“It’s not my job to come round and tell you what’s wrong with your restaurant. It’s my job to sell newspapers and to entertain and perhaps inform my readers: The last person who should be reading a restaurant review is the person that it’s about — they should already know.”
“Hands up who knows what the two most important bits of kitchen equipment are? Most guess knives and ovens, pans and fridges. The answer is a chair and a radio. You’re going to spend a lot of time in this room.”
One of my favourite columns:
The fellows of the Royal Geographical Society file into the Ondaatje theatre like the shore excursion of some genteel cruise ship. They are, for the most part, folk whose travelling days, like their hair and sex lives, are behind them. There are occasional dashes of eccentric accessory: a headhunter shopping bag; a crutch of extinct hardwood; a jaunty tribal scarf; shoes made for, or out of, hobbit. A couple of weather-tortured old men walk with their heads bent into some long past wind, as if still slogging up a nameless col. A chap shuffles past my seat wearing a duffel coat, a tweed jacket, a cardigan, Viyella shirt and tie, and three yards of scarf, presumably because planning is everything, and only the warm survive.
We’re all here to vote in an extraordinary ballot on an ordinary question: whether or not the RGS should continue to lend its name to expeditions, the way it always has. You might think that if the RGS doesn’t do that, what on earth does it do? Clearly, you know nothing. The alternative is that the society should continue as it has for the past decade, an academic conduit for narrow-focused funding of arcane research.
At three o’clock, a man gets up and says: “Here we are, surrounded by the names of the great explorers. Above us, the pediment glows golden with the surnames of Scott and Livingstone, of Shackleton and Burton, and a hundred other glittering supermen of extremity.” He looks up at them in the manner of a public-school geography teacher regarding the roll of hon-our of captains of the First XI – that is, with an appearance of barely disguised disdain. If only these muscly thugs had spent more time in the library than at the wicket. “The emergency exits are there, there and over there.” It’s come to something when the fellows of the Royal Geographical Society have to be shown how to get out of a big room in Kensington in the middle of the afternoon. But then, it has come to something.
“Chatham House rules,” he purrs, and someone from the back of the hall shouts: “Who are you?”
“I am,” he replies, with a butler’s insouciance, “the president of this society.” Chatham House rules are fine by me: I’ve still no idea who he is, except one of those self-possessed smirky men who are dislikable in the instant and from a great distance, the sort of functionary who rises to the top of clubs and societies used to running themselves behind closed doors and without much scrutiny. Few organisations that thought they would ever have seriously to deal with the public or the press would have allowed him within screaming distance of a microphone.
But here he is, exuding patronage, glacial manners and a lofty ego. The room seethes with a barely contained fury. The arguments for and against are put with bland, stammering good manners. We all agree on everything, yet still tempers bubble with a sulphurous intent. There’s little point in running through what was said, because it was beside the point. In that very English way, the argument was not about the argument, it was about something else altogether: who should own the view of the world. The new proposal wanted a return to exploration, to excitement, to heroes and stories and adventure, while the committee of geographers wanted to box the globe up behind a wall of precise, dry, peer-reviewed research.
The academics argue that the society’s past is colonial, politically incorrect, racist and occasionally murderous. Its motives were jingoistic, commercial and eccentric. We can no longer go to other people’s countries, stab a flag into something that was never lost and rename it after a member of the royal family. By contrast, the adventurers argue that discovery is always spine-tingling and hair-raising, and tumescently inspirational, that everybody who goes out into the world discovers it for the first time and plants a metaphorical flag.
The seed counters and the thermometer shakers, the list compilers and the serial pass-the-parcel peer reviewers have always felt sidelined in this place, belittled and overshadowed by the adventurers. In the end, the hard grind is done by them: men who never get their names gilded on the wall.
Today, however, it’s their moment: revenge of the nerds. The great hinterland, the great expanding glacier of climate change, is their really big opportunity to steal the show, the great chance for them to slough off their geographers’ gritted reputation as the dullest, wonkiest teachers in school. (Geog. Hyphenated with PE. Cider and snogging trips to the Brecon Beacons.) And just when they’re about to colonise global warming and meet Al Gore, they don’t want a lot of exciting and attractive young blokes being Harrison Ford and Allan Quatermain and stealing the headlines. (That said, the seed counters generally dislike headlines. The RGS is run by academics who regard the press as being made up by cretins for the edification of morons, who would more readily write a paper read by 15 people than an article read by 5m, and they’ve spent a great deal of time and money recently trying to bully and lawyer newspapers into not writing anything about them at all.)
Occasionally, a stray comment reveals the depth of their ire. A professor from red-brick academe says you can see glaciers on Google Earth, so there’s really no point in going all the way to look at them. Another barks: “Why is it that explorers always want to go to inhospitable places?” For the most part, the adventurers talk with a purple grandeur and sunny hyperbole, while the academics employ the dead fog of social services news-speak.
Woodrow Wilson once noted that academic disputes were so vicious mainly because the stakes were so small. There is an academic assumption that all research is a good thing, and that all knowledge gleaned from research is of equal importance, as every shard in a mosaic is of equal importance. This is, of course, empirical bollocks. Most research is forgotten and negligible, and an awful lot of it is utterly pointless, and has a lot more to do with the search for funding, career-building and hierarchies than it does with uncovering and thereby righting the world.
In the end, they voted not to boldly go, to keep exploration for computer modelling and interim findings, by quite a comfortable margin. It was a victory for briefcases over rucksacks. No secret police force is as efficient and brutal at sewing up a result as the senior common rooms of Blighty. It was like watching the professors from Chariots of Fire put down the undergraduates in shorts.
As I stood in the hopeless queue to vote, a person, who under Chatham House rules may or may not have been Joanna Lumley, kissed me. Hello Joanna, or someone, I said. “Who are you voting for?” she asked. “The big hairy beasts, or stay as we are?”
What do you think? If there is any doubt in any election for anything, you should always ask yourself, who would I rather be caught in a blizzard with? Who would I rather share a slice of cold Spam and a tin mug of cocoa with? Romantic and wrong always trumps repellent but right.
Of course, the vote doesn’t mean the end of expeditions and adventures – the likes of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who finally conquered Everest last week, will be funded by charities, television programmes and Rich-ard Branson, but not the RGS. Not the greatest repository of experience in exploration in the world. Not the most memorable and evocative name in adventure. It was a bit like watching Rolls-Royce voting itself out of car-making in favour of speed cameras.
But maybe that doesn’t matter very much. What does matter is that we all need to feel excited about the world we live in. We all need to feel it’s our world, and if you want people to do something about preserving it and improving it, then you need to show them it. And you need to show them that it is an endlessly astonishing place and a great saga. For that, you need men in hats.
The most famous expedition was helped by the RGS. It wasn’t led by a scientist or a soldier, but – pause for modesty – a journalist, and was funded by a newspaper. It was to search, not for a mountain, or a river, or a shortcut to riches, but a religious fundamentalist. In practical terms, it achieved very little. Dr Livingstone died without having converted a single African, and Henry Morton Stanley was responsible for a great deal of lost life and misery. But between them, they inspired millions to care for Africa and Africans. Another RGS emissary, Shackleton, failed and came home; yet another, Scott, failed and didn’t.
Now that the RGS has turned its back on the world the rest of us live in, it can get on with being an interesting anachronism with a great photo album, and continue with the dusty, comfortable, indoor business of academic patronage: back-scratching and Buggins’s turn.
At the ballot box, a chap tapped me on the arm and said: “You won’t remember me, but I once showed you round the Map Room.” I do remember, vividly: huge chests full of maps that ranged from Elizabethan guesses to Russian military maps of Mongolia, maps that had been made by men who trained themselves to walk exactly a yard a step, to measure the Hindu Kush, and maps that were sewn into Spitfire pilots’ jackets. When Argentina invaded the Falklands, the Admiralty came to the RGS to get a map. The Map Room was our planet’s diary.
Well, no longer. The Map Room is now used for corporate functions. Since 2004 the maps have been moved down the corridor to a sterile archive lacking in charm. So the Map Room lost its maps. But the Royal Geographical Society doesn’t need them any more, because it’s not going anywhere.
Another great column:
When a tour-bus load of would-be Carries, Charlottes, and Samanthas (nope, no Mirandas) go chasing that Sex and the City dream, is it comedy, tragedy, or cultural delusion? By A. A. Gill January 2009
‘Now, ladies, there is a washroom on the bus, there is a toi-lette. It is, though, a toilet on a bus, you know what I’m saying? So … no twosies, if you’re with me. No twosies.” There is a murmur of sisterly understanding. Welcome to the Sex and the City bus tour of New York. “We’ve all seen the film? O.K.-ee!” Of course we have. The high humor point is a woman twosie-ing in her pants. So we’re all bonded over twosies. We’re getting the twosie motif. “O.K.! Let’s begin with who thinks they’re a Charlotte?” A few hands go up. “Yay, all right! O.K., who identifies with Miranda?” No hands go up. “O.K., who’s a Carrie?” There’s a collective sigh of doppelgänger-identification angst, and a yearning forest of arms. “O.K., who’s a Samantha?” There are giggles, and a couple of birds at the back raise their hands. They might just as well have spread their legs. “Ooh! Sluts! My sort of girls!” The tour guide breathes into the microphone suggestively, and this huge intercontinental tour bus pneumatically, and empathetically, jerks itself into the traffic. I watch the driver negotiate the loathing from the New York streets. He could be a special-rendition taxi driver.
Nothing is as instantly and comfortably hateable as tourists, particularly large, loose, lost crowds of tourists. A bus full of them navigating New York’s residential side streets is an invitation to some of the worst karma available in the Western world. Our tour-guide compère starts by telling us something about herself. She’s not from around here. “I do stand-up and improv and moved to New York five years ago, and I’ve been doing the Sex and the City tour for more than a year.” The bright and brilliant cliché of this life shines down the central aisle. It isn’t just an introduction. It’s a pathetic character scenario. With her bad haircut and designer bag spilling tissues and drug-store receipts, she has made herself into an episode of the show, and the bus sends back its unconditional pity.
The tour is a rambling, exhausting, discursive, self-reverential troll through downtown, and it’s rather like being trapped on a large white bus with a lot of women talking about Sex and the City. So it goes: “You remember the episode where Carrie spills the cappuccino because she’s looking after the dog and has lost the manuscript with a description of oral sex with the Russian and then oh my God she bumps into Big who she hasn’t seen since that time with the martini olives and the hemorrhoids? Well, if you look to the right, that’s the café, and it’s like oh my God bad hair dog blow job cappuccino hell. You remember that of course.” Of course they remember that. It’s like asking Taliban summer-school students if they remember the bit where Muhammad smote the gay Jews. “And if you want brunch or something, I can recommend it.
“Now here on the left is the restaurant where Samantha found out she was pregnant with cocker spaniels and then swallowed her contact lenses and the hot doctor at the next table offered to get them all out for her. You remember that?” They remember that. Corresponding clips from the series are played on the tiny, milky overhead screens. It’s an oddly disembodied sensation of traveling in a magic-realist bus, or coming around from an anesthetic. After an age, we stop. “Ladies, I’m very particular about time. If you’re not back in 17 minutes”—she checks her watch—“we will leave you behind.” And for a moment we all consider this. We could be left behind in the parallel land of Sex and the City, like an episode of Star Trek, to live forever in this mythical New York of endless brunch and always fornicating on top wearing a black bra. We’ve pulled up next to a sex shop. Apparently, we all remember that someone once bought a Rabbit vibrator here. We get off the bus and file into the shop, which is odd. Sex shops are generally solitary, furtive, and male. The Rabbits are piled high. That is the nature of rabbits. There’s a buzz of anticipation. They were expecting us with a discount, and a couple of women get out their credit cards. I suppose a vibrator might be an impulse buy, and buying yourself one in front of 50 strangers with whom you then have to share a bus journey might be considered the height of liberated insouciance. But buying a sex aid because some actress has faked an orgasm on TV with it is evidence that there’s more wrong with your social life than can be fixed by a dildo. We get back on the bus. I can’t tell if anyone’s chosen to stay behind and live on Mr Big Island forever: “No, you all go on. My place is here.”
Looking around at the women, I try to discern some defining characteristic. Surely girls who come to New York to spend a day on a bus looking at fleeting backgrounds from a defunct TV series in the company of other like-minded girls should have some deforming mark so we can recognize them on the street or at the bar or in the dark. But they aren’t tattooed, or particularly fat, or lopsided with walleyes. They aren’t carrying oxygen tanks or wearing padded safety helmets. They aren’t noticeably over- or underdressed. There isn’t a winking absence of underwear or overindulgence of cleavage. They are a relatively plain cross section of women from across the States and beyond. Most of them won’t see 25 again. They are all gamely fighting a losing battle against comfort carbs, gravity, and the capricious idiocy of fashion. One has brought along her boyfriend, like a large, sulky handbag, which was, I think, an act of overt hostility and humiliation. I assume he’d been caught humping a short-order waitress, and this was part of his punishment. The other girls regard him and me with barely disguised disgust. Mr. Big wouldn’t be caught dead on a Sex and the City bus tour. What sort of demi-man would? Well, the three English poofs at the back would. They started out screechy and hyperventilatingly Cage aux Folles, but they got quieter and shiftier as we went on; there wasn’t anything like enough camp irony. This was all way too real.
We crawl into the Meatpacking District. Our conspiratorial and cozily gossipy stand-up tour guide tells us that this is where the girls did a lot of their shopping, and that it’s a sort of secret place that only really savvy New Yorkers know about. She reels off a list of shops and what each character bought in them. We’re chucked off for 20-minute retail reruns. I hide in Diane von Furstenberg’s changing room. And just in case you’re from Alaska, the Meatpacking District is New York’s secret like the Vatican is Rome’s.
We’re taken to the Magnolia Bakery, where queues of weirdly excited and messianic women wait impatiently to eat the teeth-meltingly sweet, infantile cupcakes like a votive Communion promising a blessed afterwork life of copious, cool sex, witty friendship, miraculously available taxis, Manolos, Cosmos, and happy-ending aphorisms. We don’t have to line up. Our cakes come with the ticket. Massive trays of cupcakes appear and are offered to us in a tramp’s pissoir alley on slimy benches beside a children’s recreational park. Feeding cake to yearningly single women beside a playground with happy West Village moms and their gilded tots was an act of sadistic patronage. We guiltily stuff our faces, begging the refined calories to transport us into closer connection with the fabled story arc.
Another column: AA Gill is God
“Look at this, Dad. You’ll like this.” Generally, when Ally, my eldest son, tells me to look at something I’ll like, it’s a 30-second phone film of someone getting very angry, falling over and being crapped on by a horse. Or it’s a dancing mongoose, or a drunk Australian naked bungee-jumping. YouTube has all the properties of a Dark Ages bestiary. It intimates a distant world of bizarre and inexplicable otherness, proving we live in a fearsomely weird and magic place full of talking dogs, men who use their oversized feet as umbrellas, women who breast-feed rabbits and the fanatical personal rants of messianic bedroom hermits. It’s the electric-light Herodotus, and I rather enjoy it, if I’m being led by a 15-year-old. It seems to confirm a personal aperçu: the more information you have, the less you understand.
It wasn’t YouTube, as it happens. This now becomes a cautionary tale, a parable about fluttering hubris and stumbling nemesis. He’d discovered a website called simply, and elegantly, aagillisgod. I was rather taken aback, because it raised some tricky theological and metaphysical questions. Not least, could an all-powerful, all-seeing god be unaware of his own divinity? And there was, I will admit, a small swelling of the ego, a semi-tumescence in the wrinkled vanity. I smirked and harrumphed (“How ridiculous. Don’t people have better things to do with their time?”), simultaneously elbowing him away from the screen, tutting loudly. The first entry read: “I love AA Gill because he writes just like Jeremy Clarkson, but about food. How brilliant is that?” Thwack! I was slapped in the face by the wet haddock of get-over-yourself. That turned out to be the shortest religious experience since Salman Rushdie converted to Islam.
Yesterday, I had lunch with Jeremy and I told him about the website and the quote. “That’s fantastic. I’m going to write about that.” No – it’s my website. I’m going to write about it. “I’ve five columns to do after lunch, so I’m afraid I’m having it,” he said, like Napoleon reviewing regiments. Look, I’m the one who’s God. It’s mine. He’s got a new book out. I say new in the sense that undertakers say new: old stuff in a new box. If they want a quote for the cover, they can have: “AA God says Clarkson’s brilliant, and writes just like AA Gill, but sadly about cars.”
Just to continue with the too-big-for-your-own-clogs theme, I won an award a couple of weeks back. Another award, actually. I know I won it because I read about it in the paper. This paper. AA Gill wins the Edgar Wallace award for fine writing. There is something vaguely Barbara Cartland, something raised-pinky and lavender-notepaper, about fine writing when applied to a by-the-yard hack. Never mind. I was thrilled, and I’m still waiting for the bunch, the call, even the e-mail with a smiley face attachment from the paper saying congratulations. Nothing. No summons for drinks with the editor. If I hadn’t paid to read my own newspaper, I’d never have known. (Actually, I would. I saw the editor at Jeremy’s book launch. He said: “Are you AA Gill?” Yes, sir. “Well, would you come and collect your trophy thing? It’s cluttering up the office.” You see, that’s what I like about newspapers. They’re half rugby club, half Counter-Reformation.)
I wasn’t here for the gong, but in Washington having lunch in a place they said was where everybody who was somebody met anybody who was somebody else. The maître d’ sidled up and said conspiratorially: “Ah, Mr Gill. I hope you’re not going to write bad things about us.” Hot diggety damn! How on earth do you know who I am? “I read you every week on the web.” Not on AA Gill is God by any chance? “No.” He looked confused. “The Sunday Times.” I was impressed. I’m impressed, I said. “You’re a celebrity,” he replied, with a fathomless tone of pity and distaste, like a doctor who has to say: “It’s not fatal, but it is debilitating, tasteless, antisocial, and incurable.” So if you’re in Washington, eat lunch at Cafe Milano. Say I sent you. Actually, it’s not at all bad.
So, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about what Mark Hix thinks about me. Mark, erstwhile kitchen foreman of Caprice Holdings, now executive consultant for Brown’s Hotel and master of his own oven at Hix Oyster & Chop House, thinks I’m a brat. When I reviewed Brown’s Hotel recently, I said authoritatively that I had had Irish stew, when in fact it had been Lancashire hotpot. Or vice versa. There are a number of things – like Perry Como and Engelbert Humperdinck, Schiller and Goethe, transformers and transponders, Saturn and Venus, Walloon and Flem, front and back bottom – I can never remember which is which. It is, of course, unforgivable in a restaurant review to mix and confuse two classic dishes, especially when the recipe for one is lamb, potatoes, onion, carrot, thyme, salt, pepper and water, and for the other lamb, potatoes, onion, carrot, thyme, salt, pepper and water. Mark has been teasing me relentlessly, so I thought I’d pay his new restaurant a professional visit.
It is new, in the way that Jeremy’s next article will be new, and near Smithfield. And, just to show there are no hard feelings, I took Pat Nurse, my Australian editor and one of the judges for best restaurant in the world, and Camellia Panjabi, author of the bestselling Indian cookbook ever written and owner of a dozen Indian restaurants, including Amaya and the Masala Zone chain.
The restaurant is perfectly nice to look at, with tiles and a bar, simple furniture and no volume control. We started with a plate of oysters just outside the last “r” of spring – so sort of sping. The fines de claires were fit only for stewing, and the natives were too small, like eating otter bollocks. Then we had some of Mark’s home-smoked salmon, which cuts like gravadlax and has the soft, toothless texture of lox. It was strongly smoked and tasted of Lloyd’s lightning (insurance-inspired arson). It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had a lamb curry to amuse Camellia; sadly, she very seriously said she thought it was extremely well made, and that it tasted very good. Grudgingly, I had to admit that was true. But it was also innocent of any chilli heat.
There were some good steaks, which came to the table naked, just so we could abuse them before they were burnt. And the star dish, a steak and oyster pie, was worth the trip on its own. There were homemade English cheeses, which varied as much as homemade pullovers. Mrs Somebody’s mouldy-sock curd was disgusting, but the chèvre supplied by Alex James – who sometimes stands in for this column, and everybody else’s – was really very good indeed. Pudding was the usual Beatrix Potter melange. The restaurant was bursting. In fact, Smithfield is hotching with young people, all apparently having speed sex up against windows, which looks a bit like mutual texting. It’s all rather jolly.
The food at Oyster & Chops is well-meaning and, generally, slightly overcooked and a touch underseasoned. The service is pleasant if you can catch it, but a bit like fishing in the Thames: mostly happening somewhere else. All the found ingredients are nicely sourced; the atmosphere is deafening with the happy noise of precoital youth.
My faint caveat to the Falstaffian, jolly, tummy-tapping heartiness of it is that, having waited 20 years for a revival in indigenous cooking, I’m beginning to suffer the Irish-stew-and-Lancashire-hotpot delusion: it’s all getting to look, sound and taste the same. It’s a good noddle, but I do wish the menus would brave something more than the well-thumbed pages of Jane Grigson. I’d like a carpet occasionally, and a seat with a cushion. I wouldn’t mind a tablecloth, and a waiter who wasn’t auditioning for an attendant lord in Henry IV Part 2. I’m beginning to be irked by the John Bullish orthodoxy that’s grown up around particular cuts and bits of offal and pollack and things on toast and things in white pots that have been steamed. It’s all fine, but I want slightly less jingoism and slightly more variation. A bit less Land of Hope and Glory, a bit more food. It’s just a thought.