My secret life as a lay Danish pastry assessor

Once bitten twice shy, I should have said to myself, remembering the chocolate debacle
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS entirely my fault, and the more galling because exactly the same thing had happened the week before. "Launch of Chocolate Book - Piccadilly 4.30", it said in my diary and off I went fully expecting to return with exciting new recipes for Sachertorte and fudge truffles. No such luck. It was for a novel called Chocolat, written by a no-nonsense middle-aged grammar school teacher from Leeds with short hair and sensible shoes, who said that having a book published like this was incredibly exciting.

Twice that morning she had been mistaken for Monica Lewinsky. My disappointment at missing out on the Sachertorte recipe must have showed, because the author's literary agent, one Serafina, gave me her own favourite recipe for no-waste chocolate mousse. It was the same one she used to make for a restaurant in Fulham before she became a literary agent. I won't trouble you with the details; it's a pretty basic recipe. Here's the trick. On the third day, when the mousse is beginning to look limp, you take it out of the fridge, shove it into the oven for 20 minutes and serve it as a souffle. I forget the name of the restaurant and it's probably just as well.

Last Wednesday it said in my diary "Kings Cross 9am - Day Trip to Yorkshire to see a village and its surroundings". Once bitten twice shy, I should have said to myself, remembering the chocolate debacle, and then rummaged through the piles of papers on the kitchen table to find the accompanying literature. Alas, I don't seem to operate that way - once bitten twice bitten is how it works with me. I skim through the press release, write a shorthand note to myself, lose the press release, glance at the diary entry and set off. All I remembered about the Yorkshire trip was that we were going to Halifax. I have been there only once, to look at the bus station, but it seemed to be a decent, sober town where you might bring up children who liked reading and didn't want their ears pierced or their bodies tattooed with death masks.

We were looking at the new bus station with a view to giving it a prize from the Riba, and before you ask why someone as unqualified architecturally as myself was doing there, let me say that it was precisely because of my ignorance that I was chosen. I was there as the lay-assessor, the muggins who couldn't tell an RSJ from an HGV but whose opinion is valued for that very reason. While the architects earnestly discussed the niceties of the bus station's design and construction, I looked at it purely from the viewpoint of a passenger trying to catch a bus to Pontefract without getting wet.

As it turned out, on Wednesday I was again in my lay assessor role, this being an outing for art critics to view a new installation called A Village and Its Surroundings by an Italian artist at the Henry Moore Foundation. Funnily enough it reminded me a little of the bus station, an opinion I kept to myself.

The installation was in a disused carpet factory. We were allowed to see it six at a time; "with tea and a chance to talk to the artist Vittorio Messina afterwards", said our guide. I wasn't absolutely sure where the installation started. Whether it included the dark passage leading to a darker staircase and on into an almost pitch-black room in the middle of which a large screen was showing aeroplanes and birds going round and round in circles, I cannot say.

Stumbling into the light of a central courtyard, we found a cell-like structure with a washbasin on one side and a wooden bunk with restraining straps on the other. Next to the cell was a wooden shack housing a caravan; next to that was a makeshift temple from which led a passage, part-glazed and part-timbered, which ended in a B&Q greenhouse accommodating rows of empty flower pots.

I tried hard to catch what the art critics were saying about the various items, but they weren't giving anything away. They walked solemnly and silently round the cell, shack and greenhouse, occasionally consulting the catalogue and muttering words such as "futility", "death" and "resurrection". In an adjoining flagstoned room was a long table set with teacups and Danish pastries, but since no one was eating or drinking anything I assumed dispiritedly that this too was part of the installation, until the cheery waitress asked, "Would you like a cuppa, lass?"

After tea we talked to the artist, a dapper little man in a blue mackintosh who said the work signified the dilemma of modern life, freedom, restraint, order and disorder. It was now or never, I decided, in my lay-assessor- bus-to-Pontefract role. Why are the flower pots empty? I asked the artist. Maybe for the same reason that Nietzsche says God is dead, he replied gravely. Ask a silly question.