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My £100m lunch with Jeffrey Archer

The company was great, says Michael, but the duck at the Tate Britain's Rex Whistler Restaurant was dreary. He is still saving up for the final bill

Published 27 November 2011
News Review
958th article

Michael, Geraldine and Lord Archer (Jim Sharkey)

I went to Jeffrey Archer's flat because I was told it was on the market. Lord Archer said he wanted £100m for it. "Done," I said, smiling, and we shook hands on the deal.

It's the best flat in London. Incredible view of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament, and beautifully decorated. The woodwork and other details are historic, the paintings museum strength. We had a look round and a chat.

Years ago Jeffrey and I were on Any Questions?. One question was: "If a doctor said you had two weeks to live, what would you do?" I replied: "Get another opinion." Jeffrey told me he used that often. Why not? Good luck to him.

It's easy to put him down because of various aspects of his life but I like Jeffrey. He's very positive. Very upbeat. His prison books are marvellously observed and riveting. He's been through this and that and come out smiling.

Jeffrey suggested we lunch at the nearby Tate Britain. He led me to its lower-ground-floor Rex Whistler restaurant. We sat at the usual table of the Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota.

The restaurant features a mural commissioned from Whistler, completed in 1927. It's called The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. I saw no one pursuing anything, just a few trees and a boring landscape.

It's not nearly as pleasing as the mural on the wall of a restaurant in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, where I went to school. I ate sausages and chips with gravy and decided to eat nothing else for the rest of my life. The mural had a stone balcony, urns of flowers and beyond beautiful gardens. Lot of murals like that in the 1940s.

At the Tate the waitresses were charming. I started with red lentil and mulligatawny soup. Marvellous but not hot enough.

Then pan-roasted Gressingham duck breast with Swiss chard gratin and bitter orange sauce. The cheese with chard on top I hated. The duck breast was cut up, rather pink, very chewy, no good at all. I don't know why I asked for it but Jeffrey did and I thought he must know.

For dessert Jeffrey ordered for me, very clearly, treacle tart with clotted cream ice cream. I received a mousse. When it eventually came, the treacly filling of the tart was good. The pastry underneath hard as stone.

Two lovely old ladies were sitting next to us. One observed: "You've left a lot of your dessert."

Jeffrey said: "He's dieting." I should have had "Fish of the day; fresh from the Newlyn day boats, Cornwall". A dreary meal with excellent company.

You may wonder why our photo doesn't show us in Jeffrey's flat or in the Rex Whistler restaurant. It's because I didn't bring my camera. The picture was taken a week later in North Audley Street, where Jeffrey was lunching. Exceptionally good photo. Particularly of the bicycle.

  • PS: Every time I see Jeffrey he says: "Where's my hundred mil?" "Saving up," I respond. "So far I've got £63.90." I know he'll be patient.

  • I can't stand food suppliers who send samples I never asked for. We have to unwrap them, throw away the packaging - and what are we left with? Unwelcome rubbish.

    The latest assault upon my privacy came from Theresa Kerr, director of Fayrefield Foods in Cheshire. She sent San Nicasio potato chips with accompanying drivel about how wonderful they were and what shops and hotels offered them.

    They're produced in Cordoba with "aceite de oliva virgen extra". I don't care if they were made with decaying bats.

    They tasted terrible. Thin in texture, too light, no body. When you have something as basic as potato crisps, why over-fancify them? The best were Smith's crisps, with the salt separately wrapped in blue paper. As kids we used to say: "The blue one was a bit salty."

    I have no objection to many common brands of crisp as long as they're not flavoured with vinegar, beer, pepper or old socks. Let this be a warning to people seeking a plug in this column. Send food at your peril.

  • Staff are being redeployed from the Wolseley to the soon-to-open Delaunay in Aldwych. Some I'm delighted to see go. But I'll miss Fergal Lee, a delightful, red-haired Irishman who once threw out Sir David Tang. He's to be No 2 at the Delaunay.

    "Are you having a sign put up outside - 'No Chinese welcome'?" I asked. Fergal responded with such jovial political incorrectness even I will not pass it on.

  • From Fergal Lee: Hymie says to his wife, Becky: "I'm giving you a very special birthday present. I've reserved the best graveyard plot in the Golders Green cemetery, right under that wonderful chestnut tree, just for you."

    Becky is not amused. The next year she gets nothing.

    She says to Hymie: "So where's my birthday present?" Hymie replies: "Why should I give you a birthday present? You never used the one I gave you last year."

    Michael's missives

    I heard you talk at the decrepit Wilton's music hall, moth-eaten, crumbling and in need of massive restoration, but there is a group of people attempting to create dramatic improvements to ensure longevity. Then they plan to start on the music hall.
    Tim Burton, Berkshire

    The audience member at your one-man show who collapsed was doubtless injured by one of the many names you dropped.
    Nick Peeling, Worcestershire

    It's unhygienic to handle sugar cubes. You should have asked the Rib Room waiter for tongs at once.
    Lillian Simpson, Cheshire

    Your difficulty with tough beef stew resonates. I, too, do not have strong teeth, or many teeth. And I'm only 60! Hang in. Stick to soups.
    Rajesh Mehta, Kenya

    If a £9m debt is the price you pay not to fly British Airways, I'm in. From shared lounge to stained seats and inedible food, it's a throwback to British Rail 1974. The staff put on a brave face, but so did the violinists on the Titanic. I saw the ghost of Freddie Laker chortling as we engaged reverse, signalled left and off we went. Or was that a hallucination after the seared salmon sponsored by Dignitas? Next time you and Geraldine hop on a private jet, budge up: there's room for a small one, surely?
    Ed Atkinson, at Hong Kong airport

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk