Prue Leith

Notebook | 27 April 2017

Also in Prue Leith’s Diary: overindulged children, fire hockey and why no one wants to invite me to dinner

Notebook | 27 April 2017
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I’m an unashamed Archers fan. But for the first time in 50 years I’m exasperated by the storyline. A fortnight ago Usha, who has no ball sense, is justifiably rejected as a potential player by Ambridge’s cricket captain. Even she admits she’s useless. Nevertheless, bleating ‘sexist’ and ‘age-ist’, she leads a Lysistrata-style boycott, not of the marital bed, but of the practice nets. The women down bats and walk. Really! It’s enough to make you ashamed to be a feminist. And then last week the captain offers her the job of ‘inspirational team coach’. Laughable. Except for some reason I don’t laugh. I fume.

Last weekend’s perfect foretaste, fingers crossed, of summer, had husband John dusting off his 1600cc Harley trike (rudely called his mobility scooter by his children). It’s perfect for an old lady like me — the leather pillion seat wraps cosily round my back and hips, and it feels stable and safe. Also, since it’s classed like a Reliant Robin, you don’t have to wear a helmet, which means you can smell the blossom in the hedgerows or the catkins overhead. At sundown we growl gently through the smiling Cotswolds, marvelling at the lambs in the fields, sun slanting through the trees, hot-air balloons above. Oh, to be in England.

I remember when my children were toddlers they’d have tantrums in the supermarket, but let them loose in the countryside and there’d not be a tear all day. Now my son and daughter-in-law, with three under eight, come down from London, sometimes with two or three other families. Last week we had 14 children belting round the garden, making dens, riding bikes and climbing anything that could be climbed. Two little boys played chess for hours. Small girls did handstands on the lawn. None of them cried, sulked or raged. I remarked to one young mum that open spaces stopped all whining. ‘That and being out of sight of their parents,’ she replied. Dead right.

Modern children are, I think, indulged and both over- and under-protected. They are consulted about what they’d like to eat, what colour mug they’ll have their apple juice in. They are patiently negotiated with on the subject of bedtime or TV. Mostly they get their way. They are given so many toys one can barely navigate what my nephew, who also has three under eight, calls a ‘sea of plastic crapola’. But those same parents will let their offspring ride a mini motorbike, whizz down a zipwire without a helmet, or row a boat without a lifejacket. I run around fussing like an old hen, clucking that a toddler can drown in an ankle-deep pond and that five-year-old skulls are fragile things.

One risky activity — which I’m told is a game first played by Mexican Indians that’s made it to the UK — is ‘fire hockey’ or ‘flaming hockey’. Basically it’s hockey played at night with the puck on fire. The fortysomething dads tried it on our gravel drive and I must admit it was exciting, though not good for my tulips, with the goalposts set in front of the flower beds.

Being a professional cook has its disadvantages. People often say ‘I’d never ask you to dinner’ or ‘I’ve spent all day in the kitchen, slaving my socks off.’ But they forget that no one comes to dinner to award you Michelin stars or AA rosettes, and the last thing they need is you in a culinary flap, red-faced and furious. They’ve come to see you. The food is secondary, if not tertiary.

And as for me, I’ve only belatedly realised that I’m expected to show off, with drizzles and foams, powders and spherifications (that’s little jellied balls to you and me), cracknels and glazes. It must be a bit of a letdown to get meatballs or roast chicken. Too late to mend my ways though.

The aforementioned nephew is Sam Leith (literary editor of this esteemed publication). I’m glad to say he occasionally stoops to slightly less highbrow journalism and recently Saga magazine hired him to interview me for a piece in next month’s issue. I haven’t enjoyed an interview so much ever. First of all we didn’t have to go over much-travelled ground, such as where I learned to cook and what my worst culinary disaster was. We just yattered away about his generation and mine, me accusing him of lax parenting skills (see above), and him reminding me that my generation’s morals were laxer than his and very much laxer than those of the current crop. Did you know sex, drugs, drink and crime have all fallen among teenagers and young adults? Too busy on their phones, I guess.

But what made the gig with Sam such fun was that as we talked we cooked, me bossing him about as we made pasta with pesto. Only this was a very English pesto, made with parsley, walnuts, cheddar, rapeseed oil, and garlic (the garlic came from Italy as wild British garlic is currently so fashionable there wasn’t a leaf to be had), eaten with spaghetti from a supermarket packet. Delicious, though I sez it m’self.