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I once met Jane Grigson

Sent in by faithful jotter R.M.Healey. My nearest thing to this was walking through Elizabeth David's hall past some serious antiquarian cookery  to get to the garret of her sister to buy some books. Belgravia?

I met the woman who has been called one of the greatest writers on food in the twentieth century in the early autumn of 1985. But I wasn’t so much interested in her own writings, but in her husband, the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, twenty three years her senior, who was slowly dying.

Earlier that year I had compiled a festschrift for Grigson’s 80th birthday and he had sent me a letter of thanks dictated by his daughter Sophie, who had not yet embarked on her own career as a TV chef and food journalist. At that time I hadn’t fully realised how ill he was (I think it was prostate cancer) because I plagued Jane with letters and phone calls begging to visit them both. Eventually, she relented and one weekday in October my girlfriend and I caught the coach from Victoria to Swindon.

Jane met us and we all drove back to that legendary farm house in Broad Town, whose name on the letterhead was capable of striking dread into the hearts of literary editors and literary enemies alike. We were shown around the house and garden , beginning, I think with the garden, which Grigson had lovingly created almost from scratch, and which features most significantly in his wonderful series of essays, Gardenage (1952). Jane then took us upstairs into her husband’s work room, which I recall was dominated by a huge photocopier. We returned to the large and well appointed kitchen and it was there that I sensed that our hostess felt uncomfortable about us meeting her husband, who we were told lay helpless next door. In the end, she did allow us to see him. He lay prostrate on a couch, seemingly unwilling to utter more than a perfunctory greeting. I endeavoured to engage him in conversation, but his response was a groan of frustration. He then placed a handkerchief over his face. Jane suggested that we leave.

Lunch was ready. For starters Jane had prepared some delicious bloater paste, which I had never eaten. The main course was a simple roast chicken, beautifully cooked. I don’t remember much about this dish or the dessert—if we had one. Conversation was awkward. Jane seemed totally absorbed with the plight of her husband next door, though a note of levity was introduced when she admitted that the octogenarian had managed to pinch his nurse’s bottom.

Grigson died about a month later. Looking back, myself and my girlfriend were probably the last non-family members to see him alive. In the following January, at a memorial tribute of readings at the Royal Festival Hall, I met Jane again. We chatted a little and then she presented me with several volumes of Geoffrey’s work, including a copy of The Harp of Aeolus , which  contained his annotations, and a very rare copy of Legenda Suecana.

That was the last time I saw her. We corresponded infrequently and in one letter she confessed that only her own work kept her from sinking into absolute despair. Then we were told that she had cancer and was experimenting with a diet based on carrots. She died, aged just 62, in 1990.

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