Published 30 December 2007 News Review 754th article
I was in prison, briefly, in 2007. There were the walkways, the corridors with cell doors, iron steps leading down the centre of the great arched building. All tarted up to be the Malmaison hotel in Oxford. From the 13th century until 1996 it really was a prison.
I told the superbly courteous general manager, Stephen Woodhouse, "I was considering the Old Bank and the Old Parsonage hotels but I couldn't find their general managers. Eventually their owner phoned saying, 'We're the only two hotels in the book.' What book would he mean?" I asked.
Stephen said, "It must have been a comic book."
The general twee atmosphere extended to my comfortable suite. In the bathroom there was Help the Paw Vitamin Rich Hand Cream and Snoozers Are Losers Energy Patches.
They'd put Death Wish on the DVD. I caught the rape scene, cut for English audiences. All over the world DVDs are as the movie they claim to be. Only in this overcensored land are they mutilated.
Lunch was in the basement. Terrible piped music. At least in a real prison you're spared that.
It was written: "We've devised a menu inspired by the hard work of our local producers."
"All ingredients come from within a 30-mile radius of the hotel," said Stephen.
"The waiter thinks there's a hose-pipe ban, he's given me so little water," I observed to Geraldine.
She chose slow-roasted beets, mache salad with toasted hazelnuts. Then a main course of three vegetables, which I find indescribably boring. I did the set menu: Oxford blue cheese tart, followed by slow-cooked leg of duck, glazed parsnip.
A waitress's T-shirt read, "Your plaice or mine". It's that sort of hotel. My cheese tart was brilliant. The duck a bit heavy. They should have gone beyond their 30-mile radius and found a better duck. Geraldine liked her veggies. She thought the hollandaise sauce particularly good.
They got a very low mark for crumbing down -that's when they scoop bits off the table. They did Geraldine's side thoroughly but mine was left a mess.
For pudding I had inferior apple and cinnamon crumble. Geraldine asked, "Why did you eat it?"
I replied, "Because I eat anything put in front of me."
Geraldine said, "I should have taken it away. You're not a dustbin." Her powers of observation are obviously fading. She had chocolate mousse which she described as "too sweet".
Summing up: okay meal, extremely efficient general manager, overegged but pleasant hotel.
This year was made dire at times by (a) my life-threatening illness and (b) the idiotic Colin Kain, a tax inspector in the North East Metropolitan Area Complex Personal Return Team in Tyne and Wear.
Mr Kain wasted two years of taxpayers' money, paid to him and his colleagues (whom he often consulted), in quibbling about my tax returns where meal deduction had been approved by six previous senior tax inspectors and the heavy mob, the Special Compliance Office. They carried out a four-year examination of everything.
I finally paid them £3m because, with great honour, I'd told them I put money in Switzerland in the late 1960s when tax was 75% on earned income and 95% on savings.
I sometimes disagreed with, but always admired, their chief inquisitor, Peter ("call me Pete") Thackeray. He finally signed me off at a formal meeting in my office, saying, "Now you're respectable, Mr Winner."
"That's the only problem, Peter," I responded. "I don't think I want to be respectable."
Then up pops Colin Kain, tax inspector bizarre, who said: as I have to eat to live I can't count meals for this column as tax deductible. No other critic has ever been so afflicted.
The nutty thing is Mr Kain knew my company accounts showed them owing so much to me that whatever tax we reluctantly agreed would only result in a book entry - not a penny for the nation. Which is exactly what happened.
I suggested the Complex Personal Return Team be put to useful work such as road-sweeping, knitting cardigans for the elderly or basket-weaving. Kain is the first tax inspector in 50 years for whom I've no respect whatsoever.
I put this to the then chairman of HM Revenue & Customs, Paul Gray. He wrote back: "I am sorry your previously accumulated respect for our efforts has receded in the recent past. I will of course give your suggestions for the redeployment of our Complex Return Team the consideration they deserve." Then he resigned over the lost-disc scandal. A good and witty man gone. The Revenue needs people like him. A Happy New Year to you, Paul. And to all my readers.
Why keep going for Sunday lunch at the most arbitrary hotels in London only to end up complaining? Is it because you're now refused entry at all the better establishments?
Deon Gouws, London
Another awful meal for Michael last week, at a reputedly first-class restaurant, Brian Turner at the Millennium hotel. Doesn't he realise that when chefs know Michael's coming they bring out their worst food to discourage him from returning?
Tim Burton, Wokingham
I went to Brian Turner at the Millennium hotel. My decision, like yours, was wrong. The food was no better than a glorified cafe - in fact I'm doing a disservice to cafes by saying that.
Derek Johns, Oxfordshire
I wrote and asked Brian Turner why he charged £34 for a simple bottle of merlot which can be bought for £5. I received no reply so voted with my feet and went elsewhere. Mr Turner seems to have forgotten people have a choice.
Barry Sadler, Portugal
I agree with your comment last week that kiddies in restaurants should be put to sleep. And very often their parents as well! But your smile in the photo with kids was the most genuine this year.
Adam Osborn, Malaga, Spain