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? 

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! 

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.

www.onlyconnectuk.org

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