John Walsh: Tales of the City

How on earth do the poor dears manage to exist without an en-suite bathroom?
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The Independent Online

Sir Terence Conran has long professed to democratic impulses in his business dealings. He always maintained that Habitat, his flagship design store, was a success not because people had a pretentious interest in acquiring huge white dinner plates and stripped-wood bedroom furniture, but because he was simply "offering people thing that were nicely designed and available at prices they could afford."

So it's remarkable to see him come out of the closet as a raging snob when it comes to the living arrangements of the British. Inspired by Jamie Oliver's campaign to make the Government spend more on school meals, Conran wrote to The Times demanding that politicians should do something similar about "our appalling housing".

It would indeed be interesting to find out how much the government could be persuaded to shell out for better-quality starter homes in Essex and Middlesex - but it soon became clear that Sir Tel wasn't thinking about state-sponsored housing. He was commiserating with us all.

He wept over our plight in a recent interview. He said he wanted to make a film that examined the life of the average family on a low income: "The horrid visit to their bathroom first thing in the morning, down the stairs to this terrible kitchen, going on terrible public transport, taking their children to this terrible school ... [this is] how it is for most people in this country."

Stop, stop! I can take no more of this tragic picture. Not since the days of Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson have such tones of exquisite condescension towards the benighted masses been heard in the land. What's Sir Terence got against ordinary people visiting the bathroom in the morning? Oh I get it, he's thinking of bathrooms that aren't built into your bedroom, that aren't en-suite. Wow, that is a pretty shocking prospect.

And what, pray, is wrong with walking downstairs to the kitchen? Don't tell me - in Conran Land, one has an en-suite kitchen too. As for the "terrible" public transport, one can only wonder about the last time Sir TC was to be found on a No 19 bus (murmuring to the driver, "Would you kindly take me, my good fellow, as swiftly as possibly, to Number 350, the King's Road ..."). And what he knows about "terrible" state schools can presumably be inscribed on a Habitat coaster.

His prescription for how we might all be saved from domestic ghastliness is still in the planning stage, but it appears to involve Norman Foster, the glamorous architect, James Dyson the vacuum-cleaner king and a multi-purpose air-and-water-conditioning unit that will answer all your atmospheric needs.

Further clues are provided by the current Habitat catalogue. In its pages you'll discover that the ideal modern bathroom (en-suite or otherwise) features a stand-alone basin the size of a Wagamama soup bowl and a long thin tap with all the cutting-edge style of a drinking fountain on Wandsworth Common, while his new range of furniture, the Tico, is like a series of squat, miniaturised Stonehenges in dull grey fibreglass. So thanks a lot, sir, for your concern - but I think we'll stay mired in horridness for the present.

Shrinking violet

Massive excitement has greeted the rare appearance in public of Harper Lee, the famously reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Reclusive? Hardly. Ms Lee keeps popping up all over the place - the Alabama Festival in 1983, Alabama University (accepting a degree) in 1990, a honorary doctorate from a college in Mobile, Alabama, in 1997.

Recluses are supposed to stay home, shun human company and never go out. Compared to real recluses like Thomas Pynchon and J D Salinger, Ms Lee is about as reclusive as Sienna Miller. Any invitation with "Alabama" on it will do, it seems. If the Brixton blues collective Alabama 3 (currently touring their new CD, Outlaw) asked her to join them singing "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" on stage at the Empire, Shepherd's Bush, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see her there, avoiding the limelight once more.

Bloody sauce

How inspired of the Dictionary of National Biography to include, among 140 new entries in its 2005 edition, the potted lives of John Wheeley Lea (1791-1874) and William Henry Perrins (1793-1867). Their names may not still the childish play of the nation's hoodie-wearing juveniles, but their contribution to British gastronomic delight is immeasurable. Without their sauce, the 581 Bloody Marys I have drunk in my lifetime would have been a series of boring liquid compounds vaguely redolent of tomatoes and alcohol. With the addition of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, they were transformed into a sexy, darkly-spiced, smoked-meaty, vinegarish soup that made your digestive system shudder with delight.

Fernand Petiot, the barman at Harry's New York Bar in Paris, is the chap we have to thank for inventing the world's most textured cocktail in 1921 - but the ochre nectar had been in existence for half a century before that. It keeps turning up, like a battered Union Jack, in stories of foreign adventuring.

In the 1970s, archaeologists in New Zealand decided to excavate a Maori village called Te Wairoa, which had been completely destroyed by volcanic eruption in 1886. One of the few objects tough enough to withstand the engulfing lava was, you guessed it, a bottle of L&P.

And I like the story of the explorer Lt-Col Sir Francis Edward Young, who set out into the obscurer regions of Tibet in 1904. He penetrated terrain never witnessed by Western man, forded mighty rivers, and finally stumbled into the forbidden city of Lhasa. The monks explained that the Way of Truth is hard and the Path to Enlightenment thorny, and asked if he'd like something to eat. They laid the table in the refectory - and plonked in front of him a bottle of Lea & Perrins. A lovely surprise (did it mean they were having shepherd's pie for lunch?) but a bit of a let-down for someone who thought he was the first Englishman to bring civilisation to the slit-eyed savages.

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