Calvin encourages talented writers to ‘touch history’ beyond sport

The incredible story of Josef Lewkowicz – ‘The Survivor’ – is the Holocaust memoir that former SJA Sportswriter of the Year Michael Calvin always hoped to one day bring to the page. Having done it, he tells his industry peers why they should “dare to be different”…

By Jon Holmes

Josef Lewkowicz and Michael Calvin at the Holocaust survivor’s flat in Jerusalem

Across a large dining-room table in a Jerusalem apartment, Michael Calvin recited the text of a deposition to the man who had provided it to a war crimes tribunal nearly 80 years previously.

As Josef Lewkowicz heard once again the words that had helped to convict one of the Holocaust’s most vicious perpetrators, the 96-year-old was nearly overcome by the “powerful emotions and terrible images” that resurfaced.

‘The Survivor’, as he is called in the title of the book co-written with Calvin, rose to his feet and slowly walked around the table, wanting to see the testimony for himself.

“There was this magnetic pull,” says Calvin. “Josef was leaning forwards next to me to read the document on the laptop screen.

“It was such an amazing, intimate experience. I felt like I was touching history.”

Lewkowicz lived through the horrors of six concentration camps before becoming a Nazi hunter.

His 1946 deposition was crucial evidence in the trial of Amon Göth, also known as the ‘Butcher of Plaszow’ – this was the SS officer and camp commandant played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List.

The miraculous memoir is a project that Calvin – the bestselling author of a dozen sports books – had always wanted to pursue.

Calvin at Oskar Schindler’s grave at Mount Zion, Jerusalem

He believes that his back catalogue was the perfect preparation for a story like ‘The Survivor’ and hopes it inspires others like him to try branching out in new directions.

“There was always this perception of sportswriters working in ‘the toy department’ but when you look at the quality produced by those who operate in that sphere, I’d put it up against any other discipline within journalism,” he says.

“In sport, you get to write about humanity, about flesh and blood. It’s not just forehands and backhands, or balls to the far post or cover drives. It’s the people who do all that who I find interesting, and I know readers do as well.

“People in the industry often say to me, ‘I’d like to do what you do’. I don’t want to see those talented writers getting typecast because there’s so much potential out there.”

Accumulating an advantage

Since the early days of his career, Calvin has witnessed sport’s capacity to unlock doors unexpectedly. He reflects on some of these moments in ‘Whose Game Is it Anyway?’, his 2021 book described as ‘part memoir, part manifesto’ by publishers Pitch.

There was the day in Red Square at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, with Calvin about to interview Seb Coe when the British middle-distance runner’s press call was upstaged by a gay rights protestor locking himself to the gates outside the Kremlin, sparking a heavy-handed response by plain clothes police and the KGB.

Then there was the attempt made by Polish authorities to prevent English journalists attending a European Under-21 Championship tie in the country when it was under martial law in the early 1980s.

UEFA threatened the hosts with expulsion from the competition unless the football press pack were allowed in, giving Calvin the chance to surreptitiously interview a Solidarity movement activist in a confessional booth in Warsaw Cathedral.

These are reminders of how social history unfolds alongside sporting action. Whoever happens to be in the right place at the right time gets to record and absorb it.

“You pick up all this background information along the way which has nothing to do with football, cricket, rugby, whatever sport it is – it’s just about life,” says Calvin.

“It’s where sportswriters have a huge wellspring not just of talent but of experience. Why can’t that be exploited?”

Last year saw the publication of Calvin’s first foray into books outside of sport with ‘Never Will I Die’, the story of Special Forces soldier Toby Gutteridge before and after he was shot in the neck in Afghanistan, a life-changing incident that means he is now quadriplegic.

He describes the creative process with Gutteridge as “profound… I had to feed Toby while we talked, holding the cup as he drank through a straw.”

It resulted in a sense of trust that was different but no less distinct to that of working with Lewkowicz and the sportsmen whose autobiographies he has co-written.

Of those books, the standout memories are from ‘Proud’, a project with Gareth Thomas that led to places of deep contemplation.

Part of the process saw them retracing the Welsh rugby legend’s steps towards the promontory overlooking the Bristol Channel where Thomas thought about taking his own life.

Whipped by the cliff winds, the pair talked through the bleakest episode of Thomas’s grapples with his sexuality and sense of purpose, with the Welshman later saying how this “crystal clear” conversation had given him complete and necessary closure.

A selfie of the two men, in front of the horizon, reminds Calvin of the moment and their journey together. “Co-writing with someone like Gareth, you go into the minutiae of their life, their emotion, motivation, and influences.”

He is looking forward to learning more about what drives another remarkable rugby man, Kevin Sinfield, in the soon-to-be-released ‘The Extra Mile’, written with Paul Hayward.

“One of the most inspirational stories around sport at the moment is that relationship between Kevin and Rob Burrow.

“The pictures of him carrying Burrow over the line in the Leeds Marathon the other week were unbelievable – you can’t keep a dry eye.

“For sportspeople like these, their achievements, records and reputations are almost secondary to what they’re doing now, which is hugely influential socially.”

Ability and diversity

More and more football fans have been able to appreciate Calvin’s output over the last decade by reading his award-winning books on the game such as ‘The Nowhere Men’ and ‘Living on the Volcano’ and watching the TV documentaries that accompanied ‘State of Play’ and ‘No Hunger in Paradise’.

Even when his focus is away from training grounds and playing fields, he stays connected through his long-running ‘Football People’ podcast series produced by BT Sport.

He also has a leadership project with Chelsea boss Emma Hayes that is coming to fruition and he is happy to offer informal guidance to younger writers, such as the “hugely talented” Katie Whyatt who was Beth Mead’s ghostwriter for ‘Lioness: My Journey to Glory’.

A former winner of the SJA Sportswriter of the Year Award, Calvin is on the judging panel of the British Sports Journalism Awards and recently helped to select the Football Writers’ Association Student Writers of the Year as well.

He thinks it’s a part of the industry that is in rude health. “The student awards are fantastic because you see the seeds of talent knowing that if they are watered with experience, these people are going to blossom.”

The SJA is determined to see women writers gaining greater industry recognition and Calvin says it is vital they are provided with more opportunities. “I think we might be entering a golden era because there has been an amazing step forward in the last few years.

“But there’s a disregard sometimes, even by the sports themselves. We had that picture recently of the scene after the Women’s FA Cup final and journos working outside after being kicked out of Wembley, leaning against pillars with laptops on their knees.”

Sportswriting can be a real slog at times, but those who follow their passion know the satisfaction of storytelling makes it all worthwhile. Calvin is keen for colleagues to bear that in mind, if and when they grow tired of press conferences and injury updates.

“Dare to be different,” he says. “There’s no 11th commandment that says you have to stay in sport.

“I see so many empathetic, emotionally intelligent writers in our industry – they can turn a phrase, they can write under pressure, and they get the narrative.

“Think about producing a live football report when there’s a stoppage-time goal and you’ve got to get it done in three minutes – that’s a hell of a talent.”

Taking that punt from outside the box might just result in you meeting a different breed of hero or history-maker. “I always remember a slogan that this Australian bobsledder had on his T-shirt at the Olympics,” says Calvin. “It was, ‘No guts, no glory – go for it’.

“Not a bad maxim for journalism, I thought at the time. And I still do.”

‘The Survivor: How I Survived Six Concentration Camps and Became a Nazi Hunter’ by Josef Lewkowicz with Michael Calvin is out now, published by Bantam Press.

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