September 2008

Having finally got Choral Society off to the publishers, there is now that long unsatisfactory gap waiting for the wretched thing to be in print. I've no idea why it takes as long to publish books as to write them! I should get page proofs any day now, and hope to God I don't want to change much, and then there is the dust-jacket to agree. The first design was of a glamorous woman with swirling skirt and hat obscuring her face. I objected on the grounds that she looked about thirty, and all three of my women are in their fifties. I thought my readers would reject it as "chick-lit" and readers of chick-lit would feel conned when the characters were not t-somethings getting drunk and getting laid on every page. 

And then at the airport I saw a book by Valerie Martin, whom, I'm ashamed to say, I had not heard of. The cover was almost exactly like the one I'd just rejected. A swirling skirt of a young woman, back half-bare and black-laced, face obscured, I would have rejected it as junk, but, on account of the debate with my publishers, I picked it up. Turns out Valerie Martin is a very serious novelist indeed, winner of the Orange prize for her novel Property. I bought the book, called Trespass. It is wonderful, one of the best novels I've read for a long time. It's about a woman's possessive angst as she loses her only son to a young woman who she regards as an opportunist and a adventuress. It is terrific. Get it by clicking http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/11297-1/Author-Valerie-Martin.htm   So maybe I made a mistake about the jacket. We shall see! 

I'm in terrible trouble with my old school. I wrote a piece in a collection of writing by South African writers on the subject of boarding school, called Bath time for Sister Superior.  

Bath Time for Sister Superior

The Head of the Old Girls association thinks I have betrayed my alma mater, brought the school into disrepute and etc. I will not be asked again, she suggests, to Speech Day. 

And yet I thought I had written a sympathetic piece. And we are talking of events that happened 50 years ago, for goodness sake. The Chapter occurs in Cheesecutters and Gymslips published by Umuzi-Randomhouse www.umuzi-randomhouse.co.za/cheese.html and includes a brilliant piece by Doris Lessing about the Catholic Nunnery she attended where, as a very little girl she had to sleep in a dormitory with huge terrifying pictures of the Crucifiction, St Sebastian stuck full of arrows and the bleeding Sacred Heart, and where they were not allowed to wash or change their clothes: cleanliness, far from being next to Godliness, was a sign of vanity. This and other accounts of the cruelty and pressure-cooker sexuality inevitable if you lock young men or women up in single-sex institutions, make my little adventures very tame indeed. 

One morning when we were abroad, we had a phone call from Ernest's mother's carer. The old lady, at 106, had stopped eating and drinking and, having hardly had an aspirin in her life, never had a night in hospital and still with her wits about her, appeared to have decided enough is enough. So we scuttled back from Italy and the whole family converged on her in Lytham St Annes, from all corners of Europe, to say their farewells. Whereupon she sat up, ate a hearty breakfast and continued as before. 

I am full of admiration. Getting there after the death or when the person is too ill to enjoy the attention is no good to the subject and leaves the family with distressing memories. I think a little false alarm a very good thing. Everyone re-united for her funeral two months later, was so happy to have seen her in May, when she had changed her mind about dying.

In August we had a long weekend in Tuscany, staying with friends in an ancient castle that they have been slowly restoring over the years. It was one of those dreamlike experiences that belong in novels or Merchant Ivory films. A houseparty full of musicians, music lovers, writers, artists, designers. Somehow I end up judging, with a couple of artists rather more qualified than me, a painting competition for the local primary school. 

The daughter of the house runs the vineyards and the olive groves. A wonderful (Leith's trained I am glad to say) cook somehow manages to cater for 20 to 30 people every day. We eat in the cool shade of a long loggia with views down to the river and across to the hills. And informal concerts erupt at any time of the day: Gregorian chant in the chapel, singing and piano in the dining room. 

Ernest, who at 77, is playing the piano better than ever in his life and about to record all the Chopin studies, is in his element, with two pianos to choose from. One night he plays all the GoldbergVariations, one night all the Chopin Studies. And he practices all the time. Absolutely no stopping him. One night after a concert, I go to bed. At midnight, still no Ernest so I ring him on his mobile -- I'm not about to go down three floors and hunt for him in a huge dark castle. Cheerful as a cricket he announces he's talking to a couple of musicians and he'll be up soon. At 2 am I ring him again. Oh, he's just gone to another village to see one of the musician's studios. It's fascinating; I should have come; the musician is a genius; he's invited him and his girlfriend to stay in his house in Lanzarote; he's going to arrange a concert for them. Well, fine, but I'm going to sleep. And then I think, How is he going to get in? If no one knows he's gone off with one of the audience, and there are a set of iron gates, then a set of solid wooden gates and then a big front door? There isn't a drawbridge, but there might as well be. But by then I'm pretty cheesed off and think, well, if he has to spend the night in the olive grove, serve him right. And I go to sleep, only to be woken, with the rest of the house, by all the dogs barking as Ernest arrives home. Someone lets him in, he crawls into bed, -- it is now 3 am. And then he is up again at 4.30 am, playing the piano. 

On the food front, I've been having fun. The most exciting project is the brainchild of the South African Tourist Board. The Hoxton Apprentice, the Charity restaurant I helped set up to give really disadvantaged young people in Hackney (www.hoxtonapprentice.com) a chance to become chefs and waiters and the Prue Leith Chefs Academy (www.prueleith.co.za)  in South Africa have gone into partnership to run a South African food and wine week at the Hoxton Apprentice. The SA Tourist board flew 10 of our apprentices out to South Africa, gave them five days of sight seeing and then the Prue Leith Chefs Academy gave them five days of intensive training to learn the menu they had developed, showcasing the best of South African food and wine. Then back they flew to London, accompanied by six students and staff from the Academy who will help them with the South African week. And then we hope to have South African gastronomic dinners in all sorts of posh restaurants to spread the word, culminating in a stand at the London Food Festival next May. 
 

For more info on the Prue Leith Chefs Academy click here www.prueleith.co.za and for more into on the Hoxton Apprentice click here www.hoxtonapprentice.com 

In my last blog I said I'd tell you if the doswer's cure for my sick rose worked. If you remember he used a little blob on a chain to interrogate some thing or some body about the nature of the radiation and concluded that it was coming in a straight line from the South West and that a metal pole put on that side of the rose would interrupt the evil waves. Well he stuck the pole in and the rose died anyway. I'm not sure why I find this result satisfactory?