Clarissa Dickson Wright

9th November 2007 at 00:00
An exuberant nun became a good friend and spiritual counsellor to this self-proclaimed fat lady.When I was 11, I was sent off with my trunk and my uniform from Harrods to board at the Sacred Heart Convent in Hove, East Sussex. I still remember the wonderful smell of beeswax polish, flowers and incense. The nuns wore full habit with a frilled wimple framing the face and appeared very gracious and dignified and had a considerable air of authority.

Mother April O'Leary was my favourite. She taught me English for A-level and was also my mistress of studies. She became one of the great influences in my life. She was in her early 40s then, a small woman with bright blue eyes. We later became great friends and now go away for holiday together every year. I cook and we talk and read and play backgammon - at which she is a fiend.

She was a wonderful teacher: exuberant, enthusiastic and full of life. She would read the comic bits of Shakespeare in a Warwickshire accent and directed us in school stage productions with gusto. Never shy, I was cast as Ernest in The Importance of Being Ernest and she taught me how to rub up tobacco and I learned to smoke a pipe. I was Arthur in a memorable Le Morte d'Arthur for which April constructed a barge on wheels that was pulled across stage by the lacrosse team. Unfortunately, my baldric got looped round a wheel and it was nearly the end of me. Everyone said it was most dramatic how my voice got fainter and fainter.

April was very keen on Skeats' etymological dictionary (I have her copy) and we spent many happy hours researching the origin of words. My father was also a great teacher who had encouraged me to go and look things up and she took this one stage further and stretched my mind and taught me to look beyond the page immediately in front of me.

She was a very clever woman. If she hadn't been a nun I'm sure she would have been a brilliant Oxford don. We'd read Milton and Henry James, which I didn't like then, though I do now, and she would enthuse me. Her forte was Jane Austen. She wrote her PhD at Oxford on the role of the aunts in Jane Austen. We were all devoted to her. My best friend, Christine, and I used to pester her to give us chores just so we could spend more time talking to her.

When my mother died, I went to see April, who was then at the teacher training college in Roehampton, and she helped organise the funeral. We became friends and she became my spiritual counsellor. The Catholic Church can be quite rigid, but the great thing about April is that she has always worn her spirituality like a very comfortable garment. There have been times in my life when I have been separated from God and she accepted that and never nagged me.

She has always been understanding. In my drinking days, when I was on retreat and supposedly giving up alcohol, she once took a swig out of my glass thinking it was water and found it was almost neat gin. She didn't say a word; she just looked at me quizzically. Later she told me she realised there was nothing she could do, so she prayed.

I was slightly apprehensive when I sent her a copy of my autobiography, but she said she'd enjoyed it and when she got to the horrid bits she kept on reading because she knew the story had a happy ending.

Clarissa Dickson Wright is the youngest woman to be called to the Bar but found greater fame as half of the TV cookery duo, Two Fat Ladies. A former rector of Aberdeen University, she now campaigns for country pursuits. Her father, Arthur Dickson Wright, was a renowned surgeon and the Queen Mother's doctor. Clarissa's autobiography, Spilling the Beans, was published in September. She was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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