JUST reading about a typical day in the life of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is exhausting. Living it, according to the man himself, is like being on a permanent hamster wheel.
Or in a straitjacket. It goes something like this. A 7.30am start with the previous day’s papers and ten minutes of yoga accompanied by the Today programme. Two editorial conferences, meetings, a working lunch with colleagues or politicians, an evening engagement or two. Sixty emails an hour, seven days a week. And in between, the unpredictable business of editing a national newspaper and overseeing a website that attracts seventy million visitors a month. Finally, the arrival of the following day’s Guardian around midnight. Even while Rusbridger sleeps, Radio 5 plays through an earpiece. And so it goes on.
It’s a necessarily (many would say nightmarishly) regimented life. On a Monday morning Rusbridger knows exactly how every quarter-hour slot until Friday evening will be spent. Think of it as a neverending series of Jamie Oliver 15-minute meals, but with breaking news instead of burgers.
“I’ll show you,” he says, picking up the iPhone on the table between us and scrolling through his diary. It’s about as comprehensible as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy but I nod politely all the same. “You do become used to parcelling up your life in little segments, in a way you would never have considered before,” he says softly. Rusbridger, as followers of the Leveson inquiry will know, says everything softly. I suspect he’s one of those people who get more and more quiet as they get more and more angry. A recent New Statesman profile of him was appropriately headed “The Quiet Evangelist”.
“I don’t want to over-emphasise the life of an editor,” he continues. “But 15 minutes becomes a rather luxurious expanse of time.” Isn’t that an insane way to live? “That’s what news is,” he shrugs. “But the job can take over your life. I’ve certainly been through phases of that. You do go a bit mad…” he trails off.
What has kept Rusbridger sane is music. He is a keen amateur pianist and clarinettist and in new book Play It Again, a fascinating diary charting a momentous year at the Guardian, one piece in particular frustrates, eludes, and eventually calms him. It’s Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23., one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. A towering romantic masterpiece, composed around 1834 when Chopin was living in exile in Paris, even the most virtuosic of professionals struggle to conquer it. Yet at the start of what would be the most challenging 12 months of his 18-year editorship, beginning with Wikileaks and ending with the phone hacking scandal, Rusbridger decided to learn all 264 bars of it.
“I only told about eight people I was doing it,” he admits. “It was a personal journey of achievement and some pride. Mostly it was just pure frustration.
“But what I wanted to get across was the sense that even in moments of the most extraordinary pressure you can carve out something creative in your life. I’ve become convinced that this is really important. The more pressure you’re under, the more important it is to find a hermetically sealed activity, something you can do even for 20 minutes a day that requires using completely different skills. It becomes a kind of safety valve.”
We meet in the Guardian offices, a state of the art glass-fronted building in London’s King’s Cross that makes you feel, however unjustifiably, that perhaps the future of newspapers isn’t so bleak after all. There is also a adjoining concert hall, one of many places – a virtually deserted hotel restaurant in Tripoli during Libya’s civil war being another – where Rusbridger has practised Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. Am I going to get a recital today? “Sadly not,” he says with a thin-lipped smile. He didn’t manage his daily aim of 20 minutes’ practice this morning either, but “got in five”, which if 15 is luxurious, is good going.
Rusbridger has become one of the most well-known editors in the world since the Guardian, a broadsheet with a modest circulation of less than 250,000, singlehandedly brought down the News of the World, amongst the biggest selling newspapers in existence. Depending on what you read, he’s either the greatest editor on Fleet Street or the hubristic captain of a sinking ship (the Guardian continues to report huge losses).
He welcomes me into his office with a quick handshake. Warm, strong, piano player’s hands. He boasts a dishevelled head of hair, good shoes and immaculately polished specs. He comes across as urbane, elusive, and a bit of a geek. Most of his sentences cry out for an ellipsis or three. The description that springs to mind, which he quotes himself in Play It Again, is by a US journalist: “He looks more like Harry Potter’s lonely uncle than the kind of man capable of bringing down Rupert Murdoch”.
The overall impression is an artful balance of neat and scruffy. The look of a posh person. And Rusbridger gets a hard time for it in the way that leftwing Oxbridge-educated public figures who send their children to private school do. It’s a tricky position to negotiate (he took a voluntary 10 per cent pay cut to his six-figure salary last year) and I wonder whether he is concerned that Play It Again might add fuel to the fire?
“Journalists in a digital age have to have thicker skins than ever,” he says airily. “Some people imagine they know what the editor of the Guardian is like. You get used to all that.” He sighs. “But I know somebody is going to write ‘he’s elevating music… [there’s] the Guardian editor, pissing his time away playing the piano’. Of course, they would never say that if I played tennis in the mornings.”
It was the summer of 2010, three months short of his 57th birthday, when Rusbridger made the decision to learn Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. He had played the piano seriously as a boy, abandoned it as so many do, then taken it up again in middle age. He considered himself a reasonably good amateur but incapable of memorising a note. Not ideal considering the Ballade No. 1 is ten minutes long, has a staggeringly difficult coda and cannot be played with the score because of the levels of nimbleness and spatial awareness required.
Things would only get harder. That same month Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks with whom the Guardian had been working on the biggest leak of military and state secrets in history, was arrested in Sweden on suspicious of rape. Not for the first time, the news cycle threatened to blot out the Chopin project.
Yet Rusbridger persisted. He followed players of the Ballade on Twitter, studied the score during snatched hours on flights, and fitted practice around, for example, a fraught nine-hour meeting with Assange and his lawyer. He even managed a 59-minute piano lesson as the Wikileaks story was “pinging around the chancelries and parliaments of the world”.
How is the relationship between Assange and the Guardian now? “I’ve sort of given up,” he says. “I don’t think we’re ever going to have a relationship. But that’s fine. He doesn’t want to be my friend. I don’t want to be his friend. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a mutual respect. That doesn’t mean you have to think he is a perfect person.” Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to make a movie about Wikileaks. So who would play the quiet Guardian editor with nerves of steel? “I thought Daniel Craig,” he replies. “If he goes to the gym a bit.”
All the while, there was another long-term project rumbling on at The Guardian: the investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World. For a long time, no one outside the paper would touch the story. “It was the first time as a British citizen that I thought something had happened to the institutions and structures,” Rusbridger says. “One by one you realised… The police weren’t going to do anything – in fact they were actively trying to stop us writing about it. The regulator came out and said the opposite of the truth. Most parliamentarians didn’t want to go near it and later said that they were frightened or being intimidated. And most people in the media didn’t want to know. There was a complete sense of impunity. So you just thought, okay, we’re on our own.’”
Even if you couldn’t care less about the problem of how to play the “squashed fly” passage at bar 33 of the Ballade, Play It Again is compelling for the window it provides into the phone hacking story. It makes for sobering – and yes, juicy – reading. At one point Rusbridger says Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor, was heard to have predicted to colleagues that the story would end with “Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy”.
Did he genuinely worry they would come after him? “There were moments of paranoia,” he admits. “There was sufficient information we were getting from inside their camp. I had my home and this office swept and then within two days News International knew about it. Well, it isn’t just paranoia. You are receiving the information that they will target you. And you then take the security measures … and they know about them. It was uncomfortable.”
Still, Rusbridger kept returning to the piano. He interviewed dozens of amateur and professional pianists, as well as neurologists, professors, public figures, and piano makers along the way. Minutes before appearing on Channel 4 News to discuss the escalating story, he nipped into a piano shop to try out a Fazioli model. The day after the News of the World announced it was folding, Rusbridger managed 15 minutes’ practice before discovering the police were about to arrest former editor Andy Coulson. And then, four days before he was due to play the Ballade No. 1 at piano summer camp, Rebekah Brooks was arrested.
In the end, a few months later than planned, Rusbridger did play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in front of a modest audience of family and friends. The five hours spent playing and celebrating his achievement that evening was the longest period out of contact with the Guardian that year.
“It was a crazy day,” he recalls. “One of those ones when News International were in full flame thrower mode. If I hadn’t been doing the Chopin I would have been sat here in this office into the early hours. But by the end of it most of the problems had sorted themselves out. There’s a life lesson in there.”
We talk about the fact that Rusbridger decided to do all this halfway through his life (though according to an iPad app he apparently has 39 years left). It was also a few years after his father’s death. And in a kind of mirroring, his father developed an obsession with Chopin after he retired. His mother, to whom Play It Again is dedicated, always loved music and encouraged him to play.
“This sort of thing is probably quite common in middle age,” he tells me. “The death of parents [means] you start asking profound questions about what you want to do with the rest of your life. Is it all about work? Part of the point of writing the book is to say, actually, you do have the time. You can get what you once loved back. Your brain hasn’t decayed. Your fingers can still do it.”
Recent rumours that Rusbridger is leaving the Guardian to take over the Royal Opera House are apparently unfounded. Yet the experience of learning Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 has changed him. How would he view his own life now if he were to pick up this book?
“It’s obviously a mad life,” he says. Is it sustainable? “No,” he says after a long pause. “And it’s got more and more intense.”
“If I’d known it was going to be such an amazingly dramatic and intense year I don’t know whether I would have embarked on the Chopin,” he continues. “I would have thought I’d be mad to try it.
“But to be able to play the Chopin Ballade…” he pauses, and the sentence is left hanging in the air. “Well,” he says eventually with a twitch of a smile. “I suppose you can go to your grave thinking that was quite a significant achievement.”
• Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger, is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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