had to do to obtain a loyal following of regular, chatty, and congenial readers was say different things, that had some evidence in their favour and nothing obvious against, and sounded (to me, at least, and perhaps to others) as though they might be true. That was all. I made one of the dearest friends I will ever have in my life out of it.

I don't know why people don't try it more often. Perhaps they don't have time.


Anonymous said...

Ms. H, you never cease to surprise me.

RainCityGirl said...

I found your F1 column back when I finally got a home computer--it might have been powered by coal or steam or furry things running on a belt--but I remember two things vividly: 1. I thought you were a group of very clever university boys; 2. You described Heinz Harald Frenzen as "mostly harmless." Now here's the thing about memory. I know my first memory is true, in part because of my extreme embarrassment when I discovered you were actually, well, you. But is my second memory as faulty as the popular assertion about the color of Michael Schumacher's eyes? I think I'm right, but only you would know for sure.

msHedgehog said...

That was my best line, and I stand by it. He did do one memorable thing; last race of 1997. If I remember correctly, there were three men 'on pole', posting the same time to the thousandth of a second. HHF was one of them, and I'm still convinced that he thereby made a significant contribution to Schumi's mental meltdown later in the day.

msHedgehog said...

@Johanna, of course from my point of view it all seems quite natural.

Jo A said...

Partisan reporting and F1 are also illuminated by mathematics. One year, mathematically it was a two horse race. But, as with Wimbledon, the press coverage concentrates on the british respresentative, no matter what their real chances. My boyfriend of the time (a maths teacher) got me to put two bets on Schumacher and the other driver to win, because the odds were such that you would make some money if one won, and cover your bet if the other did. And he was right. Shame I only put on a modest amount.

msHedgehog said...

@Jo A - I wish I had done that. I felt more than once that something like it was possible, but didn't have the confidence in my number skills to work it out.