John Walsh: Tales Of The City

I really don't want to turn into Michael Winner, but I can see how I might get there
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The Independent Online

It's funny how, without actually having met Michael Winner, you still know pretty clearly what an irritating person he must be: bumptious, arrogant, overbearing. Behind all the "calm down, dear" shtick from that television commercial (which will be, I fear, his most vivid, or indeed only, legacy to British culture), you could tell there was a 24-carat, 17-stone Mr Toad on the loose. As my sainted mother used to say: "If conceit was consumption, he'd have been dead long ago." So when you heard about his being booted out of Jean-Christophe Novelli's gastropub, The White Horse in Harpenden, you were probably disposed to cheer, weren't you?

It seems that Winner had invaded another Novelli eaterie in 1998, and, when the receptionist failed to recognise him, uttered the immortal words: "Don't you know who I am, [dear]?" This could, of course, have been just an ironic pleasantry, a pompous question asked in (as it were) inverted commas, a Postmodern, "I'm-pretending-to-be-Michael-Winner" verbal sally. But apparently the former film director upbraided other staff about their failure of cognizance, and Novelli found it hard to forgive him. "I keep people like that on the shelf," he says, idiomatically. "I have been waiting eight years. The man is not acceptable in the restaurant. He knows nothing about food. He is Mickey Mouse." So he told his staff to turn Winner away at the door of The White Horse, and for good measure told The Times he thought the critic "a national misery" and "a total asshole".

I'm not a big Winner fan, but, to my surprise, I find myself siding with him on this one. I'm sure he's pompous and dictatorial and the rest, but isn't Novelli's attitude marginally worse? It's the mindset of a now well-established tyranny: the chef-proprietor whose importance wholly eclipses his guests' needs. Marco Pierre White started it at Chez Bruce, Gordon Ramsay brought it to a fine art when he kicked A A Gill and Joan Collins out of his Orangerie. Now Novelli is right up there with them, for his neurotic eight-year vendetta against a guest, his curious sideswipe at Winner for knowing nothing about food (when did that become a reason for barring anyone from a restaurant?) and for the way he once rounded on two AA critics and had them leave by the back door ("like dogs" they said) because they'd awarded him only two rosettes.

I'm a wee bit tired of the rudeness of the service industry. I spent the weekend in the country being variously dissed, ignored and abused by caterers. Extraordinary bunch, aren't they? You don't expect modern innkeepers and publicans to be obsequious suck-ups, but you assume they chose their career in order to parlay their natural charm and "people skills" into revenue and profit. So what happened?

I was staying on the Exmoor coast while attending the very jolly silver wedding anniversary of some dear friends. Given that the guest list included people I probably hadn't seen for 24 and a half years, I nipped to the pub with my pal Harry for a pint and a fag to steel my nerves. With a mildly annoying little smile, the barman said I couldn't use the cigarette machine. "We're getting rid of it, so we're not stocking it any more, and we're waiting for it to empty. So it won't have much left." What cigarettes would be left? "Some Golden Virginia rolling tobacco." Did they have any Rizla papers? "No." "Is there an off-licence around here?" He pondered for a while. "There are," (enraging pause) "but they're probably shut by now. And anyway..." He pointed to a sign saying, "This is a smoke-free interior." Goodness. Had the baleful public-places legislation arrived early in Somerset? "No, it's the landlord. It's completely up to him what to do about smoking."

He looked at me as the Cornish locals looked at Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, as if saying, "What to do about bloody London types coming down to see how quaint we are."

The party was a riot, the drinking and dancing undisciplined to a rare degree. At nine in the morning, crapulous with claret and enfeebled by too much Meat Loaf on the dancefloor, I rang reception to ask about breakfast. "Nine-thirty finish," snarled a voice, as though they'd whip the menu from your hand if your order strayed over into 9.31. I went for a bracing walk overlooking the Bristol Channel and was sternly summoned back to check out, in case I'd been planning to bunk off without paying. After the bill was settled, I asked the lady at the counter, "Could you tell me the times of trains from Taunton to London?" and she waited a full 15 seconds before bringing her face to mine and saying, "No I couldn't," with the sort of emphatic satisfaction you associate with a slap.

I really don't want to turn into Michael Winner and start shouting at catering staff. But sometimes I can see, as though spotting a distant headland at sea, how I might get there.

Flummoxed by Franklin

The news that Benjamin Franklin, the statesman, drafter of the US Declaration of Independence, experimenter with lightning and inventor of the glass harmonica, also produced a numbers puzzle - a prototypical Sudoku, only 5,000 times harder - called the Magic Square makes one's jaw drop. He did it as a little test for his scientific friends at the Royal Society when he lived in London in the 1760s. It's just been discovered in the British Library and is fiendishly difficult. Unlike Sudoku, every line in the Franklin Square has to add up to 2056. Can you imagine today's newspaper gamesters grimly adding up lines and lines of figures? I can't. But can you imagine a time when an American statesman could airily wander between working in constitutional law, electricity, libraries, medicine and a dozen other subjects and still find time to bewilder the British empire's top mathematicians? Funny, I just can't see Dick Cheney taking on the role...