Political sketch writer Quentin Letts on life in London and How Caple, Herefordshire
PUBLISHED: 12:59 22 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 20 February 2013
From Alan "Sugarlump" Sugar to bog standard Britain and those who have buggered it up, there's not much that escapes Quentin Letts's acidic prose. But Herefordshire has his approval and that's where Rachel Crow caught him in weekend mode
Regular readers of Quentin Lettss political sketches in the Daily Mail could be forgiven if they imagined the man behind the pen to be every bit as acidic as the caustic comments he regularly launches at the victims of his columns.
But heres the thing: hes actually a nice man albeit with a mischievous streak.
Few have been spared his cutting observations, from Tony Blair hes gone a bit potty to John Prescott who has the manners of a flatulent caveman to Lord Alan Sugar, a less than intellectual political ingnue who had been ennobled owing to his TV fame. Sir Alan attempted to threaten Quentin with libel action. He responded to Sugarlumps lawyers bullish letters with a picture postcard of his home county of Herefordshire. Hes gone away for the moment. I have a very strong reaction against that, you just don't go after the writer, he observes.
Its not just through his columns that he has a good dig at people or elements of modern British life that bug him, either. There are also his two books, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain, where he directs pot shots at figures including Alastair Campbell and Charles Saatchi, and the more recent Bog Standard Britain in which he bemoans the countrys rise in mediocrity, loss of manners and dumbing down culture, which he notes, with a smile, has largely escaped Herefordshire. As a Herefordshire Ambassador Quentin is now tasked by Visit Herefordshire with using his way with words to promote the positive elements of his adopted county.
We sit chatting on a Saturday morning in the kitchen of the converted mill in a valley of How Caple near Ross-on-Wye that he, wife Lois and children, Claude, Eveleen and Honor call home. During the week Quentin stays three nights at the Savile Club in Mayfair, returning to Herefordshire in time for the weekend. The Letts moved to the county eight years ago to be nearer Loiss parents and for the childrens education but Quentin notes how it helps having the divide in his working week. Its lovely to come back here and take a bit of a breath. As soon as I cross the line between Newent and here, I sigh and think thank God Im home. The pace of life here is much more civilised.
Their sympathetically-extended stone house sits in a few acres of its own land; the converted stables now serve as the childrens den, while the former paddock has been turned into a mini football pitch and play area. The Wye Valley Walk passes along the far end of their garden, with the regular ramblers, exciting the dogs (two Patterdale terriers) greatly. I should put out an apology to all ramblers, says Quentin before adding, with a snigger: Despite Janet Street-Porter, (the Vice President of the Ramblers Association is one of his 50 Britain bugger-uppers). He describes her as: that noisy, noxious, sharp-elbowed love child of Sir Max Hastings and Sister Wendy Beckett. I should imagine if she came past the dogs would be running in the opposite direction, he adds.
While Quentin prepares lunch for the family, hes the cook out of the pair of us, divulges Lois, he ruminates over the events of the previous days Chilcot Inquiry and the appearance of Tony Blair. Its quite a contrast, reporting on one of the most important days in modern political history, followed by domestic duties, but both sit easily with him.
He wasnt known for giving Prime Minister Blair an easy ride, but the one occasion when he did give him the benefit of the doubt was after his speech in the House of Commons preceding the vote to go to war in Iraq.
As a sketch writer you dont have to be as objective as a political reporter and youre aware youre not just a journalist but a British subject and your patriotism kicks in. Whether you were supporting Blair or not, you were certainly supporting our boys in the field. So I almost found myself attaching to Blair because of the national emergency, which perhaps I shouldnt have done, he notes wryly.
Quentin grew up in Cirencester and went to prep school in Herefordshire before Haileybury in Hertfordshire. He read medieval English and classical civilisation at Trinity College, Dublin, followed by a diploma in classical archaeology at Jesus College, Cambridge and was eventually offered shifts on the Daily Telegraphs Peterborough diary column after writing to the then editor Max Hastings eight times. In 1995 he moved to New York as The Times correspondent, returning in 1997 when Lois was pregnant with Claude. It was at this point he returned to political sketch writing.
I came back to it on 1 May 1997, so one was faced with a brand new cast of characters. It was a bit tricky at the start to be too critical of the politicians as they had just been elected in with a vast majority. You are always conscious as a political commentator that you have no mandate. The only mandate I have is the fact people buy the Daily Mail, and I cant claim credit for that!
I think the readers like it when youre rude to politicians, but you need to change it occasionally. If you do it full-bore you run out of adjectives and get a bit eroded in your soul as well.
Alongside the sketch writing, Quentin is also the Mails theatre critic, on the face of it quite a contrast. They are actually very similar because sketch writing is theatre critiquing in a way. Theres not much difference sitting up in the House of Commons gallery and judging the performances on stage. When Tony Blair was there it was a close call between him and Judi Dench.
If you know a lot about politics it helps because a lot of theatre is based on politics and so its interesting as a theatre critic to go and look at it through a political eye. I finish at the Commons and file my copy by 6.30pm and then just waddle up the road to the West End. Its efficient, certainly, but Im down in London and Lois and the children are up here in Herefordshire so I may as well use the time to good effect. Plus it keeps me out of the pub.
With elections looming in May, its an exciting although he admits, exhausting time for him and his fellow sketch writers: pursuing the politicians around the corridors of Westminster and on their political campaign trails.
If we do have a change of government, hell be interested to see the new lot bed down but believes he will eventually run out of ink in a few years.
There comes a point where you have done every sketch possible. Its a good idea to get out with the readers wanting more.
My Herefordshire Life
Why did you accept the role of Herefordshire Ambassador?
Because I think it is admirable that people are trying to make a go of it in Herefordshire and I was happy to put my name to it. We are really happy here and its a beautiful place. My children and I think of ourselves as Herefordians now and Ive even switched football allegiances from Swindon Town to Hereford United and go along with my son, Claude, to watch the matches.
What do you hope to achieve in your role as ambassador?
Id like to help promote the agriculture as the farmers need all the help they can get at the moment in finding good prices for their produce and the best way to do that is to sell direct to the customers and not through the supermarkets.
We also need to promote tourism. There are parts of Herefordshire which are the quintessence of English countryside beauty. Id much rather the British people come here for their holidays rather than going abroad. Id be glad to help in any way I can.
Wheres your favourite spot in the county?
Down by the river near here at Hole in the Wall is beautiful and also the Marcle Ridge, heading down to Much Marcle with the orchards.
How would you sum up Herefordshire?
Its got a gentle, wry quality about it and doesnt get too hysterical about anything, which after the cacophony of Westminster is a blessed relief! Its not naive, but takes the world at its own pace and I think thats rather nice.
What is its most underrated attribute?
The pubs! Also its churches. Recently we went to a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio at Hereford Cathedral. Sitting there in that magnificent building, looking down the nave towards the distant, beautifully lit windows, it struck me that one thing we can do is encourage visitors to our county to visit our religious glories. Let's protect and care for our churches and do our bit for our county's superb heritage.
Do you have a favourite pub?
The Slip at Much Marcle, which is run by Fred and Denise. My idea of bliss is drawing up in car park and then enjoying a pint of Butcombe Bitter.
Have you become immersed in the local community life?
Lois plays organ at the churches around here so weve got to know people through the church and people are extremely friendly but not gushing; they are reserved but warm.
What would you recommend to a first-time visitor to the county?
They should visit the market towns, places like Leominster and Ross, and then walk some of the Wye Valley walk and enjoy the scenery.