Just the loveliest, loveliest people I have ever met in my life. So grateful … They’d never seen anyone foreign before. The monks were just wonderful and the family I lived with were lovely. It was great. I was so used to the rhythm of being a workaholic nutter, they’d say to me, “No, no, that’s it for the day. We finish teaching at two.” I’d think, what am I going to do for the rest of the day? It was weird. It was good. I wrote a diary and I would spend lots of time under my mosquito net. After a few weeks I got moved to another school which was further down the coast, near the beach. At the start I was the only volunteer on the island, but then a couple of others came so I had some friends and that was great. We went traveling at the end together. Bliss.
Was it done through a volunteer organisation of some sort?
And why did you choose Sri Lanka?
Well, I had always really wanted to go to India. There were two places I really wanted to go to, India and Africa, but I was really scared … It’s funny now if I look back on that. To put my fear into context, I remember taking a trip to Bali in the early years when I was at Benetton and I was petrified of the mosquitoes because I react really badly to them. I had a suitcase packed full of every type of repellant possible – even one the size of a fire extinguisher. What a drama! So I thought, there are two places I’m really terrified of, but I want to push myself, I want to do something scary, something exciting, so it’s either Africa or India. I thought Sri Lanka would be a good start, a good introduction to India, because it is easier, it’s not as harsh, not as poor in that respect.
And did some of the Buddhist philosophy rub off on you?
I only taught in the temples, which were really just basically a few pillars and an open space with a roof. I didn’t go to any of their services or anything, so no, not really in that respect, but just in seeing how kind they were, I suppose. People with nothing and they are so kind. It just made all the other stuff seem like nonsense really.
Did those nine months change you much as a person or were you just far more relaxed?
I came back very sick.
Oh did you?
Yeah, I was quite ill. India certainly left its impression and it took me a few months to get my health back. When I came back I saw all the things in the West that we really moan about and that we should really be grateful for. I just thought we don’t really have any idea how lucky we are. I remember feeling the carpet under my feet and I felt like its pile was three foot high. It was just like, oh my God, and loos, you know, proper toilets and supermarkets! I remember the first time I went to the supermarket and everything was so glossy and rich and wow. I suppose the biggest change though was that I was more in touch with my hippy side, which has always been there … So, yes, it absolutely did change me. I don’t know if it made me more relaxed though, I think it’d take a lot more than that!
So you came back, reunited with your fiancé … Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do then?
I was looking forward to planning the wedding, but had no idea at all what to do workwise. I hadn’t even thought about it when I was over there.
Nope. It was pretty nice actually, not worrying or thinking about it. I thought I’d just come back and see. It was hard, it was hard coming back and living in England after all those years, rainy old England again, on the west coast in a city called Bristol. It was tough. I had no job, was in the house all day and was like, Right, what am I going to do now? I didn’t really know what to do so I just wrote down a few things and then I thought, I’m going to write a book. As you do. I’d always been interested in food, that was another thing, and years ago I’d had an idea, that I’d quite like to have a chocolate label and design all these chocolate products. At that time nobody was really doing anything cool with chocolate and I spoke to a few chocolatiers, but I just didn’t have the confidence to do it. It was too random. Why on earth would someone who designs knitwear want to do a chocolate label? I remember meeting my sister in this pub in Covent Garden for a drink and at the time I’d had some talks with Marks & Spencer, which is quite a big retail group in the UK, and I said to her, “I’m so excited, I’ve got this idea for chocolate and it’s amazing. I can just see it.” My sister just looked at me and said, “Have you heard back from M&S?” and it was just like, Oh, yeah, what’s the point?