Winter 09

I’m writing this on the train on the way to interview Ruthie Rogers at a Literary Festival about her new River Café Cookbook.  I love Ruthie and think she’s a brilliant cook, writer and restaurateur. She has one of those families you fall in love with in toto: talented attractive children and a charismatic husband, the architect, Richard (now Lord) Rogers.  But if I’d been concentrating I would have refused to interview her, in accordance with my determination to only appear anywhere as a novelist, not a cook or cookery writer or interviewer of cookery writers. I had assumed, arrogantly, that the organisers wanted me to talk about my latest novel, Choral Society, which is just out in paperback and selling satisfyingly well, but No, I am to talk food with Ruth.

The River Cafe Cook Book
By Rose Gray, Ruth Rogers

I should not have worried. Ruthie is nothing if not generous and she gave my novels a few whopping great plugs and shared her spotlight with me. Her book, written with Rose Gray (her partner in the River Café and the books) is The Classic Italian River Café Cookbook and is completely seductive with recipes at once unbelievably simple and unbelievably delicious.

This business of insisting on being a novelist, and avoiding the foodie image, is more difficult than I thought it would be. The trouble is I’m so vain. For example, I rather enjoy being on telly – the next series of the Great British Menu starts again in March and we start filming in January. Now if I want to be thought a novelist, what am I doing eating endlessly in front of millions of viewers?  My agent says it helps with novel sales, and that’s my excuse, but the truth is probably that I enjoy being stopped in the supermarket for my autograph.

What I don’t enjoy about telly is seeing myself on it. Again, it must be vanity, but all I can think of is how crooked my teeth are, how grumpy my expression, how double my chin. Which is why I have only ever watched a couple of episodes of The Great British Menu. It does not help that kind people always tell me, astonishment in their voices, how photogenic I am and how good I look on the box.

Of course I should be grateful to be offered the job. TV producers like youth and glamour, and I will be seventy in February. Which is a great excuse for resigning from everything. Well, almost everything. I plan to stay on the Orient Express Hotels board as long as they will have me. Ernest and I have just had a great weekend at La Residencia in Mallorca, where I had to attend a board meeting. (I hasten to say, before someone shouts "Disgraceful!", that Ernest paid his own air fare and we traveled Easyjet).

One of the benefits, I hope, of semi retirement will be fewer annual reports, magazines and newsletters jamming my letter box. I can decently give up the societies, associations, trade bodies, clubs – groan, groan -and etc connected with the restaurant trade, catering, cooking, home economics, food technology, chef training, management, -- more groans - etc of which I am a member. I shall, as befits a septegenarian, retain my membership of the National Trust, the Ramblers, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Royal Society of Arts and the Arts Fund, and finally be able to enjoy my membership, and go on jolly outings to lovely places. Can’t wait.

I will also, with sadness, give up chairmanship of the School Food Trust, which I still think is the most important job I’ve ever done. But more of that in a month or two.

I’m not planning to stop writing, however. A Serving for Scandal is finally delivered, and will come out in March. I am thoroughly nervous about it. When I was proof-reading it, I felt alternately delighted and anxious about it. I do believe bits are very funny, and I love my central character, Kate, the cook who gets mixed up with a politician, and I think my readers will. But since one of the main themes is how difficult it is for a politician to remain true to his ideals, and I wrote most of the book before the MPs expenses scandals, I now worry that the sins of Oliver, my politico, are rather tame.

I’ve had a great summer NOT writing, I must confess. I’ve had to do a few rewrites and corrections for A Serving of Scandal, but thought I would give myself a break before starting the next one. Publishers like you to deliver your next book just as they publish the current one. But I certainly won’t manage that time-scale this time.

One of the problems is that I am dithering between writing an autobiography (my agent’s choice: I guess non-fiction sells better) and tackling my ambitious idea of a trilogy about a restaurateuring family through three generations. The problem with the biog is that I’ve lived my life and I’m not very interested in doing it all over again. And it would have to be more of a memoir than an autobiography anyway as the chance of much of it being true is remote. My memory is appalling for a start, and I’ve embroidered and re-invented stories for so long I haven’t a clue what’s true and what’s not. When my brother and I compare mutual childhood experiences, the versions bear no relation to each other.

The problem with the trilogy idea is, will I manage to hold that much information in my head? I have trouble enough with one short novel, remembering how old everyone is, the colour of their eyes, their back story, whether they like tomatoes, without having to do it over three novels and fifty odd years. And will I be dead, or senile, before I type The END? Probably. Thoughts in an email please… Trilogy or Memoir?

So, while dithering, I’ve been having fun. In August my life-long friend Jane, who lives in Canada, and I went to stay with the great Dame Liz Forgan in the Orkney island of North Rolandsay. Liz has run just about everything (Editor of the Guardian women’s Page, BBC Radio, Heritage Lottery, and currently chair of the Arts Council), but I think is happiest in her croft on the edge of a cliff with wheeling gulls and spinrift from the crashing waves and huge changing skies.

We spend happy hours picking crabs and lobsters and cooking gigantic chowders, and further happy hours eating them, and gossiping. The islanders are good at gossip and drop in unheralded at all hours. We walk round the island, admiring the lighthouses, the great slabby rocks out of which they make roof tiles the size of billiard tables, and the tiny, wild, multi-coloured North Ronaldsay sheep. They live on seaweed, a trick they learnt a hundred years or more ago when the laird had the islanders build a dyke to keep them off his pasture.

I also went to South Africa to flog Choral Society and check up on the Prue Leith Chefs Academy ( and was having a great time when I had to come whizzing back, because Ernest, who had whacked his head falling backwards down the stairs a few weeks before, suddenly had to have a midnight emergency op to hoover out the blood leaking into his brain. I arrived at Heathrow not knowing if he’d be dead or alive and rang to speak to the nurse in intensive care and she said, "Sure, do you want to speak to him? He’s eating a hearty breakfast and flirting with the nurses." This from a man who could barely stand or speak the day before and had had no idea what was happening.  (please check back for photo)

And he’s still full of beans. He may be heading for 80, but he’s embarking on a new career, and taking me with him. The ancient camel house he’s been turning into a concert hall in Lanzarote is now done, the piano arrives this month and the cottages are almost ready. One will house visiting artists and one will be the bar, loos, garden and etc for the audience.

You never know. Maybe we will change the reputation of beautiful Lanzarote from one of beer-soaked brits behaving badly (by the way I’ve never seen them do so) to one of high culture.

(please check back for photos)

My other great news is that I am, at long last, to be a granny. My son and daughter in law Emma are to have a baby boy to be called Charles Rayne Malachy Kruger (all my husband’s names except the Malachy, which will be what the bub will be actually known as if the parents have their way. Bet he will end up Mal or Malki.

Emma looks as she should -- glowing and enchanting. She is as slim as ever but carrying a great round ball before her.  Both she and my son Daniel work every hour that God gives running their charity Only Connect ( which helps ex-offenders and prisoners change their lives for the better. Heaven knows how they will manage a baby as well as the 30-odd seriously challenging guys they look after.

Meanwhile, they await the birth living with me in my none-too-big two-bedroom flat, having managed to find themselves homeless between flats for four months. I love it of course – gives me an excuse to play Mummy again and make soup and iron my son’s shirts.

But, poor things, they must hate it. They are living out of carrier bags, boxes and bin liners, all their possessions piled in my study and bedroom. And the piles will grow as baby-gear accumulates. I expect there will be prams, child seats and plastic baths any minute.

We all groan about the arrival of Christmas, but I think we secretly love it. For me, this will be a busy one. It is the first time since my husband died seven years ago when I have hosted the family for Christmas. My brother James and I used to take turn and turn about to feed our dozen or so immediate family, usually swollen to 20 with friends and relations. But Rayne died a few days before Christmas, a year when it was my turn and the turkey was bought and decorations up, so we went ahead --- festivities alternating with grief. And then, somehow, James and his wife Penny have done Christmas ever since.

Anyway, this time, it is to be me again, and I am looking forward to it. We will be about 20 for dinner, 10 staying in the house and 60 coming for drinks on the 23rd.  I shall be in a heap by the end.  But then so will any friends foolish enough to stay with us.  My children warn their mates:  Never offer to help, she'll have you in the sink, scrubbing the spuds or lugging the rubbish to the compost heap. Or all the above.