Summer 2011

Have just returned from a perfect summer afternoon – at Guiting Power Jazz festival. I’m not a jazz nut, and I don’t go to a lot of music festivals and when I do I expect it to be raining and cold and to get the car stuck in a field. But today was heaven. Took a friend, a picnic and a bottle, and fell asleep listening to Fats Waller and Satchmo in the sun.

I’m in that blissful period when I’ve just delivered a book – my Memoir, at last -- to my publishers and they have not yet come back with instructions for the inevitable re-writes. I feel free as a bird and totally untroubled by the itch to write. I do think writing is a kind of disease: incurable and recurrent, like malaria. But right now I feel I will never need to write another line. But in a month or two I know the beast will be back, gnawing away.

The Memoir – it is called Relish – is far too long I know. My books usually come out at 90,000 words. This one is 150,000 at the moment. The fact is I didn’t know what to leave out. How do I know what bits of my life are remotely interesting to anyone else? There is a good bit about business, because business has been such a big part of my life. But maybe that is deeply boring? Still, deciding what stays and what is binned is what a good editor is for. Up to her to wield her blue pencil and just chop stuff out.

I’ve been hugely relieved and gratified by the reaction of my nearest and dearest. I sent both my brothers the chapters in which they appear. I rather expected them to tell me that I’d got it all wrong, but they were both nice about it and David, my elder brother, sent me a bunch of anecdotes about our childhood that I had forgotten, so now the book is even longer. O dear.

I’ve had some great short breaks this summer. I finished Relish at the end of May, went straight off to stay with Ernest for a few days in Lanzarote and just slept and ate and drove round the island, which I now love. Then I had a great few days in Rock, Cornwall, where my son and his wife had rented a house. It was very beautiful with great views but about as suitable for a toddler as the lion cage in the zoo. The terrace did not have a gate to prevent access to the precipitous garden which in turn had three gateless exits down a steep bank to a busy road, and hence to the sea. The garden contained a slate coffee table at baby eye-height with a broken jagged corner, the terrace was full of missing stones and we had to barricade the stairs in the house. When not fussing over young Malachi (his parents are happily much more relaxed than me) I was cooking. I really enjoyed it. I felt like a B and B landlady. What with about ten family and friends I seemed to be frying eggs or making spag bol and chicken stew all the time. But once I made an effort and we had oxtail with cider, prunes and beans from Jocelyn Dimbleby’s new book Orchard in the Oasis. This is a great book of “Recipes, Travels and Memories". She writes as she cooks – like a dream.

And then two weeks ago I had a few days with my friends the Greenes in their amazing castle in Tuscany, on top of a hill with views for miles. It was hot -- forty degrees – and I got up each morning and did a couple of hours of pruning in the vineyard before it got too hot to bear. The real workers prune for five hours, starting at six am, and then do another couple of hours in the cool of the evening. But I pleaded old age and laziness. But it was fascinating. Somehow you have to balance the following:

  1. Leave only one bunch of grapes on each branch
  2. This should be the lowest bunch
  3. It should not be touching any other bunch
  4. Take off enough leaves to ensure the air can get through so the grapes won’t get mildew
  5. But not so many that too much sun shrivels the grapes.
  6. And you want each vine to carry a couple of kilos of grapes, which sometimes means ignoring 1 above

I loved it. It requires just enough concentration to not make a boo-boo, but is still relaxing and stress-free.

Rather like salmon fishing really, which engages your attention just enough to stop you worrying about the family, work, money, etc but leaves you free to notice the birds and water voles, dragon flies or cloud formations. I was in Iceland for a week, on the River Hofsa, right up in the Arctic Circle, which was as chilly (7 degrees) as Italy had been hot.

I really do not know why I love fishing so much. Standing shivering in a river in the rain, catching nothing, doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, but it is. I caught eight fish the smallest weighing seven pounds and the biggest twelve. Very satisfying. But I am not sure we were not cheating; on the last two days, in glorious sunshine, I caught five of them with a guide standing next to me in the water (close enough to hoike me out if I fell in) and he had a friend lying on the top of a very high steep bank over the river from where he could see the salmon. The fish-spotter shouted instructions in Icelandic and my guide translated “ Take a step”; “No, back nine inches”; “Cast a foot more line”; “reel in a bit” “cast more downstream” etc, until the fly would land so close to the salmon they just had to snap at it. Cheating or not, I am now insufferably pleased with myself and will bore anyone who will listen. I’ll let you off an account of every fish landed (and released you will be pleased to hear) but I have to tell you about one. I had twice got tired or fed up at no action and handed the rod to my guide for him to have a go. Both times he had immediately hooked a salmon. The third time I had just cast a long line when I decided it was time for a sit-down and I handed him my rod. Immediately he was into a fish. I tried to punch him on the arm, shouting,"I don’t believe it"! But he turned because he wanted to hand me back my rod and my punch missed, I lost my balance and fell into the river.

So there he was trying to pull me out with one arm and holding onto the rod (and the fish) with the other. Finally I stopped laughing, took the rod and started to play the fish while he ran along the bank to get the net. I brought the salmon in, he got her into the net and was just about the remove the hook so we could release her when she leapt out of the net and headed for freedom. But I was still hanging on to the rod, so we had another five minute battle and I brought her in again and this time we got the hook out and let her go. Poor fish. I had fifteen minutes of huge excitement and pleasure while she had 15 minutes of fright. Fisherman sometimes justify what is a cruel business by saying fish don’t feel pain. I am sure they do, and anyway, it’s pretty obvious they don’t enjoy the experience. Even when, as on the Hofsa, you let them go.

The other great thing about not having a book to write, at least for a few weeks, is that I can read a few. I’m finally tackling that pile of “modern classics” at my bedside. I’ve never read any John Irving so I am deep into The World according to Garp

Which is a very strange, but oddly compelling book, full of curious characters, not all of them believable, but all interesting. There are scenes of appalling violence, lots of bad language and a good bit of explicit sex. And yet it is a delicate and moving book. And then I will have a go at Susan Hill and then another try at AS Byatt. I loved Possession and Angels and Insects. But she’s written eight more novels since then none of which I have read. The latest is The Children’s book, which has 615 pages of very small print – about twice as long as my already-too-long Memoir. But then, she is AS Byatt, and you would not want an editor with a blue pencil anywhere near her.

My property development project continues and it scares me stiff. Every time I see the chap in charge of rebuilding my house and giving it new wiring, new plumbing, new roof etc, he tells me that I have to make more savings if I am to meet the budget. So far I have forgone. fixing the pergola under which we, very occasionally, have summer lunches (which mean the rotting wooden sleepers that hold up the grapevine might just fall down one day); I’ve given up dreams of an Aga, I’ve realised that replacing the parquet flooring is a blown dream, and that paint is going to have to do instead of tiling. But what I really regret is the cancellation of the hideously expensive piece of kit that would have meant I could close all the curtains at once with the flick of a switch. I don’t know why I hate it so much, but opening all the curtains in the morning and closing them all at night seems a massive waste of time. And yet I cannot not do it.