To Skibo Castle for a four-day wedding, a dream of super-luxury and great good fun. I was struck by how the American rich are saving the Highlands. Skibo is supported by a band of mega-wealthy Americans, some of whom have invested heavily in the nearest town of Dornoch, which is thriving as a result. They are following a great tradition: Andrew Carnegie, having made his fortune in the US, returned to Scotland and rebuilt Skibo. He also donated libraries and halls ‘big enough for dancing’ all over the world, many in Scotland. A great combo: reading and reeling.
I live in the Cotswolds, where the rich often splendidly transform derelict farms and villages, only to be looked down on by the indigenous toffs who raise their eyes to heaven at the vulgarity of new stone walls and deep gravel. But when those old houses were first built, they’d have been exactly like that: manicured lawns, specimen trees, dressed stone and show-off statuary. I once helped Desmond Guinness show well-connected Georgian Society members round Daylesford, then Stanway. Daylesford then belonged to Baron von Thyssen, who had restored everything to its original splendour. He’d even had the carpet remade by Aubusson. Oh my dears! So vulgar! But Stanway, with pictures invisible under centuries of smoke, carpets near threadbare and the bottom out of the sofa, got nods of approval — not for the undoubted beauty of the Jacobean mansion, but because nothing had been ‘done up’. Maybe ‘shabby chic’ started as the landed gentry’s answer to being a bit skint.
In Edinburgh at the Queen Margaret University graduation, I had to shake the hand of 800 students. Two things struck me: how every one of them met my eye and smiled. Not remarkable, you’d think. But many students, especially from poor backgrounds, are still stuck in the head-down grunting phase. Not surprising then that QMU has the highest graduate employment rate of any Scottish university and the third highest in the UK. Less jolly was seeing the girls tottering, sometimes staggering or tripping, in five-inch stilettos or great lumpy shoes like foot clamps. The podiatry students were the worst offenders. Maybe ensuring future work for their colleagues?
En route south I finally got to hear the deadpan voice of a Virgin Train loo, familiar to 15,000 YouTubers, intoning: ‘Please don’t flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.’ It made me smile, which is more than those would-be hilarious speech bubbles on food packaging do. It was funny when Innocent started the trend, but now it’s irritating. Just give us the info, damn it.
Why is it that it’s much more satisfying to see a really good play than a film? I guess because it’s so rare, and theatre tickets are so expensive that when the play is a dud, you feel thoroughly cheated. With taxis, dinner and decent seats you can be in for £200 a head in the West End. No wonder London theatres are full of tourists and the rest of us just watch live streaming in our local fleapit.
Many posh chefs run cooking schools that combine tuition with fun and a glass or two. But at The Woodspeen near Newbury, John Campbell offers classes dedicated to just one dish (the perfect steak and chips, the perfect sourdough loaf). Or you can spend the morning at the cookery school prepping your dinner party; take it all home with instructions and a time plan, and there will be a chef on the end of the phone if you panic.
I’ve spent the past few days on a mighty ego trip, my agent riding shotgun, visiting publishers. We are flogging my as-yet-unwritten cookbooks. Thanks to The Great British Bake Off, everyone is keen to see us. It’s also thanks to Bake Off that I want to go back to cookery writing at all. I’d thought that bit of my life was over, but all that cake, and the enthusiasm of the bakers, has me thinking more about recipes than about storylines for fiction.
Professional oldies seem to fall into two camps, the downright miserable and the astonishingly active. I’m glad to see that the Oldie has moved Virginia Ironside from entertaining us with her aches and pains to a new Agony Aunt column where she must deal with other people’s miseries. But William De’Ath continues to groan on about his wretched life. Meanwhile David Dimbleby cheerfully goes on doing what he’s always done, only more so, and Mary Berry, at 82, is presenting or working on three television shows and several cookbooks.
I flip-flop between the two. Knees, shoulders, back have all been under the expensive knife, with toes and hips on the horizon. But my philosophy is, shut up, take the tablets and keep on with what you like. I haven’t got time to die.