I’m tempted, just for a second, to feel sorry for Clarissa Dickson Wright. There she is, with her back to me, 15 feet away, at a table in Valvona & Crolla — a refined little deli/café full of focaccia and Parmigiano Reggiano tucked in beside the lager shops on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk. There she sits, waiting for me: the last of the Two Fat Ladies, all alone: no fat husband to cook cakes for, no fat children to lick the icing from the bowl.
I’ve read her memoirs, so I know that she’s been through the mill: alcoholism, homelessness, the death by drink of the love of her life.
But I also know, as I begin my approach, that to pity Clarissa would be idiotic. For one thing, she’s had a much more exciting life than most, and for another, she’d hate it. And if I’ve learnt one thing from Clarissa’s book it’s that it’s a mistake to annoy her. Her TV co-star, the late Jennifer Paterson, used to cook for The Spectator and once, furious, threw a drawer of cutlery from an upstairs window. Clarissa’s temper is if anything more formidable. At the Sacred Heart school in Hove, she ‘lifted up the school bully and threw her against a radiator’. Later (under complicated and extenuating circumstances), she ‘picked up a rent boy and pushed him through a window’. She’s even socked a copper in the face.
‘Yes, it’s true,’ she says, after we’ve said hello and I’ve broached the subject of her impressive rage, ‘I do have a temper. In fact my nickname when we were shooting Two Fat Ladies was Krakatoa, because I’d suddenly explode!’ She laughs, and I laugh too, nervously. ‘I inherited my anger from my father, I’m afraid,’ she says. ‘He was a brilliant surgeon but quite a frightful man. One of his nurses was responsible for taking a special rubber mat to the operating theatre, so that he could jump up and down on it and scream.’
Clarissa grins, but the doctor did more than just jump: behind the closed doors of their home in St John’s Wood he drank, he raged, he demoralised, punched and swiped, giving Clarissa and her mother black eyes; sometimes breaking bones. ‘I was terrified of him, but it did teach me that there’s a world of difference between smacking a child to discipline it, and hitting out in a temper,’ she says, looking philosophical. ‘Children can always tell the difference between the two.’
Snip snap, no room for self-pity — but the monstrous Mr Dickson Wright can’t be exorcised as easily as that, and if pushed a bit Clarissa will admit that the story of her life is, in some ways, the story of recovering from his influence.
‘I’m upbeat about it now, but I’ve had, you know, 20 years in Alcoholics Anonymous and ten months in therapy. I mean, I don’t love him but I’ve grown to accept that I’m very like him. I have his gift for public speaking, his memory and, though this was hard for me to accept, I get my love of food from him.’ Clarissa sighs and rests her head on her capable hand. Enough digging, I think, so we skip forward to jollier times, when the young Clarissa had just qualified as a barrister. It was the late Sixties, and she was in her twenties — ‘blonde and skinny, with great legs, though I say so myself!’ — and with an appetite for japes and romps. ‘We all had tremendous fun, I had sex with an MP behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons!’ she says. ‘I think of that every time I see the chair.’ As will Michael Martin now, I expect.
Great story, I say, blushing. ‘Yes.’ (Clarissa is on a roll.) ‘I mentioned it in print a few weeks ago and now I’ve become a bit of a local sex symbol! I popped into the shop to buy a paper the other day and a man came up to me and pressed his phone number into my hand. I’m a pin-up for Scottish pensioners!’
It’s not just her own private life up for grabs. Clarissa’s time at the Bar overlapped with that of several prominent New Labourites, and she’ll discusses their escapades with equal gusto: ‘Cherie Blair was clever but desperately needy and always jumping on Derry Irvine.’ I wince. ‘Actually, Derry Irvine was quite a sexy guy back then,’ says Clarissa. ‘He radiated intelligence.’ And then there’s Tony Blair. ‘He was a few years younger than me but I remember him well. He was very glib, a chancer and, you know, he wasn’t really respected by anyone of my generation. Everybody used to say, it’s just as well he’s going into politics because he’ll never succeed at the Bar. We used to call him Miranda.’ Because he was wet? ‘No, no, he wasn’t called Miranda because he was wet, ducky!’ Clarissa guffaws impatiently. ‘Remember that scene in The Tempest when Miranda sees the sailors? Well then. He got on conspicuously well with all the male junior clerks. Everybody knew it.’ But he’s married now, I say. ‘So are a lot of people.’
A fan approaches at that moment, Clarissa turns away to sign her book and my mind races. Is she exaggerating? Clarissa admits to telling porkies at school, but I can’t believe she’d just make it up. I decide to appeal to Spectator readers who may have been Blair’s contemporaries at the Bar: was Tony Miranda?
Fan exits, clutching book, Clarissa orders another Orangina, and so we talk about drink. ‘After my mother died, I just took off, boozing, and in the beginning it was lovely,’ she says. ‘I was still good-looking and I had lots of money. But alcohol takes away ambition, you know, and it sure as hell took away mine, and I stopped doing law and then the law stopped doing me… And then I got into cooking!’ Her face brightens. ‘And I discovered that I had a natural talent. I began to cook for clubs in London, and I think I saw myself as one of the great club queens, you know, sitting on my bar stool!’ I do know. Clarissa holding court: it’s a terrifying thought. I look gratefully at the Orangina.
By the mid-Eighties Clarissa was a very, very serious drinker. Her mother had died and so had her great love, a banker and bon viveur called Clive; she was between homes, and downing epic, unfeasible amounts of booze to keep the sadness at bay: ‘Half a bottle of vodka to get out of bed,’ she says, totting up. ‘Two bottles of gin throughout the day, beer and wine with meals and anything else I could find!’
So how on earth did she survive? It’s not absurd to call it a miracle.
‘The moment I knew I had to sober up, I was cooking for a family called Greene,’ she says. ‘I forgot to keep an eye on the jam and it bubbled over onto the tiles, where it stuck fast. I was on my knees trying to clean the jam off, shaking and crying and though I hadn’t prayed for years, because I was on my knees, I said: “Please, if you’re up there, I can’t go on.” Nothing happened, of course, but when I look back, I know my recovery began at that moment. Take it or leave it,’ she says.
I take it. Despite all the talk of sex and booze, Clarissa has a sort of innocence about her which makes it easy to believe that there’s some exhausted angel deputed to keep hauling her back from the brink.
‘And I was healed by a holy relic once,’ she adds. ‘I had an ear infection and I was in the worst pain I’ve ever known. They thought I might die. My mother, who was a Catholic, had a relic of Blessed Martin de Porres, you know, the black Brazilian monk, and she placed it on my ear. Ma said she saw a figure cross the room and put a hand to my head. Apparently I said thank you, fell asleep, and the next morning I was fine.
I imagine her self-belief helped her survive too. ‘Someone once tested me and said I have an IQ of 196,’ she says at one point, apropos not much, and she doesn’t seem surprised. Then: ‘I was the youngest woman ever called to the Bar — I think I still am.’ It’s not arrogance so much as unshakeable confidence — the same self-assuredness that enabled her to sail so magnificently into the TV success with Jennifer Paterson as the Two Fat Ladies.
What was it like being a celebrity? Did it go to your head? ‘Well, my best friend from school always said, “You always thought everybody knew who you were when you walked into a room, now reality’s caught up with you,”’ Clarissa chuckles, ‘and becoming famous with Jennifer, we were able to share the joke together. It was certainly good to prove our critics wrong. When Roy Hattersley reviewed the programme he said, “These two hideous women will never succeed,” and I’ve yearned to confront him with it ever since. Hideous indeed — hasn’t he looked in the mirror?’
‘The most important thing is that it wasn’t celebrity for celebrity’s sake,’ she says. ‘We believed in good food and local produce. I can’t understand these celebrities who are just interested in fame and money. Take Jamie Oliver, for instance, he could have been such a force for good, but then he sold out to the supermarkets. And now he hangs out with real butchers and the like, and wonders why they aren’t particularly pleased to see him.’
No one could accuse Clarissa of selling out — though brought up a city girl, she fights for the countryside as if she were born there. ‘It’s a great passion,’ she says. ‘It has been since I first visited a school friend in the South Downs. I thought it was heaven, and it needs protecting from New Labour, who appear to hate it.’ So what are your particular bugbears at the moment? I ask, and suddenly we’re off at full gallop, Clarissa with the bit between her teeth, laying into Section 36 of the Trade Descriptions Act. ‘It says you may describe a product as being of the country where something was last done to it. So you get Chilean salmon, probably genetically modified, smoked in Italy, shipped to Scotland and sliced, then called Scottish smoked salmon. You get Third World chickens, fed on human excrement then sent to the UK to be taken off the bone, and called British chickens.’ Clarissa’s voice echoes around the shelves of sun-dried tomatoes, and cuts across the chit-chat of the ladies from Dalkeith sipping Fairtrade Earl Grey tea. ‘I don’t know why we don’t all kick up more fuss,’ she says. I’m sure you will, I say, and she laughs.
Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 8, 2007