Writing a Memoir
I sold my restaurants, cookery school and catering business almost twenty years ago. For the last fifteen I've been writing novels, more or less successfully. But Leith's Cookery Bible still sells better than any of them. Reputations are hard to lose.
So when my publishers suggested an autobiography, I thought I might be able to lay a few ghosts. I could swank about my past directorships (and here comes the swank) of British Rail, Safeway, Whitbread, Woollies, the Halifax. And of my chairmanships: of the Restaurateurs' Association, the Royal Society of Arts, the School Food Trust, 3E's (a company successfully turning round failing state schools) and a handful of charities I'd helped found. I could bang on about the things I care about and have given time to, like women in business, food in education, cross-cultural adoption (I have a Cambodian daughter), public art, all sorts.
It didn't work. My ed said there was too much "Prue on her soap box". What they wanted was more "digging deep" into angst, more personal stuff (i.e. more love and sex)
And more food.
So I chopped out the business and charity stuff and the proselytising. And in the process managed to look like a sexpot in church warden's clothing, while doing nothing to diminish my reputation as a dedicated foodie. Tabloid reviews tend to translate a couple of funny stories about a louche Paris party, the odd spliff and a passing acquaintance with the Beatles as a Rackety Life of Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll. There were, I admit, a couple of very frank chapters covering two great love affairs of my life. Not for nothing does my brother call me Mersey Mouth.
My son, who had approved the whole book before publication, was nonetheless upset at the extent of the salacious coverage in the papers, and took me to task for being so open. We had an early morning spat on the subject, and I felt bad all day. He returned that evening with a big present for me. "Ah," I thought, "poor chap, he's sorry for this morning, he's brought me an olive branch." I opened the package. Inside was a megaphone.
The truth is I did not think it worth writing a memoir if I was not going to tell the truth. But I did send relevant chapters to anyone who featured in it and made any deletions or changes they asked for. Nonetheless I managed to upset some people, and I am still not sure if writing an autobiography is a wise thing to do. I guess the difficult question is: Why are you doing it? If you were a famous general you could tell yourself it will form an important footnote to history; if you we're an abused child who went on to be a high court judge, it might be part of your mission to right the world; if you were a minor celeb you might do it for the profile or the money.
I have none of these excuses. I simply wanted to tell my story, I have no idea why unless it was in the hope that what I had to say about life, love and the rest would interest and intrigue. Possibly it was just an ego-trip, an excuse to devote 300 pages and a year of my life to myself.
But then, all writing is a kind of vanity. And I had to write something. I was getting that familiar itch when one book is delivered and the next not started.
Writing is an incurable disease. I don't feel easy if I am not writing. It doesn't matter if it's a business report, a piece of journalism, fiction, or even a very bad poem. The energy required is the same and all will calm the itch. So when my editor suggested a memoir, with the carrot that if it sold well, it would stimulate novel sales, I thought, why not?
There seems to me a crucial difference between a memoir and an autobiography. The later implies a whole life, an historical record, and ought to be accurate. But a memoir lets you leave out the boring bits. And you can stick to your memory of events - after all it is your memoir - without researching deeply for the verifiable truth. I once worked as clerk to a judge and he told me that if two witnesses' stories were perfectly aligned, they were certainly lying: no two people's memories concur. I find this very comforting.
Written for Areté a Retrospective Published by AretéBooks