Sunday, 25 April 2010

Salad days

Reading John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure for the Cornflower Book Group last week provided a good deal of food for reminiscence. Early in the book its horrible but compelling narrator, Tarquin Winot, talks about first experiences of restaurants:
One’s first restaurant is not or need not be one’s literal first restaurant, the place where one ate in public for the first time and paid for the experience (the forgotten motorway service station on a trip north to auntie’s, the first good-behaviour rewarding teashop scone), but rather the place where one first encountered the blinding, consoling hugeness of the restaurant idea. Stiff napery; heavy gravity-laden crockery; pristine wineglasses, erect and presentable as Guardsmen on parade; an expectant Commando of pronged, edged and expectant cutlery; the human furniture of other diners and the uniformed waiters; above all the awareness that one has finally arrived at a setting designed primarily to minister to one’s needs, a bright palace of rendered attention.
I got to thinking about my own experience of eating out and came up with a trio of memories, mostly by no means as grand as those which Tarquin is thinking of. The earliest is when I was six, in Scarborough, where my mother was working at the gloriously opulent Royal Opera House, in those days a proper repertory theatre and sadly now demolished, despite the fact that it had been refurbished in the 1970s. Rep companies tend to be very familial, so it was a fairly regular occurrence for a large group to descend at Sunday lunchtime on Scarborough’s first Chinese restaurant, where chopsticks and chop suey (which I adored!) were a novelty. I remember a large, light, upstairs dining room, leisurely meals accompanied by the sound of laughter.

My second recollection of eating out as a small child involves that largely-defunct institution, afternoon tea which, in the 1960s, could still be ordered in most hotels around the country – station hotels being particularly reliable in this respect. Sunday trips out in my grandparents’ car occasionally ended with tea (I recall a slightly undignified visit to the Loch Rannoch Hotel in Perthshire* when I had just fallen into a bog and was rather damp around the nether regions). Hot toasted teacakes or marmite on toast seemed much more of a treat than they could ever do at home: the toast was crisper, the butter sweeter…in those far off days, hotels seemed like heaven to me.

By 1967 my mother was working in London as wardrobe supervisor for a large organisation, overseeing productions both at home and on tour, and that summer she was asked to go to Bournemouth, where a summer show was opening next week at the Winter Gardens (to my horror, also now demolished – we used to joke that theatres my stepfather went to always burnt down; now it seems that all the theatres of my childhood proved surplus to civic requirements). I went too, and the team for getting the costumes ready for a show starring Tommy Cooper and Frankie Vaughan (big names then!) comprised my mother, the elegant and charming designer, two dancers from Bournemouth’s other theatre, the resident wardrobe mistress and me – there were 12 dancers in the show and I can’t remember how many costume changes (at least six, it was a lavish affair), but by the end of the week I was a dab hand with a staple gun and was practically on first name terms with the assistants at the haberdashery counter of Bournemouth’s department store. Yes, really, sixty yards of elastic, please.

The designer stayed in the rather splendid Royal Bath Hotel, while my mother and I went to a hotel next to the theatre, so that if I got tired (which I didn’t, it was all much too much fun) I would be near at hand. The evening we arrived though, we all sailed into the Royal Bath, where it was agreed that although the dining room was officially closed, the chef could probably rustle something up if we didn’t mind a lack of choice. I don’t remember what I ate, but vividly recall the pleasure of sitting by an open window on a warm summer’s evening, and watching several slices of melba toast float gently upwards in the breeze. The head waiter, who attended single-handed to our needs was stately, but not unbending. Several nights later, following the show’s opening, our wardrobe “team” returned to the Royal Bath dining room at nearly midnight – the centre of the room now taken up by a long table sparkling with silverware and glass – for a celebratory dinner, the head waiter, now an old friend, again presiding. This rather blurred photograph, the best I could find, shows that the dining room hasn't changed much in 40 years!

If I'd known then how much time I would spend in hotels now, I wouldn't have minded in the slightest – actually, even now, I don't mind it much, finding them to be places where you can retreat behind a closed door. I prefer them medium-sized, not so huge that you are completely anonymous, but not so small that you feel constantly on display. I generally eat elsewhere, though I could easily be tempted back by mid-afternoon toast and marmite!

* Edited later to add that the Loch Rannoch Hotel's website makes it quite clear that afternoon tea is still served there - nice to see they have got their priorities right. I must go back there one day.

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