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?

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times