Magazine article The Spectator

The Fat Lady Sings

Magazine article The Spectator

The Fat Lady Sings

Article excerpt

ONE summer afternoon I was sitting in the garden of The Spectator when the sash from the top-floor kitchen shot up and Jennifer Paterson stuck her head out. `Who's this Digby Anderson?' she yelled, brandishing the latest issue. I explained that he was to be our monthly food writer (at that time The Spectator did not run regular articles about cooking). `If he can do it, why can't I?' shouted Jennifer. As was quite often the case in conversation with Jennifer, I could not think of a riposte to trump her, so I offered her the post.

Thus began, in her seventh decade, her rise from drudge in the kitchen to fame and fortune as a television cook. She died better known than anyone else associated with The Spectator in modern times.

Jennifer was appointed cook at The Spectator by Alexander Chancellor. He later made her office manager as well, which meant taking messages on her 50cc motorbike. Alexander thought it also meant replacing the light bulb on his desk-lamp, but Jennifer disagreed and he remained in darkness for many months. She disliked any change, and when we finally had the decrepit office redecorated she screamed, "The place looks like a cathouse.'

If you valued what is now called your private space, Jennifer was not the person for you. She would enter any office at any time saying anything that came into her head. In the mid1980s, the paper was bought by Australians, and I was having my first, rather tense intercontinental telephone conversation with them when Jennifer barged in and started ruffling my hair, bellowing `Darling little Editor' and smothering me with kisses. At the lunches which she cooked for the paper's guests, she would intrude her person and her thoughts upon all comers. Once, during a quarrel with Alexander, she came in and collected the remains of the first course. `That was delicious, Jennifer,' he said, anxious to make peace. `What was it cooked in?' `Vitriol!'

Her television fame was particularly deserved and appreciated because she was a natural and, until then, frustrated actress. She loved singing and doing accents and striking poses. Before a big event she would have the equivalent of stage-fright. Once the Prince of Wales came to lunch and the palace let us know in advance that he did not like red meat. `That bloody fusspot Prince will have whatever I give him,' she said. `Your inviting him has given me a rash all up my leg.' (Here she offered to show me.) But when he did come she was charm itself and the food was halibut cevice. …

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