The Grown-Up Test: Prue Leith

Gemma Calvert / 19 March 2019

The chef, novelist and Bake Off star has just turned 79 but, wonders Gemma Calvert, how old is she in her head?



Train or car?

The train because I work on board and also, because in the old days I used to be a British Rail board member, I get a concession – first class! After I got married two years ago, we went on the Royal Scotsman through the Highlands for five nights. It was really luxurious, an absolutely fantastic honeymoon.

Who is your longest friendship with?

A girl called Jane Cluver. We weren’t at the same school but would meet at tennis matches; then when I went to university in Paris, Jane was in the same lecture as me. We fell into each other’s arms because we were both rather lonely and homesick. Then we started sharing a flat in Paris. We had an amazing time. We liked to party and eat. Jane would come home with this absolutely wonderful steak tartare and I once said ‘We can’t afford this’ and she said ‘I buy it from a tremendously good butcher round the corner, the one with the horse’s head over the door’. She denies this, but it’s true! Horse meat does make – I hate to tell you – very good steak tartare because it’s so lean. Jane’s lived in Canada for years and the last time I went to Toronto (I had a book out so was at the Toronto Literary Festival) I stayed with her and it was exactly like 50 years ago.

When did you last send a text message?

To my son this morning. It said ‘Here are the notes from the meeting we had yesterday with the estate agent’. He has a bit of my house because when my husband died it was all too big so I chopped the house in half and he and his family – he’s got three children – all come down at weekends and for holidays. We thought we’d better find out how long we can afford to go on living here.

When did you last get irritated by some inconsiderate parking?

I don’t do the driving. What I do see is my husband fretting and frothing at people who can’t park. John is a very good driver but he’s extremely impatient at bad drivers and I keep sitting there saying ‘Relax, relax, what does it matter?’. 

When did you last drink too much?

The day before yesterday – my birthday – and the day before that at a party. We had some really good red wine so, of course, we drank it. When I’m really tired I sometimes have a whisky. I suppose it’s a quicker fix!

When and where were you happiest?

Obviously when my first husband died I was really unhappy but I have had a really happy life. I had a happy childhood, I was hopeless at university but enjoyed it enormously; I went to Cape Town University for two years and partied my way through it and didn’t do well at all, then to Paris where I had a lovely time. My career worked, I’ve written books and they’ve sold. I’ve had two really happy marriages and I’ve got lovely kids and the grandchildren are all healthy. I have a perfectly undeserved good life. I don’t claim any merit in being so lucky and happy but I think if you are cheerful and confident and you are expecting things to go well, they might well go well because other people catch your confidence.

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Which decade are you most nostalgic for?

I loved the 1960s. If you say that, people think you were partying all night on the King’s Road and wearing Mary Quant, which I did very little of because I was just starting my food business and worked really hard, so if I went to parties, I’d be flipping the burgers not dancing in the garden. But I did have a lot of fun. My next door neighbours in a mews in Paddington were a pop group called The Hollies, so there were groupies outside singing their songs. I remember The Rolling Stones in the Park and I had a little Mini with dark windows because all the pop stars had dark windows! I bought my first house…. it was all good.

What would you prefer: your youth back or what you have now?

What I have now, while I’m well, healthy, can still get around and it’s not too much agony. Everything’s going so well for me because I’ve had a new lease of life with Bake Off and I got married again two years ago. I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Who would you like to say sorry to?

My dad, who died when I was 21. I was a completely hopeless teenager. I was always partying, then I went to Cape Town University because I thought I wanted to be an actress. I changed my mind and decided to do stage design then I went to architecture school, couldn’t do the maths so I told my father I really needed to go to Paris to learn to speak French properly. So I went to Paris and to the Sorbonne. I want to say sorry for being so self centred and hopeless. I didn’t do well by him. When I got Businesswoman of The Year or we got a Michelin star or when I got a CBE, I always thought, ‘I’d like to tell my father’. ‘You’re not so flaky after all’, I want him to say.

How do you relax?

Reading – I can’t go to sleep without reading a book for 20 minutes. And travelling. In a couple of weeks we’re going to Istanbul and that’s relaxing because I’m away from the telephone and social media.

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What did your parents teach you?

Not to waste stuff. I’m not quite as bad as my mother who was a real war-generation woman and would fold up pieces of brown paper. When she died, there were enough plastic bags to make an island in the middle of the sea. She kept everything and never wasted anything. I’m the queen of leftovers because I can’t bear to throw food away and I mend things if I possibly can.

Naughtiest thing you did at school?

I didn’t so much do it as facilitate it. I was at a girls’ boarding school and one day my brother and some friends from his boarding school conceived the idea that they would break into our school and take the school bell, which hung in a courtyard. In the middle of the night, I crept out of my dormitory, let them in, scuttled back into my bedroom then they got the bell and sunk it in the deep end of the swimming pool. Then there was no bell to wake us up! We never got found out!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

An actress because my mother was an actress but from the age of 11 to 16 I wanted to teach people to ride horses. All I was interested in was horses. I wanted to marry a horse! I’d read about an English woman who’d married her dog because her dog was her everything and I thought ‘That’s a really good idea, I want to marry a horse’. When I told my father, he said ‘You do realise that all your children will be centaurs.’ I thought ‘There’s nothing wrong with that!’

Medicine or alternative medicine?

I believe in drugs. I just want a quick fix so it’s paracetamol or codeine or whatever I can lay my hands on.

Biggest missed opportunity?

I don’t think I have missed any. I tend to say ‘yes’ to too much, then I get overloaded. It would be good to be able to say ‘no’ more often because then I’d have a bit more time.

Exercise? Good diet? Or both?

I do very little exercise but I now have a personal trainer because I realise if I don’t keep my ancient body going… use it or lose it. The one problem with old age is I’ve screwed up my shoulder doing hedging so I can’t do the three things I used to do a lot – tennis, fishing and riding.

A good diet, I certainly have. I don’t know when I last bought or ate a ready meal. Once in a blue moon I’ll eat a Bounty bar and that’s a guilty pleasure. We do eat very well, we probably eat a bit too much so every now and again I say to myself ‘no carbs for a while’ or ‘no alcohol for a while’ just to lose a stone.

Childhood pet?

I had a horse called Laddie. My parents said they wouldn’t buy me a horse because they were too expensive but this horse had a bad foot injury as a foal so for a long time stood on three legs. It became a habit even though he was perfectly fit and nobody would buy him because they thought he had a wonky leg. I finally persuaded my father and we got Laddie for tuppence ha’penny then they discovered the saddle cost more than the horse!

Object you’ve kept from childhood?

A little chair that’s not only from my childhood but my mother’s; it’s like a William Morris deck chair. When I was a child the cover was pink satin with roses, then in the 1960s when I was living in my mews cottage, I had it covered in a Picasso print. It’s always getting upgraded. The chair sits in our hall. I’m very fond of it.

What are the two main lessons life has taught you?

Doggedness because I do think you have to stick at things. People would ask Anthony Trollope ‘How can you write 47 novels?’ and he said that cobblers’ wax was more important than genius, by which he meant that you use cobblers wax to stick your bum to the seat and not get up until you’ve written 5,000 words. My attitude isn’t to be gloomy about what fails, rather to find something that will work. I have also learned that you should trust and believe in people. If you’re honest and straightforward, others will help you.

When did you last use social media?

This morning. I Instagrammed some food. These days publishers want you to have lots of followers so I have to do it. I quite enjoy taking pictures and I love cooking but I would like to not feel that it’s important.

Verdict: Prue is happy with her lot, still game for a party and definitely glass half full. Prue might feel miffed about the physical limitations of ageing but wisely invests in her health. She’s a mere 65 in her head.

The Lost Son, the final book in Prue Leith’s Angelotti Chronicles is published on 11 April. You can buy it on the Saga Bookshop.




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