William Donaldson's Week: Going in for cod criticism

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The Independent Online
I'VE been invited to write restaurant columns for the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. No, I haven't. An Edinburgh advertising agency has asked me to compose copy about a string of Scottish restaurants - the advantage being that I won't have to visit them in person.

That won't strike you as odd, since you'll agree with me that the only thing more boring than eating food is reading about the stuff - a theory I stuck to rigidly when I was restaurant critic for Tatler under Tina Brown.

I sat at home writing about sport and so forth, and after six months Tina rang me up and, to my surprise, said that it might be a good thing if I occasionally visited a restaurant. I pointed out that that would cost money. 'We could afford it,' she said. 'Take an interesting person to the Gavroche, or somewhere of the sort.'

I didn't like the sound of that. 'I suppose it's possible,' I said, 'but which would you rather read about: Julian Barnes's views on American football or what he had for lunch?'

'His views on American football, of course,' she said.

Thus we struck a compromise. I took Barnes, say, or Dan Marino to some nasty place, named it without mentioning the food, and then gave their views on this and that - and everyone must have been happy since I held the job down for another year.

My friend Craig Brown is a restaurant critic of the old school in that he writes about the food, and, once a month or so, he takes me to a place I'd not be seen dead in were he not the funniest and second nicest person in the world.

This week he asked me to meet him at the place recently opened by the rude one - Marco Polo Pierre, or something of the sort. I arrived first and in a state of some concern about my wardrobe, since a satirically large phone bill had left me without the funds to recover from the cleaners my pearl grey Christian Dior classic.

I needn't have worried. Sitting at the next table was a biker who'd wandered in off the street in tights and building site boots. If they let him in, I reasoned, they'd let anyone in and, thus reassured, I was able, before Brown pitched up, to work out how to get on the front foot in the game we like to play.

To wind me up, Brown pretends to hold the view that everyone has as much right to his opinion as anyone else. My argument is that no one's opinion is of any interest unless he or she holds down - or could have held down - a senior lectureship at a decent university.

Thus, it's self-evident to me that a discussion between myself, say, and a languorously uninformed Spectator essayist would be as embarrassing to an observer as a game of tennis between Brown, for instance, and Andre Agassi. (An example of such a mismatch was the recent rehearsal in this very paper of the old dispute between C P Snow - 'Intellectually, as undistinguished as it's possible to be,' in Dr Leavis's phrase - and Leavis himself, after which Leavis was rebuked by, among others, Lionel Trilling, an admirer of his, for flattering someone so ludicrously below his weight.)

Be that as it may, I decided on this occasion to forget all that and, instead, to infuriate Brown by telling him that I had been appointed restaurant critic of the Scotsman.

I was forestalled, however, by

his arriving with a copy of the Telegraph.

'What are you doing with that?' I said.

'I like it,' he said. 'What's wrong with that?'

'Can I be pompous?'

'Better than anyone I know,' he said.

I took this to be a 'wisecrack' or 'one-liner', brought on, no doubt, by his having watched, as the Sunday Times's TV critic, one episode too many of, say, Roseanne, and I ignored it.

'I'll tell you what's wrong with it,' I said. 'Reviewing Professor Scruton's latest book, Noel Malcolm wrote: 'Consider the following: a philosopher, with a red hunting-jacket, a range of publications spanning aesthetics, the philosophy of mind, the theory of architecture and the philosophy of sex, speaking perfect Czech, competent on the piano and writing occasional operas, and whose existence is necessarily an affront to structuralists, Marxists, 'modernist' artists and left-wing intellectuals'.'

'So?' said Brown.

'His existence isn't necessarily an affront to left-wing intellectuals since the statement 'I am a left- wing intellectual and I'm not affronted by Professor Scruton' isn't self-contradictory in any formal sense. Such slovenliness would never get past an Independent editor.'

'I think I'll hang myself,' said Brown.

'I'm irritating you?'

'No. Well, yes. However, the point is this cod's a grave disappointment.'

'Why are you whispering?'

Brown motioned towards the biker at the next table. 'That's Marco Pierre,' he said. 'If he heard me, he'd throw me through the window.'

I then told Brown that I'd been appointed restaurant critic of the Scotsman, causing him to rise splendidly to the bait.

'That's outrageous]' he stormed. 'Like my becoming their American football correspondent.'

'Don't be silly,' I said. 'The fact is - jumping Jesus]'

'What's up?'

'This salmon's delicious] The biker can cook, for God's sake]'

It was a Damascus-type experience. Next I'd be waddling through the Dordogne in Levin's footsteps, draining vineyards, guzzling myself senseless and returning home with my liver as bloated as an actress's ego.

I rang up the Scotsman and told them that my appointment as their restaurant critic would be an affront to gourmets everywhere.

'Like making Craig Brown your expert on American football,' I said.

'We've done that,' they said. 'He starts in August.'