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You'd be a matchstick too if you had this to eat

Published 17 February 2008
News Review
761st article

Michael with Sarah Shortland, left, and Rosie Ames at the literary lunch at the Lowry hotel (Howard Walker)

I get letters saying, "You don't go up north enough." Perhaps you want me at the North Pole, never to return. Instead I recently visited Manchester.

It won't surprise you that I didn't fly British Airways. The more I think about how its topmost brass reacted to my criticism, the more pathetic it becomes.

There's wee Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA. He's had a plane crash-land on the runway because the engines gave out, he's got a pilot strike looming, his company has admitted to price fixing (but he blamed it on underlings) and what does wee Willie do? He makes an executive decision: "I'll issue a press statement saying we're cancelling Winner's BA Gold Card." This from a captain of industry. Compared to wee Willie, the captain of the Titanic was a genius.

So I called that nice aeroplane renter Nick Messer (who's not a messer) and booked a tiny Cessna 1 jet. Knowing Geraldine and I were going to what is laughingly known as a literary lunch (this one organised by the Manchester Evening News) and the food would be terrible, I nibbled on the flight.

As I was promoting my diet book, I shouldn't have eaten two smoked salmon sandwiches, one cheese and pickle sandwich, some mango and strawberries. I also drank Evian water and scoffed a packet of Kettle Chips.

By the time my favourite car dealer, Manchester's very own Steve Gallimore, met us in a stunningly beautiful 1996 pearl red Bentley with oatmeal leather seats, I'd basically taken care of lunch.

Steve had just sold the Bentley for £21,000. Second-hand Rolls-Royces and Bentleys are the greatest buy ever. I'm looking for an oldish convertible. When I get it, you'll be offered my immaculate Saab 9-3 convertible at a bargain price.

Much as I'd rather not recall it, we must deal with lunch at the Lowry hotel. The people attending it were lovely. I'm pictured with two of the local ladies. My fellow author, Nigel Rees, was a real toff.

The food, ugh, ugh, ugh. The soup, described as "creamed leak and sweet potato with cinnamon toast and chives", was the best part of a miserable meal. Not terrible. Just not very good. Prior to that the men were served a bread roll and the women a mini baguette. They were both dreary. The main course was memorably unpleasant.

These lunches are on what's called the rubber chicken circuit. Rubber would have been infinitely preferable to my "sage and cranberry stuffed chicken wrapped in streaky bacon, with parsnip mash and roasted vegetables".

The chicken was, I recorded into my tape, "tasteless and diabolical". I tried a vastly overcooked carrot which was awful mush. Then I attempted to cut a Brussell sprout in half. I had to chew it forever.

Geraldine nicked my mashed potato and said, "I don't see how they can make mash potato so bad."

"Maybe it wasn't real potato?" I suggested.

"It was real potato but awful," said Geraldine. "It was as though they'd been left in the fridge overnight. That gives potatoes a funny taste."

Her main course was the vegetarian pumpkin tart. "How is it?" I asked.

"Okay," she replied. Then added, "I'm not saying anything." I took that as a thumbs down.

Dessert was described on the menu as "mulled wine posset with poached pear and raisin shortbread". It was like a tired mousse. Then came petit fours which were down to standard.

The menu announced, "Food comes first, then morals - Bertolt Brecht." Bertie obviously hadn't eaten at the Lowry hotel.

Shortly thereafter this newspaper's distinguished sister (or possibly brother, cousin or illegitimate distant relation), The Times, picked my Fat Pig Diet as one of the four best diet books on the market. Thanks, but wrong. It's the best. Not one of four. Just streets ahead.

On the flight back to RAF Northolt, the most civilised airport in the world, I had two fish paste sandwiches and a small piece of coffee cake. This is information so valuable you should cut it out and file it under "Highly Important".

  • PS: Nigel Rees devised and still presents a splendid Radio 4 programme called Quote . . . Unquote. I did a couple of them. One is broadcast on Wednesday. Cancel all engagements and tune in.

  • PPS: I recently praised, with some exceptions, the Soho Sandwich Company, who snack-catered my boat to the O2 arena. The bill was £1,055.15 for eight people. Considerably more expensive than I expected.

  • PPPS: Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic Airways, wrote that he was going to give me a Virgin gold card. Geraldine got her silver card. My gold card never arrived. I am distraught.

    Winner's letters

    I'm surprised you panned the Cliff in Barbados last week. We've found the staff there charming. Perhaps they just remember you from previous visits and give you the table/service they feel suitable for you.
    Una Cavanagh, Wiltshire

    At last we agree on something! The Cliff has been an overrated dump for some time and the Fishpot deserves all your praise.
    Georgina Bennett, Gloucestershire

    At Sandy Lane only the big nobs get the good food. Our experience was frozen prawns and arrogant staff.
    Tony Nicholl, Suffolk

    Do you ever talk to Geraldine on your meals out? Or just into your tape machine. Do you ever talk to her at all? At least she gets to eat!
    Sandi Firth, Leeds

    Some people think you serve no real purpose. But when photographed in white clothing you provide welcome extra doodling space next to the crossword in the Culture International section.
    Bryan Craker, Peyrins, France

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