Meanwhile, in 1981, we had a bumper year for new titles. The first of
these, Traditional Recipes of Laos, was essentially a facsimile edition of
manuscript recipe notebooks compiled by the late royal chef in the then
Kingdom of Laos. We took pleasure in telling other publishers that we were
doing this, and in observing their amazement - amazement which we compounded
by remarking that the manuscript was not in ordinary Lao script
but in a special and antique palace script which even Lao people could not
read with complete ease. We might also have mentioned that the notebooks
were of that maddening French type whose pages are completely covered
with a close grid of pale blue lines and that it had taken three Lao people
(by coincidence immured at what was just the right time for us in a London
hospital for tropical diseases, where they were being rid of a rare parasite)
three weeks and several pots of whiting-out liquid and many very fine
brushes to efface all trace of the blue lines. To be fair, we should then have
explained that the recipes were accompanied by a translation (done by a
team of Lao and Thai young women, working with our youngest daughter
Jennifer) and a full introduction about Lao ingredients and foodways, and
many beautiful drawings by a Lao artist (Soun Vannithone, who had
already attracted attention by his lovely illustrations for Sri Owen's book).
The cover (also by Soun and reproduced in part here) was brilliant. Even
so, the venture looked risky, especially as we had to plan a print run of
However, the Lao venture was supported by three factors. First, there
was no other worth-while book on the subject. Second, profits were to help
Lao refugees in the UK (for whom we helped buy a Lao typewriter, among
other things). Third, there were large numbers of Lao refugees around the
world, and it was not only they (anxious to preserve their culinary culture)
but also all those engaged in helping to look after them who formed a
special market for the book.
I like to think that there was a fourth factor; that our seemingly lunatic
enterprise had heavenly support. Before leaving Laos in 1975, we had paid
a visit to the royal chef's widow in the royal capital, Luang Prabang. Our
purpose had simply been to thank her for the use of some of her late
husband's recipes in a book I had written and published on Fish and Fish
Dishes of Laos. But she told us to our astonishment that it had been her
husband's dying wish that his recipes should be published and the revenues
used to repair the shelter of a certain statue of the Buddha in Luang Prabang.
It became clear that she saw us as the people who could bring this about.
I stammered something to the effect that we would see what we could do
when we returned to the outside world. In return I received one of those
unmistakeable 'you-are-the-man' looks from her clear eyes as she pronounced with great distinctness words which were translated for us as: 'If
you succeed, then the soul of my dear husband will at last rest in peace.'
Well, that seemed to settle it. If the soul of Phia Sing could only rest in
peace when we had seen to the publication of his book, we would see to it.
The decision involved no thought about markets or costs or technical
problems; it just emerged out of the air in that small room in Luang
Prabang. (Of course at that time we were not, and did not intend to become,
publishers; but who could seriously suppose that any other publisher would
step forward? Yes, we could sense that our fate was being determined there
As it happened, it was a good decision. The book did well in every way,
giving much pleasure to many people and bringing benefits to the Lao
community in England (Phia Sing's son, whom we later tracked down
selling jeans in a clothes shop in Paris, had readily agreed that his father's
wish about the shelter for the statue could be transmuted into a wish for the
welfare of Lao people who had become refugees), and made money for
Prospect Books too.