Clarissa Dickson Wright: witty, opinionated, acerbic but a true friend to all

Opinion - Books 20 March 2014

Four people who worked with the inimitable Clarissa Dickson Wright, who died last weekend, recall a woman who was always true unto herself.


Heather Holden-Brown, agent

Our friend Clarissa died on Saturday morning. She was the friend of many, from all sorts of walks of life, but for HHB Agency, who represented her for over seven years, she was a dear friend - of mine, of Elly James (who used to be an actress and entertained her with stories which made her shriek with laughter), of Rob Dinsdale, and of our assistant for three years, Claire Houghton-Price. Claire has now left the agency to go travelling, but Clarissa - who always championed young people and loved to see them get on - taught Claire as much as Elly and I did, and was part of the "family" who wished her a fond and proud farewell. In February, Claire became Jack (Munnelly) and at last we had someone in the office who had been to Oxford, a university Clarissa herself would dearly have liked to attend - but her father, Arthur Dickson Wright, an eminent surgeon, would not pay for her to go away to study unless she read medicine. So Clarissa read law at UCL instead, and became the youngest woman barrister ever to enter the Courts of Gray's Inn.

When alcohol took hold after the death of Clarissa's adored mother, Mollypop (below, with baby Clarissa), in 1975 (Clarissa found her dead in bed on Derby Day, I don't think she ever recovered from the shock), she was asked to depart Gray's Inn. (It was a matter of great joy that a few years ago she was welcomed back to its Inns of Courts after a group of her old friends, led by Libby and Brian Watkins, applied for her to be readmitted.) But in the late Seventies, Clarissa was to be found cooking chilli and steak and kidney pudding (she had been great friends with Louise, the family cook in their grand St John's Wood house) at Wilde's Club in St James's Place, in a building owned (and thus much frequented) by Collins. A particular favourite of Clarissa was "the brilliant" Robert MacDonald, father of editor and writer Hannah. I am sure she was in her element in those heady days when long, drinking lunches were the norm and publishing was more about conviviality than computers.

I first met Clarissa when I was at BBC Books in the 1990s and championed the purchase of the Two Fat Ladies books, although at the time it was by no means a cert that two eccentric women on a motorbike being unbelievably non-PC and cooking rich food would take over our television lives. It was unfortunate for me that a (very nice, but still) temporary helper was working in the sales department at the time and she was a vegetarian. "You must be joking, all that blood and game", she said to Chris Weller and Stuart Biles. Much as I fought the good fight, I lost it, and the publishing went to Ebury, who of course published Two Fat Ladies brilliantly. Clarissa loved this story, as she seriously didn't like vegetarians, unless they were particularly clever, as one American television producer she worked with was, and then it was just about acceptable. Whenever we gave her news of interviewees (she loved to know) Clarissa would always say, "For God's sake, don't employ a veggie, I couldn't bear it" - and of course we never did!

In 2005, I started my agency with a handful of clients, including Guardian writer Diane Taylor, who had brought to me the story of Rosie Childs, whom she had met at Crisis at Christmas. Together they wrote Catch Me Before I Fall, published by Natalie Jerome at Virgin and an instant bestseller. That said, my pal Patrick Walsh had commented that it was the only book on my first list that would sell - and how right he was! A year or so later, I received a call from my friend Rowena Webb at Hodder, who had heard Clarissa being interviewed by John Humphrys on Radio 4's On the Ropes. "You know, Clarissa, don't you, Heather? Do you think she'd like to do her autobiography?" As it happened, the timing was perfect, for Clarissa had just finished a period of bankruptcy and thus would be able to start earning again. I rang her at home in Scotland, had a bit of a chat and said, "Here's Rowena's number, give her a ring." It is a mark of my subsequent fortune (of course financially, but the deep friendship that followed is what really mattered) that Clarissa, without hesitation, replied: "Oh but, of course, Heth, you must be my agent. I've always said that if I did any more books, you should represent me." (At Headline, where we had worked together on the Clarissa and the Countryman books, written with Johnny Scott, Clarissa was much loved and supported by Amanda Ridout, Louise Weir and Ros Ellis, a feisty collection of women, for sure. This was at the height of the "antis", and Ros remembers "police protection, tomato throwers at signings, red paint spray in Norwich, and Clarissa's huge laugh and hug".)

Spilling the Beans, published by Hodder in 2007, shot straight into the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was an extraordinary and emotional autobiography, every word written by Clarissa herself at some cost: she looked back on experiences such as her father's violence and her own drinking, things she had tried hard to forget. It has probably not been said enough that Clarissa was an elegant and evocative writer: she always said she was dyslexic and her spelling was certainly interesting on occasions (and of course she was never a fan of computers, so emailing became a no-no), but my goodness that woman could write. Rowena and Kerry Hood became life-long friends of Clarissa, and being published by Hodder was for her a huge pleasure. Except when we received questions from the lawyers, which was not a good moment in any of our working lives!

Clarissa also loved working with Kyle Cathie ("a brilliant publisher") who had had the foresight to commission The Game Cookbook, again with Johnny, for publication in 2004. On and on it sells today. Kyle's publicist Victoria Scales was another adoree and then, at Random House, there was Najma Finlay, who worked on A History of English Food when it was published, to great acclaim, in 2011 - a milestone in Clarissa's professional life. Looking after Clarissa was a formidable task for a young publicist, but Najma stepped up to the plate and Clarissa loved her. And as for Nigel Wilcockson, her publisher and editor: "Heather, he's a brilliant young man, I do like him." "Well, I quite agree about the brilliance, Clarissa" - seriously, Nigel was the perfect editor to deal with Clarissa's great scholarship but occasional flights of historical fancy. Erudite but firm.

No tribute to Clarissa should fail to mention her generosity. She was generous to everyone, always - thoughtful presents; she loved giving. Every year we received a case of the best wine - my friends can never believe it when it is produced at home - even though she never drank alcohol again after her time at Promis in 1987. And Elly, chatting away one day: "I'd like to spend my days swathed in cashmere." Two days later, a beautiful bright yellow, hooded cashmere jumper arrived from Scotland that was "pure Clarissa - bright, bold, warm and sure to draw attention".

But Clarissa's generosity was as much of the spirit as the material. I remember well visiting the Cook's Bookshop in Edinburgh and a young man coming in to ask whether Clarissa was there. Sadly, she wasn't; this was a young man in trouble and I have often wondered what became of him. Clearly he knew Clarissa and trusted her, had probably met her through AA, or maybe she had just walked up to him in the street - who knows? That story of kindness could be replicated many times over by people at difficult times in their lives needing help and advice and comfort. I think, too, of April O'Leary, a nun from one of Clarissa's schools, the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Woldingham. For some years, Clarissa took April for a week's holiday in Lyme Regis where they walked and talked, ate delicious seafood, played backgammon and, quite possibly, prayed together.

Keeping up with Clarissa was a full-time job. One of my regrets is that I never managed to get her to do her version of Lord Wavell's Other Men's Flowers. I could only stand and wait as she recited huge chunks of poetry to me first thing in the morning. She loved television and wanted to tell me what she had seen the night before - cookery, of course, love or hate - but also Heir Hunters, any kind of history, rugby, racing. Opinions, opinions when one's mind was racing with the duties of the day, but how I already miss our conversations, once, twice, thrice daily...

We have not publicised as much as we should have done the fact that Angry Child Productions in the US has an option on film rights to Spilling the Beans. When I first received the call from LA at the end of 2012, Clarissa was over the moon. "Darlings, I'm having a film made about me. Isn't it marvellous? Hollywood here I come!" she told all her friends. She had Brenda Blethyn cast as the young, very glamorous, Clarissa, and how much pleasure it would give us all if the film is made, as director Josh Gad has said it will be.

I have not talked about Clarissa being tricky, feisty, maddening, cross. She sometimes was, but almost always she would be back in touch shortly afterwards to make amends. "Catholic guilt," I used to joke with her (when I'd recovered). I don't want to make her sound perfect, because she wasn't, but we loved her dearly at HHB and that is how we would like to remember her, as a true and loyal friend.

Godspeed, Clarrie, and I hope you have already found a heavenly party with many friends who have gone before, and dear Kipper, Sally's Border terrier, who died just a week before you. We miss you already and I hate the fact that you aren't here to see all the wonderful things your friends and fans are saying about you. X

Kyle Cathie, MD and Publisher of Kyle Books
I was in the office at 8 o'clock one morning when the phone rang and barking Clarissa said her book had been turned down by her present publisher - would we take it on and could she come round? Clearly she was outside the door, because the bell rang seconds later. It was The Game Cookbook with Johnny Scott, and I read about four pages of Clarissa's unforgettable typing (most words you could fathom out somehow) and within 10 minutes we had agreed everything. It's still in print and selling nicely some 10 years later, with over 100,000 copies sold.

Thus began a long friendship and several other titles. Clarissa was warm and witty, along with the acerbic. Once she asked us to deliver books to a field in Yorkshire. Which field was uncertain, depending on the time the driver arrived. He did not; she barked and was deeply cross.

Her last text message was: All pretty grungy at the moment but progressing. Ur kipling coy helping. Lets have a pure frivol get together son. Just giving the game book to my surgeon xxxxx


Rowena Webb, Director of Non-Fiction Publishing, Hodder & Stoughton
I count myself very lucky to have been Clarissa's editor. She was a complete one-off. Funny, generous and encyclopaedically knowledgeable, she could say the unsayable and - whether you agreed or not - you loved her for it. I'll miss her hugely but am so glad her unique voice lives on in her books, especially her brilliant autobiography Spilling the Beans.

Kerry Hood, Publicity Director, Hodder & Stoughton
We have published Clarissa Dickson Wright for a fair few years now and I shall miss her enormously. We had a wonderfully noisy relationship that normally found voice before 8.30 of a morning, and I had been texting her over the last couple of months in an effort to make her smile. The last couple of messages had gone unanswered, and there was a doubt and a worry at the back of my head. As it turned out she had been moved back into the high dependency ward, and that was it.

The thing about Clarissa is that she was fiercely loyal. She had friends dotted about the country and knew that she could call on them when she was passing - as she regularly did. They were there for her and she was very much there for them - forever crediting their produce, or speaking of them with a smile, supporting them as only she knew how to. We used to meet at the Goring Hotel in London to discuss the publicity schedule, hammering it into shape over their perfect eggs and porridge.

I once gave her a small, bronze hare to keep her company during the many hours she spent in her car - he is probably still in there somewhere, although she hasn't been driving for a while, lost in the rubble of books (she was a dedicated historical fiction reader), clothes and everything else that just gets thrown into a car and gathered on a long journey. A hare because she was vocal and passionate about the countryside. In fact she was passionate about a number of things: food labelling, justice, recovery, ginger beer, coursing, hunting, fishing, honesty… the list is long. She had a divine chuckle and a nose for gossip and anecdotes that has entertained audiences - and certainly me - over the years. 

Never willing to be called a chef, Clarissa was a cook of the first order, and loved to cook the Christmas dinner for her family as well as hold court at county fairs - sometimes judging their pork pies and other food-based competitions, as well as selling quantities of her books. I have a treasured memory of the Falmouth Oyster Festival (Ron Johns in charge!), listening to the wisdom of someone who really - that is really - knew her subject.  

Goodness, I shall miss her - as one of her friends commented, "Heaven's gain she may be." And I hope, whenever we get together to celebrate her life, that Boney M's "Rivers of Babylon" will be played - strict instructions from her!

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