Shakespeare’s Globe

Bill Oddie declared he was an atheist and told me women were drawn to nature because they like big f

Last week I was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a Christmas drinks reception at Lambeth Palace. Anyone stumbling into the party by accident could have been forgiven for thinking they were attending a weirdie-beardie convention. In one corner of the Guard Room was the birdwatcher Bill Oddie, in another the arch-luvvie Dickie Attenborough, and then in walked the religious affairs writer Christopher Howse, resembling a genial Santa. I found myself chatting to Professor Robin Cormack, curator of the Royal Academy’s “Byzantium” exhibition. He may be unwhiskered but is married to the classicist Mary Beard.

Many of us, beardies and non-beardies alike, wondered why we merited such an invitation. Bill Oddie thought he might be there because of his environmental work. Perhaps the archbishop wanted to talk to a him about the damage being wreaked on Anglican churches by bats. While at university, I once attended a lecture by Dr Rowan Williams on Zeno's paradoxes, but that seemed a pretty tenuous connection. The archbishop then got up to say a few words and told us that someone had rung him up prior to the party expressing qualms. "Should I come?" asked the unnamed guest: "I am an atheist." Oddie told me he was an atheist, too, and then fulminated about the dearth of women at the party. Oddie may be renowned as a great birdwatcher, but he failed to spot that we were surrounded by numerous women, including our hostess. Was this because they weren't birds he fancied ? He then waxed lyrical about the BBC Natural History Unit, where the female quota is exceptionally high. "I think women are drawn to nature because they like to hug big furry things," he said. Might this explain his beard?

Dr Germaine Greer has just written a highly charged polemic, On Rage, for the Melbourne University Press, which is about the ongoing blight suffered by the Aboriginal men and women at the hands of colonialists. “People now talk of establishing an annual sorry day, as if it would do Whitey good to remind himself how magnanimous he was on 13 February 2008,” she says. “More useful would be an annual angry day.” I agree. We need a rage day if only to express our fury against the bankers and politicians who got us into the financial mess we find ourselves in. Alternatively, I suppose we could save our rage for the ballot box.

When a Times sub-editor had the temerity to query an article written by Peter Jay, he grandly replied: “I only wrote this piece for three people – the editor of the Times, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Do the current incumbents of these offices, namely James Harding, Mervyn King and Alistair Darling, still pay any attention to the wise words of Peter Jay? Perhaps they should. The former BBC economics editor and former son-in-law of Jim Callaghan has a cunning plan to stave off financial depression. And if the man whom Time magazine once dubbed England’s brightest bulb has a solution, surely this triumvirate should take note. The Jay plan is a variation of Milton Friedman’s helicopter drop. Rather than drop money out of helicopters, as Friedman advocated, Jay thinks the helicopters should drop vouchers. The public might hoard cash, whereas vouchers with an expiry date attached would be spent quickly. After Jay was anointed the cleverest man in England, one wag responded: “If he’s so clever, how come he got the au pair pregnant?” Blackadder would ridicule Baldrick’s cunning plans and sometimes end up using them in desperation. We will know the chips are really down when Jay’s plan is put into effect.

Am I other? The Office for National Statistics will now collect information about your sexuality in its surveys. You can tick heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual or “other”. According to the ONS, 1 per cent of the population reject standard categories, hence the “other” classification – whatever “other” entails. I am always dubious of statistics. Where did they come up with this 1 per cent figure, for a start? Thank goodness respondents will be entitled to refuse to answer the question or put themselves down as “don’t know”.

The move has been welcomed by Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, which campaigns for gay equality. "Getting the Office for National Statistics to take this issue seriously has been like pulling teeth," he says. But should it be taking the issue seriously? Summerskill argues that the survey is confidential and is about public service delivery. Nevertheless, it strikes me as yet another unwarranted intrusion into our private lives. Yes, we should wage war on sexual discrimination, but not at the expense of privacy.

Summerskill once worked for me on the Evening Standard as a loyal and able deputy. But never once did I ask him if he was gay or heterosexual or other. If I had, I am sure he would have told me to mind my own business. Or my other business.

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

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

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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