A Christmas Ca­role

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - INTERVIEW -

Ca­role Mid­dle­ton has plenty to toast this Christmas. As well as new ar­rivals to her (very fa­mous) fam­ily, she is cel­e­brat­ing the 30th an­niver­sary of her Party Pieces busi­ness. Here, the quin­tes­sen­tial host­ess gives us her fes­tive party tips, writes Lisa Armstrong

IF I come across as nor­mal, that would be great, be­cause that’s what I am,” says Ca­role Mid­dle­ton — who, at 63, looks any­thing but, what with those teenage legs and that halo of out­doorsy glam­our. She’s quite a con­trast to the sur­round­ings: we’re sit­ting in the board­room, a rather grand de­scrip­tion for the small, in­sti­tu­tional-look­ing room at the end of a nar­row cor­ri­dor, which was once a cow­barn-turned-chicken-shed.

A 15-minute drive from Buck­le­bury Manor, the Mid­dle­tons’s Berk­shire home, this rather chilly space (“You might like to keep your coat on,” Michelle, Ca­role’s PR, warns me) is the moth­er­ship for Party Pieces, the one-stop shop for ev­ery con­ceiv­able party ne­ces­sity (from chil­dren’s ice-cream-shaped sun­glasses to rose-gold hen-night crowns and wed­ding wish­ing jars). Next door are a cou­ple of large, rough-brick ware­houses with ra­dios blar­ing pop mu­sic and shelves of boho pom-pom fairy lights and roaring di­nosaur ta­ble cen­tre­pieces.

Lightly tanned, nat­u­ral make-up, more brunette than her re­cent blonde out­ings, Ca­role is both more strik­ing and some­how more pe­tite than in pho­tos. (“5ft 7in,” she says, “But maybe I’ve shrunk.”) The ef­fect is English­woman meets Ralph Lau­ren, which is pretty much what her out­fit turns out to be: khaki Ralph Lau­ren jacket, M&S skinny trousers and black Rus­sell & Brom­ley rid­ing boots.

For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, she doesn’t want to ap­pear as though she’s rid­ing on her daugh­ters’ wave, but one can’t help but spot how re­mark­ably con­sis­tent the fe­male Mid­dle­ton fea­tures and taste are. One of the Goat dresses she wore on the photo shoot even turns out be the same style as one the Duchess of Cam­bridge has worn. “Though not the iden­ti­cal one,” Ca­role is care­ful to point out, aware the press love a Mid­dle­ton mother-daugh­ter out­fit share.

This de­sire to ap­pear nor­mal isn’t sim­ply, I think, a tic picked up from the Royal fam­ily (one that can be traced back to the Hanove­ri­ans and Ge­orge III, who liked to style him­self as Farmer Ge­orge), but an im­pulse that comes from hav­ing al­ways been a grafter. The com­pany she set up as a one-stop mail-or­der des­ti­na­tion for chil­dren’s party sup­plies is 30 years old, and while her hus­band Michael has been in­volved in it with her since 1989, it was very much Ca­role’s idea. “And it was a good idea” she has noted. “Or it wouldn’t have taken off.”

She launched the busi­ness after the fam­ily re­turned from a post­ing in Jor­dan, where Michael was an aero man­ager for an in­ter­na­tional air sta­tion. Once they were safely nes­tled in a pocket of ru­ral Berk­shire, Ca­role cast round for some­thing to help with the bills that could work around the chil­dren (Cather­ine was four and a half, Pippa was three, and she was preg­nant with James). Her ad­vice to would-be en­trepreneurs is: “Make sure what­ever you do doesn’t com­pro­mise your fam­ily, be­cause that be­comes un­ten­able. And don’t be afraid to ask ques­tions.”

She put up a self-de­signed flyer at Cather­ine’s lo­cal play­group in Buck­le­bury, where the fam­ily have lived since they came back from Jor­dan in 1987, found some sup­pli­ers of pa­per plates and she was off, quickly pro­gress­ing to a small busi­ness unit in Hunger­ford. Michael built the pack­ing benches. (Ca­role’s other piece of ad­vice is: “Find some­one who can re­ally sup­port you.”) A year or so later, he gave up his job in avi­a­tion and threw his lot in with Party Pieces.

The busi­ness re­mains cen­tral to Ca­role’s life (“It’s still a big fam­ily thing”) and, one senses, to her iden­tity. She drives into work most days in her slightly un­tidy Range Rover, sit­ting in the open-plan of­fice with her 30-or-so-strong team. “I like to lis­ten to what peo­ple are or­der­ing and how they’re go­ing to use it,” she says. And when she’s not there, she’s work­ing from her home of­fice. How is she at del­e­gat­ing? “I couldn’t do it with­out Mike and my team,” she says. But she’s all over the Party Pieces web­site and In­sta­gram ac­count, and the first thing she does in the morn­ings is look at her email. “I should prob­a­bly be med­i­tat­ing,” she laughs. “I’d like to find space to do more stuff I love, but my fam­ily are para­mount. They come first and that will al­ways be the case, even when I have more me time.”

In many ways, Party Pieces, which now caters for hen nights, baby show­ers, civil part­ner­ships — you name it, they can cus­tomise it — is at the edge of chang­ing so­cial mores. The night be­fore we meet, she’s been watch­ing But­ter­fly, the drama about an 11-year-old boy who wants to tran­si­tion to be a girl. “That would be chal­leng­ing,” Ca­role says, “but as a par­ent, you love your chil­dren un­con­di­tion­ally”. Ev­ery­thing she’s ever done, she says, “isn’t about fit­ting in, but based on my own val­ues and what I think is right”.

It’s clear that she adores chil­dren (“I’d have had five or six if I could”). She made sure she was around as much as pos­si­ble for her three and relishes her role as ‘Granny Mid­dle­ton’ to all four of her grand­chil­dren. “I had a won­der­ful role model in Mike’s mother, who I tried to em­u­late.” She doesn’t have a prob­lem be­ing pulled in all di­rec­tions. “I love it. I’m def­i­nitely hands-on. I don’t find it com­pli­cated. My big­gest fear [as her off­spring grew up] was that I’d lose my fam­ily, but we’ve stayed close. There are times when they say, ‘Can you do this, or that?’ and I can’t quite. But they like the fact that I work. I have two lovely sons-in­law and,” she adds (is that a wist­ful note?), “I hope I’ll have a lovely daugh­ter-in-law.” This is de­liv­ered in such un­der­stated tones, you al­most for­get that one of those sons-in-law is the fu­ture Bri­tish king.

Granny Mid­dle­ton sounds like a lot of fun; she’s some­one who thinks it’s a good idea for chil­dren to get stuck into kitchen chores, ‘chop­ping and stir­ring’ as early as pos­si­ble, who isn’t pre­cious about how the Christmas tree looks (but then, she likes to have sev­eral: a fash­ion­able, themed one; a ‘mem­ory’ one with baubles go­ing right back; and one the chil­dren can dec­o­rate how­ever they want). She likes the old-fash­ioned games like mu­si­cal stat­ues and sar­dines, and be­lieves in let­ting chil­dren eat with the adults “as soon as they can sit up prop­erly. As a fam­ily, we try to have as many meals to­gether as pos­si­ble be­cause that’s when you talk and have fun.”

Over the years, Party Pieces has evolved into a source of kits peo­ple can use to trans­form a space into ev­ery­thing from a Best-of-bri­tish co­coon to a Hol­ly­wood movie set. “Not every­one can af­ford a party plan­ner,” Ca­role says — and she should know. She planned her own wed­ding. “I found the venue, or­gan­ised the wed­ding break­fast, the bon­fire and chilli con carne in the evening.”

‘I was try­ing to im­press him with risotto and it looked like por­ridge’

Given all this, Ca­role is of­ten mis­taken for a party plan­ner, she laughs. She isn’t — but she is a fairly re­laxed host­ess, pre­fer­ring spon­ta­neous kitchen sup­pers to for­mal din­ner par­ties. “If eight women and three men turn up, so be it,” she says. She learned early on that it’s the mi­nor dis­as­ters that of­ten make an event mem­o­rable — the first time she ever cooked for Michael, “I was try­ing to im­press him with a mush­room risotto and it looked like grey por­ridge; it was very Brid­get Jones”. The idea of a woman, who played a key part in one of the most-watched wed­dings in his­tory en­dur­ing a Great Risotto De­ba­cle, is not with­out sig­nif­i­cance. By her own reck­on­ing, Ca­role is a trier. “If you do get knocked back, just be brave and try again be­cause life gives you lots of knocks and, if you’re not pre­pared to be brave, you’re not go­ing to get any­where.”

On the sub­ject of the wed­ding, she freezes mo­men­tar­ily, weigh­ing up how much it would be to re­veal. (The thing I’m learn­ing about Ca­role is that she has to curb her in­stinct to share. On the shoot, she de­clined any al­co­hol, jok­ing that she’d bet­ter not.) Suf­fice to say, Cather­ine turned to her mother for ad­vice. “We talked about mu­sic... ev­ery­thing. I was in­volved lots with both Pip’s and Cather­ine’s wed­dings. But I think the most im­por­tant thing, as a par­ent, is to lis­ten to what your daugh­ter wants. You can have all the ideas in the world, but it has to be about them. And don’t mus­cle in on the guest list.”

As for the flaw­less blue Cather­ine Walker coat and match­ing dress she wore to Cather­ine’s wed­ding... “Like ev­ery mother, I wanted to look my best, make my chil­dren proud and en­joy the day. I hon­estly don’t think I was any more stressed than any other mother-of-the-bride.”

For some­one who looks self-as­sured and im­pec­ca­bly put to­gether when she’s snapped, she’s sur­pris­ingly averse to clothes shop­ping and be­ing pho­tographed (“Hate it,” she ad­mits). Like most Bri­tish women, she doesn’t know what to do with a com­pli­ment. When I tell her I’m sur­prised that, with her fig­ure, she finds shop­ping so hard, she bats back with: “I’m big­ger round my top half than I was, so that’s why I pre­fer dresses to trousers and I don’t like any­thing tight. One of the rea­sons I don’t like shop­ping for clothes is that there aren’t enough for women my age. I know what I want, but I can’t find it. There’s a way of dress­ing that’s what I call ‘cor­rect’.”

Ex­trap­o­lat­ing from the way she and both her daugh­ters have al­ways dressed — mod­estly and, when they were in their 20s, in a no­tice­ably more con­ser­va­tive way than most

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