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Taking liberties

Published 5 May 1995
Style Magazine
96th article



Ask, and it shall be given: Michael Winner with his souvenirs (Nick Mead)

There is nothing more sanctimonious than a reformed smoker. Except a reformed thief. I am both. I stopped smoking 14 Monte Cristo Number One cigars a day a year or so ago when my cardiologists said: "If you keep going there's no point in us putting in new arteries." This saved me £25,000 a year and meant I could run up stairs without getting out of breath on step three. I stopped stealing when I was 17 and went to Cambridge. This was not the expectation of the joys of academia, it just happened that way. Now, although I frequently take towels, soap, cutlery etc from hotels, restaurants and airplanes, I always ask permission first!

It was food - believe it or not - that set me on the road to larceny. At my Quaker school, during the war, sweets were rationed. The government issued coupons to be exchanged for a limited amount of sweets and chocolates. Needless to say, the official quota fell far short of the demands of young Winner. Thus I needed extra coupons and extra cash. To get this I would go round the boys' discarded clothing during the games period and nick money from their pockets. It was always a great disappointment to me when I found another boy had beaten me to it. With the money thus disgracefully gathered, I would buy my fellow students' sweet coupons and then more sweets. When even that wasn't enough we would buy fish and meat paste from the corner post office and scoop it out of the little glass jars with our fingers!

My thieving worried me greatly in later life. A few years ago, remembering I had nicked 10 shillings (50p now) from a boy called Clotworthy, I found his number and phoned him up. I expressed my great sorrow and told him I would send him a cheque for 50p plus compound interest since 1950; and this I did. I also invited him and his wife, at my expense, to come to London for three days and attend one of my film premieres; and this they did. But he was appalled to receive my cheque! He didn't remember the event at all and sent it back saying he hoped the money had in some small way helped in my success. I returned the cheque begging him to keep it, and at last he obliged. This was reported in a national newspaper, where I offered to give money to any boy who was at St Christopher School, Letchworth, with me. It says something (good or bad) about the boys of St Chris's that none came forward! In case any are Sunday Times readers - my offer still stands.

Nearly all of us take something or other from hotel rooms. Soap, used or unused, towels, bottles of this or that, even cutlery. I have a terrific collection of airline and hotel cutlery. There's nearly a complete set from the Pierre Hotel, New York. As I'm leaving I always say: "Got two forks and a spoon in my bags okay?" Nobody has ever said "No." And at a thousand quid a night for a decent suite, what's 20p worth of second-hand cutlery? Especially to a charming, regular guest! There was a lovely old man called Mr Durcos on reception at the Pierre when it was managed by Forte - and incidentally far better managed than it is now by the Four Seasons group - who saw me on a New York talk show going on about my set of Concorde cutlery and that I needed six knives to complete my Pierre Hotel set. When he next gave me my room key, six knives were handed over with it! Concorde used to have its own special cutlery, then it changed to the British Airways regular with a C on it. Now it's not distinctive at all. I've got a lot of that through all its periods. I use it for the staff. Only last week coming back from Nice I admired the new Air France cutlery, which has plastic handles with a nice blue and white stripe. I cautiously put aside a fork and spoon. "I'd like to take these," I said to the steward. "Let me get you some clean ones, sir," he replied. Mine were clean, but anyway he went to an unused tray and gave me a whole set!

Sadly, few hotels use their name: on ashtrays now. But I have some rare, old Beverly Hills Hotel and Beverly Wilshire ones. Or rather did have. On checking recently I found a lot of my "donated" cutlery, ashtrays and the like have been genuinely nicked from my house. Unbelievable! Nobody ever asked my permission as they were leaving.



Letters

We were pleased to read the good review which Michael Winner gave to San Lorenzo (April 23). My husband has been an acquaintance of Lorenzo for many years. When our elder daughter was born (24 years ago), we had a celebration meal at his restaurant and Lorenzo joined us for coffee and liqueurs. We told him about the baby and he said: "This is on me." We assumed he meant the coffee but it turned out that the entire meal was on the house. I have never forgotten his kindness, as we were pretty impecunious at the time. We have visited the restaurant several times over the years and have always enjoyed our evening.
Lynn Moro, Watford, Herts

I enjoyed reading Mr Winner's review of the Auberge de la Mole (April 30). When I arrived at the Auberge for Sunday lunch last September, I remembered that they did not take credit cards. I asked Clotilde if I might drive into Cogolin to get money out of the hole in the wall. Not at all, just come back and pay on Tuesday! Excellent food: five terrines, as much as you like for a starter and, when I have been there, lamb or cassoulet. The pudding is usually prunes or the most wonderful creme caramel which arrives in an enormous oblong dish to eat at your leisure!
Eleanor J McMillan, Braintree, Essex

After sampling food in many of London's restaurants, quaffing wine in most of its bars and snacking at various in-between type places over the past couple of years mostly in the line of duty I think I must have a slightly unreal idea of what sort of food I should expect. It came as a shock to the system when I travelled on a Sally ferry to France last week and found absolutely nothing tempting whatsoever. The choice was between the buffet a nasty-looking salad selection with droopy lettuce and funny bits of quiche for a tenner; the sandwich bar plastic packed cheese, cheese and ham or cheese and pickle sandwiches, which were either too dry or soggy from condensation; or the burger bar, which served greasy chips and attracted the most unpleasant of customers. Was I wrong to have expected that a ship which can carry 1,000 people would be able to serve something vaguely appetising? I am ashamed to say I ended up buying one of the sandwiches which was every bit as horrid as it looked. British Rail, in comparison, soars to great gourmet heights.
Marie-Claire Flowers, London, SW4

Last week it was my misfortune to visit, with a group of friends, Viva Zapata Mexican restaurant in Pond Street, Hampstead. Our waiter was grossly offensive and, when challenged, merely became worse. One of our party was castigated for not putting his knife and fork properly on the plate! Avoid this place unless you are desperate!
Geraint Jones, St Albans, Herts

I usually enjoy Winner's Dinners. However, this time (April 23) I wanted to slap the man. How dare he be so patronising. I am ready to admire Mara Berni, with her confidence and lovely smile, but does he really think I am bereft of both simply because I am, yours faithfully, "the cleaning lady"?
Vicki Stanford Harrison, Cosby, Leicestershire

My wife and I have owned The Cricketers' Arms for the past nine years. Our full postal address is Rickling Green, Saffron Walden, Essex and we were absolutely horrified when several of our customers showed us last week's Style with the letter in it from Julie Zirngast. There are, in fact, two Cricketers pub/restaurants in the Saffron Walden postal area. The other is in the nearby village of Clavering. We are mentioned in most of the national food guides, and the fact that people from as far away as Berwick-upon-Tweed were telephoning to tell us of this letter was most disturbing. I am grateful, therefore, to have this opportunity to clear our name and to reassure both our customers and potential customers that the Cricketers' Arms on Rickling Green was not the establishment being taken to task. I will also take this also opportunity to invite Ms Zirngast and her partner to our establishment when they feel brave enough to venture to the wilds of northwest Essex.
Tim Proctor, Rickling Green, Essex