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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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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.