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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: