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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.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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