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Carry on campus

Published 15 November 1998
Style Magazine
279th article

Learning fast: Michael Winner and the Cambridge Union officers, back row, Nishi Dholakia, Alex Slater; front row, Jodie Ginsberg and Peter Rurland (Vanessa Perry)

My "lecture" is entitled My Life in the Movies and Other Places. It wasn't called that when I first gave it at the National Film Theatre in 1970. It's evolved in performances all over the place, from the American Film Institutes in Los Angeles and Washington to Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin. You name it, I've talked in it.

When I first spoke at Cambridge, for the film society, my host was an undergrad who did well - David Hare. A few weeks ago, it was Nishi Dholakia, the tall, elegant senior officer of the Cambridge Union Society. Mr Dholakia later wrote me a nice letter saying my visit had been "phenomenally successful", adding: "I am told the union has not seen an audience as sizable as yours since Ronald Reagan came to visit in 1990." There's a moral there, though I can't be bothered to find it. Mr Dholakia also said: "I have little doubt that the meal I had at Midsummer House will be the best meal I will have during my time at Cambridge. If only more speakers took us to meals at the best restaurants!"

Ignoring the fact that most speakers are probably mean bastards, I was extremely surprised tofind a good eating place in Cambridge. There certainly weren't any when I was up reading law and economics at Downing. There was a strange diner with plastic table tops run by a nice Cypriot a few yards from the college gate and a goodish Indian restaurant near Magdalene where George Webb, who owned the Rex cinema, Leslie Halliwell, his manager, and I plotted to have Marlon Brando's banned movie The Wild One shown in Cambridge by getting permission from the council. We did. And people came from all over the country. A very young Jackie Collins even turned up to have a cup of tea in my rooms before going to see it.

The management of Midsummer House had written to me many times asking to visit. It was once owned by Hans Schweitzer, who is still chef at the totally torn-down Sandy Lane Hotel. He waits anxiously, as I do, to see if they make it back in time for the millennium. Midsummer House had been closed for four weeks; it was reopening the night I booked my party in for a 6.30pm dinner. They even had a new chef, Daniel Clifford, from Leeds. None of that was promising.

The building is extremely attractive. It looks like an old rectory, facing Midsummer Common at the front and the River Cam at the rear. Knocking back a nice freebie starter vichyssoise were Vanessa and me - and, from the Union, Nishi, Peter Rutland, director of recruitment, Alex Slater, president, and Jodie Ginsberg, their red-headed press officer, who told us she wanted to be a foreign correspondent for BBC TV. All our starters looked the same. They were square, except for Jodie's, which was round. Some were duck and some were vegetable. I thought they were okay.

"My main course chicken is excellent," I dictated into my tape, and then plonked it on the president's bread plate. Jodie said of the chef: "He likes shredding things. This is my second thing that's shredded, whatever it is." She prodded her food. "I had the starter and that had shredded stuff as well. I'm not a big fan of shredded stuff." "I'd rather gathered that, Jodie, quite honestly. Earlier," I said.

Vanessa had ordered sea bass. She liked it, saying: "I deliberately didn't eat bread because I expected the sea bass to have a selection of vegetables with it including carbohydrate, which would have been potato or rice, to make a balanced meal." She got a few little squares of vegetable as decoration, none of which was carbohydrate. "If there's not a full vegetable selection, you should be told," said Vanessa firmly. I think she's right. But we all decided the food was good. And even though it took for ever, my chocolate fondant was exceptional. The right lightness of sponge and a superb hot chocolate sauce interior.

I almost stayed at the Cambridge Garden House, a Moat House hotel. We drove down early to beat the Friday rush hour, were shown to a nice room with a view of the river with some cows on the other side, and had some hearty tomato, cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches. After my "lecture" we partook of tea and biscuits in the lounge, where the pianist played The Sun Has Got His Hat on, before deciding to drive back that night anyway. The Garden House isn't a super-posh hotel, but it was fine. Tell me, though: why does everything in Cambridge have "House" in the title?

Winner's letters

As loyal members of Winner's army, our Sunday morning read was clouded by your reference to the Romford Hilton and the derogatory mention of Essex (Style, October 18). My dear wife was beside herself and reminded me all day that I had plucked her from dulcet Oxfordshire to the town of a hundred nightclubs, where lap dancing has recently made an appearance. Alas, we have no Hilton to entice you to sample a taste of Romford, but I enclose a pot of the dear heart's home- made preserve.
John Edwards, Romford, Essex

I thought it wise to inform you and your readers of a recent uncomfortable experience at Aubergine in Chelsea, London. Having drunk a most acceptable bottle of Chateau Gilette (about £120), we asked the sommelier for a further bottle to accompany the rest of our meal. It appeared we had consumed the last bottle, so we asked for something similar. Imagine our amazement when our bill included the second bottle, a Montrachet, itemised at Pounds 410. Hardly comparable!
T J Douglas, London W9

My daughter recently went with a group of friends to celebrate her 18th birthday at the Greek Valley restaurant in Tolworth, Surrey. Before they arrived, I telephoned to ask whether, if I took along a birthday cake with candles, they could produce it at the end of the meal as a surprise. This was duly agreed. At 12.30am, my daughter called to say that there was a £30 administration charge on her bill for taking the cake to the table. I had a word with the manager and he agreed to deduct this sum from the bill. Apparently, they had "forgotten" to tell me about this added charge.
Mrs J Lavender, Long Ditton, Surrey