Paul Vallely: Farewell to a mail-order heroine

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The Independent Online

True confessions. In the privacy of my home, I have, over the years, become a bit of a mail-order addict. Not any old mail order, you understand.

True confessions. In the privacy of my home, I have, over the years, become a bit of a mail- order addict. Not any old mail order, you understand. But when the catalogue from Lakeland Plastics arrives, I rip open the envelope quicker than if it was a letter from my wine merchant.

I blame my Auntie Joan. Lakeland has the kinds of mesmerising kitchenware products that she used to bring home from Stockton market when I was a child: things you never knew you needed, like a teabag squeezer, tomato corer, strawberry huller, pickled-onion scoop or jar gripper "to magically increase your strength". At the other end of the price range, I have also had a Gaggia ice-cream maker (a snip at £295.99 when you consider the range of goodies it has made available for the lactose-intolerant, egg-allergic members of our household).

Imagine my delight, then, on holiday in the Lake District, to find myself within striking range of the fount of all this wonder - Lakeland's huge new flagship store. I went in, and discovered an Aladdin's cave of gadgets and gizmos. There was only one thing missing - the breathless enthusiasm of the catalogue prose of the firm's customer director, Michelle Kershaw, who slips into every mailing a chatty letter full of recommendations. Over the years we've heard about her holidays, her wedding, her "cleaning philosophy", and how her PA Barbara always makes sure there are fresh flowers on her desk.

Her tone is that of a family friend who knows all too well about the state of the cupboard under your sink. In her 28 years with the firm, she appears personally to have sampled or tested every one of the 5,000 products her catalogue carries - which means, as one waggish customer put it, that her home must have been subjected to so many different cleaning chemicals that Hans Blix wouldn't go near the place without another UN resolution.

The customers love her. When she got married, she received hundreds of wedding greetings. When Lakeland celebrated its 40th anniversary, her office wall was covered floor to ceiling in cards. When Terry Wogan let slip on Radio 2 that she was ill, she was deluged in "get well" cards.

This week, a new catalogue arrived. But with it a very different letter fell from the envelope. It was from Lakeland's managing director, Sam Rayner, and it began: "I am sorry to tell you that our very dear friend and colleague, Michelle Kershaw, passed away after a year-long battle with cancer..."

Attached to it was Michelle's final note. "If you are reading this, the inevitable will have happened and, sadly, I am no longer with you." Last year, she was diagnosed with cancer and given eight weeks to live. Intensive chemotherapy bought her an extra 15 months, but in May this year her options ran out. "Surprisingly, I have enjoyed just the best 18 months of my life," she wrote, concluding: "For the record, I would not have changed one thing in my life; I've had a wonderful time. Here's wishing you happiness and fulfilment in all that you choose to do. All my love, Michelle."

Many people, on receiving news of such an illness, throw everything in the air and rush around the world to see the Great Wall of China, and do all the other things they've never done. Michelle did none of that. She kept going to work because that was what she loved above all else. "Michelle was determined to carry on living life on her terms right until the very end," said Sam Rayner. Only hours before she died, she was still putting finishing touches to the letter accompanying her final catalogue. The persona she had offered over the years turned out to be the person she really was.

It's easy when you know how

I had gone to Lakeland to buy something called a Froth'n'Sauce. I know, I know, but it was only £44.95, and since "it cooks and stirs to a faultless consistency in less than four minutes", according to Michelle, I thought it was worth a try since the proper chef's equivalent - a Thermomix, which weighs, grates, mills, grinds, cooks, boils and simmers all in one go - costs 10 times as much (VAT not included).

I had justified buying yet another boy's kitchen toy on the grounds that I would use it to replicate a voluptuous dish we'd had the night before at the Michelin-starred Holbeck Ghyll restaurant overlooking Lake Windermere where they served one of the best meals I've had in the last five years. But this was a bit of a fib. For to make the celeriac and smoked chicken velouté, all you need to do, the chef David McLaughlin told me, is this: sweat diced celeriac, leak, carrot and onions in butter; smoke a chicken over oak ashes, then cook it in chicken stock (reserving the breast for garnish); reduce it, liquidise it, and add crème fraîche. Right. Technology, I fear, will be no substitute for skill in this.

God's own brew

After chugging round the lake in a motor-boat, with my four-year-old son driving (if that's the nautically correct term), I needed a drink. One pub was serving something called Hawkshead Bitter, a full-flavoured malty beer with a dark reddish glow that reminded me of the boyhood sips I'd steal from my granddad's pint. Taste like this was what Benjamin Franklin meant when he said: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." It was only later that I found it was brewed by the former BBC foreign correspondent Alex Brodie, who has given up journalism and opened a brewery locally. Perhaps there's hope for us all yet.