Comfort and protection

Never leave home without a handkerchief, advises Annalisa Barbieri

I am never without a handkerchief. Remembering to put one in my pocket, or discovering that actually I had one all along, makes me feel safe and secure, knowing I am ready for any nose or spill emergency.

When I was at primary school, we had a fabulous headmistress called Sister Francis. Naturally, she wore a habit, and from the few wisps of hair I could see peeking out from beneath her wimple, I think she may have been a redhead. Her hands were extremely smooth from so much wringing. She would tell wonderful "and the moral of this story is" tales, some of which still affect the way I behave today.

One of them was a story of how important handkerchiefs are and how vital their carriage is. Once upon a time, said Sister Francis one day at assembly, there was a child. And this child always came to school with a freshly laundered and ironed handkerchief. But as time went on, the mother (poor mother, always her fault) decided that it wasn't worth giving her child a washed and pressed hanky, that it was too much hard work. So she gave her offspring a tissue instead. And, as time went on, she thought, "Oh well, if a tissue is needed, I'm sure someone else will give it to her" - and the child went to school with no nose-wiping implement at all. I'm guessing the moral here was that once you start cutting corners, there's no end to it.

I have two drawers of handkerchiefs now, almost every one of them used regularly. They must be in cotton or linen (synthetics don't allow for good absorption), and they come in a variety of sizes, from ladylike purse size to huge, hooter-blowing numbers of tablecloth proportions. Some are intricately embroidered with my initials on; some date back to childhood; some belonged to my grandparents. Each one tells a story and sees me through a particular event.

My mother gave me the really soft cotton lawn one when my child was born - I was covered in a hideous rash and everything hurt my skin except for this wonderful, salve-like cloth that she tucked around my neck. I cannot bear to use it, as it has become so precious to me. It's a symbol of the tiniest detail that only a mother would notice, the endless thought a mother devotes to protecting and comforting. But then, I have many far less precious, big cotton ones that I use when I have to snort and sob.

For gentlemen wanting to display their handkerchiefs in their top pocket, there are innumerable folds to them, just as ties have knots. A handkerchief folded simply at right angles is known as the presidential fold; there are the one-, two-, three- and four-point folds, all self-explanatory; puffs (literally puffed out); and shells, the latter being folded into pleats. But the hankie should always be ironed before being coerced into any sort of shape.

To me, a gift of handkerchiefs is never boring. In fact, a very wise friend buys me three new, glorious ones each year.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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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