I have always maintained that my mother was the Jamie Oliver of her day. I even wrote to Jamie Oliver, not expecting a reply, and of course I didn’t get one.
It was in 1955 that the publishers Dennis Dobson published a book called Better Cooking for Large Numbers by Nora Radenhurst. That was my mother. By that time she was retired, as most of her working life was during and after the war.
In her Introduction to the book my mother wrote: “This little book … is a plea to those who cater for schools and institutions for better planned and more varied menus, with much more accent on a balanced diet. School meals are too often lacking in the proper dietetic values which mean so much to growing children if they are to grow up strong and healthy, better able to withstand disease, mentally and physically alert, and equipped to forge their way in life.”
She was saying then just what Jamie Oliver is saying today.
Here is what Winifred Barrows, the Headmistress of Lawnside School, where my mother worked, said about my mother’s cooking.
“‘The Principal’s chief pre-occupation is the food’ … Not until Mrs Radenhurst loomed on the school’s horizon, did this ‘chief pre-occupation’ of mine give me any sort of satisfaction, but at the end of her first week in the kitchen I began to realise that with the same food bills we were getting really exciting meals. The girls ate in fighting-cock fashion but were never sick, and I boasted of their 100 per cent successes in examinations and their improvement in sport. Secretly, I was convinced the careful preparation of the meals and their appetising variety had everything to do with it.”
When I was a child at school and my mother was doing the cooking, I did not always appreciate it. In fact my mother was not born into this profession. She was born far away in Canada, later came to Paris to study art, and in 1928 at the age of forty two, she gave birth to me, a child out of wedlock, in Nice in the south of France.
An extraordinary woman, she did not give me away and, being so far away from home, she was able to continue living with me as her child in a foreign county. We lived happily for four years in France until in 1932 came the depression and disaster struck, my mother lost all her money and we were penniless.
What did my mother do? She found work doing one of the things that she was good at, and that was cooking. We moved from France to Jersey, where she found work cooking for a wealthy family, and then in 1937, thinking ahead about my education, we came to England. My mother had found a job in a private boarding school as a ‘lady cook housekeeper’, she always insisted on the ‘lady’, with my education thrown in.
So began my years in England as the ‘Cook’s daughter.’
Blackdown School was a small boarding and day school in Wellington, Somerset. I was nine when we moved to England and I hated it. The English were so different from the extrovert French, nobody seemed to have any emotions, people were so reserved, I had no idea how to respond and so I retreated into my shell. My mother was working hard and she was always tired. I would go up to her bedroom and bury myself in a book.
It was, in fact, a rather happy-go-lucky school, run by a naval Commander and his wife. She had always wanted a school and he had wanted a chicken farm, so they combined the two. The pupils were mostly local girls and girls from the surrounding farms.
After some teething problems with bed wetting, when I was looked after with great kindness by the housemistress, I made some friends, found a ‘best friend’ and began to settle down. The headmistress was a gentle woman without much authority. The landgirl, who looked after the chickens, was very friendly. There was an orchard where we would play, climbing trees, a seesaw and swings. My best friend, Dulcie, from New Zealand, was a bit of a tearaway and led me into all sorts of scrapes.
What was nice was that there were several girls from abroad, India and New Zealand, who stayed at the school during the holidays. The school was our home, and I remember Easter, Christmas and summer holidays, when we would all be together and have fun. I was slowly coming out of my shell.
My mother was still thinking about my education. I was doing quite well in my classes and showing some talent in elocution. She decided she wanted a better education for me and a better class of girl for me to mix with. So, sometime in 1940, we moved to a school in Haywards Heath, which was a school for upper class girls with wealthy parents.
This was a completely different school. The headmistress was a martinet, and it was run on almost military lines. Gone were the free and easy ways of the Commander and his wife. I could no longer pop up to my mother’s bedroom when I felt like it. I was thrust into a strange new world of girls who were very different from me, and I was like a fish out of water.
Discipline was very strict and order marks were given out for any misdemeanours. I was very absent minded and invariably forgot things from my bedroom, to which we were not allowed to return during the day. I would creep up as quietly as I could, as the housemistress slept next door. Out she would pop, a huge woman with a large bosom, she terrified me, and catch me. In this way I accumulated a large number of order marks and would be ordered to the headmistress’s office every half term. Cold and severe, with short, iron grey hair, she was equally terrifying. I would leave her room feeling like a criminal for no good reason that I could think of.
I did not make friends, I had nothing in common with any of the girls. I often said things that made them laugh, they made fun of me and one of them, a general’s daughter, used to introduce me to new girls, saying ‘this is the fool’, at which point I wanted to sink into the earth.
I could no longer see my mother nor could I go to her bedroom. I was lost and on my own.
It was decided to transfer me down one year, to be with children who were younger than I was. Here I fared better, I made friends with the younger sister of the general’s daughter. She was not so pretty and she was much nicer. Here again, disaster struck. Helen and I had devised a game at night in the bedroom, where we would roll over each other, naked, on the bed. One evening in walked the matron, another dragon, and caught us in the act.
I was immediately transferred to the sick room, and left there, with no more contact with the children. I was a pariah, I had no idea what I had done. A child psychologist came to see me, I remember him as a very nice man to whom I could talk. His verdict was that it was not good for me to be in the same school where my mother was the cook housekeeper.
It is interesting to compare the prevailing attitude at that time towards cooking, which was considered as a menial task, so different from the status which chefs have today.
I was allowed back into the community and now it was decided that I would have to try and get a scholarship to another school. I still had not seen my mother and had no communication with her. I can only imagine her distress.
Fortunately, after I had taken one or two exams, I gained a scholarship to a minor Public School in North Wales called Lowther College, and it was there that I went in 1942.
My mother also moved and found a post as ‘lady cook housekeeper’ at Lawnside School in Great Malvern, where she came into her own working for Miss Barrows, the above mentioned headmistress, who so appreciated my mother’s cooking skills and talent.
I was now separated from my mother altogether, and had to find my way in an entirely new school, and that is another story.
To my shame, my attitude towards my mother had been coloured by my recent experiences and I had absorbed some of the prevailing prejudices. I still remember the embarrassment I felt on Speech Days, when my mother came, looking old and careworn, she was now in her fifties, and shabbily dressed amongst all the other well groomed parents.
I want to pay tribute now to my mother, to her courage, her spirit of enterprise and adventure, her intelligence and her skills, which were many, and above all to the love which she bore me throughout her life, and without which I would not have been able to make something of myself.
She did, in fact, forge a career for herself. which culminated in her writing her book, Better Cooking for Large Numbers, which, I believe, was quite successful at the time.
My own journey in life was a little bumpy, due to my early experiences, but I am writing about these elsewhere.