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Supplement of the Year
and my
toxic job
Katie Perrior on life
inside Theresa May’s
inner circle
5 Caitlin Moran Potatoes are officially sexy. 6 What I’ve learnt It wasn’t love at first sight when I met
Will Smith, says his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith. 9 This week I’m wearing How glamorous is your
denim? By Anna Murphy. 11 Spinal column: Melanie Reid I’ve walked 100 metres. 14 A bloke’s guide to
summer It’s all about your abs (and barbecue skills), says Ben Machell. 18 Cover story Team Theresa
Katie Perrior, the PM’s former head of press, reveals the toxic atmosphere inside No 10. 24 Aussie
rules John Torode tells Charlotte Edwardes about MasterChef, marriage and messing up in business.
32 ‘I cry for all the things we have lost’ Ruth Fitzmaurice’s husband has motor neurone disease and
they have five young children. She explains how she copes. 35 Eat! Mediterranean flavours from
Croatia. 48 Is this the end for Al Jazeera? How the most influential news service in the Arab world
came under threat of closure. 54 Home! A Cotswolds millhouse gets a 21st-century makeover.
59 Shop! Stylish drinking glasses. 61 How to get dressed Hats for summer. 63 Beauty There’s a
revolution in eyelash care. Lesley Thomas is impressed. 64 Nadiya Hussain bakes Strawberry ripple
Victoria sandwich. 66 Giles Coren reviews Zheng Chelsea, London SW3. 69 The only four recipes you
need This week: chicken rubs. 74 Beta male: Robert Crampton Clearing out the house I grew up in.
Watch our
walking in
Follow us on Twitter
@timesmagazine and @timesfashion
and Instagram @thetimesmagazine
The Times Magazine 3
an potatoes be sexual?
This is something we are
being made to ponder by
the current Agricultural
and Horticultural
Development Board
advertising campaign.
The premise is simple:
the time for simply eating
potatoes is over. That is the action of a more
basic age, guys. We have now entered an era
where we must also fancy spuds, as well. In
particular, this is the summer of getting hot
for the breakout star of the poster campaign
– a small, cheeky boiled potato wearing
sunglasses and reclining on a double bed.
A double bed he wants you to jump into, you
mad, hungry, horny bitch.
“Looking for fat-free and easy?” the poster
asks, as we stare at him. “You just got lucky.”
In many ways, this is a seminal moment
for potato representation. Before now, if we
were to think of a typical anthropomorphic
potato, casting-wise, we’d be looking at
something redolent of the Mitchell brothers
or Ray Winstone. Spuds are traditionally big,
gruff, working class and slightly gone to seed
– but with a heart of gold. The hard-baked
exterior concealing their fluffy interior. That’s
just potato logic.
The Love Potatoes potato, by way of
contrast, is hitting a whole new demographic
– young, cocky, fit and fresh-faced, he’s the
Jason Gordon-Levitt of the tuber world. He’s
got his Ray-Bans on, he’s got an enticingly
raised eyebrow, and he’s out to bang you.
And bang you in a weird way: on the
bed, next to the sexy potato, is a copy of
what is presumably hot in the world of potato
pornography – a book entitled 51 Shades for
Spuds. The Sexy Potato has put this book
here on purpose – his little potato smirk,
very redolent of Bruce Willis in Moonlighting,
saying, “If you have ever wanted to be sexually
dominated by a very tiny boiled potato – then
this is your lucky day!”
This idea of potatoes suddenly being fit,
sporty and up for beating you on the bottom
with a riding crop is, I have to say, troubling
me. I would say I am, generally, on a very
high centile of people likely to fancy a
sexy young potato. Over years of suddenly
awkward conversation, I have learnt that
not many other people actively fancy, say,
St Paul’s Cathedral, Volkswagen campervans
or yew hedges cut into the shape of a chess
piece. My sexual tastes are pretty broad. “No
sentience necessary!” is one of my catchphrases,
‘My sexual tastes are
broad. “No sentience
necessary!” is one
of my catchphrases,
perv-wise. But even I am having to ask, in a
perturbed manner, “Are potatoes sexual?”
For many years, had I been asked what
potatoes generally project, relationship-wise,
I would have said, “Not sex – but love! Simple,
uncomplicated love! Fry them, mash them,
boil them, bake them, smother them in butter,
immerse them in hot fat, drown them in
cream – a potato will take anything you can
throw at it, love it, and beg for more. If you
let potato into your life, it will drown out all
your sorrows in a massive, carby swoon. It’s
oxytocin for £1.50. It just wants to be with you.
It will make all the badness go away. It just
wants to make you content. I would marry a
potato in a heartbeat.”
But over the past few years, as my therapist
has explained to me the fundamentally
abusive relationship I have with food, I have
learnt it’s very important not to think that all
potatoes love me.
“Potatoes are simply calorific units to
provide energy for my needs, such as walking
or sitting on a chair,” I would say, now,
robotically – conveniently failing to mention
last weekend, when my friend Sali told me the
biggest emotional breakthrough she has had
in the past ten years is adding a spoonful
of Marmite to a buttery baked potato, and
topping it with cheese. I rang my husband
from the pub, drunk, and told him to put a
potato in the oven. When I got home, I put
the Marmite in, and sent six pictures to Sali.
“Just said, ‘I do,’ to this,” I captioned it. “We
are trying for children.”
I get that potatoes have had a bad decade.
The phase “carb-free” on menus and in cookery
books has made potato-eating a love that dare
not speak its name. Potatoes feel they have to
make a big, ballsy comeback – trading on their
presumed filthiness, their forbidden nature,
their kinkiness. But that’s just playing to society’s
prejudice, man. Potatoes are better than this.
Potatoes don’t need to turn on the red light.
A sexy potato is Attenborough, twerking. It’s a
Dench belfie. It’s Seinfeld’s George Constanza
doing his “erotic” photoshoot, in pants, on
a fur rug. If potatoes get sexed up, the next
thing we know, we’ll have chicks in bikinis
spraying each other with Bisto, and David
Gandy, in pants, holding a bag of Brussels,
with the caption “Sun’s out – guns sprout”.
I don’t want my dinner to sexually prey on
me. We’re beyond that. The sexy potato issue
is now a hot potato issue. Everyone’s going to
pass it on. n
The Times Magazine 5
What I’ve learnt
Jada Pinkett Smith
love someone; to love someone with freedom. You grow
as a person when you recognise what it takes to make
a partnership last.
I have had some interesting run-ins with the police. I used to
get stopped quite often, especially as a teenager, and, no,
it wasn’t for traffic. Now, luckily, not so much. I live a calm
life, but when I was a teenager I did all kinds of crazy shit.
A casting agent once told me I was too small to play Will’s
Everyone wants fame because they confuse it with love.
girlfriend. I first met him when I was 19 and auditioning
A lot of celebrities will tell you that after you receive
for The Fresh Prince. Afterwards Will was trying to talk
a certain amount of reverence, fame or money, it doesn’t
to me and I was like, “Dude, they already said I was too
fix what you were hoping it would. You just start on the
short. Beat it!” It really wasn’t love at first sight. Black
next journey. It’s a hell of a thing to unwind. But I do
Hollywood is very small though, so over the years we
understand the fascination: to most, when you look at
would run into each other. He definitely grew on me.
celebrity culture, people are smiling and looking happy,
Which is a good thing.
so people reach for that.
Prince was very playful. It was a privilege to get to know
We don’t foster a parent/child dynamic at home. Good or
him; he was my teenage crush. He was actually a big
bad, my parents weren’t really parents: my mother was
movie buff – loved, loved, loved movies. He called me up
like a sister, and my father a distant brother. I didn’t
after a film I had done and we became friends. Once, we
have that luxury of “my parents will handle that”, and
were discussing which movie we were going to watch
that’s really how I raised my children. Of course there
– we weren’t quite fighting, but I remember him playing,
are times when you have to set boundaries, but kids
like, “Oh, OK, you want to get big and bad?” Then all of
do what you do, not what you say. Will has been a
a sudden he lifts me over his shoulders, in his heels. He
wonderful parent. He trusted me through and through.
was so funny.
We’ve never had a fight in regard to our children.
My mother and I lived with my grandparents. It was a quaint,
Now that’s amazing. I give him so much praise for
normal house with a blue kitchen, a yellow living
being such a good dad, and I am so grateful
room and a nice backyard. My grandmother
because I didn’t have that.
Women are forced to compete with each other.
liked to plant a lot. She had marigolds and
It’s a trap we must stop falling into. We focus
a vegetable garden with a strawberry patch
a lot on how men treat us, but we do not talk
where bunnies would have their babies.
enough about how we treat each other.
She believed in being active, so I had tap
The empowerment of women starts with
dance, piano classes, clay class, ballet,
us empowering each other. I think we
and we always had chores. Always.
I don’t really call my marriage to
could get a lot more done. I felt that
Will a marriage. Not in the sense that
sisterhood on my new movie, Girls Trip.
people identify a marriage. The
There was not one ounce of drama on set;
The Smiths’ children,
beauty of being in a life partnership
it was all laughter. n
Jaden (left), 19,
with someone, for almost 23 years,
and Willow, 16
Girls Trip is in cinemas from July 26
is learning what it truly means to
INTERVIEW Natalie Evans-Harding PORTRAIT Kurt Krieger
6 The Times Magazine
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, 45, has starred in more than
30 films, from The Matrix Reloaded to The Nutty Professor.
She was born in Baltimore and married actor Will Smith
in 1997. The couple have two children, Jaden and Willow.
Pinkett Smith is also stepmother to Trey, Will’s son from
a previous marriage. They live in Malibu, California.
‘I used to get
stopped quite
often by the
police. When I
was a teenager
I did all kinds
of crazy stuff’
Jada Pinkett Smith with
husband Will Smith, 48
This week I’m wearing... front-row denim
Anna Murphy
ndubitably the farthest reaches of
the once humble jean have now been
charted. Jeans have been re-invented
to within an inch of their former
cattle-herding lives. Embroidered
with this, embellished with that;
spliced here, ripped there; taken
apart and stitched back together
again, sometimes half and half with
another pair. (The Franken-jean is yet one
more item for which Demna Gvasalia of
Vetements must take the credit.) It’s been one
of the biggest style shifts of the last decade, the
transformation of jeans into a luxury item,
with an often gobsmacking price tag to match.
So we should have seen it coming the, er,
second coming of posh denim or, rather,
elevated denim. That’s what this new
incarnation is being called in fashion circles,
by women who might actually wear a denim
ballgown (yes, really), as seen on the catwalk
at Carolina Herrera. The Stella McCartney
sundress I am wearing here is pretty low-key
in comparison. But even so. Consider all that
smocking. And the full skirt. (You couldn’t herd
cattle in that.) And the fact that it costs £615.
Elevated denim is absolutely not about jeans.
It is about uptown items of clothing that just
happen to be denim. It’s yet another way that
fashion is addressing the contradiction of what
the wealthy 21st-century consumer wants:
namely, to look and feel special, but not tryhard, uptight, old before her time. Which means
the traditional tropes of youth are as evocative
to her – almost – as diamonds. The model Bella
Hadid is only one of the A-listers who have
recently been channelling denim at its most
debutante-like in a bustier jumpsuit by Dior.
Cult British label Marques’Almeida is great
at denim for ladies who lunch, who would love
its peplummed Frayed Edge jacket (£266; Balmain’s Eighties-style
gold-buttoned double-breasted minidress is
another level again, and looks like it should
have had a bit part in Dallas (£1,290; More up my strasse is & Other
Stories’ smocked embroidered cotton
chambray dress (£55;
You could also access the finishingschool-for-cowgirls vibe with Isabel
Marant Étoile’s pretty ruffle-trimmed shirt
(£170;, and Free People’s
Making Waves one-shoulder jumpsuit
or Farewell duster coat (£118 and £200
respectively; Dresses wise,
there’s Warehouse’s strappy asymmetric
sundress (£35;, and
Solace London’s one-shoulder above-theknee Dionne (£100; n
Clockwise from top left:
blogger Doina Ciobanu;
Anna Murphy wears
dress, £615, Stella
McCartney, and shoes,
£460, Malone Souliers;
Carolina Herrera; shirt, £170,
Isabel Marant Étoile; dress,
£108, J.Crew; bloggers Aimee
Song and Charlotte Groeneveld;
shoulderless smocked dress,
£55, & Other Stories; coat,
£200, Free People; models
Bella Hadid (left) and Bianca
Brandolini d’Adda
The Times Magazine 9
Spinal column Melanie Reid
Health Columnist of the Year
‘I watch a video of me walking and – deep
breath as I write this – I’m not that bad’
hen we went to
France in the van,
we took my walking
frame with me.
I regretted this
because it was a
bulky nuisance and
we barely used it. But
at one place we stayed, amid wide flat fields of
green corn, there was 500m of private tarmac
road and I had an impulse to try walking
outside. Just to see how far I could go.
My husband pulled from the front of the
frame, easing it over the inevitable bumps
– every surface feels mountainous compared
with a wooden floor. My girlfriend was behind
with the wheelchair, to catch me. And her
husband suggested he film us on his phone.
We joked about the backing track. Fields of
Gold by Sting seemed suitably corny in every
way. And in my determination to make it as far
as the next electricity pole, heady with fresh
air and an ironic sense of the greater suffering
this landscape had witnessed, I forgot what
he was doing.
Until two months later, when we met for
a holiday debrief and were discussing photos,
and I decided to ask him to send me the clip.
Now, one of the most profound challenges
after a life-changing injury is the act of looking
at yourself in the mirror for the first time. You
retreat initially into an intensely childlike shell
where if you can’t see, then you can’t be seen.
A five-year-old playing hide-and-seek, putting
her head under a blanket, oblivious of her legs
sticking out. If you can’t see what you look
like, you reason, then none of it is true.
In hospital there were no mirrors. Not
in the spinal unit. I allowed no one to take
photos. My first proper emotional breakdown
came, in fact, after several months inside,
when the Times picture desk phoned and
asked breezily for an x-ray image of my broken
neck, to print alongside a piece I’d written.
Poor chap had no reason to know that after
I refused, falteringly, I spent the next 24 hours
sobbing and raging at his insensitivity. How
dare he – didn’t he realise I had never seen
the image? That I couldn’t bear the thought of
seeing it? Not even à deux with my consultant.
It took me 11 months to look at it. My first
glimpse of the new me was a fleeting reflection
in a shop window, on my first outing postaccident to the mall. I turned my head away. It
took me years to study myself in a long mirror.
Even now, I stubbornly refuse to hang prints
of any of the glossy magazine portraits done
of me on the wall. One was framed recently,
on Dave’s insistence – I’ve already hidden it,
unhung. There’s no way it’s being displayed.
I don’t look like that.
Even though I walk most mornings on my
frame, I have never studied myself. I’m still
playing hide-and-seek. So when Kenny sent
me that video on WhatsApp, I couldn’t open it
for a day and a night. When I did, alone, in a
dark corner, just me and the dog, I was deeply
affected – a) because he’d put Fields of Gold on
it, damn him, which is a high-grade tearjerker;
and b) because it looked, well … and I take a
deep breath as I write this, not that bad. It was
recognisable walking. There was weight bearing,
knee lifting, a suggestion of slow cadence and
some control. For sure, a physiotherapist
would shake their head at my posture and
the aimless right foot. But there was something
else there – that flicker of potential, the sense
that, actually, yes, there is a foundation that
could be built on. I wasn’t a freak.
When I have written about my walking over
the years, it has always been with profound
bittersweetness. It’s lonely and hard: some
mornings I’m stopped by nausea and weakness
within a few steps; other times I can skip six
lengths of the living room and feel I have a
future. Infinitely slowly over the years, the steps
have improved. Seeing myself, watching myself
coolly as a stranger, I think, surely there’s big
potential. Speaking as that staggering woman,
day after day I experience only frustration,
that torture of possibility – but now I’ve seen
myself I am inspired to do more. n
PS: I covered about 100m through the fields of
corn. But not in a Theresa May sense.
To watch Melanie Reid walking in France, go
The Times Magazine 11
Travel blogger
Christian Bendek,
34, hard at work
on his Instagram
Guys, remember when all you
needed to do when the sun shone
was break out a Hawaiian shirt
and put some beers on ice?
Now, so much more is required:
ripped abs, tight trunks,
waxed torso – and
expert barbecue skills.
By Ben Machell.
Plus test your hot rating
with our quiz, right
Don’t worry,
I’ve packed the
egg sandwiches
1 Complete the song lyric:
“Summertiiiiime, and the living is…”
a) Really quite challenging.
b) Not so bad now you’ve realised
you can get medical-grade
deodorant online.
c) Eeeeeeeeasy.
2 Your wife is trying on bikinis and
complains about her cellulite. How
do you respond?
a) By suggesting she could always
wear a pair of your old football
shorts over the top if she wanted?
b) By asking what cellulite is.
c) By immediately whipping out
a lengthy PowerPoint presentation
containing videos, photos and
expert medical opinion that you
prepared specifically for this very
moment and which proves beyond
all reasonable doubt that she does
not, in fact, have cellulite.
3 How do you feel about taking
your shirt off on the beach?
a) About as enthusiastic as one
of those smugglers on airportsecurity documentaries who
obviously has about three dozen
tropical lizards under his top.
b) Slightly anxious, but you did
seven sit-ups this morning and you
can almost make out an ab if the
sun hits you at just the right angle.
c) You’ve brought glitter cannons
with you for the occasion.
he summer is finally here!
And if you’re a man, then
unfortunately this is a problem.
Well, technically it’s a series of
problems: an assault course of
shame, sweat, confusion and
social awkwardness, with the
finish line somewhere far off
in the cloudy coolness of
mid-September. I’m not being
a drama queen. Summer isn’t easy any
more. It used to be totally fine. Bit hot
but, other than that, quite fun, really.
That’s all changed now. Our physiques
will be judged against impossible
standards. Our fashion choices
increasingly scrutinised. Our ability to
be a perfect, patient, inventive summertime
parent – like some weird cross between a
Brownie leader on MDMA and one of those
dads off the Thomas Cook ads – will be tested
to the absolute limit. Summer 2017 is going to
be tougher than any you’ve known.
So how to manage? Only by first
understanding the challenges faced by men
during the summer can we start to tackle
them. So, with that in mind, here is a survival
guide to see you – or the men you care about
– through the next few months. Godspeed.
A chilling number of men are ripped
nowadays. Are you one of them? If so, well
done, you can probably skip this bit and get
back to eating loads of chicken fillets and
having halitosis. If you’re not, though, it’s
a question of keeping your head. It is mid-July.
It’s too late to get ripped for summer now. In
fact, that’s the last thing you should try to do,
because all that will happen is that you’ll only
get semi-ripped – faint outlines of muscle
under a soft layer of cake – and end up with
the physique of an active but greedy ten-yearold. You see a lot of men with this look in
summer and they might as well be walking
around with a sign saying, “I am vain but also
lazy or, at best, disorganised.” No, far better
to stick with your current body and try to
make the best of it.
To do this, here are two different
approaches I’ve developed over the years. The
first is the Derren Brown method, which is
basically making sure that, when in any group
of men on a hot day, you are absolutely the
first to whip his top off. On a subconscious
level, everyone will assume that you have
to be in good shape to have made such
a dominant, decisive move, and they won’t
really think about the fact that your lower
back is spilling over your jeans like a pan of
hot milk on the hob. Your other option is to
go shirtless but then make sure you remain
in a state of perpetual motion. Literally, keep
moving, so that nobody ever really gets a clear
16 The Times Magazine
blokes feel compelled to do this, so we need
to step back from this precipice. We need
to press for inclusive beauty standards for
men that include weird straggly bits of pubic
hair springing out of unexpected locations.
Not even women have to wax their nipples.
As far as I’m aware.
Everywhere you look this summer there are
hot, toned, shirtless men. But who are they?
And what do they want? Their demands are
simple: to be free from the oppression of
overgarments. And the ringleaders? Well,
there’s Christian Bendek (see previous
manspread), 34, a swimwear model and travel
blogger from Aruba who probably doesn’t have
the worst of lives. There’s Gianluca Vacchi, the
49-year-old Italian billionaire with a fondness
for tiny white trunks and tattoos. He’s
ridiculous. As is Franco Noriega, the Peruvian
chef who cooks in the buff. Finally, there’s
James Longman, ABC News’s outrageously
hench foreign correspondent. Come on, lads.
What did T-shirts ever do to you?
Above, from left: billionaire Gianluca Vacchi; reporter
James Longman; chef Franco Noriega
look at your torso. The trick is not to move so
quickly that you actually jiggle, but you really
do have to stay on the go or else the illusion
will shatter. Ferrying drinks at a barbecue is a
good way of doing this. Although guests might
wonder why you’re circling them as you chat.
This is another new societal pressure that
men now have to contend with. Despite
having a relatively hairless chest, I do have
these strange rings of hair around my nipples
– dunno why; I think they might be a sideeffect of the steroids I had to take for my
asthma as a kid – and after years of not
feeling remotely self-conscious about them,
I’ve recently taken to waxing them out of
embarrassment. I’ve actually had my pubes
and leg hair done, too – it was for a thing
– and it was horrible. Three hours later, in
bed, I started getting the shakes as my entire
body went into what I can only assume was
some kind of delayed autoimmune response to
the pain and trauma of it all. More and more
Take on the responsibility of cooking meat
on a charcoal grill in 2017 and you’re faced
with a genuine dilemma. If you opt for the
traditional, slightly pissed, it’s-a-bit-crispybut-it’s-totally-fine approach, you are,
on a deep anthropological level, basically
screaming, “I am a total liability to this tribe.
Please stave my head in with rocks and leave
me to the sabre-toothed tigers.” But then if
you do a really good job of it, you’re outing
yourself as one of those creepy barbecue
keenos who knows to arrange the charcoal
in a slope in order to provide areas of varying
temperature, and are thus beneath contempt.
See? Total minefield.
Traditionally, as a man, there were two sports
you could expect to play at summer social
occasions: barefoot football, while drinking
from cans of lager, or barefoot cricket, while
drinking from cans of lager. Recently, though,
there has been an alarming rise in twee, smug,
contrived alternatives. I’m talking croquet.
I’m talking boules. Too many times I’ve bitten
my tongue and gone along with it. But this
summer, I’m very calmly and very clearly
going to stand my ground, like a slightly
drunk Rosa Parks. “I don’t want to play boules,”
I will tell the barbecue host. “Just because you
saw some charming old Frenchmen playing
it in the village square near your villa in the
Dordogne doesn’t mean that you have to
make us do it. I’ve had three Carlings and
I’m from Leeds. In fact, so are you. Why
are we doing this? Search your heart. Deep
down, you want to stick your three-year-old
in goal and boot this heavy leather football
at him, don’t you?” And of course he will.
Surprise, surprise, you can’t just roll your
trousers up a bit and wear an old T-shirt any
more. No, you have to look like some guy
who’d feature on a fashion blog called Street
Style: São Paulo or Milan Man: Summer
Special. I’m not going to tell you how to dress.
But, that said, it’s definitely useful to have a
palette of sartorial summer inspiration to hand
– ready-made role models for dressing in the
heat. Here are mine. Take whatever you need.
1. The Man from Del Monte.
2. Shaft in Africa.
3. The Desert Rats.
4. Indiana Jones when his sleeves have been
ripped off in Temple of Doom.
5. The Gipsy Kings.
6. Magnum, P.I.
7. Jack Charlton at the 1994 World Cup.
8. Any member of Earth, Wind & Fire.
9. Venetian gondoliers.
10. The volleyball scene in Top Gun.
If you’re going to get your toes out – flip-flops,
Birkenstocks, whatever – you’ve now got to
make sure your feet don’t look like Frodo’s by
the time he gets to the top of Mount Doom.
And, sad to say, the whole Derren Brown,
mind over matter approach that might work
when it comes to convincing people you’re in
shape absolutely does not work when it comes
to convincing people you don’t have a fungal
nail infection. Going into work and initiating
conversations with colleagues that begin, “Isn’t
it great not having – and indeed, never having
had – a fungal nail infection,” only arouses
suspicion. Just get some cream, apply liberally
and bide your time.
There are a lot of kids around in the summer.
Some of them may be yours, some of them
may not be – it doesn’t really matter. Point
is, they’re here and they’re looking to you
for entertainment. But what form should this
take? Modern men are expected to take on
and cherish the responsibility of looking after
kids, and rightly so. Still, it doesn’t hurt to
have a repertoire of fun, imaginative games
to keep them busy. Here are some good ones.
1. Stick chase.
2. Where’s Daddy?
3. Siesta!
4. Jimmy counts the grass.
5. Find the Aperol.
6. Let’s make ice!
7. Hide and sleep.
8. Bounce the ball against the wall till Uncle
Ben says stop.
9. Ant collector.
10. There’s treasure in the neighbour’s garden.
It’s easy to forget just how much chitchat
the summer requires you to get through. At
street parties. School fêtes. Campsite bars. Just
being physically out of the house means you’re
a lot more likely to have to speak to other
men you don’t really know. But about what?
You can usually rely on sport – it’s reductive
but effective – but then this summer is
particularly barren. No World Cup. No
Olympics. There’s been some rugby, but
it’s been in New Zealand so most normal
people have missed it. And there’s Wimbledon,
but it’s always Wimbledon.
SUMMER 2017: THE MAN QUIZ (cont’d)
4 As you step out of the house on a
hot summer’s morning, who do you
most resemble?
a) Compo from Last of
the Summer Wine.
b) Tom Hanks towards the end
of Cast Away.
c) David Gandy in those adverts for
teeny-weeny trunks.
5 How would you describe your
body hair?
a) Thick, sweaty and utterly
b) Soft, downy and only slightly
c) Stuck to a load of Veet strips and
buried in a landfill somewhere.
6 Finally, you find yourself
standing next to another man
at a barbecue and, after a few
minutes, an awkward silence
descends. Eventually, he asks what
you think about the forthcoming
Mayweather v McGregor fight.
How do you respond?
a) By faking a seizure.
b) By saying that yes, there is going
to be a fight, and that you heard it
will be happening in Las Vegas. Then
silently staring into the barbecue
flames until he leaves you alone.
The only thing of any real significance is the
Floyd Mayweather Jr v Conor McGregor fight
scheduled for the end of August. So that’s what
we’ve got to work with. Even if these names
mean absolutely nothing to you, it honestly
doesn’t matter. The gist is this: Mayweather
is the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time,
McGregor is the best mixed martial artist in
the world, and they’re going to have a boxing
match in Vegas and Mayweather is going
to win because his defence is impenetrable
and McGregor won’t be allowed to kick or
grapple, but none of this matters because it’s
all just a massive payday for both of them and
McGregor would beat Mayweather at mixed
martial arts, only Mayweather’s too smart to
do that. Can you remember all that? Great.
c) By saying that, well, of course
Floyd Mayweather has only been
knocked down once in a 49-fight
career, and that while McGregor is
an accomplished striker, his footwork
is weak and he exposes his chin too
much when throwing punches. So it’s
Mayweather all day. Another beer?
If you answered mostly…
A’s Summer is not your time to
shine. Sorry, it’s just not. The only
way you could be less excited about
the next couple of months would
be if you were a snowman.
B’s You like the idea of summer,
and perhaps in years gone by you’d
have managed just fine. But we’ve
entered a new paradigm for men,
so commit! Throw money at tasteful
linen apparel! Do whatever it takes.
C’s Congratulations, you are
essentially George Michael in the
Club Tropicana video, if George
Michael in the Club Tropicana
video could also casually knock out
a dozen sausages in buns without
making a big deal about it. Which
perhaps he could. Either way, well
done. Your time is now.
Drinking alcohol in hot weather is good, but
sophisticated modern men are not supposed
to lie about, guzzling from a can at noon. This
is just another example of society policing
how men behave – a stymieing of personal
agency – and it’s a real pain. But there’s a way
round it. Pour your can into a tasteful Duralex
glass, put some smoked almonds into a small
ceramic dish, pull on a Breton striped top
and sit at a little table with a pen and notepad.
Nobody will give you any grief for drinking
if you do this, because you’ll look like some
kind of intellectual gourmand on his holidays,
even though the truth is you’re absolutely
mortalled and couldn’t stand up if you wanted
to. Which you don’t. n
The Times Magazine 17
PORTRAITS Mark Harrison
Katie Perrior was used to
the high-pressure world of
politics. But nothing prepared
her for the toxic atmosphere
inside No 10 – and the volatile
behaviour of the prime
minister’s closest advisers
et on the phone to The Sun and
tell them, ‘The Conservatives have
saved Tony the Tiger.’ ”
August is well known in
Westminster as the silly season
– when political spinners like me
pump out any old crap in the hope
that journalists are so desperate
for stories they run with it.
However, this was pushing it.
It was August 2016 and Fiona Hill, the
prime minister’s joint chief of staff, had
singlehandedly drawn a red strike through
the government’s anti-obesity strategy, by
scrapping curbs on the marketing of sugary
foods to children. She was so happy about this
fact that she insisted the communications
team called The Sun to brag about it. Despite
my protests, she was firm. And it was clear
who was boss. To my eternal shame, I let my
deputy make the call, and guess what? Turns
out The Sun wasn’t that bothered about Tony
the Tiger after all. We had three days of bad
media coverage instead of one.
A month into working at No 10 and it was
dawning on all of us what the future might
look like. It was grim. Fiona Hill and Nick
Timothy, the other chief of staff, both of
whom resigned following this year’s general
election, ran No 10 in one way: you were
either with them or against them, and if you
dared question anything then you were frozen
out. Timothy was the smart, talented one – he
read and commented on all his paperwork,
and his strategic brain was often brilliant, but
every now and then a very angry man would
surface and his aggressive swearing would be
inexcusable. I felt he let power go to his head.
Hill would be volatile and unpredictable. I
thought her days revolved around an enemy
and how she was going to do them in. Some
days I was the enemy. I still have no idea why.
I once stopped her going to join a bunch of
political journalists at the back of the plane on
the way home from a foreign trip, dressed
head to toe in flannelette pyjamas and two
bottles of red wine down. In hindsight, I
should have bloody well let her go.
The “Tony the Tiger” story is one of
137 I collected during my time as director of
communications at No 10. I purposely didn’t
keep a diary because I didn’t want people to
think that I took the job for that reason. So,
despite being offered a fortune to write a book,
I’ve resisted. But I was worried that, in time,
I would look back on my year inside the
No 10 machine through rose-tinted glasses,
that all these moments would flow into one
and I would start to reminisce fondly instead
of remembering how bad it was. Hence my
137 little reminders.
I can laugh about it now, but at the time I
was deeply unhappy. This was a job that I had
dreamt of ever since I was 16 years old; a job
20 The Times Magazine
that I had finally got through years of hard
work and long hours and yet when I finally
arrived, I wasn’t actually allowed to do it.
I used to comment that if I ever made it to
No 10, I would change the job title to director
of common sense, because no matter who the
prime minister is, they all make mistakes that
show them to be out of touch with what
people outside the Westminster bubble think.
When I finally made it, manager of the
asylum would have been a better title. It was
the most dysfunctional place I have ever
worked – yet I bust a gut on a daily basis
alongside some outstanding civil servants to
help keep the show on the road. And with a
24-point opinion poll lead on the day the
prime minister called the election, I’d say
we did an alright job of it too.
So how did a regular comp-educated, south
London girl like me end up as director of
communications to the prime minister? It all
started back with William Hague in 2000,
when he was leader of the opposition against
a formidable Tony Blair. We were being
hammered and I’d walked out on a promising
career in the City to work in the Conservative
party press office, where we would have
cream-cracker eating competitions for a laugh.
(Harder than it sounds, by the way.)
No wonder we didn’t win an election. I was
surrounded by double-barrelled-surnamed
girls who were there because their parents
“had a word with someone high up they
knew”, either for the experience or to get
married off to a prospective Tory MP. On
paper, I had nothing in common with these
people. They came from stately homes; my
mum grew up on a council estate. Yet I
absolutely loved it. Nearly 20 years later,
many of us still keep in touch.
In the run-up to the 2001 election, some
bright spark thought it would be a good idea
to cram two people to each desk. Being no
Kate Moss, I wasn’t best pleased. I need not
have worried. On day three, the toilets
collapsed under the pressure of twice as many
people as normal using them. I remember
Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of The Sun at
the time, commenting on the way into a press
conference that the place not only churned
out shit (I think he meant our eye-catching
policies), it also smelt of it.
I remember my job interview with Amanda
Platell, now a Daily Mail columnist, who back
then was press secretary to William Hague. It
consisted of one question: “Do you like cats?”
I replied that I did, but I lived on a busy road
so I didn’t think it was fair to have one.
Amanda’s two-worded reply – “Move house”
– and my nod were taken as acceptance that
I would move, she would give me the job
and I would accept it. I became the press
office manager, a grand title for someone who
did everyone’s donkey work – not quite what
JULY 2016
JULY 2016
I had in mind when I completed a politics
degree a few years earlier. I remember my
mum being on the phone to a friend, whom
she’d known for 30 years, and telling her, “She
wants to go to university, Vicky. I know! Oh
wait for it; it gets better. She wants to study
politics. God knows what’s got into her.”
It’s true when they say politics is
showbusiness for ugly people. I would never
have made a career in fashion or the arts or
academia. I wasn’t clever, stylish or creative
enough. But in politics, surrounded by geeks,
I figured I might just shine.
After a year of donkey work (and with the
shocking election defeat of 2001 under my
belt), I was on the path to becoming a press
officer. It was my current business partner, Jo
Fiona Hill and Nick
Timothy inside No 10.
Below: Hill, Theresa
May, Timothy and
Katie Perrior
Tanner, a press officer herself at the time, who
taught me everything I know. We were the
only south Londoners in the place and we
stuck out a mile. I once stormed in to see my
boss, Nick Wood, and asked him if I needed
elocution lessons. He drew on a fag, took a
gulp of wine and said, “And be like all those
other f***ers? No, love, stay as you are.”
We were doing jobs way above our pay
grades but there simply wasn’t anyone else to
do it. More than 20 of my former colleagues
are now either MPs or lords. One minute I
would be photocopying, the next I would be
on a plane to Manchester accompanying Iain
Duncan Smith on a visit, covering for his
press officer who was on leave. (I went for the
job but he chose the posh one. I can’t
complain – she was good and clever.)
I remember after IDS did an interview, he
asked me what I thought of it. I said that I
thought it wasn’t great and that I had seen
him perform better in previous ones. I’m not
sure he had ever been told this before – he
looked devastated. It was at that moment that
I decided I would never be a “yes” man (or
woman). Westminster is full of people who
will tell you how wonderful you are, how
clever you sound and how millions of people
want you to be prime minister rather than
anyone else. It’s all bollocks, I’m afraid – and
the yes men are doing politicians a massive
disservice. If I can’t be trusted to tell the truth,
there is simply no point me being there.
I then went on to work for Theresa May,
who at the time was shadow transport
secretary and then the first female party
chairman. The party chairman position was a
role made for May – she suited the organised
nature of the job and never once moaned
when she had to spend her spare evenings and
weekends at a Tory function in the middle of
nowhere. With her leopard-print shoes and
love of fashion, she also brought a sense of
style and glamour to the party which had
been too white, male and pale for too long.
She told me that she wanted to be bold in
her speech at the party conference in 2002,
but I had no idea that we would still be talking
about that “nasty” party speech 15 years later.
She took to the stage and socked it to the
Tory membership, saying that people viewed
us as the nasty party and that we needed to
prove they were wrong. She didn’t believe that
Conservatives were nasty, but knew that’s
what people thought of us. But before she
could explain those comments, the damage
was done. She had offended them. For the
next six months, Theresa May went around
the country attending rubber-chicken dinners
justifying that line in her speech. She was right,
of course, but ahead of her time and those
Tory members just didn’t want to hear it.
For several years, I’d earned less than
£20,000, working in London. It was a struggle
– I would use the money given to me by my
bosses for their coffees to tide me over until
payday. I decided enough was enough and
pushed for a pay rise. Nothing was
forthcoming so I left. I then found myself
at ITV News, as deputy head of press when
the Iraq war broke out in March 2003. I
remember calling Iain Duncan Smith, Tory
party leader at the time, to tell him that we
had reports coming in of ships dispatching
planes and his adviser, my old boss, arguing
with me that it couldn’t be true because Tony
Blair hadn’t called. I think it’s safe to say that
I told IDS, the leader of the opposition, about
the Iraq war before the prime minister.
Later, I went on to work at Channel 4 News
where I was introduced as the “token Tory” to
guests who arrived in the studio. When I got
the call to come back to the Tories to be a
senior press officer to David Davis, the
shadow home secretary, I pushed them for
more money – I had heard he was difficult to
work for. I ended up doubling my salary
within two years of leaving Tory HQ and
went back on ten grand more than most of
the other press officers.
It was dubbed danger money because
nobody else at the time was nuts enough to
work for DD. And, boy, was he a hard
taskmaster. He once called me at 2am and
asked what was I doing. “Sleeping, you
moron,” was my reply. Although, looking back,
for a single girl in her mid-twenties, that was a
pretty sad answer. I should have been in a
nightclub at that time, or hanging from a
chandelier having some fun. But I was
heartbroken from losing my fiancé in a car
crash a couple of years earlier, and so Davis
reaped the rewards of me being dedicated
to my work. I’d pretty much do as he said,
including working around the clock (an 11-day
spell of little sleep, pizza at our desks and
sending a helper out for clean underwear from
M&S was a particular low point). But every
now and then I would put him back in his
place and I secretly think he liked it.
I stayed for around 18 months and then
decided to go freelance, taking on PR projects.
I couldn’t see a time when we would ever get
back into government and felt I needed to do
something for myself for once. I carried on
with the freelance projects and set up a new
business called The Research Shop with Nick
Timothy. It was a business we ran in tandem
with our day jobs, to provide corporates with
genius researchers who knew where to find
the information they needed, quickly. The
business made a grand profit of £17k before
we folded it. We realised it was harder than it
looked to make two full-time salaries this way.
I got to the point where I had taken on so
much freelance work that I was burning the
candle at both ends. I ended up with acute
tonsillitis. I realised I couldn’t do this on
my own – and I was lonely. I persuaded Jo
Tanner, who was head of press at the British
Chambers of Commerce, to join me. We both
worked night shifts at the Conservative Party
so we didn’t take a salary from the business
for six months – although I would be terrible
at being late for morning meetings having
slept in from the night shift the day before. I
remember on one shift, David Cameron called
at 3am to tell me he needed to change his
timings for GMTV. I answered the phone at
the same time as my other half said, “I don’t
care if it’s the f***ing Queen. Who the hell
calls at 3am?” Cameron graciously replied, “I
think you would get the same answer out of
Samantha at this time of the morning, to be
honest, so I don’t blame him.”
We finally banked enough money to give
up work full time and pour ourselves into the
company. We were just over a year into the
business when we had an approach from Nick
Boles, who is now MP for Grantham, to run
his campaign to be the Conservative candidate
for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone
in 2008. The Tories were very unlikely to
make a dent in Livingstone’s campaign for
re-election, but Boles was determined to give
it a go. We set up an office, but soon after he
became unwell and had to withdraw from the
race. He called Jo and I and asked us to go
and see Boris Johnson immediately, who
The Times Magazine 21
was considering throwing his hat into the ring.
I arrived as Boris was on the phone to the
Evening Standard, umming and ahhing. I told
him to get off the phone. He then asked us
why he should hire us, so I turned the tables
and asked him to pitch to us why he wanted
to be mayor of London. He gave it his best
shot, but it needed some polish, to put it
politely. We were hired and went on to work
on the campaign for ten months alongside
Australian strategist Lynton Crosby. Boris had
star quality – Londoners wanted to touch him
in the street, and women asked for their
breasts to be autographed. I had never seen a
reaction like it. If you watch Boris on YouTube
winning the election in 2008, you will hear a
massive scream in the background. That’s me
– not just because we proved all those (men)
wrong who said we were silly girls who were
not up to it, but because I’d done a bonus deal
with the Tories on winning and now I could
afford a new kitchen.
The Boris win launched us, although
we then spent a few years starting families
– when one was off having a baby, the other
would be at work and vice versa. We slowly
grew the team. I worked pro bono for
Women2Win, the group set up by Theresa
May and Baroness Jenkin to get more
Conservative female MPs. At one party
conference, I came up with a idea to bung the
hotel manager fifty quid for him to turn a
blind eye while I went around every floor in
the hotel, hanging signs on each room door
saying “I need a woman!” and, on the back,
“To be my MP”. I thought it would get them
talking at breakfast. Vicar’s daughter Mrs May
had reservations and decided against the idea,
but not before I had already ordered and paid
for 1,000 of them. I binned them at my own
cost and learnt a valuable if costly lesson.
I’d been around the Conservative machine
for more than 15 years, but decided that when
David Cameron called the EU referendum in
2016, I wouldn’t take part on either side. I was
a reluctant Remainer but I kept myself to
myself. In the weeks that followed that Brexit
result, I offered my services to Theresa May,
believing that she would be the right candidate
to steer us through a very difficult period. I
told my business partner that I would be back
in two months maximum. The campaign
lasted little more than three weeks and, in
July 2016, Theresa May was the new PM.
The next few days were a whirlwind. I had
been asked repeatedly to become the director
of communications at No 10 but was unsure
because of the business and because of my
young family. Deep down I knew I wanted it,
so I trusted my gut and jumped.
The day I walked into No 10 was the day
I ran out of time for anything else other than
politics. I got up at 5.30am every day, was at
my desk by 7.15am, and I would be back home
22 The Times Magazine
On the Today
programme, with
Laura Kuenssberg
in time to wolf down some dinner and then
watch the 10 o’clock news. Everyone did the
same. We flew to China, India, Saudi Arabia,
Turkey and America twice (meeting two
American presidents in the space of six
months). On the way back from India, news
was coming in that Donald Trump just might
win the presidency. I scrapped my planned
night out at the US Embassy party and
instead went to a hotel to grab some sleep.
The next morning, I was blow-drying my hair
in my office when the PM came to find me to
agree on the quote we would issue. It was a
surreal moment, curling my hair with hot
irons while we discussed her reaction to the
new leader of the free world. If my friends
from Erith School could have seen me, they
would have choked on their toast.
Mrs May’s speech outside No 10 after
becoming prime minister last year was
everything I believed in, and everything
I signed up to be a part of. I hung it on my
wall in my office. I should have known it
wasn’t going to be that simple. For months
I grappled daily with the destructive nature of
the PM’s joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and
Nick Timothy, and when she finally called the
election, I knew it was my way out. They
made it clear they didn’t want me and my
opinions, and the feeling was mutual. I knew
their behaviour couldn’t last for ever and that
they would, at some point, implode. Hill had
a track record for bullishness; she had to
leave the Home Office a few years back. But
even I didn’t know it would unravel this quickly.
Despite it being a horrendous ten months
of my life, I don’t have any regrets. I’ve learnt
that when the pressure is on, I can hack it.
Heck, I even organised a press conference
with the president of the United States.
I remember a time early on in Downing
Street in a meeting with the prime minister,
who couldn’t understand why we were
getting bad press for dumping the Northern
Powerhouse initiative, a move that some
suspected stemmed from it being the
ex-chancellor George Osborne’s pet project.
The PM told us clearly that she supported the
Northern Powerhouse and had appointed a
minister for it, so where had this story come
from? The room fell silent. Only 48 hours
before had we been told by Fiona Hill to
strip out any references to the Northern
Powerhouse in the PM’s speeches or pieces.
Working with Hill was infuriating. She
would go through the Downing Street grid
– a Tony Blair innovation, consisting of a
diary setting out every department and
ministry’s agenda for the week ahead – and
identify plans that needed more work, when
I suspected it was because she hadn’t read the
detail or given her feedback on them yet. She
would ask the most basic questions which
made me believe that, unlike the rest of us,
she probably hadn’t stayed up until 1am to
understand it all. I would get ripped apart in
another meeting for presiding over an empty
grid, which wasn’t empty until she had got her
hands on it. When the grid was brilliant, the
The leather trousers
that prompted
team who managed it were congratulated.
When the grid was crap, it was the fault
of the communications team, run by yours
truly. It was like an episode of The Thick of It.
We would be told by Hill to freeze out
certain members of the press and although I
did my best to ignore her mad requests, it was
sometimes more than our jobs were worth to
go against her demands. So we would, on
instruction, occasionally go cool on a
particular person, only to find that she had
been meeting with them herself for coffee in
the same week. I would look like the arrogant
one and she would come across as friendly.
It was pointless and a drain on resources.
I remember The Times writing a true story
about Hill sending offensive text messages to
cabinet members and, on a Sunday night at
midnight, her shouting at me down the phone
asking me “what the f***” I was going to do
about it. She demanded an apology and
retraction from The Times and I had to write
to the editor. She demanded she saw a copy of
my letter before it went. I’m told that letter
made the editor’s day. He knew he was in the
right and I didn’t have a leg to stand on and
the whole affair was ridiculous. But I had to
go through the motions to keep her happy.
Once, the PM was getting ready to do an
interview with The Sunday Times Magazine.
I had seen her to brief her on potential
questions and asked the PM if she needed
hair, make-up or a stylist. She was grateful for
hair and make-up (what woman wouldn’t be?),
but declined the stylist, saying she would bring
her own clothes to the shoot. As the PM
generally looks great, I was happy to agree.
The night before, just as we were about to
go home, Fiona Hill came storming down to
my office, a rare treat, and told me and my
team that we’d failed once again in not
preparing the PM for the interview the next
day. “Where are the f***ing hydrangeas?” One
of my colleagues had already been up to the
PM’s flat to get it ready for the shoot but
apparently we had failed miserably because
we hadn’t ordered flowers. My secretary was
sent out to buy some at 7pm with my credit
card. I’ve just remembered that Downing
Street still owes me the money for those.
Mumbling about how shit we all were, I then
overheard Hill on the phone to the designer
Amanda Wakeley, begging her to send over a
vanful of clothes the next morning for the PM
to choose from. I was told by Hill that it was a
big mistake to take the PM at her word with
regards to her clothes – stupid me. I asked the
PM and got an answer back; I didn’t realise
that I was meant to ignore her.
The next morning, dressed in a leopardprint skirt and Gucci heels, Hill was in full
swing at the shoot. I left, because there was
nothing for me to do. All went well until later,
when one of my colleagues popped into my
office to tell me that we may have a problem:
did I know the outfit the PM finally chose
cost two grand? And there lies the story of
the brown leather trousers she was wearing
in the shoot. I hit the roof. This was a PR
screw-up that was wholly avoidable. I didn’t
even like the bloody trousers – they were the
wrong kind of brown, if you know what I mean.
At Downing Street, I would spend weeks
trying to get messages across to the public
about what we were trying to achieve. That is
harder than it sounds. I sat down at the end of
that week with a glass of wine in my hand and
watched Have I Got News For You, where they
ripped the piss out of Trousergate. I turned
over, to find the same on Gogglebox. Hill had
succeeded where I had failed.
I know what people will be thinking
reading this: how the hell did Hill get away
with it? And why did we let her? Months
later, I’m still trying to figure out the answer
to that question. When members of the
cabinet are not standing up to her, how did
I have a chance? When the prime minister
backs her joint chief of staff 100 per cent,
where do you go to complain? I’ve spent
nearly two decades in politics and I’ve never
been afraid of anything or anyone. Until
now. Looking back, it was ludicrous. No
wonder my partner couldn’t understand
it and begged me to leave.
I knew that without these two chiefs of
staff, Theresa May would never have become
prime minister. They were there for her the
whole way – as home secretary and into
No 10 – but by the very nature of the way
they acted, I knew they would also be her
downfall. And they very nearly were.
She now has the uneviable task of trying to
run the country without any decent majority,
run a cabinet without any authority and
deliver on a Brexit decision she never agreed
with in the first place. She has an amazing
sense of public duty and will see this through,
for as long as we want her, for she is now a
prisoner of the Conservative Party. In the
meantime, the Conservative brand becomes
more toxic by the week – unless she can find
a way to deliver on the promises she made in
that speech that hung in my office: to tackle
the stigma of mental health; to drive out racial
inequality in Britain. I hope she leaves this
legacy rather than one of a Brexit PM with
a car crash of an election campaign. She
deserves more than that.
But she let two people ruin the very thing
she always wanted more than anything – to be
prime minister – and for that she has to take
some responsibility. I feel bad even writing
this, but on reflection, Theresa May is the one
who owes me an apology. I gave up everything
for her – even seeing my own kids – and I got
nothing in return.
As for me, I crammed all this into less than
20 years’ working in Westminster and I’m not
even 40 yet. I have at least 20 years left in this
business. I live to fight another day. n
Katie Perrior is now chair of iNHouse
Communications (
The Times Magazine 23
John Torode is the Aussie chef turned TV star and
hugely popular MasterChef judge. But six years
ago the pressure of running a restaurant empire
and the collapse of his marriage almost brought
him to the brink, he tells Charlotte Edwardes
John Torode, 51,
in west London
last month
thought John Torode would be more
adventurous about food. Isn’t that the
point of being a MasterChef judge and
the sort of TV personality who does
globe-trotting series eating suspicious
local dishes that may or may not be
fried rat’s arse? Apparently not. He
won’t eat kidneys – “Anything that has
urine passing through, just wrong” – or
milk (“I would rather drink a glass of
blood”) or, in fact, any “animal fluids”. Eyes?
“I wouldn’t.” Sheep’s bollocks? “Don’t need
to.” OK, brains? “I had pig’s brains as a kid
in Australia.”
Mention kangaroo and he perks up. “Yeah,
I cook it a lot. I mean, what is a kangaroo?
It’s just jumping venison.” He gives me
some recipe tips in case I ever find myself
in possession of raw roo steaks. “Spice it and
roast it quickly in an oven at 200C.”
What about koala? His face falls. It’s like
I’m suggesting he eat Kylie Minogue. “No,
Charlotte,” he says slowly. “That’s awful.
You cannot eat koala. That is just bloody
wrong. Wrong.”
Fussiness aside, it’s rather entertaining
to be in the presence of Torode, not least
because he can literally talk for hours about
braising, pickling, marinating, roasting and
barbecuing. Hours! If I didn’t interrupt and
steer him on to other subjects I think I might
still be there on the sofa in an office at UKTV
– the broadcaster that’s made his latest series,
touring South Korea – talking about where in
the world to find the best fried chicken.
He likes facts – he tells me that in the UK
we eat 990 million chickens a year while in
the mid-Fifties we consumed, as a population,
one chicken per person per year. Is that right?
“Yeah.” And for every 3kg of beef eaten in
the UK per person per year, the Argentinians
will consume 65kg. He stalls. “Or is that per
month? Anyway, whatever it was, it was a
ridiculous amount.”
In South Korea they drink “four times as
much as anywhere else in the world”, he says.
“Soju – it’s a fermented rice wine. It’s the
biggest selling distilled alcohol in the world.
Sells more than vodka. And they have a
special soup for hangovers: hangover soup.”
He didn’t try hangover soup. (“I sat next
to a man and his girlfriend eating it. They
were literally fermenting. The smell of alcohol
was coming off their bodies.”) But he did
try “raw, still moving octopus. Sensation is
really important in Korea. It’s about flavour,
texture and then sensation. So the moving
of the octopus in your mouth because it’s still
alive is important.”
Eel was chopped in front of him and he ate
a puffed-up steamed egg dish which burnt his
mouth – it was meant to. “We as westerners
don’t really do sensation. The closest is ice
cream and brain freeze.”
John Torode and
Gregg Wallace during
MasterChef 2017. Below:
Torode with Auberon
Waugh and Loyd
Grossman as a guest
on the show, 1998
Another way of explaining it, he says, is to
compare it with exercising. “When you get
goose bumps as the adrenaline kicks in. Until
such time as you’ve reached that level, you
don’t know what you need to achieve. Do you
know what I mean?”
Exercising is another thing he can talk
about for hours, especially his spin classes.
Now 51, he likes to sweat “like a bastard” and
wears the full body-hugging strip and leggings
that leave nothing to the imagination.
“Yeah, I wear tights. I don’t wear shorts.
I find it easier. And they wash easily, so you
don’t have to worry about them.”
Sometimes he sees Nick Grimshaw, the
Radio 1 DJ, in the changing rooms and it’s
embarrassing because, “I am half-naked, out
of my shower, and he says, ‘Hi, how are you?
Nice to see you.’ And it’s like, ‘I’m good, but
I’m half-naked.’ It’s the weirdest thing in the
whole world.”
Though he claims not to be very “Aussie”
– on the grounds that he’s too “sensitive” –
he still has his Melbourne accent and idioms.
“Look at my Pradies,” he says, wagging his
foot – which means, I guess, that his shoes
are from Prada.
His sensitive side is also his “feminine side”,
he says. It comes out in “good clothes, good
toiletries. I like Aesop and decent aftershave.”
He buys a special travel pack from Liberty:
“It’s got a deodorant, body cream, shampoo
and a shower gel. And you can take it on
the aeroplane.”
The Times Magazine 27
All of which is useful as he’s mad about
washing. “I shower as much as I possibly can.”
“Because I can.”
Every six weeks he has a massage and a
“pedi”. “And my feet feel so much nicer. Toes
– discuss! Men’s toes do not need to look like
that. I said to my son the other day, ‘Do me
a favour, cut your nails.’ He said, ‘Why?’ And
I said, ‘Because they will push into your flesh
and you’ll have those stumpy man toes that
are really disgusting and awful.’ Aaaarrrghhhh.
Horrible. Ugly feet – wrong!”
The best thing about Torode is that he
is completely without edge, the perfect foil
for Gregg Wallace, his MasterChef co-star
of 12 years, a complicated, shouty Cockney
who met both his third ex-wife and his new
fourth wife on Twitter when they asked for
recipe suggestions.
Torode and Wallace go back years:
Wallace was a vegetable supplier to Quaglino’s
restaurant, where Torode was a senior
sous-chef. Much has been made of their
relationship. Torode once stressed that he
didn’t socialise with Wallace and had never
been to his house, upsetting BBC PRs, who
perhaps wanted the public to believe they
were cooking’s Ant and Dec.
Yet Wallace did ask him to be best man at
one of his weddings. And he agreed. “Of course!”
he says. “Gregg and I have very different lives.
We get on very well, but we are very separate.
You can’t be good judges if you lead the same
lives because you turn into each other.”
He loves Wallace “to death”, he says,
although his desperation to impress on me
the strength of this friendship sort of does the
opposite. He says Wallace is “fascinating” and
“f***ing right out there, let me just say that.
“And the reason I love him is I love people.
Everybody is different and that in itself is
extraordinary. There is nobody else in the
world like you. Or me.”
Or Gregg Wallace. “He is an individual.”
It wasn’t their Abbott and Costello routine
that pole-vaulted Torode into the tabloids,
but his relationship with the actress Lisa
Faulkner. In 2010 she appeared on – and
won – Celebrity MasterChef while married to
actor Chris Coghill (with whom she has an
adopted daughter). But in 2012 her marriage
broke down, not many months after Torode
had split from his own wife, Jessica, with
whom he has two children aged 13 and 11.
As Torode tells it, his romantic life is
inextricably entwined with his career arc.
“It’s evolution,” he explains. “Food and
restaurants evolved so fast, [family life]
keeping up was always going to be difficult.”
Like all chefs, as far as I can make out,
he has a couple of failed marriages under
his belt. He met his first wife in Australia
and brought her to London with him as he
With his ex-wife,
Jessica, and their
children, 2010.
Below: with
new partner
Lisa Faulkner
began working his way up the rungs of the
restaurant ladder. Eventually, in 1995, he
was made head chef at Mezzo, a Terence
Conran-owned 1,000-cover monster in the
centre of Soho.
“So, next thing you know I’m running
huge restaurants and appearing on television.
Well, that evolution is massive and fast,
whereas [my ex-wife] wanted to be at home
and knit and have children, and sit around
and be a hippy.”
A hippy? “Yes. And she still is a hippy
by the way – still really does live in a hippy
world. And our worlds now are miles and
miles apart. She decided to go as far away
from us as possible.” This meant Cornwall,
where his two older children – now 21 and
19 – grew up.
Meanwhile, he’d met Jessica and opened
his own restaurants – Smiths of Smithfield
in 2000 and Cafeteria in Notting Hill a year
later – at a time when “people treated chefs
as rock stars.
“So in that evolution, you’re moving so
fast and selfishly. I admit I was selfish. It’s a
common trait among chefs: we are fairly selfish.
“What I didn’t realise when I had Smiths
is the amount of pressure that put on me
personally. It was a huge business, turning
over a lot of money, with 280 staff, and I was
a chef. I became the managing director; I was
doing MasterChef; I had young children; I had
older children; I had commitments doing food
shows. All sorts of stuff.
“And if you consider trying to juggle all
that at once …” He makes an exploding
gesture with his hands. He says he sold the
restaurant business as his marriage broke
down and that, “My business partner took
advantage of the fact I was in bits.”
Do they still speak? “No. He can go and
get stuffed, the horrible bastard.”
In June 2011 he moved out of the family
home and into a little rented house in Balham
that he called his “man cave”.
“I literally locked myself away for a year
and didn’t talk to anyone. I saw my children.
I went out riding on my bicycle. I didn’t do
anything else. I didn’t socialise. I didn’t see
anyone. I literally slept for days and days
and days on end. I was exhausted. Properly,
literally, exhausted. I didn’t even realise I was
that exhausted.”
I suggest it sounds like a breakdown. “I
think I was pretty close to a breakdown, yeah.
When you lose your marriage and you lose
your children, your business. I went through
a mushroom phase – I sat in the dark being
fed bullshit.”
He didn’t have therapy, but he did use
Chinese medicine and acupuncture “and
various bits and pieces”. He also cycled. “I’d
do miles and miles and miles. A hundred
miles and stuff like that.”
But the food he cooked was unimaginative:
pasta carbonara or bolognese from the freezer,
“stuff that had been made for the kids, and
the odd bit of toast and jam”.
It wasn’t until December that year
that his appetite returned. “It was my first
Christmas [alone] and I had my older children
with me so I made nice stuff: pies and hams
and stuff, and that was the first time I’d
really cooked.”
This process helped him out of his slump,
he says. “Cooking is always going to be my
foundation. It’s what I do; it’s what I love.
I couldn’t be without it. It’s a sanctuary.
The Times Magazine 29
When I have had a tough day, I go to the
kitchen, pour myself a big glass of sauvignon
blanc and then make something to eat.”
Now he says, “I have a great relationship
with both my ex-wives, but we are very
different people.”
He has described Lisa Faulkner as “the
one” and he certainly sparkles when he talks
about her. “We get on really well,” he says.
“I’m probably the most grounded I’ve ever
been,” he says.
A friend and colleague of Torode tells me
that he and Faulkner are “an incredibly sweet
couple. They go for cosy dinners around
London and they are very tactile.”
Last year they bought a house together
in Muswell Hill and did it up. “It’s got both of
our stuff in it. That fits nicely.” This morning
she was out of the door at 6am to go and
film EastEnders. He says he’ll mow the lawn
later and do a bit of gardening. Along with
washing his “tights”, he’s beginning to sound
very practical, I say, and he’s thrilled about
this. “I never thought of myself as practical.
As a child I was the fat wheezy one.”
The best thing about his life now is getting
time with his children. “I like to get outside.
I like to cycle with the kids. And having the
time to do all that after 20 years running
restaurants and working bloody hard, it’s
nice. I love my children. I love watching them
grow up.”
But before he gets too dewy-eyed he leans
forward and says, “I mean, they are a pain in
the arse sometimes. They don’t wash and they
smell and their clothes are in the wrong place
and their shoes are in the wrong place, and
they’ve got the wrong bag and their cricket
gear is not here.
“I said to my son, ‘You had a shower this
morning, which is good, but you can also have
one after school, you know. And when you’ve
done that, hang your towel up properly.
Because if you don’t, it will smell of damp.
And that’s something that really upsets me,
the smell of damp from people who don’t
dry their clothes properly or don’t dry their
towel properly.”
He moves his arms in front of him as if
fending off a swarm of bees.
Anyway, his children’s lives, whether in
Cornwall or north London, are a world away
from his own upbringing. He was the youngest
of three boys, “the real useless little one”, in
a Catholic home in Melbourne.
When he was four, and his brothers were
five and six, their mother died suddenly. The
only detail he knows is that it was from heart
failure. Memories are wisps: he remembers
her sitting down at the kitchen table. He
remembers her putting all three boys in the
back of the car and driving to his father’s
office one Saturday, marching in and telling
him, “ ‘It’s Saturday. You’re coming with
30 The Times Magazine
me and we are going to take the children out.’
And that’s about it, really.”
Fortunately, there are a lot of photos of
his mother.
He says talking about her is one of the
things that will make him cry. “I become
quite emotional.”
After her funeral, the remaining family
decamped to his father’s mother’s house in
rural New South Wales, where they lived
frugally off the land – his grandmother
chopping wood in the morning for the stove
in order to boil the kettle. He remembers the
fridge being empty and a tub of lard under the
sink. “My father was building a business,” he
says, “and didn’t have any money.”
But his grandmother inspired his love of
cooking. “There was nothing fancy about
Nana. Chops and mashed potatoes, porridge
for breakfast. But she really was a bloody
good cook. She used to make things like
junket – a junket tablet is the rennet from
the stomach lining of an animal, and it sets
milk. She used to make stuff like that. She was
a proper old cook and a tough old nut.
“I was a pallbearer at my grandmother’s
funeral which I still find quite … It makes me
quite tight in the chest. I was 20 when she died.”
He returned to the house they grew up
in not long ago while filming for a series on
Australian cooking. “It was so much smaller
than I remember.”
Did he cry?
“Course I bloody cried. It’s where I learnt
to cook. It’s where I started, so that’s why
I have a fondness for it. Great memories.
For me, the important things in my life – in
the same way an Aboriginal will have a song
line – are punctuated by food memories, food
moments, food smells.
“I don’t get upset very much. I think the
great gifts we have are life, food and a sense
of reality. There is trauma, things have gone
on, but I’m very fortunate that I am where
I am now.”
Torode’s father, Douglas, is still around
“and well”, and travels over to the UK
regularly. Initially, he was reluctant to accept
his son’s choice of career. “Back then, if you
wanted to be a chef, you were either quietly
mental or you were homosexual.
“Neither of those things would concern
me, but the point is, there was always a label
because you were a cook.”
The end of MasterChef is on the horizon,
he says. “At some stage MasterChef will finish.
It’s telly, isn’t it? One day I’ll be gone.”
But he is already thinking beyond that
– tomorrow, he’s looking at a site for a yoga
studio and café. Yoga is the yin to spinning’s
yang, he says. But the thing no one has done
is yoga and champagne.
“I love yoga, but I also love champagne
and oysters. I believe that if you’re going
to do yoga, you are still allowed a glass of
champagne or a vodka tonic. But nobody
is doing it.
“And I like the holistic lifestyle, but
I also like the idea of sitting in a bar, and
then being in a seafood bar, with beautiful
fresh prawns, a bowl of clams, some oysters,
a couple of Asian salads and a couple of
really nice glasses of wine if you want to.”
It’s certainly an original idea.
Before he leaves, I have one burning
question. Is there really such a thing as “chef’s
arse”? And if so, what is it?
Torode starts laughing. “Oh yeah. It really
is a thing. It depends on how hot it is in the
kitchen, but yes, you get chef’s arse.
“It happens when you get really hot and
the sweat drips down your back and the only
place it can go to is the crack in your bum.
And then what happens is, because it’s warm
there, the sweat dries and becomes salty
and then it chafes together and then you
get chef’s arse.
“There used to be all sorts of remedies,” he
says, “like rub cornflour on it. Talk to any chef
– they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’ve had chef’s arse.’ It’s a
rite of passage.
“Oh wait,” he says with a cackle. “I’m not
sure that’s the right expression.” n
John Torode’s Korean Food Tour starts on
Monday at 9pm on Good Food
‘My husband can only communicate
with his eyes via a computer’
Simon and Ruth Fitzmaurice,
photographed by Mark Nixon at their
home in Ireland, with their children
(from left) Sadie, 5, Jack, 11, Sadie’s
twin, Hunter, Arden, 8, and Raife, 10
Story continues on page 44
Ruth Fitzmaurice’s husband, Simon, was a dynamic young film director when he was diagnosed with motor
neurone disease. She tells Louise Carpenter how they coped – including having two more children
Chris Middleton
and Ino Kuvacic
Recipes by Ino Kuvacic
Aubergine, potato
and tomato bake,
page 42
Mediterranean cooking shouldn’t only be about France, Italy and Spain.
As these delicious summer recipes show, the Croatian coastline has plenty to offer
when it comes to combining the best of land and sea
Serves 4
• 4 flounder, 300-400g each • 1 loaf of dayold bread • 150ml extra virgin olive oil
• 1 whole lemon, plus extra lemon wedges to
serve • 1 garlic clove, crushed • 15g chopped
flat-leaf parsley • Sea salt • Freshly ground
black pepper
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.
2 Wash and gut the fish. Cut around each
head with a sharp knife and push your fingers
under the skin to peel it off – it should come
off easily in one piece. You can also peel the
white skin off the bottom of the fish, but it’s
not essential.
3 Cut the crusts off the bread and cut the
bread into 2cm cubes, and then place
the bread in a food processor with all the
remaining ingredients and blend into coarse
crumbs. Season with sea salt and freshly
ground black pepper. The mixture should
taste nice and lemony.
4 Place the flounder on two baking trays.
36 The Times Magazine
Season it well and spread the bread mixture
evenly over each fish. Bake for about
15 minutes, or until the crust on the top is
crispy. Serve with the lemon wedges, for
squeezing over the fish.
Serves 4
• 4 aubergines • Sea salt • 2 tbsp
breadcrumbs • 50ml extra virgin olive oil,
plus extra for greasing and drizzling
• 100g minced beef • 1 egg • 50g grated
cheese (parmesan or similar) • Freshly
ground black pepper • 100g prosciutto
or ham, finely diced • 500ml Dalmatian
tomato sauce (see recipe, page 42)
• 1 bunch of basil, chopped
1 Cut the tops off the aubergines and set
aside. Using a knife and spoon, hollow out the
centres of the aubergines, leaving 1cm of flesh
around the edge. Season the aubergines inside
with salt and let them drain upside down
for about 30 minutes – they will lose some
bitterness this way.
2 In a frying pan over a medium heat, sauté
the breadcrumbs in the olive oil until golden
brown. Remove the pan from the heat and
set aside to cool.
3 In a bowl, mix the minced beef with the egg
and cheese and season well.
4 Grease the insides of the aubergines with
olive oil and start filling them, first with
the breadcrumbs then some of the minced
beef mixture, some prosciutto and 1 tbsp of
the Dalmatian tomato sauce. Sprinkle with
chopped basil.
5 Keep filling the aubergines evenly in
this order (you should end up with three
to four layers of each ingredient). When
all the aubergines are filled, replace the
aubergine tops.
6 Place the filled aubergines in a saucepan
greased with olive oil. Add the remaining
tomato sauce, 300ml water and drizzle with
olive oil. Cook over a low heat for about
1 hour, then serve.
Grilled potato
and spring onion
salad, page 42
Lentil, apple and
pomegranate salad.
Right: mixed fried fish.
Both page 42
Prawns in garlic, white
wine and tomato.
Left: courgette fritters.
Both page 42
The Times Magazine 00
Serves 4-6 (page 35)
• 4 large aubergines • 4 large
floury potatoes, such as King
Edward • 4 large ripe tomatoes
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed
• 1 large onion, chopped • 100ml
extra virgin olive oil • Sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 250ml vegetable stock • 2 tbsp
chopped flat-leaf parsley, to
garnish (optional)
1 Prick the aubergines with a
fork and soak them in water for a
couple of hours to reduce some of
the bitterness. Peel them and cut
into 5mm-thick slices.
2 Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.
3 Peel the potatoes and cut them
into 5mm-thick slices. Slice the
tomatoes in the same way.
4 In a saucepan over a high heat,
sauté the garlic and onion in
80ml olive oil until translucent
and just starting to colour.
Season with salt.
5 Grease a baking dish with
olive oil and start placing the
vegetables in layers, starting and
finishing with a tomatoes, and
adding sautéed onion, garlic and
seasoning to each layer. (You
should end up with two to four
layers of each vegetable.) Cover
the vegetables with the stock and
bake for about 1 hour. After an
hour, check with a small knife to
see if the vegetables are soft.
6 Sprinkle with the parsley, if
using, and drizzle with more
olive oil before serving.
Serves 4 (page 37)
• 1kg waxy potatoes, such as
Nicola • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
• Sea salt • 100ml extra virgin
olive oil • 1 bunch spring onions,
sliced diagonally • 2 garlic
cloves, crushed • 3 tbsp red
wine vinegar • Freshly ground
black pepper
1 Preheat a barbecue or chargrill
pan to high.
2 Leaving the skins on, wash the
potatoes and cut them in half
42 The Times Magazine
lengthways. Put them in a bowl,
sprinkle with the vegetable oil
and season well with salt.
3 Grill the potatoes, cut side down,
until cooked, about 10 minutes
each side. When the potatoes are
cooked and soft in the middle, let
them cool down a little. (You can
alternatively bake the potatoes in
an oven at 220C/Gas 7, or wrap
the cut potatoes in foil and drop
them into an open fire to cook for
about 20-25 minutes.)
4 While the potatoes are still
warm, slice them or break them
up roughly into pieces using your
hands. Put them in a bowl with
the olive oil, spring onion, garlic
and red wine vinegar. Adjust the
seasoning and serve warm or cold.
Serves 4 (page 38)
• 300g Puy lentils • Sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 2 apples, finely diced
• Seeds from 1 pomegranate
• 1 red onion, finely diced
• 2 anchovies, chopped • Half
a bunch of flat-leaf parsley,
chopped • 4 tbsp extra virgin
olive oil • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Rinse the lentils with water, put
them in a saucepan with 900ml
water and bring to the boil. Cover
and simmer over a low heat until
cooked, about 15-20 minutes.
2 When the lentils are tender,
season with salt and pepper – do
not season the lentils before this or
they will be tough. Leave to cool.
3 Add the apple, pomegranate
seeds, onion, anchovy and parsley
and mix well to combine. Dress
with the olive oil and vinegar,
adjust the seasoning, then serve.
Serves 4 (page 39)
• 1kg mixed small fish, such as
red mullet or bream • 500ml
milk • 1 tbsp sea salt, plus
extra for seasoning • 200g plain
flour • 300ml vegetable oil
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 lemon, halved or cut into
wedges, to serve
1 Clean the fish (scale and gut
them), then wash them. Combine
the milk and 1 tbsp salt, then soak
the fish in the mixture for 1 hour.
2 Drain the fish, then toss them in
the flour, shaking off the excess.
3 Heat the oil in a frying pan to
190C, or until a cube of bread
turns golden in 10 seconds,
and fry the fish for a couple of
minutes (not putting too many in
the pan at once), until golden.
4 Drain the fish on kitchen roll to
absorb any excess oil, season well
with salt and pepper, and serve
with the lemon wedges.
Serves 4-6 (page 40)
• 3-4 courgettes • Sea salt
• 1 red onion, finely chopped
• 1 egg • Handful of dry
breadcrumbs • 50g plain flour
• Freshly ground black pepper
• Vegetable oil, for shallow-frying
1 Grate the courgettes, season
with salt and put in a colander set
over a plate. Place a plate on top
of the grated courgette and then
something heavy on top of the
plate to press the water out.
2 Leave the courgette in the
fridge for two hours, then remove
and squeeze out any excess liquid.
3 Transfer the courgette to a
mixing bowl. Add the onion, egg,
breadcrumbs and flour, and mix
well to combine. Season with salt
and pepper to taste.
4 Shape the mixture into palmsized patties with your hands.
5 Heat some vegetable oil in a
frying pan over a medium heat
and cook the patties until golden
brown. Drain on kitchen roll,
then serve hot.
Serves 4 (page 41)
• 100ml extra virgin olive oil
• 1kg prawns • 4 garlic cloves,
chopped • 250ml white wine
• 125ml tomato passata • 1 tbsp
dry breadcrumbs • Sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
• Crusty bread, to serve
• Lemon juice, for finger bowls
1 Heat the olive oil in a saucepan
over a high heat, being careful
not to let it start smoking. Add
the prawns and sauté them on
both sides for a couple of minutes.
Add the garlic and cook for a few
seconds (be careful not to brown
the garlic because this will make
the dish taste bitter). Add the white
wine, passata and breadcrumbs,
and season with salt and pepper.
2 Cover the pan with a lid and
cook for another 15 minutes,
shaking the pan frequently so the
prawns don’t stick to the bottom
and burn. If the sauce is too thick,
add a touch of water.
3 Sprinkle with the parsley and
serve with the crusty bread.
Provide finger bowls of water with
a dash of lemon juice for your
diners – this one can get messy.
(page 36)
• Sea salt • 400g large ripe
tomatoes • 3 garlic cloves,
chopped • 50ml extra virgin
olive oil • Freshly ground
black pepper • 1 tbsp sugar
1 Bring some salted water to the
boil in a large saucepan. Score
the tomatoes at the base with
a knife and blanch for a couple
of minutes. Peel the skin off the
tomatoes and discard. Cut the
tomatoes into 1cm cubes.
2 In another saucepan over a high
heat, cook the garlic in the olive
oil for a few seconds, making sure
it doesn’t start to colour. Add the
tomato and season with salt and
pepper. Reduce the heat to low
and cook for about one hour. It’s
very important to make sure the
sauce is cooked on a low heat,
never going above a gentle simmer.
If the sauce is cooked on too high
a temperature, it will change the
flavour and taste a bit dull. Adjust
the seasoning and add the sugar if
the tomatoes taste too acidic. n
Extracted from
Dalmatia by Ino
Kuvacic, published
by Hardie Grant
at £20
Ruth Fitzmaurice Continued from page 33
imon Fitzmaurice was 34 when a
neurologist told him he had motor
neurone disease (MND). The
doctor trying to help him and
his wife, Ruth, make sense of how
the disease would kill him in three
to four years’ time said, “It’s like
winning the lottery backwards.”
Not only was Simon unlucky
enough to be facing death, but
there was the added misfortune of his being
a statistical rarity. (“What a dick,” was Ruth’s
internal response to such medical gaucheness.)
In the UK, 6 people die each day from
MND, just under 2,200 a year. In the US,
somebody dies of motor neurone disease
every 90 minutes; worldwide, 100,000 will
die from the disease in the next 12 months.
But in Ireland, where Simon and Ruth live,
only about 110 people die of MND each year.
Simon was to be one of those.
Pictures and footage of the couple from
that time and before, when they were dating
in Dublin and at their 2004 wedding (when
Simon said of his love for Ruth, “My whole
body is on fire”), are devastating to see now
for the knowledge of what was to befall them.
Both are blessed with physical beauty: Simon
is lantern-jawed, with the Irish combination
of dark hair and blue eyes, and a more than
passing resemblance to Clark Kent; Ruth is
slight, blonde and ethereal.
In his late twenties, Simon Fitzmaurice was
one of the most promising young directors in
Ireland (he’d had his second film shown at
Sundance six months before the diagnosis).
Every morning he used to leap out of bed, pull
back the curtains and salute the sun. “Simon
was one of those burning bright people,
charismatic, a real charmer,” Ruth says.
Ruth wanted to write – and have children.
At the time of diagnosis, the couple lived in a
cottage in Co Louth, with two small sons and
another on the way. Nine years have passed
since that diagnosis. Even on the optimistic end
of the bell curve, Simon Fitzmaurice should
have died five years ago. Instead, he is in a
room at the front of their house in Greystones,
Co Wicklow, 20 miles south of Dublin, where
he grew up and where they moved to be
closer to his family as MND took hold.
He is now unable to move at all, not even
his face. He breathes through a tube and speaks
through an eye-gaze computer, staring at each
letter on a screen until it forms a sentence
(like predictive text). It is then spoken to the
world through an American voice. He is not
well enough to meet me today, Ruth says
apologetically. He’s still in his pyjamas and has
something strapped round his head. “I’m sorry,”
she says kindly. “I don’t want you to think he’s
some scary, unseen presence in the house.”
44 The Times Magazine
Which is, of course, what it does feel like a
little bit, as it does in any house in which there
is a sick person behind a closed door.
Ireland does not have a policy of placing
MND patients on a ventilator in order to
help them breathe and by consequence help
extend their life. “Nobody wants it,” Ruth says.
However in 2010 Simon went into respiratory
failure and was intubated by accident in a
private hospital. It was most certainly what he
wanted. “He is not prepared to go gently into
that good night,” she explains. As Simon says
himself in an upcoming documentary based
on his book, It’s Not Yet Dark, and narrated
by his friend Colin Farrell, “The best part of
living with MND is the living part.”
I have flown to Ireland to meet Ruth
Fitzmaurice because after decades of wanting
to write – years of trying to get things down
in notebooks, dreaming of writing adult
fiction or stories for children, in between
feeding her babies and changing their nappies
– it is her own painful story that has fulfilled
her creative dream.
A ventilator has extended Simon’s life
way beyond what is usual for MND patients,
allowing him the pleasure of watching, for
nearly a decade, his (now) five children grow,
but it has also meant that Ruth has watched
him, once so vital and hungry for life, decline
over a long period of time, every part of him
being slowly claimed by disease.
“Bits of him are being taken,” she says. “I
begin to imagine MND as this uninvited guest
who is taking over my husband and there is
less of him and more of the MND.”
Her book, I Found My Tribe, out this month
(reminiscent in a way of the bestselling The
Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir by the
journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, left with
locked-in syndrome after a stroke), is about
‘I am married to a
bearded stranger and
cry for all the
things we have lost.
Why him? Why us?’
Ruth swimming near the
family home. Below: the
couple on their wedding day
in September 2004
how she has coped, practically and emotionally,
with her many children and with the loss of
so much of what she had with Simon. But it is
also about her “gain”, the tribe of close female
friends who have kept her sane and with whom
she swims in the Irish Sea, and the way she has
come to understand herself, through growing
up and through her extenuating circumstances.
Over the years, she has screamed and
shouted, “Why him? Why us?” She has selfharmed, banging her head hard against walls
until it bled. She has climbed into the back
of her own car, exhausted by the caring and
the carers and the children, and slept under
the dog’s blanket. She has imagined herself
slashing her veins and drowning herself in
the sea. She has drunk and smoked, eaten too
much and too little, and “laughed till I cried
and cried manic laughing tears. I cry for all
the things we have lost, my husband and I.”
Her journal writing, dating back to the
beginning of their love affair and continuing
to this day, forms the basis of her book, and
shows painfully how the man she loved went
from a ridiculously handsome, charismatic
film director in a fast car to a man immobile
in a chair, his fingers “with long clean nails
[lying] limply on propped cushions”.
“I am married to a bearded stranger with
intense eyes,” she writes. “The kids deserve
better than a mother who feels like this.
I don’t want to damage my children.”
These admissions are records of what Ruth
felt in that moment, she explains, rather than
the overall picture.
The family at home in
October last year. Top
left: Simon and Ruth
She recalls moments too “when tears flood
his face into a frozen grimace and his eyes are
wild and wretched with agony”.
It is times like these – when she can
viscerally feel her husband’s pain and his fear
– that she wants to kill him: “I have thought
about murdering my husband.” She explains
that this instinct, “a primal raw passion that
screams, ‘Stop it! This has to end now!’ ”, is an
expression of how much she truly loves him.
“I took ownership of those feelings,” she tells
me. “I just can’t bear to see him in so much pain.
It was weird to navigate those feelings because
I had to think, ‘Am I wishing my husband was
dead?’ But the answer is no. I am wishing he
doesn’t suffer any more because I love him.”
Simon himself has no wish to die. There is
the chaotic clutter of family life around him.
Their youngest two children – twins Hunter
and Sadie, now five – were conceived as an
act of defiance against death after he returned
home in 2010 on a ventilator.
The family room has shelves of books and
the walls are full of the children’s art. The
eldest, Jack, now 11, is the only one who ever
had a chance of remembering their father
before MND took hold, and he simply can’t.
“He’s the worrier,” Ruth says. Back when he
was four and faced with his big “burning
bright” father suddenly in a wheelchair, he
wailed, “I wish that Dada could walk like other
dadas … I want to cry for ever.”
Some of the children, the younger ones
in particular, have slight American accents,
as they have grown up with their father
communicating with them through the
American computer voice. Though desperately
ill, he is a strong presence. “They dote on him.
They seek him out and put their hands on him.”
Sometimes Ruth holds Sadie up to him and
she sees a minuscule change to the shape of
his eyes, which gleam “although there is no
movement left”, Ruth explains. “He can feel
everything, including fear.”
Only recently, Hunter, the other twin,
now starting school and discovering Mr Men
books, said to his mother, “We need a new
Mr Men book: Mr Don’t Move.”
“They are just beginning to realise that they
are different from other people,” Ruth says.
“My dada has climbed a mountain,” Hunter
said the other day, referring to a trip Simon
made shortly before getting MND. “Other
dadas haven’t climbed a mountain.”
For Ruth, it isn’t just that she has been forced
to learn how to live with MND taking her
husband from her; there has also been the
journey towards understanding that her
own survival depends on a painful shifting
of emotional focus, away from constantly
thinking “about how to make things better
for him” back towards how to make things
bearable for herself. (It is her journey of
self-discovery, to use an American cliché,
combined with her reliance on her female
friends, that has meant the book has already
been optioned for a movie by the same
production company that brought us the
Oscar-winning Room.)
“As you go on and on and on, you can’t
give everything you have to someone else. You
burn out, and I can’t burn out because I have
five kids. I have to stay strong in lots of ways,
not just for him but them – and for myself.”
Some might say that the story of Ruth and
Simon Fitzmaurice is a “love story” in reverse
too – the happy start with the sad end – but
then that would be missing the point. The
story that Ruth tells right up to the present
day is a story of love, only not of the hearts
and flowers kind.
At the beginning of 2008, just back from
the Sundance Film Festival, Simon started
complaining that his foot was feeling floppy.
“It’s the stiff clutch on that ridiculous car
you drive,” Ruth told him. (He drove a Golf
convertible, too fast, with pumping music and
with Jack in the back.) “Get another car.” But
the foot got worse. “I knew there was something
wrong,” Ruth remembers, “but I didn’t engage
with what it could be at all. I didn’t think like
that. I must be quite an optimistic person. When
you have young kids, you are so in the present.
He was so busy, too. He’d just got back from
Sundance. His career was taking off. I suppose
I thought, ‘There is no time for being sick.’
There was also probably a bit of, ‘We are in love
and meant to be together. Nothing will ever
happen to us.’ That our life together was meant
to be and everything was going to be fine.”
But Ruth’s father, a GP, was worried. Simon
went through every test possible and then,
finally, they found themselves in a consultant’s
room, not related to their impending third
child, but with a neurologist giving the news:
three or four years left to live.
Simon and his side of the family went into
denial. “Simon couldn’t cope with the idea
of his own demise. He didn’t want to talk,
didn’t want to think about it. It was very
much, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’ It is just
not his personality, so I accepted that and
went along with it,” says Ruth.
She, however, was not in denial, especially
given her own family’s medical background. In
those first few months, when Simon and his
family were convinced he did not have MND,
Ruth remembers being crushed by moments of
“Why us?”. She says, “It was like a crash. Your
world flips from one thing to another. It’s just
so stark.” But she understood too that she had
to cope with her husband’s optimism.
In September 2008, their third child,
Arden, was born. Simon was already limping.
By January, Simon went with his mother and
sisters to England to pursue an alternative
diagnosis with a private clinic. He tried
everything, from healing to transfusions.
Meanwhile, his legs were giving up. By March,
with three small children in the cottage that
had been bought to provide an isolated and
tranquil backdrop to Simon’s scriptwriting,
The Times Magazine 45
Ruth travelled to England to collect her husband
and bring him home to Ireland. There was, she
remembers, a time when she tried to live up to
the laminated lists of vitamins and treatments
that were intended to cure him, but it was all
hopeless. He was getting worse and nobody
could deny it. They decided that they would
take the children to Australia for six weeks, for
sunshine and adventure and to visit old friends.
He boarded the plane in a wheelchair and
yet, Ruth says, although she was doing all the
caring herself at that stage, the trip was such a
success that they stayed six months, much of
which time Simon spent working on a script
for a feature film, My Name Is Emily. But Jack
needed to start school, so they returned ready
for September 2009, selling their romantic
cottage with its isolating environs to move
back to Greystones, Simon’s childhood town.
The disease was making inroads into their
lives, physically and practically, at alarming
speed. Suddenly their home became full of
carers, robbing Ruth of any privacy: “Nurses,
nurses everywhere … filling kettles … Nurses
at the microwave nuking fragrant food during
our dinner … standing over our bed at night
as we sleep … catching me in my knickers …
They are just doing their job … Nurses in
every corner of our tiny house.
“It is so intense, the living you are doing,”
Ruth recalls. “It was such a short space of time
but it feels like you are living in a different
time dimension almost. It’s so intense that
it feels like years are going by, and this is
only punctuated by things getting worse. You
hold yourself in the moment and think, ‘OK,
function with that,’ and then every time it
takes a slide you go through the grief and
the trauma, then you pick yourself up and
go, ‘OK, this is the new norm.’ Every time you
think, ‘OK, I’m going to break now.’ And then
you pick yourself up and carry on.”
It started to become difficult for Simon to
hold a coffee cup. His arms went. Then his
voice started to get softer; his speech became
slurred. In 2010 he went into respiratory
failure. He was rushed to hospital. By accident,
he was intubated. (In contrast to Ireland, both
the US and the UK do place MND sufferers
on ventilators, depending on circumstances.)
Given that Irish policy would have let Simon
die, it is incredible to contemplate what he
achieved on leaving hospital on a ventilator.
The first thing was that they wanted to
conceive another child. An act of madness,
perhaps? “There were no practical discussions
between us along the lines of, ‘Should we do
this?’ Ruth explains. “It was the opposite of all
that death and hospital, and a celebration of
the fact that he was home. I thought, ‘Let’s
have another baby because we still can.’ ”
It was not easy – a lot of struggling with
wires and beds – but they did it. “It wasn’t the
most practical decision,” Ruth acknowledges.
Ruth with her
swimming friends
‘Children are upset,
with empty cups. They
are fighting for toast.
It has to be you, because
there is nobody else’
When she announced she was pregnant,
there was a bit of eye-rolling from those around
her – “My mum is always worried about
me. She’s been worried about me my whole
life” – but at 21 weeks a scan revealed twins.
“Everybody was blown away. It just felt like it
was a gift of, ‘Yes, you did the right thing and
we’re telling you doubly that you did.’ ”
Hunter and Sadie were born in April 2012,
by caesarean, and Simon was wheeled into the
room for their birth. Three weeks later, Ruth
was rushed to hospital with sepsis. It was only
years later that Ruth found out from one of
the medical team who treated her that she
too had been about to die.
It is the tiny things about Ruth Fitzmaurice’s
big tragedy that really hurt, particularly her
role as both carer and mother. Each slow,
incremental loss is painful: having to sleep
next to Simon smelling the cream a carer is
rubbing into his limbs; then finally, after six
years, moving out of the bedroom altogether
because she can’t sleep or function the next
morning owing to the noise of the machines;
knowing that really there is no way out; seeing
the children fighting and breaking a plate
when it is her heart that is breaking. “Kiss me
on the lips,” Simon’s American voice once said
to her. “My mother kisses me on the forehead.”
“You can’t curl into a ball in a dark room
because children are crying with empty cups.
They are fighting for toast. It has to be you,
because there is nobody else to do it.”
In 2015, after a crowdfunding exercise,
Simon became the first man with MND to
direct a film, My Name Is Emily, which received
great critical acclaim. “MND is defined by
loss, by what it takes away,” Colin Farrell says,
voicing Simon’s words in the documentary.
“But this is me taking something back.”
Every day nurses drove Simon to locations
near his home and he communicated with the
actors via his computer voice. The project was
a release for Ruth since it emptied her home of
carers as well as providing the joy of seeing her
husband alive and creatively engaged again.
Her own creative release was her notebooks,
which – after writing a piece for an Irish
newspaper about the power of swimming
in the sea – would become the book.
She will never stop worrying about the toll
Simon’s illness takes on the children. “I am the
same as any mum,” she says. “I keep a close eye
on my kids. People crash at different points but,
for me, I’ll always put any issue back to, ‘Oh, is
it about their dad? Is it because of what is going
on?’ But we’re not as insular now and I’ve got
a good infrastructure of friends who help me.”
These days, while Simon might be watching
films in a cinema created in his parents’
garden or writing – “I’m not sure how much
work he is doing these days” – she will write
on her best friend’s kitchen table. And swim,
with what she calls the Tragic Wives’ Club. In
another extraordinary act of bad luck, Simon’s
best friend is now also in a wheelchair after
being paralysed in a cycling accident. His wife,
Michele, is in the “club”, whose members dive
off the steps of the local cove all year round to
stay sane and feel temporarily free.
“I suppose it’s only now, in the later stages
of Simon’s illness, that I have had to grapple
with the fact that the way he deals with it is
possibly difficult for me,” Ruth says. “Who
knows where it is going to end up. The hard
part now is trying to hold on to him as his
communication gets slower. The man who is
my husband, yes, he’s still there, especially
when it comes to the kids. I don’t know how
Simon exists as he does. It’s incredible. It says
something about human adaptability.”
The loss of any communication at all is, she
says, Simon’s cut-off point. “It’s a scary time
ahead if he loses all communication. We are not
there yet and I hope we never have to be there.
“It’s weird, especially at the moment as
the disease progresses, because the most
wonderful things and the most painful things
are happening simultaneously. If our lives
had just gone on as they were, I don’t know
who I’d be. I don’t know if I would ever have
pushed myself to write. I think complacency
was taken from me and maybe that is not a
bad thing. I feel now that my life is lived in
this urgent, very vital way and, to be honest,
I prefer the person I am now. I’m not saying it’s
a good thing that Simon got MND, otherwise
I’d never have found that out. But I do think
that things just happen the way they happen
– and it leads you to places you don’t expect.” n
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice is
published by Chatto & Windus at £14.99. To read
an extract, go to
The Times Magazine 47
An Al Jazeera studio
at the broadcaster’s
headquarters in Doha,
the capital of Qatar
It was the most important newsroom in the Arab world. Now its bureaus
are being shut all over the Middle East. Qatar, the network’s backer, is facing
diplomatic embargoes. And many neighbours – not least Saudi Arabia – want
the TV station closed down. Richard Spencer reports
hen I ask Salah Negm why
he is laughing, I think I am
expecting him to come out
with a string of journalists’
tales from the front. We
reporters all have them,
of course, stories of chaos,
slapstick disaster and idiot
officials, and at 60 Negm has
had a longer career than most
to stock his cupboard with them. Wiry, short,
grey-haired and moustached, he is the absolute
caricature of a certain type of mischievous
Arab intellectual. A lifelong newsman, he
could with some justification claim to be one
of the founders of modern Arab journalism
– though he doesn’t say so, having more than
the average newsman’s self-deprecation, too.
I realise quickly, though, that the question
is a mistake. When he replies, there is a
seriousness to his tone as if, despite the constant
smile, his profession is no laughing matter.
Journalism is always chaotic, he says, but that
is bound to be the case, because so is news. He
then reverts determinedly to his main theme,
the importance of allowing everyone to speak
freely, no small matter and one on which it
is hard to disagree. He continues to smile, but
broadcasts of the Fifties that occasionally
it suddenly dawns on me that as an Arab with
resurface; even, dare I say it, of the Queen on
a career well into its fourth decade, the laugh
Christmas Day. What do we hear, as we listen?
might not be one of comedy, but of a mixture
We recognise the form and understand the
of triumph and nervousness.
content, to be sure. We do not dispute that
This is a region where news pulsates through
English is being spoken. But it is definitely not
every home, and with real consequences, and
the same English – it is a different dialect to that
yet scores of journalists are locked up every
which the rest of us employ today. We may not
year, or worse. In Greek tragedy, from where
remember exactly when our language changed,
the term “killing the messenger” comes, the
or why, but we know it has, whether we like
said messenger is often a semi-comic figure.
it or not, and with it we recognise subliminally
He teases out the suspense of the horror he is
that our culture, our way of thinking about
about to tell while gurning for sympathy from
the world, has changed, too.
the audience, and then revels with
For the Arab world, the day that
them when he is allowed to go free.
language changed is more recent,
So it is, perhaps, for Negm, as he
and we can be much more specific
explains what it was like to set up
about it. November 1, 1996, was the
the most important newsroom in
date that Middle Eastern politics
the Arab world.
ceased to be a monotone (an often
Negm was in at the start of Al
high-pitched one), when those
Jazeera, launch head of news for
in power, according to the news
the network that, from an unlikely
bulletins, began to do more than
home and unlikely beginnings, has
Salah Negm, now
attend diplomatic functions and
been making waves for two decades. Al Jazeera English’s
endless meetings with each other,
It is now facing its most serious
director of news
and their doings were no longer
crisis: as part of their blockade of
intoned by newsreaders with a Coronation
Qatar, its desert home, regional powers led by
broadcast’s deference. That was the day Al
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain
Jazeera launched and began to percolate via
and Egypt are demanding its closure. It has
satellite into tens of millions of Arab sitting
ruffled one too many feathers – or finally lost
rooms, filling them with an entirely different
control of its mission to destabilise the region
discourse and way of looking at their world.
and spread its Islamist ideology, according to
When I say language, I mean it literally.
your viewpoint. It is not funny at all.
“There are more than 20 Arab countries,” Negm
says. Each has its own accent or dialect. “Before
To understand the significance of Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera, someone in Morocco could not
to the Arab world, I find it helpful to think of
understand someone from the Gulf, and vice
wartime Pathé newsreels or the public service
50 The Times Magazine
versa. Only Egyptian Arabic could everyone
understand, because of the movies they make.”
Egypt has traditionally been the centre of the
Arab film industry, though that is changing
now. With the advent of Al Jazeera, viewers
began to get used to dialects and accents from
all over the region. “Before, countries only
watched their own channels,” Negm says.
It is a political irony that a greater sense of
cultural Arabic unity began to emerge just as
the politicians themselves began to abandon
formal dreams of pan-Arab unity. That,
however, was an unintended by-product of
Al Jazeera’s work. The real revolution came in
the content of television – and thus of people’s
lives, since our view of the world has for half
a century been so closely intertwined with the
TV in the corner of the sitting room.
At the beginning of the Nineties, television
for most Arabs meant Egyptian soap operas
and films, some dubbed BBC programmes – I
remember sitting through an episode of Fawlty
Towers in Amman in the company of a group
of silently baffled Jordanian men – and a news
bulletin straight from the central propaganda
department. From the beginning, Al Jazeera
put up politicians to be grilled in public, who
suddenly had to be careful about how they
answered, because they could not dictate how
they were edited. Issues arising were debated,
rather than orated, in fearless current affairs
shows by local Arab analysts – with ordinary
people ringing in their views, too. News became
a live event, rather than one scripted to local
regimes’ interests.
Within a few years, people knew the faces of
Abdul Samid Nasser
presenting a segment
on the Syrian uprising
in 2011. Far left:
the network’s Doha HQ
Al Jazeera presenters, including women, better
than they did those of their country’s ministers
and officials. Whether by chance or design,
Al Jazeera added a local twist to international
current-affairs formats – such as the BBC’s
HARDTalk and CNN’s Crossfire – that proved
astonishing. The Opposite Direction, a version
of Crossfire in which a pair from opposite sides
of a debate thrash out their views, made a
superstar of its “moderator”, Faisal al-Qassem,
a British-Syrian who had been working at BBC
Arabic. Qassem, an unlikely television host with
a touch of the Richard Whiteley – comb-over
and middle-aged-man silver-rimmed specs
– had been lined up to do a financial news
programme for Dubai TV when an Al Jazeera
executive spotted his habit of waving his
hands around a lot during interviews.
It was an observation of genius. With
Qassem, “moderator” was not the mot juste.
While getting visibly excited himself, he goaded
his participants into challenging each other with
ever more extreme flights of rhetoric. Fights
sometimes ensued. Years of Arab self-censorship
were swept away. Qassem chose the most
sensitive subjects, pitting fundamentalist clerics
against free-thinkers, spokesmen for Gulf
monarchs against Marxists, often refusing to
tell participants who their opponents were until
the last minute to prevent them walking out.
Instead, he managed to achieve that feat
on air. Safinaz Kazim, a conservative Egyptian
Muslim, stormed off set halfway through a
debate with Tujan al-Faisal, a Jordanian feminist.
Qassem claimed it was the first time this had
happened on Arab television. “I warned her,
‘We are live on air,’ ” he subsequently recalled.
“She responded, ‘Even if we were on Mars, I’m
leaving.’” An Algerian ex-prime minister walked
out on another programme. He demanded
that the tapes be stopped only to be informed,
to his horror, that he had been going out live.
Qassem declined to be interviewed for this
article; the presenters are well aware of the
controversy they now attract. In an article for
Al Jazeera’s website, though, he has succinctly
stated his philosophy. “If they give you one
metre, take three,” he wrote. He also originated
– or repeated – one of the wittier quips told
about the station’s relationship to its tiny host,
Qatar. Middle Eastern ambassadors to the
capital, Doha, it is said, are really only ever
ambassadors to Al Jazeera. Kuwait was the first
to shut down its Al Jazeera bureau. Jordan did
the same after a heated episode on its relations
with Israel; others frequently recalled envoys
in protest at what was said about them. Now,
after the blockade, it is easier to name countries
where Al Jazeera is banned than welcomed.
Al Jazeera is not a commercial station, though
there once was some thought it might be. It
takes some ads and receives its dues from
satellite companies, but it is dependent on
Qatar’s deep pockets for its enviable technology
and studios, its 70 bureaus around the world and
its reach. But its more sensationalist instincts
suggest a marketing flair that would not be
out of place in a commercial organisation. It
knows what to do when a videotape of Osama
bin Laden turns up on its doorstep – as such
tapes regularly did, hurled at its office in
Kabul from a passing motorbike, during the
al-Qaeda boss’s years in hiding. And the
channel launched its English-language version
just as it was beginning to attract controversy
across the West for the hold it had on the
Arab mind – particularly the anti-American
mind. How was it, US generals asked, that Al
Jazeera camera crews were so quickly on the
scene of attacks on American soldiers in Iraq?
Al Jazeera English is considerably more
sedate than its Arabic sibling. Many of its first
broadcasters were renegades from the BBC,
who found the “Britishness” of the national
broadcaster, even on the World Service, as
constraining the sort of hard-hitting, serious
programmes they wanted to make. “We don’t
do royal stories,” Giles Trendle, its (British)
acting managing director, tells me proudly.
“If we do, we cover it through how the story
is represented in the media.” Its earnest,
questioning tone, looking at the “story behind
the story” through its weekly strand called The
Listening Post, is straight from the BBC manual.
The timing of Al Jazeera English’s launch
was impeccable. It had been going for just four
years when the Arab Spring came into view,
and it was spectacularly placed. Other
networks that covered “difficult” countries
such as Syria and Libya through a network of
stringers and fixers found themselves competing
directly with a channel that had experienced,
native-language locals, with their own camera
crews, already in place. Overnight, western
suspicion of the network changed to admiration.
Al Jazeera was being watched in Downing
Street as well as Cairo, and enthusing young
radicals on European as well as Arab streets.
Its record of covering fewer stories in greater
depth – pioneered by Salah Negm, by now the
English strand’s director of news – was ideally
suited to an all-enveloping news story such as
the Arab uprisings.
Many of Al Jazeera’s current troubles stem
from those early days in 2011, when the days
of stodgy old dictators such as Hosni Mubarak
were coming to an end. Trendle and Negm
both deny that the Al Jazeera channels’
enthusiastic, compulsive reporting up in the
face of the banner-waving crowds incited
revolution, but Trendle acknowledges that it
might seem that way. The station’s cameras
– English and Arabic – were at the government
press conferences as well as on the streets,
but it was clear which “side” of the story
The Times Magazine 51
was going to get more attention and sympathy
from the viewer.
“I can understand how someone could say
we were a cheerleader,” he says. “I would contest
it, though. We were there on the streets as
protests were unfolding.” He acknowledges
that the reporting in those heady days might
now seem naive. But as he also says, who is
entirely innocent of that charge? Negm is
more robust. It is not Al Jazeera’s fault that the
Syrian uprising turned into civil war, he says.
The symbiotic relationship of the media with
politics and telegenic crises such as popular
protest movements goes beyond Al Jazeera,
for sure. It is easy to see why autocrats such as
President Assad of Syria kicked it out, though,
and why the Gulf monarchs have now turned
against it. News outlets that challenge dictators
to tell the truth and be answerable to their
people are by their nature revolutionary in such
societies. More of an issue are the opinions
that are expressed in the satellite feeds of
broadcasters which claim to “speak for the
people”, in a region where secular and religious
dictatorships have so skewed public opinion.
The accusation made most commonly
against Al Jazeera is that its reporting is biased
towards the Muslim Brotherhood and political
Islam. That does not necessarily mean it is
“censored” in that direction by Qatar, though
it is home to numerous Brotherhood exiles; it
may just reflect the fact that, with the failure of
Marxism and nationalism, Islamism is a very
common political attitude in the Arab world,
shared by many journalists. The station’s
bureau chief in Beirut in 2008, Ghassan bin
Jiddo, prompted outrage by organising a
birthday party for the newly released Samir
Kuntar, a Hezbollah operative who had been
jailed in Israel for kidnapping and killing a
father and his four-year-old daughter, whose
head he smashed against rocks. Unfortunately,
Jiddo’s praise for Kuntar was probably shared
by many of his audience. On Al Jazeera’s often
cited anti-Israel bias, the channel points out
that it was the first Arab station to put Israeli
officials live on air. That too was a revelation.
Is this a full defence, though? It is
interesting to consider this question in the
light of the differences in coverage between
the English and Arabic channels, again a
highly controversial issue.
Al Jazeera English, full of liberal western
journalists, is often accused of being little more
than a PR exercise for the more politicised
Al Jazeera Arabic, which is speaking to a
far more vested audience. This can be seen
in everything from the greater prominence
of Islamist politics to the make-up of the
newsroom: the Arabic version is overwhelmingly
male and middle-aged, compared with the
English one, which is much more even.
Nervana Mahmoud, a UK-based Egyptian
commentator and regular critic, points out
Al Jazeera satellites
at their Doha base
that Al Jazeera’s independence can, in British
terms, be seen as a shortcoming as well as
a boon: it sets its own terms of reference
and decides for itself what “balance” means.
Its “open access to all voices” policy means
that sectarian and hardline Islamists, even
UN-designated terrorists, are given a platform
in a way that would be far more problematic
for western broadcasters. “Al Jazeera is
not just an unapologetic tool that promotes
various form of political Islam, including
its radical ones,” she says. “It has openly
broadcast toxic sectarian coverage.” Partly, of
course, the controversy is good for the ratings,
but it also appeals to baser prejudices. The
station used to host a regular talk by Yusuf
Qaradawi, the rabid spiritual leader of the
Brotherhood. On another occasion, Faisal
al-Qassem asked rhetorically whether the
Alawites, the sect from whose members
Assad’s family comes, should be exterminated.
Even Al Jazeera English, since the
collapse of the uprisings, has become markedly
more partisan, as if hoping to buttress its
earlier reporting. It is understandable that
its reporting of the Qatar crisis should be
pro-Qatar – it has to defend itself, when
it is part of the story – but some working
for it say one side now seems to be treated
with greater respect in any dispute. “In Libya,
[Khalifa] Haftar is bad; [the] Government
of National Accord is good. In Syria, Bashar
is bad; [the] opposition is good. In Egypt,
[President] Sisi is very bad,” claims one editor.
“We get phone calls.” Whether those calls
ultimately originate from within an editorial
office, or from the authorities, is not clear, but
he notes that “the overlap with Qatar’s foreign
policy is pretty clear”.
One question that is too rarely asked is this:
if Al Jazeera is not a political project, and is
not a national project such as the BBC, and
is not a commercial project, what is it for? It is
still expanding: it has a Swahili version now in
east Africa, and a Balkans one broadcasting in
Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian from Sarajevo.
A former employee of the latter told me that
Al Jazeera had had the same effect there as
in the Arab world – challenging parochialism,
bringing a perspective that was not tied to a
political party. Journalists flocked to work for
it. But, the reporter told me, something odd
had started to happen: as journalists became
established and well known, they tended to
leave. There didn’t seem to be anything in
it for them any more. Audiences liked the
channel’s impartiality, but couldn’t work out
why they had to spend so much time watching
news from other Balkans countries, and the
rest of the world, rather than local stuff. News
is news – but can it really be divorced from
the viewer’s sense of identity?
Al Jazeera Arabic has a profound Arab
identity, for better or worse, and has remained
relevant precisely by being true to its origins:
a television firmly located in the Sunni Arab
world, broadcasting the news and a wide
variety of the views of Sunni Arabs, including
violent and sectarian ones, back to them.
Arab leaders are nervous of this, as they are
nervous of their own people – they do not
know where this crazy cacophony will lead.
Still, those audiences, those identities, are
there, and even if their revolutions have now
been stopped in their tracks, so too are their
voices. Qatar has stood firm, so far, against
Saudi Arabia’s demands, and the chances are
that Al Jazeera will survive. n
The Times Magazine 53
How to turn a dark
Cotswold mill into
a family home? With
reclaimed materials,
vintage paint colours
– and enough room
for seven children
REPORT Helen Kirwan-Taylor
PHOTOGRAPHS Andrew Beasley
In the kitchen, reclaimed
metal chairs are covered
with sheepskins, shelving
is made from scaffolding
planks and the pendant
lights are supersized. Left:
Nia Morris and Paul Baines
in the terraced garden
ou could say design inspires love.
When Paul Baines, a consultant in
paediatric intensive care, saw a feature
on designer Nia Morris’s London
home, he got in touch. Five years later,
the couple – who dated at Oxford
before both finding other partners
– are this month marrying at their joint new
home in Gloucestershire.
Baines has four children, aged 17 to 22,
and Morris three, aged 19 to 25, so the former
mill with 16 acres of land had a big job to
do. “The house needed to function for both
of us, as well as when all seven children
and their various girlfriends and boyfriends
are around,” says Morris. Gloucestershire
was the midway point on the map between
London, where Morris previously lived,
and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in
Liverpool, where Baines works. “Originally
we just wanted a place that was equidistant,”
Morris explains. “We always thought it was
going to be a part-time house, but gradually
we all preferred being here.”
Bran Mill was not love at first sight. “It was
dark and badly planned, but I knew it had
potential,” she says. “I also liked the fact it had
56 The Times Magazine
a cottage, as we needed all the bedrooms we
could find.” (They now have seven.) The couple
moved in for 18 months to test it out while
Morris, who retrained as a designer after many
years as a City lawyer, considered her options.
She believes a house should be true to
itself. “I knew it was never going to be a grand
country house,” she says. “I wanted to retain
the industrial heritage by using reclaimed
materials, including the wooden floor and
terracotta tiles. I left the rivets exposed on the
new staircase too. There’s no point in trying to
hide anything.” She even got her builders to
turn scaffolding planks into kitchen shelving.
The first design decision was to knock out
the back wall of what was previously the
kitchen and erect huge glass and metal doors
to connect it to the garden. The second
decision was to make a double-height front
entrance. “I wanted to create impact when
you walk in, even if that meant losing space
in a bedroom,” Morris explains.
Baines made few demands. “All he asked
for was a study filled with books,” says Morris.
So she carved out a room within the large
living space, using floor-to-ceiling bookshelves
instead of walls. “He is very happy now.”
Clockwise from far
left: the living room
is painted in Paint &
Paper Library’s Squid
Ink; staircase rivets
are left exposed; the
study, with bespoke
bookshelves; utility
room painted in Farrow
& Ball’s Arsenic shade
Morris wanted to use plenty of colour, and
not where you always expect it. “I painted the
living room in Paint & Paper Library’s Squid
Ink, a dark blue-green. It was always a dark
space. We knew it would be an evening room,”
she says. Her favourite colour, pink, is dotted
around in various shades, from the Bert &
May encaustic tiles in the guest bathroom to
the delicate pink of the antique throw on the
couple’s bed. In the kitchen, she covered
reclaimed metal chairs with sheepskin throws.
The terraced garden, designed by Philip
Nixon, a friend and three-time Chelsea
gold medallist, was cleverly designed to
prevent any sort of flooding while providing
entertaining space. “We wanted organised
planting that was also informal,” says Morris.
Design might have brought the couple
together but it also highlights their differences.
“Paul always says the house was fine as it
was,” Morris teases. The final decision, yet
to be made, could be the hardest: what breed
of dog to choose. “It’s not going to be easy,”
she says, “with nine different opinions to
take into account.” n
The Times Magazine 57
Birds of Pa
cr ystal wine dise
£18 5 for six asses,
, Gurasu
By Ruth Corbett
3 1
1. £18, Pentreath & Hall ( 2. £14, Heals (
3. £99, The Conran Shop ( 4. £47 for a multicoloured set
of six, Pols Potten ( 5. £153, Moser ( 6. £79,
Berlingot ( 7. £49, Heals ( 8. £49, Nason
Morettu ( 9. £79, Berlingot (
10. £15 for a set of four,
From £6,
Canvas Home
11. £15 for four, JDW ( 12. £7.50, Canvas Home ( 13. £145, Timothy
Oulton ( 14. £10 for two, Denby ( 15. £4, Dunelm ( 16. £165,
Christofle ( 17. £26 for four, LSA ( 18. £32, Marimekko (
19. £6.99, H&M ( 20. £409 for two, Verreum (
21. Gin coupe, £26 for two, LSA ( 22. Gin balloon glass,
£26 for two, LSA (
23. £35, IIttala (
24. £59 for set of four glasses and individual jugs, Pols Potten
( 25. £49 for a set of six whisky glasses, Made in
Design ( 26. £5, Leonardo (
27. £4, John Lewis ( 28. £10, Heal’s (
29. £7.50, Canvas Home ( 30. £4, John
Lewis ( 31. £6, Canvas Home (canvashome 32. £22 for a set of six, Leonardo (madeindesign. 33. £48 for six, Paperchase (
How to get dressed
Hilary Rose
Have hat, will travel
have two questions for you today. 1. Do
you have a sunhat? 2. Do you wear it?
My problem isn’t that I need one, because
I already have one. My problem is putting
it on my head. That hat has travelled the
world without ever seeing the outside of a
hotel room. I dutifully pack it every time, but
when I get there, seeing as I pay a fortune for
Sisley facial sunscreen, I feel like I might as
well put it through its paces.
I accept that this is deranged. It is also
part of a wider pattern. I have a beach bag
that has never seen a beach, because it is
roughly the size and weight of Ireland, and
I have an expensive holiday clutch bag made
of bamboo. You read that correctly. I have a
clutch bag, just for holidays, made of bamboo.
I am a ridiculous person. I’m not sure if it
makes it better or worse that I love it and
I do actually use it.
If I were tempted to build up a library of
hats to leave in the suitcase, and frankly, given
my history, only a fool would rule it out, then
Sur La Tete’s wide-brimmed hat would be in
with a chance. It has a stupid name, the
Calamity Cattleman Cowboy hat, but don’t
let that put you off. It’s straw, with little
nuggets of turquoise round the crown and a
wired rim so you can scrunch it how you like
(£21.95; The designer
equivalent is Melissa Odabash’s Elle style
Reiss has the Athos block colour straw hat,
What we love
CLUSE, £79
£14.99, Lindex
You read that correctly. I have
a clutch bag, just for holidays,
made of bamboo. I am ridiculous
with a black brim and natural crown (reduced
to £55;, but Columbia Hats’ Sun
Ridge navy and white stripe wide-brimmed
hat is packable and looks pretty unbeatable
for £21.95 ( Rae Feather’s
Fray Panama hat has a distressed brim and
comes in a jaunty orange (£160; raefeather.
com). I’d love Missoni Mare’s navy and white
stripe wide-brimmed mouldable hat (£195;; alternatively Biondi’s
plain white Seeberger lattice hat is the same
idea (£59;
Sadly for me, I don’t seem to be having a
summer holiday this year, although I did get
a week in St Barth’s at Christmas, so I can’t
really play the sympathy card with much
conviction. Instead, I will attempt to channel
Jon Bon Jovi’s belief that summer in London
is magical, something he once told me in the
middle of winter with all the confidence of a
man who’ll be long gone by July, when the
rain’s coming down in sheets.
I’ve interviewed him a few times actually,
as you do, but I was careful always to maintain
strict journalistic impartiality, as you would
expect. I never allowed myself to be bowled
over by his charm, and if you believe that,
you’ll believe anything. So if you happen to
be round at mine this weekend, I’d like to
make it clear that that is absolutely not a photo
on the mantelpiece of me in Philadelphia,
being hugged by the great man. Absolutely
not. Your eyes deceive you. Understood? n
Summer watches
TIMEX, £64.99
TID, £176
GUCCI, £620
The Times Magazine 61
Lesley Thomas
Is this the end of mascara?
Longer, thicker eyelashes – the treatment everyone’s talking about
have gone for a whole week without
mascara. Dun, dun, derrr! My spindlylashed sisters will understand that this is
big news. Mascara has always been my
desert island make-up item. All other slap
is a luxury to me. Other than testing it out to
share my findings with you, I don’t really wear
foundation. Concealer can be very useful on
a bad under-eye day. I find the application of
lipstick unnecessary if joyful. Eyebrow styling
is a ridiculous, fantastic minor preoccupation.
But mascara is the thing I actually need. Even
on the days I don’t care too much what I look
like (rare), I apply at least one slapdash layer of
Benefit BADgal Lash (£18.50; benefitcosmetics.
com) or Givenchy Noir Interdit (£25.50; It’s not only because I look
100 times better with fatter lashes. It’s also
because if I don’t wear it, people openly
wonder whether I am tired/hungover/
depressed/coming down with something.
But all this has changed! I’ve just tried a
treatment that has given me slightly better
than average-looking lashes. Which is an
eyelash revolution for me.
The LVL Enhance treatment is perfect for
those of us who would like better lashes but
are not quite so concerned as to do something
as crazily time-consuming (not to mention
cash-consuming) as spend three or four hours
getting eyelash extensions.
Essentially, it’s a gentle semi-perm of the
upper lashes that bends them upwards from the
root, so that they appear longer and fuller, and
What we love
H&M, £8.99
‘The process began with my
asking the therapist, “Will my
lashes definitely not fall out?
OK … Are you sure?” ’
your eyes look wider. All of which is usually my
mascara’s job. The treatment has been available
for at least a year in the UK, and a few beauty
editors have given it rave reviews. However,
anything with the word “perm” attached to it
gives me the fear. Not wanting to risk what
little I have, I have been biding my time to see
whether anyone’s lashes fall out afterwards.
The treatment began with a plastic strip
being placed over my barely there lower lashes
to protect them from the perming solution.
Actually, the treatment began with my asking
the beauty therapist, “Will my lashes definitely
not fall out? … OK … Are you sure sure?” (My
fear is irrational and unfounded, of course.)
Next, with eyes closed, my upper lashes
were pulled upwards over silicone shields and
the perming solution was applied. This is not
nearly as uncomfortable as it sounds. I lay
there for about 15 minutes, eyes closed, lashes
pasted down, feeling a bit silly. A good,
experienced therapist will get the angle just
right so that the outcome is neither too
dramatic nor too subtle. I was more than happy
with mine, which I had done at Vaishaly Clinic
in Marylebone (from £80; but
the technique is at many salons now (see I threw in a dark-brown
lash tint as well, and the whole thing took less
than an hour. Three weeks later, my lashes
are still lifted and black – as though I am
permanently wearing clump-free mascara. n
Make-up bags that double as clutches
The Times Magazine 63
Eating in
Nadiya Hussain
Fresh strawberries
in a classic Victoria
sponge – can a cake
get more summery?
For the strawberry buttercream
• 200g unsalted butter, softened
to room temperature
• 400g icing sugar, sieved
• 4 tbsp whole milk
• 7g freeze-dried strawberries
• 250g fresh strawberries, 100g
hulled and thinly sliced, the
rest halved with green tops on
2 Place the butter and sugar into
a large mixing bowl and, using
either a handheld or stand mixer,
beat them until light and fluffy
and almost white in colour.
3 Add the eggs a little at a time
and beat in until well combined.
Add the vanilla bean paste and
mix in quickly until just
4 Add the sieved flour and baking
powder and, using a spoon or
spatula, fold the mixture until all
the flour has been incorporated
and you have a thick and glossy
cake batter.
5 Divide the mixture between
2 tins and level off the tops. Bake
on the middle shelf of the oven
for 25 minutes. You will know the
cake is ready when it springs back
to the touch and starts coming
away at the edge. A skewer
inserted should come out clean.
6 Take out and leave to cool in
the tins for 10 minutes, then turn
out onto a wire rack to cool
7 Meanwhile, make the
buttercream. Put the butter and
icing sugar in a bowl and beat
together until the mixture is well
combined and fluffy. Add the
milk and mix again. This will help
to slacken the buttercream slightly.
8 Throw in the freeze-dried
strawberries and stir them
through. The longer the
dehydrated berries sit in the
buttercream, the more of their
beautiful pink/red colour will
bleed into it and create a light
pink-hued ripple.
9 To assemble, place one cake
on a serving plate. Take half
the buttercream and smother
over the top of the cake. Layer
with the sliced strawberries and
place the other cake on top.
10 Spread the rest of the
buttercream on top and decorate
with the halved strawberries. n
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.
Line and grease 2 x 20cm round
sandwich tins.
You can find all of Nadiya
Hussain’s recipes for The Times
ho doesn’t love
a simple Victoria
sponge? It’s one of
the first cakes we all
learn to make and,
done well, it can
soon become a
staple in any home.
It certainly is in
ours, whether it’s a hybrid of
the original or the original itself.
This is my take on the classic
strawberry Vicky sponge, which
uses equal weights of eggs, butter,
sugar and flour. If you want to be
superprecise, you can weigh the
eggs, as they always vary in
weight, and adjust the other
ingredients accordingly. I’m using
the creaming method, which
gives a lighter, more airy result
than the all-in-one method
(where you tip everything into
the processor at the same time).
The rise in popularity of baking
means we have so many more
interesting ingredients available
to help us push the boundaries of
our recipes. You can get freezedried versions of pretty much
every kind of berry these days,
but it’s strawberries I love the
most. When they hit the moisture
of the buttercream, they release
some of their pink colour and
create a beautiful pink rippled
effect. With the addition of fresh
strawberries as well, the resulting
cake is sweet, light and refreshing.
If there’s a better cake to celebrate
this weekend’s Wimbledon finals,
I can’t think what it would be.
The key to a good sponge is to beat
the butter and sugar together really
well, for up to five minutes, until
they are pale and not at all gritty.
64 The Times Magazine
The key to a good sponge is to beat the butter
and sugar together really well for five minutes
Serves 12
For the cake
• 225g unsalted butter, at room
• 225g caster sugar
• 4 medium eggs, lightly beaten
• 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or
• 225g self-raising flour, sieved
• 2 tsp baking powder
Eating out Giles Coren
Restaurant Writer of the Year
‘Fiery, original and
challenging, this is
southeast Asian on
a par with anything
in the land’
Zheng Chelsea
66 The Times Magazine
helsea is not absolutely the last
place in the entire world that
I would go looking for brilliant
authentic Malaysian cooking, but
it comes close. What with the wellupholstered complacency of the
locals, the lack of any significant
oriental population, the high
throughput of tourists and idle shoppers
in need of plasticky chain food, the sky-high
rents and concomitant historical lack of any
decent restaurants here at all, Chelsea is
perhaps the second last place in the known
universe that I would go in expectation
of fiery, original, challenging but entirely
successful Straits Chinese cuisine.
The last place would be Oxford. So that
shows what I know. Because when I went
to Oxford two years ago I found Zheng,
unquestionably the best authentic ChineseMalaysian restaurant outside London. And
now it has spawned an offshoot in Chelsea.
So Zheng may well now be the best inside
London, too.
In making the short journey down the M40
(I assume they came that way, although traffic
on the ring road and up the Stokenchurch
cutting might have had their sat-nav yodelling
for the A41 detour), Zheng has shed some,
but not all, of the seven chefs of seven
different Asian nationalities that it had
stowed away in its capacious Park Town
kitchen, thus trimming down the previously
effulgent menu to more modest proportions,
put that menu on posher paper between
posher covers, spread itself over three floors,
invested in some lovely Danish wooden
tables (that wipe beautifully clean at a
swipe) and changed the colour scheme
to a more Chelsified black and gold than
the old splatter-and-run of the mothership.
I’ll tell you now that my recent lunch there
was not the most untouchably incognito and
independent restaurant visit I have ever made.
As was the case with the original Zheng and
before that SoJo (reviewed by me in 2009),
where Zheng chef/prop Adam Abdullah
cooked previous to striking out on his own,
Zheng Chelsea was brought to my attention
by my old Irish-Malaysian friend, Sean Reilly.
(Can you guess from his name which parent
was Irish and which Malaysian?)
Sean and his twin brothers, James and
Eiran, are great gourmands and very generous
chaps. They have a Malaysian approach to
patronage, hospitality, quid pro quos and
all that, and there is just no point, when
Sean suggests eating at “Adam’s new place”,
in saying, “No thanks. I’ll go on my own
disguised as a Peruvian guinea-pig trainer
called Rita and try to catch them unawares.”
I could not review it at all, of course, but
then what good what that do?
To be honest, I wasn’t fancying it much
when the Monday morning came round
for my visit. It was 33C in London, my very
earlobes were sweating by the end of breakfast
and the thought of a cross-town shlep for
what would, inevitably, be a gigantic spicy
Zheng Chelsea
4 Sydney Street,
London SW3
(020 7352 0957;
Score: 8.33
I’m giving it the
same score I gave
it in Oxford, because
it is just as good. But
I can’t break it down into
“food”, “service” and
“atmosphere” because
my relative closeness
to the establishment
makes the last two
unmeasurable to me.
banquet was not an altogether pleasant one.
Really, I just wanted to lie in the shade all day
and nibble lettuce leaves. Like one of those
Peruvian guinea pigs.
But of course the weather in Malaysia
is much hotter than that (as I discovered
on a cricket and eating tour with the Reilly
brothers many years ago) and they manage
to eat Malaysian food, don’t they?
So I slipped into shorts and flip-flops,
hopped in the Jag (the Fiesta’s air conditioning
hasn’t worked since the hot spell of June
2005), slammed on the air con and oozed
through the sticky streets of Paddington, into
Hyde Park, around the Serpentine and down
into South Ken.
Zheng was empty. Restaurants in Chelsea
mostly are at lunchtime and especially early
in the week. But nobody goes to Chelsea for
vibes. In fact, the locals don’t go to Chelsea
at all. They stay home in Russia, Saudi and,
well, Malaysia, and leave our police, fire,
environmental services, army and stable
government to look after the empty houses
they’ve invested their money in. Which is a
shame, because they are missing out on some
top quality Peranakan scoff.
Sean and his brother James and their
mate “Westy” (Sean always travels with an
entourage) were ensconced at a table at the
back when I walked in, with a bottle of white
burgundy and a Gevrey-Chambertin that
James had brought along and a bottle of 2013
Opus One – one of the most famous wines in
the world – provided by Adam, who sat with
us for a bit, though didn’t eat.
“I thought I’d try the Opus One because
it’s about £450 on our wine list,” he said. “And
I ought to know what it tastes like. But I don’t
usually drink alcohol at all, so I thought it was
horrible.” The Reillys and Westy did not think
it was horrible at all and I, sadly, didn’t drink
it because I was driving. But it was by some
way the most expensive bottle of wine that
has ever sat open on a restaurant table at which
I was eating.
Sean had clearly already ordered – I hope
you’re getting a sense of the extent to which
I was not in charge here – because out from
the kitchen almost immediately came two
dishes of satay beef and chicken. Sean loves
his satay and the boys avowed it some of
the best ever. I don’t really care for satay
but it was beautifully done, glazed and
fat and shimmering. Me, I’d probably have
ordered the cucur udang just to try, but
nobody asked me.
Then came some perfect salt and pepper
squid with mounds of chopped garlic and
chilli and scallions and the extraordinary
“Crispy Cereal King Prawns” that I first
encountered in their Oxford restaurant: king
prawns fried with chilli and curry leaves and
covered with a heap of sugary cereal like a
sort of fish tombola. The cereal is a vanillascented oaty thing by Nestlé and the whole
business of eating it is both wonderful and
profoundly disquieting.
Then came a plate (by “plate”, here, I am
mostly meaning “black ceramic oblong with
wobbly edges”) of chilli peppercorn king
prawns, fried with chilli oil and coriander,
wonderfully dense and meaty and fair rippling
with umami.
Then some wonderful sambal sea bass
in which a huge fillet had been floured with
incredibly fine wheat starch and fried to a
sensational sticky crispness, then drenched in
a fruity sambal sauce, beefy with the muscle of
dried shrimp paste (belacan).
There was a plate of my favourite noodles,
char kuey teow, with a wonderful heft and
chewiness to them, a mild soy sauce element,
loads of king prawns, and a salty crunch from
crispy fried onions.
Roast duck was especially unctuous and ripe
and served over peanuts in the Malay fashion,
so that you get a crunch to the sweet fatty
duck mouthful and then a scatter of nicely
duck-greased nuts to fiddle with afterwards.
With your chopsticks.
Then came a dish which has appeared
on my bill as rendang chicken but definitely
wasn’t, being a bowl of crispy chicken chunks
with some cashew nuts, a lot of dried chilli
skins and a mouth-numbing dose of Sichuan
pepper – a nice counterpoint to the sloppier
vegetable dishes we had on the table at the
time: stewed aubergine, French beans with
garlic, gai lan with garlic …
For pudding, there was sago melaka,
king of desserts. I am sure it had nothing
to do with the only complaint in my original
Zheng review, which was that they had no
sago melaka, but it was pleasing nonetheless.
The frog spawn here had been scented (and
coloured) with essence of roses, which gave
a wonderful new dimension to the treacle,
condensed milk and sago that is really the
only dessert in the world I care for, being
less sweet than our western efforts and so
much less stodgy.
I insisted upon a bill and got one for
£252.40 to cover the food eaten by the
4 of us, though spending £100 less would
not send you home hungry. Adam insisted
on paying for the booze, which I didn’t drink.
But only because I was driving. If I hadn’t
been, I would have slugged it down with glee.
Nobody turns down a glass or two of Opus
One for such poxy things as “principles”.
I am fascinated to see how Zheng Chelsea
pans out. Food this good and this unusual
would normally never be found in Chelsea.
You might expect it in murkier parts of west
London, out east, perhaps in Shoreditch, or in
Soho, the sort of places foodies go in quest of
the new and wonderful. But will our modern
foodies be able to shed their prejudices and
venture this way, to the home of the old
and dreary, the staid, the overpriced and the
pompous, for southeast Asian on a par with
anything in the land?
If they have any sense, they will. n
The Times Magazine 67
3 tbsp white miso
paste; 1 tbsp soy
sauce; 1 tbsp honey;
100g unsalted butter,
at room temperature
1 knob ginger, grated; 1 tbsp
olive oil; 2 tbsp harissa paste;
juice 1 lime; 2 cloves garlic,
Zest 1 lemon; 2 cloves garlic,
crushed; 1 tsp paprika; 1 tsp
cumin; ½ tsp ground coriander;
1 tsp cinnamon; ½ tsp dried
chilli flakes; olive oil
2 stalks lemongrass; 4 shallots;
1 tbsp fish sauce; 1 tbsp soy
sauce; 1 knob ginger; 2 red
chillies; 2 green chillies;
1 small bunch coriander,
stalks included;
vegetable oil
Simply mix
the ingredients
to make the rubs
– only the Thai
recipe will need to be
whizzed in a blender
with enough oil to form a
paste. Smear over chicken,
then roast as normal, covering
with foil if it starts to brown.
RECIPES Tony Turnbull PHOTOGRAPHS Romas Foord
Beta male
Robert Crampton
‘Not for nothing is Hull
known as the “Barcelona
of the north”. Similar
climate, similar culture,
similar scenery’
And so, as Sammy Pepys never said – to Hull.
To clear out (as the celebrated 17th-century
wiggy weirdo diarist didn’t say either) the
familial home. Never mind old syrupy Sam:
in our own less wiggy era, his namesake (my son,
also called Samuel), plus me and his mother,
spent the weekend performing that very task.
We set off at an ungodly hour, igniting the
Honda shortly before 6am. When I say “we”,
the truth is Sam and I slept pretty much all the
way. I can’t speak for Sam, but I checked out
adjacent to Loughton on the M11, not to regain
consciousness until just east of Goole on the
M62. Or A63. I’m not sure when it transitions
from one to the other.
My daughter, Rachel, you will note, was
not on board. She had arranged, sensible girl
that she is, to forego the opportunity in favour
of an 18th-birthday treat with Cousin Steve
in Barcelona.
Shortly before our arrival a shade after 9am
(thus logging a near enough record time for
the trip), Rachel texted her nearest and dearest.
“Barcelona is amazing,” she wrote, having
not long landed in Catalonia. “How are you all
getting on in Hull?”
Hah-hah. I didn’t have the heart to
tell her that not for nothing is Hull known
as the “Barcelona of the north”. Similar
climate, similar culture, similar scenery, similar
swaggering artistry of local football team – the
parallels are uncanny. OK, so Barca’s got that
whole wobbly Gaudí cathedral thing going on,
but fair’s fair, Hull has “the best scrimshaw
collection” in Europe, as any visitor to the Hull
Maritime Museum will swiftly learn. I reckon
that evens things up.
Talking of art, in the 36 hours Nicola, Sam
and I spent in the once and future City of
Culture, we allowed ourselves just three short
breaks away from the sad duty we were there
to perform. One (obviously) was to catch a bit
of sleep, one (equally obviously) was to go to
Chants chippy for nutritional sustenance – and
the other was to check out the latest exhibition
at the Ferens Art Gallery.
That exhibition – Spencer Tunick’s Sea of
Hull – happens to feature my son. Sam, along
with a few thousand other brave souls, decided
a year ago to strip naked, get sprayed turquoise
and pose for the camera. Rather him than me.
Walking his parents through the display, Sam
confidently identified himself among hundreds
of blue-painted bodies on a bridge over the
river. His mum loyally claimed she could spot
him among the crowd. I couldn’t see it myself.
Still, cracking effort, son. Respect.
Back to the job in hand, I’ve been nibbling
around the edges of this ghastly clearance task
since my dad died in mid-2011. Following my
mum’s demise 18 months ago, in the period
prior to a sale being agreed, which it now has,
I’ve made further intermittent efforts to thin
out the enormous quantity of possessions they
had accumulated over 8 decades.
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again:
my parents’ generation, the first to benefit
from postwar affluence matched to postwar
materialism, owned more sheer stuff than
any generation has before or will again. That
is doubly true if they were educated and
therefore set a lot of store by books, magazines,
newsprint, paperwork in general. Trebly true if
they had tendencies to hoard. Quadruply true
if they were lucky enough to own a big house.
A perfect storm. One which basically
guarantees an absolutely ridiculous amount of
crap to shift. Just when you think you’re getting
somewhere, you discover another filing cabinet,
another shelf, another stash of box files.
Hey ho. First-world problems, right?
Most people on the planet still own near
enough damn all.
Besides, when I say “sad duty”, the fact is
I actually felt better about the bereavement
business returning to London late on Saturday
than I had leaving the capital early on Friday.
Why? One reason.
You will recall that recently, following the
heatwave I wrote about, it rained very heavily.
Not before time. Good for the garden. And so
on. And yet, in terms of my ancestral home
– the gutter being blocked, the roofing felt
not being in the first flush of youth – it meant
the front room had leaked rather disastrously.
Result: sagging wallpaper, sodden carpet, my
dad’s erstwhile desk awash. I found this out
only 24 hours before my visit. Nightmare.
The property’s estate agent, surveyor and
prospective buyer, none of whom owe me
much, only one of whom I’ve met, came across
this catastrophe before I did. And you know
what? Between them, realising the contents
of that desk were precious, they had carefully
extracted each and every item and laid them
out to dry in the safety of the kitchen.
Guys, I’m immensely grateful. More than
I can say, in truth.
My faith in human nature was always
strong. It’s now stronger than ever. n
© Times Newspapers Ltd, 2017. Published and licensed by Times Newspapers Ltd, 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF (020 7782 5000), printed by Prinovis Liverpool.
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