Clarissa Dickson Wright, the surviving member of the Two Fat Ladies TV partnership, tells Sarah O’Meara how she drank her way through a £2.8m inheritance before turning her life around, as her new book, Comfort Food, is published.

CLARISSA Dickson Wright is annoyed.

“Don’t call me a chef,” she says crossly. “A chef has a brigade of staff. I’m a cook.” It might seem a small point considering this formidable woman once drank away the equivalent of a £2.8m inheritance, but she isn’t going to let it slide.

Twelve years after she entered Britain’s consciousness as ‘the one in the sidecar’, Clarissa is still a force to be reckoned with.

Now a well-established cook – her latest recipe book, Clarissa’s Comfort Food, came out last week – she is also a vociferous campaigner on countryside issues and speaks with the authority of a woman who is seldom wrong. Considering she has an IQ of 196, that might be a fair assumption.

Despite growing up in St John’s Wood in central London, Clarissa has made it her life’s work to develop a deep understanding of the countryside and food production.

“I find looking into all aspects of the food industry totally fulfilling,”

she says. “By not using locally sourced food and interfering with the environment, we’re slowly killing the nation and the planet. Food has become a corporate business and it’s changing the world.”

Famously despised by animal rights activists, Clarissa memorably appeared on Question Time in 1998 and called foxes “cruel, vicious killers”.

Although her rhetoric may sound a little barbaric, the former barrister understands the subtleties of the debate better than most and refuses to let an emotional attachment to animals get in the way of hard facts.

‘WHEN I spoke about foxes on Question Time, everybody cheered. Not because they agreed with me, but because of my passion. When I started doing this I didn’t realise just how little people knew about foxes and hunting and how you’ve got to take steps to balance everything in the countryside. Ignoring the relationship between traditional activities such as hunting and the rural environment and economy is absurd.”

Understandably her high profile, knowledge of rural affairs and powerful ability to win an argument has led to many job offers.

“Virtually everybody’s offered me a political seat,” she laughs. “George Brown offered me an MEP seat and I said ‘But George, I’m not a socialist’. And he said ‘Oh it doesn’t matter’.

Mind you we both were drunk at the time.”

Which brings us to perhaps the most fascinating thing about Clarissa Dickson Wright: her past. In her autobiography, Spilling The Beans, Clarissa reveals the terrible physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her world-famous surgeon father, Arthur Dickson Wright and her eventual gin-fuelled breakdown after her mother died.

Clarissa’s story of riches to rags – she spent all her £2.8m inheritance within 12 years and ended up homeless – makes her self-confidence seem all the more incredible. But after 21 years of sobriety, she clearly has no intention of wasting time on remorse.

“I don’t feel guilty about it,” she says frankly.

“Obviously there are times when I’m really tired and I’m doing yet another book signing when I think I wouldn’t have to do this if I hadn’t spent all my money. But then I think, if I had had more money I’d be dead. And I had a lovely time spending it.”

Unlike many other addicts who have struggled with the demons of their past, Clarissa feels no shame about crashing cars, blacking out, going to jail and lying to her friends and family.

“Alcoholism is an illness and coming from a medical background I understand that concept,”

she says.

In her twenties, Clarissa’s life looked incredibly promising. The youngest woman to ever have been called to the Bar, she lived with her mother in St John’s Wood after her abusive father had left. But the woman she nicknamed ‘Mollypop’ died and the sole recipient of her mother’s will hit every bar in town.

‘WE’D go out at 8pm, head for a Belgravia pub, then go on and have something to eat and end up at Raffles to dance. Then you went home with whomever or you went off to Smithfields and Covent Garden to keep on drinking until morning.

Looking back I think ‘God that all sounds so exhausting’. But then I’ve always had quite a lot of energy. All the people I socialised with were alcoholics. Alcoholics drink with other alcoholics. When you give up the worst thing is giving up your friends. The flipside was that when I got to Alcoholics Anonymous there were a hell of a lot of them waiting for me.”

When she was approached to be one of the Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa soon realised she’d be working with another, albeit functioning, alcoholic, renowned cook Jennifer Paterson.

“I talked to her on a couple of occasions and she said ‘I know I drink too much, darling, but I’m too old to stop now’. She was that much older than me and able to keep her life together. So if she didn’t want to stop why should she? If people don’t help themselves you can’t make them.”

After Jennifer’s death from lung cancer in 1999 at the age of 71, half-way through filming their fourth series, Clarissa branched out and became a mouthpiece for rural issues.

She supported the Countryside Alliance in its bid to stop the anti-hunting laws and was placed at number three on the Animal Liberation Front death list. At the same time, she began presenting another TV series, Clarissa And The Countrymen.

Her next major project is producing an encyclopaedia of English food and she looks happy at the thought of spending months deeply engrossed in gastronomic reference books.

Half-way through her description of the future, Clarissa turns away and grabs the chef as he walks past her table.

“Do you have enough grouse in for dinner tomorrow?”

she asks. There is a mild look of panic in the man’s eyes as he does the calculation in his head and he eventually answers ‘yes’ with a little sigh of relief.

She turns back satisfied. There’s no doubt that this Fat Lady thinks everyone should live up to her standards.