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.

Sophie Grigson’s kitchen

Sophie Grigson
Sophie Grigson portrait by Mark Fairhurst.

She’s a self-confessed cook rather than a chef and champions local food production.

Sophie Grigson explains what’s going on in her kitchen.

COOK Sophie Grigson has a personal sense of style more in keeping with an Eighties pop star than a chef. With her spiky haircut, dangly earrings and elfin features she could so easily have bagged a record deal or presented the cult programme The Tube during that era, you can’t help but feel as you talk to her.
Her lovely Oxfordshire farmhouse also has a slightly whacky feel. There’s the new dog, Ben, recently adopted, who currently has to be kept in one side of it while the cat, Spice, rather put out by the usurper, has taken refuge in the kitchen. The door between Ben’s and Spice’s territories remains firmly closed and it’s not clear, if it came to a bun fight, which pet would come off the victor.

Sophie is all smiles, welcome and hand waves, excusing the chaos and ushering me into the most obvious room for this interview the kitchen – or rather, Spice’s space.
It’s just the kind of kitchen you would expect Sophie to have. Not for her the pristine pans gleaming on a rack beside polished granite work surfaces. Instead, it’s a used, lived in, experimented in, sat in, chatted in creative kitchen. It was hand built by a local joiner and has a range down one end, while jars, bottles and packets line shelves all over the walls. The windows frame views over the valley beyond and the sills are packed with kitchen paraphernalia, including a stylish hand-juicer, which, I note, has dust all over it.
“I take it that’s not used much,” I venture.
Sophie, busy creating coffee for us, is unabashed as she replies that it looks good, which is why it won its place in her kitchen.
Sophie herself has lived an interesting life. Her late mother Jane Grigson was a highly acclaimed author, translator and one of the pioneers of the Sixties culinary revolution and her father Geoffrey Grigson was a poet and critic. Hardly surprisingly, Sophie has a string of books to her name and is a regular contributor to Waitrose Magazine. Easy to talk to and passionate about food, she regularly pops up on hit TV cookery shows and spent the run-up to Christmas cooking in Sri Lanka. She was one of the judges of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme Food and Farming awards and uses her not inconsiderable influence and profile to champion local food producers, farmers’ markets and small food-related businesses. Indeed, it was at a local food producers’ festival that I first met her.

Such a good cooking pedigree

With so many strings to her bow, so many demands on her time, so many accomplishments and such a good cooking pedigree, it’s refreshing, if a little surprising, to her that she was slightly daunted on her Sri Lankan trip to discover she was cooking for around 50 guests.
“I’m a cook, not a chef,” she says, adding in the same breath that she really enjoyed the experience. “It made me realise how hard chefs work every day, especially in that heat. In the course of preparation we had several power cuts, the fuse box went up in flames and not all the staff spoke English – but we got it done on time and it was a really good evening,” she says.
I ask her if her children can cook and she assures me that they can, a bit, though se reveals that they think what Mum does is a bit boring.
“They can both cook their favourite dishes,” she says. Favourite means a Thai coconut vegetable and fish noodle soup and pasta with tomato sauce. They’ve also been known to supply peanut butter brownies to local fundraising markets.
“They get the idea and that’s good,” says Sophie.

“It’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use.”

Living with one foot in Oxford and the other in the countryside, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sophie is so passionate about supporting local food producers and retailers.
“I think there are issues that we do need to address… I think it’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use,” she says.
“We are seeing a lot of changes in attitudes to food production. You can have a green hotel, for example, without compromising on quality; in fact by raising your quality. Hotels and restaurants tapping into local food producers get lots of things, not just fresh produce. They can have more say and ask local people to make things for them” she says. And there are so many human interest stories behind the food we eat.”

Community and rapport

Sophie is keen that we should be aware of what is available at farmers’ markets and in farm shops. She also points out that shopping regularly that way establishes a sense of community and rapport between buyer and seller or producer.
Other cooks are also lending their weight and voices to highlighting the way we produce food – recent programmes with Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about the lives of British-reared chickens have had an impact on supermarkets and customers.
“The demand for free range chickens has gone up, which is also good for British producers – it’s very exciting,” says Sophie, pointing out that the ultimate aim was to improve the way that chickens were raised.
“Good for Channel 4 for being brave enough to do that. When I first started appearing on television programmes 15 or 16 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that sort of thing,” she says.
Sophie would like to do a series on meat and follow the progress and lives of beef cattle, because she feels that if we are going to eat meat we should know the process of getting it on to our plates.
“I love meat, as long as I know it has had a good life,” she says.
So, food apart, how does Sophie spend her time?
“I do a lot with the children. I like reading novels. I’ve been reading a Barbara Trapido book – I really enjoy her novels. I had this strange experience of sitting in bed one night, reading one of her books and there was my name. It was a conversation someone was having – it felt lovely!” says Sophie, adding that she has been a volunteer at Oxford Literary Festival. She enjoys amateur dramatics, recently playing the fairy godmother in her local village panto and taking part in the The Vagina Monologues in Abingdon.
Sophie makes regular visits to France and loves the way the French have remained so connected to their food production. She would like to travel more, especially if she could combine her journeys with discovering food. She was enchanted by Sri Lanka and would like to travel through South America.

“One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”

“I’d love to take six months out and go from top to bottom, or the other way round,” says Sophie. “One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”
It’s a language that Sophie has proved fluent in and our local food producers are lucky to have such an eloquent and dedicated champion for their cause. She’s not just another personality dreaming up recipes in the kitchen. Sophie’s choice to be hands-on in the food world is Oxfordshire’s – and the nation’s – gain.

This interview first appeared in Oxfordshire Life magazine on June 2008 under my former name, Sandra Fraser. ©SandraKessell
Image ©Mark Fairhurst

The magic of Val Doonican: what a wonderful singing star

I was lucky enough to meet Val Doonican five years ago when his autobiography was republished under the title, My Story, My Life. He was as gentlemanly as you might imagine the soft-spoken Irish crooner to be and I left his home feeling richer for having met him. After hearing that his death was announced I re-posted this interview as a tribute to him.

Ever since this interview was arranged I’ve had Val Doonican’s music in my head – a curious combination of O’Rafferty’s Motor Car, Delaney’s Donkey and Walk Tall. Val’s music was a mainstay of BBC radio’s Family Favourites and his must-see television show ran for 24 years – a combination of chat, music and other stars’ guest appearances. So it’s with some trepidation I find myself ringing the doorbell on Mr Doonican’s Chilterns home, looking at his name on the brass mailbox, and trying not to blurt out: “Oh what a wonderful motor car, the greatest ever seen…”

Stylish and shy

Val himself calls down the stairs once I’m in the hallway and suddenly, there he is, easily recognisable as the star of my youth. A little older, true, but still with that lovely Irish lilt to his voice, the same slightly shy, ready smile and crooked teeth. He looks in fine fettle I tell him, and he laughs, pleased, and ushers me into the stylish duplex apartment he shares with his wife Lynn on the outskirts of Beaconsfield.

Stars on the sideboard

Now in his early eighties, Val is dressed in smart corduroys and a fine-knit smoky-blue jumper. Most of all, he’s very welcoming and kindly just as you would imagine he might be. It could be the home of any successful retired businessman and grandfather, there’s so little to hint at his professional life. Only close inspection reveals that former prime minister John Major is in one of the photos and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck is in another. The rest are family snaps – albeit Val and Lynn make a very glamorous couple – a collection of weddings, parties and smiling babies. But while I’m admiring a picture of a bouncing baby girl, Val becomes very sombre. Before we’ve been acquainted five minutes he’s explaining that the child is the couple’s first-born daughter, Siobhan, a cot-death victim who died just hours after the photo was taken, and it seems as if the interview isn’t going to go so well after all.

Pre-war Ireland, where Michael Valentine Doonican was born and grew up, was a tough enough experience. Val was one of eight children and when a sister contracted tuberculosis Val’s father moved into a garden shed to allow his mother to nurse her. Shortly afterwards, his father died of cancer of the mouth and throat. With his father’s admonishment to “always be yourself” ringing in his ears, Val left school and started work making boxes, never guessing music would become his full-time occupation. His career started slowly enough, touring Ireland, before touring England.

A turning point

After years touring separately, Val and Lynn, another star of the music scene, had married in the early 60s. Lynn had been persuaded to go back on stage after the birth of Siobhan, so the couple both had careers and earned a living. Val had been working in a live show with an orchestra.
Val’s response to Siobhan’s tragic death was to go to work at the Maida Vale studios the next day – a reaction born out of shock.
“Because of my working life in the business, I thought, ‘I’ve got to go in’.”
At that point, Val was well-enough known in the music business, but he’d never been able to secure a record deal or get a break into the big time. So often he’d felt he might be close, but the life-changing phone call had never come.
“Yet from that day on, everything went right for me,” says Val, wondering if God had a greater plan for the couple. “It was like a miracle,” he says, in spite of the tragedy.

Performing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium

If you’d rather believe in curious twists of fate than a higher power, at exactly that time the legendary impresario and star-maker Val Parnell heard of him from three different people, including superstar Dickie Henderson, and looked him up. Within weeks of Siobhan’s untimely death, Val had performed on Sunday Night at the London Palladium after which, his agent, Evelyn Taylor, started getting calls from the BBC, ITV and record companies trying to secure deals. You’d have forgiven Val for leaping at the first opportunity.
“But having been around for so long I was not fascinated by being famous,” he says. Eve, the shrewdest person in showbusiness, as Val calls her, suggested he chose his next move carefully. As a result, Val plotted a slow-burn, long-term career. For nearly 25 years he hosted his own television show and at the same time produced some 50 albums. His was the voice of the era, and a plethora of big names joined him on the show.

“I was getting 19 million viewers a week”

Though today’s come-and-go stars seem to make a lot of money in their short careers, Val’s satisfaction lies in having had the most amazing time, and despite the show’s understated charm and its rocking chair finale, it remains one of the BBC’s most enduring productions.
“When I think back to the mid-Sixties, I was getting 19 million viewers a week,” he says modestly.
Val’s star quality was undeniable, The Beatles were blasting their way through the charts, yet Val managed to knock them off the number one slot. He met and performed with singers who had been his boyhood idols, such as Perry Como, to whom he was often likened, yet he always appeared to remain down-to-earth. Behind the scenes he finally started to enjoy all the trappings of success. Lynn and Val were able to move to Rickmansworth because of its good road links and proximity to airports and London. Once their daughters, Sarah and Fiona, started school, the family jumped the Buckinghamshire border to a house in Seer Green that completed the show-biz lifestyle. It was bought from Jon Anderson of rock supergroup Yes fame, and had seven bedrooms, a swimming pool and kitchen garden.

A natural raconteur

“It’s all explained in my biography, how it all gradually happened,” says Val, talking like a favourite uncle or grandfather rather than a former household name. Tellingly though, it has been Lynn and Val’s friends and neighbours who have kept them living in the Beaconsfield area for decades, rather than its proximity to London, neighbouring show-biz stars or the beautiful countryside that surrounds them. The couple feel they are part of the community, hosting residents’ association meetings in their home and enjoying parties with friends.
“This is where our life is. It’s a lovely place to live, a lovely part of the world – you couldn’t ask for more. I do a lot of painting – I’m a member of Chiltern Painters – and I’ve been a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club since 1977,” says Val, who is a natural raconteur and has a charm that puts guests at their ease.

A certain modesty

Yet for all his past fame and fortune, it’s not until I’m leaving and ask to visit the cloakroom that I discover walls lined with photos and old posters – Lynn performing with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise; Val being presented to the Queen Mother; Val at a charity golf match with a myriad of stars. It’s a Who’s Who of show business legends. I linger a little longer than I need to, seeing who I recognise from their glory days, when they wanted to be on Val’s show and part of the Doonican scene. Getting into my silver people-carrier car a few minutes later, I can’t help thinking that it should be at least one of 40 shades of green, just like O’Rafferty’s, and that if today’s television producers could recapture the magic of Val Doonican, a quiet understated modesty and charm, they’d be on to something massive. Val welcomed everyone into what became his big family. Those of us who watched him in his heyday, however young we were, or however old, retain the warm fuzzy feeling and, it seems, those quirky lyrics.

Val Doonican 1927-2015

An interview with Fern Britton

I wrote this article back in 2011 and have been hosting a link to it from my site. However, I noticed it’s lost its punctuation and formatting – so here’s the original, along with links to  Iain Rennie Hospices at Home, now known as Rennie Grove, the charity that prompted Fern to grant the interview in the first place.

As she launches a new Chilterns cycle challenge, Fern Britton talks about padded saddles, Strictly Come Dancing Christmas and THAT gastric band…

First things first. Up close and personal, Fern Britton looks even better in the flesh than she does on the television.
She parks her modest little run-around, steps out into the rain and sashays into the Iain Rennie charity office in Chalfont St Giles, close to her home, the epitome of a yummy mummy in her plain tube dress, waist-clincher belt, flat pixie boots and trendy leather jacket. Her only jewellery is a ruby-winged heart necklace and a discreet watch – no rings, no bracelets, not even earrings.
A different kind of person might have dashed into the loo before facing a camera and interviews – not Fern. Clearly her decision to step down from This Morning, the hugely popular daytime show she hosted for more than 10 years, suits her. What hasn’t changed is the megawatt smile familiar from a thousand TV sofa chat close-ups and not a few paparazzi snaps. She greets the fundraisers in the office like old friends and they, in turn, congratulate her on her appearance, because despite the rained-on hair and today’s gruelling schedule she looks sassy and she’s glowing with vitality.

It’s the make-up from Strictly Come Dancing, she says, without a trace of false modesty. She’s been rehearsing with her secret partner (there’s speculation it might be fellow Buckinghamshire resident Brendan Cole, but she’s tight-lipped because we’re meeting before the Christmas special show line-up has been announced) and has driven straight to this interview from the dance studio. She’s loving the whole experience, from the gorgeous dress (she rummages in her handbag to show me a swatch of the material, but can’t find it, to our mutual disappointment) and the high-heeled dancing shoes, to strutting her stuff with some of entertainment’s finest. She’s never had the time to accept an invitation to join the show before though she did a solo number for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

The extra eyeshadow and foundation, together with her shorter hairstyle, may add a certain glamour, but as Fern walks up the stairs in front of me I can’t help but notice (women tend to) how very slender she is, or rather, has become.
After we’ve talked about her extensive charity work I finally come out with the question I’ve been itching to ask since hearing all those greetings in the office downstairs, ‘Does she mind everyone commenting on her size these days?’.

“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced”

Famously, or rather, notoriously, she had a gastric band fitted some four years ago and kept the operation a secret while crediting a better eating and exercise regime as first the pounds, then the stones, fell off her formerly voluptuous plus-size frame.
She draws herself up in her chair and looks me straight in the eye as she replies: “These things don’t work by themselves. You have to work hard to lose weight! I wish people would acknowledge how hard it is to get fit or get fitter.”

Notably, though, there are mini mince pies and biscuits on offer as we chat, and Fern doesn’t touch them. But far from getting annoyed, she’s flattered by those kind remarks about her looks. She says her age, (she’s 53), has given her an understanding of who she is. She decided to lose weight to improve her health, which was beginning to cause concern, not for anyone else’s benefit.
“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced,” she says.

Gastric band or not, she stresses her sustained weight loss has been achieved over several years. She feels as good as she did in her twenties, but adds:
“I’ve got wrinkles, I’ve got this and that, but since were talking about the Iain Rennie Hospice, we are also in an era where we must look after ourselves and do something to prevent those illnesses we can.”
Not that every illness is preventable, but with the National Health Service under scrutiny, a population that takes more responsibility for its fitness takes pressure off the system, she feels.

Becoming involved with the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home charity wasn’t a sudden epiphany, but as she grew up and still lives nearby she was aware of its work and its shops in the Chilterns.
“I’m all for local. The big national and global charities like Oxfam and Save The Children do amazing things but you mustn’t forget local charities which may be helping the person right next door to you. It’s particularly in this financial climate you have to think neighbourly charity begins at home,” she says.

It’s a phrase that might be used to describe Fern’s new fitness philosophy, which ties in perfectly with the IRHH‘s latest fundraising venture.
The charity is launching its first Chilterns Cycle Challenge, in March, featuring three different routes. The longest of these, at 75 miles, follows the boundary of the current Iain Rennie nursing catchment in the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire Chilterns. The other two routes, at 10 miles and 35 miles, take in the area’s glorious countryside – and who better to launch their new fundraiser than a Buckinghamshire resident with a known penchant for pedal power?
“I’ve always cycled,” she says. “I cycled around the Chalfonts in my youth. Then you reach an age when you’re excited with your car. But when I was about 45 or 46, I picked up a bike again. I’d bought one for my husband (celebrity chef Phil Vickery) for Christmas, but he’s much more of a runner.” Fern borrowed Phil’s bike to ride the roads around their home in Holmer Green and became hooked.
“I started off doing a mile or two and when I got to four miles I thought I was doing very well – then I got to eight, then I did a ride for the British Heart Foundation that was 15 miles and that went well.”

Professor Lord Robert Winston, the fertility expert, involved her in Women for Women charity cycle rides and she has continued to clock up some impressive mileage by cycling through Egypt, India, Cuba, Jordan and most recently, China.
“Before you know it, you’re doing 30 miles, or 60 miles,” says Fern, revealing she’s progressed from a padded gel saddle to a sliver of a thing. She’s not competitive, though, and doesn’t tear around at Tour de France speeds. What she does do is train, 10 to 15 miles, three times a week plus up to 40 miles at weekends and it’s this regime that has kept the weight loss continuing.
“I’ve got a very understanding husband,” says Fern, when I ask how she fits all that cycling into her already busy schedule. She has a new series of Fern Britton Meets interview shows coming up soon with the Rev Jesse Jackson, Clarissa Dickson-Wright, June Brown (Eastenders’ Dot Cotton) and Cliff Richard in the hot seat that got Tony Blair talking candidly about the Iraq War in the last series. Then there’s the novel writing and being a mum to four children.

She urges prospective cyclists to take advantage of the training advice being offered by Reactivate Bucks in the lead-up to the IRHH event and she will be there on the day, probably lagging at the back of the pack, chatting, she says.
“If we can get 500 cyclists and they manage to raise £150 each – 500 times £150 – that’s… a lot of money!” she says, as we give up on the maths (it’s £75,000 I work out later).
And if Fern’s experience is anything to go by, taking a cycle challenge could be the start of something truly amazing.

Find out more about the Chilterns Cycle Challenge at http://www.renniegrove.org.

Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson
Nicky Henderson

henderson2 henderson3I wrote this article five years ago. Great to see Nicky Henderson still has the magic touch.

If he were a film star he’d be cast as the strong, silent type: as it is, he’s one of the country’s most respected and successful figures in National Hunt racing. I spent a morning in the wind and rain with trainer Nicky Henderson. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.

When you have 110 horses and 50 stable staff under your care sitting down is a luxury. Those entrusting racehorse trainer Nicky Henderson to deliver include HM Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and JP McManus. Apt then, that Nicky is a bundle of energy, marching forward to greet me at his yard just outside Lambourn, striding off to his all-weather exercise ring and jumping into his Jeep to whizz up to a vantage point from where he can watch his wards, human and equine.

Seemingly impervious to the blustery weather, his blue eyes are inscrutable as he scrutinises his horses. He has rugged good looks but doesn’t seem bothered by appearance. His only adornment is a signet ring bearing his family crest. Hatless, he’s lightly dressed in unbuckled boots, a pair of blue canvas trousers and a waterproof jacket of the kind usually worn by hikers. But mere morals venturing to Seven Barrows in winter should wrap up more warmly – a vest, jumper, tweed jacket and a long waterproof, windproof coat prove just about adequate and within seconds of meeting Nicky I’m mud-spattered despite wearing wellies. This has been one of the wettest winters on record and the weather is causing Nicky, and his owners, enormous disappointment – pools of water lie everywhere and Nicky dubs his all-weather exercise ring ‘the best building we’ve got’.

The gallops at Seven Barrows are fine, but the nation’s racecourses are struggling to put on meetings. When you have favourites peaking for races and owners itching to see their asset placed, cancellations are exasperating.

Seven Barrows straddles the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border and is dotted with Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows From the hilltops on the gallops the only house to be seen for miles is Nicky’s own. The house and yard were built in the mid-1800s and the soil hasn’t been tilled since. At least part of the everyday pleasure of Nicky’s job lies in being outdoors and he’s proud to be the guardian of this landscape.

Though Nicky’s expensive Eton education wasn’t intended to equip him for a successful career in horse training he says with a wry smile: “We all knew where the bookies were.”
He trod a more conventional path initially, following in his father’s footsteps to become a stockbroker. Two years on, having told his father he hated his job, he started riding as a professional jockey – not such a leap as it appears – he’d been an amateur before. His father, Johnny Henderson, was an extraordinary man, whose vision and drive kept Cheltenham Racecourse from being sold for property development. He had been an amateur jockey himself, was a racehorse owners and breeder and he supported his son’s decision.
“He was very good. I was expected to do the other job, but I didn’t want to sit in the City all my life,” says Nicky.
Johnny Henderson saw his son ride 75 winners and become an assistant trainer under the tutelage of the late Fred Winter before making a name for himself as a top trainer in his own right.

“I have three daughters, [Sarah, Tessa and Camilla], I don’t think any of them wants to get into training, though you do get women trainers. If they did, I’d help them,” says Nicky.
Though the youngest rides out for him when she’s home, Nicky has plenty of stable boys and girls working for him. They address Nicky as ‘Guv’nor’ and the rapport between them implies not only great respect, but also warm affection. No barking of orders, he exchanges very few words during his observations, but he knows exactly how each horse is riding. In horseracing circles Nicky is recognised as a bit of a softy, resisting the pressure to send his horses out unless they’re in tip-top condition.
“I can be criticised for it, but when my horses run, they are fit… there’s not a lot of point firing them at the wrong races in the wrong circumstances,” he says.

“Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses”

He later revisits the subject.
“We do have the best owners, which is quite important,” he says and looks embarrassed when I suggest such owners appreciate his handling of their valuable horses or they would go elsewhere for success. “They are the most understanding and the nicest. Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses,” he says.

There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear.

Nicky’s been on the go since 6am, but he hasn’t had breakfast and won’t be having lunch. A single cup of coffee will sustain him through the day.
“I’ve never thought of it before,” he replies when I ask him how he manages to expend so much energy on so little food. There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear. Instead, Nicky hits the phone, resting in a chair for a microsecond, then jumping up and walking around as he talks to a hospitalised jockey, an owner and his assistant trainer. Then he’s discussing nutrition with vet Buffy Shirley-Bevan, trying to find the perfect balance of nutrition for an off-colour horse.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight. You have to make hundreds of decision every day – it’s inevitable there are going to be wrong ones, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.

His office features wall-to-wall photographs of times that went right – horses in winners’ enclosures with their proud owners; horses clearing perfectly Becher’s Brook in the Grand National; bronzes of horses and a wide-screen television for watching race meetings. In Nicky’ words, horse racing is about hours of agony for a moment of glory. Like Olympic athletes, racehorses are highly tuned and their systems work at the extremes of their physical capabilities.
“One of my biggest frustrations is injury,” says Nicky as he’s called out of the office to examine a horse with a cut on its leg that’s not improving.

“I’m no good at doing nothing”

So what does Nicky do to relax?
“We do go on holiday. I go to buy horses in France – that will be our main objective this year. The last 10 years it’s been the place to buy,” he says.
“I didn’t learn much at school but I learnt enough French to be able to have conversations with a French trainer and I got a maths ‘O’ level which keeps me in the office for an hour or so,” he says, cracking a rare smile.
“I do go to Scotland – I’m not good in hot weather and I’m no good at doing nothing. I can’t sit on beaches,” he says.
He used to ride his own horse but says, practically: “It takes up a box and you have to keep it. It doesn’t make sense to have a box with a Dobbin in it.”
Nicky likes fishing and shooting (although the season clashes with National Hunt racing) and has been known to hit the odd round of golf. He enjoys eating out, but the pleasure comes from the company, not from the food. His passion and his life-blood are in the training.
“Everybody who does it is mad. We all stick together. It’s good fun around here,” he says, adding that without the fun there would be no point doing it.
Can Nicky see himself continuing until he’s too infirm to stand outside in all weathers or will be able, one day, to retire and relax?
“I haven’t thought about it. It depends how long I last. You last as long as anybody wants you to keep going. If things go badly for a couple of years people soon forget you,” he says. (Nicky needn’t worry, a quick check of the next day’s results shows that he had two winners at Ascot.)
“You only give this sort of thing up when you’re too decrepit to do it,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards”

We go outside again and clamber into the battered old Jeep; it’s filthy inside and houses a diary, notebook, two pairs of binoculars and a pair of warm gloves that Nicky shows no sign of putting on. We’re heading back up the hill to watch the final runs of the day. “I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards,” he says, surveying the landscape.

Such stark beauty could move the most dispassionate man and as another of his horses thunders past, tail flowing, sinews straining and nostrils flaring, Nicky tells me it cost £75,000 as a six-month-old and is due a win. His face is alight with the thrill of watching it gallop.
The gods can spit fire and spout rain up here, but it’s clear that Nicky Henderson is in his element. At one with nature, the closest he can get to heaven on earth – and that’s without the winning, or maybe, it’s part of the reason for it.

[Written for Oxfordshire Life magazine to highlight Lambourn Open Day on March 21 2008. It’s a unique opportunity for members of the public to see the racehorses and meet the trainers.]