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“I had some magical trotters on my wedding night”

The NS Interview: Fergus Henderson, chef at St John

Is there any food you find disgusting?
Raw celery. I don't understand the point of it. Braised celery - lovely! But raw celery is just stringy and wet. Lung, too. Oh, and genitalia. I know we've had testicles on the menu, but on the whole I don't really wish to go there.

At St John, do people do a macho "I'm going to order the most horrible thing on the menu"?
They do, but nothing's scary, it's delicious! It's just a mistake - we're not a macho, testosterone-laden kitchen; we're all gentle flowers.

You don't strike me as a shouty chef.
No. I'm infuriated by that. Don't believe in it. Went to a kitchen once - long time ago - the chefs wouldn't ask what to do because they were so scared. It doesn't make sense.

What's your guilty TV dinner?
Cheese on toast, always. A bit of chutney in there. Everyone likes cheese on toast.

Were you ever tempted to lend your name to something - the Waitrose Fergus Henderson offal range, perhaps?
I did dabble with trotter gear [stock]. Wonderful stuff, but it didn't really catch on. Trotters are just sumptuous - I had some magical trotters on my wedding night.

Flew to Paris, went for supper, my wife fell asleep into her meal. It was steak tartare, so at least it was a soft landing.

What do you say to the criticism that "foodies" preach a diet that's not affordable to those on low incomes?
We have two-tier food: the organic thing is fantastic and the rest is spongy chickens, or whatever. We have to meet in the middle.

Can schools solve the problem of our bad eating habits, or should it be parents?
I think it's the families - the whole culture. My benchmark is in Rome. I spent the night with these groovy young fashion folk there once, and discussed chicory all night. They were so proud: "This is Roman chicory." The night I spend with groovy fashion folk in London and they go, "Aah, cabbage. Savoy cabbage. That's London cabbage," I feel we'll have jumped a hurdle. It's a way off - a long way.

Were you tempted to become a campaigner?
I'm not Jamie [Oliver], who takes up causes. He's something else. He's a huge character. I don't think I'm cut out to be crusader. And chain mail doesn't suit me.

How could we, as a society, improve our relationship with food?
We are strangely fearful of food. It's got this huge stigma - how you present food, or what kind of food it is. Enjoy it. Relax. Also, if you're afraid of it, it misbehaves.

Do you have a favourite dish on your menu?
Bone marrow does express everything I think about food. It's not a fait accompli - you have to grapple with the bones, you have to season it at the last minute with sea salt. It requires salad, though, such as parsley. You chop it once or twice just to let it know that you're in charge.

Is banning smoking indoors a good thing?
Oh, it's awful. I hate it. It's so sad. Suddenly, people [who] used to sit there having their wine and a coffee - now you're up and down all the time going inside, outside . . .

At the St John Hotel in Soho, you insisted on having Toblerones in the minibar. Why?
You bite into it and you think, "Ooh, Toblerone, yum yum!" But it's always too big for your mouth and you can't fit it in - reminding you not to be too smug with your situation.

What is the most overrated food?
Depends who's cooking it. It's chefs who have erased their ambitions you should watch out for.

And what is the most underrated food?
I think tripe is maligned. It's wonderful stuff, but everyone goes "urgh". You have to wash and then cook it, very gently braise it, for eight hours. It uplifts you but steadies you at the same time. But watch out for bleached tripe: I have a fear of that. That white honeycomb stuff that's been in the same stuff as people bleach their hair with. Evil.

Do you vote?
I do. One should vote. Not sure of my last vote, though. I voted Lib Dem - I always do.

Do you feel disappointed with the party?
Generally, it's quite frustrating. They should have hung on and been the third party until the moment came, because they seemed much better. They have sensible ideas. But anyway.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
Fortunately, I forget most things anyway. Don't really need the aid of wine or whatever.

Are we all doomed?
Possibly. But we shouldn't get caught up in the doom so much. If we're doomed, we're doomed, I think, so enjoy yourself while you're here. Have fun.

Defining Moments

1963 Born to Brian and Elizabeth, architects. Later studies the same subject
1994 Opens St John Restaurant in London. Signature dish is bone marrow
1996 Is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He reacts by having "a good lunch"
1999 Nose to Tail Eating is first published by Macmillan; it champions the use of offal
2004 Undergoes deep brain stimulation to ease worst symptoms of Parkinson's
2011 Opens St John Hotel in Soho, London

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State