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Interview: Clarissa Dickson Wright barrister, cook, television presenter, actress, author, and campaigner

07 June 2013

'I could have been called Britannica . . . or Encyclopaedia'

I've probably enjoyed a combination of two of those jobs best - campaigning for field sports, and making television with Johnny Scott [Clarissa and the Countryman].

Johnny and I have been friends since we were ten-and-a-half; so it was very invigorating. I did things in that that I'd never have done at the age of 50-something: going six miles out into marshes to watch 60,000 pink-footed geese fly over my head in a beautiful Michelangelo dawn; half-netting for salmon coming straight towards you like torpedoes.

I don't like being a celebrity - such a revolting word, which means so little - but it gives me a voice. Sometimes they listen to what I say. Jennifer [Paterson] used to go to all the parties. She'd say: "Darling, I'd go to the opening of an envelope." But parties get rather boring when you're not drinking.

I don't hunt any more. I car-follow. I'm no longer fit enough since I had pleurisy couple of years ago, and it affected my back. I've been very lame ever since. But, considering what I did to my body during most of my adult life, I'm lucky to be in one piece.

I was born in London, and grew up in the south-east, but I settled in Scotland 18 years ago.

I'm the baby of the family. My elder sisters were 20 and 18 years older than me, and my brother 13 years older; so they had an awfully long time to think of names they hadn't used. I was supposed to have been a boy and called Dominic Thomas after my mother's father; then Domenica Thomasina, but my Plymouth Brethren grandmother objected. Then Verbena - I was eternally grateful that I wasn't called that. Then Nigella - but that would have been confusing.

In the end, they blindfolded my mother, led her into the library, where she pulled out a copy of Clarissa, a folio edition next to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. So I could have been Britannica . . . or Encyclopaedia. I like Clarissa, even though it's an incredibly boring book, which needed quite a lot of editing. [Her full name is Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright.]

My next book is on my ancestral relatives. There were some very strange ones - not just my grandmother who lived in a tent and converted to the Plymouth Brethren when it swept through Ireland, but also relatives who died with Guy Fawkes.

My father, of course, was terrifying. I've never really been afraid of anyone else since.

I was the youngest person ever to be called to the Bar [aged 21], and remain the youngest woman. I hated my father so much: he wouldn't pay for me to go to university and then do bar exams; so I did six years' work in three. Yes, I was clever and determined, says she, modestly. He would only pay for me to study medicine. Think how many people I would have killed.

I was a barrister for 13 years. My mother died when I was 26, and by the time I was 34 I'd left the law - walked away before they threw me out.

Until my drinking really took hold, a lot of people, like Lord Denning, tipped me as "Woman most likely to succeed".

Our cook had trained at Chatsworth. But she couldn't read; so I used to read recipes out loud to her and hang about watching her make them; but I never actually cooked till my father went off his head and left home when I was 21. My mother said: "It's such a pity, darling: we could have lovely dinner parties now your father is gone, but we haven't got a cook." Well, there was no money. So I said: "Well, I'll cook." "Don't be silly, darling. What makes you think you could cook?"

I do really believe that everybody has at least one talent, and my natural talent is that I can cook.

Pat Llewellyn met Jennifer Paterson at a lunch party, saw her drive away on her motorbike, and said to me: "I had a vision!" So she brought us together for the television series [Two Fat Ladies]. I'd already filmed with Pat on Sophie Grigson's Grow Your Greens.

I think they thought we'd fight. Aren't two opinionated women the Chinese symbol for war? But we got on like a house on fire, and I think the sheer anarchy of that was why the series was so successful.

Anybody who is anxious about what they eat has nobody to blame but themselves. If you go to a supermarket and buy ready meals and cheap food, what you're going to get is not necessarily what you think. When I came out of my gin bottle 26 years ago, I was horrified by what the supermarkets were selling.

In Section 36 of the Trade Descriptions Act, a product may be named from the place where the last thing was done to it. So Chinese chicken fed on human excrement - which is a direct cause of MRSA - if it's washed and cut up and wrapped in plastic here, you can call it British chicken. The safest thing to eat is lamb, because we import very little, and that is from New Zealand. There are countries in Europe who can register something as "organic" within as little as three days before they put it into the market.

When I was young, people spent 30 per cent of their income on food; now its eight per cent. How do you think someone can sell you six chicken legs for 99p, and it's going to be good quality?

I do object to the cult of the chef. It's now so ridiculous: you have to make a note of what you ordered because so little of it comes, because there are so many other things on the plate. We need more cooks and fewer chefs.

Cleaning burned jam off the kitchen floor, because I was on my knees and I hadn't been for a long time - because I thought, what if you ask and nothing happened? - I just thought: "Dear God, if you are up there, please help me." And that began a series of events which I couldn't see till I was past them, which took me inexorably into recovery.

Nothing I've succeeded at has been anything I've decided to do. I've been incredibly lucky. I do believe when I asked for help, he heard me, and my life took a completely different turn.

When I was going up the drive to my treatment centre, I asked: is there anything I can do for myself? I was morally, physically, spiritually, economically bankrupt. So I thought, well, I could try telling the truth. Our family motto was "Truth will conquer", and I used to think, well, if anyone in the family ever managed it, we might actually get somewhere. So I made a decision that that's what I'd do.

When I wrote Spilling the Beans, I thought there's no point if you don't tell it how it was. And I've had a lot of good letters thanking me, from people who'd been helped.

I go to church to say thank you. The story I really like is about the leper who came back. Christ heals ten, and only one comes back to say thank you. If I'd been in his shoes, I'd have said the others can have their leprosy back, but he didn't do that. In AA, they talk about the "God of your understanding", and that's very important. God is my friend. If I remember to let go, and just go with the tides, then things slot into place. It's amazing.

I talk to God, and I try and listen. I never pray for specifics. My mother used to say: if you're in church on Good Friday at three o'clock, you can pray for three things and they will probably happen - but they cannot be for you. I know it's just a superstition, but it takes my mind off me, and I try to be there, anyway. Crucifixion is still the most painful death known to man. For all our sciences, you still don't beat crucifixion. So I think it's the least one can do to pitch up, don't you?

What a role-model! I've catered for 5000 people. It's bloody hard work.

God has such a great sense of humour. I recently spoke at St Paul's Cathedral, and, in all that glory and pomp, just four days after Mrs Thatcher was lying there in state, into the front row marches this black smelly bag-lady, sits down, goes to sleep, and snores like a grampus. The interviewer was very embarrassed, but I said: "Don't you realise that there but for the grace of God go I?"

It was a very special occasion, but I don't think I'll have my funeral there. I'd like something cosier and more English. I plan the menu with monotonous regularity, and I'll ask Sean Hill at The Walnut Tree to cook my last meal. I'd like to be carried out to Boney M's version of "By the rivers of Babylon".

I'd like to be remembered as someone who stood up for what I believed in, and spoke my mind.

Being at home is my holiday, because all my work is away from home. When I get home, I can put my feet up and read my books.

One sermon I remember was at school, and a priest came from the Oratory. He talked about how energising anger was, if you funnelled it, and that hit a big note with me.

It's amazing how badly so many clergy preach now. Listening to the Pope's Easter message, I thought, "Dear God, such a moment!" But it was the same old rubbish again.

I get angry about hypocrisy. Politicians almost universally make me angry. Ninety-nine per cent of them are hypocrites. And that business with Cardinal O'Brien could have rendered me apoplectic.

I'm happiest out of doors, usually in autumn; or looking at the acid- green of leaves in early spring, or winter, because I have hay fever in summer. I always remember being out hunting one day when it was bright but trying to sleet, and this old farmer, lolloping along on a horse, said to me: "Ye canna' be vexed on a day like this."

I'd like to be locked in a church with Charles II: witty, charming, urbane, intelligent, well educated, and a great sense of humour.

Clarissa Dickson Wright was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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