EPISODE 12: And now for something completely different…

R.I.P. Clarissa

This blog episode, rather quickly following in the footsteps of the last one, contains reflections on Clarissa Dickson Wright who sadly died  earlier this year in Scotland, aged 66. My sister forwarded the information, via a cousin, that placed on Clarissa’s coffin was a Viking helmet and a wreath made of chillies, artichokes, broccoli and sage; Clarissa, renowned for her eccentric flair, always liked to make a statement. This titbit of  tantalising information inspired me to pause a while and think nostalgically about my own personal experiences with Clarissa. Once I found the photos from that era, I knew I had a blogisode, even though the supposed rhythm of one episode more or less every few weeks has been randomly broken. I am indeed an unreliable narrator. Feedback is always welcome.

Along with Jennifer Paterson, Clarissa made a name for herself as one of the Two Fat Ladies of TV cookery show fame, riding around the UK on a motor bike, cooking up a storm, often with lashings of cream and butter, for particular groups of people such as other bikers. At its peak, this series had 70 million followers across many countries. She also went solo in presenting several foodie TV programs after Jennifer died, and, among other things, she was a prominent shooting and hunting advocate, the latter role making me pretty uncomfortable, to say the least.

One of several best selling cookery books  - contrary to popular belief, many of the recipes are healthy

One of several best-selling cookery books – contrary to popular belief, many of the recipes are actually healthy

Searching for ancestral connections: a mystery unsolved..

When I first met her, pre-mega-cookery-series fame, she had done several cooking and food interviews on radio, but was certainly not a household name. Prior to this meeting, Clarissa proclaimed to one of my relatives that she was our family’s long lost cousin, several times removed. Our grandfather Wright on my mother’s side came out to Australia from Ireland, while her grandfather Wright on her father’s side, went to England during the same economic crisis in the second half of the 19th Century. According to her, these men were closely related, sharing either the same father or grandfather – I am a bit hazy regarding the exact connection now.  A very dominant personality, she had an impressively encyclopaedic knowledge of all things ancestral and historical – and also she possessed an extraordinary photographic memory.

Cousins meeting  each other - Clarissa Dickson-Wright in Brisbane

‘Cousins’ meeting each other – Clarissa Dickson-Wright in Brisbane

It was hard not to be swept up and convinced by her authoritative way of speaking.  None of her outstanding mental faculties appeared to be dampened too much by her many years of heavy drinking, after having once been the youngest, brightest barrister in London. Sadly taking to alcohol because of family trauma, she wasted a hefty inherited fortune by partying hard. She always claimed to me that what had really affected her body adversely was not so much the alcohol, although this naturally had a pretty drastic  effect, but the worst consequences apparently came from the quinine in the tonic she consumed in huge quantities daily, with her drink of choice, mostly gin.

Clarissa had made contact socially around the mid Nineties,  and she warmly and persuasively embraced our family on the Wright side as long-lost Australian relatives. Her mother was a wealthy girl from rural Queensland, and her father, supposedly our family link, was, in his lifetime, an esteemed surgeon for English royalty. It is difficult to ascertain now whether the ancestral link is authentic or not. She certainly seemed to believe it at the time. She warmly embraced us, saying that, as she had fallen out with most/all of her close family still alive in the UK, she was very happy to find some new relatives that she liked.

The personal research into our Irish ancestors carried out by my own mother and other relatives never seem to have turned up this link conclusively; but that probably doesn’t really matter anymore in the whole scheme of things. Regrettably, over the years, the Australian contingent, including myself,  lost touch with the mercurial Clarissa, although we still followed her forays into the media spotlight from afar. We tended to circulate in such different life orbits as the New Millennium progressed.

Souvenir menu at Brisbane book launch gig

Fond memories. From ‘cousin’ to ‘cousin’  –  souvenir menu at Brisbane book launch gig

A foodie paradise

At our first meeting, I enjoyed her warm, eccentric hospitality in her little cottage in South London for a memorable prime beef dinner (no cream). Subsequently, I indulged in several visits to the little cookery bookshop she managed in the famous Portobello markets in Notting Hill. This delightful shop teemed from floor to ceiling with global cookery books and related cooking treasures. Redolent with the manager’s quirky sense of humour, the tempting fragrances of the delicious items she prepared in the tiny cafe at the back of the shop also wafted throughout, adding an especially appropriate atmosphere to this dream foodies’ bookshop.

For instance, I loved an anecdote of hers about meeting someone called Richard Starkey at an AA meeting and asking him what he did for a living. When he said, ‘Oh I play a little music’, she launched into a very sympathetic discussion about how hard it is for musicians to make a living these days. He was very nice and polite. Later a friend came up and said ‘I see you were having a good talk to Ringo’. She felt mortified of course that she hadn’t recognised the drummer from the Beatles.

Clarissa at her own famous cookery book store in Edinburgh - no cafe here, but still delightful

Clarissa at her own famous cookery book store in Edinburgh – no cafe here, but still quite delightfully eccentric

A Scottish adventure

A while after our first meeting, I accepted her kind invitation to stay in her cottage in Edinburgh, relishing the fact that I had a special opportunity to spend a holiday with her, enjoying at the same time the Edinburgh film festival, as well as attending several gigs at the Edinburgh fringe. By then she had relocated there, and was engaged, full-throttle, in the making of the Two Fat Ladies series. At one stage they embarked on a very successful world tour, coming to Brisbane where we met up again – the Sheraton could have sold out the celebrity lunch several times over (see memorial pics above).

When I arrived in her Scottish village,  she had a sudden, unexpected production rescheduling due to bad weather, and was unfortunately absent much of the time I stayed there. However, towards the end of my holiday, she was back for her 50th birthday party. This special celebration, to be held in grand style at a close friend’s stately home, Lennoxlove House, was planned down to the most microscopic last detail.

Staying at the family Manor gatehouse outside Edinburgh

Staying at Clarissa’s family Manor gatehouse outside Edinburgh

Experiencing the British class system full-on 

A day or so prior to the party, I met Jennifer (who pre-deceased Clarissa), at a luncheon they both prepared for close family and friends, held in the small cottage in the grounds of a manor house owned by  some of Clarissa’s old friends – as mentioned, she wasn’t speaking to her close relatives then.   To me, Jennifer’s manner was very arch and patronising, and she treated me as a rather unfortunate colonial cousin, certainly not worth taking seriously in her uppity, exclusive world.  I observed,  both then and at the party, that she seemed to value men over women as people worth talking to and taking seriously. So she was both a class and gender  snob.

Over those last few days in the cottage, I discovered that quite a few of Clarissa’s friends, acquaintances and vague relatives had a similar, decidedly unattractive attitude of upper class superiority and its concomitant, outdated British colonial snobbery. The British class system is still alive and well – this was a bit of a shock to me as I am used to being treated pleasantly as an equal.  Clarissa, a much warmer person, open to all, did, however, also wear the distinct badge of privileged birth, having gone to the ‘right’ schools and mingled with aristocratic  families, including royalty, all her life – except of course during her darkest alcoholic times, which included being homeless on the streets of London. “Homelessness is a choice’ she always said. I found this observation hard to digest.

She was redeemed in many people’s eyes through her resolute giving up  of the demon drink, her subsequent successful  television work and her cookery and biographical writings, although I am sure her barbed wit and fearless frankness may well have upset some of her own class, particularly the obvious twitty nobs, as she didn’t suffer fools gladly. Also there seems to have been not such a close friendship between her and Jennifer – the onscreen and offscreen relationships were reportedly different. She did tell me that Jennifer’s continual, excessive drinking with the crew upset her, a reformed alcoholic, and, as often as possible, she had to stay in different hotels from the full-on drinkers when on a shoot.

Lunch in the Gatehouse prepared by Clarissa and Jennifer

Lunch in the Gatehouse, prepared by Clarissa and Jennifer. Grumpy Jennifer didn’t like the way I sliced the cucumber. ‘Thinner!’ she kept saying imperiously.

Partying in a splendid domain with Mary Queen of Scot’s ghost

Clarissa’s 50th birthday party was very grand, set in the grounds of historic Lennoxlove House with a huge marquee for music, dancing and eating, although the delicious food was served inside. Clarissa of course had carefully ordered the style and substance of every single food platter, giving the caterers strict instructions, which they followed to the letter. Several people whispered to me that some of the food items were only ever seen at Royal gatherings. I had no way of verifying this particular information snippet!

Guests could wander through the majestic rooms during the party. To conclude, I have added a few photos I took at the House that evening, recording also the famed link to Mary Queen of Scots. The following is a little visual montage of the evening:

Lennoxlove House in Scotland - Clarissa's 50th birthday

Lennoxlove House in Scotland – the venue for Clarissa’s 50th birthday

Stunning banquet at Lennoxlove - including particular fish usually reserved only for royalty

Food fit for a queen. One stunning birthday banquet table at Lennoxlove – including particular Royal fish (some kind of sturgeon I think) and top-of-the-range smoked salmon

Angus, the 15th Duke of Hamilton wishing Clarissa a Happy 50th Birthday

Angus, the 15th Duke of Hamilton, wishing his old friend Clarissa a Happy 50th Birthday and welcoming guests to his family’s ancestral home. A West Indian band, also friends of Clarissa from Portobello Road in London, played at the party.


Mary Queen of Scott's bed at Lennoxlove

Mary Queen of Scot’s  bed at Lennoxlove

Tragic Mary Queen of Scott's silver casket and sapphire ring

Tragic Mary Queen of Scot’s silver casket and sapphire ring at Lennoxlove



Looking back and down-under for a moment

Spurred on my last mini-blog and the imaginings evoked of the former Rugby League star Todd Carney’s penis in the act of ‘bubbling’ urine into his own mouth, one dear mate wrote the following astute, hilarious commentary which I had to share with you: ‘Bubbling had a short life in the media. It may have something to do with the notoriety of its high priest. I was waiting for other celebs to come clean along the lines of “I bubbled first …”, “Bubbling saved my life ….” etc. You can imagine Todd at BA meetings standing up, “I am a bubbler”. What a penalty for a prank! His friend is chastised for taking a photograph of Todd bubbling but, really, why else would you do it? Autobubbling, I ask you?’

I trust you enjoyed these delicious words; I certainly did. Another friend sidled up to me and whispered she didn’t really understand what bubbling was – obviously she doesn’t  follow the very physical highs and lows of Rugby League. Her partner and I put her straight on this peculiarly masculine activity.

Unpacking the phallus/ penis conundrum

That is all for now on the bottom-feeding antics, the dizzying heights and mind-boggling depths of male genitalia stories, although I reserve the right to mine this rich seam whenever appropriate, checking out the latest thinking, research activity etc in all micro and macro masculinity  departments.  Senator of this realm, the inimitable Jacqui from PUP said on breakfast radio that her ideal man should be ‘well hung’… for a while that comment whetted my writer’s appetite for contemplating again the ideal and and reality of phalluses/ penises,  but I am holding back today. Anyway I think Clementine Ford has quite illuminating things to say on this very topic:


Aside: I do recall a funny relevant moment after a lecture I gave on Advertising back in the day, in a huge cavernous lecture theatre on a faraway campus that time forgot, when a couple of my male tutors came up to me afterwards and jokingly said – “Helen just to let you know – we counted the words  ‘phallic symbol’  at least 8 times in that lecture. That’s a couple more phalluses than last semester.”   I replied  that, of course, there is a lot of it about…and the students should be alerted over and over to the power of semiotics and all-pervasive patriarchal symbolism very early in their academic journey in media studies. So the more I say it and demonstrate it visually, the more they would understand what kind of world we live in…My tutors were heartened and went forth to spread the word in their classes. 

Vaginal texting and imaginings

What I really want to concentrate on in this blogisode is the more tasteful, more erotic topic of vaginas (not quite sure how to illustrate this blog…hence the word imaginings above)  Vaginas have been on my mind lately, for a number of reasons, not the least being related to the final comforting words regarding my personal vaginal state-of-play by the sweet gynaecologist who saved my life and sanity recently.

Also another friend recently sent a group of us an interesting link about the ‘latest’ fad of discovering and exploring the erotic potential of one’s own vagina – http://www.scribd.com/doc/232510622/masturbation-workshop. On reading this piece regarding female masturbation and fourth-wave feminism, memories of  second-wave Seventies’ feminism came rushing back e.g. consciousness-raising groups, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem (“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off”) etc etc. This was very empowering, even life-changing of course at the time, and I am glad there is a notable, new iteration of such philosophy and practices.

A beautifully languid female statue in Bologna.

A beautifully languid female statue in Bologna.


Vaginal warrior that I was in my academic life, occasionally I would score a win in my classes when teaching feminisms. I used to give lectures on feminist research to many post-graduate students and several, both men and women, would often come up and say they were delighted and enlightened, realising they were actually feminists (or wanted to be), now that they understood what the philosophy and the practices meant. That was very fulfilling for me. In a research design lecture, I often used an example of a research project I was engaged in, on the practice of removing bodily/pubic hair via waxing etc.  More on that topic possibly another time, though of course it is all inter-related when exploring vagina-land. I also have particularly dark thoughts on unnecessary cosmetic surgery being performed on women’s labias and vaginas…

As a google link says on vaginoplasty and labiaplasty  – ‘More recently, vaginoplasty has grown into a group of cosmetic surgeries marketed as “vaginal rejuvenation” and “designer vagina” procedures. Plastic surgeons and gynecologists are marketing their own array of designer vaginoplasty surgeries, claiming the same benefits to women as with other cosmetic surgeries, such as beauty, self-esteem, and confidence. In fact…women’s genitals naturally have a wide range of normal appearances that are anatomically correct. There’s no one “look” or right way for a vagina and labia to be formed.’

Orgasmic indeed...

Orgasmic indeed…

Stand up, sit down comedy

I especially want to turn away from the dark side and celebrate today the fact that I am very lucky to hang out with an abundance of very wonderful, witty women, in fluid groupings, some overlapping, all amazingly, colourfully webbing and woofing their sparkling wackiness and wisdom into the complex tapestry of my life. In several of these crossover groupings, the buzzy bawdy conversations are always hair-raising, provocative and, to us,at least, very very funny.

Lately, the topic of celebrating natural ‘girl bits’ has been one recurring item on the agenda within one particular group. We do discuss many more topics of course, including how to bring about world peace, save the environment, and depose Tony Abbott and Campbell Newman. Sometimes there are also very insightful conversations about the sociology of second-decade New Millennium coupling for casual mutual pleasure in bars. For instance, wise zany Snow-white  has a rule that she never says she is an academic – instead  she proclaims that she works in underwear retail, which is much less threatening to someone she intends to have just a one-night stand with. Another friend says upfront what she really does, and ‘fuck ’em’ if they can’t handle the fact that she is an academic. Anyway she doesn’t have any idea about underwear retail, so that particular conversation would go nowhere.

The mysteries of lingerie retail

The mysteries of lingerie retail

I don’t hang out in the same single bars as this group  – that part of my ageing tapestry is looking a little thin these days, happily so  –  but I do engage in the vicarious enjoyment of hearing the multilayered forensic research reports from the others. In the midst of this, waxing and waning from the seriously lighthearted and funny to the deeply and darkly serious, always astutely taking the micky out of themselves,  each one could be said to be a new kind of stand-up comedian, writing and performing her own audacious material;  I imagine  that I may actually become their collective manager. A new version of Big Girls’ Blouse may well blast onto the scene, though of course with a different format and name. Dream on…post-fulltime-work is certainly overflowing with new, unexplored, tantalising possibilities…who knows what will actually ‘see me out’ now!

Random playful texting

To give you a little morsel of the playfulness – a recently gleaned text-fest with one of these friends proceeded as follows:

Her: You ought to blog about all the vagina conversations we’ve been having. It’s hilarious!  Beef curtains, a lot of vagina, muff, hermaphro clit..it’s all good!

Me: Indeed. Much to probe there so to speak. Also fascinated by terms for periods – bloodbath is what 13 year olds call them now. My gen said monthlies, the curse and even George of all things. Why a man’s name escapes me –  like calling the vagina Bob.

Her: Snow-white was saying that Vagina would be a lovely girl’s name. I agree. Vagina Wolfe.

Me: The old Vagina Dentata also rears her delicious head!

Her: Good Roller Derby name.

Me: yes or female band.

That’s the only stream of textual consciousness I have intact, as we usually just riff and rave  – unrecorded –  when together, like most friends..and all the verbal thrust and parry escapes me in the warm glow afterwards. (Not sure why I used that masculine expression ‘thrust and parry”  – will have to try to think of a feminist equivalent!)

Creative vaginal performing

And now for a graphic link about a daring performance artist if you wish to view it. This certainly celebrates the vagina, challenging taboos,  although still people are very disturbed by such openness – rather like the impact of the Japanese woman artist who recently built a boat shaped like a vagina and ended up in jail.

Hope you enjoy this – you may well know the painting at the Musée d’Orsay. Here is a copy of some of the description on the link:

Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis plopping down in front of Gustav Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” and exposing herself. This happened last month in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and resulted in her being taken away by police and having two museum guards file complaints against her.

ArtFido also has a translation of an interview with de Robertis, in which she discusses her live recreation of a painting of a woman’s pubic region:

“If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism, but what I did was not an impulsive act,” she explained to Luxemburger Wort. “There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”



Masculinity struts its stuff – an interim flash

I have been rather amused to learn two new expressions lately, proving one is never too old to learn. These both relate to particular inflections of masculinity, the feral and the hegemonic. Regarding bottom-feeder feral masculinity, the repeat offender Todd Carney’s act of ‘bubbling’ has been caught on social media. What a surprise. Ah Rugby League, the gift that keeps on giving.

Bubbling of course is a much less offensive practice than ‘buttering’, an ugly practice integral to team bonding through gang rape, which has been exposed over the years in that code. Some of these vicious NRL rapists seem to have slipped out of the net, while an idiotic but pretty harmless bubbler gets expelled forthwith from the culture. I doubt very much that Carney will be repatriated, unlike for instance, Matthew Johns who is a high profile sexual assault rehabilitee.

In the hegemonic masculinity arena, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is charged with corruption and ‘influence peddling’, a similarly intriguing, but of course less overtly graphic term than bubbling. I am sure many politicians worldwide ‘influence peddle’ most likely for most of the time. In Australia it manifests as politicians buttering up (not used here in the sense of gang-raping) lobbyists, pressure groups and media magnates, doling out to those who donate handsomely to Party funds such prizes as privileged access, highly paid boys’ club jobs and lucrative deals e.g.shafting the ABC in Asia etc etc.