Expletive deleted - does Giles Coren just want to be loved?
The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren talks to Tan Parsons about Labradors in Kentish Town, his famous father and that infamous email... IN July Giles Coren made national headlines when a furious email he sent to a sub-editor at The Times was leaked
The Times' restaurant critic Giles Coren talks to Tan Parsons about Labradors in Kentish Town, his famous father and that infamous email...
IN July Giles Coren made national headlines when a furious email he sent to a sub-editor at The Times was leaked and published. In the expletive-laden message he laid into his collegue for removing a single letter 'a' from his article, which altered the meaning of a sentence and ruined a play on words. Incidentally, it is now the subject of a YouTube spoof featuring a scene from the film Downfall.
Mr Coren received so much hate mail after the leak that he stopped opening his post.
"Why don't you tell me what you really think of meddling sub-editors," I venture bravely.
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"They're fine. I don't have them any more," he jokes, perhaps a little embarrassed. It turns out that just today he has already phoned his sub-editors to thank them for correcting a phrase in his article, although there is precious little chance that this exchange will be outed.
"I got more exposure from that email than anything I've ever done," he says. "And that's what my personality is as far as the world's concerned now. I am the person who writes weird, wacked- out emails.
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"People love bad stuff. They don't care if you won the food critic of the year award in 2005, but the moment you win something for being bad they love it. There is a certain collection of Guardian readers who just can't bear what a wanker I appear to be. They think I'm so arrogant - they write these terribly angry letters to me."
He gets about 1,000 emails a week and up to 200 letters - many of them abusive.
"Some people just write to say, 'I saw your programme, it was rubbish, you're a fat bastard, you don't know anything, you've got bad table manners and I hate you,'. However much you try not to, it does make you feel bad, and there's no reason why I should have to read that."
But he also found friends in high places, receiving supportive letters from Stephen Fry and David Baddiel, among others.
The first he knew of the leaked email was when he received a message from former England cricket captain Michael Atherton.
"I'm a huge cricket fan and a huge fan of Atherton - the last Cambridge-educated captain of England, the man who fought the rearguard action against Alan Donald and, what's more, if I were a woman, I'd have his babies," he recalls.
"He said, 'I'm in a rainy press box in Durham watching some 40-40 game. The only thing that's keeping me alive is your email'. What more could you ask for?"
But it got even better. At a birthday party in the countryside he found himself in the company of Tory leader David Cameron and drunkenly introduced himself.
"I said, 'Hello David', and he said, 'Hello Giles - fantastic email'. This is the man who's going to be the Prime Minister! I asked if he wanted me to write his speeches for him - he said no."
An accusation often levelled at Mr Coren is that he only won his job at The Times because of his father. He is the son of the late Alan Coren, the Sage of Cricklewood, whose posthumous anthology Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks was published yesterday by Canongate Books.
"It's not true that I got my job because of him," he says. "My dad didn't have any power - he was just a human. But for me and my sister, exposure to him made us into people who think, 'Well that's a good way to earn a living'.
"It makes you funny and clever because they are funny and clever and you want to impress them.
"So because of him, I ended up being the sort of person who is quite good at writing funny pieces. In that sense it probably is true that he helped me."
It took the young Giles Coren a little time to really appreciate his father's exuberant style, especially as a pupil at Hall School in Hampstead. Alan Coren had a 1965 Mercedes Benz 220 SE convertible, the only right-hand drive model in Britain, and in it he picked up the young Giles from school.
"He always wore a flat cap because he was bald on top. Nowadays you can have a short clip and it's all fine, but back in those days people didn't know what to do with a bald head -so he had longish hair at the sides and he wore a lot of hats," he says.
"And he would come roaring down the road in this giant blue-finned convertible with his flat cap on. The other boys would have thought, what a cool dad, what a cool car, but I thought, 'On no, that's so embarrassing'."
Later on it was just brilliant, he says - having a dad who was just much cleverer, funnier and more interesting than other men: "Everyone thinks their dad is better than everyone else's but in my case it was true."
Our interview is interrupted at this point by a great noisy gang of Labradors and Red Setters bursting into the pub accompanied by ladies in wax jackets and wellies.
"Kentish Town used to be quite tough and edgy but now there are Labradors here and this could be a village in the Cotswolds," says Mr Coren.
In his childhood it was altogether tougher. At Hall he had to wear a pink uniform and hat which marked him out as a prime target for hoodlums - especially in Swiss Cottage.
"Just up the road there was this thing called the Winchester Project which was a rehabilitation scheme for properly bad young people," he says.
"Now I feel sorry for the kids they were trying to rehabilitate. They're getting these kids off drugs, off knives, and then they serve up to them these little posh kids in pink blazers. What are they supposed to do but mug them?"
Now 39, he is in the best physical shape of his life - not bad for a man who gets paid to eat in restaurants. He runs on Hampstead Heath, has tennis lessons in Waterlow Park and plays national league fives.
"I couldn't live anywhere else. I can't understand people who live in Notting Hill - what do they do, where do they go for a walk or a run? My girlfriend is 28 and, you know, I've got to maintain the physical levels that she would expect of a man of 28."
He is determined not to be fat. Fat is ''the worst thing''. He would rather be dead than fat. "The only reason I get on the telly is that I'm the only restaurant critic under 20 stones," he says.
So what about his job? Surely it must get boring, dining out all the time, and what qualifies him to write restaurant reviews anyway? I put this to him as a parting shot.
"Chefs who've had a bad review often ask what my qualifications are. Well pal, there is no restaurant criticism A-level but if there was, I would have done it and I would have got an A," he ripostes.
"I don't get bored of eating out. This is the best job in the world. Most people commute for two hours a day. I spend two hours in a restaurant - that's the time that most people spend on the Northern Line."