April Blog

Well, I did manage to deliver the complete book, 97,000 words, by Easter, and am glad to say both Janes (editor and agent) like it. Which does not of course mean that ed. Jane will not come back, once she has been through it with eagle eye and fine toothcomb, with demands for another re-write. We shall see.

Mean time, it is the author’s favourite time: the blissful gap between one book delivered and the next not started; for once free to do what you like, like read other peoples’ books, and go on holiday without the laptop, and refuse to feel guilty about not knuckling down to another few thousand words.

I am, however, churning ideas round a bit. There are so many books I would like to do: such as a basic cookbook based on the healthy standards that are now the law for school dinners, but designed for parents and children on a tight budget. I had sworn I’d never write another cookbook (in order to concentrate on fiction) but I think changing the diet of children is just so important I can feel myself getting sucked back into food writing; and then I want to do a trilogy – three novels about three generations of the same family, whose lives resolve round a family restaurant, or maybe a hotel; and then I’d like to do a fictionalized autobiog. It would have to be fictionalized because my memory is useless, and I am too lazy to go digging around in ancient diaries to get the facts straight.

And as I am extremely unlikely to live to do them I’d better choose. Advise please! Would you buy any of them?

Ernest, my partner/mate/”sous-chef” has just published his autobiography, or rather the first half of it, from growing up in a working class family with both parents working in a weaving mill, to becoming a concert pianist, and, in his forties a millionaire mill owner and businessman. He’s called it, How to be A Failure and Succeed. Of course I am biased, but I think it’s a great and inspiring read, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-rending, and maddening because it stops just before his real success, which was to set up the “practical utopia” that was to regenerate the centre of Halifax. Still, he’s now writing the second book. I only hope he does it faster than the first, which took him 15 years! I can’t wait that long, and neither can he, since he is seventy-seven! Mind you, his mother is 107 and still going strong and has never had an aspirin in her life, so you never know…

The big event in the school food saga has been the launch of SchoolFEAST (Food Excellence and Skills Training) centres, which are basically cookery schools for dinner ladies, school cooks and catering managers. They are mostly in existing colleges, but they had to tender to us at the School Food Trust for a bit of money to set up special courses aimed specifically for school cooks – which means they need to be inspiring, motivational courses and at the same time cover the nutritional standards, cooking on a budget, cooking in quantity, pleasing teenage and younger customers and marketing skills, since the catering team are in the best position to persuade children to give something a try.

Anyway we have sixteen of them up and running now and we had a sort of celebration at Thames Valley Uni, with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and Raymond Blanc as guests. The idea was that I would act as a sort of telly presenter interviewing the celeb guests as they acted as commis chefs to three of the dinner ladies who had just graduated NVQ Level 2 qualifications from the SchoolFEAST course. We were up in a teaching kitchen, and the audience of Press, school heads, caterers, other SchoolFeast centre chiefs etc watched on a big screen.

I found it a nightmare to control, but it went down hugely well mainly because Ed Balls, the Secretary of State, turned out to be a dab hand with a chopping knife, wok and ladle and of course the Press loved that. He tells me he cooks with his children at weekends, which I wish more Dads did. He also announced some more money for another lot of SchoolFEAST centres, plus another three years funding for us at the Trust. I wish I could promise that in three more years we will have every child in the country happily eating stir fries and veg, fruit and good soups. But it has taken 20 years to degrade the nation’s diet, and we cannot work miracles. But we will have a damn good go. 

See the school food trust websitewww.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk 

Had a proud Mummy moment last month when my son and daughter in law, who run a charity called Only Connect which tries to help prisoners and ex-offenders through Drama, had their first production in their new, tiny, theatre, near Kings Cross. The cast were all newly released ex-prisoners from Wormwood scrubs and Holloway who had been in some of the productions that they had done in prison. Son Daniel, who does the fundraising, admin and a lot of the hands-on counseling etc, and his wife Emma who directs the plays and befriends the prisoners and ex-prisoners,, were both looking completely exhausted having been responsible, not just for a new production, but for the good behaviour of some of the cast who they were supporting in a rented house, at the same time as getting the new theatre ready.

The Grapes of Wrath ran for a week to packed houses, got some excellent notices, made some money for the charity and, more importantly gave real confidence and self-belief to a band of very damaged young people, most of whom should never have been in prison in the first place.

If you are mentally unstable, on drugs, alcoholic, or just homeless and suicidal, is prison really the place to fix it? No wonder two-thirds of prisoners re-offend.


I can’t believe it is Great British Menu time again! When the show is off the air no one ever recognizes me, but when it is running, people stop me all the time, usually, I am glad to say, to tell me they like the show. But occasionally to tell me in no uncertain terms that they don’t. I got a lecture from a woman in the street in Cheltenham about how ugly people look when eating. I tend to agree with her. Chomping and swallowing is not a pretty sight, and since we have to look down at our plates, a wobbling double chin is my reward for nobly eating endless Michelin star great cooking! “You have the best job on television” is what most people say. Well, Yes, but it comes at a price.

P.S. For anyone interested in how school meals went from good to dire, click the link to this article by Prof. Alan Malcolm (he’s the boss of the Institute of Biology).

I gave a lecture to the Institute of Biology last month, and banged on as usual about the importance of teaching children about food.  I met Alan Malcolm (CEO of the Institute) and he sent me the following excellent description of how we managed to degrade our school food progessively over the last 25 years or more.

School Meals