'Worrying would drive me mad'
Alongside the great blessings and good fortune in her life, Nigella Lawson has had much tragedy too -- which is why the TV cook avoids worrying about things beyond her control, such as her looks, sales and ratings, she tells Emily Hourican
Published 31/10/2010 | 05:00
'I am naturally -- in a way that is possibly not always attractive -- a feeder," says Nigella Lawson of her tendency to nurture others in this very specific way. "My friends always tease me that someone can't come and change a boiler without leaving with a tin-foil packet of something." It's hard to imagine anything about Nigella being unattractive.
Close up, she's even more beautiful than on screen, a few light freckles only enhancing the perfection of her skin, and those deep, dark brown eyes, about which male TV reviewers have written so salivatingly, glowing with warmth. Her figure is more matronly of old, though still with proper hour-glass proportions, and, anyway, don't they say that after the age of 50 it's either face or figure? In which case, Nigella has made the correct choice.
Not that she sees it like that. "Age is what one is," she says, almost with a shrug. "For me, 49 was harder because my mother died at 48. So that was a really tough birthday." That said, saying the word 50 is still hard. "I find it very odd. I do too much of 'oh, I'm so old' and '150 years ago ... '
"It's like drawing attention to weight is the fat girl's pre-emptive joke. I do that with age an awful lot. And that's possibly not a good thing. Yet it embarrasses me to be thought of as trying to pass myself off as younger than I am. If I lied about my age, I'd start getting so stressed about it, trying to remember what I'd said."
It's a typical Nigella sentence. With her, it's always the long answer, often with many parenthesis and digressions, as well as a good dollop of philosophical, abstract thinking; something that will be familiar to anyone who reads her cookery books.
I notice that she doesn't like to be second guessed, either as to her motive or intent. When I say that 50 looks better these days, because she, and women such as her, have reinvented it, she responds -- in a voice rather more marbly than it comes across on TV -- with: "That in a way is worrying too ... I don't want to get stressed about the times that people don't say: 'Oh, are you really 50?'
"I'm certainly not above worrying about what I look like," she adds candidly. "But it is probably more or less guaranteed to drive you mad, worrying about things over which you have no control. I don't ask about how many books I've sold, I don't ask about my ratings. It's not that I'm lofty and virtuous and above such things, just that I can't control them. It's like Tina Fey says, you've got a choice between whether you look creepy or whether you look old. Given that choice, you've got to go with old."
Nigella is here to promote Kitchen, her eighth book. Having cooked my way through several of her recipes now -- I particularly recommend the chocolate-chip bread pudding on page 142 -- I can say this is an excellent book; relaxed, appropriate and simple, by far her best since How to Eat.
The accompanying TV series Nigella Kitchen also seems rather more restrained, less high-camp and deliberately gastro-porny than the most recent offerings. Not that Nigella would know. "I don't watch them," she says. "It's so unnatural to watch yourself."
And so, she adds, she has no real idea what all the fuss is about. "I'm talked about -- by journalists -- as if somehow there's an act going on or as if it's flirtatious, but the reality is I do know I am quite intense, and that it has an intimate air, but I feel it's intimate in the way that I'd talk to a girlfriend or a sister. For me, there's nothing flirtatious." That's very Nigella -- not at all inclined to easy agreement for the sake of consensus. Apparently, it's a family trait.
"I am probably the quietest -- the others are much more trenchant," she insists. "We are a family with strong opinions, lots of people shouting around a dinner table. My family interrupt; nobody ever finishes a sentence." She then tells me that someone who had dinner with them recently described the Lawsons en famille as "Noel Coward on acid".
Nigella, of course, is the daughter of Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer to Margaret Thatcher and credited, with her, as architect of British yuppie culture of the Eighties. Her mother Vanessa Salmon was heiress to the J Lyons & Co fortune, and died in 1985 of liver cancer. Less than 10 years later, Nigella's sister Thomasina died of breast cancer when she was in her early 30s, leaving Nigella, her younger sister Horatia and brother Dominic, former editor of The Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph.
Gallantly, Nigella's second husband Charles Saatchi recently said his ideal dinner party would consist of Nigella, Nigel, Dominic and Horatia Lawson: "It appears I have a thing about the Lawsons."
So, they can't be all that intimidating, I suggest? "Oh, he's more than able for it," smiles Nigella. She is never very forthcoming on the subject of her new relationship, possibly because of the rather self-righteous media furore that greeted her decision to move into Saatchi's Belgravia home in December 2001, less than a year after the death of journalist John Diamond, her first husband, from throat cancer.
Diamond, a scintillating writer and broadcaster, recorded every aspect of his vicious, slow decline, even allowing the cameras into the couple's home for a documentary called Tongue Tied, filmed over two years as John underwent countless operations and finally lost the power of speech. From then, his relentless communication was via the written word only, and his frustration was sometimes expressed through violent acts, such as the time he threw a bowl of food across the kitchen in rage at not being able to eat.
Saatchi was a friend of Diamond's and a regular visitor to his and Nigella's house. Notoriously shy -- known to avoid even his own parties and creep up the back stairs at work -- he seemingly found the ability to relax in their company.
The curious later speculated as to whether Diamond himself made the match between his wife and friend.
"It's different when someone dies over a long time from how one would respond to a sudden death," said Nigella with dignity, around the time she moved in with Saatchi. These days, she is even more circumspect: "I feel that I'm very open in the sense that I'm not dishonest, but I don't feel that I lay myself so bare that I'm unprotected. I will try to answer honestly anything that's asked of me, but I'm not really part of the confessional, weeping and wailing contemporary school of non-thought." Well, bah sucks to the modern trend for relentless soul-baring.
As for the nastier bits of media speculation at the time, the best revenge is living well, and Nigella and Saatchi seem to live very well together. He recently said: "Why Nigella would wish to be with me is beyond human understanding. My bleating gratitude perhaps; surely a most effective aphrodisiac." And indeed, she admits candidly to a love of being loved: "I learnt that it was OK to be adored." Even the fact that he professes not to appreciate her food is no fly in the ointment. "He really does appreciate it," she says. "He doesn't eat normal food, he likes things out of packets, but he does notice the difference," she tells me. And yes, he can cook. Sort of. "He can do an egg."
This habit of Nigella's -- of trying to answer honestly -- can sometimes still get her into huge trouble. Recently, she had all the British papers up in arms over a comment she made suggesting that she would be happy to kill a bear and wear its fur as a trophy.
She was widely criticised, even vilified, and today says, almost contritely: "That was my Day Nurse moment -- I had a terrible cold. But I went too far. I said what I believe first of all, which is that if you wear leather shoes and eat meat, you can't start thinking fur is any worse, but I'm afraid I do have a terrible tendency to go over the top. That was a showing-off bit of bravado; I'd taken something I believed and whipped it up into something I didn't particularly believe. And it backfired. I could have made people think about this -- instead, I went off on a kind of loopy tangent. The reality is," she adds with a laugh, "I'd probably lie down and cower behind a tree, trying to protect myself with some foliage."
Another bit of outrage she occasioned recently was suggesting she would disinherit her children Cosima and Bruno on the basis that it ruins people not to have to work for money. Later, she retracted the suggestion, and today says adamantly: "Whatever I've got, they will have. But I pray to God they will not be young when they inherit anything from me. What I want to do is not take the edge off their appetite to go out and do things."
Quite apart from Saatchi's estimated £100m fortune, Nigella herself is no slouch, having earned roughly £15m from her book sales and TV shows. So why, I wonder, does she keep working when financial necessity is no longer an incentive? "I'm an independent person and that's important to me," she says stoutly.
I guess, like Billie Holiday, she believes "God bless the child that's got his own". "I am very lucky that I have done well enough in order to make my priority be what I wish to do, rather than what I need to do," she concedes. "But that causes its own ... you start dithering. A lot of the things I've done that have really taught me stuff was just having to earn money to pay rent or a mortgage. I would never have done any of this if it hadn't been because I needed to earn money, when John was ill and I had a baby and a toddler. Money worries are corrosive and eat into your life. The only other thing that makes people as unhappy is illness ... " Having lost her mother, sister and husband in quick succession, this is something Nigella knows all about, and so she prays "for the health of everyone around me and myself -- I would pray for that before praying for gold coins".
All candidness aside, though, Nigella is perfectly right that there are elements of her life about which she is very discreet. Asked why she "turned down" an OBE, she says: "I didn't really turn it down. That sounds too active and very ungracious, and, anyway, it doesn't quite work like that. The reality is you're never really offered one. They send out feelers. I feel there's something so crass ... if you feel you have to advertise why you turned down something, you may as well accept it. It's wanting the best of both worlds."
Then she relents enough to add: "I'm not saving lives and I'm not doing anything other than something I absolutely love." Also, possibly, she just doesn't need the recognition.
Although she won't say so herself, these seem like good times for the Domestic Goddess. There is an aura of settled calm around her, a kind of serenity not always evident, despite her natural expansiveness. "The world always turns and I think one should never pronounce on the now," she says. "Who knows what will happen? I don't think one should ever tempt providence. It's silly -- nothing one says can have an effect on the universe. I know that for certain, but I still don't want to tempt providence. That is the stupidity I've got. It's totally illogical." She seems genuinely annoyed by her own lack of intellectual rigour.
Given the dramatic nature of her life -- great blessings and good fortune coupled with much tragedy -- how does she view it herself? "There are some things that are utter desolation and there are other things that I've been incredibly fortunate in. I don't really view it from the outside. All I say to my children is, in life you have to try to get pleasure from small things, otherwise you'll have an uphill struggle.
"I have my periods of great gloom and my periods of elation -- not in a manic depressive way, I'm not that -- but even without the things that have happened in my life, I am not an even-keel type of a person."
And then, in what is an excellent representation of her basic life philosophy, as well as a graciously oblique comment on her current situation, Nigella adds: "When your life is difficult, to acknowledge it sounds like moaning, and when your life isn't difficult, to acknowledge it sounds smug. If you have to choose between moaning or smugness, I think silence is the way to go."
Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home, by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus), €25, is out now