Clayton from the cover of his new album. My pictures of the evening are less than sharp.
The late Tony Wilson once told me about booking some mega-American band for the Haçienda. Actually, he told loads of people, because I think he repeated the story in his book, 24 Hour Party People; but he told me first over a glass of wine (me) and a pint of lager and a joint (him).
Tony was my best man at my first wedding - Chris Dark had turned me down - and his taste in music was still developing in parallel with his self-regard. At this stage, he had moved on from Carol King’s Tapestry, his regular listening while the rest of us were focused on the Dead, and the Airplane, and Bob, and the Velvets; but his obsession with punk and rave was more opportunistic than instinctive. (One would never use the word ‘genuine’ in the same sentence as ‘Tony Wilson’.)
Anyway, the one thing that was constant in Tony's life was his hatred of jazz in all its manifestations. And this mega-American band who were costing Tony (or rather, New Order) “mega-bucks”, took to the stage more stoned than the audience, and played ... jazz! Tony told me he was so disgusted that he pulled the plug on them, though he doesn't mention this in the book.
The point of all this is that we had an analogous situation in Wilde's on Sunday night, the occasion being the 37th birthday of the bar. Several months ago, my wonderfully generous friend John Myers had arranged for “Mick n Keef” from the cover band Stones to perform a greatest hits set appropriate for the Wilde's demographic. It his birthday present to Wilde's - and it was keenly anticipated, to say the least.
Except that ten minutes before we were due to open, John called to say that they were not coming. No reason. They had just decided not to come.
Shanade Morrow, singer, song-writer and waitress extraordinaire, went to work on the phones. Within half an hour, the best and the brightest of the Leamington music scene, including Clayton Denwood who played with The Band in Woodstock and Thom Kirkpatrick, who has played with everyone else, were on their way.
Meanwhile, Geof, the embarrassed manager of the Stones, had also been on the phone. And, unbeknown to us and at short notice, he managed to acquire the services of a crooner of a certain age who marketed himself as a Billy Fury sound-alike. What's more, Billy Fury arrived first and set up his karaoke machine of backing tracks and proceeded to belt out a Herman's Hermits song. Which was kinda fun. Until the next one and the next one and the next one.
With a dozen musicians (defined for these purposes as people who play their own instruments and write original material) hanging around having given up their evening to help us, it rapidly became something of an issue. Some people left, many complained, and others, including myself, took to drink and, for the first time in months, tobacco. It took Jill - who is less timid than am I – to take action and request that he cut his act short to give others a chance.
The others took their chance. They jammed, sang and played a series of excellent sets which kept a hundred of us on the dance floor and in awe.
This is not musical snobbery. ’Billy Fury’ knows what he is doing and does it well. But it is not what Wilde's is about. It is the very antithesis of the live music which Wilde's wishes to promote.
Fortunately, the last few hours of the evening developed in the right spirit with some superb acoustic guitar work from Jason and Clayton, plus some great vocals, some great sax from Ono, and - at the end - some brilliant Stones covers from Thom Kirkpatrick, the 21st century one-man-band.
So us oldies eventually got our Stones. As well as our Dead, our Dylan, and our Herman's Hermits!
You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.
Our thanks to all the musicians, to Myers, to Geof, to Shanade, to Ollie and Rachel, and to Richard for his canapés. And to all those who came out on a school night to help us celebrate, especially Pinky and James for their great card.
Today from the everysmith vault: Clayton's new album, To Whom It May Concern. It's new to the vault and, on first listening, it's more than worthy of its place in it.
Photo Credit: Coventry Evening Telegraph
The sixth Leamington Food and Drink Festival filled the Pump Room Gardens last weekend. Thirty thousand visitors enjoyed the offerings of more than 180 exhibitors, of which none was Strada, Carluccio's, Prezzo, Wagamama, Pizza Hut or Pizza Express.
They couldn't be bothered, because they don't need to bother.
The event showcased local food makers and suppliers, local beer companies, local cider makers, local delicatessens, and local bars and restaurants, including Wilde's, and a whole lot more. Specialist cheese-makers, butchers, bakers, pie-makers, chocolatiers, artisans of every variety and trade were showing off their wares and having a good time.
The timing of the festival might be regarded as significant. The Not Dark Yet blog last week which discussed the unfortunate demise of Âime Sœur attracted a great deal of attention, with comments on the blog, Facebook and Twitter posts and emails, and in person. I have seldom been stopped in the street so many times - often by complete strangers.
All decried the circumstances which lead to the closure. All condemned the influence which chain operations appear to hold over the leaders of our community.
So where were the chains during this great weekend, full of happy people eating good food, drinking good wine (on the Wilde's stand, obviously) and listening to good music from The Swaps and The Pips?
Well, they sure as hell weren't at the Festival.
Probably because decisions about participation are not made by the Leamington outlets, but by computers and managers in some tower block in London, or maybe even New York.
And Leamington Spa, for them, is merely a line on a spreadsheet.
This is the essence of the problem I raised last week. And this is why I have, for the first time, returned to the same subject in successive weeks.
We are discussing important issues about the future.
It is about the character and culture of our town. It is about whether Leamington becomes yet another faceless small town, full of the same neon fascias and the same faceless activities and operations; or remains a centre of interest and excellence with a plethora of independent bars, restaurants and shops.
Right now, the independents are losing and losing out.
But the Food and Drink Festival showed that not all is lost.
And, personally, I am delighted that the Stradas and Wagawamas et al did not turn up.
They would have ruined the fun with their microwaving by numbers food and their corporate wine lists and their demands for preferential treatment.
Ollie and I, manning the Wilde's stand, met lots of new friends, lots of old friends, and dispensed hundreds of glasses of wine, ranging from a Cinsault rosé when the sun was out to a second growth Saint Julien, Chateau Gruaud Larose 2002. (It was drinking very well, thank you.) We even got photographed and interviewed by the Coventry Evening Telegraph.
It was a great weekend, which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite having spent Friday and the first couple of hours of Saturday as 'father of the bride' at the wedding of daughter Cassidy and Mike.
The buzz, the business, the good spirits of our neighbour exhibitors, the smiles of the people who passed and often paused by our stand kept us going.
And the chains? Good riddance!
How was the wedding? you ask. It was fantastic. Pictures will be available when the happy couple return from honeymoon. But meantime, couldn't resist posting this - of Maximilian the pageboy. Cool - or what?
Today from the everysmith vault: the iPod shuffle facility chanced upon the Dead's Cambodian Refugee Benefit gig in 1980, and I'm sticking with it.
In the last month, two more chain restaurants have opened in the centre of Leamington Spa. Meanwhile, a much-loved, family-run independent restaurant has closed. On the window of the empty premises is this poignant message.
Âme Sœur was a lovely little restaurant, run by lovely people. Jill and I visited a couple of times and found it homely, friendly, welcoming and infinitely superior to any of the local representatives of the national chains.
But, like so many independent operations in a town which used to be famous for its independents, Àme Sœur has fallen foul of the big chains and their massive buying power, their microwaves, their systems and their special offers.
Carluccio's and Nando's have moved in to join Prezzo and Strada and Wagamama and Pizza Hut and Pizza Express and a host of others, all attracted by a wining and dining culture which was created from scratch by small independent bars and bistros over the last thirty years or so.
Now, they are setting about destroying the very establishments which created their marketplace.
This appears to be a matter of supreme indifference to a council which remains committed to yet another mall, despite public opposition. After all, as long the rates come in, who cares about the culture of the town? And if they can raise the tax base by knocking down a few Regency frontages and building five storey brick walls within a few feet of independent restaurants, what the hell?, let's do it.
Independents, you see, don't have the resources to fight the bureaucracies. They are devoting their limited resources to the struggle to stay alive in an environment in which their chain gang competition is offering 40% off here and free bottles of wine there, two meals for the price of one here and pints for halves there.
You can't blame the consumer. In a recession, especially in a recession, the consumer takes any and every deal going. Which is why, to paraphrase Marx, 'man is born free but is everywhere in chain restaurants'.
It won't last of course. In a year or two, what's fashionable now will become unfashionable. And some hedge fund which cares little for quality and customer service, except as items on a balance sheet, will rebrand them and sign up some other celebrity to lend their name, and the process will begin again.
I've majored on the hospitality industry because that is the area of activity in which I have a (vested) interest. But of course the same principle applies up and down our High Streets.
The big names get the prime sites and set the rent levels. Every throw of every dice is loaded in their favour.
Almost everyone I know is sad about the closure of Àme Sœur. But did they patronise it? Or did they sneak off to Strada because they'd just got some free meal deal from Vouchercloud on their iPhone?
Of course they did. But that's the nub: "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone".
Our best wishes to Jason and Sarah. Good luck!
Today from the everysmith vault: still listening to - and still loving - Another Self Portrait.
Picture credit: St Quentin la Poterie
Sunday morning in St Quentin la Poterie. The hygienically pungent smell of disinfectant hovers in the streets. The tabac is busy with purchasers of extra cartons of cigarettes. Carrefour is the scene of manic buying, with the owners of Café de France and Le Cuisine du Boucher at the front of the two check-outs, loading up dozens of baguettes, salads and 5 litre bottles of Coke. In the Bar du Marché, opinion seems divided as to whether a simple café is sufficient to kick-start the day or whether to begin as one intends to continue with a beer or pastis.
Nous sommes en fête.
The fête votive started on Thursday evening and will continue unabated until the early hours of Tuesday morning. The bulls are run each evening. There are gigs every lunchtime, every evening and every night, often several competing against each other for an audience and decibel rating.
The restaurants, even 30 Degrees Sud, put on a special menu du fête, which means that, last evening, we celebrated Nicole’s 50th birthday with moules frites rather than foie gras, and on Friday evening we snook out of the village to eat at Le Comptoir du 7 in Uzès with Michelle and James, finishing off with a final pichet in Le Bistrot du Duché as we waited for the late arrival of Cody.
But most of the time, unlike some, we are more than happy to stay in the village and soak it all up - literally so on occasion.
The fête is the commune-goes-mad. And it’s brilliant, especially if one can – as we can – dip in and out: a drink here, a gig there, a bull run here and a grand bal there.
But of course, we are pretty much always en fête, or at least on holiday. We have no work commitments. We can, as we did earlier this week, just take off on a whim and head for Aix-en-Provence to visit the second half of Le Grand Atelier du Midi exhibition at the Musée Granet.
It was … better? perhaps not, but certainly more interesting, than the Marseille show. For a start, there are more Matisses and Cézannes, and fewer fillers from the second division. The quality of the work is more consistent and although it was a great deal busier than the Palais Longchamps in Marseille, it was a more enjoyable and more rewarding experience.
But it wasn’t the highlight of the week or even of the day. That was reserved for our visit to Cézanne’s studio, which he built just north of the cathedral in what was then an undeveloped landscape. Today, one walks up the hill past blocks of apartments and retirement homes to find the gate to this splendidly unrestored studio, with its huge north-facing window, and the collection of artifacts owned and painted by Cézanne.
To see the ingredients of his famous still life paintings, to see his suit, his stove, his pots and pans, his chair and table, was quite wondrous, and almost made me forget that our chosen restaurant had run out of the chef’s special rognons de veau by the time we sat down to eat. (Don't worry, the tartare was gorgeous.)
An excellent day, then. Followed the next morning by the arrival of chums from the UK, and the fête. Followed by Nicole's birthday. Followed by more of the fête.
On our return to the UK, which is imminent, it is the memory of these days, this light, these occasions, these happenings, which will help us through the winter.
Today from the everysmith vault: Paul Kanter, David Freiberg, Kathy Richardson aka Jefferson Starship playing in The Assembly, Leamington Spa back in 2009. Nearly four years ago now. A great gig - and this tape confirms that it was as good as I thought at the time.
Alexander Pope, contemplating the nature of criticism
It has been suggested recently that I am, in these blogs, thinking of myself as a critic. I am not.
I am, on occasion, critical - of a wine, a book, a painting, a piece of music, a restaurant, a ball player. But that is not the same thing at all. The role of the critic is to be, not negative, but positive: to evaluate, to provide deep context, to establish relationships, to elucidate and enhance. In this sense, I suppose that from time to time I write within a critical tradition, but that is not my intention.
This is a blog, not an academic treatise. I allow myself half an hour and plus-or-minus 500 words for each post. The prompts are my reading and listening, my eating and drinking, my obsessions, my social activities. But as some of my excellent correspondents have pointed out, there is a theme developing from these disparate activities, of which – to be honest – I was not consciously aware.
This theme, it would appear, is the appreciation of all activities as a totality, as part of ‘life’ – a word which Leavis substituted for tradition and continuity.
My subjects, whether they be a new Dylan album, a fine claret, an exhibition or a baseball game, are part of life and contribute to the fundamental ‘vitality’ which is ‘crucial’ to developing an individual ‘meaning of life’, the making of valid choices not through evasion but single-minded commitment.
If I had to categorise what a friend flatteringly characterised as ‘these essays’, I would use the word explorations, which is itself an important Leavis word, and as he said in another context, ‘all important words are dangerous’.
In this case, the danger comes from imposing an importance on my observations which they are incapable of bearing. And often, I confess, they are gut reactions rather than considered judgements.
In the tutored tastings at the Foire aux Vins, for example, I hated the sweetness of the whites, the oakiness of the reds. The maligned wine critics of my previous blog could doubtless explain and maybe even justify. For me, it is simply not to my taste.
Does this mean, therefore, that when you read this blog, you are merely the recipients of some undigested prejudices?
I promise you, you are not. Because more often than not, I start only with a topic. Over the course of the 500 words, I develop my approach and attitude and finally a judgement, a valuation.
So in the average blog what you are reading is the record of a process of internal debate and argument, backed by Wordsworthian spots of time, structured in the form of Judt’s Memory Chalet, supported by quotes from better writers, and concluding with … well, a sort of conclusion.
Bit like this one, really.
Today from the everysmith vault: Yesterday, of course, was the wonderful music of the test match commentary. Today, it’s the New Riders of the Purple Sage from July 1971. A 10 minute version of Dirty Business, with Jerry on pedal steel, is the highlight.
It’s the 38ème Foire aux Vins d’Uzès this weekend, and as part of the opening celebrations, there will be tutored tastings of the 45 wines which have won medals in the Concours des Vins this year.
I will be there. Not least because the names of the winners have already been announced, and I agree with virtually none of them.
So I want to know what the judges know that I don’t. I want to know why the wines which I search out for drinking with family and friends and which I regard as both typical of their category and superior in their category have failed to win even a bronze.
(Wine has been produced here since the Middle Ages, but it got VdP status only as recently as 1995, when it split from the Cévennes. Since then, it has been fighting for the next level of recognition. Last month, AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) Uzès was finally signed off in Paris and we should see it on the labels of our local wines next year.)
But what interests me is how these things are judged. How can I, a wine drinker of many years’ standing (and sometimes not standing), with both an enthusiastic amateur and – through Wilde’s - professional interest in wine, be so wrong?
Easily, according to a recent article in The Observer and subsequent discussion in Decanter.
It turns out that even the trained palates of full-time critics with MW after their name are frequently neither correct, nor consistent.
In blind tastings, eminent professional tasters have given “radically different scores” to the same wine from the same bottle within the space of a few minutes.
Of course, wine criticism is the same as other criticism. It is the relationship between the taster and the wine, at a particular time, in a particular space, in a particular context. And that can seldom be replicated precisely, if at all.
We also know that external factors can create a significant effect. A French academic found that labels mattered. A Grand Cru label produced positive reviews; a vin de table label negative reviews. Of course, it was the same wine. Academics in Edinburgh found that playing Jimi Hendrix whilst drinking Cabernet Sauvignon boosted scores by 60%. And so on and so forth: there are many different stories of wine critics getting it wrong.
A typical wine contains 27 organic acids, 23 varieties of alcohol, more than 80 esters and aldehydes, 16 different sugars, and dozens of vitamins and mineral compounds.
That’s not only beyond me. It’s beyond anyone. However sophisticated their palate.
So there is very little science involved in these judgements. What there is, is vast experience of long-term tasting, and a vocabulary which expresses and justifies these judgements.
Tasting wine is subjective. Wine critics are as subjective as the rest of us. But it’s always a good idea to find one with whose judgements and palates one broadly agrees (HRH Jancis and Fiona Beckett to name but two) and use them to do the hard research and prepare short lists.
The problem is, neither have turned their attention to AOC Uzès. At least not yet.
But when they do, I’ll bet they agree with me rather than the local judges of the Concours des Vins.
Today from the everysmith vault: Jimi Hendrix, Night Birds Flying: "You pass me that bottle, and I'll sing y'all a real song." Goes down really well with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Marseille is tout feu, tout flamme about its independence, internationalism and sense of identity; its architecture, art and artisans; its radical past and its cultural present, its freedom-loving life and life-style.
After our first visit this week, so are we.
Marseille is the oldest city in France. It’s the second city of France. And it’s the home of pastis and bouillabaisse. It elected the first socialist maire in France in 1890. It was a refuge for Jews and a centre of resistance against the Nazis in the war.
Oh, and it is also, in 2013, the European capital of culture.
It is, in fact, a méli-mélo of stereotypes. So Jill and I thought we’d check it out, using as our excuse and opportunity, the exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts, part of the Grand Atelier du Midi show, which focuses on works of artists from Van Gogh to Bonnard.
We took the TGV from Avignon, paused briefly in Aix-en-Provence, and arrived in Marseille in plenty of time for our pre-booked slot at the gallery. So much time, in fact, that we had checked in to our hotel, drank a half bottle of chilled rosé, eaten a small plate of charcuterie and courgettes, walked to the Palais Longchamps and enjoyed (most of) the paintings, even before our allocated time was scheduled to begin.
For the record, loved the Van Goghs, the Renoirs (always associated him exclusively with Paris), the Duffys, the Picasso, the Matisses, the Bacon, and some of the Bonnards; loathed the Manguins, the Marquets and the Massons; quite enjoyed the Paul Signac.
So by half three in the afternoon, we were free to explore Marseille. And we made a startling discovery: le vrai Grand Atelier du Midi is not the gallery and its contents, but the city of Marseille itself.
Picture credit: Foster + Partners
Like everyone, we headed first to the Vieux Port by jumping on a tram which took us silently and smoothly down the boulevard to the sea, where we were greeted by l’Ombrière, Norman Foster’s wonderfully simple, stylish and sleek sun shade.
It’s both use and ornament (as my grandmother used to say): a shady events pavilion, a beautiful structure, and a place for reflection - literally and figuratively.
Two views are better than one.
But there was another view which was already haunting us and it is ubiquitous wherever one walks. It is Notre dame de la Garde, which looks down on the city, and is regarded as a guardian and protector of the city. It's known by the Marseillaise as la bonne mère for this reason.
We took the advice of the guide-book and, rather than attempt the walk, squeezed ourselves aboard a tourist train, which took us along the Corniche (longest in the world apparently), gave us half an hour to admire the neo-Byzantine basilica and crypt, and delivered us back to the plethora of restaurants and bars which line the Vieux Port.
La Bonne Mère: guardian and protector
But we weren't quite ready for a drink yet. We wanted to plan the next day, ensuring that we could make the most of our visit.
So we walked through Le Panier, the oldest part, where The French Connection was filmed, where the Jews hid, where the communists and resistance were based, and where the Nazis - together with a huge contingent of French police from Paris - evacuated 30,000 people, sent 2000 of them to concentration camps and dynamited 1500 houses. All in a single day in January 1943.
Picture credit: Wolfgang Vennemann for the German Federal Archive
We returned the following morning, walking through the tiny streets which remain, finding the poignant tributes to those who had died or disappeared, mourning the way in which this area is becoming embourgeoisified. There is even a brand new InterContinental Hotel here now. But enough remains to remind us of the feisty, Bohemian, freedom-loving community which had to be destroyed by the Nazis and the Vichy government.
At the far side of Le Panier is the Fort St Jean. This, and the Fort St Nicolas, were built by French kings not so much to protect the city as to dominate it and ensure that its people knew their place.
Today, the Fort St Jean is linked by an elegant walkway across the sea to a wonderful new structure, designed and built as part of the Capital of Culture celebrations.
This is the Museum of Civilisations in Europe and the Mediterranean, or MuCEM, and it is beautiful. It links the land with the sea and it links France with North Africa. It captures the essence of Marseille: its trading, its Phoenician origins, its role as an entry point and a conduit for other cultures.
MuCEM, the fort, and (in the background) the Cathedral Le Mayor which we also visited that morning.
It is a beautifully designed atelier of Marseille's history, heritage, myth and contemporary life.
But the grand atelier is not MuCEM. Nor is it the Musée at Palais Longchamps.
It is Marseille itself: the city and its people.
* You wouldn't expect me to write about a city without a reference to food. So:
Where to eat: La Part des Anges, a bar à vin on rue Sainte, with 300 different wines and no wine list. Tell the waiters what you like and what you are going to eat, and they will bring you a glass of something wondrous - or maybe two or three or more. Brilliant place. Love it.
Where not to eat: Pretty much anywhere in the tourist bit of the Vieux Port, but especially not at La Cuisine au Beurre.
Today's listening: Coupo Santo, the national anthem of Provence, which we heard sung at the end of a communal dinner in an adjoining village on Friday evening. A beautiful song, rendered tout feu, tout flamme, by many of those present.
Renoir's Guinguette (we didn't take any pictures!)
I used to think that I knew what French cuisine was. But then I started spending time in France and eating out regularly. That’s when I got confused.
In the UK, we are in awe of French chefs. We watch the Roux brothers and their offspring on TV, together with Raymond Blanc and all those guys who have been brought up in the Michelin tradition, and we believe that this is the style to which all great cooking aspires.
But is it? The French are not convinced. And neither am I.
In the Uzège, we are exposed to almost every style of cuisine as well as a culture which encourages eating out and outside. So we have some experience – good and bad - of what constitutes good cooking. We have been lucky enough to have eaten some exceptional meals which would earn high praise had they been served in The Waterside, or Gavroche, for example.
Notable was the menu degustation on Jill’s birthday at L’Artemise, a beautiful meal in beautiful surroundings, which featured as its highlights foie gras in a coating of dark bitter chocolate and a main course of the most exquisitely tender veal. In the same league, although a lower division, were L’Amphytrion in Castillon and Le Castellas in Collias: both using superbly fresh ingredients in a classical, traditional manner and hovering just below or just above a Michelin star standard.
These three epitomize what we understand to be French cuisine, and they charge for it. We do not resent this – we understand the costs of running such immaculate restaurants – but they are not for every day, every week or even every month.
For more quotidian eating out, we can recommend La Table 2 Julian in Montaren, which is not far short of the three mentioned above; L’Authentique in Saint Siffet, which offers no choices but executes each dish superbly; and – a great deal simpler but which also benefits from sticking to the knitting – 30 degrees Sud in our own village of Saint Quentin la Poterie.
After that, it is pretty much the same old, same old in Uzès: a plethora of touristique restaurants where you can get fed, drink a few pichets of the local wine and enjoy the company rather than the cuisine.
Which is why we so excited when Tom and Unity asked us, together with Archie, Tom’s brother Jim and Jill’s sister Carol, to join them last Saturday for a dinner at a guinguette on a camp site just the other side of Goudargues.
A guinguette is an outdoor drinking establishment which also offers traditional cooking, and this met the definition precisely. It is a bar and grill on the bank of the River Cèze. We ate very well indeed: steaks, barons d’agneau, and Toulouse sausages, all served with huge quantities of the best frites one has ever eaten and washed down with equally huge quantities of a very young (2012) and very quaffable Côtes de Rhône Villages.
It was packed – primarily with French families. And as darkness fell, and the lights came on and the kids ran between the tables and the adults had just a couple too many and laughed and joked, I realized that French cuisine is not about the exquisite subtleties and nuances of flavours of cuisine nouvelle.
It is about fun and family and friendship.
P.S. Our thanks to Tom and Unity for asking us, and to Jim Cantwell, Archie Robertson and Carol Stanhope for their company. And especially to Jill for driving.
P.P.S. To all those asking when the next baseball blog will appear, it will be during the All-Star break. Lots to write about after 100 games of the season.
Today from the every smith vault: Honeyboy Edwards. This is what the blues is about.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
We were reminded of the truth of Hartley’s aphorism yesterday when six of us took a cab into the deep south of Warwickshire to eat in the 1970s. Our destination was a restaurant called The Butcher’s Arms, a quite beautiful building in a small hamlet, which has an iconic reputation amongst a certain class in that part of the county.
It was an illuminating experience, in which we appeared to be playing minor roles in a comedy of town and country manners, a latter-day re-write of She Stoops To Conquer.
This is not intended to be a restaurant review, although for the record I note that the wine was excellent and not unreasonably priced, and that the food was not excellent and not reasonably priced.
What was interesting was the atmosphere, the culture, of the establishment. If we had on the journey engaged in flippant thoughts that we may perhaps épate le bourgeois, it was clear from the moment we entered the bar that we were as much on display as the expensive, sports and vintage cars in the car park.
The restaurant is unashamedly, even proudly, a throwback to the ‘70s. When it opened, it was the height of fashion, a destination for Coventry captains of industry, the lawyers and accountants, the masons and landowners, the councillors and aldermen of the county. Today, it is a refuge for a class whose time has come and gone. The conversation is of trips to Spain or Antigua. The service, if one is admitted to the inner circle, is fawning. The menu is reassuringly familiar.
The only things that are even slightly risqué are the Pirelli calendars which adorn the walls of the lavatories.
Yet it was yesterday and is regularly full, even over-full.
I suspect this is because there is no alternative. No other establishment caters for this clientele. And so, regularly and frequently, the rich but not famous gather together to celebrate themselves and their lives and their way of life. Importantly, they can do it away from the hoi polloi, from those who – like the six of us – do not share their values.
It would be unfair to say that we were unwelcome, but we were not welcomed. We watched the fawning service on the other tables, but did not experience it. Wine was not offered to us to try, but merely deposited on the table. The waiting staff, so ubiquitous for others, failed to make eye contact or acknowledge that, as later arrivals were presented with their main courses, we had yet to order our starters.
It was a salutary experience for all of us. Accustomed to a milieu which is multi-racial, multi-cultural and all-embracing, this exclusiveness was alien to us. We did feel as if we had stepped into a foreign country. We did feel that they do things differently. We did feel excluded.
This was not a class issue. It was not even about some Weberian complication regarding status.
What we had done was stumble into a cult.
We were watching a form of ritual, a kind of Masonic practice which only adepts are able to appreciate.
Today's listening: Rick Gekoski on Radio 4. I intend to review his new book Lost, Stolen or Shredded when I have given it due consideration. Watch this space.
Gareth Brynmor John
How was your week-end? We had a great time, thank you. We went to London.
My nephew Gareth was singing at the Wigmore Hall and his grandmother was coming down to see and hear him and meet up with other family members at a Mothering Sunday lunch before the gig.
Jill and I used the opportunity to do a number of things which we had left undone: in other words, wine tastings, restaurant meals, and gallery visits.
We started at the home of Karl Marx in Dean Street. This is now, and has been since the year of the General Strike, a restaurant called Quo Vadis. It is, in a familiar phrase, something of a Soho institution, and has had its gastronomic ups and downs over the years, but has reinvented itself in the last 12 months by giving a free hand to Chef Jeremy Lee, who was poached from the Blueprint.
The food is a sensational combination of technical accomplishment and no nonsense. I indulged recklessly with a starter of rabbit livers and a main of ox liver – both sublime. But the highlight was Jill’s hare pie: not a ramekin with a puff pastry top, but a pudding bowl with real pastry, and inside, a huge quantity of the most delicious jugged hare. Jill allowed me only a single tasting mouthful, but it was enough to make me regret my organic choice, although not the choice of restaurant. Quo Vadis is first-class, even down to the half bottles on the wine list (such circumspection necessary because we had sampled apéros at Vinoteca on Beak Street on the way and I had a wine tasting at Berry Brothers in St James scheduled for later in the afternoon).
In short, a great start.
And the weekend continued in the same vein. The Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy, a tasting of 2011 Rhones at BBR, the early Picasso exhibition at the Courtauld, and an extraordinary show of paintings of Cornish fishermen at No 2 Temple Place, a late Victorian arts and crafts house on Embankment, which belonged to the Astors in the ‘20s, and now restored is worth a visit even if there is no exhibition on display. The Picasso was under-whelming, serving to illustrate how derivative was the 20 year old; but the Courtauld also has in its permanent exhibition many of those iconic paintings which one knows so well but, in my case, had never actually seen before. Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Renoir … each room, each wall, is a surprise, a delight, an education.
But the highlight of the weekend, surely, was the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. My sister’s boy Gareth Brynmor John was the choral scholar at St John’s Cambridge and is currently at the Royal Academy of Music, where he is completing the Opera course whilst forging a serious reputation in the musical world and winning countless competitions.
On Sunday, he performed a great deal of Britten, and a little of Britten usually goes a long way.
But yesterday, Britten’s settings of Songs and Proverbs of William Blake did not go far enough. The power of Gareth’s voice, combined with the ability to convey the subtlest of nuances of meaning and emphasis, bestowing gravitas even where there was none originally, made us want for more.
And I will long remember the beauty, in the setting of the Tyger, of that final couplet:
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame they fearful symmetry?
Today's listening: It should be Britten, I guess, but thanks to links from Rick Hough in Boston and Michael Gray in the south of France, it's ABB - the Allman Brothers Band.