February 2009

Choral Society
By Prue Leith

Choral Society is finally published!

What with all the cookbooks and now four novels, I should be blasé about that first sight of a new book with Prue Leith in big letters on the cover. But the thrill is terrific. Hope you like the look of it, and even more, hope you buy it, and even more than that, hope you like it! 

Here’s what it says on the back of the book:


According to the Sing Your Heart Out website, she was going to ‘experience the endorphin rush of deep breathing combined with the emotional satisfaction of singing with others in harmony. Well, good, she thought, but what I want is to meet new people, preferably male.


This singing thing isn’t going to work, she told herself. I don’t want to pay fifty pounds every week to come up to London on this inevitably late train. And all so I can sing in a group that my daughter thinks will do me good. I don’t want anything that will do me good.


It wasn’t like her to be so nervous. But she knew, without a shadow of doubt that she was about to make a fool of herself. For pity’s sake, she’d managed hundreds of people, bought and sold businesses, made large amounts of money. So, she couldn’t sing. Big deal. Lots of people couldn’t sing. But the difference was, she was dealing with it.

On the writing front I am now a little deeper into my next novel, the political one, provisionally called Loving Oliver. And at last I feel the story is beginning to take off.  I am trying to make both my protagonists sympathetic: the cool, distinguished, slightly arrogant Government Minister, and the chubby, emotional, single Mum whose life he ruins.

The world of Whitehall is both awesome and awful. Like a huge machine that no one can beat. The most idealistic politician cannot get done what he knows to be right, the most innocent citizen cannot get past the bureaucracy. It makes Yes Minister ever more authentic.

I went walking with my daughter, Li-Da, in Northern Laos near the Chinese border for a few days after Christmas. It was an experience that I would not have missed for the world. And I wouldn’t repeat it for the world either.

The terrain is magnificent: jungle covered mountain range upon mountain range, paddy fields in the flat valleys, and between them terraces of rubber trees, dry rice, sugar cane and vegetables so evenly dug round the contours of the slopes the hills look like crinoline petticoats, layered with lace.

The trek was astonishing.  Very arduous and chaotic as to organisation. But so breathtakingly beautiful in all directions it hardly mattered that we are being offered nothing on the original itinerary. The local guide had never heard of the waterfall we were to have visited, or the “bird-caller who can summon the birds with his whistling”, or the “homely teahouse overhanging the river”.   

On Day One we hiked for five hours slowly up to a hill village so remote there is no water, no electricity and no sanitation. The wooden houses, roughly thatched with palm leaves are on tall stilts and look as they must have for hundreds of years.

We stayed the night in a shack (the Chief's) under a sort of eiderdown on the floor with half a dozen women plus a lot of babies (the men and older children were banished at bedtime). To have a midnight pee, I had to risk life and limb to climb down a rickety ladder. Put my foot on a water-buffalo as I stepped off. He was even more alarmed than I was and heaved himself up and blundered away. I set off in the moonlight followed by barking village dogs and expectant pigs (you don't want to know, but explains the fact that there is no mess on the ground and no smells).

The pigs seem to live on a diet of plastic bags and other species poo. O well. The pork tasted great.  The hill tribes on the other hand live on a diet of sticky rice and whatever they can trap, squirrels, rats, birds (our hostess -- who, being a woman, did not address a word to us-- was plucking what looked like kingfishers and canaries).  They draw the line at cats, which are sacred to the Buddha.

But we had the merriest time. We'd provided beer and rice whisky so of course the chief’s family rather swelled, the women sitting quietly round the edge with the men arguing ever more fiercely round the fire. Li-Da and I and our two guides were given the strongest Lao massage (like Thai) you can imagine while everyone yelled with laughter at our squeaks and protests. They cooked all the food we'd brought to produce a huge feast of soup, curry, egg-and-pork- morning glory, rice  etc on a tiny fire in the middle of the room, (no chimney just a few holes in the roof, so very smoky) and just dropping the scraps through the floor boards for the animals.

At 10 pm we tried unsuccessfully to go to sleep while the men debated some great matter at the top of their voices, very animated. No fisticuffs but plenty of shouting.  Not even the guides understand the local language and at midnight the Chief stomped out and the women, who had sat in silence without getting, in spite of my efforts, any beer or food, unhooked their babies from their backs and curled up under their blankets, fully dressed. We were in the same state, it being far too cold to take any layers off!  And at 3 am the cockerels had a two hour crowing competition and the ‘chief among roosters’ was under our house. By five the noise of children, dogs, cows, pigs and men all clambering for the women to feed them, was quite something.  

The married women go bare breasted but wear long skirts, seldom trousers. The non-nursing women (adolescents and grannies), hike miles into the mountains to cut sugar cane or tall grasses for making into brooms or drying for stuffing their thin mattresses. The children, as in slums the world over, wear filthy t-shirts over bare bums, but seem well fed and happy, and infinitely photographable. The men, especially in the lower villages nearer roads have mobile phones, Chinese motor bikes, shiny jackets with logos on them and watch footie on satellite TV.  It was ever thus.