German PoWs who found love and liberty on Britain’s farms

More than 25,000 prisoners of war who worked on our farms returned to live here. On Remembrance weekend Nigel Farndale discovers their stories
(The Times, November 11 2016)

Having fought as a young man in the First World War my grandfather was too old to fight in the Second. Even if he had been of serviceable age it is doubtful he would have been allowed to join up, given that he was in a “reserved occupation”, farming. He was expected to dig for victory instead.
The Second World War did, nevertheless, come to him in the form of German prisoners of war. An army truck would collect them from a nearby camp every day and deliver them to the farm, which was in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire. Because there was a food shortage after the war — as well as a shortage of manpower, before demobilisation at least — many of the German PoWs were obliged… (read more at the Times (Paywalled))

Donald told me how he did his hair

The Times, September 20 2016

As Trump and Clinton prepare to debate on TV, Nigel Farndale, who has met both, has some tips.

As scoops go, it is not quite up there with Watergate, but I was the first journalist to uncover the secret of Donald Trump’s brushed-forward, combed-over hairstyle, the one that looks like a sunken apricot soufflé. He wets it, then applies copious amounts of hairspray.
That was in 2008. When it became clear last year that he really was running for president — that it wasn’t a weird joke — my interview with him did much pinging back and forth on social media, especially in America.
“People always comment on my hair,” he told me, “but it’s not that bad, and it is mine — look.” He tugged on the front. “I mean, I get killed on it. I had an article where someone said it
(read more at The Times)

Dinner with Margaret Thatcher: the story of a secret supper

In 1982, London’s leading literary lights gathered for a secret dinner party. The guest of honour? Margaret Thatcher. Nigel Farndale interviews the survivors
The Observer, Saturday 7 December 2013

On a clear autumn night in 1982, a government Daimler pulled out of Downing Street and began its glide across London to a house in Ladbroke Grove. In the passenger seat was a personal protection officer. He had been to the house earlier that day to check the security arrangements for the evening and had decided there was no need to include sniffer dogs or metal detectors for the guests. (The Brighton bombing and the enhanced security that would come with it were two years away.) In the back was Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister.When they parked, she stepped out and entered the house without fanfare. Indeed someone had to whisper to the host, the historian Hugh Thomas, who had recently been created Baron Thomas of Swynnerton: “Behind you!”

An impromptu receiving line formed. There was a sense of both sides sizing each other up, of mutual curiosity, of reciprocated suspicion. She was wearing blue. It made her stand out among the grey and black suits.
When Margaret Thatcher died in April this year at the age of 87, the singer Morrissey described her as “a terror without an atom of humanity” who “hated the arts”. But was he right? Certainly the arts hated her, from dramatists such as Alan Bleasdale and Mike Leigh, to pop stars such as Paul Weller and Billy Bragg. And the literary world hated her so much that in 1986 it had formed the 20 June Group, an allusion to the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler. That group included Harold Pinter, David Hare and Salman Rushdie. The usual suspects.
But back in 1982? Well, you won’t find mention of it in the history books – apart from a single line in Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher – but that was the year that she and the literary establishment had what amounted to a love-in – or at least a brave attempt to play footsie under the table. The occasion was a dinner party.
In the years since, Lord Thomas and his guests have been reluctant to talk about that night, or even acknowledge that the dinner took place, but not long ago, when I met him for lunch at the House of Lords, he finally agreed to shed some light on the proceedings. I’ve also spoken to some of the surviving guests, including the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard and the poet Al Alvarez, and based on their recollections, as well as diaries and letters, I have been able to piece together what happened on that extraordinary evening.
The guest list read like a who’s who of literary London including, as it did, the poets Stephen Spender and Philip Larkin, the novelists Anthony Powell and Dan Jacobson, the writer and critic Sir VS Pritchett, and the Peruvian novelist (and, later, presidential candidate) Mario Vargas Llosa (described by one guest as “some Panamanian novelist”).
There was only one female invitee, and she was not known for her love of literature. As the death-obsessed Larkin noted in a letter to his friend and biographer Andrew Motion: “The Thatcher dinner was pretty grisly. Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily. M [Monica Jones, his partner] says: ‘Is it death again, or Mrs Thatcher?’ I wipe the froth from my lips (usually beer froth) and try to stop twitching.”
It can’t have been that grisly because, although guests agreed not to talk about the dinner publicly, Larkin clearly enjoyed gossiping about it to his friend Judy Egerton. “I have had a journalist on the phone trying to get ‘copy’ about it… I can’t say I felt at home, because the talk was all about foreign politics, about which I know nothing, but she was pleasant enough. What a blade of steel! It left me prostrate for 48 hours.”
He also described it, in a letter dated 21 November 1982, to his friend the novelist Kingsley Amis. “The Thatcher occasion was tough going… The worst part was after dinner, when old Thomas initiated a ‘conversation’, and everyone talked about fawn countries and fawn politics, just like the college essay society. There was nothing in that for me. At last I got the blue flash: ‘You haven’t said anything yet.’ I draw the veil.”
He compared watching her that night to watching a top-class tennis player: “No ‘Uh huh, well, what do other people think about that?’, just bang back over the net. I noticed she didn’t laugh much, or make jokes.”
Amis replied on 17 December 1982: “Jolly vivid a/c of the Mrs T gathering. Funny that H-F D (you are a shit) was down at the Jewish end of the table. Might have known that Al, lately as lefty as they come, would get his foot in there. It’ll be Lord Alvarez before we know it.”
H-F D stood for Horse-Faced Dwarf, Larkin and Amis’s unkind private nickname for the author of A Dance to the Music of Time. When the Larkin letters were posthumously published in 1992, Anthony Powell wrote in his diary: “Larkin’s unfriendly comments on myself are all but insane. They are absolutely inspired by jealousy.”
Larkin, for all his protestations about Thatcher being “tough going”, was actually a fan. And the feeling was mutual. “Oh, Dr Larkin, I am a great admirer of your poems,” Thatcher remarked when she first met him. “Quote me a line, then,” he replied frostily. She did: “All afternoon her mind lay open like a drawer of knives.” She had slightly misquoted, and this he took as a compliment. “I thought if it weren’t spontaneous, she’d have got it right,” he wrote to Julian Barnes. “I also thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads.”
There was much agonising by Lord Thomas over whom to invite. John le Carré was an obvious choice – Thatcher admired his fierce anti-Soviet views – but he had another commitment that night. Kingsley Amis was not invited on the grounds that Thatcher knew him well already.
Thomas wrote letters, rather than sending formal invitations, or “stiffies”.
Then he got cold feet that the novelists, poets and playwrights might be a little tongue-tied and that “good talkers” would be needed, so he invited three academic heavyweights as well: the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, the recently knighted historian JH Plumb, then Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and Anthony Quinton, the president of Trinity College, Oxford (and sometime host of Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz).
The meal was cooked by Lady Thomas (formally Vanessa Jebb, the daughter of Gladwyn Jebb, first acting secretary-general of the United Nations), with their daughter Bella and one of her friends, Maggie Evans, acting as waitresses. They dined on pheasant and drank Rioja, a wine that at the time was something of a novelty (indeed, Powell recalled in his diary that he had never before drunk “such filth”).
So why had Lord Thomas invited the literary A-list to his home in order to meet the prime minister? It seems to have been a grooming exercise.
Thatcher’s popularity had never been higher – the British victory in the Falklands war a few months earlier was seen as her victory – but there was a perception that the world of letters was still suspicious of her. She wanted to woo the literary bigwigs, then, give them the “blue flash”, get them on side.
It was also felt that it wouldn’t hurt for her to schmooze a few leading academics as well, perhaps in the hope of smoothing things over when her reforms of the student grant system began to bite. Already she was cultivating the rightwing philosopher Professor Roger Scruton, the editor of the Salisbury Review, but the leftwing academics and literary figures were proving tougher nuts to crack. Thomas was seen as a bridge between their world and the world of Tory politics. He knew Margaret Thatcher well because he ran her favourite thinktank, the Centre for Policy Studies.
As it turned out, the attempt was futile. Three years later, Oxford dons snubbed her by refusing to award her the honorary doctorate that they traditionally bestowed upon prime ministers. And after that she gave up. In fact, she became even more determined to “stop mollycoddling students”. She also seemed to turn on the arts world, vilifying the Arts Council and accusing it of being pampered, self-indulgent and leftwing.
So what else did they talk about that night? According to Berlin, Thatcher complained about the Berlin Wall. “Surely you don’t want to see a united Germany?” Larkin said. “Well, no,” Thatcher replied, “perhaps not.” “Well, then,” Larkin asked her, “what’s all this hypocrisy about wanting the wall down then?”
Looking fiercely bald and wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses, Larkin was widely regarded as the finest English poet of his generation. Two years later he would turn down the poet laureateship. He preferred instead to live a life of relative anonymity as a university librarian in Hull. The letters he was writing at the time reflected his increasingly racist and rightwing views, as well as his obsession with pornography. He was seated next to Stephen Spender, a poet, novelist and essayist who concentrated on themes of  social injustice and the class struggle in his work. No wonder Larkin got drunk.
Al Alvarez, a close friend and early champion of Sylvia Plath, was a short, barrel-chested, broken-nosed man with a passion for poker and rock climbing. His abiding memory of the evening was of joking with Margaret Thatcher about how, with his Spanish name, he had had to keep a low profile since the Falklands. “Her face froze and she turned away.” He had the impression that she wasn’t sure who any of the guests really were. “Dick Francis was more her speed. But we certainly knew who she was.”
In his diaries, Alan Clark talked about the effect Margaret Thatcher had on men. “I got a full dose of personality compulsion,” he wrote, “something of the Führer Kontakt.” There seems to have been an element of that on this occasion. “I hate to say it,” the lefty-as-they-come Alvarez told me, “but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive. She also had this dazzling aura of power around her. But that may be because being a writer is a bit like being a lighthouse keeper: you don’t get out much. I was sitting next to VS Naipaul, who was grilling me about how much I got paid by the New Yorker and how he could get some pieces in there. When writers are together all they really want to talk about are fees.”
Most of the guests fancied her, it seems. Anthony Powell did a straw poll on the subject. “I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia [Naipaul], were in complete agreement.”
The handsome, pouting 45-year-old Stoppard, meanwhile, was at the height of his powers (The Real Thing, starring his future lover Felicity Kendal, was in rehearsal at the Strand Theatre, opening to great acclaim on 16 November that year). He was also politically active, regularly attacking the Soviet Union for its human-rights abuses. Thatcher never made much secret of her weakness for clever, good-looking men. To meet one who bashed the Soviet Union as well must have really set her antennae quivering.
When she was later a guest on Dr Miriam Stoppard’s popular television show Woman to Woman, the first question she asked was: “And tell me, how is Tom?” Stoppard’s strongest memory of the evening is not of meeting Thatcher but Larkin. “I was thrilled to meet him. I also remember feeling out of my depth, because I’m not a political animal and I shouldn’t have been there. I listened mostly.” At the other end of the table Quentin and Berlin were leading the debate – “Full of bounce; by no means shy”, according to Thomas – but guests got the impression that, with her brisk manner, Thatcher wasn’t that interested in anything anyone else had to say.
There was a great sigh of relief when she left at 11pm, with guests filing outside to stand in the road and see her off. According to Larkin, Thatcher said good- night “very civilly”. Two days later he was still in a state of “nervous and alcoholic exhaustion”. But he was clearly smitten. In a letter to his friend the poet and historian Robert Conquest, he wrote: “What a superb creature she is – right and beautiful – few prime ministers are either.”


The World’s Only Female Chain Gang

Until I watch the prisoners line up alongside the chains laid out on the ground, I have half imagined that the term ‘chain gang’ is being used in a loose and euphemistic way.
But no. They are wearing heavy-duty work boots and, as the chains are padlocked around their ankles, they raise their left legs up behind them, bending at the knees like well-trained horses obliging a farrier.
What makes this scene even more disturbing is the sex of the prisoners. They are all women.
This is Arizona, America’s most draconian state. It is also its hottest, averaging around 40°C in the summer, which makes the concept of hard labour outdoors seem all the more cruel.
Although it is 5am and dark, already the heat of this August day is apparent. On a command from Officer Houston – a strong-looking female prison guard who, even without the gun in her holster, you wouldn’t want to mess with – the prisoners begin stomping their right boots, marking time.

After half a minute comes the order to march and, with a stomp of the right boot, followed by a drag of the left, they set off through the corridors of the Estrella Jail, Phoenix. Stomp. Drag. Stomp. Drag.
As it echoes, the sound seems eerie, like a receding freight train. Then the singing starts, a military marching song:
‘Black and white we wear with shame.
These prison guards, they know our names.
We work hard and march for hours;
If we don’t we can’t have showers.
5am is when we rise;
Where we’ll go is a surprise.
No more drink and no more drugs,
No more boyfriends who are thugs.’
As well as a gun, Officer Houston carries on her belt a walkie-talkie, keys, CS gas, a torch, a Taser gun and an extendable baton. She is one of four guards who will keep an eye on the 15-strong chain gang today.
She wears a desert uniform with, less congruously, a pink watch, and she carries a pink folder for the roll-call.
‘Some of the girls pick up the marching and the singing in a couple of days,’ she says out of the corner of her mouth, as if reluctant even to let words go. ‘Others take longer.’

Some of the prison guards, including Officer Houston (far left)
Some of the prison guards, including Officer Houston far left (STEFAN RUIZ)

Chain gangs were done away with in America in the 1950s, but they reintroduced them here for men in 1995 – or, rather, 80-year-old Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who styles himself ‘America’s toughest lawman’, reintroduced them.
The world’s first female chain gang is a more recent innovation of his.
Arpaio is a publicity-loving Fox News regular and Tea Party hero known for his hard-right views on everything from illegal immigration to his belief that President Obama isn’t American by birth.
He’s famously abrasive, divisive – and popular, judging by his 20 years in office. We’ll meet him later.
For now it is time to get into a paddy wagon with ‘Sheriff’s chain gang’ written on the side. The ‘gals’ – that’s what the wardens call them and, in truth, they do all seem alarmingly young, most of them in their early twenties – wait patiently to step on and then shuffle and rattle their way to their seats.

On the paddy wagon on the way to the latest labouring site
In the paddy wagon on the way to the latest labouring site (STEFAN RUIZ)

Perhaps surprisingly, most of them are here for minor crimes such as drink-driving, petty fraud and shoplifting.
As the sun rises, we drive off to a secret destination, one that changes every day for fear that prisoners might notify their friends and attempt to escape. The chain gang is an alternative to ‘the hole’ – that is, ‘lockdown’ for 23 hours a day.
For Vicky Manguso, a 36-year-old mother of three serving nine months for prescription fraud, it means ‘we see something different, passing cars, people. And they let you listen to the radio on the drive out.’

Vicky Manguso, 36, is serving nine months for prescription fraud
Vicky Manguso, 36, who is serving nine months for prescription fraud (STEFAN RUIZ)

They are not allowed to listen to music in the prison. They are also denied salt, cigarettes, coffee, ketchup and mirrors. And the only television they can watch is the weather channel, to remind them of the conditions they have to work in, and the cookery channel, to remind them how hungry they are.
They get two meals a day, valued at 30 cents each, and these are always the same: a bread roll with peanut butter, a carton of milk and an orange.
An hour out of town we stop at an expanse of government wasteland. The prisoners are handed water bottles and factor-60 sunblock.
They then queue up to use the portable lavatory that has been towed behind the wagon. Because of the chains, when one goes they all have to wait.
The work varies from day to day. Sometimes they paint over graffiti and pick up litter. Once a week they bury unclaimed bodies in paupers’ graves, some of which, as Manguso tells me, ‘smell bad’. Today they are clearing weeds and brush.
The earth is cracked and red dust flies up when the women use their shovels. It’s dirty, gruelling work made more difficult by their awkward iron chains.
And the public humiliation. Passing cars honk their horns or slow down so that their passengers can take pictures. One shouts: ‘Was it worth it?’
It reminds you that all this is intended to be theatre, the equivalent of the stocks. The prisoners are not allowed to acknowledge the cars.

The women at work in chains; the unchained prisoner in theforeground is a 'trustee’ – a former chain-gang member who hands out water, food and tools to the workers The women at work in chains; the unchained prisoner in theforeground is a ‘trustee’ – a former chain-gang member who hands out water, food and tools to the workers. (STEFAN RUIZ)

Typically, inmates do 30 days at a time on the chain gang and this is the last day for Delphina Marquel, 25, who is serving three months for cashing a fake cheque.
She is clearly the joker of the group and lightens the mood by pretending to take a coffee order and saying to one inmate: ‘Do you want whipped cream on that?’
Like the majority of the inmates, Marquel is Latino – an ethnic group that Sheriff Joe has been accused of picking on.
He says he’s just going after illegal immigrants but earlier this year he was sued by the Justice Department for civil liberties violations against Latinos.
‘They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,’ Arpaio said in an interview in 2009. ‘And they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.’
Gabrielle Zucker, 20, has two months left of a six-month tariff. She is in for trafficking stolen goods to pay for her heroin habit. She wears glasses and has a tattoo on her neck.
‘My mom turned me in so that I would get off drugs.’
Officer Houston explains: ‘The idea is to teach them to work as a team, as well as learn self-discipline.’
Has it worked, I ask Zucker? She shrugs: ‘Sure.’
I meet Sheriff Joe, as he is known, back in town. He is a small, bespectacled man with a bulb nose and two chunky rings on his fingers.
He has the manner of one who doesn’t care if you like him or not, though people do seem to like him, given the millions of dollars donated to his re-election campaigns.
He is sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and has a population of nearly four million.
‘It’s the only female chain gang in the world,’ he says proudly. ‘Started it with men and thought: “Why discriminate against women?”’
Why? Well, where do I start? This is the 21st century, not the 13th. But on a more personal level, I say that I felt uncomfortable watching women do hard labour. I ask him whether he ever does too.
‘No. The pilot who flew my plane in today was a woman. We have them in the army fighting. And in the police. So no. Things have changed. Why should women be treated different in prison?’
It’s very hot today, I say.
‘It’s cool at the moment,’ he contradicts. ‘You should have been here last month when it was 115°F [46°C]. That was hot.’
But most of them seem to be in for minor offences, I say. Does the punishment fit the crime?
‘Drugs? Theft? Perjury? These are all serious crimes. The other reason we do it is deterrence. Did you notice the people driving by tooting their horns?
I hope the parents who drive past with their children say, “If you do something wrong, that is what will happen to you.”’
Sheriff Joe hopes none of the prisoners told me they liked him.
‘I don’t want them to like me, or the chain gang. I don’t want them to like the food. I want people to read your article and say: “When I go to Arizona I’m going to behave myself.”’
What sort of names does he get called? ‘Hitler. Anything you can think of in front of my building. The protesters will be there in front of my office today, and in front of my church.’

On the paddy wagon on the way to the latest labouring siteBack on the paddy wagon on the way to the latest labouring site (STEFAN RUIZ)

Back on the chain gang, the prisoners are shuffling through the blistering landscape to the paddy wagon, their work done for the day. Their dusty faces are streaked with sweat.
I ask Manguso if the chain gang is a deterrent.
‘I’d seen them before and they didn’t terrify me. Has it changed me? It’s stopped me cussing so much. You get punished if you cuss. I find the marching the most tiring part. It makes my legs hurt, like a dance class.’
Delphina Marquel, the joker who is leaving the gang, rises and says: ‘It’s been an honour serving with you, ladies.’ She then offers Officer Houston a tissue to dry her tears. Houston does not smile.
Back at the prison the women line up and start singing again as they march back inside:
‘Marching through the avenue,
One more week and then we’re through.’
Other prisoners watch them impassively.
‘My back is aching, my feet are sore.
I won’t break the law no more.’
Once inside, they are strip-searched, behind a partition. ‘They make us squat and cough,’ says Manguso when she joins the others, polishing their boots. ‘It’s so embarrassing. When I worked in the kitchens they made us strip together.’
It is time for them to shower and change into fresh clothes. They all have to wear pink pants, pink socks and pink T-shirts – an idea taken from one of Sheriff Joe’s all-male prisons, but one that doesn’t quite work here as the women don’t mind wearing pink – with slogans printed on them such as ‘Meth User’ and ‘Clean(ing) and sober’.

Inside the women have to wear pink prison-issue T-shirts with slogansInside the women have to wear pink prison-issue T-shirts with slogans (STEFAN RUIZ)

All of them have (literally) let their hair down and suddenly look much more feminine. Officer Houston tells me that they find ingenious ways to wear make-up, such as rubbing the coloured adverts in magazines with talc and then dabbing their eyelids with it.
Those not in the hole now head out to ‘the yard’, a gravelled area surrounded by watchtowers, fences and coils of razor wire. It is filled with army-surplus tents.
This is where they live, under canvas on bunk beds. The watchtower lights stay on all night.

Tent City, Sheriff Joe's 'favourite spot'Tent City, Sheriff Joe’s ‘favourite spot’ (STEFAN RUIZ)

Tent City, as it is known, is how the jail copes with the overflow of prisoners. It has been criticised by Amnesty International, but Arpaio recently called Tent City ‘my favourite spot’ in the jail.
There is a rattle of keys as Officer Houston approaches. ‘Tuck that shirt in,’ she barks at a passing prisoner.
I ask her if she ever feels sorry for the inmates.
‘No, I don’t. They are paying the price. I don’t ask why they are in here, but some of them on the chain gang do feel better about themselves for having given something back to the community.’
I overhear a nearby squabble: ‘I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to her.’
Officer Houston hears it too, and says:
‘Be nice, ladies.’


Investigating the BNP

When you contact the British National Party you cross over to the political dark side, a shadowy world over which neither Gordon Brown nor David Cameron hold dominion. There is paranoia behind the voice telling me that I, as a member of the press, will be allowed to attend the launch of the BNP’s European election manifesto, but that I will not be told where or when it is, not until a few hours beforehand. I will also have the chance to interview Nick Griffin, the BNP leader but, again, the timing of this will remain vague for fear of “sabotage”.

So it is that I find myself at a “redirection point”, the Aldi carpark in Grays, Essex, from where I will be taken on to the secret venue. A “Truth Truck” is being unveiled, its billboard showing a white family, all smiles, and a slogan: “People like you voting BNP”. The none-too-subtle subtext is that the BNP is not for “people like them”: black people, people from ethnic minorities, immigrants. Almost immediately, the police arrive. There has been a complaint from the manager of Aldi. The Truth Truck is covered up and moved on.

The venue turns out to be a theatre in the town, a 10-minute walk away. Men and women with red, white and blue BNP rosettes are milling around outside, quite openly. One wears a smart tie and blazer with the insignia of the Merchant Navy. It reminds you that when details of the 10,000 or so members of the BNP were leaked last year, some turned out to be retired policemen, ex-servicemen, solicitors, teachers, even a ballerina – as well as all the white van men and nightclub bouncers you might expect.

There are no protesters today, thanks presumably to the secrecy. Councillor Robert Bailey, an ex-Royal Marine, is the BNP candidate for London. “Most of us are ex-Labour,” he tells me. “The Labour Party used to stand for what we believe in. Now, no way. It’s not just immigration that has changed; it’s our way of life. We’re becoming a Third World country in Europe with no influence, no power and the people not knowing anything about their own history.”

When I talk to other members, they don’t want me to use their names. Is this because they are ashamed? “No, it’s because of the intimidation and threats. Because we might lose our jobs.” A retired man in a trilby tells me that, according to YouGov, many of the people who are intending to vote BNP on June 4 won’t say they are for that same reason, but in the anonymity of the polling booth the true scale of BNP support will be revealed.

Worryingly, he may be right. It is predicted that the BNP may win not only its first seat in the European Parliament but, because of the proportional representation system of voting, as many as seven. To win in the North-West it needs just 8 per cent of the vote, barely 1.5 per cent more than it got in 2004. Griffin is calling it a “perfect storm”. He believes that the combined effects of the credit crunch, the perceived lack of control over immigration and, most significantly, the perception that all of the mainstream parties are corrupt – thanks to the MPs’ expenses scandal – will mean a big turn-out for the BNP. “Journalists are going to say it was a protest vote: well, that is fine with us,” he tells me later in the day. “The British public have a lot to protest about.”

The Conservative Party is so concerned about the BNP benefiting from the expenses scandal that it won’t even discuss the party by name for fear of giving it publicity; in one of his few comments on the subject David Cameron has dismissed the BNP as an “evil party”. Lord Tebbit’s intervention last week was not helpful: he argued that people should punish the main parties in the European elections, though he was at pains to add that he did not mean vote BNP (he meant Ukip, presumably).

Labour, meanwhile, has gone on the attack, mobilising at local level wherever there is a sign of heavy BNP activity. National funding has been provided for “Stop the BNP” leafleting. Cabinet ministers have been warning disillusioned Labour supporters not to vote BNP. They would rather they voted Tory.

That is the peculiar thing about the BNP: it seems to be an amalgam of extreme Left and Right. Its policies include taking Britain out of the EU, deporting all illegal immigrants (and offering legal immigrants money to return home), and bringing back not only hanging and the birch but also National Service and imperial measurements.

Yet it is also, fundamentally, Old Labour. It would take the railways back into public ownership. It rejects globalisation. It believes in strong trade unions and that as much of industry as possible should be owned by those who work in it. In these respects it reminds you that Oswald Mosley left the Labour Party in 1931 to form the party that ultimately became the British Union of Fascists because Labour had rejected his plan to defeat mass unemployment with a programme of public investment. It is no coincidence that campaign leaflets in white working-class areas describe the BNP as “the Labour Party your grandfathers voted for”.

Before she will talk to me, one BNP rosette-wearing woman from Epping Forest, who works for the NHS, wants to know who I will vote for. When I decline to tell her, other than to say it is certainly not the BNP, she takes this in good part and tells me the reason she votes BNP. She is worried that if Turkey is allowed to join the EU, Muslims will be in a majority here within 20 years. “They are going to take us like an army. It’s the way they breed.” They. Them. Always the language of otherness, of fear.

Inside the theatre, Vera Lynn is playing over the sound system. I’m asked not to mention this because she has complained about being used by the BNP in the past. There are speakers and film clips which reveal that the BNP is proud of its new call centre and the row of computers it calls its data processing unit. A suited man who sounds like Charles Kennedy explains the finances of the party and claims that it now has funds of £2million and that “this will send a shiver up the spine of the main parties”. It will be contesting every region in this upcoming election. Simon Darby, the deputy leader, refers to “the greedy, lying, treacherous bunch of swine in Troughminster”.

But the theatre is only half full, with about 100 people, and there is an amateurish feel to the presentation, with slides not coming up and sound systems not working. There is also a propaganda stunt worthy of Maoist China. Three “politicians”, wearing suits, pig masks and rosettes of the main parties, come on the stage and guzzle money out of troughs, before being chased off the stage by construction workers waving banners saying “British jobs for British workers”. This is the slogan the BNP is fighting on –one they had first, as they are delighted to remind me. Gordon Brown, they claim, nicked it from the BNP.

By now the leader is running half an hour late. This, I discover later, is because he has been interviewed by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics in London. “First time I’ve been allowed into a BBC studio,” he is to tell me. “When I was interviewed by Paxman I had to be filmed somewhere other than in the building.”

When Griffin arrives and makes his stump speech it is in front of a poster of a Spitfire. He is greeted with a standing ovation. “We are not going to Brussels to get our noses in the trough but to become whistle blowers about the corruption there,” he says. “We are going to throw some rusty spanners in the works.”

Although it wants to leave the EU ultimately, for now, he says, the BNP will oppose the entry of Turkey into the EU – because otherwise this country will be flooded with “low-wage Muslims”. Someone behind me shouts “Never!” and is rebuked by the Charles Kennedy sound-alike in front of me who turns and silences him with a finger to his lips. Clearly they have been told to tone down the thuggish image for this conference.

Grotesquely, given the British were fighting the Nazis in the war, Griffin compares June 4 to D-Day, a chance for the BNP to get a bridgehead into Europe. And he ends his speech by giving a Churchillian two-finger salute.

It is time to meet. The Labour leader has something other than a slogan in common with the leader of the BNP. They both have a glass eye. I think Julie Burchill’s description of Griffin takes some beating. “To look at, he’s like a plain man who is halfway through eating a handsome one; to listen to, sometimes he sounds sensible, sometimes completely mad. I’ve never seen a face so asymmetrical as Mr Griffin’s. You can actually see his Mr Nice/Mr Nasty sides jostling each other for dominance.”

He is 50 this year, married to a nurse, and the father of four. They live in a remote part of rural Wales with guard dogs and security cameras. His father, a farmer and Tory councillor, met his mother while heckling a Communist Party meeting in north London in 1948. When everyone else has gone, apart from his bodyguards, we wander into the town to find a café. When he offers me a coffee, he says: “With milk? Not white coffee. Can’t say that.” He is wearing a tiny metal poppy in his lapel – the British Legion sign – and cufflinks that have a griffin on them, the crest of Downing College, Cambridge, where he read law.

I tell him that most of the activists I have talked to seemed more concerned with race than the BNP’s official slogan. “The British jobs for British workers slogan has become a way to openly and legitimately express concern about the multicultural transformation of Britain,” he says. “And that is the core of our vote, the reason we are here.”

When Griffin became leader in 1999 he began to change the BNP’s stance on racial issues. He claims to have repudiated racism now, instead espousing what he calls “ethno-nationalism”. But the fact remains that in 1998 he was convicted for incitement to racial hatred for denying the Holocaust. More recently he was acquitted on two charges of incitement to racial hatred against Muslims, after describing Islam as “vicious” and “wicked”.

When he refers to “low-paid Muslims entering Britain from Turkey”, he is presumably, I suggest, blowing a dog whistle to potential supporters who are racist. “No, we’re talking about Turkey because there is a serious plan afoot by our liberal elite to give 80 million Turks the right to come here. Their culture is very different to ours; we find some of their culture thoroughly unpleasant. Giving them the right to come and settle in Britain is a huge issue. I think if British people really understood that was one of the consequences of our membership of the EU, then I think you would find that 95 per cent of the population of this country would want us to leave the EU. It wouldn’t just be the native Brits; it would be the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Christian West Indians, even the moderate Muslims not wanting to be part of an Islamic state.”

So he accepts there is such a thing as a moderate Muslim? “There is, and he is effectively a bad Muslim because Islam is fundamentally intolerant of all other religions. Someone who really follows the Koran is obliged to be a bad neighbour; that is what the Koran tells them.”

The BNP’s “People like you” whites-only billboard, I ask: does it mean that if you are black you are meant to think you are one of “them” and therefore you don’t belong in this country? “I’d never thought of that billboard in a racial sense. What that is portraying is ordinary, happy, family people and not strange people on the fringes of society. Now there may well be people from ethnic minorities who would like to feature on our poster because they don’t want to see any more immigration either, but we think it would send out a confusing and mixed message if we had black faces on that poster – because people would think even the BNP is politically correct these days.”

He claims his is not a racist party, yet he won’t have black or ethnic members: isn’t that as good a definition of racism as any? “It could change but at present, because the BNP is defined ethnically, any discrimination against the BNP is indirect racial discrimination, so members who feel their job is threatened because of the membership can say to their employers if you sack me I will go to a tribunal for racial discrimination.”

Under a European law? “Yes, funnily enough. The other thing is that every other ethnic group in this country has a large number of groups representing their interests – the Black Police Officers Association, Muslim Lawyers Association, Bangladeshi Women’s Association – there are hundreds of them. You try and form an English Lawyers Association and you would be thrown off the Bar Council, or a White Policeman’s Association: you would be up for racism. So the only group that the white, indigenous population of this country has to speak up for them is us.”

If he doesn’t think he is racist, I say, I’d like to know what his definition of racism is. “It’s a term invented by Trotsky to demonise political opponents and, if it means anything, it is about exercising power to disadvantage or hurt other people just because they are from a different racial or national or cultural group, and I think it is wrong. I think there is racism in this country and most of it is directed at the indigenous population. On the streets of Birmingham and Bradford there is an epidemic of racist violence against young white males.”

There are probably a lot of racist people in this country, so might there not be some votes in admitting it is a racist party? “I don’t think so. We almost put on our poster ‘BNP. I’m not racist but …’ because that is what everyone says. They don’t want to be perceived as racist, they don’t feel they are racist but they know there is deep unfairness going on, directed against the native Brits. There are racists out there. The National Front is still out there and that is a rival organisation; it’s very much unreconstructed, hardcore racist and no one supports it. But even if there were votes to be had in racism I would not want those votes because we are not a racist party.”

Is that why he left the National Front? “I realised it was unreconstructable. Tainted goods. I walked away.”

Griffin has become a skilful interviewee. He has learnt to sound reasonable, arguing that any racist or anti-Semitic quotes from the past have been “taken out of context”. (He now accepts that millions of Jews were killed, but claims that some historians still question whether it was deliberate genocide.)

I gather that over the next three weeks the party will be running ad campaigns in newspapers – something it has not been able to do much of in the past. “Last time we did this was two years ago; half the papers said yes, half said no. There are more this time saying yes because newspapers need the money.”

So does he feel he is now coming in from the cold? “We patently aren’t more mainstream. There are politicians queueing up to denounce us. You can usually cut the atmosphere with a knife when our councillors arrive on the first day [they have 56] but after a year or so, when other councillors see that we are just trying to help things improve, they relax a bit. I wouldn’t want to be too normalised, though, because I think that is what has happened to Ukip’s vote. It’s seen to be sleazy as well. When they are treated well by the BBC, that goes against them, because we are both competing for the same anti-establishment vote. When I get on the BBC, they want to rough me up and we have a good old ding-dong and voters realise we are not the same as the others. Very beneficial for us. But we do want to do some of the things the other parties do, like hold a meeting in a public venue and advertise it, like go on The Daily Politics without having a gang of Labour goons waiting for me outside.”

Sounds like he enjoys the ding-dongs. “Yes, I boxed at university and I still enjoy a good scrap.”

A bodyguard tells us we need to move: we’re attracting unwanted attention. A final question, then. What about the argument that Griffin is a liability to his party because of his Holocaust-denying past? “Because of my talent for horrifically vicious sound bites that come back to bite me, you mean? That’s as maybe. I can probably take the party to an 18 per cent threshold but the final step to power will have to be taken by someone else. Before long things that nationalists said when they were young may become like John Reid saying he was a member of the Communist Party when he was young.”

I doubt it. Griffin doesn’t seem to appreciate quite how beyond the pale he is and his views are. The British are a tolerant people. The cloven hoof of fascism does not suit our national temperament. I’ve been trying to work out how the BNP is different from the National Front of the Seventies and the British Union of Fascists in the Thirties and the answer is that it is now playing the victim. The white working class it represents felt superior before. Now they feel inferior and victimised.

The final word should go to the black man who was working on reception at the theatre. I asked him what he made of all these rosette-wearing supporters strutting around his theatre. He shrugged and said: “Seems a shame.”

A shame is exactly what it seems.


Vets in Herriott County

The hours are hellish, the travel gruelling, the emotional toll immeasurable: is it any wonder nobody wants to be a traditional country vet any more… Nigel Farndale visits ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ country and finds James Herriot is long gone

Roll the words ‘country vet’ over your tongue. Only three syllables and three vowels, but all the resonance of a tuning fork. Twenty years ago, these words would have evoked James Herriot, the Dales vet turned best-selling author. All Creatures Great and Small, the long-running television series based on his semi-autobiographical novels, was as familiar and comforting as a log fire or a pot of tea.

Farmers wore flat caps and spoke in broad accents, they were amusingly contrary and dour, and they always seemed one step ahead of the earnest, gentlemanly vets.

But even when it first appeared in the late 1970s, All Creatures Great and Small was nostalgic; set in a folksy 1940s England that was rapidly disappearing. Intensive farming was on the way; thundering tractors had long since replaced draught horses and veterinary medicine was becoming more sophisticated. As Herriot himself put it: ‘Years ago, farmers were uneducated and eccentric and said funny things, and we ourselves were comparatively uneducated. We had no antibiotics, few drugs. A lot of time was spent pouring things down cows’ throats. The whole thing added up to a lot of laughs. There’s more science now, but not so many laughs.’

Nowadays, the words ‘country vet’ evoke…… what… Images of mass culls, probably. The stench of pyres. All those diseases that chill at their mere mention: avian flu, BSE, bovine TB, bluetongue, and most notoriously, foot and mouth.

For a time, the vet seemed to be a harbinger of doom or, worse, an agent of an unfeeling government. Just as priests in the Middle Ages were blamed for the spread of the Black Death – superstitious villagers jeered at them – so vets found themselves held in suspicion by some farmers. It is no coincidence that the first vets were referred to as ‘the priests of nature’.

Does the real country vet lie somewhere between these two stereotypes… To find out, I spent a day with one in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, in part because this was where much of All Creatures Great and Small was filmed, but also because this was where I grew up, on a farm.

A visit from the vet was always worth a stare. To a child, he seemed an exotic creature, always smelling of disinfectant, always using long Latin words when making a diagnosis. One of ours would manage to smoke a pipe as he felt around inside a cow, another always wore a bowtie and had mutton-chop whiskers. He would ask me to fetch him a bucket of hot water, a task that made me feel important. His name was Jack Watkinson and he has since retired. His son, John, aged 48, runs the practice, Hollin Rigg, on the outskirts of Leyburn.

The view from his surgery is one of the most captivating in England: hay meadows framed by dry-stone walls and thick hedgerows that lead the eye up the Ure valley towards the sleeping giant that is Penhill. It is the reason that the television series was filmed here rather than in the more prosaic landscape around Thirsk, which was where Alf …Wight had his practice. That was Herriot’s real name, by the way. He was obliged to take a pen name because British law forbade veterinary surgeons from advertising. The profession has always been blighted by red tape.

The foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 came to within a mile of this idyllic place. It was a stressful time to be a vet. The contiguous cull was a panic measure introduced when state vets realised that the disease was spreading out of control. Farmers who resisted were subjected to dawn raids by government officials accompanied by police in riot gear. Up to 10 million animals were slaughtered – a million of them unnecessarily as they were subsequently shown not to have the disease – and the countryside was turned into a horror show. Plumes of black smoke. The smell of death. An animal holocaust that left witnesses traumatised. Neighbour feared neighbour. Visitors were turned away. The general election was postponed for a month. Researchers at Lancaster University have shown that vets suffered almost as much as farmers, with reports of distress, flashbacks and nightmares – the suicide rate among them increased to four times the national average, and the method was always the same: the same lethal injection that they used to put animals down.

Watkinson is not the depressive type, but he did find the foot and mouth crisis frustrating. ‘It was chaos,’ he says. ‘We felt we were banging our heads against a wall with Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. The licensing and the movement restrictions kept us busy, and I was constantly sending Defra letters on behalf of clients pleading to move their stock from fields with no grass.

‘We would promise to lay down plastic sheeting on the road and burn the plastic afterwards, but there was complete intransigence. From the welfare point of view, it was nuts. The lunatics were running the asylum. All local vets were marginalised. Defra officials would come and say it was their show.’

In two specific ways, Watkinson is a traditional country vet. The first is that he has a Y chromosome. In the past decade, 80 per cent of graduates from veterinary college have been women, drawn to the profession by its caring image as well as television docu-soaps and dramas such as Animal Hospital and Vets’ School. This feminisation of the profession has meant a rapid decline in the number of vets willing to do farm work: only one in 10, compared to 50 per cent 20 years ago. That’s the other way in which Watkinson is a traditionalist. He specialises in farm animals and, as such, belongs to a dying breed. The government was warned of an ‘impending shortage’ of large farm animal vets by a parliamentary committee five years ago, and though it pledged an ‘urgent action plan’, no action has been taken, urgent or otherwise. It is predicted that one in five remaining farm vets will quit within 10 years.

Women vets tend to prefer ‘small-animal’ work in cities, dealing with pets mostly, cats and dogs. And why wouldn’t they… Farm work has notoriously unsocial hours, with emergency night calls a regular occurrence. Small-animal work involves hardly any travel, and the increase in pet insurance means that it pays better, covering as it does more expensive operations and longer treatments.

Watkinson is a Yorkshireman born and bred – friendly and wry, but blunt. When his teenage children – he has three, two boys and a girl – opened an email account for him they called him johnmadvet@… The farmers nickname him ‘Rhino Vet’. ‘Because I’m thick-skinned and I know how to charge.’ And when his assistant sees me arrive with a photographer, he says, ‘I see they’ve sent two of you in case John turns violent.’ The old Herriot humour is still here, then.

Which reminds me of the other reason Watkinson is a good starting point. His father, Jack, he of the mutton chops and bow tie, was the chief veterinary adviser for All Creatures Great and Small – mention this, though, and John Watkinson groans. ‘In veterinary circles, Herriot is long gone,’ he says. ‘Ancient history. And I don’t think as a stereotype it was especially helpful.’

Meaning… ‘Since Herriot, there has been an assumption that veterinary work is romantic and you are not supposed to be business-oriented, but why should vets be different… We have a living to make. This business of ……”We love animals and will work for nothing” is just soft. Get real.’

It is 8.30am, the official start of his long working day, though Watkinson has been on call all night. ‘It is very hard to find an assistant these days because no one wants to do the unsocial hours,’ he says. ‘I advertised for 13 months, a one-in-two-evenings-and-weekend rota, without any takers. Only after we formed a partnership with a neighbouring practice and were able to offer a one-in-four rota did we get a response. A lot of adverts these days specify “no on-call”. But that isn’t what we’re about. Yes it costs you 150 quid to take your dog to the vet at midnight, but it bloody well ought to. That’s the free market. It’s your choice.’

His round begins with his weekly visit to Washfold Farm, a state-of-the-art, computerised dairy unit, where the Metcalfe brothers milk 550 pedigree Holstein cows. ‘The veterinary profession follows farming,’ Watkinson says, ‘and the dairy industry has had a 10 per cent attrition rate every year since the 1960s. So there are fewer farms. Metcalfe’s have gone from 100 cows to 550 in the past 20 years, so from our point of view that allows for those dairy farmers in this area who have retired, like your father.’

He always rings five minutes before he arrives on a farm, to make sure that they are ready for him – because, from the moment he gets out of his vehicle, he charges £60 an hour. They are ready: a row of 50 cows, their heads tethered, their computerised records printed out. In the Herriot films, the vet would strip to his waist, but not any more. This vet has his rubber leggings over his wellies already; now he also puts on his baseball cap, rubber apron and a rubber stopper device over his upper arm (his own invention, made from, I think, an old tyre). It is messy working at the business end of a cow. On comes the arm-length surgical glove. In goes the arm. The cow’s eyes bulge.

Today he is doing fertility checks. He flicks their stomachs with his finger, listening for fluid in the uterus. He presses his stethoscope to their wombs. He studies an ultrasound machine, which is pulled on a trolley beside him as he moves down the line. ‘We all use scanners now,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘Though I was trained to palpate the uterus, teaching your hand how to feel. It’s a dying skill that takes a year to learn properly.’

As he works, he issues instructions to Tom, the herdsman who, strangely enough, has an intolerance to milk – to drinking it, that is. ‘Give this girl one percentile,’ Watkinson says.

‘This girl is having twins.’

‘This girl’s geld [barren]. She might make £600 as beef [as opposed to £2,000 at her milking peak].’

The cows are tagged with electronic censors, so that their steps can be measured every day and their fitness monitored. ‘If a cow gives 10 per cent less milk a computer beeps,’ he says. ‘Better feed, better genetics, this is farming as science. The problem is, fertility suffers. With this one, I’m putting in a progesterone implant.’ He does a double shunt to get his arm farther in. Those widening bovine eyes again.

‘I would say the welfare standards of an intensive unit like this are 10 times better than traditional muck and straw. Mind your back, Tom.’ …The cow coughs and the herdsman is splattered.

The stethoscope comes on for a girl with suspected pneumonia. ‘She’s blowing a bit. I’m always listening to them for coughing and bealing [anxious mooing]. Always looking at the condition of their coats and the consistency of the faeces. Always checking their cudding. They get good value for money from their vet because I see 50 in one morning, rather than on a small farm where I might see one. It’s cost effective for them and regular business for me.’

He sets off again in his red 4×4 – number plate J7 VET, loaded with medicines, smelling of disinfectant – and drives quickly along winding country lanes until he reaches the Wilsons’ farm, about 20 minutes away. He has come to look at some scoured Hereford calves. These are kept outside on verdant, bosomy pastureland and will be bought by Waitrose when they are ready, which means that they are ‘farm-assured’. ‘This one’s badly,’ Watkinson says, taking a blood sample. ‘This water bubbling out of his mouth could be cocci [coccidiosis]. But I think it’s just the transition to barley that’s causing the scour. Try putting more fibre in his diet.’

The clock is still running so there is little time for banter. Watkinson is friendly with the farmers, but conscious of their being nervous about him hanging around at the end of a visit. ‘They joke with me that they like to get me off the farm as soon as possible. You’re always doing a bit of this social chatting and having a whinge together, though. It does both of us a lot of good. People like to belly ache. I don’t charge for 10 minutes’ chatting time. I’d soon hear about it if I did. I always record the times on my tape-recorder. If you are not straight, you are soon out of work because you have to face people next day. Everyone knows everyone else. You are scared of your own reputation.’

Do vets have to harden their hearts… ‘Farmers are more sentimental than you would imagine. You have to be tactful and polite. I put my own dog down five years ago and couldn’t believe how upset I was. I must have done hundreds. I suppose livestock are different: putting them down is an economic decision. Since I put my own dog down, I have been more sympathetic. I have seen plenty of hard-bitten farmers start sobbing when I’ve put their favourite sheepdog down. The sheepdogs are their companions and work mates – in the tractor, in the fields.’

Canvas the views of vets around the country and you soon discover that it’s not just the job that has changed, the diseases seem to be constantly adapting and evolving, too. Bluetongue, caused by a virus spread by midges, is a relatively new import, for example, one that will not be eradicated in the foreseeable future. There is also the excitable media to contend with. Claire Knott is a vet in Norfolk who was involved in massive culls of poultry during the outbreak of avian flu there in 2006. ‘One of the biggest additional stresses of the job these days is dealing with the hysteria caused by the media,’ she tells me. ‘There were some farms we could barely get down because the lanes were blocked by TV crews. They were being impossible in my opinion, feeding the frenzy. We had to spend 48 hours just manning the phones, trying to reassure members of the public that their pet chickens were safe.

‘We had one nursery school that wanted to close down because it was near a poultry farm. We had to reassure them it was safe, which it was. There had been outbreaks of avian flu as far back as 1990, but the media paid no attention to them. Only when it was reported that it might possibly carry to humans was there media interest. Reporting a notifiable disease is a nightmare because you are telling a farmer he may be about to lose his livelihood – and that is very distressing for him.’

Meanwhile, back in Wensleydale, Watkinson explains that he is always on the look-out for symptoms of foot and mouth. ‘You have to know what orf is to know it’s not foot and mouth,’ he says. ‘It is passed down the vets’ folk memory how to spot that.’

One of his bugbears is that because so few young vets want to do farming practice these days, the old skills are being forgotten. And the next time there is an outbreak of foot and mouth, or swine fever, or anthrax, it could prove fatal. Another beef of his, if the pun will be excused, is the legal obligation that vets have to give first-aid emergency treatment free.

‘No other countries have this,’ he says. ‘We do charitable work out of our own pockets all the time. We had someone bring in an injured seagull the other day. And we often get tourists bringing in rabbits they’ve run over. Or rabbits with myxie [myxomatosis]. We have a sick-rabbit box at the surgery entrance for Sundays, with a message saying, “When we get back, we’ll put it down.” Some tourists won’t agree to that, so they will knock on every vet’s door all the way home until it is treated.’

Over lunch – sandwiches provided by his wife, Nicky, back at the surgery – we talk about the unsocial hours. ‘A lot of the difficult vetting occurs out of hours in the farming world. It is a major issue as to who is going to do it in the future. There’s a lot of political chat at the moment about the working time directive. Personally, I think we will have to go onto a subscription service for out-of-hours, like the AA. You may not get home calls from GPs any more – they totally abdicate their responsibility after 6pm – yet we all [as taxpayers] pay a subscription for them. They are only half-doctors. Part-timers. They should be ashamed of themselves. Vets get no taxpayers’ money. We are 100 per cent private.’

Another beef is about what he calls ‘lady vets’. He describes himself as ‘quite cynical’ on the subject. ‘It’s rough, physical work being a farm vet. And a lot of women are dropping out because they can’t cope with the hours. What’s it called these days… The work-life balance…’ Claire Knott, incidentally, has three children, but didn’t take a career break, just 12 weeks off for each. Though, tellingly, her eldest daughter is training to be a vet at Bristol.

Nicky Paull, the new president of the British Veterinary Association, also has an interesting perspective on this. She has a large practice in Cornwall, where the controversial issue at the moment is badger-culling to stop the spread of bovine TB. It has divided the countryside, with farmers and vets pitted against animal-lovers (she is all for culling, but Defra has ruled it out for the moment). Hers is, in other words, a physically demanding farming practice.

‘I encountered sexism when I started here in 1979,’ she says. ‘When I appeared on farms, I would be met with a look of horror. It was like they were seeing a female vicar for the first time. It’s worst with cows because I’m quite slight and short as well – 5ft 2in – so I need to stand on something. I sometimes wish I could get my arm in farther, but you develop techniques to compensate for the lack of brute force.’

She reckons there is no farm work that she cannot do as well as a man, however, and some pastoral work she might do better. ‘Being a vet can sometimes be like being a counsellor,’ she says. ‘During foot and mouth, farmers were very isolated – not being allowed visitors on the farm – so when the vet visited they wanted to talk. I remember there was one farmer who I was quite worried about. He was so depressed. I just sat in his kitchen and we talked and talked until his mood lifted and I felt it was safe to leave him on his own.’

The original set of the interior of the surgery used in All Creatures Great and Small is now located at the Richmondshire Museum, in Richmond, about a 12-mile drive from Watkinson’s practice. He considers this a short run compared to some of his journeys, a 40-minute drive not being unusual. ‘And they are slow miles,’ he says. ‘Not fast miles on a motorway.’ …The rising fuel costs are a problem for him, not least because he does not begin his clock until he gets onto the farm.

He has come to inspect a small flock of Wensleydale sheep. Many farmers don’t consider it viable to call out a vet for a sheep, because the visit costs more than the sheep is worth. The owner of these sheep, though, believes it is her ethical duty to pay for treatment – she even believes in ethical castration with painkillers, which is not something more traditional farmers go in for. Foot rot is the problem today.

As he works in a pen in the corner of the field, Watkinson gives me an anatomy lesson, showing me an ulcer in the joint of the foot. ‘Farmers call it scald. You can’t pare that away. It’s jiggered. I’m going to have to amputate it.’ As he is holding the ewe on her back, he asks me to fetch him a bucket of water. He freezes the claw, then uses cheese wire attached to two metal rods to saw it off, another improvised device. It was given to him by his father when he qualified. Folk memory again.

‘Actually, these cutters go back to Bingham’s day,’ he says. Bingham was a local legend, the vet in this area before Jack Watkinson. He had fought in the First World War, been a Mountie and used to work with Alf …Wight; indeed he features in the Herriot books and was such a hard drinker that customers would come to the pub rather than the surgery to find him. My father recalls seeing a swaying Bingham having to steady himself against the car when he turned up at the farm one day on a call.

‘He was quite a character,’ …Watkinson says. ‘There was another vet round here, MacDonald, who would never itemise a bill, just write, “For services rendered.” Everyone would pay up because they trusted him.’

On the subject of folk memory, I remind Watkinson of the time he came to visit a sick cow on our farm, one that he suspected had eaten some electric fence wire and got it tangled in its gut. He opened up the cow but couldn’t find the wire and, days later, the cow made a full recovery. He said at the time he must have let the evil spirits out.

‘What I meant was that I’d made the wrong diagnosis,’ he says now, with a grin. ‘Luckily for us, nature has a way of curing itself sometimes.’


In Nepal with Unicef

Charley Boorman held Angelina Jolie as a baby and had starred in several Hollywood films before he left school. Yet today he’s best known as Ewan McGregor’s globe-trotting wing man. How will he fare travelling the world on his own? Nigel Farndale joins him in Nepal to find out

Kathmandu has its own gravitational pull, for Western backpackers at least. They come to get stoned and sit on the steps of the temples, as their hippy forebears did, though nowadays they do it wearing Fat Face fleeces and listening to iPods. I am here to meet Charley Boorman and accompany him on the next leg of his round-the-world journey – into the foothills of the Himalayas – and I have been tracking his progress, mobile signals permitting, as he was himself pulled into Kathmandu’s orbit, crossing the border into Nepal from India on a tractor, covering ground on an elephant, paddling in a dugout canoe down a river. Adventurous stuff. Travel by any means.

This is the name of his latest conceit: By Any Means. It follows the runaway success of Long Way Round, in which he and Ewan McGregor circumnavigated the globe on their motorbikes, and Long Way Down in which they rode from John O’Groats to Cape Town. The idea, this time, is that Boorman will travel from Ireland, where he grew up, to Australia, using any means of transport other than commercial aircraft. This trip will take about four months, and is the subject of a BBC documentary series and a book.

Pretty much what he was doing on his previous trips with McGregor, then. Except there is no McGregor this time. The actor is filming in LA. Boorman is on foot and on his own, apart from his producer, Russ Malkin, and his cameraman, both of whom worked on the earlier trips. And the big question is, will viewers want to watch Boorman without McGregor? The success of the previous trips was to do with there being a double act. Banter between two bikers in sweaty leathers. And it didn’t hurt that one of the bikers was a Hollywood star.

Boorman’s journey so far has taken him across the English Channel in a dinghy (he found the shipping lanes ‘scary’), from Paris to Venice by Orient Express (‘nice’), through Croatia, Serbia and Turkey on trucks and buses (‘amazing’), across Georgia in a sidecar (before the Russian invasion), and from Iran by container ship across to Bombay (‘surprisingly safe’). I am meeting him two months into the journey, the halfway point. Almost 10,000 miles have been covered.

It is dusk. The cicadas are singing. And my first sight of Boorman is of him barrelling across the springy lawn of a house where we are meeting for dinner, guests of the head of Unicef in Nepal. He has a tan, which he never had on the bike trips because of his helmet and visor. ‘I look healthy now rather than pasty faced,’ he says, all big-lipped, gap-toothed smiles and pale, bulging eyes framed by equally pale lashes – a big friendly labrador. He has a Van Dyke moustache and beard, as well as ambitious sideburns and long flowing hair which, at 41, is showing no signs of going grey. I tell him I’m surprised that he hasn’t grown a full beard. Isn’t that what travellers do? ‘That’s Ewan. Any excuse and he will grow one,’ he says, pronouncing his ‘r’ as a ‘w’. ‘I think it’s a Scottish thing.’

As with the previous films, nothing is scripted, but narratives do seem to unfold of their own accord. His original cameraman damaged his knee a few weeks into the trip and had to be flown back to England. And there is trouble brewing here in the capital of Nepal. A political coup is in the offing, of which more later.

The dinner is lavish, more like a banquet. ‘The food has been delicious all the way,’ Boorman says. ‘Russ and I put on so much weight in Turkey. Good thing about travelling this way is you don’t get jet lag and you don’t get squits so much because your stomach has time to adjust to food as you’re travelling. That said, I did have the s—s two nights ago.’

Such is his laddish bluntness. Seeing him lying on his back in a field in France so that he could light his own flatus was one of the more memorable scenes on Long Way Down. Not everyone finds such laddishness endearing, though. One critic, writing for The Times, was unambiguous in her review of the first episode of that series. ‘Boorman comes across as a copper-bottomed, ocean-going, 24-carat prick,’ she wrote. ‘You can only hope he gets raped by a lion. In a bad way.’

Now, now. Boorman may be high-spirited but he is also polite and earnest. McGregor refers to his ‘in-your-face affability’ and that is about right. And his heart does seem to be in the right place. On this trip he will be looking at Unicef projects in Borneo, in his capacity as a Unicef ‘high-profile fundraiser and campaigner’, and in Nepal he will be helping deliver vaccines for children in remote villages.

‘Yes. I got it,’ he says when the head of Unicef asks him whether he has read the material on Unicef’s work in Nepal. ‘But I haven’t read it. I like to be surprised.’

But there is another reason he hasn’t read the brief, and we will come to that later. At the dinner, Boorman introduces himself to some of the local Unicef workers and when they ask what he does he tells them he’s an actor. Actually, he has more or less given up on acting, not least because acting has more or less given up on him. Before Long Way Round, his main source of income was painting and decorating. Since then he has been making decent money from after-dinner speaking, as well as from the television repeats of the two series, and the DVD sales of them.

As for his acting: well, let’s say Boorman peaked early. He had a part in the 1972 classic Deliverance, starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. ‘Not the banjo player, before you ask. I was only three.’ His father, John, was the director and Boorman served as a pageboy at the wedding of Voight and Marcheline Bertrand during the shoot. When Bertrand gave birth to Angelina Jolie, Boorman was eight and was one of the first people to hold the baby. He also appeared in Excalibur, The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory, all directed by his father.

Boorman and McGregor first met on the set of The Serpent’s Kiss (1997). When they discovered they shared a passion for motorbikes, their friendship was sealed: they got on so well that by the end of the wrap party McGregor had asked Boorman to be godfather to his daughter, Clara.

Next day we set off in a white Land Cruiser which has UN written in blue letters on its bonnet and side. As well as the two-man film crew there are half a dozen Unicef workers and an official sent by the Nepalese government to keep an eye on us (he looks like Captain Mainwaring and snores like a chainsaw). Not everyone can fit in, so a minibus with inadequate suspension is also found.

There is inhospitable terrain to cross, steep ravines, rackety bridges and terraced paddy fields carved into the hillside. We are to follow what is known as the ‘cold chain’ up into the foothills and stay in a remote village, in order to get a sense of the authentic journey, as taken each month by the Unicef workers. They use the public buses as far as they will go and then complete the journey on foot. It’s heroic stuff, actually. Unsung and humbling. The ‘cold’ refers to the cool boxes full of vaccines they carry from medical post to medical post.

The ‘chain’ begins at a depot housing 10 freezers. Boorman does a piece to camera about the vaccines. Though he may not have read his brief, he does prove himself adept at assimilating the information that is fed to him off camera. This cold box, he explains, contains enough vaccine for a 1,000 children and costs just £12. Unicef provides 40 per cent of the world’s vaccines for children and relies on donations. The pitch done, they cover the cool box in By Any Means stickers. There is nothing you can teach these men about branding.

Because the public bus we are using is overloaded to axle-breaking point, each hairpin bend makes us feel as if we are in a tumble-drier. A couple of hours later, back in the UN trucks and winding through a forest, the vehicles belly on the road and we have to get out and push, just as a deluge starts.

Spattered with mud, we eventually reach a village where young mothers are waiting with their babies in a surgery with a tin roof. Their colourful saris are in contrast to the darkness and pokiness of the medical centre (there is no electricity here). ‘We have a team which goes ahead of us raising and widening doors so that we can get Charley’s head through them,’ Malkin says in an aside to me. Boorman is doing his bit for camera again, carrying the cool box in through the low door. A nurse opens it and gets to work vaccinating the babies. They all scream when jabbed and this seems to move Boorman, reminding him of taking his two daughters for their vaccinations.

We walk and climb the next leg of the journey, to the village we will be staying in. The Land Cruiser and the minibus are waiting for us at the top again. Hurray! Several hours and several pushes later, we reach the village, to find the womenfolk waiting to greet us and put bougainvillea garlands around our necks and vermilion powder on our cheeks.

Boorman and I sit down next to a water pump. As the shadows lengthen, his pale eyes seem to become more luminous. He doesn’t get homesick, he says. ‘Done this all my life. Since I was three. Because we were always travelling with my father.’

How is it being away from his wife? ‘I talk to her every day. The thing is, this is what I do for a living now. I’ve known Ollie since I was 17. Before we had children she used to come with me.’

I ask why McGregor’s wife came out for a leg of Long Way Down but his didn’t. ‘Ollie and I are a very tight family and we don’t have help. We do everything ourselves. It is hard for her to come out with me because the dates are always changing. She has a company… so she is busy and we don’t want to take the kids out of school, and the money has to come from somewhere, and this is what I’ve always done, acting or dossing round on bikes.’

They seem to take a professional attitude to it all. In the first episode of Long Way Down, Boorman leaves despite his wife being in hospital with pneumonia and a collapsed lung. He said he would be happy to postpone it, but she said he should go, because otherwise that would put her under more stress. ‘The thing that annoys me is when people say, “How did your wife let you do it?”‘ he says. ‘I always think that a bit sad – that people think their wives would stop them doing what they wanted to do. It wasn’t as if I had sprung it on her. It was months and months of planning.’

But is it awkward with Ollie at first when he goes back after these trips? ‘If you jump straight back into the domestic thing…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence. ‘The best thing is to go off for a weekend somewhere so there is some neutral ground where you can get together again, so that you’re not straight back into bills and washing up. After Long Way Down we went with the girls for a three-week holiday to Kenya so that when we got back it was all normal again. Whenever I get home the house becomes messy and chaotic. Kinvara, my daughter, said, “Mummy, do you like it when Daddy is away, because the house is nice and clean?”‘

Does he wish he had sons as well, so that he could pass on his passion for motorbikes? ‘My daughters have to, 100 per cent, take their bike test, even if they don’t want to.’

Bikes gave Boorman a confidence he lacked – a result of his severe dyslexia. ‘As an actor it is really difficult for castings, sometimes you have to sight-read and that can be embarrassing. Before the days of chip-and-pin I would always have to ask how to spell the shop name when writing out a cheque… I always compensated by being the clown in class.’

Is the travelling anything to do with mid-life crisis? A need to prove himself as a man perhaps? ‘I don’t think so. I’m competitive but I’m not butch. I don’t have to win at tennis. I have a friend who is so competitive at tennis I sometimes throw a game because I know it means so much to him… manliness and travelling? Hadn’t really thought of it like that. I do get itchy feet when I am in one place for too long.’

The success of Long Way Round and Long Way Down had much to do with the sense of male bonding it conveyed. Boorman describes McGregor as his ‘best mate’, and having met McGregor on a couple of occasions, I know the feeling is mutual. But what is the nature of that friendship? ‘I think we are both quite different. He’s great at being able to see the bigger picture and he’s very loyal, fiercely loyal, and protective and funny. Funny guy to be with.’ So, by implication he, Boorman, thinks he is none of those things? ‘No, it’s not that; it’s more… we feel comfortable with each other.’

It is an unequal relationship? ‘I’ve always been involved in the film world so I’m not star-struck or anything. I just see Ewan as Ewan. I don’t see him as this A-list guy. I think we benefit a lot from the relationship, a good solid relationship. It’s almost like a marriage when we are travelling together.’

We now come to a more delicate matter. After The Serpent’s Kiss, McGregor made Moulin Rouge! with Nicole Kidman, while Boorman took up decorating. Did that disparity put a strain on their friendship? ‘I think Ewan does consciously play it down. He never really talks about the films he has done or the ones he has coming up, unless I ask. But he is a family person and loves his family unity and in that way lives a simple life.’

If there is a certain gaucheness to Boorman he makes up for it with his tender side, especially on the subject of McGregor. ‘I have a lot to thank him for. When we did Long Way Round, the original plan was for us to just go off and do it on our own anonymously, but I couldn’t afford to so he suggested a book or a television series to fund it. You know, using his name to get the funds. I think he did it for me.’

As it is now inky black and we don’t have torches with us, we decide to head back to where the vehicles are parked and find the others for some lentils and rice. As we grope sightlessly, he tells me that if he had to describe himself in two words they would be ‘lazy’ and ‘shallow’. I like him for that. Later, Malkin tells me Boorman is sulking because he forgot to bring his silk-lined sleeping bag.

That night the villagers put us up in their damp, flagged-floored houses and we sleep in rented sleeping bags on hard board beds without mattresses and with pillows that seemed to be filled with walnuts. Boorman manages to sleep well.

Back in Kathmandu there are police checkpoints. In the evening, as we sit in a bar, three homemade bombs go off not far away – not very effective bombs, it has to be said, though one person is injured. Things are hotting up and Malkin and Boorman plan how they will get some footage. It should make for a good narrative. A genuine coup d’état. The following afternoon is the vote to decide whether the king should be thrown out of his palace. Crowds gather and swell the streets. There are several thousand marching people, all waving red hammer and sickle flags. Tanks appear on the streets and the tension is building. Malkin and Boorman get in among them with their cameraman. A risky move this, given the mood of the crowd.

As it turns out, the coup happens fairly peacefully, only a few arrests and injuries. It is time for Boorman and Malkin to head off to Laos. They have just heard that for the final leg of the journey to Australia they might be able to hitch a ride on a submarine. After that? Well, when the dust has settled and Charlie and Ollie have had their weekend away together, and re-engaged with their domestic life for a year or so, he is, he says, planning a Long Way Up through South America. With McGregor and two motorbikes.


Retracing the steps of the Boston strangler

Albert DeSalvo was always friendly to Ellen Junger, except for one ‘incident’. She tells Nigel Farndale, in Belmont, about her terrifying encounter with the serial killer – and the murder mystery that has fascinated her family for decades

Forty-one years after his capture, the Boston Strangler still has a unique hold on the American psyche. Other serial killers may have been responsible for more deaths, but none haunts the collective imagination quite like Albert DeSalvo, the carpenter who confessed to raping and murdering 13 women in their own homes between June 1962 and January 1964.

It was partly to do with his efficiency. He worked quickly, on one occasion managing two murders on the same day – and he never left any sign of a break in. It was also to do with his calling card: his victims were strangled with their own clothes, usually their stockings, which he would leave tied with a bow under their chins. Supernatural powers were attributed to him. He was the inspiration for a Rolling Stones song, “Midnight Rambler”. For two terrible years, no woman in Boston felt safe.

Ellen Junger, a 77-year-old artist, has more reason than most to feel haunted by DeSalvo. For six months of his killing spree, she employed him as her carpenter, building a studio extension to her house in the sleepy Boston suburb of Belmont. Ellen was often alone with Al, as she called him – her husband, Miguel, a Harvard-educated physicist, being at work. The couple still live in the area, in a large, yellow-painted clapboard house. When I meet them there on an overcast April morning, I am struck by the almost fond tones in which they speak of DeSalvo. “He was quite likeable,” Ellen says. “He had an easy smile and a gentle manner and was… he was quite passive about starting conversations. I would go out and see how he was getting on every day. He was so strong, he could carry huge piles of lumber. When the weather was nice, we would have a sandwich and a chat with him out on the patio.”

Miguel leans forward and says: “There was one time, I was ill in bed with flu. Al came back after work with his children, to introduce them to me. He was so solicitous and kind, you know, asking: ‘Can I get you a glass of water, Mr Junger?’ He was so sweet. I was touched. I guess he must have had a split personality.”

Ellen is a handsome woman with erect posture, high cheekbones and steady green-blue eyes. She levels them at me now and says: “Yes, he was always friendly, except for one incident.”

Up to that point, the Boston Strangler had murdered six women, all elderly. The police assumed their suspect must be a mother-hater. That theory was to collapse a few weeks later when the Strangler murdered the first of his younger victims, a 22-year-old. But, at the time, Ellen, 33, did not fit his victim profile and so had no especial reason to feel afraid. The “incident” occurred in October 1962. It was the second day that DeSalvo had turned up for work and he had called up to Ellen from the basement, saying something was wrong with her washing machine.

“It was early,” she says. “Miguel had just left for work and I was still in my nightgown and bathrobe. I think he had been waiting to see Miguel leave. I went to the basement door and looked down at him and he was looking up at me with this frightening expression in his eyes, kind of intense and burning. It wasn’t anger it was more as if he was trying to mesmerise me, to compel me to come downstairs. It was like he was seeing right though me. I’ve never had anybody look at me like that. I was terrified.”

In 1965, DeSalvo described to a psychiatrist how, on the morning of a murder, he would wake up in a trance-like state, feeling hungry, yet he did not want to eat. It was more as if he had ‘little fires’ inside him. I ask Ellen if she could relate to that description. “Yes, it was as if he was possessed that morning. Bold. I got a strong sense of that. I guess not many women who witnessed that look of his survived to describe what it was like. Only at the last moment would his victims have seen it. I thought I cannot go down there into the basement because I’ll be harmed. I was completely frightened. I was shaking.”

For years, Ellen convinced herself that DeSalvo would not have been so stupid as to rape and murder the woman he was working for, thereby making himself the chief suspect. However, she later discovered that Al was not supposed to be at work that day. “He had a perfect alibi,” she says. “He and his workmates weren’t due back until the following day. Maybe the worst scenario would have been that he raped me, but he was smart enough to know you can’t leave witnesses.”

“Ellen never told me about that incident at the time,” Miguel interjects.

“That’s true, I didn’t,” Ellen says. “I thought about it. I did think: ‘I can’t have this man working here for six months.’ But then, the next day, Al turned up with his workmates and he was all “Good morning, Mrs Junger. How are you today?” – all cheerful and busy, and I thought, ‘Maybe I was overreacting. I don’t want to get a man fired because of the look in his eyes. I’ll just watch him today, keep an eye on him.’ ” She laughs and shakes her head. “And I was anxious to get the studio done. I knew that if I told Miguel, he would sack him and the studio would never get done on time!”

How did she react when she heard the news that DeSalvo had confessed to being the Boston Strangler? “I heard from Al’s old boss, Russ Blomerth. I collapsed. We had this white, rotary desk phone and, in front of that, a stool, and I just felt my knees go and found myself on this stool. I was speechless. Just speechless. It’s very hard for any man to understand what women went through in that period. We all felt so vulnerable. There was mass hysteria. Then to find out that the Strangler had been on my property all that time. It was unbelievable.”

She asks if I would like to see her old house, on Cedar Road. It’s only five minutes away. As she drives she talks about the peculiar fact that DeSalvo was never actually charged with murder. In 1967, he was sent to prison for life on unrelated rape charges, having confessed to being the Boston Strangler in exchange for immunity from prosecution and transfer to a psychiatric hospital. In fact, of all the murder cases attributed to the Strangler only one was officially “closed”, that of Bessie Goldberg. “Her murder especially frightened us,” Ellen says, “because she lived on our doorstep. We’re coming up to her house right now.” We pull up in front of a brick and wood-slatted house.

On March 11, 1963, the day Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled, a man named Roy Smith happened to be doing a cleaning shift here. Being the only black man in an all-white neighbourhood, Smith was easily spotted, by several witnesses, walking away from the house at 3pm. Bessie Goldberg’s body was discovered by her husband at 4pm. Though there was no evidence linking Smith to the murder, he became the sole suspect, and within months had been tried and found guilty by an all-white jury. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Ellen’s son, Sebastian, the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, grew up listening to his mother’s story, and has written a new book on the Boston Strangler. “Sebastian’s book has brought it all back to me,” Ellen says. “I think about it all the time now. I hadn’t talked about it for years.” In A Death in Belmont, published on Tuesday, Sebastian Junger raises the possibility that DeSalvo could have committed the Goldberg murder.

“[Roy Smith] was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Ellen says, as she leads the way to the back of the house. “It was pure racism that got him convicted. What the jury had not been told was that a man fitting Al’s description and wearing work overalls had been round the back here, that day, asking a neighbour if he wanted some painting done.”

In his confessions about the Boston stranglings, Al revealed that he had always gained admission to his victims’ premises under the guise of being an official checking for leaks, that or a decorator. “Here, let me show you something,” Ellen says. We get back in the car and drive towards some traffic lights. “See those? Al always used to complain about those lights. This was his route to our house, you see. The two houses are only a mile apart.”

We soon arrive at Ellen’s old house, a grey-painted wooden structure with the roof extending to the ground. It is surrounded by leafless trees and colonial-style houses, some with stars and stripes flapping lazily from their facades. “The jury in Roy Smith’s trial did not know that Al was working here unsupervised on the day of the murder,” Ellen says. “We were the only ones who knew that and we had no reason to suspect him at the time.”

Though DeSalvo never confessed to murdering Bessie Goldberg, Smith always professed his innocence and twice refused parole in exchange for a confession of guilt. In 1973, days after the 10th anniversary of Smith’s conviction for the killing, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison. Smith was finally offered unconditional parole in 1976, but died of cancer a few days before his release.

Ellen is now convinced that DeSalvo murdered Bessie Goldberg. “I think Al knew the Goldbergs because he lived right across the street from their business in Chelsea. They had a movie house, and he almost certainly recognised them. Bessie was strangled in the same way as the other Boston Strangler victims. Al would only have had an hour, but he killed very quickly. He may have been waiting for Roy to leave the house.”

Ellen shows me the studio that Al helped “The afternoon of Bessie’s murder, I came back here at about 4.30 or five and Al was back painting here, up a ladder. I had a phone call from our babysitter saying “Lock your door – there has been a murder on Scott Road”. So I hung up and locked the door, then went out to the studio to tell Al. I said this terrible thing has happened. There has been a murder in Belmont, and he said: ‘Yeah? That is terrible.'”

Ellen shakes her head and says, “I remember the last time I ever saw Al. It was right here, the day after the Goldberg murder. They had finished the studio and had come to collect their tools. We thought we would commemorate their last day with a photograph. Me with Sebastian, and old man Wiggins, and Al in the middle with his big hand across his chest. It turned out to be quite a poignant photograph.”


On the campaign trail with Ilie Nastase in Bucharest

As the driver of the Ilie Nastase Campaign Jeep swerves violently to avoid a pothole that is only a few inches off being classified a crater, the former tennis star lurches sideways in his seat, checks his hair with his hand, turns to me and gives an exasperated shrug: ‘See what I mean about the roads?’ he says. ‘Unbelievable.’ We are driving at alarming speed down a colourless boulevard in Bucharest. The Jeep, a voluptuously upholstered Cherokee, stands out among the drab-looking Ladas, stray dogs and orange tractors. It has started to drizzle, and women who have scurried out on to cement-and-iron balconies to gather in their washing stop to stare as we pass.

Perhaps they have heard that the Jeep has replaced the Ilie Nastase Campaign Volvo, the vehicle that became an electoral liability after the press discovered that it was sporting number plates taken as a joke from a car belonging to the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, following his execution in 1989. Perhaps, in keeping with the mixture of gloom, apathy and anger that afflicts the two and a half million citizens of this city, they simply don’t care. Either way, on 2 June, these onlookers can vote to decide whether they want the man in the Cherokee to be their next mayor. He will need 51 per cent of the votes to win but, with one poll saying he has 48 per cent and another, equally lacking in objectivity, saying he has only 31.8 per cent, it will be a close-run thing.

This has come as something of a surprise to the candidate. He had assumed that, because he is a national hero, it would be a walkover. Instead, in the four months since Nastase announced he was to stand for the four-year post – according to freshly-minted legend, after he drove over one pothole too many – he has learned to expect a bumpy ride from the Romanian press. For the most part, ‘Nasty’ – as the world came to know him after his Centre Court outbursts in the Seventies – has been able to rise above the accusations and keep his celebrated temper in check. One exception was at an impromptu press conference during which a reporter questioned the legality of Nastase’s Romanian citizenship. This goaded him into suggesting, at the top of his normally languid voice, that the reporter should perform anatomically impossible acts involving his mother’s womb.

Also squeezed into the Jeep are two of Nastase’s cronies, each vying with the other for the status of ‘official campaign manager’, and each laughing raucously at some private joke. Take That are crooning on the radio, and Nastase has to raise his voice to be heard above the band as he translates for me. ‘They think is funny that the papers are saying I am gay. Me! I am more like a lesbian!’ He laughs and jabs an accusing thumb at Ion Serban, one of his oldest friends and confidants. ‘This just because I was seen in a nightclub dancing with him. Is just a sign that the campaign is starting to get dirty, I think.’

A further sign, he says, is the gratuitous and wholly misplaced slur that he fixed the David Cup in 1977, when Romania – specifically Nastase – unexpectedly lost to France. That really hurts, because he loves his tennis, and his country, and is one of the greatest – certainly the most instinctive, flamboyant and graceful – players the world has ever seen. The US and the French Opens, three Grand Slam doubles tournaments and more than 55 other tennis titles constitute a formidable record. When I suggest that he could always sue for libel, he laughs: ‘You know what country we are in here? They can say anything they want. What you going to sue? No one has any money.’

The average income in Bucharest is £30 a month. Corruption is endemic. But it is assumed Nastase cannot be bought: he is, after all, a millionaire, reaping an income from £1.3 million worth of winnings; shares in various Romanian companies; tennis coaching; sponsorship from Adidas; property (‘I have about six houses around the world,’ he tells me in a low, nonchalant voice, as though trying not to be overheard in the restaurant where we are having lunch. ‘I think maybe I have to sell some’); and, if all goes well, a contract from Umbro that he is putting together with his friend Ion, with whom he runs a company exporting Nastase bolognese sauce to the US. Indeed, he has said he will not even accept a wage as mayor (‘I copy idea from my friend, the mayor of Los Angeles, who is also very rich man and not need the money.’ he explains). But as a wag from a French television crew remarked to me: ‘He could only afford two Herms ties with the wage anyway.’

For as his Jeep stands out, so do his clothes. I spent a week with Nastase on his pot-holed campaign trail, and each day saw a different silk Herms tie. In one market, an old woman came up to him and fingered the tie with a look of contempt on her face. A heated exchange followed, from which Ilie shuffled off looking ruffled. He has an ambling, hunched walk, slightly pigeon-toed, and he often holds his hands self-consciously behind his back, as if doing a Prince Philip impersonation. He also has a repertoire of expressions that he uses for the five or six visits he makes to factories, schools and markets each day. When he is listening to hard-luck stories, he cocks his head to one side and chews on his inner cheek, contorting his face, his lower lip in a pout. When someone complains about the diabolical state of the city’s water supply, its crime rate or its fuel shortages, he purses his lips and holds his hand to his chest as it to say ‘Don’t look at me.’ When someone offers him support or asks for his autograph, he gives a wry, lazy grin and a shrug, followed by a brotherly arm round the shoulders.

Each visit follows a pattern. If it is a factory, his entourage – about nine members of his campaign team, the three-man French television crew and I – start by filing through a studded red leather door with the word ‘Director’ on it in fluorescent plastic. Inside, there is always a long vinyl-covered table laid out with fizzy orange and Twiglets. Everyone sits down, and the factory director gives a five-minute summation of his ‘probleme’. at the Rocar bus factory, for instance, the problem was that all the buses they had made were sitting in the park outside, unused because the current mayor had just imported 300 buses from the Netherlands company DAF. Ilie wrung his hands, shook his head in disbelief and pointed out that the expense of importing spare parts must be astronomical. Alas, while he was saying this, everyone had become distracted by a stocky babushka who had entered the room, seen the television crew and, for fear of getting in shot, proceeded to serve Turkish coffee to everyone from a crouching position.

The Turkish coffee and fizzy orange drinking ritual is always followed by a tour of the factory. At the Rocar plant, women on the balconies above us ducked at first when Ilie looked at them, then slowly stood up, like gophers in the desert, waved sheepishly and giggled into their hands. One craggy-faced man with a walrus moustache and a leather jacket stared open-mouthed at Nastase as he passed, then jogged over and tugged on my sleeve. A colleague of his came over to translate. ‘He wants to know what Nastase is doing here.’ ‘He is running for mayor,’ I said. When this was explained, the old man’s face creased into a grey-toothed grin as he said: ‘Nastase, he likes to party, yes?’

And there’s the rub: Nastase has an image problem. The crossover from celebrity to politician happens in other countries – Clint Eastwood in America; Imran Khan in Pakistan; Gyles Brandreth in Britain – but in Romania the incongruity is more pronounced, and many Romanians just don’t know how to take Ilie, as one soon feels comfortable about calling him. One afternoon, we sat having a late lunch in an empty, low-key restaurant. We had been knocking back shots of whisky to fortify ourselves against the unseasonal cold. ‘Cheers and brassieres!’ Nastase had said for my benefit. Boiled tripe with eggs, butter and sour cream had been served. ‘Is guts,’ Nastase explained helpfully. ‘Is not from your crazy, crazy English beef, you know. Good, sane Romanian beef. We have it seven in morning to cure hangover after late night.’ A lissome young woman with black hair spilling over a white shirt had been hovering outside, pressing her handsome face up against the rain-dabbled window. She was beckoned in and presented to Nastase and the handful of his courtiers eating at his table, as though to a Regency prince. He eyed her up and down approvingly, and she blushed delightedly, before asking for his autograph. It reminded me of a faux pas Ilie had made when he first announced his intention to run for mayor. When warned by a friend that the whole country used to love him but that now only half of it would, he replied: ‘I hope it’s the chicks.’

In the factories, women did not mob him exactly, but they did sometimes join in with the walkabouts. In the Tricodava factory, which makes sweaters, 2,300 women work in cavernous hangars, lined up at row after row of sewing machines. The usual entourage had already been doubled in size by local officials and directors of the company and, at one point, Ilie found himself at the head of a large column. Wandering up a corridor, he turned off into a room to the right. It turned out to be a large cupboard but, by the time Ilie had realised this, it was too late. The column had trooped in behind him, making his attempts to manoeuvre out again a symphony of social awkwardness.

Still, there were political points to be made: at the massive Vulcan boiler factory, the ritual of the fizzy orange was followed by a presentation to Ilie of three Vulcan ashtrays. ‘Corruption! Corruption! S’il vous pla”t!’ he roared delightedly, for the benefit of the French television crew. That night, at Nastase’s home, I notice that one of these ashtrays has found its way on to a dresser, alongside an old sepia photo of his father as a young man in a police uniform.

This house, on Andrei Muresanu Street in Sector 1, the diplomatic quarter, is luxurious by western standards, let alone Romanian. On one wall is a kitsch painting of an orphan girl looking melancholy in a headscarf. On others hand a faux medieval tapestry and a painting of a nude woman. The cushions on the chairs are leopardskin pattern. The contrast between this and the dreary factories Nastase visits is marked, and, one suspects, he is well aware of it. I had been met at the door by his friend Ion, who is staying at the house (although Romanian, Ion normally lives in Italy). He has brought in a few beers to drink while watching the football on the widescreen television. It is 8pm, and Nastase is still drying his hair from a shower as he walks down the stairs. He complains that he has only just got back from a meeting and that, since the campaign started, has rarely been home before nine o’clock. (He had to make an exception tonight because Juventus were playing.) While waiting for the match to start, we sit on Ilie’s fawn cord-covered sofa and sip cognacs. When Claudia Schiffer appears in a programme trailer, Ilie muses that people want younger supermodels these days. ‘Maybe she should go in for politics,’ he says. ‘Like the beauty queen in Venezuela.’ Ilie then shows a home video of his trip to Paris the previous week. It pictures him glad-handing a throng of wellwishers who have spotted him and have come over for his autograph. ‘Everyone recognises me there and stares. Here they are more shy.’

Sitting on the edge of his seat in a beige turtleneck sweater, he looks relaxed. But he admits with a yawn that the electioneering has taken its toll. ‘I very tired. It wears you down, this campaign, because everyone is always complaining. I take seven vitamin pills a day. I have a lot energy. But I surprised everyone complain so much.’ He cups his hands behind his head. ‘Sometimes when I meet them in the street, I can’t look them in the eye because I know there is nothing much I can do to help them. Sometimes I don’t think they care who is going to be mayor.’

He is also, he says, peeved at the lack of interest shown in his campaign by the Romanian press. They are, it seems, suspicious that he is now an outsider. After all, until the beginning of this year, he was living three months of the year in Paris, three in New York, and the rest travelling. Here is a man, they say, who speaks five languages, has spent most of his adult life abroad and is now trying to discover his own country in just one month. When I put this to Nastase, he sighs. ‘Oh please. That is too much, you know. Discovering is too hard a word. I always knew what was going on in Romania.’ I ask if it would be fair to say, though, that he is having a crash course in Romanian politics. ‘Yes, I am discovering about the politics, but not the life. I know the life here.’ When I say that the campaign is also a chance for him to discover the ordinary people, he goes on the defensive again. ‘You don’t think I meet ordinary people before? I was an ordinary people. Do you think a few years away is going to change me? How can they say I live abroad too long to understand the Romanian people? That is nonsense. I lived here until I 20. They try and find all these excuses to put me down. But’, he adds, ‘sometimes when I am upset and down, I am at my best.’

The Romanian press’s suspicion seems to have two sources; one, that he is running on behalf of the ruling PDSR party (effectively the rump of the old Communist party) – because, he says, they asked him first; two, that his motives for running are unclear. He will be 50 in July; is his foray into politics just a symptom of mid-life crisis? He doesn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. His father, a bank cashier who died ten years ago, had never been particularly impressed by his son’s tennis stardom: ‘He wouldn’t make fun of me exactly, but he wasn’t into sport.’ Perhaps he thinks his father would have been proud if he succeeded in cleaning up his home town? ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Maybe.’

On the dining-room table there is a cartoon of Ilie in his tennis strip sweeping away a rat. There is also a photo of Alexandra, his second wife, who at the moment lives in New York with his two adopted children, Nicholas, eight, and Charlotte, six, but who will come to live here should Nastase win. While Ilie watches the rest of the video, Ion takes me into the study before disappearing off to the kitchen to see if he can find some Nastase bolognese sauce to show me. In the study, there are two framed posters of Nastase diving to return serves. On the desk are about a dozen tennis medals of various shapes and sizes, and on a side table, an arrangement of tennis shoes from his sponsor, Adidas. On another wall is a photo of Ilie with Nixon – his first taste of power politics, perhaps. More tellingly, on a shelf, alongside a pink cuddly hippo, is a book called Professional Speaking: Getting Ahead in Business and Life through Effective Communication.

Socially, there is nothing wrong with his communication skills. Strangers warm to Nastase almost immediately: he is cool, good-humoured, charming and open, in contrast to the overly-protective people who surround him and squabble among themselves as they try to curry favour. His campaign slogan is: ‘Ilie Nastase – an honest man.’ Certainly his promise that he will resign if he hasn’t managed to change anything within two years is a noble one. But ‘an innocent man’, or even ‘a naive man’ might seem equally appropriate descriptions. Ilie’s more astute friends and supporters are worried that if he becomes mayor, he will surround himself with the wrong advisers and that the dread hand of corruption will take him in its grip. He is aware of the danger. ‘I met the President recently, and I think he very good politician,’ he says. ‘But he has a lot of people around him who do wrong. All the security guys that surrounded Ceausescu disappeared for a while and have come back to surround him now.’

On the Thursday morning I report to the campaign headquarters at 9am. A trip to a hospital has had to be cancelled, and Ilie is at a bit of a loose end. We both watch a Romanian-dubbed version of Little House on the Prairie, which is as disturbing an experience as it sounds. Ilie yawns, looks at his watch and sits in silence for a while before he remembers that a video of a foreign news report about him has arrived in the post. He invites me into his office to watch it, and the campaign team filters in, too. At first, everyone laughs at the famous archive clips of Ilie clowning around on Centre Court, carrying an umbrella and wearing a policeman’s helmet. But then the presenter compares the squalor of Bucharest to that of Sarajevo. There are gasps of indignation. Nastase chews agitatedly on the arm of his glasses. ‘How can he say that?’ he fumes. Victor Ciorbea, the opposition candidate and Ilie’s closes rival, comes on and says that the former playboy will not be able to sit still in council meetings because he will get bored too easily. The film then cuts to a clip of Ilie doing a grinding dance behind a beautiful young woman in a disco. Ilie is visibly rattled as he watches this.

Afterwards, squeezed up beside him in the Jeep, we drive past rusty cranes standing eerily idle above ugly, unfinished tower blocks. Everyone notices that someone has been at work along the walls of the university – where the bloody revolution started in 1989 – with an orange spray-can, intermittently splatting the words ‘Ilie, Primarie!’ (‘Nastase for Mayor!’) over a hundred yards. No one comments. Ilie is still brooding about the news clip. ‘Why do they have to attack me and not my policy?’ he complains. ‘Why does Ciorbea worry about me? I don’t know. I don’t worry about him with his glasses and his ugly face. He very boring but I don’t go around saying this. Is crazy. He promises everyone money to pay for the roads and buses, but where is that going to come from? He just makes promises he knows he can’t keep, like he say he fix the city in exactly 200 days. How? With what? They expect a miracle?’

Nastase says that what really annoyed him was the scene of him dancing. ‘How could they cut to the disco like that? It look terrible. I’m just dancing with my daughter [21-year-old Natalie, from his first marriage, who lives in Paris and for whom he is said once to have paid a kidnap ransom of £5 million].’ The dancing had taken place at the Ilie Nastase Fan Club, a newly-established disco held every Friday night at which young supporters get free drinks. Ilie is aware of the bad impression such scenes might give, but I see him later, at a college hall, doing a similar dance with a girl amid thumping techno music, encircled by hundreds of 16- to 18-year-olds. For this occasion, a lone Romanian newspaper reporter had turned out and, as he saw Ilie take to the dance floor, he turned to me and crosses himself. ‘I want to be sick,’ he said. ‘I am embarrassed that you get the wrong impression of Romanian politics. This is not serious. This is showbiz. He hasn’t got a single serious policy.’

Sadly, this became apparent on the Friday morning, when Ilie launched his manifesto. Despite his self-help book on better communication, Nastase’s talents as a showman had deserted him. Around 200 people – dignitaries, Romanian celebrities and, at last, Romanian television and newspaper reporters – had crowded into the baroque splendour of the Academia Romana.

Outside, for once, the sun was shining. Inside, a banquet of pastries and canapés had been laid out, and the eagerly awaited campaign posters were pinned to the walls. They showed Ilie rolling up his sleeve. The message was clear: he means business. The slogan read: ‘He built a name for himself – he can rebuild the town.’ Each guest received a copy of his manifesto and a blue lighter and pen inscribed with the words ‘Nastase Primar!’, which smudged when you rubbed them. Nadia Comaneci, the Olympic gymnastics gold medallist, was mingling, a petite and nervous figure. ‘I wish you success, from a sportswoman to a sportsman,’ she aid to Ilie before giving him a good-luck kiss.

A waiter came round with Cinzanos. It was 9.30am. With the crush of camera crews, popping flash bulbs, tape recorders held aloft, and two television screens relaying live pictures, it all looked very presidential – as I told Nastase afterwards when he asked what I had thought of it. What I didn’t say was that his speech could not have been more lacklustre. When, finally, he had come forward to the bank of microphones, he stood back, as if afraid of them, and no one could see him because there was no platform. Earlier, he had told me that he had spent four hours the previous day rehearsing his speech. It didn’t show. He did not look up from his notes, and all the wit and vivacity he exhibits in private was replaced by a nervous, turgid monotone. After a couple of minutes, people began to murmur in the background.

At the end of the speech, a Reuters reporters asked Nastase what his first priority as mayor would be. Ilie mumbled something, in English, about sorting out the administration. The reporter turned to me and said, ‘Believe me, his answers are even more bland in Romanian.’

Ilie had told me he thought it was important that everyone should get to see his policies in writing so that there could be no room misinterpretation. But there wasn’t much of substance to misinterpret, only platitudes along the lines of: ‘These elections come at an important point in our history. We have pollution, crime and bad administration… different departments should talk to each other…’

On the two television screens, an endorsement by his friend Richard Riordan, the mayor of Los Angeles, was shown. It lasted about five minutes, then repeated itself in a loop. It began: ‘As mayor of the great city of Los Angeles I send greetings and love to the people of the great city of Bucharest.’ Romanians who did not speak English looked on bemused. Those who did cringed as the cheesy mayor pulled out all the stops: ‘Ilie, I wish you and the good citizens of Bucharest the best of everything. They deserve you, because you are the best.’

I wandered outside and compared notes with the French television crew. ‘He didn’t exactly set the room on fire,’ said the presenter. ‘You’d think he would.’ Forty minutes later, I went back into the room to find that the mayor of the great city of Los Angeles was still sending greetings and love – loudly, in English – to the bemused people of the great city of Bucharest.

Few can doubt that Nastase’s heart is in the right place and that he is sincere in wanting to rescue the city of his birth. But as Dana Stamate, the lawyer and long-time friend of Ilie’s, said over lunch, he needs a good friend to tell him that he must learn to overcome his embarrassment about public speaking. ‘He is ashamed of his voice,’ she said. ‘He thinks he lacks charisma. I worry because he is a proud man and it will hurt him if he loses. But the worst thing is that people have noticed that he now speaks Romanian with a foreign accent.’

After the press conference, I walk back to the campaign headquarters with a now-buoyant Ilie. I ask him if he worries that he will look ridiculous if he fails. ‘I slept badly last night,’ he shrugs, ‘but I not worry if I fail. I think I have done the right thing.’ When we reach the lift to his office, he stops and stays, thoughtfully, ‘I was trying to tell someone that word you used to describe the launch. What was it again?’


‘That’s it,’ he says. ‘Presidential. I like that.’ And he gives up waiting for the lift and bounds up the stairs, two at a time.

Ilie Nastase was not elected mayor of Bucharest.