Category Archives: Features

The Sunday Times Magazine: Losing The National Trust?

In the oak-panelled Great Chamber at Sutton House, beside a rare example of an original carved Tudor fireplace, a party has exploded. A drag queen dressed as Margaret Thatcher wearing red stripper heels and giant fake pearls is grinding against a young man in a leather jacket to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. As the crowd throws shapes under disco lights, Sir Ralph Sadleir, a prominent courtier of Henry VIII who built Sutton House in 1535, looks down from his gilt frame unamused.

In the gift shop of the oldest residence in Hackney, east London, beside the National Trust tea towels, jam and chintzy English biscuit tins, are posters for the Gay Liberation Front. Next to the lemon curd, two men in matching leather jackets chug prosecco and snog.

Somewhere in the Tudor drawing room where courtiers once dined, the author Alan Hollinghurst bops amid the throng. This party, themed on his Booker prize-winning book The Line of Beauty, explores the period of 1980s British history when Thatcher introduced Section 28, banning schools and local authorities from “intentionally promoting” homosexuality. It forms part of the National Trust’s Queer Stories in Britain series, marking half a century since the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. It also represents something else: the controversial new face of the National Trust.

You cannot be British and not have a soft spot for the National Trust. Spending a day being dragged around one of its properties should be part of the citizenship test — it’s as British as a Sunday roast. I hear its name and am transported to a childhood in Wales spent sitting in rainy car parks of castles.

It holds a place in the British psyche no other charity does. “For ever, for everyone” is its motto, and with it a commitment that began in 1895, later underpinned by an act of parliament, to preserve lands and buildings of beauty or historic interest for “the benefit of the nation”. With more than 300 properties and 247,000 hectares of land, it is one of the UK’s biggest landowners. Last year, it played host to an estimated 224m visitors. We love the National Trust — but we also love to be angry with it.

In recent years, rows have erupted like pimples on the trust’s beautifully preserved visage. Stirrings began in 2010 when visitors interested in English Renaissance architecture arrived at Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, to be greeted by staff wearing period fancy dress. Accusations of “Disneyfication” were revived in 2015, when the director-general, Dame Helen Ghosh, introduced a programme of “decluttering” houses and installing interactive exhibitions.

As I write, outrage has erupted over how cream teas are served at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. The staff there have been accused of constructing their scones incorrectly — the Cornish way is to have the cream on top of the jam; vice versa belongs over the Tamar in Devon, apparently.

For traditionalists, such transgressions are the tip of the iceberg. Far fiercer battles are afoot, reflecting the culture wars raging in society at large. Last year, trust members including Sir Ranulph Fiennes campaigned for a vote to stop National Trust land being used for trail hunting — where an artificial scent is laid and no animal is supposed to be captured or killed. This has long been viewed by animal rights campaigners as a way of circumventing the hunting ban. “These hunts are still killing foxes, hares and stags,” Fiennes said. The traditionalists won out; the trust voted against a ban last October.

The charity’s attempts to modernise are regularly met with derision by those who accuse them of “pursuing an obsessively politically correct social agenda”. The focus on LGBT issues last year saw “outraged” volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk forced to wear rainbow lanyards or be relegated to backroom jobs. As part of a drive to introduce “queer stories” to properties, Felbrigg Hall’s last lord of the manor, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, was “outed”, angering his family. The former squire, who was described as “intensely private”, died in 1969, aged 63, just two years after homosexuality was decriminalised. At Kingston Lacy, in Dorset, an installation featuring 51 ropes suspended from the ceiling recalls men who were hanged because of their sexuality. It was labelled “totally inappropriate” by the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen.

This year, the trust’s Woman and Power initiative is proving similarly divisive. In an article for the National Trust Magazine, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, described being groped on a bus, infuriating some commentators who questioned whether this was “what trust members really want to read”.

Ann Widdecombe has declared “the National Trust has lost its way completely”. Sir Roy Strong believes it is beginning “to alienate its own public”. Sir Max Hastings has cancelled his membership. Even Ghosh, who has departed for a post at Balliol College, Oxford, admits “some of our more traditional visitors have felt they are not being catered for as they once felt they were”.

“I couldn’t disagree more with those sentiments,” Tim Parker, the trust’s chairman, tells me, shaking his head.


The Sunday Times: What Kate Did Next



The most predictable thing about Kate Moss is that she likes to surprise people. Since she first appeared photographed in her pants in a fairy-lit bedsit, a heroin-chic waif in an era of glamazon supermodels, she has broken the mould. So it is fitting that now, aged 41, when we might expect her to start growing old gracefully — and it seemed that she might with her move to interior designing — instead she has installed a young man in her basement.

Just four years after she whirled up the aisle in a cloud of Galliano chiffon to marry the rock guitarist Jamie Hince, the union has been evaporating into rumours of rows and claims that they haven’t been seen together since April. Instead the elfin, model-pretty 28-year-oldCount Nikolai von Bismarck has been spotted sneaking into Moss’s London home.

He accompanied her to the opening of Richard Caring’s Sexy Fish restaurant in Berkeley Square last week and was snapped having lunch with Moss’s friends Sadie Frost and Meg Mathews two weeks ago in a pub near Moss’s Gloucestershire home.

“A lot of people know Kate has been seeing a lot of Nikolai, but she’s never been this open,” a source told The Sun on Sunday. “Their relationship is pretty intense and he has been virtually living at her London home, but has been staying in the basement quite a lot.” (Allegedly so that Kate’s staff and 13-year-old daughter Lila Grace didn’t spot him.)


The Sunday Times Magazine: The University of Sex (feature)















2am and the O2 Academy nightclub in Bristol is throbbing with sweaty students — brand new ones, many of them away from home for the first time. Tonight is Freshers’ Night: this week, 12,500 new students arrived in the city. For this future-themed party, girls are dressed gamely in skintight silver jumpsuits, miniskirts and facepaint, while the boys wear canary-yellow T-shirts from today’s freshers’ pub crawl.

Under the stage, dripping bodies are gyrating to purple strobes. In dark nooks of the club — on leather sofas and in grimy stairwells — couples are making out with the fervent passion of teenagers. And teenagers, of course, they are.

Across the city, under the stone archway through which these students passed to begin their university careers, there is a sign that reads: “Sexual assault is not part of uni life.” It is the kind of poster that is now ubiquitous on campuses nationwide; a not-so-gentle reminder of the new era — one in which laddishness, harassment and overbearing sexual pressure is supposed to have ceased. The universities have called time on all that, but has anything really changed?

In the club, groups of lads are downing pints and ordering shots. In a corridor, a boy’s hands circle a girl’s waist. “Be a gentleman,” she laughs, pushing him off. “I was being extra-gentlemanly!” he protests. She wiggles away, slurring: “I need some fags. I can use my feminine charms to get some.” He grabs at her and she giggles. Outside the club, paramedics shine a torch into the eyes of a boy who appears to be unconscious, his leopard-print shirt covered with his own sick.

Universities throughout Britain are on red alert over their “lad problem”: steps are being taken to deal with it — although, judging by the behaviour of some students in that bar, the new era hasn’t begun yet.

In February, the National Union of Students (NUS) held a “lad culture” summit to discuss the apparent epidemic of badly behaved young men. This followed a report, commissioned by the NUS in 2013, in which 50% of student participants identified “prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment” at their universities. The report, produced by academics at Sussex, described laddishness as “founded upon a trinity of drinking, football and f******”. It suggested that lad culture, spurred on by internet sites such as UniLad and the LAD Bible, had crept from leering banter to harassment and assault. The Sussex report followed a previous NUS study in 2010 that claimed that 37% of female students had experienced unwelcome sexual advances and 68% had been sexually harassed, while 7% had experienced serious sexual assault.


The Sunday Times magazine feature: battle of the bulge



Michael Wilcox shows me a photograph of how he used to look when he was 18, skinny and weighing 8½st. In the picture he has sharp cheekbones, slim hips and twiggy arms. For complicated reasons involving a lads’ night out, he is also wearing a dress. “I’ve totally changed since that photo,” says Michael, now aged 20, grinning. “I don’t want to be small any more.” And he’s not. He is 11st and adding muscle all the time. His target weight? 15st.

Michael shows me another photograph of how he’d like to look. It is Lazar Angelov, a Bulgarian “personal trainer, nutrition consultant, fitness model and motivator” — a ripped sirloin steak of a person. Michael found Lazar on Facebook and saved his picture to inspire him. “I can’t explain it, really. It’s the way I want to look. I’ve always been tiny. I don’t like it. I just want to be big.”

Michael, who is unemployed, goes to the gym every day. While heaving a 31kg barbell over his head, he tells me he once trained for eight hours straight. He watches himself in the mirror, his thick biceps accentuated by a skimpy white vest. But Michael’s dramatic physical transformation isn’t just the result of intensive gym sessions. He is one of a growing number of young men regularly taking steroids to achieve their ideal body shape. His compulsion to use them, part of a trend sometimes considered the inverse of anorexia, has a name: bigorexia.

Steroids entered mainstream awareness through stories of professional sportsmen using them as performance enhancers. Mimicking the effects of the male hormone testosterone, steroids increase muscle mass and decrease fat, giving athletes a competitive (and controversial) edge. Now these drugs have emerged from the locker rooms of professionals into common use. They are especially popular among young men.

“It’s difficult to even guess at the number of people using steroids,” says Jim McVeigh, acting director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, who has been researching steroid use for more than 20 years. Because steroids are a controlled Class C substance available legally by prescription only (possession isn’t illegal, but supplying them is), it is difficult to find accurate figures for their usage. A conservative estimate by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), a healthcare body that advises the NHS, suggests that almost 60,000 people aged 16 to 59 used anabolic steroids in England and Wales in 2013. McVeigh believes the real figure to be in the hundreds of thousands — “far more than heroin addicts”.

Read the full feature here:

The Sunday Times travel: Groucho-on-sea


Groucho Marx said he’d refuse to join any club that would have him as a member. But the Groucho Club has never let me join, so I’m always desperate to go: I sneak in whenever I get the chance, hoping to re-create its most notorious nights.

Who wouldn’t want to drink in the club where Julie Burchill claims Toby Young had his way with a Princess Diana impersonator in the toilets; where Rowland Rivron broke his hand cycling down the stairs, wrecked on pisco sours; where, on one epic night, Keith Allen assembled a band from the boozers, with Moby on piano, Mick Jones singing Clash songs, and Coldplay and New Order on backing vocals?

The social alchemist who whipped up this hedonistic maelstrom was Mary-Lou Sturridge. The Groucho’s godmother, she was instrumental in the 1980s and 1990s in helping its founder, Anthony Mackintosh, turn the club into an era-defining melting pot that changed the face of London’s social scene.

Mary-Lou left when the club was sold to its current owners, Graphite Capital. Among the regulars, there are murmurings that it hasn’t been the same since — that it has (whisper
it) cleaned up its act.

Perhaps Sturridge has, too. She tells me it’s not that she got bored of staying up until 5am five nights a week, but thought: “Why not stay up until 5am just two nights a week instead?” Which hints at the kind of weekend retreat she hopes her new project will become. For now, with investment from Mackintosh, she has opened the Seaside Boarding House, in Dorset.

Read the full feature here:

The Sunday Times travel magazine: Phuket with a pal



A champagne cork pops and music streams out of our villa and over me as I float belly-up in our private pool, deep in post-massage bliss. Inside, rose petals decorate the bathtub. The steam room’s on full. Beneath our deck, the Andaman Sea shivers in the evening light.

Then the romance of the moment is punctured by a scream — Cyndi Lauper being turned up on the stereo, and a figure dive-bombing into the pool. “I bet this is how Kate and Stella do holidays!” yells Zara, who’s jumped into the water holding a glass of champagne and a cigarette.

You see, I’m not sharing this with a lover. I’ve gone on holiday with my best friend.

As girly holiday destinations go, Thailand might not seem an obvious choice. If anything, the country — and Phuket in particular — conjures up images of backpackers, honeymooners or, worse, middle-aged men seeking a different kind of loving.

But take a closer look at the sun worshippers in those beachside cabanas and you’ll find an altogether more glamorous breed of holidaymaker. Kate Moss has spent New Year on the island with Naomi Campbell; Kim Kardashian went with her whole Amazonian clan; Rihanna, too, took a break in Phuket during her world tour. Thailand is changing. It’s time for the men trawling ping-pong bars to move over — here come the girls.

Read the full feature here:

THE DEBRIEF: The political WaG




Is there any fate worse than being First Lady? I cannot think of anything I’d dislike more. It’s all the hassle of public life with none of the power – always wearing the right dress and never saying the wrong thing, which, come to think of it, is sort of the inverse of my job. Outside the USA, there’s not even the snazzy title to go with it.

Usually I don’t give much thought to these Little Women, who’ve chained their lives to their husband’s career ambitions, like they’re looking after a diabetic dog. I don’t want to be them, I don’t admire them, I rank their opinions as substantially less important than whatever Buddhist manta Cara Delevingne’s posted on Instagram this week. But now we’re entering the pre-election era when these poor chattels get carted out, there’s no escaping it.

Justine Miliband’s been bullied into an excruciating TV interview, Sam Cam is omni-present (see also: yesterday’s soft-focus photo shoot in the Mail On Sunday). Now, as the election nears and things are getting serious, she was air-dropped into Rochester and Strood constituency in an attempt to reverse the fortunes of the Tory party, who lost the area when MP Mark Reckless defected to UKIP last September

Opining on the previous night’s TV debates during her visit Sam considered her husband (David Cameron, you know, the Prime Minister) didn’t seem too nervous. ‘I’m very glad it’s him not me.’ Somehow sidestepping the fact that it was never going to be her up on that podium, because she’s not actually a politician. Yet, given the way political wives are dangled in front of us, intended to humanise not just their husbands, but their whole party, I’m amazed no one has yet suggested a three-way leaders’ wives debate.

I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a political wife. I image it as a Stepford life of blow-dries, kitchen-offs with other First Ladies and throwing house parties for people you don’t even like. Not going clubbing or wearing anything more outrageous than Boden. Not even getting to live where you like. You’d be on constant display, but never allowed any real opinions, especially not political ones. Only maybe on innocuous subjects like saving orphans that no one could disagree with you on. Mainly, though, ­whatever your professional qualifications – you’re reduced to spouting drivel about how great your husband is with the kids (even if he’s not) as if that’s any reason someone should vote for him.

When does this deal start, I wonder? On the first date? ‘Hey babes, I’ve got big plans, do you mind wearing tights over that Dolphin tattoo?’ At the altar? Will you take this man, no matter how abhorrent his policies? As you give birth, ‘You know, she can’t go to private school.’ Meanwhile, you keep your chin up as the world calls you Mr Spock, because, to be fair, what but your looks has it got to go on? It can’t know your politics, opinions or principles. It’s not your policies it’s voting for. Instead, your engagement in public life is limited to appearing on daytime TV shows and campaign stages giving rigour mortis smiles.

I don’t think I could stand this political WAGery. I’d rather be Miley Cyrus than Sam Cam; I’d rather be Kim Kardashian-West than Ju-Mil. I’d rather be Madonna… actually, I’d rather be Madonna, full stop. Even frivolous pop stars have more moral integrity and personal freedom than the charade of authority the First Lady’s got. Not a politician, an artist or even PA, at best she’s a glorified career. The thing about most of our political WAGS is that when they’re not being Good Wives I rather respect them. I admired Samantha Cameron’s career as creative director of Smythson (or did, before the tax haven stuff). I’ve always thought of Justine Thornton, a barrister and former Government advisor who’s scaled the Atlas mountains as far more than a dress. I’m in awe of Miriam Gonalez Durantez, most of all: an international lawyer whose pay grade and chutzpah cojones far outscale her husband’s. Which is why I wish, when I saw them in public it was inspiring women as professionals, not consorts.

Perhaps this is why the male partners of female MPs won’t be rolled out. Justine, Miriam and Sam Cam will have been asked how they rated their husband’s performances during the leader’s debate, but is anyone watching Peter Murrell’s reaction (Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, in case you’re asking)?

Still, if I had to be First Lady, I’d do it properly, in America. At least there they sell out fully into the frivolity of the role. Making fashion statements in pink milkshake suits like Jackie O or appearing on Ellen, dancing to Uptown Funk, like Michele Obama. Besides, the US produced the finest First Lady ever, Clare Underwood. Although fictional. A woman cool enough to play beer pong in the White House and spend her downtime hanging out with monks. But ultimately she’s the best First Lady because she’s more interested in tackling international politics (often against her husband’s wishes and edicts) as a UN ambassador than any of the perks being the wife of the President entails. For, as she says, when someone asks her why she’s not content with being First Lady, ‘It is not the same as contributing in a concrete way.’

This article originally appeared on The Debrief: