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Transcription of Desert Island Discs interview

The following interview, from long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs was transcribed as part of a university project into the literature of cookery writing. Clarissa Dickson Wright, one half of the Two Fat Ladies, was part of my studies and this interesting interview with Sue Lawley looks at Clarissa's life and her views on great cookery writers. The episode is available to listen to and download from the Desert Island Discs website.

Desert Island Discs: Clarissa Dickson Wright
BBC Radio 4
Broadcast on Sunday 21 November 1999
Presented by Sue Lawley

[Opening Theme Music]

SL: My castaway this week is a cook. Her father was a brilliant surgeon but an alcoholic, and his daughter suffered in the same way. Inheriting a small fortune in her late twenties, she drank it all away within a few years. Though her money disappeared, her intelligence, wit and culinary skills survived, to be discovered eventually by television. In the programme 'Two Fat Ladies', she famously partnered Jennifer Paterson in a series of highly entertaining and eccentric cookery adventures. Jennifer died earlier this year, so what now for the lady left behind? The lady with the pathological hatred of carrots, who once knocked out an Alsatian with her bare fists, and who rejoices, or suffers, in the name of 'Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright'. Forgive me Clarissa, but it is a completely ridiculous handle. What were your parents thinking of?

CDW: Well they had great trouble deciding what to call me in the first place. I mean they went through all the sorts of various things like Verbena and Nigella and then they blindfolded my mother and turned her loose in the library and thank God she pulled out Richardson's 'Clarissa' and not the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'. And then I think they were so delighted that they'd finally found a name, they got pissed on the way to the church. (SL laughs)

SL: What is it that you have against the humble carrot?

CDW: Well... (laughs) I just don't... as I get older I have this more and more pathological hatred of them. My father used to pull them out of the ground and sort of dust them off and feed them to me, still with the slugs on them. And so I think I got sort of put off them. Now of course I would quite readily eat the slug, though I still have this thing against the carrot.

SL: And why do you go around beating up Alsatian dogs?

CDW: No, no, I didn't! I was working for somebody who had this very badly behaved Alsatian, it had already taken out the gardener's bicep, and I was coming home from the dustbins and this thing came racing towards me with its ears back and its teeth bared and there was nobody but me and the Alsatian anywhere for miles, and I remembered what my grandmother had said that if you hit a dog on the right point of it's jaw, you knock it out. So I thought, well I had nothing to lose so I went right down and went WHAM and the thing somersaulted over. (SL laughs) When it came to, of course, I was it's pack leader - it followed me everywhere, I was inseparable from it. (SL laughs)

SL: Well obviously Clarissa, television when it discovered you, sought to exploit some of what, I think, most people would call eccentricity, but also with your collusion it was deeply politically incorrect in calling you 'Two Fat Ladies'. You didn't mind this at all did you?

CDW: Well, people used to say, like journalists hate the word 'fat', especially American journalists, and they used to say "Don't you object to the title?" And I said "well there are two of us, I had problems with ladies 'cos it sounds like a public convenience, but which bit do you object to, you know? Are you saying I'm thin?" (SL laughs) And they get terribly embarrassed, and there was actually one journalist who couldn't say the word fat, we had to sort of re-educate him to say it.

SL: Of course it's been tremendously successful, very unusual for a British cookery program to be successful in America...

CDW: Unique.

SL: Is it unique?

CDW: Totally unique, yeah. I mean I now can't go out, because when I go out I am always accosted by groups of Americans or Canadians or Australians or South Africans... and the Americans come up and say (American accent) "Oooh, we love you", and when I was walking to the rugby the other day, South Africa and Australia match, everyone: all the Australians were going (Australian accent) "Oh geez, hey it's you!" and all the South African's going (South African accent) "it's the lady on the telly". (SL laughs)

SL: And in Japan you've become a man?

CDW: No, only a man's voice. Japanese women have little, breathy voices so that when they were recording it they couldn't use women's voices, so they had men's voices going (stereotypical impression) "ho ha, ha!" (She laughs)

SL: So it's been a great success, and then sadly, sadly Jennifer upped and died in August. Was it on the cards? Did you know it was coming?

CDW: No. When we were filming at Knowsley Safari Park, which was the last one we did, she was in cracking form, and she loved it because she loved elephants and they had these elephants and lions and things. And then, you know, I said "well I'll see you in a couple of weeks" and then halfway through the following week she said "Oh I don't feel very well, I think I'm going to bed" and I said "well you must go and see a doctor, and don't let them bully you into filming if you're not well enough". And she said "I don't think I could darling" and it was that moment I realised that she really was ill and so she went to the doctor, and they did the tests and of course discovered that she had rampant cancer and three and half weeks later she was dead. But she died magnificently.

SL: Did she?

CDW: Oh, she was wonderful, I mean she was an example to all of us. If I can die that well I shall be very happy.

SL: Tell me about your first record.

CDW: My first record is Kenny Rogers' 'The Gambler'. I'm a great fan of Country and Western music and I suppose people always used to say to me, you know, "are you a gambler?" And I said "no, no", because I don't gamble on the horses or tables or whatever, but I realised that I actually take quite considerable risks with myself and with my career. And I think this sums up the philosophy of my life.

[Music: Kenny Rogers - 'The Gambler']

SL: Kenny Rogers and 'The Gambler'. Another part of the secret of your success really Clarissa, is of course that you championed all that unhealthy food, all that fat stuff, all those artery cloggers. Do you genuinely like that sort of stuff?

CDW: (Laughing) I would disagree with 'it's unhealthy food', but yes I do genuinely like it and I do believe that, I mean, I would rather eat a cream cake than take Prozac. You know, the only thing that stimulates the seratonin in the body is animal fat. And I'm quite certain that the increase in antidepressants is directly relatable to the decrease in eating fat.

SL: That's quite a theory, I've never heard that one before.

CDW: Well, it's a scientific fact that that's what stimulates the seratonin.

SL: But it's interesting that because you do champion butter and eggs and cream and so on, that you've always rubbished Mrs Beeton, because of course she was the supremier of 'take two dozen eggs', wasn't she?

CDW: Yeah, but Mrs Beeton didn't cook. Tom Beeton was the, the Robert Maxwell of his day really...

SL: Her husband?

CDW: Her husband and he had all these magazines including 'Mrs Beeton's Household Management' which was a fifteen part magazine for the Victorian yuppie. Mrs Beeton's mother was a famous cook: she ran the grandstand at Epsom. Mrs Beeton herself died at twenty-six, having had five children in four years...

SL: Not a lot of time for cooking.

CDW: No, you know, so she took all these sort of recipes that were sent in.

SL: He was obviously just a marketer wasn't he...

CDW: He was just a marketer, yes.

SL: He spotted a good idea - get the wife to write a book or put her name on it...

CDW: Put her name on it, put her picture on it. She had a good face for it...

SL: But you say that she, or that book, made us overcook our vegetables ever more?

CDW: Yes, I mean if you look at Georgian books, even late Georgian books, even the very early Victorian books, the first editions for instance of Eliza Acton, there are enormous swathes of literature about not overcooking your vegetables and how to make them 'o poarn' [sp.] and crisp and everything like that, and then he lifted piecemeal Fanny Farmer's 'Boston Irish Cookbook' which was, you know, boil everything in four gallons of water for forty minutes, (SL: especially sprouts!) because the Irish are awfully disastrous with vegetables. (They both laugh)

SL: But are you saying that before that we did know how to cook? I mean, did she spoil us?

CDW: Yes, we knew how to cook wonderfully. The Italian ambassador, the Venetian ambassador, because Italy didn't exist, writing in 1748 wrote: "the food of the inns of England is the stuff of which Heaven is made". I mean, nobody could say nowadays about the inns of England that the food is "of the stuff of which Heaven is made", although it's getting better.

SL: So who helped us back onto the right road? Because it's often said that Elizabeth David with her French provincial cooking began to wake us up again.

CDW: I think Elizabeth David was an enormous inspiration, I mean, my generation is obviously the generation that was inspired by Elizabeth David, but I think really that the Renaissance of British cookery was brought about by people like Antony Worrall Thompson, who was a great cook, Alastair Little, Sally Clarke, Rowley Leigh, Simon Hopkinson, they all are around the same period and they all...

SL: Delia Smith?

CDW: Delia Smith cooks for Middle England, and she cooks very well for Middle England, and I will not have a word about this egg business, because there isn't a single hotel in the country except the Dorchester who can cook, and the Marcliffe at Pitfodels, that can cook eggs properly.

SL: Which famous cook do you most admire?

CDW: I think probably Robert May. Robert May was chef to James the Sixth of Scotland and consequently came to England with him, and when you... I don't know if you remember, but there was a dish I cooked on 'Two Fat Ladies' which was salmon with red wine and oranges, and nutmeg, well that was an untranslated Robert May recipe. And everybody said it was so modern it couldn't be historic and there is a crab salad in there which is... if you saw it, just as a typed recipe and say identified it you'd say 'Chez Panisse' or something like that.

SL: Record number two.

CDW: My second sister, my sister June, who is I think probably the cleverest member of my family, married as her first husband a delightful man called Byron Janis, who at the time was tipped as the man most likely to succeed in piano playing circles. And was chosen to play at the Brussels Exhibition and we all went over to hear him play.

SL: Early fifties...

CDW: Early fifties, yes, I think I was about five or six, and they used to come and stay with us when we were in London and he would always sort of take our piano out and have a Steinway brought in, and he would practice and practice and practice and I couldn't understand why he wanted to practice instead of coming and playing football with me. And when I went to the Brussels Exhibition I suppose it dawned on me why he spent so much time practising.

[Music: Byron Janis - Etude in G flat major, Op. 10/5]

SL: Byron Janis playing part of Chopin's Etude number five in G flat major. Memories of attending your first party in a posh frock Clarissa. Do you remember the first food that made an impression on you?

CDW: Well I remember the first food very clearly, 'cos I think I must have been about three and a half. We had a picnic, I can see it very clearly, in the woods at Wisely by the Royal Horticultural Society, and it was a hard boiled egg and a cold sausage, and I remember peeling the egg and it peeled perfectly, you know how sometimes they do, and the sausage was just a very good sausage and I remember it distinctly and thinking "Gosh, this is life" in a way.

SL: But the family lived in St John's Wood in North London, very well heeled, servants and so on, did you... you had a cook presumably?

CDW: Yeah, we had a wonderful cook called Louise Leeds, I mean she was about five foot two and weighed twenty stone, and she was illiterate, she never wanted to learn to read, you know, it wasn't something that interested her. And so I used to go and read recipes out loud to her, and like so many people that don't read, she just remembered them instinctively. She and my mother used to have great arguments about what they were going to serve. My father had quite a high profile in the medical profession so we entertained a lot, serious entertaining. And I remember on one wonderful occasion, Louise standing on this balcony, it was this Georgian house so the balcony was creaking alarmingly, anyway saying "Madam, if you make me cook that, I'll jump", and my mother saying "If you don't Louise, you might as well!" (SL laughs)

SL: Your father, as I said, was a brilliant surgeon, attended royalty as well.

CDW: Oh yes, yes.

SL: First surgeon to remove a bullet from a spine without leaving the patient paralysed?

CDW: That's right. It was a... I mean he was remarkable in pioneer surgery, he did a lot of things like that. When he was at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore, he developed the operation for stripping varicose veins because of the rickshaw coolies. Because of course they couldn't take the time to have them cut out and convalesce and so he decided that if you stripped them, and that was his operation.

SL: How could he do all of that and be an alcoholic?

CDW: You'd be amazed what people do and be an alcoholic. But I mean obviously, like all alcoholics at that stage his drinking hadn't really bitten in. I saw more of it perhaps than other members of the family, because he was fifty when I was born.

SL: You were, what, thirteen years younger than I think than...

CDW: Thirteen years younger than the next one up.

SL: What did you see and how did his drinking effect home life?

CDW: Well, as in any alcoholic home, there was always this tension, always this feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know, you never know with the alcoholic if they're going to come home in a good mood or they're going to come home drunk or whatever. So there was always that tension, that 'walking on eggs' feeling that anybody that's been there will recognise. And of course he was, when he was very drunk, extremely violent, so he would come home and one would take cover.

SL: Record number three.

CDW: Is the first record I ever owned. Bill Haley's 'Rock Around The Clock', which for my generation is a great sort of breakthrough, it's the real first rock and roll record, you know, the jiving years and all the excitement about it. And just opened my eyes to a whole different type of music.

[Music: Bill Haley and His Comets - 'Rock Around The Clock']

SL: Bill Haley and 'Rock Around The Clock'. So Father made your life, Clarissa Dickson Wright, unpredictable, unstable, where did you escape... How did you escape from all of that?

CDW: Well I think initially with books. I've always been a book person, I mean, to this day I feel naked if I don't have a book somewhere around me. And I remember, I learned to read when I was three and a half and I've been reading ever since. And then I went away to boarding school, and I loved boarding school because the goal posts didn't move. (SL: Stable?) The roles were there. If you wanted to break the rules, you broke them, if you didn't then you knew what they were.

SL: Your father didn't leave you anything in his will, because there was a great falling out before he died, but what you did inherit from him, of course, was his alcoholism. When did it begin for you?

CDW: It began for me when my mother died. I was, if anything, perhaps too close to my mother, you know, we were bonded there together against my father's behaviour. And I came home and I found her dead and it was a shock, I simply couldn't handle it. And I went round to a friend's house and I poured myself a large whisky which was a surprise to everybody because I really didn't drink.

SL: How old were you?

CDW: I was twenty-five. And I remembered as I drank it feeling, you know, this is the answer, this is it, you know, why have I waited so long not to drink, you know, I've come home. And from thereon in I drank very heavily, very quickly, getting to two bottles of gin a day and the rest.

SL: Interesting though that you hadn't drunk before that. Had you been positively avoiding it?

CDW: Yes, because apart from my mother, the alcoholism was very obvious in the rest of my family.

SL: But when you drank it you recognised it, your body recognised it.

CDW: My body recognised it, and my genes recognised it, I suppose.

SL: But you thought you could control it?

CDW: No, I never thought I could control it. I was on a path for destruction.

SL: And you knew that?

CDW: And I knew it, and it was a choice that I made and I remember saying to God...

SL: Why did you make that choice?

CDW: I think that I felt this enormous sense of failure, that I had failed my mother, that she had died before I had been able to help her create a life that was enjoyable.

SL: And were you a benign drunk or were you also like your father, quite violent in drink?

CDW: I was both, I mean I became at the end of my drinking very like my father, you know I think if you grow up in a violent environment there is this predisposition to violence because it's something you understand. And there is an enormous simplicity about violence, you know it's an instant answer, it shuts everything up, at least for the time being. I was once attemptedly mugged and I put them both in intensive care. I mean I didn't go round beating people up, but if people were aggressive to me, then I hit them.

SL: But you were also I think... I mean there was a positive side to this, you also were incredibly generous weren't you.

CDW: Oh yes, yes, generosity is one of my vices or virtues, whichever you choose to call it. (She laughs)

SL: But you gave terrific parties.

CDW: Oh huge parties.

SL: Took everybody out, spent your inheritance.

CDW: Yes, we had a lovely time, I mean, I blew it and I blew it unashamedly and we had a lot of fun doing it and we went to great places and did great things, and you know it's now the basis of what I talk about, what I write about, all the things I've done so if you like it, it was an investment, if I had another hundred thousand I'd have been dead, so it's just as well I spent it.

SL: Record number four.

CDW: This is the 'Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon'. My mother was a daughter of an Aberdonian Scot, and my father was raised in Glasgow, and there is nothing as you know more Scottish than an ex-patrial Scot. But my mother always had a piper for parties. He was a lovely old boy called Pipe Major Robertson, and I used to have to ring him up and ask him what his favourite whisky was. And he said to me "Oh miss, the doctor's limited me to one". And I said "One glass Pipe Major?"... "No, no... one bottle". And my mother and he always used to argue and she would say "you will play the lament for the clan chief at my funeral" and he said "I will not, I will not, you know, you're not a man, you're not a clan chief, there's no way I can play this". And my mother said "You'll see". And guess who was right.

[Music: John MacFadyen - 'Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon']

SL: John MacFadyen playing the 'Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon'. But Clarissa you had become a barr... weren't you the youngest person to be called to the bar?

CDW: Yes that's right, I was. I think I still remain the youngest women to be called to the bar. I did my degree externally through London at the same time as I did my bar exams, 'cos my father wouldn't pay for me to go to Oxford, unless I read medicine. And I didn't want to read med... I wasn't qualified to read medicine. Dear God, think how many people I might of killed!

SL: What happened to your legal career?

CDW: Well I walked away from it, I was subsequently disbarred and then subsequently reinstated, but that had nothing to do with my walking away from it, that happened in absentia. What happened was, my mother died and left me all this money and I went off to try and sort out her estate and sort of went off around the world, and in a way it's really strange, because I started drinking, I think you know drink destroys ambition, before that I was terribly ambitious. And suddenly it was almost as though I'd done it, done you know, I could hear the eulogies at my memorial service in my head so what was the point in actually going through the mechanics of doing it, you know. But I'd had a very succ... potentially successful career... a lot of people had said very kind things about me. Lord Denning was very full of praise for me. And I think, you know, if I had not been an alcoholic I probably would have succeeded.

SL: So you drank and you drank and you drank... ten years, twelve years...

CDW: Twelve years.

SL: Yes. And what were you drinking?

CDW: Oh gin largely. I mean I... my habit was two bottles of gin a day, and at the end I'd have a third of a bottle of Vodka before I got out of bed, and anything else really I could get my hands on or keep down.

SL: When came the moment that you decided you should do something about it? Or could do something about it?

CDW: I never really decided I could. I think I decided I couldn't go on. I remember I was working in the country...

SL: Cooking?

CDW: Cooking. I cooked in other people's houses and I had this, this job where I only really worked at weekends you know, I kept an eye on things during the week and then they came down for the weekend. And I'd been making some jam and I'd spilt... the jam burnt and some of it spilt onto the quarry tiles, and I was chipping it off the quarry tiles and because I was on my knees, I mean I hadn't prayed for years... wasn't that I didn't believe in God, I was just too arrogant to ask for help. And because I was on my knees, I said "Dear God, if you're up there, I really can't go on. Please do something". And it was really from the heart, it was a cry from the heart. And from there on, I mean the next day I got arrested. I got arrested for a breathalyser - I don't even remember it happening, and was carted down the drive of this stately home in a police car as the house party was coming up it for the weekend. Sort of waving out of the window at them as they came past. And I very seriously thought of going to the Embankment. And the Embankment they say is the place in your head. And I thought I could go and I wouldn't have to worry about anything else but where the next drink is coming from. And then I thought well if there is something thereafter out there, one day I might have to face my mother. How on earth am I ever going to explain to her that I went to the Embankment? And then the events rolled on and my sister-in-law knew somebody who knew Dr Robert Lefever had this treatment centre.

SL: And it worked.

CDW: And it worked.

SL: Not a drink since?

CDW: No. Twelve and a half years now.

SL: Number five.

CDW: Number five is 'As Time Goes By', and that's for my dear Clive who was really I think the man I loved best in all my life... and he died. And the first time I met him, he was standing in Jules' bar with a chef's hat on, handing out gulls eggs to unsuspecting Americans and telling them they could eat them with the shells on, and he turned away and he was humming 'As Time Goes By', and it was his favourite tune and everywhere we went... I remember sitting in the Dorchester Piano Bar when Mike McKenzie was there and Clive would always ask for 'As Time Goes By'... used to drive people mad.

[Music: Dooley Wilson - 'As Time Goes By']

SL: Dooley Wilson singing 'As Time Goes By' from the soundtrack of Casablanca. And memories of lost love for Clarissa Dickson Wright. How long were you together with Clive, Clarissa?

CDW: It really wasn't all that long, it was only really a few years, but it was a very happy few years, we enjoyed the same things, we enjoyed going racing, we used to sit up half the night playing backgammon just for fun, you know, we spent a lot of time doing things together and...

SL: Why didn't you marry?

CDW: Well, marriage isn't really for me... I've never taken to the idea of marriage, I've never wanted to have children and...

SL: Why not?

CDW: Well because I feel rather that I've come to the end of my genetic pool, I'm a bit like a panda, I'm better off if I don't breed really.

SL: Not because you were frightened you might be violent towards them like your father had towards you?

CDW: No, I think I would have been a terrible mother. But it wasn't the violence I was worried about, it was the control. The fact that I would have had incredibly high expectations of them, as my father had of me, I remember saying to my Goddaughter when she was taking her Eleven-plus, you know, and she said "Mummy says I must work hard and do my best" and I loved this child. And I said to her, "well don't expect your Godmother to love you if you don't get over ninety percent", you know, and the poor little thing howled her eyes out.

SL: What happened to Clive in the end. How did he die?

CDW: He got a virus from the water on holiday in Madeira and came back and they couldn't isolate the virus and they put him on a drip to bypass his liver and his kidneys packed up.

SL: How old was he?

CDW: Forty-nine.

SL: And there's never been anyone else?

CDW: Nobody serious. Nobody I've ever really thought I've wanted to settle down with now.

SL: Still looking?

CDW: No, not looking, but if they came well then they come really.

SL: And the weight Clarissa, is the result of the drink I gather. It's to do with the quinine you've drunk.

CDW: Yes, it's the most bizarre thing. When I was in my treatment centre they took a blood test and discovered that I had very sticky blood, you see. So they sent me off to see the specialist to find out what was wrong with me at St Mary's, Paddington, and the metabolist said "have you ever lived in the malaria belt?" (SL laughs) So I said "no, why?" and he said "this is a condition usually found in people who have taken a lot of malaria tablets". And the penny dropped and I said "Quinine!" and he said "well, yes" and I said "well how about tonic water?" and he said in this rather pompous way that consultants have, "my dear young lady, you would have to drink a very great deal of tonic for over a very long period of time in order to get this condition". And I said "well how about six pints a day for twelve years?", and he said "well yeah, that would do it".

SL: But it's destroyed something in you so you can't diet.

CDW: What happ... diets don't work anyway, but what happens is that my adrenal gland is like a dripping tap, it's as though the washer's gone and so this constant drip feed of adrenaline, which gives me a lot of energy, I have an enormous amount of energy, but it also means that I metabolise incredibly slowly because I'm permanently at the state as if I was running away from a saber-toothed tiger.

SL: Number six.

CDW: Ah, well although it may not be obvious from my current appearance, I'm a great dancer. I love dancing. We used to go out to the discotheques every night and dance, and this was in the seventies, and of course it was the time when Boney M. produced 'Ra Ra Rasputin', and when I had my fiftieth birthday a couple of years ago, it was the last tune they played at about quarter to four in the morning. I thought right, let's really go for it, and there I was swinging about and moving, until I got this terrible pain in my chest and I thought, dear God, you know, I will die on the dancefloor, what a great way to go, it's been a fantastic party. And when I came off the dancefloor, I discovered I'd broken my underwired bra.

[Music: Boney M. - 'Rasputin']

SL: Boney M. and 'Ra Ra Rasputin'. How are you on Christmas food Clarissa? I bet you're the sort of cook who knows how to stuff a turkey with a pheasant with a guineafowl, you know. Are you in favour of the boneless roast for Christmas dinner?

CDW: I used to do as my party trick, go and do endless exhibitions of how to bone a quail inside a pigeon inside everything else, but no I like a... I mean I do have turkey at Christmas, but I like a proper bronzed, properly reared and nice and succulent, and it's about the only time of the year I do eat turkey.

SL: And the puddings and the cakes, they should be made by now actually shouldn't they?

CDW: Oh yes, absolutely. If you haven't made them by now...

SL: Any last minute advice?

CDW: Last minute advice. I think that my main advice to people at Christmas is don't panic. Everybody gets in such a... so worked up about what is actually a terribly simple and pre-defined meal. You know, there's so much you can do in advance, and what you can do in advance, do it, don't do it on your own, get the children to peel the brussel sprouts and things like that, promise them money if necessary...

SL: Do a timetable?

CDW: If you must, if you're that sort of person, then do a timetable, there's no harm in it. But just do as much as you can in advance.

SL: And what of you now Clarissa, now Jennifer is gone. Television apart, you have a proper job as it were, you run a restaurant in Scotland, you run a bookshop, you publish cookery books and newspaper columns, life is very demanding, but more television? What can one fat lady do?

CDW: Yes, I have actually been commissioned for another television series, although I'm not in a position to talk about it yet, 'cos the BBC wants to announce it properly. But it's not cooking. There is more to food than cooking.

SL: If not it's history, as you were saying earlier on.

CDW: Well indeed, I've always been a food historian and I'm interested in food trends and the agricultural aspects of food and whatever. So who knows.

SL: But we shall see more of you?

CDW: You shall see more of me, yes you can't get rid of me that easily.

SL: Irony is of course, that you don't own a television, do you? Don't watch the thing.

CDW: No no, certainly not. I have to go across the road to watch the rugby. (SL laughs)

SL: Number seven.

CDW: This is I think the ultimate party song. I want it at my funeral. It's the drinking song from 'Traviata'. I love Verdi, Verdi's my favourite operatic composer and I had a friend once I used to go to the opera with a lot, and we actually heard this production of Montserrat Caballe and Carlo Bergonzi and it was, I thought, brilliant.

[Music: Giuseppe Verdi - 'Libiamo, ne' lieti calici' from 'La Traviata']

SL: Montserrat Caballe as Violetta and Carlo Bergonzi as Alfredo singing the 'Drinking Song' from Verdi's 'La Traviata'. I can't think that a desert island holds any great test for you, I mean, won't you kind of throttle the nearest snake and pop him in a stewpot?

CDW: Oh undoubtedly, yes.

SL: But how do you imagine it to be on this island? What's your image of your desert island?

CDW: Well I think it's probably a Caribbean island, but during the sort of cool season, so that the tides make lots of shellfish around the coast. And I think some wild goats and even dare we hope for some wild cattle. And perhaps, you know, the odd hunky native, you know, one could lure to the sounds of music.

SL: Oh there's no... no human life allowed, except yours.

CDW: Oh. Well I'll just have to dream, won't I.

SL: What if we could conjure up your last meal on this earth, your desert island meal. What would it be?

CDW: Well, I hope there would be wild pigs on this island, so that I could make myself some Chinese wonton, and I hope I would be able to grow some wild reap wheat and make noodles. So I'd start off with wonton soup, and then I'd have some sort of shellfish soup... I don't mean a made soup, a sort of real broth with like a booyah base but made entirely with shellfish. A bit of lobster, a bit of clam, bit of oyster, that sort of thing. And then a lovely rib roast of beef, on the bone, because there would be no nasty little mimsy politicians to tell me I couldn't have it on the bone. And a few wild raspberries, and some cream that I'd got from the cattle. Yes, no it would be great really.

SL: Last record.

CDW: My last record is 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind'. When I was in my treatment centre in 'PROMIS', I used to go every Sunday to evensong. And every week, probably just for me, they sang 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind', which is a perfect song for an alcoholic because it has that wonderful line in it: 'and somewhere mid this turbulence, the still small voice of calm', and the one thing as an alcoholic that when one's drinking one doesn't have, and even when one's sober one has to work towards, is serenity, is peace.

[Music: Aled Jones - 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind']

SL: Aled Jones accompanied by Huw Tregelles Williams singing 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind'. Now Clarissa if you could only take one of those eight records, which one would you take to your island?

CDW: Oh I think 'Ra Ra Rasputin'.

SL: Oh, of course. Dancing on the beach?

CDW: Really give me the exercise, eh? (SL laughs)

SL: You've got the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. What about your book?

CDW: Oh, without a moment's hesitation, the 'Complete Works of Hector Herbert [sic] Munro', otherwise known as 'Saki'. And I took that book everywhere with me, police cells, upside down motor cars, anything you like, you know.

SL: And your luxury?

CDW: The wind-up radio.

SL: Clarissa Dickson Wright, thank you very much indeed for letting us hear your desert island discs.

[Closing Theme Music]

Transcribed by Tim Pardoe, January 2000
Edited May 2013, updated January 2021
Copyright BBC, 1999

Copyright © Tim Pardoe, 1997-2024