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Jennifer Paterson – One Fat Lady and a Brilliant Critic. By Elisabeth Luard

Blog | By Elisabeth Luard | Oct 06, 2020

Elisabeth Luard

"Sit next to me, darling. You always win when you do."

This was sometimes true, but mostly not.

But the invitation, delivered in Jennifer Paterson's booming baritone, was always irresistible. As was her assessment of my work, including what was previously The Barricaded Larder and has just come back into print, with my watercolours throughout, as Preserving, Pickling & Potting.

My predecessor as cookery columnist at The Oldie had a voice like a foghorn, barrelling through the smog of whatever awards ceremony we happened to find ourselves. This was both before and after stardom as the bespectacled dominatrix of Two Fat Ladies brought her fame and fortune but never changed her attitude to the people she liked or didn't - the last a category in which she famously included her co-presenter, with scurrilous stories to match.

Jennifer - 'spinster of this parish, and don't anyone forget it' - was wonderful company. She knew everyone, was intimidated by no-one, and had no hesitation in gossiping with undisguised glee about the goings-on of the literary and political folk who came her way when she was in-house cook at Spectator lunches. Which was before she got the sack for telling the editor he was talking nonsense. Or it might have been for chucking all the food out of the window in response to - I can never remember what.

In 1988, we were together as usual at the back of the room when The Barricaded Larder was up for one of the awards.

Jennifer was not one to mince her words.

"Good book. Terrible title. Won't sell."

The title, I explained a little resentfully, came from a discussion I'd had at table in Debrecen, a frontier town on the Hungarian-Romanian border, concerning precautions that had to be taken when the soldiers came. Any soldiers. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Hitler.

Jennifer raised an eyebrow.

She was right on all counts. The title was terrible and it didn't sell first time round, but the book was good. Which is why, with a title I hope Jennifer would have approved of, it's back in print this month with my ink-and-watercolours throughout. And this time the sales are doing just fine.

Jennifer had a direct line to the Almighty, so I hope she sometimes puts in a word. She lived round the corner from Westminster Cathedral, where she took Mass every Sunday and, I imagine, confessed her sins. Impatience, certainly. Gluttony, no doubt. And a wicked tongue.

"Catholics are so forgiving, darling. Ten Hail Marys and you're done."

She's often at my shoulder when I write, pursing carmine-painted lips if I add an extra adjective or fail to say what I mean. My predecessor used language with the muscularity of a prize-fighter and the precision of a dancer.

I miss her presence in my life, particularly when choosing titles.