Character interview – Colin Dexter’s Guilty Secret

Colin Dexter’s guilty secret.

Sandra Fraser

…I wrote this feature in 2007 – it’s still one of my favourites.

He feels the gods have smiled on him and is one of the world’s best-read crime writers. But Colin Dexter is hiding a guilty secret – he confessed all to Sandra Fraser.

Crime writer Colin Dexter doesn’t appear to be a man to make startling revelations. Considered statements, perhaps, but not breathtaking admissions with the potential to leave his Oxford neighbours reeling. He’s saved the thrill of exposé for readers of his books. Not that he is planning to resurrect his much-loved creation, Inspector Morse – he is adamant that he never will. He doesn’t need to confess that he is directly, or indirectly, responsible for making Oxford the murder capital of Europe – that fact has done tourism no harm – Morse fans flock to Oxford and his Lincolnshire-born creator is a freeman of the city…

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All is quiet… 

It’s not always easy to find a new angle for a feature on a best-loved Cotswold town. Burford’s beautiful buildings and picturesque streets feature in many magazines and on websites, but a quick look around gave me the inspiration for a nativity trail. It’s reproduced in the link below if you missed it. Happy Twelfth Night!

cots-life-dec-16-burford-nativity

©Cotswold Life December 2016

 

Sophie Grigson’s kitchen

Sophie Grigson
Sophie Grigson portrait by Mark Fairhurst.

She’s a self-confessed cook rather than a chef and champions local food production.

Sophie Grigson explains what’s going on in her kitchen.

COOK Sophie Grigson has a personal sense of style more in keeping with an Eighties pop star than a chef. With her spiky haircut, dangly earrings and elfin features she could so easily have bagged a record deal or presented the cult programme The Tube during that era, you can’t help but feel as you talk to her.
Her lovely Oxfordshire farmhouse also has a slightly whacky feel. There’s the new dog, Ben, recently adopted, who currently has to be kept in one side of it while the cat, Spice, rather put out by the usurper, has taken refuge in the kitchen. The door between Ben’s and Spice’s territories remains firmly closed and it’s not clear, if it came to a bun fight, which pet would come off the victor.

Sophie is all smiles, welcome and hand waves, excusing the chaos and ushering me into the most obvious room for this interview the kitchen – or rather, Spice’s space.
It’s just the kind of kitchen you would expect Sophie to have. Not for her the pristine pans gleaming on a rack beside polished granite work surfaces. Instead, it’s a used, lived in, experimented in, sat in, chatted in creative kitchen. It was hand built by a local joiner and has a range down one end, while jars, bottles and packets line shelves all over the walls. The windows frame views over the valley beyond and the sills are packed with kitchen paraphernalia, including a stylish hand-juicer, which, I note, has dust all over it.
“I take it that’s not used much,” I venture.
Sophie, busy creating coffee for us, is unabashed as she replies that it looks good, which is why it won its place in her kitchen.
Sophie herself has lived an interesting life. Her late mother Jane Grigson was a highly acclaimed author, translator and one of the pioneers of the Sixties culinary revolution and her father Geoffrey Grigson was a poet and critic. Hardly surprisingly, Sophie has a string of books to her name and is a regular contributor to Waitrose Magazine. Easy to talk to and passionate about food, she regularly pops up on hit TV cookery shows and spent the run-up to Christmas cooking in Sri Lanka. She was one of the judges of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme Food and Farming awards and uses her not inconsiderable influence and profile to champion local food producers, farmers’ markets and small food-related businesses. Indeed, it was at a local food producers’ festival that I first met her.

Such a good cooking pedigree

With so many strings to her bow, so many demands on her time, so many accomplishments and such a good cooking pedigree, it’s refreshing, if a little surprising, to her that she was slightly daunted on her Sri Lankan trip to discover she was cooking for around 50 guests.
“I’m a cook, not a chef,” she says, adding in the same breath that she really enjoyed the experience. “It made me realise how hard chefs work every day, especially in that heat. In the course of preparation we had several power cuts, the fuse box went up in flames and not all the staff spoke English – but we got it done on time and it was a really good evening,” she says.
I ask her if her children can cook and she assures me that they can, a bit, though se reveals that they think what Mum does is a bit boring.
“They can both cook their favourite dishes,” she says. Favourite means a Thai coconut vegetable and fish noodle soup and pasta with tomato sauce. They’ve also been known to supply peanut butter brownies to local fundraising markets.
“They get the idea and that’s good,” says Sophie.

“It’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use.”

Living with one foot in Oxford and the other in the countryside, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sophie is so passionate about supporting local food producers and retailers.
“I think there are issues that we do need to address… I think it’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use,” she says.
“We are seeing a lot of changes in attitudes to food production. You can have a green hotel, for example, without compromising on quality; in fact by raising your quality. Hotels and restaurants tapping into local food producers get lots of things, not just fresh produce. They can have more say and ask local people to make things for them” she says. And there are so many human interest stories behind the food we eat.”

Community and rapport

Sophie is keen that we should be aware of what is available at farmers’ markets and in farm shops. She also points out that shopping regularly that way establishes a sense of community and rapport between buyer and seller or producer.
Other cooks are also lending their weight and voices to highlighting the way we produce food – recent programmes with Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about the lives of British-reared chickens have had an impact on supermarkets and customers.
“The demand for free range chickens has gone up, which is also good for British producers – it’s very exciting,” says Sophie, pointing out that the ultimate aim was to improve the way that chickens were raised.
“Good for Channel 4 for being brave enough to do that. When I first started appearing on television programmes 15 or 16 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that sort of thing,” she says.
Sophie would like to do a series on meat and follow the progress and lives of beef cattle, because she feels that if we are going to eat meat we should know the process of getting it on to our plates.
“I love meat, as long as I know it has had a good life,” she says.
So, food apart, how does Sophie spend her time?
“I do a lot with the children. I like reading novels. I’ve been reading a Barbara Trapido book – I really enjoy her novels. I had this strange experience of sitting in bed one night, reading one of her books and there was my name. It was a conversation someone was having – it felt lovely!” says Sophie, adding that she has been a volunteer at Oxford Literary Festival. She enjoys amateur dramatics, recently playing the fairy godmother in her local village panto and taking part in the The Vagina Monologues in Abingdon.
Sophie makes regular visits to France and loves the way the French have remained so connected to their food production. She would like to travel more, especially if she could combine her journeys with discovering food. She was enchanted by Sri Lanka and would like to travel through South America.

“One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”

“I’d love to take six months out and go from top to bottom, or the other way round,” says Sophie. “One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”
It’s a language that Sophie has proved fluent in and our local food producers are lucky to have such an eloquent and dedicated champion for their cause. She’s not just another personality dreaming up recipes in the kitchen. Sophie’s choice to be hands-on in the food world is Oxfordshire’s – and the nation’s – gain.

This interview first appeared in Oxfordshire Life magazine on June 2008 under my former name, Sandra Fraser. ©SandraKessell
Image ©Mark Fairhurst

The monuments men (and the people who made them)

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk
Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

Summer has drawn to an end and I’m reminded of a trip H & I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, followed by lunch in the splendid Dining Room restaurant and a wander around the neighbouring Museum of the History of Science. Having been a troublesome child, H has turned into an interesting and interested teenager. We haven’t seen the film The Monuments Men, but getting a 16-y-o’s take on the collection of relics makes me realise how differently this generation sees the world (again). Surprisingly, H is not of the ‘We should return them to their original owners’ school (George Clooney on the Elgin Marbles) or in the ‘We should destroy them, they’re not PC’ camp (Prince William on ivory) but ‘I can’t really see the point of viewing such things out of context.’

Imagine, he says, taking a brick from a modern London landmark building and carefully placing it in a case in a city in X number of years, whereupon an endless number of people file past it in wonder evermore.

Is it because in times past that we understood there could be no hope of going to see Egyptian treasures in situ that my generation considered museums an interesting place to visit? Back in 1972 schoolchildren had the Pharaohs drummed into them for what seemed like endless lessons, when the British Museum hosted a Treasures of (I can still spell it) Tutankhamun exhibition. London was as remote to me, as a small child in Norfolk, as Egypt would have been to all the flapper girls excited into Tut fever by Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb in the Twenties. The proximity to a real archaeological site was the reason that 35,000 people queued around the block on the first day to see the ruins of the Temple of Mithras unearthed in London 50 years ago. Unless you were privileged, driven and determined and could overcome the cost, dangers and health hazards associated with pursuing your passion, (let alone had the time to spend on such journeys) a bit of earth and a few low walls in a giant hole in the ground around the corner from your workplace were the best you could hope for back then.

But H’s dismissive comments about why you’d bring a bit of what you’d seen back to your homeland got me thinking. Was that so your fellow countrymen could see something of the fascinating artefacts they would never otherwise see – a bit of education for the masses –or was it a case of showing off? A spot of I’ve got something you’ll never have or was it genuinely to educate the poor and worthy? Or else was it a compulsive acquisitional gene indulging in a spot of one-upmanship?

The collectors, Pitt Rivers and Ashmole, the Rothschilds, The Ephrussis, the Sainsburys and many more – were they thinking how future generations would come, ooh and aah and gaze in awe that anyone could have made so much effort over a tiny statuette? Or would they have looked at the cynical 16-year-old and pitied the poor people?

In his defence, my son doesn’t have many foreign holidays, but a few summers ago he visited Pompeii with his father and stepmother, and last year came to Venice with his stepfather and me. What surprised us was the honest pleasure he took from seeing the churches, palazzos and piazzas and even the art in situ. I’ve recommended that his next trip is to Turkey for sheer mind-blowing quantity and quality of treasures. My first visit to the Topkapi Palace 30 or more years ago was like stepping into a fairytale world. Not only could you see the caskets and collections of the Ottoman sultans, you could stand alongside them, since so few were behind glass and so many were packed into the displays. My aunt said the vaults were packed to the gunnels, and for that reason the less famous of the exhibits were rotated. During that holiday I watched horrified in the Blue Mosque as visitors made souvenirs of the miniature mosaic tiles that formed the Christ and Mary images on the walls. One week later, by contrast, at the Jorvik Museum in York, I sedately and reverently shuffled past the Coppergate Helmet, hermetically sealed in a glass case complete with a hygrometer. My Turkish uncle laughed when I complained about the Turks’ casual approach to their treasures and said that Turkish civilisation was so old, people could dig up antiquities in their gardens while trying to plant their vegetables. Which went some way to explaining their casual approach to anything less than the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Times had changed when I took a return visit to the Topkapi more recently. Far from being ignored as we reached out to touch ancient clocks, let alone picked tiles off the walls, we were corralled and shuffled along past display cabinets in a manner befitting of treasures of such rarity and worth. Part of my thought it was a shame that the Western approach had crossed the Golden Horn.

Which brings me back how worthwhile H’s generation will consider the behind-glass viewing encounter. Virtual experience in glorious colour is nearly as good as being able to dig it up for oneself. It’s just unfortunate the technology wasn’t available when the treasure seekers were despoiling other people’s countries in their quests to bring home a bit of loot or rescue a nation’s unique heritage from ruin (their thoughts, not mine). But then again, so many poor people have despoiled – and sold on – their own country’s artefacts and heritage to the collectors, it does make you wonder who is in the wrong. Or maybe the lack of reverence for such items had more to do with the fact that they considered old pots and cracked helmets a bit of a hindrance when they had mouths to feed and veggies to grow.

Why should e-readers be treated as second class?

I’m rarely moved to write reviews these days but having loved Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale for its setting, characters and evocative writing, the experience was marred by the poorly proofread copy. It jars when you have to stop midflow to check whether you should be reading ‘filing’ or ‘filling’ or when wordsareruntogether so you have to do a double take. It takes you out of the world you and the author have created together, that intimate setting or quiet haven. It’s even more annoying when you’re reading, not a cheap imprint or self published novel, (when typos and literals are understandable and more forgivable, if no less noticeable) but one promoted through a large publishing house, written by a well-respected author, that was downloaded at the cost of £4.99. I buy e-books because I just don’t have any more shelf space but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to sacrifice quality for slapdash. Come on HarperCollins, honour your readers, honour your authors, honour your good name and fine publishing traditions – proofread your e-imprints to the same standards as your hard copy prints.

An afternoon at Windmill Hill

SP_A0140James finally found a free Friday afternoon this month to visit the artworks and architecture at Windmill Hill, so I’ve retrieved this blogpost from the archive, written on a windswept and wet opening day.

Sandra Kessell

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a sneaky preview of the latest attraction at Waddesdon Manor. Not, as you might think, a new piece of art bought by the renowned collector Jacob Rothschild, whose family built the manor – but instead a glorious new building. Designed by Stephen Marshall Architects, the cynical might suggest that such a breathtaking location and, presumably, budget, ought to bring out the best in any architect worth his salt, but whatever your viewpoint – inside, outside, aesthetic, architectural, structural – it is a triumph of the kind only a love of the English landscape, combined with skill and vision, can create.

Add to its already charmed pedigree items from Lord Rothschild’s modern art collection and the fact it will be open to the public and available for hire and you can see why the art world, architectural…

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The Mummies Return

In celebration of Rick Mather’s architecture and his visionary work on The Ashmolean, I’m reblogging this: The Mummies Return

Sandra Kessell

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up…

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Before Boris Johnson was Mayor of London he was MP for the constituency of Henley, which included Thame, We got used to bumping into Boris in supermarket aisles, village fetes and of hearing tales of his eccentric Christmas gift buying from shopkeepers. He’s back in the news (again) – so I’ve retrieved this from my archives. Pictures by the talented Mr Mark Fairhurst.

Sandra Kessell

This article first appeared in Oxfordshire Life in March 2007

He’s the eccentric Conservative Member of Parliament for Henley, lives near Thame and offers odd shopping tips. How much of the real Boris Johnson do we know? Sandra Fraser’s still not sure…

Everyone has an opinion about that Boris Johnson, it seems. Whether it’s the Mummies in the playground – (“He’s rather shorter in real life than he appears on TV, isn’t he?” “Is he very funny?”) – or the school secretary – (“He’s as mad as a box of frogs…”). And this, from a very discerning friend – “He has the kind of looks that make you want to mother him.”

Ah, Boris. All that fluffing and stalling – and so self-effacing when I tell him people warm to him.

“Do they? Well it’s sweet of you to say so… really? Good.”

When he arrives – late – for…

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Less Tiger Mum, more Lioness: less Helicopter Parent, more Safety Net Provider

“They’ve f***ed it up, your mum and dad, they didn’t mean to, but they did.”*

My colleague, Chris P, more of whom later, crosses his arms when he speaks to me. I think he sees me as something of a Tiger Mum, that apparently dreadful kind of parent who pushes her kids into doing things they don’t want to do, but which she believes they ought to have accomplished. As if any pushing of my children (opinionated beings who can stick up for themselves, all three of them) ever had any real effect. I gave up efforts to put my daughter into dresses when she was three, after a monster tantrum (hers) left us both exhausted and tearful, eyeing each other up from opposite corners of the room, the hated floral thing discarded on the floor. She does girlie now, but she ain’t about flounces, or flouncing.

My youngest son has had serious attitude since the terrible twos blended into the awful tweens. Funnily enough, as an older teenager, he’s happier in his skin. He’s no less uncompromising in his outlook (his headmaster once told me H was the most arrogant boy he had ever come across, though that was before H was found to be dyslexic and using his brains to mask his difficulties), but frankly, I’d hate him to be a doormat and you should never mistake the silence of a stiff upper lip and self control for mute-faced, mulish self-importance. Even my eldest son, a model of apparent calm and conformity, is no pushover. I’ve never forgotten seeing him in the First XV’s crunch match of the season, standing nose-to-nose with another prop on the rugby field, (of course, I wanted to handbag his opponent, what mum wouldn’t?) or watching him setting himself squarely to face me to tell me he wasn’t going to go to university, it just wasn’t for him.

Was I disappointed? Yes, a bit. Did I accept his decision? Well, of course, just as I accepted said daughter’s decision to enter medicine rather than music (she’s a cracking little singer and trumpeter and I really thought she could make a career of it). Did I facilitate T’s move in with his girlfriend at the tender age of 19 in a city 170 miles away? Erm – yes. Though I didn’t want him to go, and I miss him daily, that’s where A is at uni and I recognise all birds fly the nest some day, in their own way.

So why did I prickle at Chris P’s latest WordPress posting about helicopter parents and his mention of The Ride of the Valkyries? Whilst I don’t see myself as either, if I were, I probably wouldn’t recognise the description and certainly wouldn’t apologise. But I will admit to being a parent who watches her kids’ trapeze acts and high-wire walking feats while holding a safety net out underneath. Do I expect them to fall? Nope. But if they do, I hope they’ll bounce. Do I have a life of my own? You’d better believe it.

Chris writes about a survey conducted with students in which they were asked if their mothers ever gave them careers advice. A whopping 70 per cent said yes, they had. But I’d have been more surprised if that 70 per cent said they slavishly followed the advice given. Allowing students to profit from 25-plus years’ more wisdom is just the first part of letting them go. The only way I could really get my kids to listen to me was to wait until we were driving to or from one of the many out-of- or after-school events they had signed themselves (and as a consequence, me) up to and then give them the benefit of my opinion. And hearing advice is not adhering to it.

Then there’s the apparent wrong-headedness of parents taking their kids to university open days and the theory that this is about control – or helicopter hovering. Hello? Part of me wants to point out that having spent years taking my kids to Tumble Tots and swimming lessons; standing outside music rooms while they scratched and parped noisily and tunelessly at instruments; sitting in concert halls listening to the excruciating awfulness of other people’s darlings’ performances; driving across countryside to spend H-O-U-R-S at cricket matches and standing on rugby touchlines freezing on Sunday mornings, when I could have been in bed with a good book; picking their nursery, primary and junior schools with care and agonising over their senior school education, I was never going to stop being interested in a choice of university. The other part wants to add, I didn’t go to all my daughter’s options, I divvied up the duties with other parents. We lift shared or loaded the car with five other girls and another mum so we had company while the teens did their own thing. My husband has done the same with his children (we have six between us) as they’ve made the transition from schoolchild to semi-supporting student.

Which brings me to another aspect about the apparent interference of parents in children’s lives. When my great-uncle was 17 he was running messages for the Secret Army, when my parents were 17 they were both in the RAF. At 17 and in sixth form I could drive my parents’ cars (insurance and petrol were cheap back then) and by the time I was 19 I had my own car (paid for out of my savings). At 23 I had my own flat, and a mortgage, which I paid alone, on a junior reporter’s salary. I’d been to college (on a full grant, so I was debt-free) and if I had to live on Coco-Pops for a few days at the end of the month to get me to the next payday it was worth it for the independence.

If, as a society, we have infantalised our offspring and made them more and more dependent on us for financial support, for living allowances, for uni fees and for help on to the housing ladder, if we’ve priced them off the roads, if we’ve cut down on the number of vacancies available because we’re working longer and expecting more and we’ve F-ed up the economy, isn’t it a bit rich to turn round and complain they’re not independent or not self-reliant enough and that we as parents interfere and take too close an interest in their job searches?

I love that my own children are making lives of their own, that T works and studies (he’s embarked on an OU course) and that F is doing well in her second year of med school, that my stepson’s only phone calls home are to ask his designer dad for advice about a design project difficulty (surprise – Dad knows what he’s talking about!) and if as a consequence I don’t see them above once a term between holidays that’s the price I feel I have to pay for their confidence. I’m too lazy to have been a Tiger Mum and my children too secure to have allowed me to be, but I will confess to being a lioness mother – fiercely protective when needed, ready to fight to the death on their behalf, but happy to let them roam the plains if they want to.

My colleague and boss, Chris P, is a careers expert of many years’ standing. He has heard complaints from graduate recruiters that they’re being telephoned by parents seeking more detailed information about the rejection of their offspring and he offers a tip to the parents about how that makes their (adult) child look. Well here’s a retort to recruiters – if you’ve rejected someone and given them no feedback you have no right to an opinion on their parents and frankly, their parents, if they’re ringing you on their offspring’s behalf, don’t care what you think of their interference, anyway. The interview candidates might be in bits about their perceived failure, but parents’ only concern is that their offspring, having been rejected, gain something from the experience and make a better fist of an interview or assessment centre next time around. Only that way can they take a step further along the road to real independence and their parents can let them go with a sigh of relief.

And as for helicopter parents – successful child-rearing isn’t about propellers and creating a down-draught, it’s about giving your child wings and watching them fly – however risky that looks from your lofty – or lowly – level.

You can read Chris’s blog here and learn more about the company we work for, which is dedicated to finding graduates good jobs.

*With apologies to Philip Larkin