Al Gore apparently asked himself ‘What would Jesus do?’ before a big decision. My friend Andy asked himself ‘What would John Gotti do’ (he was on a fast-track graduate training scheme at an accounting firm at the time) and it showed. When I detailed my troubles with a tricky boyfriend he said, ‘Why don’t you hire someone to beat him up?’
I’ve never had that sort of hero. I’m not sure how helpful it would be; the discrepancy between say, Ellen MacArthur’s decisions (death-defying) or Madonna’s (multi million dollar), and mine (nap timetabling) seems an unbridgeable gap.
I chose my first hero when I was 12, and I chose very well as she’s still a hero. Of course I don’t know her, which makes me realise that you can’t separate what you do from who you are.
So my first fan letter is to Jilly Cooper. I discovered Jilly in my second year of boarding school. I had a Purdy haircut, wore Polyveldt shoes (Cornish pasties with laces like worms) and my brother’s hand me down corduroys for mufti (I know, I’d never heard that word before either). I was uncool. My best friend Jane was cool; even then she had charisma and even then I recognised it. But I inexplicably accused her of throwing my Parker pencil into the nettles during a school trip to Slimbridge Wildlife centre and we didn’t speak again. Thirty years later we re-met; one of the first things she said to me was ‘I didn’t steal your Parker pencil’.
I have Jane to thank for Jilly; she bought Harriet from the school bookshop, and I read it straight after her, and then Octavia, Imogen, Prudence, Bella, and Emily.
It felt sophisticated, and the whole new world she created sounded not at all intimidating and packed with love, sex, romance, and happiness. Reading Jilly Cooper was fun, like reading Enid Blyton when I was much younger, but with less ginger beer and midnight feasts. Riders and Rivals remain two of my happiest reading experiences ever, not least for the hero Rupert Campbell Black, who is more than a match for Mr Darcy.
I admire Jilly Cooper for her success, and for wearing it so gracefully, with no moaning about the work-life balance or how impossible it is being a working mother. I love her distinct style and her deceptively light touch; the perfect foil for her tender truths and pin-sharp observations. I totally respect her creativity, and for being so fabulously cheery and unjaded. But back when I chose Jilly, I loved her for the sex and love education.
My next fan letter is to the brilliant cook and writer Nigel Slater. There seem to be two schools of thought for cookery writers. On the one hand we have the school teacher – pages of detailed and specific instructions on how to make toast. On the other we have the school boy – if you haven’t got any bread to make toast, use anything else you have got – cardboard, your own hand, whatever. I prefer the second school, where you have instruction but you are allowed autonomy.
I discovered Nigel when I flat-shared with someone who couldn’t boil an egg without first disabling the smoke alarm. She set about Nigel’s book ‘Real Cooking’ with enthusiasm. On the pages that weren’t stuck together with cream or singed at the corners, she wrote comments afterwards, usually ‘Delicious!’. He makes everyone feel that they can cook.
I love Nigel Slater because he realises that most of us can feel demoralised quickly, and we don’t want to have to invest £1500 in equipment before we’re allowed to start. We don’t want to spend three days sourcing ingredients with such weird names that we don’t know if we’re looking for animal, mineral or vegetable. Neither do we want to eat beans out a pan if we’re cooking for one. Since I’ve followed Nigel’s recipes, I’ve taken an entirely new view on cooking for myself (I have a signature dish! I can do it! I can even improvise!). I have a different view on eating; I savour it all – the anticipation, the creation, the first mouthful, the last mouthful. I have a different view on cooking for someone else, it’s not a grind, it’s a loving gesture. I have a new view being cooked for; I am always aware of what an intimate and loving gesture it is. The first meal my boyfriend ever cooked for me was his signature dish; slabs of cheese on toast, grilled, with the Worcestershire sauce uniquely applied to the bread, not just the cheese. He made the two slices one after another, so we ate separately, and he presented the plate with the same top notes of anxiety that we all feel. I was totally charmed. I have a lot to thank Nigel for.
My third fan letter is to Roger Federer. He’s my second sports crush. My first was John McEnroe who I have loved since I was 13. When I lived in New York in my 20s, I once met him in a gym. The first rule of New York is that nobody recognises celebrity, and I’d rather not have been wearing an old tracksuit with unwashed hair and no make up, but needs must. I approached him, I tried to tell him I was his biggest fan, and I tried to tell him why, but I lost focus. Close to hysteria, I could barely speak, let alone speak English (it came out as a sort Esperanto/tongues of fire hybrid). He was fabulously polite and charming, and left the gym (if not the city) as soon as possible. So my next sports crush is the mighty Fed. I just think he’s pure magic. His forehand reminds me of a boxer throwing a punch. He’s balletic in his grace and strength. He’s the epitome of what it means to be a champion, what it means to be a sportsman, what it means to be the best. I love the way he doesn’t even sweat, he just wipes his eyebrow with his finger.
My fourth letter is to Matthew Weiner, writer of Mad Men. His writing is so rich and so spare; it’s always new, always surprising, always beautiful. There is never an unnecessary word, and so much of what is said is often not put into words. Watching some episodes, like ‘The Suitcase’ in series four gave me the same thrill as watching Michael Jackson moon-walk for the first time at the Motown 25th anniversary party, or driving over the bridge from JFK airport to New York at night for the first time (or the hundredth time), and seeing Manhattan lit up in front of you, or like watching Federer play tennis; glad-to-be-alive excitement.