Prue Leith: When did the Samaritans lose their way?

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

In the past few weeks, on three separate occasions, I have met three different women who for years (one for more than 30 years) volunteered for the Samaritans. All three have now quit. One, Sarah Anderson, said: ‘Chad Varah [the founder] must be spinning in his grave.’ The Samaritans has changed, they say. It still provides a vital service, being the only 24/7 helpline for potential suicides or other desperate people — but it’s become a one-number call-centre, where the call goes to the next available volunteer, probably hundreds of miles away. Face-to-face conversations are now rare, and they’ve given up their old ‘absolute confidentiality’ policy. Sarah has set up a new counselling service called The Listening Place, which refuses to share information with the authorities. This means that the NHS cannot fund the organisation, but even so 400 volunteers have supported more than 2,000 people, many suicidal. Every one of them was contacted within 24 hours of being referred (usually by A&E, by their GP or by other charities), and were seen within a week, in person, by a volunteer dedicated to them. Really impressive.

Anyone remember this ditty, usually said in a Bronx accent? ‘The spring is sprung, the grass is ris / I wonder where the boidie is? / They say the boid is on the wing / But that’s absoid. The wing is on the boid.’ I think of it every year when the may is out.

Things have changed since I last flogged a cookbook more than 25 years ago. Back then, pomegranate seeds were unheard of, no one knew of yuzu juice, and my audiences were 99 per cent women. Now nine-year-olds tell me about their cornbread, and real men make fairy cakes. I’m also struck by the generation divide. The young want quick veggie recipes and the greyheads yearn for devilled kidneys.

I’m hopeless at names and faces so when people approach me with the dreaded words ‘You won’t remember me…’, they’re right. Usually it transpires that they worked in my catering company or went to my cookery school. So if I say, ‘Weren’t you at Leiths?’ I get away with it. But one day a woman came up: ‘You won’t remember me…’ I went into my routine: ‘Weren’t you at Leiths?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m your niece.’ No way out of that hole.

What’s happened to the famous British cuppa? In the past, a proper cup of tea wasn’t hard to find. Squaddies in the war, bombed-out civilians in shelters, hospital patients and British Rail passengers could all get a good reviving, comforting brew. It’s hardly difficult — so why is a decent cup made with boiling water poured on leaves or teabag, allowed to brew (no mashing!) and served with fresh milk now a rarity? Tea stewed to bitterness or weak as gnats’ pee and served with a disgusting UHT ‘milk stick’ is the norm. Even our national carrier, BA, can’t run to fresh milk. Although if you go to the back of the plane and suck up to the staff, they’ll probably make you an excellent cuppa and treat you to their private supply. One woman wrote to me asking why residents in care homes could not have the tea they had at home: PG Tips, Tetley, whatever. Why indeed? A moment of pleasure could be so easily delivered. The difference in cost between a decent teabag and the cheapest ‘catering’ one is about 0.3 of a penny.

And while I’m whingeing in grumpy-old-woman style, why don’t supermarkets ask for contributions to food banks at the entrance? Once you’ve got to the till, if you are to respond to the appeal for baked beans, sugar, spaghetti etc. you must fight your way back to collect the offerings and queue all over again. A reminder at the entrance would make sense, no?

The new cookery school at Truro School is the brainchild of Maria Taylor, a food teacher I’ve tracked over the years as she’s transformed the food in every school she’s taught in: cooking lessons, catering, teaching of nutrition, sustainability, food politics, everything. Lots of schools teach the Leiths basic course to sixth-formers, but this is the first school to build a community teaching kitchen in its car park with a public café attached, designed for students, community groups, anyone.

Another remarkable food teacher, Rachel Richards in Kingussie High School near Aviemore, last year endured a Twitter storm of abuse because she shows children how to skin, butcher, clean and cook rabbits, how to pluck pheasants and how to slow-cook venison. ‘Teaching children to use knives to murder animals’ is how the trolls see it. Her classes are the most popular in the school, even with the burly shinty-playing teenagers. The pupils happily eat veg and I didn’t see one fat one. Just saying.

Am I the only person who didn’t ‘get’ Hamilton, allegedly the most successful musical since The Phantom of the Opera? I thought it OK, but I found the hip-hop music same-same but not different and I longed for a thumping good song. The history lesson was good, though I doubt I’d have followed it without the programme notes. It took me a good 20 minutes to figure out that the wonderfully camp black guy was Thomas Jefferson.

Came home to a comforting glass of Ilmington apple brandy, made in a neighbouring village with local apples. I really am getting old and grumpy.

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