An interview with Fern Britton

I wrote this article back in 2011 and have been hosting a link to it from my site. However, I noticed it’s lost its punctuation and formatting – so here’s the original, along with links to  Iain Rennie Hospices at Home, now known as Rennie Grove, the charity that prompted Fern to grant the interview in the first place.

As she launches a new Chilterns cycle challenge, Fern Britton talks about padded saddles, Strictly Come Dancing Christmas and THAT gastric band…

First things first. Up close and personal, Fern Britton looks even better in the flesh than she does on the television.
She parks her modest little run-around, steps out into the rain and sashays into the Iain Rennie charity office in Chalfont St Giles, close to her home, the epitome of a yummy mummy in her plain tube dress, waist-clincher belt, flat pixie boots and trendy leather jacket. Her only jewellery is a ruby-winged heart necklace and a discreet watch – no rings, no bracelets, not even earrings.
A different kind of person might have dashed into the loo before facing a camera and interviews – not Fern. Clearly her decision to step down from This Morning, the hugely popular daytime show she hosted for more than 10 years, suits her. What hasn’t changed is the megawatt smile familiar from a thousand TV sofa chat close-ups and not a few paparazzi snaps. She greets the fundraisers in the office like old friends and they, in turn, congratulate her on her appearance, because despite the rained-on hair and today’s gruelling schedule she looks sassy and she’s glowing with vitality.

It’s the make-up from Strictly Come Dancing, she says, without a trace of false modesty. She’s been rehearsing with her secret partner (there’s speculation it might be fellow Buckinghamshire resident Brendan Cole, but she’s tight-lipped because we’re meeting before the Christmas special show line-up has been announced) and has driven straight to this interview from the dance studio. She’s loving the whole experience, from the gorgeous dress (she rummages in her handbag to show me a swatch of the material, but can’t find it, to our mutual disappointment) and the high-heeled dancing shoes, to strutting her stuff with some of entertainment’s finest. She’s never had the time to accept an invitation to join the show before though she did a solo number for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

The extra eyeshadow and foundation, together with her shorter hairstyle, may add a certain glamour, but as Fern walks up the stairs in front of me I can’t help but notice (women tend to) how very slender she is, or rather, has become.
After we’ve talked about her extensive charity work I finally come out with the question I’ve been itching to ask since hearing all those greetings in the office downstairs, ‘Does she mind everyone commenting on her size these days?’.

“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced”

Famously, or rather, notoriously, she had a gastric band fitted some four years ago and kept the operation a secret while crediting a better eating and exercise regime as first the pounds, then the stones, fell off her formerly voluptuous plus-size frame.
She draws herself up in her chair and looks me straight in the eye as she replies: “These things don’t work by themselves. You have to work hard to lose weight! I wish people would acknowledge how hard it is to get fit or get fitter.”

Notably, though, there are mini mince pies and biscuits on offer as we chat, and Fern doesn’t touch them. But far from getting annoyed, she’s flattered by those kind remarks about her looks. She says her age, (she’s 53), has given her an understanding of who she is. She decided to lose weight to improve her health, which was beginning to cause concern, not for anyone else’s benefit.
“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced,” she says.

Gastric band or not, she stresses her sustained weight loss has been achieved over several years. She feels as good as she did in her twenties, but adds:
“I’ve got wrinkles, I’ve got this and that, but since were talking about the Iain Rennie Hospice, we are also in an era where we must look after ourselves and do something to prevent those illnesses we can.”
Not that every illness is preventable, but with the National Health Service under scrutiny, a population that takes more responsibility for its fitness takes pressure off the system, she feels.

Becoming involved with the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home charity wasn’t a sudden epiphany, but as she grew up and still lives nearby she was aware of its work and its shops in the Chilterns.
“I’m all for local. The big national and global charities like Oxfam and Save The Children do amazing things but you mustn’t forget local charities which may be helping the person right next door to you. It’s particularly in this financial climate you have to think neighbourly charity begins at home,” she says.

It’s a phrase that might be used to describe Fern’s new fitness philosophy, which ties in perfectly with the IRHH‘s latest fundraising venture.
The charity is launching its first Chilterns Cycle Challenge, in March, featuring three different routes. The longest of these, at 75 miles, follows the boundary of the current Iain Rennie nursing catchment in the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire Chilterns. The other two routes, at 10 miles and 35 miles, take in the area’s glorious countryside – and who better to launch their new fundraiser than a Buckinghamshire resident with a known penchant for pedal power?
“I’ve always cycled,” she says. “I cycled around the Chalfonts in my youth. Then you reach an age when you’re excited with your car. But when I was about 45 or 46, I picked up a bike again. I’d bought one for my husband (celebrity chef Phil Vickery) for Christmas, but he’s much more of a runner.” Fern borrowed Phil’s bike to ride the roads around their home in Holmer Green and became hooked.
“I started off doing a mile or two and when I got to four miles I thought I was doing very well – then I got to eight, then I did a ride for the British Heart Foundation that was 15 miles and that went well.”

Professor Lord Robert Winston, the fertility expert, involved her in Women for Women charity cycle rides and she has continued to clock up some impressive mileage by cycling through Egypt, India, Cuba, Jordan and most recently, China.
“Before you know it, you’re doing 30 miles, or 60 miles,” says Fern, revealing she’s progressed from a padded gel saddle to a sliver of a thing. She’s not competitive, though, and doesn’t tear around at Tour de France speeds. What she does do is train, 10 to 15 miles, three times a week plus up to 40 miles at weekends and it’s this regime that has kept the weight loss continuing.
“I’ve got a very understanding husband,” says Fern, when I ask how she fits all that cycling into her already busy schedule. She has a new series of Fern Britton Meets interview shows coming up soon with the Rev Jesse Jackson, Clarissa Dickson-Wright, June Brown (Eastenders’ Dot Cotton) and Cliff Richard in the hot seat that got Tony Blair talking candidly about the Iraq War in the last series. Then there’s the novel writing and being a mum to four children.

She urges prospective cyclists to take advantage of the training advice being offered by Reactivate Bucks in the lead-up to the IRHH event and she will be there on the day, probably lagging at the back of the pack, chatting, she says.
“If we can get 500 cyclists and they manage to raise £150 each – 500 times £150 – that’s… a lot of money!” she says, as we give up on the maths (it’s £75,000 I work out later).
And if Fern’s experience is anything to go by, taking a cycle challenge could be the start of something truly amazing.

Find out more about the Chilterns Cycle Challenge at http://www.renniegrove.org.

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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Boris Johnson roams free

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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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