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Archive for October, 2009

There will be some very sore and stiff legs this morning among the 10,413 who ran the Dublin Marathon yesterday. I’ve run that marathon twice (in 2005 and 2006) and it’s a great course. Congratulations to all who took part yesterday, whatever their finish time. Running a marathon is an amazing experience. I’d dreamt of doing it since I was a kid and I am so glad I finally got round to fulfilling the dream in 2005, when I ran what remains my personal best time: 4hrs 3mins.

The following year I chose the Progeria Research Foundation (PRF) as my charity. The PRF works to raise awareness and find a cure for the Progeria Syndrome which is a rare, fatal genetic condition characterized by an appearance of accelerated aging in children. The Syndrome’s rarity is of little comfort to those who suffer from it, of course. Children with Progeria suffer strokes and heart attacks as early as five years of age and die of heart disease at an average age of just 13 years.

I was inspired to run for the PRF after watching a Channel 4 documentary about some Indian children with the condition, which you can see here. There is a shorter video about them here. You can read more about Progeria and the fight to find a cure here. Good luck to all the Progeria kids and their families and friends.

Here’s a video of me finishing that second marathon. That’s me coming over the line in a light blue t-shirt (and white Israel football shorts which I’d purchased in Tel Aviv the previous month!) on 46 seconds and 54 seconds.

Thank goodness this week is almost over. I found the entire Nick Griffin saga almost unbearable. Watching decent people furiously arguing on Facebook, Twitter and in the real world about whether the BBC was right to allow him on Question Time was so upsetting. Because it was all too easy to forget what we had in common: a loathing for the man and his politics.

That said, one of my favourite remarks on the saga came on Facebook. Commenting on Griffin’s nervous tic, my friend Jonathan Sacerdoti observed that “it looked like he was chewing his own face off”. Now that would be required viewing!

The other best statement came on Question Time itself, in the shape of Joel Weiner’s confrontation of Nick Griffin over his Holocaust denial. “How could you,” he asked. It was a straightforward, moving, brave and eloquent intervention. In this interview, Weiner says he was sickened by Griffin’s statement of support for Israel. “I thought [it] was disgusting,” he said. “I don’t want my culture and my people to be associated with him. I’m annoyed with myself because I should have told him that in my comment.”

He shouldn’t be annoyed with himself. He was a beacon of light on a dark evening.

My friend Tal has a big week ahead of her – she’s starting her IDF (Israeli army) service. I am completely supportive of both the IDF and of Israel’s policy of national service. It’s easy for me to say that, though – a Gentile living in a quiet British village.

I want Tal to know how much I admire her for what she is about to do.

She’s a wonderful friend to have. Fun, thoughtful, kind and almost unbearably cute. Cool, too – when she was a schoolgirl she gave a speech at the launch of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. We had a lot of fun in London during her summer visit which I dubbed the Beyond Beseder days. (She’s the one in the blue tops.) Lots more fun to come in the future.

In the meantime, I know she’s going to do just great with the challenge to come. We’re all very proud of you, Tal.

Friends of Israel, please feel free to leave a supportive message for Tal on the comments form below. Let’s show her some admiration!


What is going on with David Beckham’s beard? As my Mum would say: it’s not on. Since he first broke through into the Manchester United first team I’ve followed his story with interest – and a beard was never part of the script, surely?

I was there when he scored his wonder goal against Wimbledon in 1996. Bizarrely I’d been sitting next to the late football commentary legend Brian Moore. With United winning 2-0 and the clock running down, he decided to leave, saying: “If anything changes now it will have to be a hell of an ending.” He missed one of the modern game’s greatest goals by minutes.

But he won’t have missed the hype that built up around the United midfielder in the wake of that goal. Neither did I. I worked for Shoot magazine at the time and was sent to several Beckham press conferences – including a toe-curling launch for his ‘Brylcreem Boy’ status – before I got my first exclusive one-to-one interview with him, which took place a few weeks before the 1998 World Cup kicked-off.

We spoke for nearly an hour in some Alan Partridge-style travel tavern. It was a few days after Manchester United had surrendered the Premiership crown to Arsenal, and I managed to only crow about that once. He actually seemed quite weighed-down by that disappointment and didn’t come across as a man about to take the biggest tournament in football by the scruff of the neck. Thanks to Glenn Hoddle’s eccentric management style and an infamous red card against Argentina, he never really got the chance to do so.

The next one-to-one interview I did with Beckham was in Madrid a few weeks before the 2006 World Cup. This one was for the cover of the Big Issue magazine and it had taken months of persuasion from me to convince Beckham’s people to agree to it. Here was a different Beckham altogether to the last time. He was relaxed, lively – rather jolly in fact. We had a laugh about the hairstyles of some of his former Manchester United team-mates – including Rio Ferdinand’s afro – and about the huge sunglasses he was wearing as he arrived for the interview. You know, the usual banter-in-the-Madrid-sunshine-with-David-Beckham-type-stuff.

There’s more to tell about my run-ins with David Beckham, including the story behind fact four here. But that’s for another day, and possibly another outlet.

As he nears the end of his playing career, he has started acting a little strangely. First when he shouted abuse back at the LA Galaxy fans, and now this beard. He is said to be a shoe-in for next summer’s World Cup squad and is on his way back to AC Milan. Could this national treasure be about to write one more dramatic twist into his legendary story? In the meantime, the man who endorsed Gillette razors really ought to follow his own advice and use one.

So, I promised a review of the Matisyahu gig at the Islington Academy. It was a great night all round. I had dinner before the gig with the gorgeous Digital Media Marketing Queen Monique Lester, her beautiful sister Brenda and Brenda’s wonderful, warm and witty Israeli fella Sam. (Or ‘Sim’. Private joke.) We ate Italian, slagged off Islingtonians and discussed button mushrooms. (Another private joke. Last one, I promise.) Oh what fun we had.

Then it was on to the gig for me. Listen, the Islington Academy is a terrible, terrible venue. Seriously. You can hardly move and it’s more or less impossible to get even a semi-decent view of the stage. And it’s in a modern shopping centre – rock ‘n’ roll! On the plus side, there was no queue for the bar. But I’m teetotal nowadays so that was of little consequence to me.

Despite the dodgy surroundings, Matisyahu was fantastic. He’s a charismatic stage presence and has a wonderfully cool, shy smile. He sang tracks from his back catalogue and brilliant new album including One Day, Exaltation, Lord Raise Me Up, Youth, King Without A Crown, and Jerusalem. There is a rough-and-ready video from the night on YouTube.

At times the performance was a bit indulgent, with long periods of dub-reggae improvisation that took the main man out of the picture a bit. He invited another Jewish rapper called Kosha Dillz on for a guest spot at one point and Mr Dillz (I never know how to refer to rappers with odd names!) nearly stole the show with a hilarious, rousing skit.

But Matisyahu was on fantastic form and really connected with the audience, contrary to accounts I’ve read of previous concerts of his. He even stage-dived (thus further undermining Johann Hari’s peculiar attack of 2006). I’d waited so long to see him live, it was great to see him. A sizeable chunk of the audience (mostly the JPs I couldn’t help but notice) left once he had sung Jerusalem (like the opposite of an Israeli boycott) so for the final song of the encore I could both breathe and see the stage clearly. Ooh, I felt ever so spoilt!

It was an enjoyable, enlightening performance. It really was. I even had a small weep during Jerusalem. Come back soon, big man. Just pick a better venue next time. The Forum in Kentish Town is a bit bigger, and much better. Convenient for the JPs, too.

In other news, I’m honoured to have been invited to the Friday night service at the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue and for dinner afterwards with some members of the congregation. Really looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, I’m writing a ‘hot book’. Not my words, the words of The Bookseller. Scroll down towards end of the story.

Finally, a quick word about Leona Lewis. As my friends know I’m an enormous fan of her music and her in general. I really hope she’s okay after yesterday’s attack.

When I was a kid, I dreamt of meeting famous footballers and pop stars. Through my journalism I’ve met literally hundreds of them, and in all truth it’s rarely a massive thrill anymore. It’s nice work to have, but work all the same. Nowadays, I wish I could meet politicians I admire. Bibi, obviously. But also high on that list would be Tony Blair.

I came close once. When I was in Israel in the summer of 2006, myself and my friend Susi got wind that Tony Blair was staying in a hotel just down the road from ours in Tel Aviv. We both instantly had the same idea: seek him out, shake his hand and congratulate him on his moral stance on Iraq. We really wanted to, but didn’t fancy our chances of getting close to a serving and embattled Prime Minister, especially in security-conscious Israel of all places. So we stayed by the pool instead.

When I read about ridiculous episodes like this during the commemorative service for the dead of Iraq at St Pauls on Friday, I wish we’d made the effort. I wish I could tell Mr Blair how grateful and admiring some of us are for the stance he took on Iraq and Afghanistan. In both wars he was courageous, moral and entirely selfless: everything a leader should be. It was upsetting to see the effect that Iraq visibly had on his health. Upsetting but awe-inspiring: that’s real leadership right there, etched into his face.

As I wrote in Not In My Name: “With Iraq, Blair threw out of the window his obsessions with spin, approval and short-term gain. In doing so, Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister truly came of age as a leader and a man. In contrast to when Thatcher went to war for the people of the Falklands Islands, Blair knew full well that his stance on Iraq was never going to reap electoral dividends. He also knew it could wreck his legacy. In making his stance, he demonstrated all manner of qualities that he’d previously only shown in spasms: he was steadfast, courageous and self-sacrificing.” I met Alastair Campbell last year and told him how much I admired him and Blair for Iraq and related issues. The surprise on his face said it all, really.

It’s become so mindlessly trendy to diss Blair. I wish I could tell him how much I admire the many, many other great achievements of his reign – including his swift and decisive action on gay rights. I also admired him for his faith, even though I do not share his brand. I will always remember how calmly he dealt with sneering questions about religion from the likes of Jeremy Paxman. It was on the world stage, though, that he starred until the end. Even in the closing months of his premiership, he continued to take a moral stance by resisting enormous pressure to condemn Israel’s defensive action against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

It’s interesting when people compare Blair to President Obama. True, there are similarities in terms of presentation and in the hype that greeted the coronation of both leaders. But I remain to be convinced that Obama has the moral clarity or courage to make the sorts of difficult, perhaps unpopular decisions that are badly needed internationally, not least over Iran. I hope I’m proved wrong.

In the meantime, respect to Tony Blair.

I wrote this article for a local arts website about my new book, Heston Blumenthal: The Biography Of The World’s Most Brilliant Master Chef.

Heston Blumenthal: The best of Berkshire

Biography-writing is always an eye-opening, perception-confounding experience. Never have I found this to be more true than in my research for my new book about masterchef Heston Blumenthal. I’d always admired him but my respect grew the more I worked on the book. He is a man of wonderful contrasts and makes for a joyful, fascinating subject to study.

His food rarely comes cheap: a meal at The Fat Duck is going to set you back comfortably in excess of £100 per person and will cost you several months of waiting time. However, his tasting menu experience is not aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at those for whom such a hefty bill would be a commonplace experience. The theatre and multi-sensory joy of the Blumenthal experience – iPods playing the sounds of the sea, cakes having ‘orgasms’ on the plate, miniature fireworks going off, sprays to add complimentary scents etc – would most likely be lost on such souls. No, Blumenthal’s favourite customers are those who have saved up for a really special treat and want to savour every moment, every mouthful.

He understands these people because throughout his twenties he was one of them – only obsessively so. Indeed, in his work he frequently harks back even further – to the smells, tastes and experiences of his childhood.  These include ice-creams in west London, picnics in Windsor Great Park, Christmas lunches and so much more. No wonder he is so happy in his work and says he can count on the fingers of one hand how many days he has not wanted to go to work. Not that he has always been such a contented soul. Blumenthal has past issues with anger that took him to the brink of tragedy on more than one terrifying occasion. He was a very angry young man before he accepted treatment and before he hit the bigtime, when the years of hard work and sacrifices finally paid off.

Even given the riches his success have earned him and the famous intricacy of his work, Blumenthal’s feet remain on the ground. When he received his OBE he said that all he does is chop a few onions. Away from work, he often eats a curry takeaway of a Monday evening, and can be spotted at the Pizza Express restaurants and even the kebab vans of the Royal County. That’s why he was such a perfect choice for the Channel 4 Big Chef Takes On Little Chef reality series: he understands the world of both the big chef and the Little Chef. The classy man with the common touch, he truly represents the best of Berkshire. I’ve written biographies of other personalities including Simon Cowell and Amy Winehouse, but (aside from a brief stay in Windsor for the young Cowell) this was the first time I’ve been lucky enough to write about a man who lives and works so near me. (The Fat Duck is a 15 minute drive from my house, and I’ll let any of you treat me to a lunch at the Hinds Head anytime. When can you make it?)

All of us in Berkshire should be pleased and proud to have Heston in our midst. Where he fits in among the crowded arena of celebrity chefs can best be seen by what each would do were we to hand them a single egg. Delia Smith would teach us how to boil it, Ainsley Harriott would tell it an annoying joke, Jamie Oliver would take it onto his high-horse with him and Gordon Ramsay would scream at it: “Where the f**k are your balls?!” Blumenthal, meanwhile, quietly showed us how to use liquid nitrogen to create egg and bacon ice cream. As you do: he is the Willy Wonka of the masterchef world.

As such, he stands as part of a noticeable and welcome trend. From the increase in bespectacled, intellectual football managers, to the hero status of the team at Google and the millions earned by the creators of Facebook, the geeks are finally inheriting the earth. So it’s no wonder that it is the experimental, bright and boyish man from Berkshire who is cooking up a storm. Long may he reign.

Heston Blumenthal: The Biography Of The World’s Most Brilliant Master Chef by Chas Newkey-Burden is out now (£17.99, John Blake).

I know a few readers were disappointed to miss out on tickets for tonight’s sold-out Matisyahu gig in London. He has ‘tweeted’ a competition to win tickets here.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the new look Oy Va Goy. To be launched soon!

It’s a big weekend for three of the people I’ve written biographies of, with questions hanging over each.

Simon Cowell has flu! Will he or won’t he be well enough appear on the first live show of this year’s X Factor?
(He will.)

Amy Winehouse might be back in rehab! Will she fulfil her booking to appear as a backing singer on Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday?
(Bookies give 6/4 that she won’t. But she will.)

Alexandra Burke is to sing Bad Boys on the Sunday night X Factor results show! How will she do?
(She’ll blow the blimming roof off.)

PS – I did my slot on BBC Radio London this morning. If you’re interested it is on Listen Again here. I am 1.32 in.

PPS – You can also check me out on Monday’s BBC Berkshire breakfast show talking about the Danni/Danyl controversy here, around 2.09 in.

I am loving Light, the new Matisyahu album. I am a fan of all his material and with Light he really has taken things to a new level. If there was a slight ‘gimmick’ element to his previous work, then there is absolutely none of that left here. He is still a Hasid singing reggae, but it’s as if he’s got over the peculiarity of that and is letting his own sound come through.

And how great it is! The opener Smash Lies kicks off with banjos of all things and builds into a something more noisy than anything he’s done before. So Hi So Lo is also heaviness defined. The stand-out tracks are the lighter, more upbeat We Will Walk, I Will Be Light and the beautiful Silence which closes the album. Be warned, the latter is a real choker of a song in all the best ways. The first time I heard it I knew: this is going to be an all-time favourite. Period.

There’s a slightly strange coincidence ahead for me Matisyahu-wise. This time last year, Chris and myself were gleefully honeymooning in America. We stayed in LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Washington. While we were in San Fran, we were wandering around a huge park one day when I suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of Matisyahu. We followed the sound and found ourselves outside a pay festival. Never having seen him live, I was beyond excited and ready to hand over whatever it cost to get in. Right at the last moment I realised that it was a studio recording of him being played by a DJ, rather than the man himself playing live. Disappointing, but good to have saved the money.

Anyway, the coincidence comes with the fact that I’m seeing Matisyahu play live in London on October 13, which I reckon must be a year to the day (or near enough) since that day in the park in San Fran. I’m ridiculously excited about finally seeing him live because he is, to say the least, da man.

The gig is sold out but I recommend you check out Light, and his previous work too.

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.