Prue Leith

Diary - 2 March 2017

Also in her diary: cruising with Jeffrey Archer, the marvels of Munch, and a princess who chews shoes

Diary - 2 March 2017
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A fortnight ago I got a taste of what being far too famous might feel like. A leak that I’m a contender for the Mary Berry slot on The Great British Bake Off morphed into the fake news that I’d got the job. For 24 hours it was a lead story — then it was yesterday’s non-news.

My daughter, Li-Da Kruger, has made me her plus-one on the maiden voyage of Viking Sky, the swankiest cruise ship imaginable, all spacious showers, leather handrails and the surreal experience of sitting in the hairdresser’s with a roiling sea of black water and white-topped waves rushing past. Li-Da was booked to show her documentary Belonging to the passengers as part of the cruise’s ‘enrichment programme’. Her film is about going back to Cambodia to unearth the circumstances of her birth, her escape from the 1974 genocide and her ultimate adoption by my husband and me. By the end most of the 50-strong audience was teary and some, her mother included, were openly blubbing. Li-Da is more used to being behind or in front of the camera than on a stage with real people asking questions, so the Q&A did not go as planned. Instead of raising pots of money for her Cambodian charity, The Sacred Dancers of Angkor, she was sucked into a discussion on the morals of cross-cultural adoption and the wickedness of the Khmer Rouge.

My previous ship-board experiences weren’t great: a Swan Hellenic Mediterranean cruise felt like being trapped in a day centre, and a trip to the Antarctic in a converted Russian ice-breaker was mainly memorable for horrible food, the stink of penguin colonies, and double standards: we were lectured daily by our marine-biologist guide about the fragility of the polar environment, global warming and the importance of plankton. Then early one morning I watched the crew flinging the ship’s rubbish overboard. Tellingly, the ice-breaker is now at the bottom of the Atlantic (it went down the following year) and Swan Hellenic has folded.

Li-Da had stiff competition on the guest enrichment front. Jeffrey Archer was talking about his books — among them the final Clifton Chronicle, This Was a Man. I can’t help feeling the quote belongs more to Archer than to his hero. (From Hamlet: ‘This was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.’) Love him or hate him, he is astonishing. Every writer looks at his sales (330 million books) and output (he’s on his 36th book) with disbelief, envy and awe.

Twenty-five years ago, I stopped writing cookbooks to concentrate on fiction. Ever since, I’ve harboured the dream that one day I would catch a total stranger reading one of my novels. The closest I’ve come is watching a woman in Hatchards studying the blurb on the back of The Food of Love. She shoved the book back on the shelf, saying ‘Nah, what a con; I thought it was a cookbook.’ The other fantasy I cherish is that instead of people asking, ‘Are you the cook?’ someone someday might just say ‘Prue Leith? The novelist?’ Fat chance.

Have you ever been to an Edvard Munch exhibition? I bet the artist’s shade wishes he’d never painted ‘The Scream’. That one work has completely overshadowed his extraordinary output of exquisite drawings, emotional portraits and vibrant landscapes. Munch left 28,000 works to the city of Oslo and they are building a Munch Museum to better house them. Note to self: go before you die.

Under David Cameron, something called Permitted Agricultural Development was passed in an effort to turn redundant farm buildings into housing. But the council doesn’t like that word ‘permitted’ and doesn’t, apparently, understand the word ‘agricultural’. I’ve just been refused permission to turn a small barn into a cottage for the widow of my tenant farmer. The reason for refusal? It’s in a farmyard and tractors might be audible or visible.

My husband, John, once had a much-adored King Charles spaniel. So, when we married in October, I gave him one for a wedding present. Big mistake. Within a week I’d lost my ranking as the most important female in his life — to an ADHD puppy. She’s called Tattie, to go with his terriers Haggis and Neeps. But he claims Tattie is short for Tatiana, Princess Tatiana to be exact. All objections to her jumping on the sofa, chewing my shoes, scoffing anything edible within her reach, yapping at the postman or weeing on the carpet are greeted with an indulgent smile and ‘But she’s a princess. She’s allowed.’

Prue Leith’s novels include The Prodigal Daughter and The Gardener; she also wrote Leiths Cookery Bible.