Natural Order: John Bercow revisited

John Bercow the Speaker of the House of Commons

John Bercow has gone from thorn in the side to darling of the backbencher, meme and national treasure. With the news that the Speaker of the House of Commons is stepping down from the role he’s held for a decade, I thought it was time to repost an interview (I’m shocked to find) I did nine years ago. Looking at the accompanying images I see that we’ve all aged a bit. But some of the Speaker’s pronouncements back then have proved prescient.

As an ice-breaker, it takes some beating – after asking about my journey to his office John Bercow reveals he briefly lodged in the house I live in when he first moved to his Buckingham constituency.
“It was freezing,” he remembers.
“It still is,” I reply.

John has been returned with a large majority ever since that first rung on the political ladder, but during last year’s election canvassing he found a frosty response on the doorstep. Possibly stirred up by mischievous independent candidates and the UK Independence Party’s leader Nigel Farage, who stood against him, the notion that the Speaker’s electorate is disenfranchised hit the local and national headlines. Why no fuss from the two previous Speakers’ – Betty Boothroyd’s and Michael Martin’s – constituents?

Known for his verboseness, John tells me in great detail why he thinks the age-old tradition for the major parties to withdraw their opposition from the Speaker’s ballot sheet caused such a furore in 2010. In a nutshell, Buckingham has a savvy and vociferous electorate not afraid to express their educated opinions – and they’d had to wait the full five-year term to exercise their right to vote only to find a disparate group of independents standing alongside the Speaker of the House of Commons. John insists he takes nothing for granted even though he’s certain his new role as Speaker gives him more clout to represent his constituency than any backbench politician or minister would enjoy.

On HS2

That explanation given, I tackle the prospective devastation the High Speed 2 rail link will wreak on the Chilterns, Aylesbury Vale, Buckingham and beyond and what he can do about it.

I’m profoundly opposed to this ill-conceived, unnecessary, wasteful and damaging project.

“First of all, there’s the economic point that when we’re bust it’s extraordinary to contemplate such a project; secondly, there will be an enormous cost but no obvious benefit to the constituency,” says John, leaning forward in his chair.

An £8bn investment for the railways was announced in November but that sum seems small change compared to the £15.8 – £17.4bn estimated budget for the HS2 link. During the last Parliament John quizzed Labour’s then Transport Secretary Lord Andrew Adonis on the scheme’s “all pain, no gain” approach to Buckinghamshire (no stops are planned in the county) and was told slowing up the journey would damage HS2’s business case.

John checklists the villages and suburbs set to suffer from noise pollution, property blight and a too-complicated compensation scheme and reveals he’s also aired his views in private meetings with the current Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and Minister Theresa Villiers. His talks haven’t changed anything – yet. Is this an already done deal or perhaps a vanity project? I ask him.

Modest gain

“The Government thinks it will facilitate commerce. The reduction in journey time from London to Birmingham will be about 21 minutes, which I think is a very modest gain… I have seen the outline business case and I myself don’t find it at all persuasive, I think it’s very optimistic and pie-in-the-sky,” he says.

When I point out the Marylebone to Birmingham line is already being upgraded and journey times due to be slashed, John nods and says: “It’s possible to do this incrementally, without a massive great new line. You could, for example, extend the West Coast main line… The Government seems to think it’s got to go for this super-duper massive new project based on what I consider to be a highly speculative and unconvincing business case. More disturbingly still, Ministers and Secretaries of State have started to say recently, it’s not just about the business case it’s about making a judgement in the national interest.”

There’s a light-hearted moment when we consider what would happen if great crested newts were found along the route, but it’s clear John takes his constituency problems very seriously despite the new calls on his time.
“I still get here a lot,” says John. “I’m not here every single Friday but I am here pretty much every weekend.”

There’s something about Sally

John’s role as Speaker and the stately apartments that come with it keep him in Westminster more these days, he says. And with a politically active wife – Sally’s a vociferous, some might say strident, Labour supporter – and three small children, the eldest of whom is in a London school, home life is also more city-centric. I ask how he and Sally manage to juggle it all. The answer is teamwork and mutual respect.

“She’s more London-based and though the schools here [in Buckinghamshire] are excellent Oliver is pretty settled where he is. I don’t feel her political aspirations [she hopes to become a Labour MP] are going to be a great problem,” says John, citing Sir Nicholas Winterton and his wife Ann as an example of a two-MP family [though I might add they both represented the same party]. John has to be apolitical as Speaker but admits he gets letters from Tory supporters suggesting he should keep Sally’s outspoken views in check.
“My answer is unequivocal.

We’re living in 2010 – Sally is my wife, but she’s not my chattel, she’s not owned by me and not obliged to do as I say.

“She’s definitely not told what to do. There’s no job called ‘The Speaker’s Wife’, she doesn’t have a Parliamentary office. Yes she lives in the Speaker’s House with me – but we are not one person. She’s entitled to her own views – but I do believe that we face the world together.”

Off the record John reveals some of the more extreme and personal content of the letters and seems more disappointed than shocked at the vitriol.
What’s happened to the notion of a meritocracy?
“There’s a certain body of people who are determined to be as critical as possible,” says John, adding that he’s put up with comments about his background ever since he entered Parliament in 1997. He is happy to receive constructive criticism and advice, but not opposition to him for its own sake.

I’m not so arrogant as to believe I know everything. You can always benefit from sensible suggestions.

“I’m very happy, I enjoy life, I think it’s a huge privilege to do what I’m doing. I have a lovely wife and lovely children. I’d like to do this for as long as I reasonably can.”
He particularly likes reading biography and political memoirs, and found some passages from Tony Blair’s book, A Journey, resonant. Sally has introduced him to the award-winning novels of Sarah Waters and he’s a fan of Sebastian Faulks’s writing.

A lifelong interest

John’s other love is tennis – he was England’s number one ranked junior while his sister, Alison, was an accomplished synchronised swimmer – their sporting prowess gained because their mother wanted them to have a lifelong interest.
“I was never good enough to be a professional,” he says, modestly, admitting his job and family life leave him with little time to play tennis nowadays. Doubles, he says, gives you a good insight into people’s characters.

“I played with David Cameron for a while,” he says. “He’s an extremely good player – he’s a left-hander and while he’s very hard on himself, he’s very supportive of his partner.”
He still squeezes out time to watch coverage of Grand Slam tournaments, particularly matches involving Roger Federer, whom he considers the sport’s best player and ambassador.

Our interview over, I leave Buckingham’s darkening streets. Fair play learnt on the tennis court makes John Bercow an ideal Speaker – it’s not unlike the role of a umpire. But if he chose to descend from his elevated seat to return to the play, who I wonder, would relish being on the wrong side of the net?

Facts and stats about the Speaker

  • John Bercow was born in 1963 and went to Finchley Manorhill School.
  • He graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Government from the University of Essex.
  • He married Sally in December 2002 and they have three children, Oliver, Freddie and Jemima.
  • Besides playing tennis John is also a qualified coach.
  • John was elected MP for Buckingham in May 1997 and has served as Front Bench Spokesman for Education & Employment and Home Affairs. He has also held the posts of Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Shadow Minister for Work & Pensions and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.
  • He serves or has served on a number of cross party Parliamentary groups, review committees and select committees.
  • John Bercow was elected as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons on June 22, 2009.

John Bercow Speaker 2010
John Bercow without his golden robes at the House of Commons

This article first appeared in the March 2011 edition of Berkshire & Buckinghamshire Life.

#JohnBercow #HoC #UKPolitics #HS2 #HouseofCommonsSpeaker #TheSpeakeroftheHouse #MPforBuckingham #Brexit

Celebrated and celebrity

Sir James Weatherall and Dan Snow – both celebrated former Sea Cadets

Historian and BBC presenter Dan Snow on the front cover of Seafarer magazine

“Have you ever interviewed anyone famous?”

That’s a question I’m frequently asked when I say that I’m a journalist and editor, and when I reply yes, the follow-up is invariably, “Who?”

Olympians, actors, MPs

At that point I usually list a handful of personalities who make regular headlines – MPs, Olympians, actors… then I blank. You’ll find a few of them listed in my character interview pages on this blogsite.

The truth is, I’ve interviewed so many people in the course of 30 years in the business that I’ve forgotten more of my interviewees than I can remember.

That’s not what my offspring would call a humble-brag. Genuinely, I can’t name names when put on the spot and in the early days of my career (when I interviewed the likes of composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Monkees lead singer Davy Jones and Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee) it never occurred to me to keep a record. I can’t for the life of me remember the author I interviewed when I was in my first few weeks as a professional journalist. I do recall that it was at a barn conversion near Diss and I was especially impressed by his floor-to-rafters bookshelves.

On Saturday then, flipping through the Register section of my paper copy of The Times, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye, but an image. Sandwiched between the obituaries of The Earl of Plymouth and actor Bill Maynard was a third, that of a man standing on the deck of a ship wearing naval uniform and looking both proud and pleased – and I knew I’d seen the photograph before.

He went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods

Vice-Admiral Sir James Weatherall considered his time as Captain of HMS Ark Royal as a boyhood dream come true, he told me. But despite the fact he went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods, the first after a distinguished 37-year-long career in the Royal Navy, the second after serving in the Diplomatic Corps, our interview didn’t even make the front page of the magazine that had commissioned me for members of the Marine Society & Sea Cadets (MSSC).

Not even the Sir James Weatherall’s status as a former chairman of the Sea Cadets and a series of interests and distinguished appointments that made me wonder when he had time to sleep gave him the cover slot of Seafarer.

The Winter 2009 issue that featured him also carried an interview I’d done with poster-boy television broadcaster and now much-respected historian Dan Snow. So perhaps understandably, it was Dan who made the cover, his steadfast gaze and crumpled shirt a contrast to the super-smart uniform of a Naval officer standing on the deck of one of the most famous ships of the modern age.

Celebrated, not famous

Of course I also remember the interview I conducted with Dan. It was done over the phone as he shuttled between terminals at Heathrow, competing with so much background noise from baggage trolleys and tannoy announcements that I was fearful that I would not have enough material to create the feature I’d been commissioned to write.

On Saturday, I couldn’t help reflecting on a life well-served but not in the spotlight. To the wider public, Sir James Weatherall wasn’t a celebrity, and if I told anyone I’d interviewed him, I’m not sure they would have a clue who he was or be impressed.

You can read the obituary in The Times, March 31, 2018 (paywall) and a pdf of my original article in Seafarer is available to view here.

My career in journalism has led to brief connections with the hugely respected and celebrated, as well as the feted and famous, and for that privilege I’m grateful.

But it’s a funny old concept, celebrity – isn’t it?

I didn’t get to meet Roger Bannister…

Sir Roger BannisterBut when I was editing Oxfordshire Life magazine, and the idea was pitched that we included an interview with Sir Roger Bannister to mark his 80th birthday, I jumped at the chance to give readers an insight into his latter years in Oxford.

Meeting your heroes

It’s one of the disadvantages of being the editor, rather than the writer or photographer, that you get stuck in the office pushing paper rather than getting to meet your heroes. Both Justin Bowyer, who pitched the idea, and Paul Wilkinson, the photographer, set up their own successful businesses and keep in touch via social media. Some articles, more than others I’ve commissioned as an editor, have stuck in the mind. This one because I’m a mad-keen sports fan, and because both Justin and Paul were thrilled to have met Sir Roger Bannister, and the announcement of his death on March 3, 2018 made me think of them.

The passing of one of our national sporting greats prompted tributes on all media channels and at the IAAF world indoor athletics championships in Birmingham, plus a celebration of his life. No-one lives forever. You can ask no more than you leave a good mark on the world, and tellingly, Roger Bannister rated the achievements of his professional and academic career at least as highly as his sporting successes. Had he been born in the era of professional athletics, he may have chosen to concentrate on his running for longer, once qualified, pretty much as veterinary student and double worlds medallist Laura Muir plans to do. But athletics was a gentleman’s hobby back in the fifties, and if you had to earn a living it couldn’t be through paid appearances.

3 minutes 59.4 seconds

Iffley Road running track

I smiled when I heard Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram discussing how many thousands of people would say they had been at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6 1954, watching the historic scenes, when the real figure was around 1,200. Many people will be able to say they met him during his 88 years, but not me. But I am glad that Paul and Justin did. Meeting your heroes is one of the privileges of working in our business. Being a hero – well that’s a different story.

© All pictures and text used in this post are subject to copyright by the original authors, photographer and/or the publishing company. Design and layout in Oxfordshire Life by Louise White.

Off to uni? Here’s what to buy, according to last year’s freshers

What to buy ahead of university

University essentials

It’s that time of year when stores send out marketing emails full of smart ‘back to uni’ merchandise, and parents splash out to get their teens set up for life away from home. But before you fill your trolley with things that may never be used, check out these do’s and don’ts from students themselves.

Clever marketers know how to pull parental heart- and purse-strings as A-level, BTEC and other results come to fruition. But before mums and dads give free rein to thoughts of tidier bedrooms and a fully stocked fridge, and students relish the release from the ‘what time will you be back?’ question, there’s a big hurdle to jump first – the transition from home to halls. And with university freshers’ week looming large, it’s easy, in the excitement and apprehension of this next phase of life, to be sucked into buying ‘stuff’.

Lots of what’s needed may already be available from within family – ask grandparents who have downsized, or just accumulated a lifetime of crockery and cookware, what they can spare, for instance. And bear in mind that items parents feel are essential, or just want to buy as a treat and reward for getting to uni, may never be used. So what did students make the most of once they’d settled in? Ahead of a pre-university shopping spree, I asked a few of last year’s freshers and freshly graduated adults what every parent preparing to buy up the store should know.

Don’t get too much crockery and cutlery

Within weeks of purchase that 24-piece set of blue-handled cutlery you thought was a distinctive (and identifiable) must-have could well have been absorbed into a mass of shared kitchenalia. Worse, its destination could be under another student’s bed, festering with unwashed plates and other ‘borrowings’. There always seems to be one housemate whose room is a black hole pulling other people’s belongings into its orbit. And mounting a retrieval raid can be difficult. It’s easier, in the first few days and weeks, to keep track of a set of one or two knives, forks, dessertspoons and teaspoons, and bowls, tea-plates and dinner-plates. Your teen could keep a spare of each in their room to cover losses and breakages until they’re sure they won’t go missing. That said, less crockery may not be altogether better.

“I wish I’d had more plates, bowls and cutlery so I didn’t have to wash up ALL the time,” says Victoria, adding that these would have been ideal when new friends came around.

Other kitchen essentials mentioned by more than one student include a lidded pan for pasta and a cheap frying pan.

“A frying pan and fairy lights were the best things I was bought for uni,” says Lydia, who graduated last year. She also made use of a far-from-essential food mixer and baking equipment simply because she loves cooking, but she turned down a fellow fresher’s offer of cash in exchange for a share of her regular meals on the grounds it was too much responsibility (and he was lazy and should try harder). Meanwhile Amy found a toastie maker an invaluable addition to her kitchen. “We used that loads!” she says.

A frying pan and fairy lights were the best things

A multi-purpose oven- and microwave-proof dish with lid may prove an important addition as it can be used for baking, roasting, reheating and serving. One small and sharp knife, an easy peeler, plus a chopping knife and board are enough for all preparation. No student really needs an array of Sabatier or sushi standard blades. Besides, if anything does go astray or your teen discovers their culinary genius ahead of impressing a new partner, most big supermarkets sell cheap and cheerful ranges and the charity shops close to halls will have items donated by last year’s graduates who couldn’t find room for them in the car they left in.

Tone down the bed linen

Your fresher may not be ready to relinquish their Harry Potter bedset, while you want to upgrade them to matching bedding complete with toning cushions, to show you care and ensure they’re not teased. There’s nothing wrong with buying new for uni and ditching the young teen look, but check whether your ‘baby’ will be sleeping in a single or double bed (many student rooms cater for cuddling up at night) so you buy the right sizes. Unless your teen can style out a loud pattern, opt for plain-dyed bedlinen (at least two sets of everything) and don’t forget to add in a couple of mattress covers. The chances are, student bedsheets won’t see a washing machine above once a term and will come back at Christmas, or even at the end of the academic year, looking like a shroud (especially if fake tan has been involved).

Printers and stationery

Your student son or daughter probably owns a laptop, but may have been using the family printer. If you buy new, make sure the ink refills are cheap as some cost more than the printer to replace. Getting wifi access set up (the uni welcome pack issued when they collect their keys covers this) and creating a study scene on their desk area will encourage a continued work ethic and cut procrastination time once the hard work starts.

Few students will turn down a supply of paper, a couple of notebooks and pens, so put these in the trolley along with a small pot of coloured drawing pins to make it easy to decorate. Many student rooms have a ban on sticky tape and tack for posters, favouring corkboards instead.

“It’s a small thing, but I didn’t bring any pins and I wished I had,” says Polly. “I wanted to put up timetables and photos but didn’t want to go searching for them in Aberystwyth in my first week or so!”

It’s a small thing, but I didn’t bring any pins and I wished I had…

A personal supply of sticky tape (now you’re no longer going to be on hand as official tape finder and dispenser) and a glue stick may also prove useful. Tuck a family and pre-prom photo among the ‘congratulations’ and ‘good luck’ cards they received from friends and family ready for them to put up or look through once you’ve left the building. These will also serve as a reminder that they’ve been working towards, and looking forward to, this day and that many of their schoolmates are also heading for pastures new.

Other essentials

Shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste, sanitary products and that all-important must-buy special antiperspirant can add significant expense to a grocery bill. Maybe you want your teen to realise the harsh realities of semi-independence and the cost of branded buys, but initially, it’s nice to stock them up with a small supply of their preferred toiletries to remind them of home and help keep their finances in order. If they don’t already know that supermarket own-label will do the job just as well when their little stash runs out, expect to be enlightened about this (and several other things they’ve ‘discovered’) when they come home at Christmas. A pot plant (succulents are the in-thing) can also add a home-from-home feeling to an otherwise impersonal room.

Another recent graduate, Clare, recommends buying a coin purse just big enough to cram in ID, campus card and £10 for a night out. But speaking of non-essentials though, Clare reveals one much-loved treasure that never left her room. “I had a really nice Emma Bridgewater teapot that I wouldn’t let near any of our kitchens over the three years.”

On the money front, encourage your student to download a budgeting app, or sign up for their bank account’s spending monitor to help them stay on track in this first term. That way they won’t be coming back for handouts before the Christmas holidays (fingers crossed), when the empty fridge and full washing basket for a month will be reinstated back home.

Best buys according to students

  • Airing rack
  • Fairylights
  • Frying pan
  • Mattress topper
  • Mini fridge, if you can wangle one
  • Pins for the pinboard
  • Quadruple plug extension and power breaker
  • Wok (for cooking large quantities in one go, then storing).

Less useful

  • First aid kit
  • Beanbag
  • Fancy teapot.

Five stores selling back to uni items that won’t break the bank




John Lewis

Next homewares

With thanks to Frank B, James C, Clare E, Hector F, Amy J, Lydia K, Polly K and Victoria P for their input.

© Copyright Sandra Kessell

This article is unsponsored. Contact me to work with me.

All is quiet… 

It’s not always easy to find a new angle for a feature on a best-loved Cotswold town. Burford’s beautiful buildings and picturesque streets feature in many magazines and on websites, but a quick look around gave me the inspiration for a nativity trail. It’s reproduced in the link below if you missed it. Happy Twelfth Night!


©Cotswold Life December 2016


Light years away

…—… SOS © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall


Fittingly, I’ve book-ended the Bruce Munro installations at Waddesdon Manor, visiting only the first and last years of his exhibitions, since a ‘proper job’ meant I was unable to get to the intervening open evenings. And so it was a pleasure to accept this latest invitation to see the paths his dreams in light have taken.
Not for Bruce – not here – the comfort of ‘pretty’. In any case, illuminated alliums now hang in their thousands in municipal Christmas decorations across countless towns and cities and his installations represent so much more than lights in a shopping precinct. This year, 2015, Bruce seeks to capture the zeitgeist by questioning our consciences and the extent of our charity. *

“The effect is stunning… it halts you in haunted tracks”

If that seems an austere approach at Christmas, it isn’t – visually at least. Bruce’s ethereal, elegiac and engaging installation glows through the shrubbery and his sounds echo across the gardens like mythical sirens calling passers-by. But as you make your journey towards the sounds, the giant tree ferns lining the path loom through the darkness, their white winter fleeces looking for all the world like bandages wrapped around dreadful wounds. Once you’re standing alongside the site it is apparent the music is a series of segue-ways from pop to rock to opera, transmitting simultaneously from over 100 single-person tents, paying homage to the charity Shelterbox. The sound and light show lends the tents a disco feel, until without warning, the nylon canvasses shot through with the purple, blue and red are punctured alarmingly by white light accompanied by the ditditdit, dahdahdah, ditditdit of more than 100 SOS messages.

“The …–––… of more than 100 SOS messages”

This voyage of son et lumière, Bruce explains, has been inspired by the desire to couple his work with a specific charity and the teen memory of twiddling the dials on the radio to find a favourite station (he had to replicate some of the sounds with actors, since the BBC wouldn’t grant him a licence to use any original recordings). It’s all manufactured, of course. Anyone hovering around the same age as Bruce will remember not only the distant Morse code messages but the buzz of white noise and the seemingly meaningless repetitions of a five-note tune transmitting mournfully across the airwaves. But for all that the tents don’t house refugees, the effect is stunning nonetheless. It halts you in haunted tracks.
Get away from the crowds for a moment if you can, and take in the installation alone. For it is only when you stop that the sound of your own humanity cuts through life’s hubbub and Bruce’s brightly lit tents encourage your empathy for fellow humans.

SOS © Bruce Munro 2015
…—… SOS images © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

NB: Bruce Munro’s light installation is part of the Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor Christmas season running from Wednesday 11 November to Sunday 3 January (closed 24–26 December).
The seasonal decorations have been created in 20 rooms, including the Bachelors’ Wing, and around the manor’s exterior. Feature table settings, Christmas trees and room tableaux continue the theme of Lights & Legends, all with a backdrop of the matchless Rothschild Collection and the manor itself.

©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear
©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear

*If anyone cares to delve further into the history of the manor, during the Second World War, the Rothschilds moved into the Bachelors’ Wing, leaving the main house to children evacuated from London.

To find out more visit the Waddesdon Manor website.