Clare Balding. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why I can't stand Clare Balding

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

A friend in the publishing business told me that Clare Balding’s “memoir”, My Animals and Other Family, had sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback and was rising 60,000 in paperback. It had also won the National Book Award for autobiography or biography. A normal multiplier for hardback to paperback would be about 12 so, in the next year or so, Ms Balding should shift around 750,000. That’s a million books, plus ebook sales, which must be at least a third again. Even allowing a modest RPC (readers-per-copy) figure for her parvum opus, a conservative (and this, surely, is the mot juste) estimate would be that, by this time next year, one in every 15 adults in the country will have absorbed sentences such as this: “She licked my mother’s face and then pressed her velvet head into the soft part of my mother’s neck, just below her jawline.”

No, this isn’t a description of trans-generational girl-on-girl action – which might be interesting, if better written – but Ms Balding’s imagining of the meeting between her mother and Candy, a boxer puppy that grew up to become the infant Clare’s staunchest protector. Does it matter, I hear you cry, that a cliché-ridden book about a TV sports presenter’s horsey-posh upbringing (think Downton Abbey with a commercial racing stables tacked on the side) should appeal to 7 per cent of the book-buying population?! I mean – you’re still crying – haven’t you got anything better to bother about!? True, I undoubtedly do have better things to bother about but once the Balding facts were laid before me I felt a duty – as your correspondent on the follies of mass behaviour – to interrogate them. It’s a stubbly job but someone has to do it.

I was barely aware of Balding until these sales figures came up, not being either top drawer or locker room. I had heard, vaguely, that there was this gay woman sports commentator whose performance at the Olympics was held to have somehow elevated her to the status of “national treasure” but I didn’t let it get to me – ours is a senescent society and, like all the old, it has a tendency to gloat over things it imagines are valuable but are only tat picked up from a cultural car boot sale. With Liz Windsor as the coveted bauble-in-chief, it’s inevitable that the family silver will mostly be electroplated.

Then I realised that Balding also presented a Radio 4 show I used to hear, Ramblings. The conceit of Ramblings is simple: Ms Balding – for it is she – goes for a walk with someone, either in a locale known to them or one that’s significant for them in some personal or professional way. Armchair walking – what’s not to like? Especially if, like me, you’re keen on the upright version as well. Ramblings is, as I recall, a thoroughly amiable affair: the walks are usually in areas of tolerable – if not outstanding – natural beauty and the chit-chat flows like milky-sweet tea from a Thermos flask.      

I said above that I used to hear Ramblings, because once I began listening to it – having made the mistake of downloading a podcast – I was revolted.

Those on the right are always claiming the BBC is a hotbed of leftist, subversive fifth columnists – but, really, they should stay in more. The truth is that the Home Service (as I can’t help but think of it) is dominated by programmes of the Ramblings phenotype: thoroughbred winsomeness out of Down Your Way by Saturday Live (see Madness of Crowds passim).

This is a direct function of the BBC being a state broadcaster – try as they might (and some do try extremely hard), its functionaries cannot escape the necessity of kowtowing to their pooh-bah paymasters in parliament. One form this takes is an excessive amount of mittel-Englandry of the leather-on-willow, cask-aged-bitter, spinsters-cycling-to-evensong variety. If you spend a whole day listening to the station, you begin to feel as if you’re tucked under John Major’s capacious top lip – or possibly Nigel Farage’s bottom one.

Balding is a natural for this sort of thing. She comes from that stratum of the British who seem to love their dogs and horses more than their children and certainly a great deal more than the working class. I may well be doing Ms Balding a profound disservice – I only read the first chapter of My Animals, which I got as a free sample. The rest of it may be page after page of pellucid and illuminating prose, animated by a searching and fearless intellect. Let’s live in hope, shall we?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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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