A Christmas Carole
Carole Middleton has plenty to toast this Christmas. As well as new arrivals to her (very famous) family, she is celebrating the 30th anniversary of her Party Pieces business. Here, the quintessential hostess gives us her festive party tips, writes Lisa Armstrong
'If I come across as normal, that would be great, because that's what I am," says Carole Middleton - who, at 63, looks anything but, what with those teenage legs and that halo of outdoorsy glamour. She's quite a contrast to the surroundings: we're sitting in the boardroom, a rather grand description for the small, institutional-looking room at the end of a narrow corridor, which was once a cow-barn-turned-chicken-shed.
A 15-minute drive from Bucklebury Manor, the Middletons's Berkshire home, this rather chilly space ("You might like to keep your coat on," Michelle, Carole's PR, warns me) is the mothership for Party Pieces, the one-stop shop for every conceivable party necessity (from children's ice-cream-shaped sunglasses to rose-gold hen-night crowns and wedding wishing jars). Next door are a couple of large, rough-brick warehouses with radios blaring pop music and shelves of boho pom-pom fairy lights and roaring dinosaur table centrepieces.
Lightly tanned, natural make-up, more brunette than her recent blonde outings, Carole is both more striking and somehow more petite than in photos. ("5ft 7in," she says, "But maybe I've shrunk.") The effect is Englishwoman meets Ralph Lauren, which is pretty much what her outfit turns out to be: khaki Ralph Lauren jacket, M&S skinny trousers and black Russell & Bromley riding boots.
For obvious reasons, she doesn't want to appear as though she's riding on her daughters' wave, but one can't help but spot how remarkably consistent the female Middleton features and taste are. One of the Goat dresses she wore on the photo shoot even turns out be the same style as one the Duchess of Cambridge has worn. "Though not the identical one," Carole is careful to point out, aware the press love a Middleton mother-daughter outfit share.
This desire to appear normal isn't simply, I think, a tic picked up from the Royal family (one that can be traced back to the Hanoverians and George III, who liked to style himself as Farmer George), but an impulse that comes from having always been a grafter. The company she set up as a one-stop mail-order destination for children's party supplies is 30 years old, and while her husband Michael has been involved in it with her since 1989, it was very much Carole's idea. "And it was a good idea" she has noted. "Or it wouldn't have taken off."
She launched the business after the family returned from a posting in Jordan, where Michael was an aero manager for an international air station. Once they were safely nestled in a pocket of rural Berkshire, Carole cast round for something to help with the bills that could work around the children (Catherine was four and a half, Pippa was three, and she was pregnant with James). Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs is: "Make sure whatever you do doesn't compromise your family, because that becomes untenable. And don't be afraid to ask questions."
She put up a self-designed flyer at Catherine's local playgroup in Bucklebury, where the family have lived since they came back from Jordan in 1987, found some suppliers of paper plates and she was off, quickly progressing to a small business unit in Hungerford. Michael built the packing benches. (Carole's other piece of advice is: "Find someone who can really support you.") A year or so later, he gave up his job in aviation and threw his lot in with Party Pieces.
The business remains central to Carole's life ("It's still a big family thing") and, one senses, to her identity. She drives into work most days in her slightly untidy Range Rover, sitting in the open-plan office with her 30-or-so-strong team. "I like to listen to what people are ordering and how they're going to use it," she says. And when she's not there, she's working from her home office. How is she at delegating? "I couldn't do it without Mike and my team," she says. But she's all over the Party Pieces website and Instagram account, and the first thing she does in the mornings is look at her email. "I should probably be meditating," she laughs. "I'd like to find space to do more stuff I love, but my family are paramount. They come first and that will always be the case, even when I have more me time."
In many ways, Party Pieces, which now caters for hen nights, baby showers, civil partnerships - you name it, they can customise it - is at the edge of changing social mores. The night before we meet, she's been watching Butterfly, the drama about an 11-year-old boy who wants to transition to be a girl. "That would be challenging," Carole says, "but as a parent, you love your children unconditionally". Everything she's ever done, she says, "isn't about fitting in, but based on my own values and what I think is right".
It's clear that she adores children ("I'd have had five or six if I could"). She made sure she was around as much as possible for her three and relishes her role as 'Granny Middleton' to all four of her grandchildren. "I had a wonderful role model in Mike's mother, who I tried to emulate." She doesn't have a problem being pulled in all directions. "I love it. I'm definitely hands-on. I don't find it complicated. My biggest fear [as her offspring grew up] was that I'd lose my family, but we've stayed close. There are times when they say, 'Can you do this, or that?' and I can't quite. But they like the fact that I work. I have two lovely sons-in-law and," she adds (is that a wistful note?), "I hope I'll have a lovely daughter-in-law." This is delivered in such understated tones, you almost forget that one of those sons-in-law is the future British king.
Granny Middleton sounds like a lot of fun; she's someone who thinks it's a good idea for children to get stuck into kitchen chores, 'chopping and stirring' as early as possible, who isn't precious about how the Christmas tree looks (but then, she likes to have several: a fashionable, themed one; a 'memory' one with baubles going right back; and one the children can decorate however they want). She likes the old-fashioned games like musical statues and sardines, and believes in letting children eat with the adults "as soon as they can sit up properly. As a family, we try to have as many meals together as possible because that's when you talk and have fun."
Over the years, Party Pieces has evolved into a source of kits people can use to transform a space into everything from a Best-of-British cocoon to a Hollywood movie set. "Not everyone can afford a party planner," Carole says - and she should know. She planned her own wedding. "I found the venue, organised the wedding breakfast, the bonfire and chilli con carne in the evening."
Given all this, Carole is often mistaken for a party planner, she laughs. She isn't - but she is a fairly relaxed hostess, preferring spontaneous kitchen suppers to formal dinner parties. "If eight women and three men turn up, so be it," she says. She learned early on that it's the minor disasters that often make an event memorable - the first time she ever cooked for Michael, "I was trying to impress him with a mushroom risotto and it looked like grey porridge; it was very Bridget Jones". The idea of a woman, who played a key part in one of the most-watched weddings in history enduring a Great Risotto Debacle, is not without significance. By her own reckoning, Carole is a trier. "If you do get knocked back, just be brave and try again because life gives you lots of knocks and, if you're not prepared to be brave, you're not going to get anywhere."
On the subject of the wedding, she freezes momentarily, weighing up how much it would be to reveal. (The thing I'm learning about Carole is that she has to curb her instinct to share. On the shoot, she declined any alcohol, joking that she'd better not.) Suffice to say, Catherine turned to her mother for advice. "We talked about music... everything. I was involved lots with both Pip's and Catherine's weddings. But I think the most important thing, as a parent, is to listen to what your daughter wants. You can have all the ideas in the world, but it has to be about them. And don't muscle in on the guest list."
As for the flawless blue Catherine Walker coat and matching dress she wore to Catherine's wedding... "Like every mother, I wanted to look my best, make my children proud and enjoy the day. I honestly don't think I was any more stressed than any other mother-of-the-bride."
For someone who looks self-assured and impeccably put together when she's snapped, she's surprisingly averse to clothes shopping and being photographed ("Hate it," she admits). Like most British women, she doesn't know what to do with a compliment. When I tell her I'm surprised that, with her figure, she finds shopping so hard, she bats back with: "I'm bigger round my top half than I was, so that's why I prefer dresses to trousers and I don't like anything tight. One of the reasons I don't like shopping for clothes is that there aren't enough for women my age. I know what I want, but I can't find it. There's a way of dressing that's what I call 'correct'."
Extrapolating from the way she and both her daughters have always dressed - modestly and, when they were in their 20s, in a noticeably more conservative way than most of their peers - one can deduce she means with a careful sense of decorum and appropriate diligence at all times. Is she good at editing her clothes? "Yes," she says, quick as a flash. "By which I mean moving it all to another wardrobe. Which isn't editing at all."
She spent most of her youth not dressing for success but living in jeans, which she now finds uncomfortable. "I was really casual. I looked really tired most of time." I can believe she occasionally looked weary (although she is, according to those around her, extremely high energy), but I doubt she ever looked scruffy - her British Airways training, in an era when they were expected to look immaculate, is ingrained. One of the reasons she has no problems wearing heels is that she had to wear them all the time on duty.
In any case, Carole's style evolved as the children got older, particularly once Catherine and the family moved into the public eye. Not, says Carole, that she has ever had a personal stylist ("although I wouldn't mind..."), I think she's probably tried the personal shoppers in some of the department stores. When we talk later about Peter Jones (her favourite shop) and the stylists there, she says they're not bad, but clothes shopping is clearly not her favourite activity.
You can just imagine Carole's children looking pristine, though. She's always wanted the best for herself and her family. One can picture her instilling self-belief into her offspring. "I don't know if I had much confidence when I was younger," she recalls of her upbringing in west London, with her mother Dorothy and father Ron, a painter and decorator. "Although my parents gave me lots of love, there weren't huge expectations of me. This might surprise you," she says, "but I think one of the most important qualities of a good parent is discipline. That doesn't mean you're strict, but routine is vital. Maybe structure is a nicer word. You can't suddenly start teaching them about politeness at 13. You have to do it from the start."
One can see why her eldest daughter retreated to her mother's after Prince George was born. Carole is a startling mixture: wise and intuitive yet, in some respects, quite innocent. Although she's acutely aware that every time she mentions a favourite brand, there's something in it for them, there doesn't seem to be a sneery, cynical bone in her body. She thinks almost everyone has it in them to be a good mother ("but things get in the way; maybe they've got money worries or they're too young"); that being a successful entrepreneur is a question of having a good idea and sticking at it. Her family and her business keep her sane, I think. "I have two other children and grandchildren and my job, and I lead a lot of my life round here, where I've lived for years and people knew me before Catherine's... impact. It isn't normal to go to Louis's christening or Catherine's wedding, but, in the end, they're all family events."
Visit partypieces.co.uk to plan your gathering.
Carole's tips for a successful Christmas
I start planning Christmas soon after Hallowe'en. I'm a big list-maker and I try to get everyone involved.
I've recently gone vegan. Or maybe that should be flexitarian. If I go to someone's house for dinner, I'm not going to make a fuss. For Christmas, I'd probably have two options - very traditional and something vegan.
* Be organised. Don't take on more than you feel comfortable doing. The minute the host is stressed, everyone else is too.
* When it comes to dress codes, make it clear on the invitation if you'd like people to wear black tie and long dresses. If guests call to ask what to wear, don't be tempted to downplay it if you're going to be formal, because they'll feel awkward. That said, I really don't mind what people wear when they come to supper - I rarely host anything that formal.
* Don't get hung up on perfection. Often it's the mistakes that make things memorable.
* For last-minute gifts, I love a Christmas market. A few years ago, a girlfriend gave me a tree decoration. Every time I get it out, I think of her.
* I like to have a theme for the wrapping - all red, or all craft paper, or make a big thing with the ribbons. Mike gets very involved with the square shapes. He's very precise. I like to save boxes and put tricky-shaped presents in them, and I do the whole thing listening to carols.
* My Christmas essentials are mince pies, mulled wine and mistletoe.
* I try not to be too set when it comes to the schedule. Generally, we go to church in the morning, then a walk, open a few presents (with more in the evening). Then Champagne and smoked salmon for lunch, and the main Christmas meal in the evening - but with young grandchildren, maybe we'll move that forward and have it at lunchtime.
* I like to dress up on Christmas Day: something like the red Goat dress, with a big pinny over it for when I'm cooking.
* It's really important to write Thank You letters. Within 10 days ideally. Which reminds me, I've got a couple outstanding.