My job entails quite a bit of motorway time, trogging up and down between my home in Nottingham and my firm’s HQ in Milton Keynes (or Milk & Beans, as my five-year-old gleefully refers to it). Combined with the debit position on my sleep account, this is increasingly causing me problems. I avoid caffeine since I had horrible withdrawal symptoms a few years ago when ill and avoiding dairy, therefore milk, therefore tea; so I tend not to have an artificial stimulant to keep my eyes from creaking closed on a journey that has no interesting features left after a thousand repetitions, and music tends to have a lulling effect regardless of whether it’s Norah Jones, the Prodigy or Tinie Tempah.
Thus I have a tendency to channel hop across the radio waves, desperately seeking something to grab my attention: a tune I can yell along to at the top of my nearly-tuneful voice, a sporting event to transport me into instant-expert mode, or an interview with someone interesting, funny or provocative. Recently I was listening to 5 Live of a morning, the natural habitat of one Nicky Campbell, a presenter who can tick all three of those boxes within a couple of sentences, and found myself engrossed in an interview with the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Now the aforementioned Mr Campbell has an effective tendency to take a diametrically opposing stance when talking to anyone from the political classes; this ought to be worthy of praise, as it shows the sort of balance which ironically tends to get the BBC into trouble with both sides of an argument, each claiming bias towards the other, but actually it just winds me up and I end up impotently grizzling at the indifferent set of black plastic buttons on my dashboard.
Mr Gove however is ruthlessly unruffled by Campbell’s digging. He doesn’t get riled, he does not come across aggressive, he just maintains a consistently reasonable but assertive tone, and I find myself nodding and smiling slightly as I listen to him talk. It is easy to claim that this is just the mark of a good politician, but when I look around both Cabinet and anti-Cabinet I struggle to point to many who have this ability. Of course, it helps that I appear to largely share Mr Gove’s views.
I should underline just how dangerous this. My wife, regular readers will know, has recently joined the rank and file of intelligent communists known to most of us as teachers. Having passed her courses with the outstanding grades that everyone but she expected, she will be mixing with teacher sorts for a great many years to come. Inevitably I will come into contact and perhaps even socialise with some of them. One of the defining characteristics of being a teacher is (in the majority of cases, I should caveat) innate disagreement with any authority who might dare to presume to tell you how to teach, and that absolutely includes the current Education Secretary, especially if the party in power happens to be the Tories (it causes delicious dichotomy when Labour are in the hot seat, a dilemma solved between 1997 and 2010 by the comforting assertion that it wasn’t “real” Labour in charge). So Michael Gove is public enemy #1 of the day in the eyes of most teachers; publicly declaring an affinity for him when one is going to spend any significant period in the company of teachers is therefore akin to walking around Jerusalem with a swastika on one arm and a Danish cartoon emblazoned on the other.
This got me thinking though, and I realised quickly it’s not just Gove for whom I have an admiration shared by a tiny minority. Politicians as a whole are unpopular of course so admitting a liking for any except the slightly ridiculous Boris Johnson is likely to raise eyebrows, and certain individuals within that profession seem to be almost universally reviled: Alastair Campbell, not even a true politician in most people’s eyes but very much a historically important figure in British politics, is one such. And yet I was pleased to hear his dulcet tones inevitably commenting on the News of the World’s spontaneous combustion recently, and took my finger off the tuning button to harken unto his words. Yes, he is a political beast and therefore you have to take what he says with a skipload of salt; but I cannot help but like the way he says it, and I often agree with what he says. He would be on the shortlist at least for my fantasy dinner party, although I probably wouldn’t sit him next to Gove.
My unnerving penchant for controversial figures doesn’t stop at politics. Sport has its own plethora of unlikeable personalities, or lack-of-personalities in many cases. I don’t understand the hysteria around how likeable our sports stars are. Bear in mind that these tend to be people who have unhealthy, all-encompassing obsessions with repeatedly throwing a pointy thing at a piece of soft wood, putting one foot in front of the other for 26 miles as fast as possible, or hitting something small and round with something long and hard a long way. It often doesn’t require a great deal of intelligence, just determination and above average rating in some physical characteristic. Why then do we expect only funny, likeable people to win stuff? Likeable people make up only a certain percentage of the population and funny people a far smaller one, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Sports Personality of the Year is often a misnomer. Andy Murray will I am sure someday be a contender for this title, but most people’s opinion seems to be that he is a very good tennis player but switch off before the interview. I’ve long been a fan though, in fact since he won the US Open boys’ title as an 18-year-old. He was criticised as his career developed for being moody, sullen when he didn’t win, and overall not very engaging with the public. Perhaps I see myself in him; I too don’t like losing, although I have rather more experience there than he does, and am often not at my most personable self afterwards. I too as a teenager was prone to oscillating mental state, but I didn’t have to play mine out on television in front of millions of intolerant armchair experts. I suspect in person, away from the media, he’s a pretty decent bloke and worth sharing a few beers with, and I will continue to robustly defend him against ill-targetted criticism.
The recently-deposed heavyweight boxing champion, David Haye, was subjected to howls of derision after losing his much-anticipated bout against the popular Auslander Wladimir Klitschko and blaming it on a broken toe. In the ensuing days he gamely appeared on 5 Live Breakfast when many would have ducked public interrogation, and I found myself avidly listening. For a man who had displayed much bravado – somewhat untasteful at times – prior to the fight, he was, I thought, dignified and humble enough without undermining his towering confidence; stopping short of self-depracating but admitting freely that he was not good enough on the night. Very different to the man who was interviewed on the same show in the weeks leading up to the fight, but even there the open aggression was, to my mind, clearly for show; I wouldn’t call his bluff, but then, as afterwards, I felt that there was a man who was as driven as any boxer but, unlike most, his natural arrogance was not offputting, and he gave away an intelligence bubbling below the surface that I hope he does not compromise by entering too many more rings before he withdraws from the limelight.
Unlike in sport, in the world of entertainment, your persona is pivotal to your chances of success. Even before there were 200 channels to flick aimlessly between, viewers would not put up with watching someone they didn’t like, unless it was in a pantomime villain sense. So there must be a significant number of people who like Jeremy Clarkson enough to continue tuning into Top Gear; the show is as much about the presenters as the cars, and the cars alone would not be enough to get you hooked if you really couldn’t stand the man. Yet I have never been able to find someone who will admit to liking him. Unlike some of those mentioned above, I don’t share a lot of views with Clarkson, so there cannot be a natural bias in that way. What I do like is how he says what he says, both on television and in print. I like his unsubtle metaphors. Perversely, I like his hammed-up intolerance. I like his blokiness, and that perhaps is the characteristic that means I struggle to find other supporters; I don’t really mix with blokey blokes on the whole, few of my friends being comfortable chatting up the barmaid in the pub while playing pool and watching a football match they’ve had a sneaky tenner on.
Lastly there’s the TV chef that it seems to be fashionable to cock a snook at: Jamie Oliver. Here is a guy who is successful, personable, passionate about a cause; and yet it seems to be impossible to mention the guy without sneering at his “Mockney” accent and his endeavours to improve school food. It’s funny how hypocritical we all are about school food. Eat, eat, we tell our kids; it’s good for you. Yet when we talk about our own experiences of school dinners, there is rarely a happy tale, and plenty of stories of lumpy ice-cream scoops of mash, watery vegetables, and that grainy custardy thing that doesn’t seem to exist outside of academic institutions known as “semolina”. Along comes someone who wants to make sure children are getting the most healthy and yet still enticing food possible for the meagre budget at hand, and we denigrate him? Where on earth is the logic in that? I know the cynical view is it’s all for personal publicity, but I’m sure there are easier methods of self-promotion, and frankly I believe he is doing what he thinks is right. He very clearly cares about giving talented kids opportunities to get into the catering industry, and all kids the opportunity to experience enjoyable food, and I only wish I were in a position to have a crack at having a positive impact on people’s lives.
Many of the recipes I’ve shared through this medium have come from the pages of Jamie Oliver books. Much of his food is high-end and too finicky and/or expensive for our current circumstances, but his books do also have hidden gems that have made it onto our portfolio, such as the basic risotto recipe and a couple of his variations on it, and the Trapanese pasta that I tweaked to be simple pesto and tomatoes. This one is another of his pasta recipes, really quick and simple; if like me you don’t like olives, just don’t eat them, but still do put them in as they add to the other flavours.
Stracci and spicy aubergines, serves 2
- Half an aubergine, diced small
- 1/2 tsp coriander seeds, ground
- Tsp chilli flakes
- Tin of chopped tomatoes
- Small tin of black olives, stoned and chopped
- Splash of red wine vinegar
- A few sheets of lasagne pasta
- Handful of basil leaves, ripped
- Handful of grated Parmesan
- Seasoning to taste
Fry aubergine, coriander and chillies in splash of oil until golden. Add tomatoes, cook for five minutes, add olives. Cook for 10 minutes or so and season, add red wine vinegar if desired. Cut the pasta into random shapes and cook, then stir through the sauce and the basil leaves. Serve with the Parmesan.