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State of the union

Published 13 December 1998
Style Magazine
283rd article

A matter of debate: back, Victoria Chapman, vice-president of the Oxford Union, Sheridan Westlake, press officer, Vanessa Perry and Raymond Blanc. Front, Stian Westlake, former treasurer of the union, and Michael Winner at Le Petit Blanc (Richard Hanlon)

I've always liked Raymond Blanc. Even a few years ago, when I called for a reservation at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and he said: "I don't wish to serve you in my restaurant, Mr Winner." It seemed dear Raymond had been taken in by a particularly silly, second-rate restaurateur who was putting it about that I took orders from Marco Pierre White. Of all the ludicrous nonsense written, and spoken about me, that topped the lot. The perpetrator of this drivel, who repeated it on television and in the newspapers, was dealt with by my solicitors. He paid a heavy price for that and other foolishness. I went on to have a nice meal at Raymond's gaff. Recently, I found myself down his way again, this time to deliver my movie "lecture" at the Oxford Union.

I decided to dine at his local bistro, Le Petit Blanc. Raymond's directions were infuriating. Neatly printed and handed out to clients staying at Le Manoir, they advised you to turn left at a roundabout on the A40, proceed for about one mile, then turn right onto Observatory Street. A mile passed by, no Observatory Street. We peered out nervously at every right-hand road sign. After an interminable time, we stopped and asked. There came the usual answers: "I'm sure it's somewhere round here"; "I know it but I can't place it" - until, exactly two miles down the road, there it was. We turned, went right again at the end and found Le Petit Blanc.

It's a cheerful, buzzy place. White ceilings with those inevitable low-voltage lights set in them, red walls, red chairs and ghastly Muzak of some deranged idiot overblowing a wind instrument. Piped music should be banned. If it has to permeate, let it be classical piano only.

Seeing a group of Oxford students waiting for me, I thought of my previous main association with that university. When editor of Varsity, the Cambridge University newspaper, I decided to bring out an Oxford edition. "At threepence it's the cheapest piece of education Oxford's ever had" was our slogan. My staff and I set out in taxis from the Market Square in Cambridge. I took the precaution of bringing the Cambridge water-ski team with me because I'd heard the Oxford student journalists intended to throw me in the river.

It was all terribly exciting for a couple of weeks. The national press descended en masse. A story in The Times was headed "University press wars. Allegations of unethical conduct at Oxford". Theirs, not mine, of course. The Sunday Times produced a leader on the matter. "We should reflect in this country that there is still room for enterprise and competition," it pronounced. A young MP called Roy Jenkins wrote a piece about it for the Current in Bombay. My recent visit was presaged merely by some posters and a word or two in the local press.

I had a crab and lobster spring roll (very tasty), then an enormous Oxford sausage, apparently pork marinated in beer, with parsley crust potatoes. It was excellent; Vanessa had spiced potato cake with chick peas, tomato and coriander, and a caesar salad to start. "It's very nice," she said. And occasionally "Um" and then "Um" again, which I took to be praise. She even grabbed my tape recorder. "My vegetarian dish was extremely good," she dictated. "Spicy and slightly Indian in style, but very unusual. Nice to see a vegetarian option on the menu." I finished with lemon tart.

Victoria Chapman, the extremely charming vice-president of the union, was my host. She lives in Cornwall and her dad used to be a senior tax inspector. With her were Sheridan Westlake, the union press officer, and Stian Westlake, a former treasurer - and they're not related. I can't remember what they ate but they were courteous enough to say they liked it, and they probably did. At 7.46pm the lights dimmed, which seemed a bit early for deep romance. Our waiter, Remy Beaurain, did a splendid job in getting us all served speedily and thus to the debating chamber for my bons mots.

A few days later, Miss Chapman wrote: "You were an amazing success. If you would like to speak again we would be absolutely delighted." I felt like saying "See you next Friday", but that would have been silly. Then I thought. "Why does a nice girl like that want to be a banker?"

Oh, I've just remembered something else about my bringing the Varsity out with an Oxford edition. The local editor was originally my cousin Paul, an Oxford student. But I fired him. Thus proving the old saying: "Blood is thinner than water."


I am glad you are paying for dinner for any table from which you borrow a menu (Style, November 29). On Friday, December 18, I shall be in the Ivy, wearing a red dress and a pearl necklace, with a party of eight. My menu is at your disposal.
Elizabeth Miekle, London SW6

I entirely agree with Michael Winner's comment on the environmentally appropriate frontage he found on McDonald's in Rothenburg (Style, November 22). We recently saw one in Quebec that looked like carved oak with a discreet green M providing the only colour. Perhaps British planning officers don't realise that they can demand an alternative to the garish frontages that are the norm in our towns.
Sheila Clayton, Southampton

At last we seem to be on the same wavelength. You have discovered (a) that the Romantic Road is properly named, and (b) that German cooking is wholesome and of invariably good quality (not to mention quantity). What a pity you did not eat at the Eisenhut Hotel in Rothenburg, where your delicious meal would have been accompanied by an equally good pianist.
Arthur Rose, Salisbury, Wilts

Recently, Michael Winner claimed he had never heard of anyone getting money back from a restaurant and asked: "Did you?" (Style, November 1). Well, yes, actually. Some months back, four of us were going to see the show Buddy and decided to go to the nearby Christopher's restaurant before the performance. We specifically asked for the meal to be finished in time for us to get to the show, but in the end we were pressed for time and had to rush the sweet and coffee. Having paid the bill, the manager overheard us complaining, apologised and cancelled our credit card transaction. A pleasant evening was had by all.
J O Viccari, Kingswood, Surrey

I was horrified to read of paying customers being ejected from the Lexington in Soho because the staff wanted to go off clubbing (Style, November 22). At Lucy's on a Plate, in Ambleside, if the owner knows you and you want to stay later than the staff, she will hand you the keys, leave the coffee on, ensure you have all the drinks you want and give you instructions on how to turn everything off. When you are ready to go, you just lock up and leave the keys. Hospitality is alive and well and living in Ambleside.
Irene Collins, Ambleside, Cumbria

I wish to share with you an experience I had at the Criterion restaurant at Piccadilly Circus. A woman sitting next to us knocked over our ice bucket, sending water onto my friend's expensive suede jacket. My friend feared that the jacket would be stained unless it was dry-cleaned, and it seemed to me that the management should foot the bill. A series of staff came to inspect, but showed little concern for my friend or her coat, and simply passed the problem on to their superior. The last manager reluctantly agreed to pay for the cleaning, but not before repeating emphatically, and embarrassingly loudly: "It is not our responsibility."
Dr Morris Nitsun, London N10