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Black at Whites

Published 29 October 1995
Style Magazine
121st article

In waiting: Charlotte Middleton, Paul Kenward and Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)

I've had a bit of trouble with Oxford University. Actually, to be more accurate, they've had trouble with me. I was asked some years ago to talk at the union by something called the L'Chaim Society. I didn't like their billing of me in the press release, so I walked out in a huff. Then the union asked me to debate with Austin Mitchell, Lord Spens and Sir Rhodes Boyson - something about greed being good (I was to say no!) - and Nick Leeson got arrested. The debate was sponsored by the Futures and Options Association. I decided dealing in futures and options was worse than wartime spivs selling nylon stockings, so I quit that one, too. I have spoken at the Oxford Union, of course, the last time being a debate with David Puttnam. As we entered the packed chamber, David whispered: "I wish I could get as many people as this to see my new film." Witty fellow is David.

Eventually I succumbed and a few days ago I actually arrived in Oxford to give my humorous and informative lecture (!) at the union. Before it I had the misfortune to dine in Whites, a local restaurant. This was a nightmare. My host, the vice-president and librarian of the union, Paul Kenward, and his student girlfriend Charlotte Middleton, were waiting, a very charming couple. Vanessa had come specially from Brighton where she was dancing for the European Apple Institute! We got there at 7.15pm, quite enough time to eat and be out by 8.40. But sensing this was not a place that would run efficiently, I at once asked for menus, explaining we were in a hurry. We didn't get them, but another table that came in later did. Next, a man in a blue shirt who seemed to be in charge came in with some menus, got halfway to us, then turned and walked out of the room! Eventually the menus arrived and I asked blue-shirt please to wait so we could order. He didn't. After a few minutes I got up to find him. We were all having the same and I thought the sooner we got going, the better. At the front desk a man in a pink shirt refused to take the order. "You came 45 minutes late," he said in an unbelievably surly manner. As if 7.15pm was too late a time for them to contemplate. "What's that got to do with it?" I said. "You're nearly empty anyway." "You'll have to wait at the table," he said with amazing grumpiness. "What's your name, please?" I asked. "Emeric." he replied. "And the second name?" "Laparentuelle," I thought he said, adding: "But you'll never spell it." "Help me." I asked. But he refused and fled.

Eventually blue-shirt took our orders. Four wild mushroom ravioli with a fresh tomato and basil sauce, and fresh parmesan. Could have been bubble gum. I chewed endlessly and not much happened. No known taste. Revolting. It look for ever to come and for ever for them to clear the plates. The decor didn't bear inspection. Essex man at his worst. The 18th-century-type curtains in brown were so short it looked as if they'd run out of material; pinkish walls, hard chairs, cheap prints, all nasty. Only the lovely old stone of the buildings outside the windows cheered me up. The main course of salmon was okay, menu-described as with "fresh mussels, ginger and chives". They were very fond of assuring us everything was "fresh". I would have liked dessert but it was now 8.30pm and I was due on at 8.50. "How long will the puddings take?" asked Mr Kenward. "Ten minutes," said the grumpy blue-shirt. "Are these desserts hot?" I asked. "No," said blue-shirt. "Then why should it take 10 minutes to put a cold something on a plate and bring it in?" "Because we're busy," was the reply. Out of 10 tables in our room, three were empty. "That's busy!" I thought. So we ordered coffee and petits fours instead. By 8.40, having been there one hour and 25 minutes, we still had no coffee, no petits fours. They'd struggled to serve two courses, appallingly. The coffee and petits fours arrived in time to be a quarter eaten and it was off to the union library, a fantastic, steep-roofed, balconied room with murals by William Morris, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and other 19th-century luminaries. It was full of students, very bright, a wonderful audience. Talk and question time went terrific. Food, service and restaurant atmosphere, totally diabolical. Ah well, you can't have everything.


It is a great shame that Mezzo, the new Conran restaurant, while being so obsequious to its customers, should be so positively unpleasant to us when we looked in to admire it with our dog, Brian. It is to be regretted that the restaurant staff have yet to learn that charm should apply to all. Even a dog!
Julie and Robert Breckman, London W1

I had booked a table for 9pm at the Seafood restaurant, Padstow, Cornwall, and a water-taxi for 8.30pm. At 7.30pm a brusque voice on the phone required to know why we were not at the restaurant as we had booked for 7pm! I said the mistake was theirs; but that, apparently, was impossible the computer proved it. I suggested that they check with the water-taxi, for I must be mad to book a crossing at 8.30pm for dinner at 7pm. This brought forth bluster: "I don't like your attitude, Mr Irwin. We're not used to being treated in this way." Even when I drove to the restaurant to sort things out, they would not listen.
Gwyther Irwin, London SW17