Downton Abbey….to be continued…?

As I write this, the final episode of the sixth season of ‘Downton Abbey’ is soon to be aired in the US. I’ll be heading over there, to celebrate – or should that be, commiserate? – with the guests of KCTS9, the PBS station for Seattle. I’ve only just come back from a gigantic tour of America, which took in California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts. Over the course of a month, I talked for a total of around fifteen hours about Downton, dishing out the real-life inspiration behind the show, the backstage secrets and revealed what Dame Maggie Smith is really like…But while I hope I entertained the audiences and fans wherever I went, the truth is that for me, it’s wonderful to see how my uncle’s show has touched so many different people – whether it’s enjoying the costumes, the English countryside or the sheer drama of the Crawley family, there seems to be something for absolutely everyone.

We’re all waiting with bated breath to hear whether there will be ‘Downton Abbey – The Movie’… but in the meantime, I hope you will enjoy my books (Downton Abbey: A Celebration looks at all six seasons, with cast interviews, episode guides and a peek inside every location), kick back with a box-set or even book me to come to you for a talk. Here are some highlights from the recent tour.

Jessica xxx



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Sunday Times Magazine, Relative Values article

Julian and I were interviewed for The Sunday Times Magazine’s regular slot, ‘Relative Values’. I was really thrilled to be asked to do it, as I’ve long enjoyed reading it. It’s interesting to see what two people say about each other, and whether they choose the same things to talk about. Julian and I didn’t discuss the interviews at all, which were conducted separately. So it was rather  nice to see that we reflected each other quite closely, both in terms of our language and the points we raised.

(Only one small point too add – I told the interviewer I was brought up in Deptford, not New Cross, but some fact-checking sub-editor clearly saw fit to change that. If you come from Sarf East London, you’ll know these tribal zones matter!)

Anyway, for those that would like to read it – here it is…

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PS My hair for this shoot was by the Paul Edmonds salon, to whom I’d like to say, thanks!

I’m 40 next year…

40“I’m 40 next year…” It’s not that that’s so bad, it’s that I keep finding myself using this phrase as an excuse for all kinds of new thoughts that are now stampeding through my brain. It’s the only explanation that makes sense of the nonsense. But it’s not an explanation that goes very far. So I’ve written this, to try to reach a little further…

NOSTALGIA. This is the weirdest. It hits you like a child’s swing on the back of your head. One minute you’re looking at photos from your university days and saying how it only feels like last week and no-one looks any older even though it’s ten years ago; the next you’re staring at pictures of the naive children of yesteryear, wondering if you can even remember what it felt like to be that person, so bright-eyed and unknowing of what life was going to turn out like.

Furthermore, because everything has changed so fast in our lifetime, the nostalgia is extreme and early. Our grandparents hit their 70s before they started wallowing in memories about life before TV, fax machines and setting video recorders (I don’t think they ever worked out how to record something while they were out, the height of tech-decadence then – my parents only just about did it; and my grandfather always turned the fax machine off because he thought the red standby light would set fire to the house if it got too hot from being on. But he was born in 1912, so these kind of thought processes were entirely forgiveable). Now, I’m – just – the right side of 40, and I’m talking about the world when I wrote cheques, had no answerphone, had to stand by the phone without walking anywhere if I wanted to talk into it, only read books in paper form, had no internet and ate Wagon Wheels as if I was a relic from the Victorian era who had lived a bizarrely long life and witnessed a century of change. Because all that change in 100 years would be amazing but comprehensible. In just 20 years it’s bonkers. So that makes me feel even older.

WRINKLES. I mind these less than I thought I would. Possibly it’s because they’re not so bad yet. Possibly it’s because I have a rule never to smile at myself in the mirror. Still, I know that if I lose weight, my waist will look better but my neck won’t. I spent $83 on a face serum recently. That was a first and almost certainly not a last (it’s made a difference, it really has!).

HAIR. Ugh. Much dryer. I have to get serious about weekly conditioning masks. I have to have expensive haircuts and colour (home-dye kits, I have discovered, work for about a year and then suddenly go right off). I had a very pricey blow dry the other week, for a photoshoot, and my husband has hardly stopped raving about it. These kind of things you have to do – you can’t get away with cheap and cheerful fixes anymore. It’s not that you necessarily look terrible if you go cut-price, but if you want to look amazing, you have to pay.

CLOTHES. For the moment, we can carry on as we are more or less. I think it’s over 50 that the game changes (also, I need more time to save up). I feel as if I’m still wearing the sort of clothes I wore when I was 12. Mind you, I was kind of old for my age then, and now, while I’m not shopping in Top Shop for entire outfits, I probably go to a lot of the same places that teenagers go to – but that’s because mothers and daughters go to the same shops (Zara, Whistles, Jigsaw). I’d like to be exclusively buying expensively tailored dresses from Prada and Preen, or only wearing Louboutins or something but I don’t have the cash or borrowing power. What has changed is that I know my shape, I know what suits me, and I don’t deviate from it no matter how trendy or appealing the brightly printed tulip skirt may be. I don’t even need to try things on in a changing room to know whether it will work. This is a bonus.

ACCESSORIES. I think there’s something about turning 40 that makes you wear large silver or gold cuffs on your wrists from hereon in. Also, all bags must be made from ‘real’ fabric, whether cotton or leather. Plastic just will not do.

MURDER MYSTERIES. Couldn’t have been less interested in these last year. I would like to say this has changed because there are some great new murder mysteries about – I like to snuggle up on the sofa to watch Endeavour (‘Morse’ as a young man in the 1950s), or read Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) – but frankly, Poirot or Miss Marple would do just as well.

SUDOKU. No longer just a way to kill 20 minutes on the train but an exercise to ‘stave off dementia’.

PARENTS. You still have them, mostly (I still have my dad). You’re more inclined to forgive them for being idiotic but perhaps not yet inclined to indulge their whims. This more or less translates as: I’ll still borrow money off you but I won’t worry yet about paying it back. If they borrow money off you, on the other hand, you’ll charge interest.

DEBT. You still have this. You probably have just as much as you did ten years ago, only now you’re actually concentrating on paying it off. Even the mortgage deadline doesn’t seem that far away anymore. Overdrafts are less ‘free money’ and more ‘monthly charges’.

ACCOUNTANT. Yes, you even have one of these.

LAWYER. Not yet. Though you really should get round to writing your will soon.

CHILDREN. You may have at least one of these and if you have more they may not be yours because, like me, you married someone much older with kids already. Unlike our parents’ generation however, you hit 40 with toddlers in tow. When my dad turned 40, I went to his party and I was wearing stretch shiny jeans and an off-the-shoulder white top (told you I was old for 12); at midnight, I was sent to bed in our neighbours’ house and next day listened, enthralled, to tales of my godfather having a long conversation with our cat before being carried into the kitchen where coffee was poured into him. For my 40th, my son will be in bed at 7pm and will never learn of what went on while he slept.

IRONING. No longer something that other people do.

ME, MYSELF AND I. The really great thing about turning 40 is that you know you are you and that’s not going to change, and you’re OK with that. I have more confidence now walking into a roomful of strangers. A small measure of professional success has definitely helped with that. But also, you no longer worry about impressing everyone. You can’t make everyone love you or even like you – and that’s OK, too. My dad always said the three ages of man are: At 20 you are desperately trying to fit in with everyone else. At 30 you decide you don’t care what anyone else thinks. At 40, you realise no-one is thinking about you anyway.


When puddings meant love

Yesterday, I flew to Miami on American Airlines. Weirdly, I’ve always rather enjoyed aeroplane food. I mean, it’s obviously revolting, but there’s something about the little trays and wrapped butter that can only engender excitement: they all add up to the sum of my going somewhere far away, towards new places, people and memories, both formed and triggered. As I was being treated – and thank you very much AA – to a Business Class flight, the food was plentiful. For my pudding I was served a giant round ball of ice-cream, swimming in butterscotch sauce, topped with whipped cream and chopped nuts. I haven’t had butterscotch sauce for years, not since my mum made it and I last ate so much of it that it put me off until now, what must be some 25 years later.

My relationship with food now is on the whole a fairly balanced one, I like to think. Balanced, that is, relative to being a woman and, furthermore, one who is occasionally on public view. Every now and again I’ll lose weight through some faddish thing, the Dukan diet or an Ayurvedic detox, then keep an eye on things, then take the eye right off the ball until a look at the scales sends me back to Googling ‘lose a stone in a fortnight’. But my shape never changes hugely and I live, as most do, wishing I was about half a stone lighter, took a bit more exercise and had a free pass to a salon so that I never had to wash my own hair.

I think my generation – 70s kids – was probably the last to enjoy a childhood where food was nothing but simple pleasures. The 70s hit that magic period before paranoia set in about toxins and weight:  E-numbers (the blight of my sister’s childhood; she was an 80s baby), organic hype, local food, Jamie’s chickens, corn syrup, Gywneth Paltrow… the myriad of edible elements we worry about on a daily basis in 2013. Pre-1970s food wasn’t so great either: children ate what they were given and what they were given was largely over-boiled vegetables and suet puddings. My mother, born in 1949, remembered the intoxicating arrival of spaghetti, muesli and yoghurt. My father’s favourite food is mushy peas, because it was something digestible that he was served at school.

Food fads and diets, of course, are nothing new. My grandmother swore by half a grapefruit every morning as a magical solution to burning off calories eaten later. She used to tell me of Parisian models in the 1950s fed pills by their agencies – one left her pills on the mantelpiece, only to find tapeworms crawling out of them a few days later. Physical exercise was considered extremely important to many women born in the 1920s and 1930s, with many doing quick daily routines when they got up in the morning. At the turn of the last century, corsets might have helped with creating an ultra-flat stomach but they were a cruel reminder of any second helpings. You would be laced into your corset by a helper the first time and that shape would be retained so that you could hook yourself in thereafter: it would be very uncomfortable to wear if you got any bigger and if you didn’t have a lady’s maid to hand to let it out a bit, you’d be constrained all day.

So. Back to the butterscotch sauce. Hot and sweet. Too much of it on my ice-cream, with a small cup on the side of an extra helping. This was my mother’s treat on a Wednesday night. Actually, on any night. Every supper had puddings with names as sickly as their high-sugar content: Angel’s Delight, Viennetta ice-cream, Spotted Dick, Bread & Butter pudding, Apple Brown Betty, rhubarb crumble, mashed banana with brown sugar and cream, custard on anything or on its own. Never a yoghurt, not even a fruity one, let alone plain and unsweetened, or slices of fruit or even a cracker and cheese. But strawberry jelly, Arctic Roll, Neapolitan ice-cream, pancakes with lemon and white caster sugar. Each pudding came one shade or three of the artificially enhanced rainbow. Glutinous lashings of fructose syrup on the tinned peaches filled each mouthful, expanding within, coating my tongue in its clingy texture, each tooth wrapped and shiny from chowing down nightly on mouthfuls of sucrose. Despite faithfully brushing my teeth twice a day, I had five fillings and two gold teeth by the time I was 13 years old. (To put this in perspective, my nearly-15-year-old stepson has no fillings and is yet to lose all his milk teeth.) “No need for braces,” my dentist would smile brightly. “Your teeth are perfectly straight.” That was considered a win.

I think puddings, for my mother, were a sign of love. Not that love wasn’t lavished on us daily, in a thousand different ways, but because every night she had the power to bestow a treat, and this pleased her. To not give a treat would not have been seen as, say, levelling out the balance so that it could be a treat by the terms of its definition (something warmly appreciated thanks to its occasional appearance) – no, to not give a treat would be to be strict, or boring, or following a discipline of denial. Moderation, when it came to love, was not my mother’s line.

Which was not to say that she was greedy. I mean, she dieted. She was usually a little heavier than she’d like to be but she knew that she only had to stop the treats and she’d be fine. She was funny, very beautiful and glamorous – I don’t think anyone except her noticed the little extra on her hips. Sometimes there would be a brief enthusiasm for the latest fad – callisthenics (which appealed at first because it was based on doing only tiny movements; it soon wore off because you had to do hundreds of them); Rosemary Conley’s Hip & Thigh Diet; some strange green powdered drink sent over from the US; the pineapple diet, in which you ate nothing but pineapples and the weight fell off but your mouth felt blistered and sore.

When not on the diet – and even when she was on one, she still gave me the same food – we had our usual repertoire. Frosties for breakfast, then toast thickly spread with butter and marmalade. School lunch (mint-green custard has always stuck in my mind). Home from school, I’d be rewarded for my toil and strife with crumpets spread with Golden Syrup, toast and marmite, French Fancies and ginger nut biscuits. Supper was more or less on rotation and almost everything was some sort of meat with mashed potatoes: Shepherd’s Pie, Corned Beef Hash, Barbecued Spare Ribs, Fray Bentos pies, lamb chops…followed, (un)naturally enough, by pudding. The only change was on Friday nights, which always meant fish, but not fish so that you could actually recognise it. Smoked haddock or squares of cod would be disguised in fish cakes, kedgeree or a quirky fish pie which was topped with crisps and grated cheese. Most things got slightly burnt: “Charcoal is very good for cleaning out the insides,” she’d say. I still like burnt toast. Before bed we’d have a mug of hot Ovaltine. The arrival of the microwave was enthusiastically welcomed.

Recalling it all now, I wonder that she didn’t just pour me three bowls of sugar a day and be done with it.

Weirdly, however, right alongside all this was a new health consciousness. My mother had Multiple Sclerosis and diet was supposed to help her. This took us to the new and rare health food shops where every single packet appeared to contain sawdust and often tasted just as exciting.

Each morning, the whole family had to ingest several enormous vitamin pills – why were they so BIG in those days? – that came out of sweet-jar sized dark brown bottles. Mum was vegetarian for a few years, off and on, in the 1970s. It was a hard time not to eat meat – you certainly couldn’t maintain it if you went to anyone else’s house for dinner (“If I chop up the bacon very small,” said her mother-in-law, “could you still have the salad?”) and you’d have to invent a meat-free option on a restaurant menu as it wouldn’t be specially put on there. At home we ate a lot of recipes from Crank’s (the only vegetarian restaurant in existence), the basis of each dish being either pasta, potatoes or lentils, except on high days and holidays when you’d have all three at once. Everything would be covered in white sauce. Nut roast for Sunday lunch became rather a favourite. Samosas were my reward for helping in the supermarket and I remember becoming very fond of Sesame Snap bars and carob chocolate. Even now, I prefer brown rice and wholemeal bread…so long as it’s followed by cheap vanilla ice-cream.

I only remember it all as being very tasty. Others thought so too, as my mother apparently had a reputation amongst her friends as being something of a cook, albeit one who had never so much as clapped eyes on a bottle of olive oil. If you were invited to a dinner party more than once you knew, with what she presumably hoped was reassuring familiarity, what you would be served. G&Ts on arrival, with Bombay Mix and Twiglets handed out by me. (Waitressing duties over, a thrilling glimpse of the guests having been caught, I’d be sent to bed.) Smoked mackerel pate to start (fish mashed with cream cheese); cheese souffle with salad followed by a pudding from her favourite recipe book, ‘Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone To So Much Trouble’, which consisted entirely of dishes which were a cheat of some sort, usually involving tinned salmon. The dinner party pud was Greek yoghurt into which spoonfuls of lemon curd had been stirred, then garnished with slices of kiwi. There would be masses of wine, from a box (I liked to blow up the silver bags the next day, for use as stylish cushions, so long as the tap was kept hidden underneath) and smoking throughout. There’d be a joint with the coffee.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I was a slim child, rarely ill once I’d grown out of the childhood illness phase. It wasn’t what we’d do today, but it was just fine then. Without coming over all Louisa May Alcock, every morsel was served with love. And that kept us happy and healthy. I’ll take that over Agave Syrup any day.

Town Mouse moves to the country

When I was thirty years old, I was appointed Deputy Editor of Country Life magazine. To  all my friends – and probably most of the staff of the magazine – it was hard to fathom. I had begun my career with six years at the celebrity-chasing Mail on Sunday, lived in London my whole life, could only walk in high heels and couldn’t tell my Doric from my Architrave. When the then-editor, the charming Clive Aslet, sent out an email announcing that I would be starting in the job, the staff Googled my name and the first thing that came up was an article I’d written about knickers. They didn’t hope for the best.

In the end, I stayed over four years, acquired five pairs of Hunter wellies and although I don’t think I succeeded in achieving my brief (to modernise the culture of the magazine – “like trying to modernise Prince Phillip,” a friend of mine remarked), I learned a lot. I also gained a real respect for the sometimes quieter way of going about things, for the men and women who had spent their years learning their craft or chosen subject, sometimes obscure but always valuable if they were not to disappear forever, whether that be the growing of cobnuts or the restoration of 14th century oak beams.

Some lessons were harder won. I was, after all, a townie, and the ways of the country were a mystery to me. After I asked my editor what the difference was between hay and straw, the only answer I could remember was that hay is a book festival and straw is something you drink cocktails with.

During my time there, I wrote a column for the now-defunct The London Paper, which appeared on Fridays, encouraging townies to go to the country at the weekend and indulge in the pleasures of pubs, stately homes, walks, strange Guy Fawkes night parades and so on. These formed the basis of my first book, Mud & the City: Dos and Don’ts for Townies in the Country (now available as an e-book). At the same time, I wrote a column for the magazine, as the Town Mouse, describing my various antics in and around the harsh pavements of London.

Now I have moved to the country for real. (This is partly why I’ve been a quiet on the blog front lately.) We are in Oxfordshire and I’m having to put some of my advice into practice – getting to know the neighbours, employing locally, chatting to the shopkeepers. There will be chickens, there may even be a dog. Some things have been surprising – for all the fresh air, I’m much more unhealthy in the country, baking and eating endless cakes and never walking anywhere (everything is a car journey’s distance away). Some less so – the house is freezing in the afternoon, it’s eerily quiet at night. I don’t feel quite up to writing a Country Mouse column yet (still using straws for cocktails), but perhaps a Town Mouse In The Country blog will do. I’ll let you know how I’m getting on. In the meantime, do come over for tea. There’s cake.