Annabel Morley has a rich and fascinating heritage. Her father was the renowned British actor Robert Morley CBE, her grandmother the society beauty Dame Gladys Cooper. She counts actor Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers, Absolutely Fabulous) as a cousin and as a child enjoyed the company of such iconic stars as Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracey.
Annabel’s recount of a childhood growing up in the English countryside, almost seems as if it has been ripped from quintessential English novels. She now calls Australia home and we are delighted that Annabel will be joining us for the 2016 Batemans Bay Writers Festival to talk about food, the arts and her memoir about that amazing childhood, The Icing on the Cake.
Your memoir, The Icing on the Cake, is a fascinating insight into a life that seems straight out of fiction. What prompted you to put pen to paper?
I was first prompted by a low impulse – my elder brother Sheridan (who died in 2007) was a prolific writer (26 books about the theatre, plus14 books he edited and 4 stage shows) and when my father died in 1992, Sherry took over the telling of the family stories. But the problem was he would get them slightly wrong, if it was a joke of my father’s the punch line would be changed (and not for the better). I thought: I want to tell those stories – and get them right.
The other trigger was my mother’s death and the selling and dismantling of the family house. The book was a thank you letter to my parents, my father was so wonderfully buoyant and never really seemed old so I wasn’t prepared for him to die, with my mother it was a long, gentle decline and I did write her a letter telling her how wonderful she had been as a mother.
I started writing the book about 5 years before it was published (in 2008) and every Christmas I would self-publish a section and sell it through our theatre groups and the response was very positive but there were several pitfalls – one was how long is a book (or a piece of string)? What in a life do you include or exclude? How to structure it? Will the combination of memoir and recipes work? And will anybody ‘get’ it ?
By chance I met Jane Curry (who published Icing) and I had the little booklets and so I could say: this is it in embryo. And she being English and from a similar background to me (but much younger) ‘got’ it. So when she agreed to publish it, I had about half written it and I wrote the rest very quickly. The most difficult part to write was Big Brother, Little Brother.
In contrast, the section on my mother’s funeral Funeral Blues I wrote very quickly and easily. I tried it out at a library talk I gave (before the book was finished) and a man came up to me and said “Well, we certainly know a lot about you and your family now” and the inference was: Rather too much !
And I could hear my mother saying “Really, darling !” in the way she did when she thought one of us had gone a bit too far but I think she would have loved the book and I think my Pa would have been very proud – he wanted me to be a writer. (Sorry I took so long, Pa)
Food is central to your life. You love entertaining family and friends. I’m coming over for lunch on Sunday. What are we likely to be feasting upon.
As I write this I have half an eye on the clock, neighbours for supper. What are we having?
Anti pasto which we will eat on our laps – hummus and taramaslata, some Manchengo cheese and marinated artichokes, figs and dried pears, Aldi’s cheese biscuits. Then orange and oregano roast chicken with olive and fetta relish served with little potatoes roasted in olive oil and watercress salad. Crème caramel covered with sliced strawberries for pud.
Last dinner party ― I think I am one of the last people who still has dinner parties ― was Italian Wedding Soup (Recipe in Volume II), my fish pie (recipe in Icing) and an olive oil and chocolate cake for pud.
Your father was the renowned actor Robert Morley CBE. You were an actress yourself. The theatre is still important to you but why should it matter to us? What draws people to your tours?
I have a confession to make – most of the time I would rather see a film than a play. In a bad film, there is always something to look at. Perversely, in the theatre I still feel that thrill when the house lights go down and the stage lights come up (once it was a curtain rising – very rare these days.) But oh ! The sense of growing horror if it’s going to be a dud night in the theatre. And I’m spoilt – I’ve seen the best. So I leave at the interval if I’m not enjoying myself – I have never walked out mid performance –although I was in a play when the audience did that, and asked for their money back.
But what draws people to the theatre in our groups I think is that compact that you enter into as an audience member in a theatre. The cinema says: this is real (although of course, it isn’t. )The playwright says: all aboard the train, we applaud at the same time, laugh, weep, shudder – this disparate group of people becomes one entity. Extraordinary! And to think people have been doing this since the Greeks went to see plays about their gods; when I go to the Globe in London and sit as the dusk falls and think, people have been listening to these words of Shakespeare’s here or very near here for 400 years….well, it’s incredible. It’s story-telling.
(Also in our groups, we organise the tickets, we all go together, to matinees and Charlie, my husband, is so amazing that if you are hard of hearing he puts you down the front and if you have a gippy knee he puts you where there aren’t any stairs and if you are claustrophobic, you are on the end of a row. And we tell you about the play before we see it and we might have one of the cast or the director to tell us about the production and we discuss it afterwards.)
What unexpected delights did publishing The Icing on the Cake deliver? Did old friends reappear or new ones made?
The biggest thrill when I wrote Icing ( apart from a great friend here in Australia and another great friend in London ‘launching’ it at two fabulous parties) was such a sweet note from Anna Volska (John Bell’s wife) congratulating me, also walking past an unknown man in Bondi Junction who just said out of the corner of his mouth “Great book”. A dear friend of mine who I have known since I was sixteen saying it made him cry. Because he knew all the cast and misses them as I do.
We are so looking forward to welcoming you to the 2016 Batemans Bay Writers Festival. What are you plans whilst you’re with us next weekend?
I’ve never been to Bateman’s Bay. I love seaside places. I love being away for the weekend and not having to shop or cook or wash up and I love talking about myself, plus I’m always fascinated to meet the other writers at Literary events and the audience.
You can meet Annabel at the following events:
Saturday September 10 9am to 10pm
What place does food play in our lives? Think beyond sustenance and nourishment with three authors for whom food is central to their existence. With Annabel Morley, chef James Viles and food photographer Simon Griffiths. Facilitated by Nick Rheinberger.
Saturday September 10 11.45 am to 12.45 pm
State of the Arts
Geoff Cousins, Annabel Morley and Sarah Rice have a wealth of experience in the arts sector. They explore how the arts can remain a vital and relevant expression of our many identities.
Sunday September 11 9.30am to 10.30am
Memoir—Telling True Stories
Although regarded as non fiction, memoir can easily merge with fiction. How does a writer distinguish memory from fact or determine truths long buried with their teller? Three authors, Annabel Morley, Deb Hunt and Rod Jones, discuss the telling of family tales and the process of discovering the emotional truths of their stories. Facilitated by Meredith Jaffé.