Summer 2008

At long last!  Here is a taster of Choral Society, finally delivered to Jane Wood, my editor, after two major rewrites and endless fiddling about. I wish I could say the novel is as good as I can make it, but I suspect that if I went on re-reading it for the rest of my life, I'd keep on tinkering with it. But please God, Jane will not send it winging back with more jigging required. Click on link for Chapter One ....

Choral Society - Chapter One

I hope you like it. If you don't at least you will not have spent good money buying it, and if you do, sadly you'll have to wait ‘til Spring to get the rest of it. It will be published in hardback by Quercus in the UK and by St Martin's Press in the States. 

The last rewrite was hell because I radically changed the chapter order, which meant that I kept finding that some character would mention a past event that hadn't happened yet, or that a character would be wearing a sundress and sling backs in the middle of December.  We had two weeks to the deadline and so I took to getting up at 5 am in order to put three hours work in before the day started, but then would find I was so done in by 9pm I'd go to bed. Francisca, my trusty P.A. took to coming into the office at 7 am and working weekends. It is a miracle she still works for me really. She liked the book when she first read it but she now says she never wants to hear the names Lucy, Rebecca or Joanna again.  

By way of antidote to revising the novel, I've been reading “Nothing To Be Frightened Of”by Julian Barnes. It's about his fear of death, and I feared it might be gloomy as hell. But it's interesting, moving, funny and above all thought provoking. It's a long time since I stuck so many yellow post-its into a book, mostly at paragraphs I wanted to argue with him about.

I guess getting older -- I'm 68 now -- should make you think more of death. But I hardly ever do, except in fleeting moments of irritation or regret that I won't get in all the things I want to do before it's all over. I am not remotely afraid of the process of dying, since I cheerfully feel someone will zonk me out with morphine or something so I won't know if its Belgium or Tuesday. And I'm not afraid of what happens after death since I'm fairly sure nothing does.  

The old age thoughts that concern me are not about death, they are the ones I have given my three main characters in Choral Society:  Rebecca hates the wrinkles and fears the thickening waist; Lucy is convinced she's going senile like her Mum, and Joanna's knees mean no more tennis and kneeling to weed the garden is no longer a pleasure.  But fear not, Choral Society is more about women's resourcefulness and courage. And of course it’s about second-time-around love, and about the friendship of women -- something I never really appreciated until I became a widow.  

The last few months have also, of course, been full of food!  And so have I. I had lost half a stone, which is not enough since I am still a good stone overweight, but recently I've not lost a pound, in spite of returning, reluctantly, to Pilates, something I have always found excruciatingly boring. I like competitive exercise like tennis, or at least exercise with a view, like walking. But this time I went to classes given by Vesta a super-active friend of my daughter who is passionate and  relentless. She's very good though, even makes it interesting, and is OBSESSED with breathing.

So much so that when I went salmon fishing with my brother on the Dee, I'd find myself muttering "breath in" on my back cast and "exhale" on the forward cast. And trying to suck my belly button into my backbone while at it. Good thing you are mostly totally alone when fly fishing! I love it: you need to concentrate a bit -- enough to keep your mind from thinking about work, or writing, or money or children -- but not enough to spoil the relaxed nature of standing in a river, water rippling round your feet, kingfishers dipping over the water, salmon and trout bouncing out of it. 

Rosa Mundi Hedge

Rosa Mundi Hedge

One other huge pleasure has been the garden. I'm inordinately proud of my garden, and no one who comes to the house is let off without having to walk round it. And I get very beady if they gossip to each other and fail to OOh and AAh enough.  It is the most wonderful year for roses and a couple of years ago I scooped up all the bush roses dotted all over the place and stuck them in beds round the front of the house. They are not tastefully colour-coded or subtly blended, they are just a wonderful mass of old shrub roses, floribundas, hybrid teas, all sorts, just a riot of summer colour. 

By contrast my new formal box-edged border has four beds all filled with Little White Pet a smallish rose that has, I think, twice as many blooms as leaves on it. It starts off with the tiniest pink buds which open to a bright white on a blue-green leaf. Amazing. One day I was showing a garden club around and one of the guests, a professional dowser, got out his little gadget on a chain, swung it over the one rose (out of 76) which appears to be dying, and asked aloud if it was evil radiation that was attacking it. The bead on the end of the chain whirled about, saying, he said, Yes. Then he asked it which way the line of radiation ran and the bead swung in a straight line NW - SE. Next question: Which direction is it coming from? More whirling about, which meant from the South West. So he stuck a metal stack into its path to interrupt the flow and said, Right lets see if that's stopped it then. The bead hung still upon the chain, no whirling about. Good, said the dowser, we've done it.

Well, I'll go for anything that works. If the rose recovers, I shall tell him. Also if it doesn't. And if I remember, I'll post the result in my next blog too!

I quite often have groups of keen gardeners round the garden. People who organised garden tours love it because a) my garden is such a contrast to really posh gardens. We only grow what likes growing. I cannot be bothered with the rare and delicate, because its too heartbreaking when some big bully of a plant romps all over them and gobbles them up. I like plants that fight for their space unaided.  One organiser said, "Your garden is such a nice contrast. This morning we went to this immaculate garden and everyone got exhausted by all the latin names and the rarity of everything. In your garden they recognise every plant, and probably have them in their gardens, and best of all they recognise the weeds in the lawn and the nettles in the borders!

Actually, I say immodestly, they like our garden too because we sometimes give them lunch. This year one group got lasagne made with beef off my neighbours hill, salad out of our garden, last year's damsons out of my freezer and elderflower cordial from the Cotswold hedgerows.  One interesting sign of the times: in a party of forty we had three veggies, one no wheat, one no dairy, one no fish, one no red meat, one vegan.

One evening I was at my desk when a car drove up. O hell, I thought Jehova's witnesses. I lack the patience of my beloved Ernest's mother who used to invite them in and hear them out, saying "Well, they have their job to do, and who are we to stop them doing it. We should at least give them the chance to convert us." I am not so tolerant and sometimes leave the door unanswered.  But anyway, this car was swiftly followed by another. O God, they are now hunting in packs, I think unkindly.

But then a third car, then a fourth.  And the penny drops. It's a garden tour and I have forgotten.  Frantic search of Francisca's desk to find any details.  ThenI notice a big notice on my desk:  DON'T FORGET GARDEN TOUR 6 PM. 25 PEOPLE.  DRINKS. Thank God its not supper!  I streak to the larder, fling a case of white into the freezer, dash out to the lawn and pooper scoop my unteachable Meg's offering (why cannot I teach her the difference between the lawn and the field?) and arrive at the front door flushed but smiling. "How lovely...."

Winner - Dean Tilley

Winner - Dean Tilley

One advantage (or sometimes disadvantage) of my telly-judging of chefs on the Great British Menu, is I'm asked to do a lot of eating. I went to a Boys school, The Forest School, in  Horsham, West Sussexto judge their entries in the Junior Masterchef schools competition run by the Rotary Club. It was terrific. 6 boys, all a lot better cooks than most of the women of England, making excellent food. It was won by Dean Tilley for his mouth-watering menu of Fillet of Chicken stuffed with Leek and Goats Cheese, on a bed of Roasted Ratatouille with a balsamic, herb and olive oil dressing, followed by Apple and Wild Berry Crumble with Clotted Cream.

The Winning Cake! See www.aahuk.org  and www.restaurantsagainsthunger.org

Less serious, but huge fun, was judging celebrity chefs and top food critics, trying to ice cakes in five minutes in aid of Action Against Hunger at TASTE festival in Regents Park. Tom Parker Bowles made Stonehenge out of chocolate bars on his, Michel Roux from the Gavroche might have won if he could spell Toujours (he forgot the s, and he's a Frenchman!)  and Aldo Zilli proved what we all know, male chefs are useless at cakes and icing, but the exception that proved the rule was the French chef,  Pascal Aussignac from Le Gascon, who, since it was Ladies Day at Ascot, turned his cake into an Ascot hat and won.

I've been celebrating the delivery of that wretched novel with some serious pleasure. In the immediate euphoria of completion I've been to Glyndebourne to see Evgeny Onegin which was so romantic it made me cry; to Wimbledon where I saw three terrific early wins for Murray and Nadel, and swanned about in the posh bit as a guest of a member; I visited Wisley where the director showed me round the garden himself, a rare privilege, and to the National Trust Hidcote garden too. Both these visits paraded as work, because I am trying to set up links between the School Food Trust's cooking clubs in schools (see www.letsgetcooking.org.uk) with the National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society's gardening clubs or initiatives for children. Both have excellent education schemes for schools, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk and www.rhs.org.uk.

I do lead a lovely life. No question. Had 10 days in Italy with Ernest staying in the incomparable Hotel Splendido in Portofino and in the Villa San Michele outside  Florence. I had been a bit reluctant to see Portofino because my parents had been there as young lovers before the war and always said they would retire there it was so perfect. I feared it would all be high rise horror and spoilt. But it must look exactly the same: there's no room for any development, and the Italians are too conscious of their heritage to let it happen. The only difference I guess is the shops. What would have been lace-makers, fishing supplies, grocers, are now all Gucci, Pucci, Comme des Garcons and the rest!

Villa San Michele is similarly unspoilt. I knew we (I say we because I am lucky enough to be on their Board of Directors) had added a lot of rooms and I remembered it from 32 years ago as a beautiful grand house, but simple. But the rooms are buried in the hillside terraces, and all but invisible and the swimming pool is completely invisible on the highest terrace right above the hotel. It was heaven. 

The Villa san Michele has fond memories for me. When I was pregnant with Daniel, and it was not much more than a pensione, we were there over the Easter holiday weekend and since there is a fiesta on Easter Sunday outside the Duomo in Florence that day, we could not get a taxi. So we hitched a lift with a waiter, who said his name was Daniele. "Danieli" we both exclaimed. "Daniel" that's what we'll call the baby. So Daniel, now 33, is named after an Italian waiter, and very happy I am with that!