Stephen McGinty asks if the revelations about Nigella Lawson’s alleged behaviour will damage her until now glittering career
IF EVIDENCE was required that Britain’s attitude towards food has changed over the past 15 years, I would put forward the following scene from a Glasgow supermarket as witnessed by myself on Thursday afternoon: a middle-aged woman was so tickled at the extensive range of exotics that she performed an impromptu dance of delight.
Granted, this was no ordinary supermarket but Whole Foods in Giffnock, an emporium of such environmental splendour, where cows are probably massaged before slaughter and fruit pristinely piled under Hollywood-style lighting, that one can only wonder why Carlsberg waited so long to enter the grocery business.
Later that evening I attended its second birthday party which involved eating scallop and prawn skewers, venison and blueberry hotdogs, a cheese fondue laced with white wine and rosemary, meat, fish and vegetable tacos and two large slices of pumpkin pie. The food was fantastic, but the conversation in the aisles was disappointing, particularly in light of this column’s subject, for there was no audible lamentation at the plight of the woman who was a maternal Mao in this culinary revolution, Nigella Lawson.
Who among us doesn’t have to hand, not the little red book, but the big white one, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food? Why Christmas lunch wouldn’t be complete without frequent references to her recipe for cooked goose which I like to read in a most ostentatious manner, usually with a tea-towel draped over my shoulder so as to lend myself that action image of a budding chef-to-be. (In the interest of full disclosure I should add that this is, in effect, the ONLY meal I cook each year, though I am exceptionally good at heating up.) Still what does it matter, Lawson is one of the few cookery writers one can read for the prose as much as the pudding.
So its sad to read to that the Domestic Goddess is being accused by her former husband in an e-mail of being addicted to cocaine and prescription drugs for the past decade. (Yesterday in court, Saatchi admitted that he had no personal knowledge if she had or not.)
The revelations about Nigella Lawson’s alleged behaviour casts the infamous photographs taken of the couple outside Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair in June in a new light. In the summer the public looked at them and saw a violent bully belittling his beautiful wife by tweaking her nose and then, at worst, attempting to throttle her and, at best, making a forceful point while clamping his hands around his distressed wife’s throat. Opprobrium and condemnation was swiftly heaped upon Charles Saatchi who initially tried to brush it off as a ‘lover’s tiff’ and then was seen to compound his error by making a tasteless joke that even “Domestic Goddesses get things stuck in their nose”.
The photographs seemed to illustrate the story that Nigella Lawson, one of Britain’s best-loved women, was an abused wife married to a brutal bully. So does our perspective necessarily change as a result of this new information? What if Charles Saatchi had just discovered that his wife had, for the past ten years, been lying to him in order to conceal a cocaine habit? What if, in his anger, he had grabbed her nose, not to belittle her but to check for traces of cocaine, to confirm if she was still using? What if, when he grabbed her around the neck it was in a desperate, unconscious regrettable attempt to literally shake some sense into his wife, to make her realise the magnitude of what she had done, the risks she was taking to her career, to her health, to her family?
Does that excuse his behaviour? There are those who argue that it does but, no, I don’t think so. At best, it provides mitigating circumstances but I think the police were correct in issuing him with a caution, sending the message that no-one, regardless of wealth or political connections, is above the law when it comes to the grave matter of domestic violence.
Yet while Nigella Lawson must have felt, quite understandably, hugely embarrassed and distressed by the publication of the photographs could she have done more to help her husband who was also in the midst of a deeply shameful incident? Normally victims aren’t expected to come to the aid of their abuser, but the dynamics are clearly different if you are married to him, if this was, indeed, the only time he had lain a hand upon her and she was aware of the circumstances that had prompted this behaviour deemed out of character, couldn’t or shouldn’t she have done more to ameliorate the situation? If she had issued a statement agreeing that what he did was wrong but explaining that it was out of character and the result of a private argument, perhaps the matter may have been defused. Perhaps. But then we would have wanted to know what the argument was about and so on and so on.
What is clear, however, is that by remaining silent Nigella Lawson has brought out the worst in her former husband. Since their separation Charles Saatchi has been anxious to expose his former wife’s behaviour to the public gaze in a manner that, though understandable, is no less ugly. The e-mail in which he described Lawson as “Higella” appears to have been crafted with an inveterate adman’s shrewd eye for the headlines.
At first I was also deeply suspicious of the fortunate timing of his new girlfriend, Trinny Woodall’s article in the Spectator about her own battle for sobriety from alcohol and cocaine addiction, but that does seem to have been pegged to a long-planned public debate on the issue organised by the magazine.
I keep thinking about a previous scandal that entertained the chattering classes of London for a time and that has resurfaced as a result of the current phone-hacking trials. When David Blunkett had an affair with Kimberly Quinn, who was also revealed to have been unfaithful with another man, her husband, Stephen Quinn, the publisher of Vogue, never cast her out, or uttered a word to the press, instead, with an impressive stoicism he appears to have rebuilt his marriage. He is what I would describe as a man of character. Then again, it could be argued, Quinn’s name hasn’t been besmirched, yet if Saatchi’s name has been it is because of his own actions, however much he may have felt provoked.
The whole affair is ugly but almost uglier still is that we do take such secret delight when titans fall. We shouldn’t, but we do. The reason is that it makes us feel better about our own lives.
For over a decade we’ve looked on covetously at Nigella Lawson’s life of wealth and taste and expensive kitchenware. We may have known that it was an illusion, but there is still something comforting to us that for even the rich and famous “into each life some rain must fall”. Nigella Lawson knows this, for during her life there have been times when she has been drenched in suffering, to lose one’s mother, one’s sister and one’s husband to cancer by the age of just 41 would lead anyone to conclude that God, if he exists, had an agenda and that if anyone has pain to kill with powers and pills it was surely her.
The question is how much damage these revelations will cause to her career? The British public have an increasingly liberal view of private drug use and are largely sympathetic towards anyone who stumbles into the quagmire of addiction. When her new cookery programme begins on BBC 2 in the New Year there will, of course, be jokes cracked on sofas around the country and knowing glances whenever she talks of ounces, but I doubt fans will turn their backs on her or that the BBC will abandon Lawson as toxic. This calculation could change, however, if there were any substantiated revelations that cast doubt on her behaviour towards her children.
In America, where she is less established, TV executives may be less tolerant and figure why take the risk of further damaging revelations and so decide not to invite her back for the next season.
I do, however think it was rash and short-sighted of Lawson to attempt to rally her 400,000 fans on Twitter by offering a recipe as a thanks for all those who typed #teamnigella, in fact, the whole affair is turning into a recipe for personal disaster.