Autumn 2010

God, the year is almost over and I am not doing well with the Memoir. I’ve written a good few words, maybe 40,000, but they are in no sort of order. I cannot decide whether the story should be chronological in the classic manner from cradle to grave or whether I can tackle themes in a random fashion, on say, food, family, business, telly. Or pin the story on personalities, or what.

But that is only an excuse. The truth is I have been mightily distracted by lots of things, not least my grandson who is just delicious and now onto solid food.

 Malachi eating supper

Malachi eating supper

His parents, I am proud to say, are following the “Baby-led weaning” method of feeding him, which is brilliant, if messy. Basically you put a selection of cooked and raw food (cooked veg, raw fruit, bits of cheese or chicken etc) on his high chair tray and let him get on with it. Nothing with sugar in it, which every child will quickly become addicted to, but pretty well everything else.  He plays with the little lumps of food,flings them onto the floor and smears them all over his head and body, but a good bit does get swallowed  

He is very keen on courgettes, which he chose for his very first solid food. Next he had a short-lived passion for broccoli, and then a more sustained (three weeks so far) enthusiasm for beetroot.  He is not a pretty sight as you can see. Daniel and Emma tend to strip him down to a nappy for feeding purposes and then wipe him (or hose him in the sink) afterwards.

The theory is simple. Since children of weaning age will put absolutely anything into their mouths (bits of lego, paperclips, dead flies, strangers’ fingers) if you give them healthy food, they will put it in, and if hungry, chew and swallow it.

The method is time consuming, messy and wasteful. But since no one is trying to force a spoon into his mouth, and he is allowed to bang the tray to make the bits of food jump, and squidge it in his fingers, he has a lovely time and mealtimes are funny and stress free.  The trick, Emma says, is not to fill him up at the breast or bottle before meals. If he is not hungry he just plays the 8 month old version of mud pies.   

One day we went to L’Ortolan, the Michelin Star restaurant in Shinfield, near Reading, belonging to Alan Murchison.  Malachi sat on a high chair  between his Mum and me eating quacomole and butternut squash. He spat out the raw tuna though.  

 Me with Li-Da and Daniel in the Castle grounds

Me with Li-Da and Daniel in the Castle grounds

The reason for taking an eight-month old to such a grand restaurant was because we were celebrating my CBE, which I had just been presented with by Princess Anne in Windsor Castle. I was allowed three guests, so of course that meant Daniel and Emma and my daughter Li-Da. 

Emma's  Mum, Ginny, came with us and walked Malachi round the castle while we sat in a rather long and somewhat tedious ceremony. (I don’t know how the Royals stand it. Four or five times a year one of them, usually the Queen, but sometimes Prince Charles or the Princess Royal, have to conduct 40-second conversations with perhaps 100 people.)

Of course the bit when you get your 40 seconds is not at all tedious. It is surprisingly nervous-making. It should be easy. You ought to be able to walk six paces to an equerry, stand next to him until your name is called, walk forward four paces, turn to face the Monarch, curtsey or bow your head, walk forward, stand there while she slips your gong onto a hook already on your coat, answer a question or two, take a few paces backwards, turn, exit.

What’s to fear? Well, this was the first time I had worn high heels for probably three years and I teetered along in a very wavy line, like a drunk. But Princess Anne was amazing. We managed to have, at her instigation, a conversation about the importance of the School Food Trust and whether the new Government would abolish it  (I said, I doubted it. It is anyway already a charity and independent of Government); how vital it is that children learn to cook, and how good the Great British Waste Menu programme had been. All this in 40 seconds with no feeling of hurry.

So, OK, she is always well briefed, but to do that with seventy or a hundred people and finish on time, is pretty impressive.

 Me with no shoes!

Me with no shoes!

After the ceremony Edward Griffiths, who runs the Royal Household and whom I have known for donkeys’ years – he used to head up Roux Catering when I owned Leith’s Events and Parties and we were deadly rivals – invited us to have a glass of fizz.  It was brilliant. We had a drink overlooking Windsor Great Park, and then had a private tour of the castle, including a corridor full of amazing sets of china, some of it hundreds of years old and still used on grand occasions and of the kitchens.  And we were shown the rooms that had been restored after the fire and the spot where the Queen had authorised the firemen to break through the ceiling and let the fire rip, rather than allow it to spread from the state to the private apartments.

 Daniel with Malachi

Daniel with Malachi

Ernest and I had a week in Sicily staying at the Grand Hotel Timeo up in the ancient town of Toarmina and in the Villa St Andrea down on the beach. I was there for an Orient Express Board meeting, and Ernest came along for the ride. We did some sightseeing and ate a lot of seafood pasta and figs and ham. Yum. The company has just bought and refurbished the hotels and they are lovely:  The Timeo is right below the completely breath-taking Greco-Roman amphitheatre. It is built into the hillside on a little spur of land and from all sides you look down through pine trees and palms to bays with clear blue water, little boats and huddled houses.  

I also had a great week in Iceland, fishing with my brother. I’m mad about fishing, but understand that you might not be! So click here if you want to see an article I wrote on the subject of'The one that got away - Of course'  (Published by kind permission of Gamefisher, Salmon and Trout Association)

I’m in a bit of a state over my garden. I really need to simplify it. I’ve lived here in the Cotswolds for 34 years and in that time I have lavished attention and a fair bit of lolly on the garden with the result that it is now, I think, seriously overplanted. And definitely time-consuming and expensive to keep in perfect nick. So I am trying to decide what has to go: herbaceous border? Lake planting? Vegetable parterres? Shrubs and roses in the lawns?

Some of the younger trees (an avenue of pink rowans for example) can be replanted in the hedges on my new barn, which is now finished, and I will root-prune two big weeping ashtrees this winter (I should never have planted them where I did – they have got far too big) and try to move them next winter.

My barn is now ready, the garden is planted and I will move in December. Then we must pack up the main house (and the office, which is moving with me) so it can be re-roofed, re-wired, re-plumbed, the lot. The thought of such a big project, coming hard on the heels of the Barn re-building, is rather daunting, but the fact is I love building projects, and I am greatly encouraged by Derek Skeats, my designer and project manager who managed to bring home the barn on time and on budget, which is a first for me in a long life of building things.  He is brilliant.    

Not to have the use of the garden for a year will mean no Open Day for the National Garden Scheme, which we have supported for over 30 years, and no more garden fests, which I will miss. This year we had the leaders of all the regional groups of Slow Food UK, and a lot of ordinary members here for a grand Slow Food Picnic and the AGM. It was a lovely day and everyone brought food to share, and sat all over the garden.

But the biggest distraction, and excuse for not getting on with the Memoirs, is attending Literary festivals to plug my books. I have never done so many as this summer. I am such an egotist I like nothing better than talking about myself, my writing and books. But travelling all over the country does cut into writing time. I was comparing notes with novelist Angela Huth the other day and she said if you weren’t careful, you could spend all your time flogging books and no time producing them.

It’s a dilemma, because, unless you are already a real million-seller author, your publishers cannot spend great wodges of money promoting you. So no posters in train stations or ads in the press. If you sell well but not spectacularly, you have to get about and flog the things yourself. This year I went all over the place from the massive Edinburgh festival to the enchanting Appledore Festival in a tiny pretty town in Devon.

One great breakthrough in my life is that we have finally got my dog, Meg, to behave. She has been an untrainable nightmare for years, jumping up on people, barking at other dogs, chasing cars. And worst of all, she has taken to growling at my brother and sister in law and trying to savage their German Shepherd, Raksha. The problem started when we first got Meg from a rescue home, and Raksha, herself a not-yet-trained puppy, bit Meg, making a nasty, but soon healed, hole in her haunch.  From then on Meg was terrified of Raksha and at first would run away if Raksha visited, hiding under a hedge or shivering in a corner. But over the years, Meg has got bolder and started growling at Raksha, then growling if she smelt Raksha on my brother or his wife Penny, and eventually growling at other German Shepherds and then at other dogs, especially at the vets.  

Apart from the fear that she might bite someone, or their dog, which was worrying me increasingly, it was so maddening that I could not walk with my sister in law and our dogs, or leave Meg with her if I went on holiday, or offer to dog sit Raksha. We had tried everything, including spending fortunes on dog trainers for both dogs.  

And then Penny suggested Marianne Davis, the daughter of a dog breeder who trains dogs for shows, films, and everything else. I expected the usual stuff about having to understand the dog, reward her with treats, never shout at her, be patient, it takes months, etc.

Marianne said she thought a couple of hours would do it. Just to bring both dogs to her. Meg was on a lead when Raksha approached.  Meg went ballistic of course, desperate to savage her enemy. Marianne took Megs lead, pulled her head close to her thigh and set about walloping her with an empty plastic bottle with a stone inside it, shouting at her, No you don’t. No, No.  The stone made a fearsome racket but the bottle could not hurt her. But she did not like it. Penny, who is more soft-hearted than me, could not watch, and indeed Marianne said, “Don’t do this on a main road, someone will report you to the RSPC for cruelty to animals.” 

But the fact is that it is not cruel. A dog that chases sheep, or cars, or bites people could quite easily end up dead. Marianne just wanted Meg to understand that she cannot go for other dogs and that she must do as she is told. And I swear, within half an hour she had Meg and Raksha walking past each other, lying down next to each other, and after an hour Meg was happily, tail wagging, lying on top of Raksha.

 Meg sitting beautifully when told!

Meg sitting beautifully when told!

 I could not believe it. And I was convinced Meg would revert to her old ways the minute she had gone. So she came to my house and repeated it all on Megs own territory. And for the first time for years, we can now walk the dogs together, take them to each other’s houses. And Meg walks to heel, and sits when told to and will even lie down next to me when a white van is driving past. It’s true I can feel every fibre of her being longing to chase that van, but if I’m firm with her, she stays put.

It’s a miracle.