One Fat Lady (is better than none)

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I must say I find most things to do with Clarissa Dickson Wright - the One Remaining Fat Lady now, sadly, there are no longer Two - rather magnificent. Certainly, she looks magnificent. A sort of spectacular mix of Mo Mowlam and one of those Beryl Cook ladies via a bosom of such stunning enormity I imagine it would need its own box at the opera.

Her family sounds magnificent, too. Dysfunctional, yes, but magnificently so rather than just boringly or ordinarily so. Her paternal grandmother, for example, lived in a tent in the drawing room of her house in Little Venice, hammering the pegs into the parquet floor, until one day she caught both legs through the same leg of her knickers and fell to her death down the stairs. Clarissa's father, Arthur, was the most brilliant surgeon of his day, but also a violent alcoholic much hated at home.

"He used to say that Friendly, the dog, was his only friend, and I'm not sure he liked him much. The worst thing my father ever did was fracture my brother's skull against the garage door." (This may not be so magnificent, but it does make for endlessly magnificent listening.) And then there is Clarissa's full name, which is truly magnificent. It is (get this!): Clarissa Theresa Phillomena Aileen Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright. Good grief, I exclaim. What were your parents thinking of? "Oh," she replies gaily, "I think they probably got pissed on the way to church." Probably, they did.

She lives in Scotland now, and we meet at her Edinburgh bookshop. It is a cook's bookshop. It is a very cosy place. Clarissa is, when I arrive, already engaged in something of a bust-up with a tiresome American who seems to have come in with the outrageous purpose of challenging every British person's right to call a halibut a halibut.

"What we call halibut," he insists, "is what you call brill."

"NO!" retorts Clarissa, incensed. "What we call halibut IS HALIBUT. What you call halibut is PROBABLY SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY!"

She is quite formidable, with that bust, and dressed, today, in a big, lemon-patterned short-sleeved shirt which reveals forearms like prize winning county hams. I don't think I'd especially like to take her on. She once, you know, felled an alsatian with her bare fist. "I was a cook at a country house, and had gone out to the dustbins, when the alsatian - who had already been nasty to the gardener - came at me with teeth bared. I knocked it out with a single blow to the side of its head. I thought that I'd killed it, but eventually it did come round."

Still, it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss this woman as just a cartoon eccentric. She is indisputably intelligent - she was a barrister once. She was even the youngest barrister to be called to the bar and would probably have gone on to a great legal career if her own alcoholism had not ultimately led to her being disbarred. ("Eventually I was drinking two bottles of gin a day and anything else going. I couldn't have drunk more if I'd tried.")

She is splendidly well-read. She actually very much regrets not meeting Graham Greene, which she could have done when she worked as the cook for Graham C Greene, a literary agent and Graham Greene's nephew. "But the weekend he was due to visit, I was taken off in a black mariah. Something to do with not appearing in court for failing a breathalyser, which I couldn't remember taking." The job had not been wholly successful, anyway. "Unfortunately, my dog ate the manuscript of Timothy Mo's An Insular Possession. Luckily, there was one other one."

She is, yes, seriously knowledgeable about food - "of course, mint sauce remains the last vestige of the Crusades" - and seriously passionate about it in all its full-fat, meaty, creamy, artery-clogging gorgeousness. What would your favourite meal be Clarissa? "Lobster, beef on the bone, won- tons, stuffed chillies, new season's asparagus, beautifully cooked new potatoes - no carrots, because for some reason I have a pathological hatred of carrots - bearnaise sauce with the beef, of course, and horseradish sauce made with fresh horseradish... and then raspberries with cream, and a truckle cheese..." A pause, then, daintily: "I am not a great one for puddings, actually."

She thinks Jennifer, who died earlier this month of lung cancer, would have chosen much the same. Although the two did not actually know each other until they were brought together for the TV series, they did bond beautifully. Clarissa cannot recall any proper disagreements beyond mild ones to do with Jennifer's Catholicism - "she couldn't stand it if I ever went into a Protestant church... said my soul was in mortal danger" - and vegetarianism: "Whereas Jennifer wanted to bludgeon vegetarians to death, I thought we should lure them back."

Yes, she already greatly misses Jennifer, although, that said, "I'm not sure it's quite sunk in yet. I keep having to remind myself we're not just taking a break between TV series. I was due to see her in hospital on the Wednesday, but last spoke to her on the phone on the Monday to tell her I was bringing her some marvellous caviar. She said she'd just had a row with a nurse who'd come in and said: `Are we feeling better, dear?' Jennifer said: `Don't be so bloody ridiculous. I'm dying.' She died the next morning. I did love the old bat. When I think about it, I do get quite overcome. Still, we gave her a great send-off. I've never seen so many priests in vestments. Even AN Wilson cried."

"I cried when her crash helmet came out," says Isobel, the terribly nice woman who helps run the bookshop.

"I went way before that," says Clarissa.

"She loved boys with curly hair, didn't she?" says Isobel.

"Oh yes. The boy who looked after her bike had curly hair. She went mad when he got it cut," says Clarissa.

"It's the end of a chapter," sighs Henry Crichton Stuart, an old friend of Clarissa and co-author of her latest book on Scottish cuisine, Heiland Foodie.

"The end of a chapter," sighs Clarissa.

We sit down for a coffee in the shop, which overlooks a very busy, chic, shopping street. Clarissa perks up. Clarissa, I note, is quite easily distracted by passing young men. She is, obviously, a woman of some appetite on all fronts. "Oh, look! There goes a nice pair of legs," she keeps exclaiming. Clarissa! I admonish, primly.

"I just like a nice pair of legs," she explains.

"Footballers' legs?"

"No. Rugby players' legs."

"Who do you consider the perfect man?"

"Physically or mentally?"

"Physically."

"Gavin Hastings."

"Mentally?"

"Not Gavin Hastings! Although he is very sweet!"

She tries hard not to be bitchy but, thankfully, mostly fails. I ask her to recommend an Indian cookbook. "Not Madhur Jaffrey. She's an actress, not a

cook." Later, we get delicious swipes at Mrs Beeton ("she started the rot in British cooking"), Elizabeth David ("she didn't help much"), Ainsley Harriot ("Not a chef, a children's TV presenter"), Gordon Ramsay ("not innovative... so media-hyped") and, even, that icon from my childhood, one of the first TV chefs, Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. "I used to drink with him in Bill Bentley's on Beauchamp Place. He was known as the leaking liver. I didn't like Bill Bentley's much." How come? "It didn't do gin."

Clarissa Theresa Phillomena Aileen Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright was born in 1946. She was the fourth child of Molly and Arthur Dickson Wright, but came 13 years after the third, so it was rather like being the only child. While Molly ran their impressive London house with its eight servants - Clarissa learned to read and cook by reading aloud recipes to their illiterate cook - Arthur ran an immensely successful practice in Wimpole Street, and even attended, at various times, the Queen and Queen Mother. He was the first surgeon ever successfully to remove a bullet from someone's spine without leaving them paralysed. And this, even though he was drunk all the time? "Oh, yes. But, then, I often cooked magnificent 10-course dinners for house parties without being able to remember a thing about it. In fact, I made the best dinners while I was blacked-out."

Vodka was her father's thing. Yes, it did strike her as ironic that he would go to work to mend people, then come home to smash his family up. Molly received broken cheekbones, and many a black eye. He once broke three of Clarissa's ribs with an umbrella. Anything would set him off into a rage. He was quite a gourmet himself - "he had pigeons flown in from Cairo" - and if his food wasn't quite right, that was enough to do it. She has no idea why her father behaved as he did, beyond sensing that "he was a very unhappy, lonely man, possibly incapable of love. His parents had been cold and detached."

Clarissa adored her mother. Despite everything, she was very warm, and great fun, with a passion for horse-racing and dancing and speeding in her beloved blue Bristol. Did Molly love Arthur? "Yes. I think she did." Could you understand it? "No." She suspects they had a lively sex-life, though. "I always sensed my mother was very good at it. She was certainly very open about it. When I went to boarding school at 10 - I liked boarding school, such a relief from home - I had to tell all the other girls what sex was. Whenever people got married, she would give as a wedding present a Kenwood mixer and the Kama Sutra, saying both would prove useful."

Eventually, after 43 years of marriage, her father upped and left, by which time, says Clarissa, "he'd gone off his head, then went on to have 11 strokes in a row." He left Clarissa nothing in his will. "He said I was more mother's child than his." Clarissa's mother, on the other hand, who had been independently well off, left Clarissa everything in her will, a sum said to be in the region of pounds 750,000, which Clarissa inherited when she was 27. The money had all gone on booze by the time she was in her early thirties. She had her first drink the day her mother died. "I had four fingers of whiskey and felt I'd come home."

She drank solidly for 14 years. First lavishly - renting boxes at the races, hosting lavish dinner parties, chartering yachts - then, when the money ran out, not so lavishly and often secretly while working as a cook in various people's homes. She was, she says, never a benign drunk. "I could be paranoid, self-obsessed, verbally cruel and physically violent." She was also deeply unhappy. I say it sounds like she became her father. I ask her if, by some miracle, her father could walk into this book shop today, would she want him to? "Yes. I think I would. But only if he was sober." What would she say to him? "It is quite easy to be loved, you just have to allow people to do it. And not hit them." Tears stand in her eyes.

I ask her if she is capable of love. Yes, absolutely, she replies. She was, at least, always much loved by her mother which, she thinks, gave her sufficient tools to love in return. During her drinking period, she adds, she did have a very serious boyfriend, Clive, a Lloyds underwriter, whom she thinks she'd have married if he hadn't suddenly died after contracting a virus from swimming in the sea in Madeira. She certainly loved him. "And, if you're going to ask whether I still miss him, the answer is `yes.' I had his oldest daughter to stay recently and she has his smile."

She has had lovers since, but has not been tempted by marriage. She doesn't think there is much point if you don't want children, and she never has. "I'm just not maternal. I'd expect too much. I'd be like my father. I have god-children, whom I'm very fond of. "

So what now for Clarissa? A solo career? "It's too early to think about that. Although, that said, the BBC don't like their good presenters hanging about doing nothing, and I do think I'm a good presenter." I hope a suitable vehicle is found for her shortly. After all, One Fat Lady is better than None. And Clarissa Dickson Wright is, I think, considerably more magnificent than most.

`Heiland Foodie' is published by the National Museums of Scotland. Price: pounds 14.99

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