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Proof you shouldn't talk and eat together

Published 21 October 2007
News Review
744th article



I went up to Cambridge aged 17 in 1953. In January 1955 I became editor of the university newspaper, Varsity.

My most jovial act was to bring out an Oxford edition of Varsity. This very newspaper wrote: "If The Sunday Times were suddenly to publish a Moscow edition, it would hardly start more argument and publicity than has attended the incursion of the Cambridge undergraduate newspaper Varsity to Oxford. At least we may reflect in this country there is still room for enterprise and competition."

Unfortunately the staff of Oxford's student newspaper, Cherwell, didn't look on the matter so favourably. I learnt that on my planned visit to rally the troops, the Cherwell group were going to throw me in the river.

So I took with me the Cambridge water ski team. A burly lot who I guessed, rightly, would easily outfight the wimps from Cherwell. We piled into four taxis in Cambridge Market Square and said, "Oxford!" This cost a fortune. When I started as Varsity editor the paper had a substantial sum in its bank account. When I left the job in March 1955 the paper was broke.

I've been back to Cambridge and Oxford many times since to give my talk, "My life in movies and other places". In the Sixties it was David Hare, now eminent playwright, who invited me to Cambridge on behalf of the film society.

A couple of weeks ago it was Luke Tryl, current president of the Oxford Union, who greeted me. There were eight of us at the dinner table in a lovely old library setting.

The buildings are historic in the sense of great and old.

I could not have sat with nicer, politer, more interesting people. It was an extremely pleasant evening.

My talk, in the main debating chamber, was well attended. They laughed a lot.

Questions were all intelligent.

For dinner the Union offered what I think was gravadlax to start, then a steak with veggies, then a lemon tart with a dark red sorbet on top.

I asked what the sorbet was. The serving lady serving us said, "I'll check for you, I think it's blackcurrant."

One of the diners, Trish, said, "She'll have to go to the kitchen, which is a long way away."

Geraldine said, "It is, it's blackcurrant."

The official decision came from the chef.

It was raspberry. The serving lady asked, "Is it any good?" I remained silent.

Luke wanted to go into politics but thought he should get a proper job first. A young man called Hartley, sitting at the head of the table, was studying maths. He said, "I want to go into accountancy and make as much money as soon as possible."

A perfectly reasonable ambition. When I spoke at Eton college nearly every question was about money and how to acquire wealth.

During my talk I gave the Oxford undergraduates two valuable pieces of advice.

One, when you get a job go in half an hour earlier than anyone else and stay half an hour later. Diligence will be rewarded.

Two, never buy a Ferrari.

I think they're the dud cars of all time and I had one for 14 years.

What did I think of the food? Well, it was a lovely evening, memorably enjoyable, superb company. The food can be summed up in one word: pretty awful. All right, that's two words. If I'd gone to Oxford I'd have been clever. As I didn't I can't separate one word from two.



  • I now speak of DVDs. In particular, ones rented from Blockbuster on Kensington High Street. Twice recently Geraldine has been given vastly damaged DVDs which stopped, went into little squares, went black. That's renting goods not fit for purpose.

    Picture Geraldine and me in my private cinema with an enormous screen on which I used to run celluloid prints of new films, suffering these dreadful, botched up DVDs.

    I wrote to Blockbuster's managing director, Martin Higgins. An extraordinary letter came back from Gerry Butler, senior vice-president and commercial director - Europe. He said the filthy, unviewable DVDs were the consequence of "the lack of a cleansing machine in your store". So Blockbuster were renting DVDs with no idea if they were damaged or not.

    A bit later Mr Butler wrote telling me the Kensington High Street branch "now has a machine that both cleans and refurbishes discs". Will the staff bother to use it, I wonder? Or will renting a DVD from Blockbuster remain a dangerous game?



  • Having ventured into consumer matters, I may give you examples of other firms' incompetence soon. "Watch out Ikea" are my final words for today.



    Winner's letters

    In the Greek islands your column is included in the Culture section of The Sunday Times. Clearly, not only the Greeks have lost their marbles.
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    I love the fact in spite of your being treated rudely, eating poor quality food and having a rotten time at La Petite Maison, you still judge that this restaurant just about achieves being average. Precisely what food traumas do you have to be put through to lose that British reserve, come clean, and call a dump just that?
    Ian E Smith, Spitalfields, London

    Last week you wrote of your waiter, Mohammed Ali, at Al-Dar III. I'm sorry to see how far this great boxer has fallen. I hope you didn't order the punch.
    Tim Burton, Wokingham

    Thanks for about my wife Debbie, the female Michael Winner. Should her new-found celebrity status go to her head then woe betide the restaurants of London and beyond.
    Andrew Morris, Northwood, Middlesex

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