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

Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson
Nicky Henderson

henderson2 henderson3I wrote this article five years ago. Great to see Nicky Henderson still has the magic touch.

If he were a film star he’d be cast as the strong, silent type: as it is, he’s one of the country’s most respected and successful figures in National Hunt racing. I spent a morning in the wind and rain with trainer Nicky Henderson. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.

When you have 110 horses and 50 stable staff under your care sitting down is a luxury. Those entrusting racehorse trainer Nicky Henderson to deliver include HM Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and JP McManus. Apt then, that Nicky is a bundle of energy, marching forward to greet me at his yard just outside Lambourn, striding off to his all-weather exercise ring and jumping into his Jeep to whizz up to a vantage point from where he can watch his wards, human and equine.

Seemingly impervious to the blustery weather, his blue eyes are inscrutable as he scrutinises his horses. He has rugged good looks but doesn’t seem bothered by appearance. His only adornment is a signet ring bearing his family crest. Hatless, he’s lightly dressed in unbuckled boots, a pair of blue canvas trousers and a waterproof jacket of the kind usually worn by hikers. But mere morals venturing to Seven Barrows in winter should wrap up more warmly – a vest, jumper, tweed jacket and a long waterproof, windproof coat prove just about adequate and within seconds of meeting Nicky I’m mud-spattered despite wearing wellies. This has been one of the wettest winters on record and the weather is causing Nicky, and his owners, enormous disappointment – pools of water lie everywhere and Nicky dubs his all-weather exercise ring ‘the best building we’ve got’.

The gallops at Seven Barrows are fine, but the nation’s racecourses are struggling to put on meetings. When you have favourites peaking for races and owners itching to see their asset placed, cancellations are exasperating.

Seven Barrows straddles the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border and is dotted with Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows From the hilltops on the gallops the only house to be seen for miles is Nicky’s own. The house and yard were built in the mid-1800s and the soil hasn’t been tilled since. At least part of the everyday pleasure of Nicky’s job lies in being outdoors and he’s proud to be the guardian of this landscape.

Though Nicky’s expensive Eton education wasn’t intended to equip him for a successful career in horse training he says with a wry smile: “We all knew where the bookies were.”
He trod a more conventional path initially, following in his father’s footsteps to become a stockbroker. Two years on, having told his father he hated his job, he started riding as a professional jockey – not such a leap as it appears – he’d been an amateur before. His father, Johnny Henderson, was an extraordinary man, whose vision and drive kept Cheltenham Racecourse from being sold for property development. He had been an amateur jockey himself, was a racehorse owners and breeder and he supported his son’s decision.
“He was very good. I was expected to do the other job, but I didn’t want to sit in the City all my life,” says Nicky.
Johnny Henderson saw his son ride 75 winners and become an assistant trainer under the tutelage of the late Fred Winter before making a name for himself as a top trainer in his own right.

“I have three daughters, [Sarah, Tessa and Camilla], I don’t think any of them wants to get into training, though you do get women trainers. If they did, I’d help them,” says Nicky.
Though the youngest rides out for him when she’s home, Nicky has plenty of stable boys and girls working for him. They address Nicky as ‘Guv’nor’ and the rapport between them implies not only great respect, but also warm affection. No barking of orders, he exchanges very few words during his observations, but he knows exactly how each horse is riding. In horseracing circles Nicky is recognised as a bit of a softy, resisting the pressure to send his horses out unless they’re in tip-top condition.
“I can be criticised for it, but when my horses run, they are fit… there’s not a lot of point firing them at the wrong races in the wrong circumstances,” he says.

“Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses”

He later revisits the subject.
“We do have the best owners, which is quite important,” he says and looks embarrassed when I suggest such owners appreciate his handling of their valuable horses or they would go elsewhere for success. “They are the most understanding and the nicest. Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses,” he says.

There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear.

Nicky’s been on the go since 6am, but he hasn’t had breakfast and won’t be having lunch. A single cup of coffee will sustain him through the day.
“I’ve never thought of it before,” he replies when I ask him how he manages to expend so much energy on so little food. There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear. Instead, Nicky hits the phone, resting in a chair for a microsecond, then jumping up and walking around as he talks to a hospitalised jockey, an owner and his assistant trainer. Then he’s discussing nutrition with vet Buffy Shirley-Bevan, trying to find the perfect balance of nutrition for an off-colour horse.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight. You have to make hundreds of decision every day – it’s inevitable there are going to be wrong ones, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.

His office features wall-to-wall photographs of times that went right – horses in winners’ enclosures with their proud owners; horses clearing perfectly Becher’s Brook in the Grand National; bronzes of horses and a wide-screen television for watching race meetings. In Nicky’ words, horse racing is about hours of agony for a moment of glory. Like Olympic athletes, racehorses are highly tuned and their systems work at the extremes of their physical capabilities.
“One of my biggest frustrations is injury,” says Nicky as he’s called out of the office to examine a horse with a cut on its leg that’s not improving.

“I’m no good at doing nothing”

So what does Nicky do to relax?
“We do go on holiday. I go to buy horses in France – that will be our main objective this year. The last 10 years it’s been the place to buy,” he says.
“I didn’t learn much at school but I learnt enough French to be able to have conversations with a French trainer and I got a maths ‘O’ level which keeps me in the office for an hour or so,” he says, cracking a rare smile.
“I do go to Scotland – I’m not good in hot weather and I’m no good at doing nothing. I can’t sit on beaches,” he says.
He used to ride his own horse but says, practically: “It takes up a box and you have to keep it. It doesn’t make sense to have a box with a Dobbin in it.”
Nicky likes fishing and shooting (although the season clashes with National Hunt racing) and has been known to hit the odd round of golf. He enjoys eating out, but the pleasure comes from the company, not from the food. His passion and his life-blood are in the training.
“Everybody who does it is mad. We all stick together. It’s good fun around here,” he says, adding that without the fun there would be no point doing it.
Can Nicky see himself continuing until he’s too infirm to stand outside in all weathers or will be able, one day, to retire and relax?
“I haven’t thought about it. It depends how long I last. You last as long as anybody wants you to keep going. If things go badly for a couple of years people soon forget you,” he says. (Nicky needn’t worry, a quick check of the next day’s results shows that he had two winners at Ascot.)
“You only give this sort of thing up when you’re too decrepit to do it,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards”

We go outside again and clamber into the battered old Jeep; it’s filthy inside and houses a diary, notebook, two pairs of binoculars and a pair of warm gloves that Nicky shows no sign of putting on. We’re heading back up the hill to watch the final runs of the day. “I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards,” he says, surveying the landscape.

Such stark beauty could move the most dispassionate man and as another of his horses thunders past, tail flowing, sinews straining and nostrils flaring, Nicky tells me it cost £75,000 as a six-month-old and is due a win. His face is alight with the thrill of watching it gallop.
The gods can spit fire and spout rain up here, but it’s clear that Nicky Henderson is in his element. At one with nature, the closest he can get to heaven on earth – and that’s without the winning, or maybe, it’s part of the reason for it.

[Written for Oxfordshire Life magazine to highlight Lambourn Open Day on March 21 2008. It’s a unique opportunity for members of the public to see the racehorses and meet the trainers.]

Food Fraud v Food Fairness and Our Recipe for Disaster

I’ve found myself being thought of as something of a food writer in the time I’ve been a journalist. This may hark back to my days as editor of the Eastern Daily Press Norfolk magazine and its associated food awards, but I’m not a food expert in the way that Mary Kemp, or Vanessa Scott or Ian McAndrew can justly claim to be, I’m a food enthusiast.

As part of my latest employment role, I manage a magazine entitled RECOVERY for the insolvency practitioners’ membership group R3. This month, as chance would have it, one of the articles examines the notion that food producers are being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy as a result of natural disasters. Too much rain, or too little and the resulting knock-on effects, for example. But a phrase from expert Duncan Swift has been echoing since I read it: “I expect an increase in the incidence of ‘food frauds’ in the supply chain,” he wrote, more than a month ago.

With such great pressure on food producers and processors to keep their prices low, battling rising costs on top is a recipe for disaster. Often losing the family business also means losing the family home, Duncan warns as he looks at all the factors in his article.

The news that crooks have targeted our already fragile food economy to make a quick buck just isn’t a laughing matter. Facebook and Twitter are alive with jokes and witticisms about the discovery of horsemeat in beef products but I’m afraid I can’t find even gallows humour funny when it comes to such food fraud, I just feel very sad for all those farmers and food producers who are struggling to bring us the best they can, working out costs and margins so they can make a living, without breaking the bank or doing harm to the environment they are guardians to. Can’t we do them a favour and be prepared to spend a little more on our food so they can keep a roof over their heads while maintaining good conditions for their livestock? The race for the cheapest burger, or the best value veg isn’t the way to go.

The search for Gt Aunt Nica

RothschildHannah

This article first appeared in Cotswold Life December 2012

The fates of those blessed or cursed with wealth and fame have always enthralled and entertained – and provided headlines and schadenfreude when it all goes horribly wrong. Sandra Kessell talks to Hannah Rothschild about her book The Baroness.

It’s a fair walk between Waddesdon Manor’s car park and the house itself and today I have enough time to drink in all the fabulousness of the French Chateau-style building, the perfectly manicured lawns dotted with contemporary sculpture, the precisely planned floral displays and the coach loads of visitors ambling along the raked gravel paths.

I’m here to interview writer and film director Hannah Rothschild, the eldest of Jacob, Lord Rothschild’s daughters, and to hear of her fascination with her Great-Aunt Nica, a rebellious Rothschild who broke ranks to live among radical musicians at the heart of the bebop jazz scene.

In Nica’s youth this extraordinary family home was a playground for the rich and famous. She was brought up in similar luxury at nearby Tring Park, one of several Rothschild houses built around Aylesbury Vale and filled with treasures ranging from the gorgeous to the downright bizarre. At Waddesdon, priceless Sèvres porcelain, clocks and artworks were amassed, while at Tring, weird, wonderful animals were gathered either alive to populate the grounds or dead to be to stuffed or mounted and preserved in glass cases.

Today, Waddesdon Manor is in the hands of the National Trust, though the Rothschilds still play a major role in its management. Hannah is deep in conversation with one of the back-room staff when I arrive, too early, and guessing from my notebook that I’m her next appointment, she excuses herself momentarily to introduce herself and ask if I’d like a coffee while I’m waiting. Her easy manner and solicitude don’t come as a surprise. In my experience, people in Hannah’s position make pleasant interviewees.

According to Nica’s sister, the great scientist and ecologist Miriam Rothschild, our lives are shaped by genetics and chromosomes long before we are born. It was Miriam’s exasperation with Hannah that piqued her voyage of discovery into their forebears’ history.

“Nica seemed to have escaped,” explains Hannah. “I got more and more interested by her, I was making films and programmes for BBC Arts and I would see her when I went backwards and forward to America and it seemed the films were less interesting than she was.”

Then suddenly, Great-Aunt Nica died. Hannah thought she had missed her opportunity, then discovered she could still build a relationship, of sorts. She made a radio programme and a TV documentary about Nica, but feeling she had scratched only the surface of her life, and with stacks of material to explore and record, she started writing a book.

Discretion and secrecy are Rothschild watchwords, so when word of the book got out, the wider family viewed Hannah’s intentions with suspicion. They thought there were more worthy Rothschilds to write about.

“The family weren’t universally thrilled by this – nobody was,” says Hannah.

So what was her father’s viewpoint?

“He said, ‘Do you think you really need to do this?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ And after that, he never asked again. He was very supportive,” says Hannah. “Having raised the question he then accepted the idea.”

Hannah’s touching and candid account conjures up such well-drawn characters you feel as helpless as if you were watching King Lear repel his favourite daughter and divide his kingdom. As you read, pre-conceptions dissolve. Some aspects of Nica’s life were all-too-well documented but what lay underneath was unexplored or had been glossed over. So did the real Nica grow on Hannah as incomprehensible actions became understood?

“Yes,” says Hannah emphatically. “When I said I had a relationship with her it was rather like the cycles one goes through with friends, you know, love, and irritation and frustration and love again, I went through very similar things with Nica. For me, when I found out that she had decided not to live with her children, I got very upset with her… I felt disappointed in that decision.” But she realised in divorce cases of that era the father was always given priority over the mother, so Nica would have been unlikely to get custody, even if she’d fought for it.

Hannah delved into Rothschild history to start her story. Then progressed to Nica’s earliest years.

Named after a moth by her entomology-obsessed father Charles – Nica – full name, Kathleen Annie Pannonica – was the youngest of four children. Where her eldest sister and brother put their privileged but emotionally constrained childhoods behind them and found meaning, recognition and gainful employment through science, Nica lived her young adult life as a social butterfly, revelling in glamorous high society, marrying a handsome European Baron, flying her own plane, driving fast cars and generally following a path, if not exactly expected of her, then not entirely alien to her class.

During the Second World War Nica’s brother Victor was head of a small department at MI5 and her sister Miriam joined Alan Turing’s decoders at Bletchley Park.

Nica, whose French husband Baron Jules de Koenigswarter had settled his family in Normandy, remained with their children at their chateau, escaping to English safety just in time to avoid the horrors of the Nazi regime. Her married name and history caused distrust in England, but determined to help the war effort, she followed her husband’s lead, joined the Free French Army and smuggled herself on to a flight bound for Africa, repeatedly getting out of scrapes to put herself back on the front line.

It was said that when Nica heard ‘Round Midnight’ after the war, her world shifted on its axis. She left children, husband and scandal in her wake as she pursued and befriended the New York musicians who made it.

Her longest, closest and most personal friendship – there’s no evidence to suggest it was anything more intimate, despite speculation – was with the avant-garde pianist and jazz composer Thelonious Monk.

A giant of a man, both physically and in terms of his contribution to modern music, he wrote songs about and for Nica and she, in turn, adored and supported him, his wife, friends and family financially and in just about any other way she could. While he lurched from mental health crisis to fame and ultimately legendary status, she went into a tail spin, falling from the highest social echelons to a life of squalor and ill ease.

In the Fifties she sheltered the great jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker when he was sick. He repaid her by dying in her hotel suite. She later insisted drugs found in her car were hers, sparing her less well-connected musician friends for whom a conviction would have meant suspension of their professional licences. She knew the trials of being a misunderstood white, upper-class Jewish heiress making international headlines were as nothing to being black, gifted and breadline poor in colour-conscious 1950s America. But she also knew the fallout would affect her family. An image of her at the time of her arrest shows not a devil-may-care socialite but a frightened and sick to the heart mother and sister aware she was about to inflict pain on her loved ones.

What emerges in The Baroness, The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, is an affectionate portrait of an exasperating, naïve, brave and principled woman – an absurdity of contradictions, a mix of dog-like devotion and reckless  behaviour. Fiercely private, she drove the flashiest, look-at-me, open-top Bentley in New York. The girl who had spent her childhood dressed in pristine white lace living in houses of sumptuous luxury ended her dotage in a small apartment, surrounded by cats that ripped everything to shreds and left her home stinking. Born into wealth and possession beyond most people’s wildest imaginings and at her death worth $750,000, in her latter years she lived on a shoestring, satisfied by the ephemeral nature of music.

The Baroness is an oeuvre that has taken 20 years of research to complete, so now it’s done, does Hannah have another biographical project in mind? Is another family member sitting in her sights?

Hannah shakes her head and laughs. Her next project will be a work of fiction, she says.

Then she’s checking the time and working out whether she can show me the Manor’s latest exhibition before she has to honour another appointment with Candida Lycett Green to talk about a charity. We’ve over-run and can’t squeeze out another minute, and off she dashes, blonde hair flying, gold pendant swinging, duty and genes at her heels.

The Baroness, The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, by Hannah Rothschild is published by Virago.

To find out more go to www.thejazzbaroness.co.uk or http://www.hannahrothschild.com

Cotswold Life December 2012 The Jazz Baroness

In praise of the annual round robin family newsletter

It may be unfashionable to say so, but I like round robin Christmas letters. Not that I write one, you understand, but I do so love to receive them.

Lynne Truss’s six-part radio sketch, aired on Radio 4 in the run-up to the festive season, was a poke at proud parents who write gazettes detailing every last cough of their offspring’s year. She suggested replies ranging from the ironic sneer to the openly deranged communiqué to counter their authors’ enthusiasm and discourage unwanted repeat missives next year.

I’d feel cheated if I didn’t get half-a-dozen or so such letters before Christmas Day.

If you move house several times following a career you make new circles of friends around the country, or even the world, but that doesn’t mean the old friends should be forgotten. There are too few hours in the day, days in the year, to see them all, so an annual round-up of a year’s events helps me follow the friends I made at NCT classes; the friends I made when our children (now grown-up) went to nursery together whom I no longer see.

“We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?”

I like to hear that Catherine has just been on tour with her University of Cambridge jazz group and Ashley is riding for Paul Schockemöhle. That Matt and Helen (an old schoolfriend) have bought a tandem and are cycling the 38 miles return into central London on a regular basis. I want to know that the family I once lift-shared the school run with, who have had a bumpy year, are getting over cancer (her) and a period of redundancy (him). There’s the odd boast, it’s true “We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?” – but I don’t feel put out or envious, any more than I need to retaliate by penning a barbed reply.

Some friends are so aware that the round robin is now frowned upon that they open their letter with an apology and an invitation to let them know if it’s too boring and I wish to ‘opt out’ of future years’ missives.

I don’t. Facebook isn’t the same, Twitter can only reveal so much in Tweet and the telephone is too limiting. Send me a printed out (or even e-mailed) annual update and make me smile. Who knows, I might even compose one myself next year.

You can listen to Lynne Truss’s radio programmes here.

Reap the rewards of being a media-savvy business

I’m often asked to write about small businesses but I’m amazed at the contrast between those who are media savvy and ready for a journalist’s call and those who miss out on free coverage because they’re ill-prepared.

The very best are ahead of the game, they’re already using Twitter and Facebook and blogging, letting people know what they do on a regular basis. They’re not chatting inanely or describing their lunch – though this too could prove riveting if they’re a food producer – but even a few lines describing what’s planned for the day can be interesting and build up a loyal following. One of the very best proponents I’ve come across is Sarah Pettegree of Bray’s Cottage pork pies.

The worst, sad to say, don’t answer their telephone or pick up messages or they make it clear they’re uncomfortable talking to the press even when I do get through. I’ve written food articles for a coffee table book, for handbooks, magazines and guides, I’ve written business articles for newspapers and produced online features. I know, it’s the tail end of the holidays and everyone deserves a break from their year-round job, but tailor-made marketing opportunities to targeted audiences don’t land in your lap every day – and a piece of well-written editorial in a well-read publication can represent the equivalent of hundreds of pounds-worth of advertising.

So here are my thoughts about how to claim your free coverage and make sure you don’t miss out when a chance arises.

  • Check your voicemail regularly and call back promptly if you want to be included in a feature. Journalists on daily papers often work to the tightest deadlines and will swiftly move on if you don’t get back to them. If you’re helpful and co-operative you could be top of their list next time they need a quick response.
  • Get a website set up – even if it’s just a front page. Make sure it’s optimised for search engines – it can make the difference between someone finding you and being able to contact you – or not. Don’t let your domain name expire – it’s so frustrating to be directed to a site, only to find nothing there.
  • Commission a good photographer to take pictures of your products and key members of your staff and/or family – including you. Make sure the photographer knows you want permissions to use the results for all your marketing and media purposes. Get a shot of your shopfront or premises as well. If your budget is too tight for professional images get a relative, friend or employee with a good eye to do the honours. A picture provides a focal point for an article – and if your product (or your face) is featured it will be the visual prompt to the reader who wants to buy.
  • Learn how to attach images to an email at maximum resolution (you’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to do this, which always gives me a sinking feeling as I attempt an over-the-phone instant lesson).
  • Consider starting a blog, using Twitter and/or facebook. Keep this going with regular updates.
  • Nominate a family or staff member who’s both knowledgeable and comfortable when talking to the press if you don’t like promoting your own business.
  • Ask a specialist marketing company to do the job for you for an annual fee. The best are worth their cost several times over.
  • Do all of the above and you’ll become known as the first port of call to media circles when they want to talk to someone about your line of business.

Christmas in summertime

The summer holidays are almost over, the older children have dates for their return to University, school sites have been checked for the start of term and the last of the sunshine is doing its best to warm the river. Down the track, foresters are clearing the fallen chestnut tree robbing the most adventurous local youngsters of this summer’s playground and makeshift bridge across the water. The buzz and whine of a chainsaw is an interruption to the dreamy quiet in our corner of the world, but it’s a change from the all-night harvesting and baling that’s been going on in the surrounding fields for the last couple of weeks.

Not for the first time, I find myself spending the last summer days writing about Christmas food. Today I’m turning my mind to the groaning table, with particular reference to artisan cheeses and their accompaniments. Last year I learnt the word tracklements when I interviewed a local food producer for a Christmas feature – what lies ahead this year? Tomorrow morning, I’ll start an article about the Great British Breakfast before moving on, in the afternoon, to an interview with a Canadian health professional. My list of things to write includes delving into the consequences of a particular heart condition. I’ve yet to find an association between these commissions but they say variety is the spice of life and freelance writing life is nothing if not varied if you want to make it pay.