Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Spilt beans leave a slightly sour aftertaste

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Partly because of my love of food, partly because of my love of English eccentricity, this was a Christmas present from my mother.

Clarissa Dickson Wright is best known as one of TV’s Two Fat Ladies, the culinary duo that travelled the UK on motorbike and sidecar in the 1990s, but she has plenty of other claims to fame.

The youngest female lawyer to be called to the bar, Dickson Wright’s childhood was blighted by her father – a brilliant surgeon, but an alcoholic, brutally violent parent and husband.

But when her beloved mother died, Dickson Wright sank into an alcoholic spiral. She was debarred and ended up broke (having frittered away a lot of money) and homeless.

Getting sober, she helped to build up the London bookshop, Cooks for Books to its present fame, before going on to find TV fame and then becoming an ardent campaigner for the countryside (ie pro-hunting etc).

It’s an interesting book – deceptively light to read given some of the subject matter. But there is a feeling that Dickson Wright rather overdoes it on occasion. There’s no doubting her father’s brutality, but were she and her mother really nursing broken or bruised ribs on the sort of regular basis that she suggests? They’d scarcely have been out of hospital, yet medical treatment is never mentioned.

Having known Tony Blair as a law student, she gets tedious in the extreme over his record as Prime Minister. Castigating Labour voters in general, she claims not to have found anyone who voted “for Tony Blair”, even in Sedgefield. Well no dear, you wouldn’t. Because Westminster politics isn’t like that. Nobody outside of Blair’s constituency could vote for him – they could only vote for candidates in their constituency. And frankly, whether someone is a good constituency MP, representing them in the way that they want to be represented, is higher on many voters' list of priorities than a silly argument about their vote actually being for the party leader.

It’s the sort of disingenuous approach that one finds in rags like the Daily Wail. And from someone who supposedly understands the law, it's crass in the extreme.

And there are other irritants: quite frankly, if any working-class individual described the equivalent of the ‘jolly japes’ that she unapologetically recalls getting up to (or her own friends getting up to), then they’d be regarded as rude and inconsiderate.

Dickson Wright is to be applauded for overcoming many of her demons, and her descriptions of alcoholism and dealing with it, together with her descriptions of fellow alcoholics and their struggles, are informative and, in places, moving. They form the strongest part of this book.

But she’s remarkably quick to dismiss some things in general, such as emotional abuse and bullying. And she seems over keen to blow her own trumpet – yes, of course this is a memoir, but there does seem to be a lot of: ‘I was the first to do this’, ‘I take credit for that’, ‘it’s because of me that’ etc. Perhaps all the demons have not been exorcised – perhaps nobody ever manages that completely.

Dickson Wright has plenty of valid points to make about food, and has embraced the countryside campaigning with the fervour of a true convert.

All in all, interesting. But it doesn’t leave one with a sense of particularly loving the subject of the book.

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