The Independent Archive: A short upper cut from a cowering position

19 August 1989 In the latest instalment of William Donaldson's weekly column, he takes up the art of restaurant-critic reviewing

I HAVE always been prudent in my arrangements, never, in the search for a laugh, putting myself at an unnecessary risk. When Salter and I shot the Captain of Sunningdale Golf Club as he teed up on the first, we didn't give him fair warning and a five-yard start, we blasted him backwards when he least expected it.

As a prep-school boxer, I didn't confront the other fellow toe-to-toe, I was an in-and- out points accumulator, doing much of my best work from behind after the bell and sometimes the night before - once, with a rabbit-punch, icing my next day's opponent, Paterson, as he lined up for evening prayers.

Later, at Winchester, I did my bullying pseudonymously, setting fire to Pode, a prefect, under the name of Grafftey-Smith, an enormous boy who at the age of 12 sang basso profundo in the choir.

That I might be a coward, rather than merely prudent, first occurred to me when I was in the Navy. I've mentioned before that the navigating officer of my submarine had no sense of direction, a shortcoming in a pilot which meant that, having set off on some important manoeuvre, we were likely to pitch up anywhere.

I have already described the occasion when, aiming at Gibraltar, we surfaced in a marine leisure complex in Copenhagen; what I didn't say was that on the return journey we missed Portsmouth by several hundred miles and hit Scotland in the middle of the night. I was asleep at the time, but I was out of my bunk and up an escape hatch before I recovered consciousness. Realising that I'd let the side down, I stayed up there for an hour, tapping and checking as if searching for a fault.

I have carried these habits of caution into later life, scoring in sudden flurries - often under an assumed name - then dancing out of range. I have never been a slugger like my friend Craig Brown, with whom I had lunch this week.

Brown will pepper a fellow from a distance, causing superficial damage, but he prefers, unlike me, to confront a victim face- to-face, to pull him in close, order Sancerre and get the body punches working.

Many of the mad derelicts you encounter out of doors, barking at strangers in the street or trumpeting generalised rage and pain on top of buses, were poets and politicians once who were lured by Brown into a close-quarters duffing-up.

"I admire your courage, Brown," I said when I joined him, his delightful wife Frances (Colin Welch's girl) and Peter Cook at the Hampstead restaurant which he was to review for the Sunday Times. Then I noticed that he and Cook had the slightly crazed look of men who, on getting up that morning, had brushed their teeth and sharpened their tongues as if intent on making lunchtime jokes about the Pinters, and, since I was here on serious business - to review Brown while he reviewed the food and more importantly, to pick Cook's brain on behalf of my second-best friend Val Hennessy, who is being sued by Bolloms - I decided to put a stop to any off-the-cuff badinage by adding: "Mind you, it's very easy to be funny at other people's expense."

"In that case, why haven't you ever tried it?" said Frances. I should have been expecting this. She's worse than Brown.

Once she took me out to lunch and then called me "obscene and ridiculous" in the Evening Standard. I had to laugh, was still laughing the next day when she rang me up and asked me to dinner at her club to meet her father, knowing that I revered him more than any man living, almost. In the next edition of the Standard she called me "loathsome". I now took out my writer's notebook, ready to jot down anything interesting Cook or Brown might say.

"What are you doing?" said Brown.

"If you're reviewing the food, I'm reviewing you," I said.

"You can't do that," said Brown. "This is off the record."

"Get away. Even what Cook just said about Ingrams?"

"Particularly that," said Cook.

From `The Independent', Saturday 19 August 1989

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