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A meal not worthy of the literary aristocracy

Published 28 November 2004
News Review
594th article

Michael Winner and Earl Spencer take time out from lunch at the Lowry hotel in Manchester (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I packed my little suitcase and my briefcase. I was bound for Manchester plus places even more bizarre and further north.

Naturally I wished to share these experiences with you. So I meticulously took spare batteries, spare film for the camera and spare tapes for the mini tape recorder.

I settled into my 1966 Phantom V Rolls and proceeded west towards RAF Northolt from whence the private jet would transport me to Manchester's Lowry hotel. There I was to be guest speaker and autobiography signer.

I suddenly realised I'd left my tape recorder at home! Pretty useless, really, having spare batteries and tapes without a recording device to attach them to. "You have to train to be as stupid as me," I observed to Geraldine. "It's a talent. You were born with it," she responded.

I telephoned Margaret Brown in Manchester who was organising the lunch. "You will be my heroine," I gasped in desperation, "if you go forth immediately, forgetting all else, and buy me a small Olympus cassette recorder."

Margaret was off and running before I boarded the plane. When I got to the Lowry hotel there she was with the recorder, more batteries, more tapes and a bill for £48.32. "Keep the change," I said with my customary largesse, handing her a £50 note.

Then I did a television interview and clambered onto the top table platform. My fellow celebrity guest for the Manchester Evening News literary lunch was Earl Spencer. We'd broken bread, many years before, at a ghastly hotel in Kensington during a PR celebrity dinner organised by a famous male television star.

"You know why we were there?" Earl Spencer asked as we took time out on the back of the dais for a natter, "the TV star's boyfriend was the hotel manager." I oohed and aahed at that. "It just shows," I thought to myself, "you travel, you learn."

The literary lunch was absolutely awful. I know mass catering should be judged with tolerance. But I'm incapable of being lenient enough to praise that meal.

It started with soggy, horrid bread. The roast parsnip and apple soup wasn't too bad. I got mine. But Geraldine, sitting on one side, and my publisher, Jeremy Robson, on the other, waited patiently. "Perhaps I should have been given two straws," I muttered.

The next course was "poached salmon with herb crust, dauphinoise potatoes and winter vegetables". On a blind tasting I'd have identified the salmon as soggy bread tasting of nothing. "The salmon's very bland, but it can't do us any harm," said Geraldine. "Let's wait and see," I replied.

Geraldine glanced down at Earl Spencer who was sitting next to the deputy mayoress of Salford. Please don't ask why. I didn't do the seating arrangements.

"At least he holds his knife and fork correctly," remarked Geraldine. This was a dig at me.

I think I eat perfectly, other than slopping enormous amounts of food onto my shirt. Geraldine, as she is entitled to in a democracy, has different views.

I left most of my main course and had just started on a frightful "lemon meringue pie" when a lady came over. "I'm Stephanie Isaacs," she told me, "I make the best Bakewell tart in Hale, Cheshire." "So saying," I dictated into my new tape recorder, "she presented me with an enormous silver bag . . ."

"House of Fraser bag," interrupted Geraldine helpfully. "I wish I'd got this before I started on my miserable tart," I muttered. For it was not a pie, as described on the menu. It was a tart.

After lunch, speeches and book signing we drove, through pouring rain, to Simply Books in Bramhall, owned by Andrew Cant and Sue Steel. Those of you with perfect memories will recall I met them in Newcastle-under-Lyme at a Booksellers dinner. At the back of their shop was a coffee bar. I ordered a cup of tea and opened Stephanie's Bakewell tart.

An accompanying letter read, "If you like it you may write about it. If not I'd rather you didn't." This was a tough decision. I wasn't over the moon with joy. I think pastry degrades every minute it's out of the oven. But the tart was pretty good. There, I've written about it. If you're not happy, Stephanie, take a pill.

Then on to Linghams in Heswall on the Wirral, where I had my first really excellent food of the day, scrumptious canapes made by Kathy Philliskirk, coffee bar cook in Iain Corlett's bookshop.

Later a large group - Iain was sold out two week's in advance - heard my indescribably witty discourse. They'd paid £4 each for me, canapes and wine.

If that isn't a bargain, what is?

Winner's letters

I noted your photo last week with Basil Fawlty. Were the BBC to make a sitcom featuring an irascible restaurant owner who's not too good in the dining room department, you would be an ideal choice for the starring role. I can't decide who should play the tyrannised waiter from Cliveden. AA Gill perhaps?
John O'Byrne, Dublin.

I can't help noticing that in the picture of you, Geraldine and the Cleeses at Bibendum last week, the lovely Geraldine appears to have a rather mad glint in her eye. Is the stress of accompanying you and your showbiz chums starting to get to her?
Alan Rhodes, Nottinghamshire.

I was shocked by your disclosure last week that Michael Palin was congenital. Why did John Cleese, your congenial host, not inform you 20 years ago? Or did it happen recently when Michael came down the Himalayas? He seemed fine to me. Spotting the difference should result in a Winner's Dinners award to the earliest observer, as clearly you can't get the staff.
Malcolm Glazier, Manchester.

The photo of you and John Cleese last week - that's it! Sand, blue seas and sky and Punch and Judy. The mighty Winner is an impostor. He's Mr Punch without the hat. I can visualise him now grabbing the long suffering Geraldine by the throat and dragging her through restaurant kitchens, yelling at the cowering chefs, "That's the way to do it! That's the way to do it!"
J W Ward, Bristol

I can't decide if the fallibility or infallibility of the worldwide web is proven by the fact that www.michaelwinner.com produces an immediate response of "unknown host"!
Oliver Chestney, Norfolk.

We've often sat, shivering in Blighty, drooling with envy at your descriptions of Sandy Lane Christmases. This year my husband has booked us and both sets of in-laws onto a cruise. We reach Barbados on December 22. We're all huge fans of yours, although my husband remains unconvinced. Would you like to sprinkle some fairy dust and invite us for lunch? I'll even make sure my in-laws wash their trackies for the occasion. The subsequent photo with "common folk from up north" will assuredly increase your mass-market appeal.
Karen Tunn, Lancashire.

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk