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Squeezed Middle: What if the roof falls in?

The longer I lie there nursing stomachchurning anxieties about joists and flashings, dry rot and wet rot, subsidence and damp readings, the fonder I feel of our trusty little cubbyhole.

When he says the roof is “sagging”, is that as bad as it sounds? Or is it some kind of technical term?”

We have just received the survey report on the derelict house that we are in the process of buying. However desperately I try to put an optimistic gloss on it, the news is alarming. We already knew about all the obvious damage – the mouldy cork tiles in the kitchen, the festering avocado bathroom suite, the persistent smell of rotting fish – but we had been clinging to the hope that a deep clean, a quick lick of paint and a couple of trips to Ikea would sort it. As it turns out, there is a deeper level of structural wrongness, the hideous financial implications of which we can only guess at.

“And what about ‘eventual renewal’ of the ceiling joists? How eventual is eventual?”

The surveyor has employed a “traffic light” system to help dumbnuts such as us understand what he is on about. Each section of the survey has a spot next to it in the page margin to indicate the gravity of the problem. A green spot means all is fine; orange indicates that the issue is not urgent. The page I am staring at looks like it is covered with livid red measles.            

“The thing about surveyors,” says Curly, as if he has been hanging out with surveyors all his life, “is that they’ll always give you the worst-case scenario. They have to cover their backs.”

I turn the page to reveal one isolated spot of green.

“On the plus side, there are ‘No visible signs of an infestation of wood-boring insect.’”
“Although he does say we should get a second opinion.”

That night, at 4am, after baby Moe has finally finished bawling his eyes out and dropped off for a quick power nap, I lie awake fretfully turning the matter over in my mind. We have no spare money, at all. If the roof falls in a week after we buy this bloody house, we won’t be able to fix it. We’ll just have to sit there getting rained on. Should we try to renegotiate the price? Or should we just stay in our flat, which, though significantly lacking in wiggle room, is at least leak-free?

The longer I lie there nursing stomachchurning anxieties about joists and flashings, dry rot and wet rot, subsidence and damp readings, the fonder I feel of our trusty little cubbyhole. As dawn starts to creep around the edge of the curtains, I roll over to whisper sweet nothings into Curly’s sleeping ear.

“Hey babe, about this house, maybe we should just forget the whole idea.”

“Hnnnmn.” Curly raises one eyelid briefly to shoot me a look of baffled dismay. “Don’t be stupid. We’re doing it now. You’ve got to stop worrying.”

It seems I’m going to add the sagging roof to my ever-growing list of things not to think about, alongside looming redundancy, our complete lack of any savings or pensions, child mortality, global warming and the rise of China. So I’m glad that’s all sorted.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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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