Offices and bars are full of casual obscenity, but most British newspapers are ... well, not necessarily careful about language, but careful about bad words anyway. The phrase 'family newspaper' is an ineluctable part of our lives. Newspapers are not in the business of giving gratuitous offence. It is a limitation of newspaper writing, and one everybody in the business, whether writing or reading, understands and accepts. There are many other necessary limitations, and most of these concern time and space.
Newspapers have dominated sportswriting in Britain for years, and have produced their own totem figures and doyens. But ten years ago, a new player entered the game. This was the phenomenon of men's magazines; monthly magazines for men that had actual words in them - words for actually reading. GQ was the pioneer and, in my totally unbiased opinion as the long-term author of the magazine's sports column, it leads the way still, leaving the rest panting distantly in its wake.
Sport, is of course, a blindingly obvious subject for a men's magazine - but it could not be tacked in a blindingly obvious way. Certainly, one of the first things GQ was able to offer was a new way of writing about sport, but this was not so much a cunning plan as a necessity. The magazine was doomed, as it were, to offer a whole new range of freedoms to its sportwriters. Heady and rather alarming freedoms. Freedom of vocabulary was simply the most obvious one and, inevitably, it appealed to the schoolboy within us. But space and time were the others, and these possibilities meant that the craft of sportswriting had to be reinvented.
Unlike newspapers, a magazine can offer a decent length of time to research and to write. These are, you would think, luxuries - especially to those of us who are often required to read an 800-word match report over the telephone the instant the final whistle has gone. Such a discipline is nerve-racking, but as long as you can get it done at all, you have done a good job. No one expects a masterpiece under such circumstances. In some ways the ferocious restrictions make the job easier. But a long magazine deadline gives you the disconcerting and agoraphobic freedom to research, to write, to think.
To write a piece for a newspaper, at about a quarter of the massive GQ length, you require a single thought. The best method is to find a really good idea, and then to pursue it remorselessly to the end, where ideally you make a nice joke and bale out stylishly. If it is an interview piece, you look for a few good quotes, and if you get them, that's your piece written for you. For a longer piece, you must seek the non-obvious. This is a good quality in the best of newspaper writing, but an absolute essential for any writer who hopes to complete the terrifying amount of words that GQ requires. If you write for GQ you are condemned to try and join the best. There is no other way.
GQ is not restricted by the same conventions of reader expectation as a newspaper. You need not worry about offending people or alienating them; the whole ethos of the magazine is that readers are there to be challenged. There will be readers who would find some of its pieces offensive or even impossible in a newspaper, or even in a different magazine. But the same readers will read the piece in GQ and find it enthralling.
That is because the magazine is always slightly uncomfortable to be with. It is not like a cosy member of the family, nor even like a friend. It is the strong, self-opinionated person that you can never quite make up your mind whether you like or not. You admire him, but you are slightly uneasy with him. The people around him might not altogether approve of everything he says; some might not care for him at all. But they feel compelled to listen. The self-confidence is too compelling. And just when you think he is beginning to become rather a bore, he surprises you with his genuine intelligence. He makes a broad joke, and then suddenly he is demanding you follow him in the turning of an intellectual somersault.