Winter 09

I’m writing this on the train on the way to interview Ruthie Rogers at a Literary Festival about her new River Café Cookbook.  I love Ruthie and think she’s a brilliant cook, writer and restaurateur. She has one of those families you fall in love with in toto: talented attractive children and a charismatic husband, the architect, Richard (now Lord) Rogers.  But if I’d been concentrating I would have refused to interview her, in accordance with my determination to only appear anywhere as a novelist, not a cook or cookery writer or interviewer of cookery writers. I had assumed, arrogantly, that the organisers wanted me to talk about my latest novel, Choral Society, which is just out in paperback and selling satisfyingly well, but No, I am to talk food with Ruth.

The River Cafe Cook Book
By Rose Gray, Ruth Rogers

I should not have worried. Ruthie is nothing if not generous and she gave my novels a few whopping great plugs and shared her spotlight with me. Her book, written with Rose Gray (her partner in the River Café and the books) is The Classic Italian River Café Cookbook and is completely seductive with recipes at once unbelievably simple and unbelievably delicious.

This business of insisting on being a novelist, and avoiding the foodie image, is more difficult than I thought it would be. The trouble is I’m so vain. For example, I rather enjoy being on telly – the next series of the Great British Menu starts again in March and we start filming in January. Now if I want to be thought a novelist, what am I doing eating endlessly in front of millions of viewers?  My agent says it helps with novel sales, and that’s my excuse, but the truth is probably that I enjoy being stopped in the supermarket for my autograph.

What I don’t enjoy about telly is seeing myself on it. Again, it must be vanity, but all I can think of is how crooked my teeth are, how grumpy my expression, how double my chin. Which is why I have only ever watched a couple of episodes of The Great British Menu. It does not help that kind people always tell me, astonishment in their voices, how photogenic I am and how good I look on the box.

Of course I should be grateful to be offered the job. TV producers like youth and glamour, and I will be seventy in February. Which is a great excuse for resigning from everything. Well, almost everything. I plan to stay on the Orient Express Hotels board as long as they will have me. Ernest and I have just had a great weekend at La Residencia in Mallorca, where I had to attend a board meeting. (I hasten to say, before someone shouts "Disgraceful!", that Ernest paid his own air fare and we traveled Easyjet).

One of the benefits, I hope, of semi retirement will be fewer annual reports, magazines and newsletters jamming my letter box. I can decently give up the societies, associations, trade bodies, clubs – groan, groan -and etc connected with the restaurant trade, catering, cooking, home economics, food technology, chef training, management, -- more groans - etc of which I am a member. I shall, as befits a septegenarian, retain my membership of the National Trust, the Ramblers, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Royal Society of Arts and the Arts Fund, and finally be able to enjoy my membership, and go on jolly outings to lovely places. Can’t wait.

I will also, with sadness, give up chairmanship of the School Food Trust, which I still think is the most important job I’ve ever done. But more of that in a month or two.

I’m not planning to stop writing, however. A Serving for Scandal is finally delivered, and will come out in March. I am thoroughly nervous about it. When I was proof-reading it, I felt alternately delighted and anxious about it. I do believe bits are very funny, and I love my central character, Kate, the cook who gets mixed up with a politician, and I think my readers will. But since one of the main themes is how difficult it is for a politician to remain true to his ideals, and I wrote most of the book before the MPs expenses scandals, I now worry that the sins of Oliver, my politico, are rather tame.

I’ve had a great summer NOT writing, I must confess. I’ve had to do a few rewrites and corrections for A Serving of Scandal, but thought I would give myself a break before starting the next one. Publishers like you to deliver your next book just as they publish the current one. But I certainly won’t manage that time-scale this time.

One of the problems is that I am dithering between writing an autobiography (my agent’s choice: I guess non-fiction sells better) and tackling my ambitious idea of a trilogy about a restaurateuring family through three generations. The problem with the biog is that I’ve lived my life and I’m not very interested in doing it all over again. And it would have to be more of a memoir than an autobiography anyway as the chance of much of it being true is remote. My memory is appalling for a start, and I’ve embroidered and re-invented stories for so long I haven’t a clue what’s true and what’s not. When my brother and I compare mutual childhood experiences, the versions bear no relation to each other.

The problem with the trilogy idea is, will I manage to hold that much information in my head? I have trouble enough with one short novel, remembering how old everyone is, the colour of their eyes, their back story, whether they like tomatoes, without having to do it over three novels and fifty odd years. And will I be dead, or senile, before I type The END? Probably. Thoughts in an email please… Trilogy or Memoir?

So, while dithering, I’ve been having fun. In August my life-long friend Jane, who lives in Canada, and I went to stay with the great Dame Liz Forgan in the Orkney island of North Rolandsay. Liz has run just about everything (Editor of the Guardian women’s Page, BBC Radio, Heritage Lottery, and currently chair of the Arts Council), but I think is happiest in her croft on the edge of a cliff with wheeling gulls and spinrift from the crashing waves and huge changing skies.

We spend happy hours picking crabs and lobsters and cooking gigantic chowders, and further happy hours eating them, and gossiping. The islanders are good at gossip and drop in unheralded at all hours. We walk round the island, admiring the lighthouses, the great slabby rocks out of which they make roof tiles the size of billiard tables, and the tiny, wild, multi-coloured North Ronaldsay sheep. They live on seaweed, a trick they learnt a hundred years or more ago when the laird had the islanders build a dyke to keep them off his pasture.

I also went to South Africa to flog Choral Society and check up on the Prue Leith Chefs Academy (www.prueleith.co.za) and was having a great time when I had to come whizzing back, because Ernest, who had whacked his head falling backwards down the stairs a few weeks before, suddenly had to have a midnight emergency op to hoover out the blood leaking into his brain. I arrived at Heathrow not knowing if he’d be dead or alive and rang to speak to the nurse in intensive care and she said, "Sure, do you want to speak to him? He’s eating a hearty breakfast and flirting with the nurses." This from a man who could barely stand or speak the day before and had had no idea what was happening.  (please check back for photo)

And he’s still full of beans. He may be heading for 80, but he’s embarking on a new career, and taking me with him. The ancient camel house he’s been turning into a concert hall in Lanzarote is now done, the piano arrives this month and the cottages are almost ready. One will house visiting artists and one will be the bar, loos, garden and etc for the audience.

You never know. Maybe we will change the reputation of beautiful Lanzarote from one of beer-soaked brits behaving badly (by the way I’ve never seen them do so) to one of high culture.

www.camelhouseconcerts.com

(please check back for photos)

My other great news is that I am, at long last, to be a granny. My son and daughter in law Emma are to have a baby boy to be called Charles Rayne Malachy Kruger (all my husband’s names except the Malachy, which will be what the bub will be actually known as if the parents have their way. Bet he will end up Mal or Malki.

Emma looks as she should -- glowing and enchanting. She is as slim as ever but carrying a great round ball before her.  Both she and my son Daniel work every hour that God gives running their charity Only Connect (www.onlyconnectuk.org) which helps ex-offenders and prisoners change their lives for the better. Heaven knows how they will manage a baby as well as the 30-odd seriously challenging guys they look after.

Meanwhile, they await the birth living with me in my none-too-big two-bedroom flat, having managed to find themselves homeless between flats for four months. I love it of course – gives me an excuse to play Mummy again and make soup and iron my son’s shirts.

But, poor things, they must hate it. They are living out of carrier bags, boxes and bin liners, all their possessions piled in my study and bedroom. And the piles will grow as baby-gear accumulates. I expect there will be prams, child seats and plastic baths any minute.

We all groan about the arrival of Christmas, but I think we secretly love it. For me, this will be a busy one. It is the first time since my husband died seven years ago when I have hosted the family for Christmas. My brother James and I used to take turn and turn about to feed our dozen or so immediate family, usually swollen to 20 with friends and relations. But Rayne died a few days before Christmas, a year when it was my turn and the turkey was bought and decorations up, so we went ahead --- festivities alternating with grief. And then, somehow, James and his wife Penny have done Christmas ever since.

Anyway, this time, it is to be me again, and I am looking forward to it. We will be about 20 for dinner, 10 staying in the house and 60 coming for drinks on the 23rd.  I shall be in a heap by the end.  But then so will any friends foolish enough to stay with us.  My children warn their mates:  Never offer to help, she'll have you in the sink, scrubbing the spuds or lugging the rubbish to the compost heap. Or all the above.

P.S.

Can’t resist a bit of blatant self promotion and ego-ism here. Last month I had two letters from readers which were so complimentary you’d think they were written by my Mum! Can’t resist including them:

“Your novels are amazing – completely absorbing, marvellous characters and compelling storylines. We started (oddly) with Choral Society and worked out way backwards somehow – The Gardener has gone the rounds and is a treasured gift for gardening friends – Leaving Patrick was thrilling ……….”

“… An anonymous lettercard to thank you for writing such a superlative book – “Choral Society” which I have just read and found very hard to put down (a very rare occasion!). You research and character development are amazing and I am not in the least surprised that it took from years to complete. You are made of sterling stuff to work so consistently on such a project.

Quercus have printed a superb book – just the feel of it starts the enjoyment, the title, the cover and whole set out are splendid.

I look forward to reading your previous novels and just want to thank you for this absolutely delightful and absorbing book. I belong to a small choir and it was the title which beguiled me! …”

P.P.S. Please check back to my last blog for photos of Verbier and for the updated version of Chapter One of my next novel (or just click here!).

August 09

Full blown summer. Or it would be if the Met office had been right. My garden is sodden, sandals and tee shirts unworn, no chance of a picnic, never mind a barbecue.

But in fact I’ve just had a couple of great weeks, one in Verbier for the Music Festival and then another with Ernest in Lanzarote in scorching heat, palms trees blowing in the hot, sand-laden wind from Morocco. But the more I go to Lanzarote the more I like it. I’d shared the snobby prejudices of my friends about “Lanzagrotty”, convinced the island was full of loud, overweight, deeply unattractive English swilling lager.  Well, there are some of course, but once you get off the plane where their children have been kicking your seat and screaming for three hours while Mum takes no notice, you need not see them again until the flight home, by which time they will have taken off most of their clothes to display the painful effects of sleeping on the beach.  I now regard the parade of horror at Arrecife airport as a kind of entertainment. Today there was one fat fellow, probably 40, who was carrying his flip flops in one hand and a beer in the other and wearing nothing but a pair of short shorts, mostly hidden by his paunch. Do they let them on the plane like that I wonder? Would it be discrimination if they did? After all, it’s not illegal.

Lanzarote is, I think, wonderful. Reliably sunny, even in winter. Clean as a whistle, no high-rise buildings (well there is one, a hotel which went up without planning permission and becamea landmark and was eventually, after years of standing empty, allowed to stay),  the houses are all bright white with dark green wooden windows. The mountains are all conical, defunct volcanoes, sculptural against the bluest of skies.  The fields are frequently covered with picon, the black gravel made from the volcanic rock, which keeps the soil protected from the fierce sun and preserves precious water. Briefly green in early Spring, the landscape is mostly grey or a gentle brown. There are no European trees, only giant cactus and palms. The light is extraordinary, the coast either rugged and dramatic, or long white beaches.  

Ernest, my pianist-turned entrepreneur-turned-pianist-again partner, is at the age of 79, building a concert hall out of a 300 year old camel barn on the island. He has persuaded his long-time friend, the pianist Paul Crossley, to be its musical director and the first mini-festival is to be at the end of March. There will be 12 weeks of concerts and Paul has already engaged most of the performers, all, like Paul himself, international performers of massive reputation. Of course I know nothing of music or musicians but the three of us watched them, one after another, on You Tube, and they had both Ernest and Paul wiping their eyes.   

Maybe one day I will be able to tell Bach from Beethoven, but I doubt it. The depth of my ignorance astonishes Ernest’s friends but they are more charmed at my eagerness to learn at my advanced age than disapproving. Verbier was a revelation. A beautiful alpine town, very high up, and for three weeks each year taken over by the festival. We were there, oddly, not for Ernest, but because I had been invited to talk about Choral Society. The festival organisers like to have fringe events, which anyone can go to for free, as well as the big attractions. Christian Thompson, who had heard that my latest novel was about singing, thought it might be fun to have me discuss food, singing, whatever…so he gave the book to his mother to read. Her verdict was “Well, its not that much about singing, and not at all about music, but it’s a good read.”  I could not imagine why anyone would turn up. But turn up they did, forty or so of them, and Classic FM recorded it, and we had a good natter about how music-lovers can make the whole business so scary that ignoramuses like me hardly dare go to a concert in case we wear the wrong clothes or clap in the wrong place or mis-pronounce Sybelius or Beyreuth.

Anyway, they were not like that at Verbier. Hardly saw a jacket or a tie, except for the concert version of Don Giovanni or big-name concerts in the evening, and even then they were rare.

Would not have believed I could take so much music. We went to rehearsals and workshops, masterclasses and talks, and concerts, concerts, concerts. Can’t swear I’m any more knowledgeable but I did have a good time. Only really bored once, by a mighty famous pianist who seemed to me to bang away with all the feeling and emotion of a photocopier. Gratifying to discover Ernest agreed and we skipped out at the interval and went down the mountain in the cable car. (Meant to go up, but nervously scrambled onto the wrong one – no matter: the views were still glorious.   

Views from Cable Car

Views from Cable Car

Prue in Cable Car!

Prue in Cable Car!

So now its back to work.  Novel Five (still untitled, but likely to be called A Serving of Scandal) is in final re-write stage and I was appalled to get eleven pages of closely typed notes from my ed. But happily most of the 100-plus notes are brisk comments like “Your favourite word is “O”. First, it should be spelt “Oh”. And at least 50% of them should go.”  A little humiliating, but a lot better than being asked to cut a character or re-write a whole chapter.

Now, as regular readers will know, the whole point of this website is to try to get people thinking of me as a writer rather than a cook, and rushing to buy my latest novel, so you will have to forgive me if I include here my editor’s and agent’s comments on the book. (Yes, yes, I know, they are biased. Their job partly consists of being nice to their authors. But praise is praise and I love it. Also, they are both tough women, quite capable, as I am afraid I know first hand, of telling me if something just won’t do.  And you can judge for yourself by reading the first chapter.

Chapter 1 - A Serving of Scandal

Jane Wood (Editor) said:

Well, I loved it!  Really really truly.  I think this a hugely compelling novel with two tremendously appealing main characters and readers will long for a happy outcome for them, just as I did.  The novel’s setting is so well realized. It’s very contemporary and of our times, and makes its serious points without hammering us over the head with them.  There are many powerful and memorable scenes – Kate getting ready for the Suskind wedding and it all going wrong; Oliver’s horribly realistic scenes with Terry (beastly man – I wonder who you had in mind when you wrote him?!)  I could go on.  Your writing is very warm and immediate and engaging.  I think you’ve written a winner – certainly a winner for me.  Congratulations!

And Jane Turnbull (agent) said “I started this morning and am just gobbling it up - it's terrific - you get better and better and I'm looking forward to talking to Jane W about publishing plans as I think it can do incredibly well - it's so contemporary and everyone will be guessing who it's based on! You have developed SO fast as a novelist - these characters are so real I can't believe they come from your head - a great talent Prue , it's very exciting.”

My other bit of good news is that WHSmith will be promoting the paperback of Choral Society which comes out in November.  If I crow about this to my friends they look baffled. What’s so great about that? But believe me, WHS can shift books if they like them. You get to be on a table for a start, with a big sticker on the book saying 2 for 3 or some such, and on the shelves, you get your front cover rather than the spine facing the reader. And it lasts a whole month. You might even get into a window. All a heap better than one miserable copy on a shelf, in a corner, round the back of the shop. 

Of course Tesco would probably be even better. It’s a bit sad really. Poor Hatchards and Blackwells and Foyles.  What with Amazon and the supermarkets moving in on them, life must be tough.  

Right, enough about books. My other excitement for this month is that I wrote a rather rude piece in the Spectator about a re-hab island that Ernest and I went to for three weeks in the hopes that it would help him cope with his depression. Needless to say the Management are pretty sore and making threatening noises. But since every word is true and I can prove it, I hope they stop protesting and improve their act. Click here.  Since then I have been contacted by people with similar experiences in that and other quasi medical/re-hab/clinic-type places, of which there seem to be an astonishing number. Sad to think of hundreds of people suffering from addiction or depression and finding the “cure” not only expensive and horrible, but also useless. 

Maybe one day someone will crack bi-polar (manic depression). Millions suffer from it, and have for centuries. And the medics know it is caused by too much or too little serotonin being “taken up by receptors in the brain”. You’d think swallowing serotonin would do the trick but No. It seems the only thing that is at all helpful is a combination of medication and some kind of talk therapy. And that takes years of trial and error if it works at all.

Still I suppose that’s better than a lobotomy or electric shock treatment or a straight jacket.  But not much.