When travelling, the world can seem very small. A plane journey can throw one into the middle of anywhere in just a short while. London seems like the springboard from which anywhere can be reached. This week, the world appears very fragmented, though only locally. Rain keeps coming down in biblical proportions. This rain has been falling without respite for weeks and weeks. The streets are wet in every city, nation-wide rivers are bulging and bursting their banks, long forgotten deep wells have bubbled up and erupted with water. Any place where water is normally calm and passive, it is currently torrid and intense. Last week, in another stormy flare-up, the train station at Dawlish in South Devon was swept away and suddenly Cornwall was cut off from the rest of the country. In Somerset itself, beaches are littered with debris and the wind blows huge waves crashing against sea walls. All this effulgent natural brouhaha conjures up a myriad curious comparisons from history, novels and countries with more theatrical weather. On a train, despite delays and diversions and a rather charming slackening of ticket discipline, London is reached with a huge sigh of relief, as if a safe haven has been secured. Exhausted and overdue passengers drift out of the station heading for private and public transport feeling like they have survived; been through something. London may be wet, but it is quiet and safe and everything still works, with the minor extra frustration of a tube workers' strike.
In London work carries on as semi-normal. Certainly the profound and crucial ritual of lunch continues unabated. Sumosan in Albemarle St is a Japanese restaurant that serves a delicious and reasonably-priced set lunch. Japanese food is very scary, you can easily spend several hundred pounds on a fancy selection of rarefied sliced raw fish or equally often have a bargain meal in the same place. Sumosan manifests this exact dichotomy. Stick to the set menu and you can survive, go off-piste, or more correctly, a la carte, and you will require a second mortgage. I dined with Jorge and Andreas from Coll & Cortes, actual neighbours of the restaurant. Andreas used to be at Christie's and the thrill of being out of captivity and into the wild of dealing has given him a huge burst of energy. Sitting next to him is like sitting next to an unexploded bomb, he is so keen and enthusiastic. Jorge, who is a dapper European, has bright eyes and the ubiquitous semi-beard. He is the scion of a family of dealers, his father was and is one of the great dealers in decorative arts with a sixth sense for finding rare and unusual japanned pieces, made for his home country, Spain, and exported from England in the 18th century. Going through Vicente's files is like taking a tour through some of the great pieces that have been on the market in the last 30 years. Jorge has the drive and energy but has turned his attention to old master paintings, sculpture and works of art. He is based in London and he is pushing his business forward with unbelievable force. Lunch with these two left me inspired but exhausted. I ran back to the office to attend a PR meeting replete but fatigued. However, an hour or so later, having reviewed some of the excitements and novelty we have put in place for Masterpiece this year, my energies were topped right back up.
The next day, Nazy and I had the treat and privilege of visiting and having lunch at the Royal Hospital in the Great Hall. This magnificent panelled room is lined with oak tables and we sat at one near the end. Portraits look down and bedraggled flags hang from poles above; trophies of war and lists of the fallen compete for attention. On the table by the entrance, two enormous, black, boiled leather beer jugs or 'Jacks' sit importantly in solitary splendour. The food is not bad but it is more meaningful than that. It is comfortable food; food that neither challenges nor disgusts. Steamed pudding and warm custard enhance the end of the menu and everyone knows that they are going to be fine. We talk plans for this year and we conjecture about the future. The Hospital is in good shape itself with an ambitious plan underway for improvements and redevelopment throughout the grounds. Currently the paths and roads are all being upgraded along with the services hidden beneath the surface. We take a walk around Ranelagh Gardens, which is a wonderful hidden voluptuous pocket landscape beside the sober flat grounds that support our tent in June. In a few years' time, the place will be totally spick and span. The military officers that run the Hospital have given the place an air of concerted effort, like a military campaign in miniature and in peacetime. The in-pensioners are very well cared for both now and even more so in the future. In bold letters in Latin, the figure court proudly displays the royal founders of the hospital and their purpose for the care of those who have served this country in the armed forces. It is clearly a noble and rewarding work.
Image credit (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tehbus/sets/72157632135042981/with/8231817471/)
There is a dealer in Pimlico who used to work with me at Mallett called Tarquin Bilgen but it amuses me to dub him Tarquinius Maximus. He is tall and gangly and has an intense manner. He has created in his small corridor of a shop a selling machine of some potency. He has sold a few things to me and for me. I don't think I quite qualify as a good client but we get on well enough. He has the most charming manners and makes one feel both special and intelligent. I have made the habit of visiting twice a year for lunch. It is like going to a mental health spa. He does not drink so it is quite a reasonably priced treatment session. During each course he will admire and compliment ones innovation, pioneering spirit, previous and possible future achievements. This Friday was no exception. I had sold something that I had promised to him so I felt I owed him a special treat and I predicted I would get an especially large boost for my fragile confidence. I booked the Chinese restaurant Hunan in Pimlico Road. Discrete though the outside is, the interior is more so. You would never imagine that such a humble presentation should offer up such a feast. You do not see a menu, you simply point out any allergies you might have. After a brief pause, dishes begin to appear and two and a half hours later you are poured out onto the street to stagger off in search of exercise. Each dish is small and delicate. The balance between sweet and savoury and between meat and fish is totally harmonious and the only problem is the relentless progress of the dishes. I did get my emotional boost but Tarquinius was seriously distracted from his duty by the food, a lesson for next time.
Follow Thomas Woodham Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/twoodhamsmith