Obituary: Philippa Pullar

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The Independent Online
The publisher's blurb, written by Philippa Pullar, for her odd, autobiographical, disarmingly frank book, The Shortest Journey, gives a very good flavour of the author in self-analysing mode:

Most of us live in a terrible muddle. Where are we going? What do we want? Apart from some vague theory of happiness, we have no idea. In terms of Western philosophy, Philippa Pullar seemed to be liberated. Her books were acknowledged. She lived a jet-set life, yet in order to communicate with her friends she had to anaesthetise herself with quantities of alcohol to such an extent that, among other shattering and riotous experiences, she found herself in bed with the conductor of the last bus home.

Like many blurbs this tells only part of the story, and that through a glass darkly, but it also contains the essence of Philippa Pullar. Her life was indeed full of riotous experiences, the majority of which she welcomed with open arms.

She came from an intensely conventional, indeed dull, background. Her mother had been surprised to give birth to a baby at the age of over 40. Her father, when Philippa was four, "was in the West Country carrying out duties suitable to his rank of major". There was a war on, but there was still a nanny, a butler and a cook. Childhood was one of Children's Hour and Dick Barton, of poached eggs and baked beans for tea, of air- raid warnings - and of animals, the inevitable pony, but also rabbits and cats.

Philippa was unamused by school, and her long-suffering teachers were unamused by her, especially when they discovered a lurid short story she was writing in the form of a long and passionate letter between herself as the male lover and her best friend at school. Her knowledge of the facts of life was sketchy, but her imagination was unrestricted. She had to go.

For the rest of her life, Philippa King led a rackety, some would say messy, existence. She was far from suited to the formality of the debutante season (she came out in Coronation Year) and decided to become engaged, at least unofficially, to a rich landowner from Carmarthenshire; she later admitted that she had fallen in love with his rolling Welsh acres. It was all far too romantic.

"Robin" died very suddenly of a combination of Bright's Disease, tuberculosis and leukaemia, and Philippa embarked on a period of very riotous living indeed, all night-clubs and whisky. But she became interested in what she called intellectual religion. And she got married, almost on a whim, to Robert Pullar.

Marriage was a failure. Her husband ran a chicken farm, and the stench of the droppings did not exactly add to the glamour of newly wedded bliss. She was pregnant, she felt on the verge of madness, she suffered from hallucinations. But she also discovered one of the great moving forces which would dominate the rest of her life: a passionate hatred of factory farming and an equally passionate belief in the sanctity of animal life. The result was her first published book, Consuming Passions, which appeared in 1970.

It was subtitled, somewhat misleadingly, "A History of English Food and Appetite". Certainly there was history there. But there were wildly funny jokes, and there was anger because of what she saw as unspeakable cruelty to animals. It became a best-seller. Ray Gosling wrote in the Times:

Consuming Passions is amusing, exciting and original. It is a work of love and care and art. Never have I come across such crisp, exciting - such a very feminine history of taste . . . Philippa Pullar has a fine appreciation of banana-skin humour and many anecdotes are side-splitting.

Consuming Passions would remain Pullar's best book. She followed it with an entertaining biography of Frank Harris (1975), which received mixed reviews; a rather silly book about the despised Season; and a sort of autobiography called The Shortest Journey (1981).

Towards the end of her life she became increasingly obsessed with transcendental religion and alternative medicine, the two often intermingled - the Sufi tradition, in part, had an enormous influence. The strong personal relationships, in particular with the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd, to whom she referred in The Shortest Journey as Horace, after Horace Walpole, gave way to more spiritual searchings. She had brief crazes - an aborted expedition to Mount Ararat to find the resting-place of Noah's Ark combined with a sighting of the swimming cats of Lake Van, a plan to take rich Americans to Egypt and introduce them to the simple side of life - but they were often passing fancies. Perhaps the faintest strain of her suburban upbringing lingered on to temper her wilder conceits.

Philippa Pullar had great warmth and the ability to charm people into sharing her often bizarre ideas - which might explain why she was so valued for her ability to counsel people in distress. She always produced the unexpected: whether it was a peculiar experiment in cookery (I remember a curious green tomato crumble which seemed to have mildly psychedelic after-effects), or a telephone call inviting one to a new kind of seance, or a rather more insistent call demanding traveller's cheques as she was literally on the road to Heathrow. One sighed, one was often exasperated, but it all seemed typical of her attraction. Her beliefs were often uncomfortable, but they were - above all her interest in animals - strongly held and passionately fought for.

There is absolutely no doubt that she was a character, utterly unlike anyone else. The world will be a calmer but a less exuberant place without her.

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson

Philippa King, writer: born London 12 February 1935; married 1958 Robert Pullar (died 1996; two sons; marriage dissolved); died London 7 September 1997.