In 1974 I married Rayne Kruger, the South African writer. He’d written seven novels and a clutch of non-fiction books, among them Good Bye Dolly Gray, the story of the Boer War, which is still in print after 60 years. I had a bad effect on him, I’m sorry to say, slowing his writing to near zero by dragging him into my catering business. He became my Chairman and Finance Director. Just as well, since I still do sums on my fingers.
We had Daniel, and then adopted Li-Da, a waif from war-torn Cambodia. She was 17 months when she arrived and Daniel was a year. Her story, still touches me: when she was grown up, she went back to Cambodia to research her past and made a documentary, Belonging, which still has me blubbing.
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Two two-year-olds, both prone to tantrums, were pure hell in London. Li-Da would lie on her back and scream, mouth open and Daniel would lie on his tummy and bang his head on the floor. But in the Park they were as sunny and lovely as toddlers in a nappy commercial.
So we bought a house in the country, with a great big garden.
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Li-Da makes television documentaries, and Daniel is Chief Executive for Only Connect, a charity which works to provide training, support and creative opportunities for ex-offenders and at risk young people to realise their own value.
I’m embarrassingly proud of them both.
I try to be in Oxfordshire more than in town. My office is there, with the wonderful Francisca, and I love the garden, and my mad dog Meg (she’s a rescue mongrel with, I swear, attention deficit disorder – I should put her on ritalin), and my extraordinarily beautiful cat Magnificat (known as Mags) who is a “Bengal tiger”, (or, more correctly seven-eighths Abyssinian with one eighth Asian Leopard cat)
Rayne, who was 20 years older than me, died in 2002 and I found that pretty grim. When the Mail on Sunday asked me to write about widowhood, I thought at first I could not, but in fact it helped.
I remember the first time I felt really happy after his death was when I got in to find on my desk an advance copy of my latest novel, next to an advance copy of Rayne’s All Under Heaven, a history of China that he’d taken 40 odd years to complete, and which was accepted by a publisher on the back of his fulsome obituaries which reminded people just what a good writer he had been before he married me. The co-incidence of the two books, side by side, was wonderful.
Five years later, I had a “new best friend” Ernest Hall, who is worth a Google on his own. He’s a pianist (I cannot sing a note) and an entrepreneur, and he’s wonderful. I confessed to this late romance (I was 66 and he was 76) on Fi Glover’s Saturday Live one day, and I asked listeners what to call him. “Partner” sounds like a deal, I am too old for a “boyfriend” and “mate” and “companion” are just awful. My favourite listener’s suggestion was “your sous-chef”. So that’s what he was known as. Sadly the idyll did not last. He's bi-polar and in the end his moods defeated me. We broke up in 2010. I wrote about the happiness and misery in my autobiography, Relish, which Ernest, to his eternal credit, agreed I should publish.
And then, guess what? I fell in love again. To be that lucky in life is incredible. John Playfair lives two miles away from me by road, half a mile as the crow flies, and has lived in the area for twenty-five years. But we had never met. Because my husband was so reclusive he barely knew who lived next door, never mind in the next village. He spent his days working in his study and seldom answered the doorbell, let alone the phone. I was commuting to London and dog-tired by the time I got home at weekends and so I was happy to see no on. So we had few friends in the country.
But in October 2011 I met John at a friend's house and he suggested, since we lived so close to each other, we should walk the dogs together. As soon as my brother James met John, he said "Hang on to him. He's a keeper.' I didn't think he would be though. He's six years younger than me and one day, I thought, he'll wake up to the fact that he's got an old woman on his arm. But I'm glad to say he's still here, and life gets better and better. He loves travelling, so we do a lot of that, and he's always up for a jaunt, whether it's for lunch in a pub, a day trip to look at a National Trust house, or to go to a museum or an exhibition. He's even happy to drive all over the country so I can talk at literature festivals, or to go on a cruise because I'm the after-dinner speaker.
He has built our grandchildren (my three and his two) an adventure playground complete with tower and zip wires, wobbly walks, trapeze, assault net, slide and trampoline. He's now planning a treehouse. And one day, with luck we will build a house together.