Interview: At home with Times columnist and restaurant critic, Giles Coren
PUBLISHED: 12:15 22 December 2017
© Thousand Word Media
Katie Jarvis meets Giles Coren, Times columnist and restaurant critic, and discovers a) his Cotswold home is quite hard to find b) his lawn tractor is quite hard to start and c) he isn't especially angry at all (but actually quite pleasing)
False start number 1, in which I learn how to get a celebrity interview:
I first meet Giles Coren at the Wilson Art Gallery, where he’s opening an exhibition about fakes (no metaphor/wider comment intended). He’s ushered over to me – slim, neat, impossibly polite and good-looking - and, even though I should be asking him about fakes, the conversation finds it hard to steer away from sheep.
While he’s pondering a particularly sticky ovine topic, I quickly slip in, “May I do an interview with you?”
“Yes,” he says.
“No,” I clarify, suspiciously. “I mean a proper one. Where I come to your house and stuff.”
“Yes,” he says.
A few weeks later, when I’m sitting in his garden, staring at sheep, I quiz him on this surprising turn. “Why did you say yes to the interview?”
“Well, I was at that thing doing Peter Harkness [chair of Cheltenham Trust a favour.”
“So you were basically stuck?”
“It would seem rude to say no. Erm. And Phil The Newsagent would be excited that I’m in Cotswold Life.”
Thinks: To secure a top-class interview, find celebrities doing Peter Harkness a favour. And check Phil The Newsagent’s excitement levels.
False start number 2, in which I find Giles Coren’s home against the odds:
To get to Giles Coren’s home, I drive along lanes white with breeze-blown cow parsley; under birds dazzling in huge flocks above hills so many shades of green that you’d have thought a paint-shop was marketing them. There are even blood-red splodges of poppy spattered along the roadside. It’s like Edward Thomas invented it.
And even though it’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s no real name to the house, I find it; which is one of those feats like people suddenly finding superhuman strength to lift a bus off somebody they love. It’s terror, really, that got me here.
I’m frantically early so I park up amongst swaying fields of wheat. (Almost, I muse, as if he knows I’m mildly gluten-intolerant.)
And then, as if to prove I’m in the midst of absolutely nowhere, three people appear, staggering up from the direction of the ford. (Yes, there’s one of those.)
The woman is practically in tears. “We came out for a half-hour walk,” she tells me. “That was three-and-a-half hours ago. We’re really lost.”
Really bad luck coming across me.
I mention this, later, to Giles Coren, who nods.
“We just see the Duke of Edinburgh up and down this footpath,” he confirms.
Gosh, I think. Remote AND posh!
“Yeah...We see no-one apart from the Duke of Edinburgh. Aged 96...” he emphasises, on seeing my expression. “...No, I mean the Duke of Edinburgh kids.”
Oh. Bit disappointing.
Giles Coren is scratching his head, looking at his lawn tractor that won’t start. It’s making a tic-tic-tic noise but nothing that indicates it seriously wants to cut grass.
Giles doesn’t want it to mow his lawn. Giles wants it to take his son, four-year-old Sam, for a quick ride before our interview begins. He says things like, “So I come down from London and f*** it up,” before calling Steve, the gardener, for advice. (He has to say ‘It’s Giles here’ to get through his gardener’s call-screening.)
He isn’t especially angry (though I suspect he isn’t repeatedly hitting the motor with a metal watering-can purely because that might wake his napping wife, Esther, and alert her to the fact that Sam, and Kitty (aged six), are mainly watching television).
Sam, on the other hand, is angry.
“Sammy, can we do the tractor-ride in a little while? Is that OK?”
“NOOOOOO!” Sam articulates, quite clearly.
Giles looks pleadingly at the photographer and me as the engine finally fires.
“Can I go once round the circuit? One quick ride.”
And I’m filled with sudden gladness! Giles Coren has got people he’s terrified of, even if they’re small and not sub editors.
During this once-round-the-circuit haitus, I look around me. A gorgeous drive. Six acres of paddocks. Immaculate garden (looks like someone has just hoovered the grass). Honeysuckle. Bees. A small veg-patch beside fields striated by tractor-wheels, looking over to the distant pub owned by that guy who has racehorses. And a long, low two-centuries-old barn that once housed something that wasn’t Giles Coren.
Then he trundles back in, and we sit on heavy chairs round a table with a Prosecco cork lying jauntily beside it. And that’s when he mentions Phil The Newsagent.
“Do you know Phil?” Giles Coren asks me, in the way that people from Canada ask “Do you know John in London?”
“Oh,” he realises. “You’re not from ‘here’ here, are you?”
(This is an irony-loop, right?)
“The great tragedy – I shouldn’t get political - but Phil, who has Stow News, used to have Bourton News as well; so a proper local potentate. Bourton News was the penultimate useful shop in Bourton. There’s Hartwells, the legendary hardware store, but otherwise, it’s just teashops. Well, there’s a couple of OK toy shops; there’s the motor museum...
“So there was this wonderful newsagent, but his rent went up so much he had to pack it in. It’s now another fish and chip shop for Japanese tourists; or tourists, wherever they come from.
“But it was a shame because I had no reason to go into Bourton other than to buy nails and petrol...not to make a bomb, obviously, but to fill the car and to nail things together.”
I realise, within 30 seconds of sitting on the quite heavy chairs round the outside-table-by-the-munching-sheep, that Giles Coren is going to be a nightmare to interview. Not because he’s cross (my terror peaked while reading Anger Management for Beginners; then dissipated within seconds of meeting him).
But because he doesn’t answer questions; he illustrates them. He doesn’t speak in sentences; he speaks in full verbal sketches. And I want to quote everything he says, from Phil The Newsagent (which, to be fair, illustrates his local knowledge, and is funny) onwards.
Such as when he talks about the rural economy. He doesn’t just say, “It’s shit that we Londoners come and push up property prices.” Which it is.
He says, “I know from cricket that the sad thing about playing in a village on a Saturday is that it’s all lovely and you go to the pub and - rah! - the lights are all on. Then you play a Sunday match and, round about teatime, you start to hear that shtshsss of a Porsche Cayenne back door closing and they all disappear. Seven o’clock you go to the pub and, when you come out, it’s all dark on the village green. And all the people you’re playing with live in some Barrett home on the edge of the village; and the lovely houses round the green are empty now until Friday night.”
I love this about him. But it makes me sad, too. Not just because it’s an awful lot of typing for me. But because it reminds me of his late great friend, AA Gill, who did the same.
Anyway. If you remember, we were talking about buying petrol and nails not to make bombs. Definitely not to make bombs. Because he’s not political.
Well, he’s pro fox-hunting, shooting and fishing – I learn this fairly quickly - but only – as far as I can gather – because his North London home is on the edge of Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency. “So just to piss them off in London, really.
“I bought a gun but I can’t kill anything. I can shoot a raspberry off that chimney [points] but I can’t shoot a rabbit.”
Has he got a raspberry problem?
“The previous guy used to shoot squirrels because we have so many amazing nesting birds – just beautiful. Greenfinches, goldfinches, nesting robins and wrens and thrushes and both kinds of woodpecker. So I thought, ‘I’ll shoot the squirrels, which eat all the birdseed’.
“And I look at this little fat fellow; and I get him lined up between the eyes and the ear. First of all, my wife says, ‘What if you wound him?’ Well, my dad used to then hit it on the head with a spade but I don’t think I can do that. And I thought, ‘Even if I kill it cleanly…’ So I haven’t killed anything.”
He did go on a local shoot - “a proper one; not flying frozen turkeys” - with the local dentist and the local horse bloke. Which was fine, because they all mainly missed.
“And there was this lovely fellow called Richard Wills – you know the Willses – a youngish bloke. And he’s shabby because he’s wearing plus fours that his great-great grandfather wore at Waterloo and stuff.
“And he stands at the end of the line and, after everyone else has missed, he says, ‘Do you mind?’ Pong, pong, pong. Doesn’t even look. And they were going thud, thud, thud behind me, rolling down the hill at my feet, these birds. Lovely local shoot.”
And alongside dentists and shabby shooting heirs, does he hang out with the Chipping Norton set?
“Yeah. Very occasionally. They do drugs and sleep with each other’s wives. I don’t know why they do that in the Cotswolds instead of Notting Hill; but that’s what they do. And they’re lovely. They’re not lovely but they’re fine.”
(Blimey. You can see why Phil The News wants him to write for Cotswold Life.)
The thing is, we locals don’t mind the sex and the drugs, I explain to him, as long as they source everything locally. Can you get Cotswold-produced heroin?
“Heroin’s not really the thing,” he clarifies, helpfully. “In the Big Smoke, it’s all about Ecstasy.”
I expect you’d quite like some facts about Giles Coren, at this point. I do have them. Such as: his dad was the beloved humourist Alan Coren, and his sister is Victoria Coren Mitchell (the Observer; Only Connect).
(When I ask him if he minds upsetting people - ‘Food critic sparks fury by calling people from Plymouth ‘tattooed fatties!’ – he replies, “My sister, when she sits down to write a column in the Observer, her first thought is, ‘Is this going to upset anyone?’ That’s why it takes her all day to write a column and it only takes me an hour-and-a-half. But I’m not like Jeremy Clarkson. I’m not wantonly mean to people.”)
But I keep getting distracted. I’ll try to bullet-point anything useful here. Such as:
• He doesn’t avoid reviewing Cotswold places (though he feels he can never go back to the Wild Rabbit). But he’d rather not give bad reviews, if avoidable: “I’ve eaten a lot of shit meals round here but it’s not fair to tell people, ‘Hey, I tell you what; you can go to Shithole-on-Stour where you can have an overdone steak’.”
• He’s not that much of a foodie so can’t recommend – as I request – Cotswold food products, other than his own veg. “I’ve got borlotti beans and peas and runner beans over there; in there, there’s potatoes, sweetcorn, raspberries, onions, garlic – and whatever else Steve the gardener put in. People say, ‘What have you got over there?’ ‘I don’t know. Steve, what’s in there? Tractor doesn’t work. Where are the potatoes? And there’s a spider in the bath.’”
• He was never really that angry
• Please don’t quote his ‘opinions’ at him because only a lunatic could ever hold the number of opinions that equates to the number of columns he’s written
• Sue Perkins didn’t really like Bake Off anyway
• A lot of people aren’t Diane Abbott (needs explanation, ideally; I know)
• His brother-in-law Xander (Alexander Armstrong; they’ve all just had a playdate together) definitely has bigger houses, but definitely works harder
So that’s it. I’ve loads more stuff but I can’t tell you. Not because I’d have to shoot you, but because I don’t have room.
Not even about the Very Bad Thing he once did in Babington House. “That was a very bad thing I did.”
Anyway. Esther is due to finish her afternoon nap and we need to pretend the children weren’t watching TV.
And, soon, he’s going to fill a pit with logs, set fire to it, burn it down to ashes, and load it with spatchcock. “I’ll say baby chickens because poussin sounds French.”
So I’ll skip to my final question.
What’s Giles Coren most proud of?
He likes this question. First, he says, having taught Kitty to read fluently before the age of three.
And then he lands on what he’s really, really proud of.
“I tell you what. I am most proud, by some miracle, of having arrived at a position where I am able to provide for my family in the country and in London – everything they could possibly want - without really working too hard. So I’m with them and I provide for them. That’s the key thing. Without killing myself. Apart from the odd time when I do TV.”
He never works at the weekend. Or in the evening. Or in August. Or at Christmas.
And off he goes to dig up Steve’s potatoes and to light a fire. Effortlessly.