When we moved house recently, we took a gamble. The builders hadn’t finished a couple of crucial renovations in the new place – removing the old kitchen units, knocking down a section of wall, installing a cupboard, taking up the flooring – but they were quite certain it would take only a couple of weeks.
They are charming and plausible men. They do not take liberties. They’re committed to, in builder-speak, expediting the process as efficiently as is feasible. So determined were they to finish, they said they’d live on the premises until the final rivet was embanged and the final lightbulb enscrewed.
So we sent the furniture into storage for a fortnight and moved into our top-floor eyrie, surrounded by cardboard boxes. We depended for our morning sustenance on an electric kettle, a jar of Cap Colombie instant coffee and a milk bottle that spends the night on the windowsill outside, like in student days.
It’s ok, we tell each other: two weeks of privation, dust, no TV and no breakfast will be good for the character. But we must be careful not to speak or move loudly, for fear of disturbing the builders slumbering on mattresses downstairs…
The other morning I was awakened at 7.30am by a fabulous smell: frying bacon. It roused my senses to a lather of anticipation. It was coming from downstairs. The builders had, it seemed, made the knackered cooker work and, before starting on the wall and the cupboard, were enjoying breakfast, possibly with eggs.
I considered nipping down to ask them to include us in a fry-up, but this was obviously socially impossible. (“Ask Mrs Patmore to bring us up some food, would you Anthony?”) Leave it, said my beloved. Put the kettle on, and see if the milk has fallen off the window sill again.
Two days later, the heavenly smell was back: bacon with, unmistakably, mushrooms cooking in butter, with a top note of (could it be?) black pudding. My starved intestines raged within, but there was nothing I could do. There’s a limit to the cuisinal inventions you can perform with an electric kettle. Then things speeded up. The next morning, there was a distinct smell of omelette aux fines herbes, with an acrid soupçon of Tabasco.
Since then, things have gone a bit mad. I can’t go down the stairs to the kitchen because there’s a concrete mixer at the bottom, blocking the way. I call out, and receive shouted reassurances that, yes, it’s going very well and the work will be concluded in, ooh, two more weeks. The beloved has gone to visit relatives, and, as I sit in my bedroom eyrie each evening, glumly reading Seneca and the other Stoics, smells waft up – of salmon en croute, lamb shanks with mustard mash, tarte tatin… Yesterday, I swear I saw a copy of Nigellissima lying on the stairs in the dusk, before it was snatched away by a hand emerging from paint-stained overalls. I try to be philosophical. At the end of all this, I may not just have gained wisdom, forbearance and moral strength. I may also have gained a pop-up restaurant.
Rocking all over le monde
Satanic of beard, saurian of complexion and suspiciously Stygian of hair, Johnny Hallyday comes to Britain next week to wow audiences at London’s Albert Hall. Johnny Who? Generations of British pop fans have asked that about the leather-trousered Gallic rocqueur who, in a 52-year career, has sold 100 million albums. The answer is simple: he’s France’s only rock star, their one-man rock industry, the French Elvis, the French Keith Richards, the French Freddie Mercury and a hundred others. His career follows the history of rock and occasionally intersects with it: the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first gig was in support of Johnny Vacances. He’s also a close friend of Nicolas Sarkozy – and a committed tax exile. After years of body-swerving tax in Switzerland and the US, is he about to make Britain his haven au choix?