Shakespeare's Globe

If this were an Oscar Wilde story, our future would be foretold in Robert Peston’s follicles

The story continues to generate an absurd amount of coverage. Why? Because for many this is the only intelligible story. Forget about AIG, ICICI, CDOs and the rest of the alphabet soup of financial acronyms. Peston promises hope of recovery, or perhaps an elixir of youth. If this were an Oscar Wilde story our future would be foretold in his follicles. The first flash of grey at his temple would mark the bottom of the market - the "buy" signal we have all been waiting for. But it's not a novel. We live in a world so banal it's news when Pizza Hut changes its name to Pasta Hut. Perhaps it should call itself Peston Hut in tribute to his eternally youthful topping.

Last week I met Nobel laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul at a Literary Review lunch. He is one of the few authors I’ve encountered who exudes supreme self-confidence. He echoed the provocative claim by the Nobel judge Horace Engdahl that American literature is parochial, and proudly revealed that he had reviewed Philip Roth’s first novel 50 years ago. The review was so negative it was never published. I asked whom he thought worthy of this year’s prize, but he demurred, instead asking me for my nominations. Each name I suggested elicited a withering response. Mario Vargas Llosa? Too sensationalist. What about British writers? “Like whom?” he frowned. I scratched my head. J G Ballard? John le Carré? Snorts of derision. Who did he want to win? “I think it’s time for a Syrian poet,” he said.

Alas, the Syrian poet who goes by the singular Adonis was pipped to the post by Jean-Marie Le Clézio from France. One of Adonis’s best-known works is “The Funeral of New York”, published in 1971: “New York is a woman/ holding, according to history,/a rag called liberty with one hand/and strangling the earth with the other.” Well, there is always next year.

Sir Vidia also told me he never reads books when he is writing because he doesn’t like to contaminate his prose. If only I could apply the same principle to this column and give up reading other people’s. In my trade newspapers are unavoidable. Today even the feel-good news feels bad. For one week in November passengers arriving at Terminal Five will apparently receive a free cup of tea and a biscuit. This supposedly joyous innovation is to encourage people to entertain positive thoughts about Britain rather than worries about bad weather and financial woes.

I couldn't think of a crueller trick to play on foreign visitors. How long will the tea stew in its urn? What's more, tea is a diuretic. No sooner will he have left Heathrow than even the most continent of continental travellers would feel the call of nature. Unfortunately, the number of public conveniences has been slashed, halving in a decade to 5,500, according to the British Toilet Association. A uroscopy flask would seem a more appropriate gift.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Mandelson. “It’s back to 1994,” said Derek Draper when I saw him at the Evening Standard’s London Influentials party. I hope not. Or at least I hope Draper’s old boss has developed a thicker skin since being gazetted as Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool. Whenever I went up to Mandy at Labour party conferences he would brush me off with the words, “I don’t speak to diarists.” Seconds later, he would be whispering sweet somethings into a rival journalist’s ear. Yes, I admit it, I was jealous. I don’t think Peter ever forgave me for once accusing him of making a shopping trip, with an unidentified male companion, to buy kitchen utensils at Jerry’s Home Store on the Fulham Road. It was hardly the most damaging item; perhaps he baulked at an implied image of connubial bliss. He insisted it was a case of mistaken identity and demanded (and received) a retraction. It is hard to believe he would do the same today. Unless, perhaps, I accused him of dyeing his hair. Perish the thought.

Can computers think? My wife, author of the forthcoming The Art of Conversation, has just participated in the Turing Test at Reading University. She had a three-way, five-minute conversation via computer and had to discern which correspondent was human and which was a machine. “Do you know Hal?” she asked, referring to the masterful computer in Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey. Surely the boffins who had devised the software would have prepared for that. The first reply? “I try to leave the baking up to my girlfriend.” Sorry?

The question I wanted her to ask was “What is the secret of longevity?”. A British woman of 105 has attributed hers to plenty of walking, the odd glass of wine and no sex. Luckily, for me, the answer was football and TV.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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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