Meet one of the most formidable radio presenters in the countryside

Ten minutes into the programme it was evident that the people of Mountsorrel in Leicestershire were exceptional.

Open Country
Radio 4

The first programme in a new series of Open Country (31 October, 3pm) (“featuring the people and wildlife that shape the landscape of Britain”) did everything that fans would recognise: started off boring and ended up with us completely in thrall to the presenter, Helen Mark.

As usual, Mark was exceedingly bossy and had people scuttling about making things appear immediately before her. “I’m on the way with Steve Cramp,” she declared in her firm, Borders-meets-Ulster accent (I believe she has worked in both places), taking her seat in a little carriage travelling along a mile stretch of 1860s railway track in Leicestershire originally built to remove quarried stone, which over the past seven years has been renovated by local volunteers. “I think I get to blow the horn, don’t I? [clearly this was rhetorical] Let’s Go!” Steve could do little but comply and for a time we heard nothing but chugging.

“Oh it’s a very throbbing little carriage!” cried Mark. (That’s another brilliant thing about her. Who else could say this without a hint of innuendo?) “Let’s stop at this bridge,” suggests Steve after a while, having banged on a little tediously about the local council (“Unfortunately, RVP didn’t get planning permission, so . . .”) A drop in temperature. “Why do you want to stop at the bridge?” challenged Mark. “Oh . . .” gulped Steve, who forgot why. Mark always gets her man. Later she met Kevin, a volunteer who travels from Paris once a month to help cut back briars and clear track (yes, I thought it sounded weird too, Helen). “It’s an investment!” he blustered. “In you, in the railway, or what?”

Ah, Mark! I remember once, in a programme about Hastings, she rounded Nancy Drewishly on a fishmonger called Arthur, needling him about the species he had been selling that week. “Plaice, sole, grey mullet, shad . . .” His voice was increasingly small, thrown by this inexplicably intense middle-aged brunette in a navy fleece standing uninvited at his counter. “Shad?” Mark narrowed her eyes. “It’s between a herring and a sea bass,” appealed Arthur. You definitely want Mark inside your tent pissing out.

Ten minutes into the programme it was evident that the people of Mountsorrel in Leicestershire were exceptional. Local cancer sufferers thought nothing of going at thorn tangles along the track with garden shears just days after chemotherapy. Twitchers stood about noting the resurgent cuckoo.

Having eaten a restorative plum from a volunteer’s basket, Mark was chugged further down the track, halting the carriage to talk to two little girls gravely building no less than a hedgehog hut. One couldn’t help thinking of Tilda Swinton in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe leaning from her fur-swaddled snowmobile to interrogate a small party of forest creatures feasting on delicious food brought to them by Father Christmas. What on earth were they doing there? “We want to learn old stuff,” explained the children. “You know – what kids did when their mums and dads were younger!” Mark paused, but then nodded and swept on her marvellous way.

A steam locomotive of the The Great Central Railway passes by fields in Leicester. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

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

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