When I was 17, I worked in a taverna on the Greek island of Antiparos . I learnt to cook the usual Greek fayre with speed and flair and some modern Greek; and since then I have seldom been fazed by cooking big suppers for friends . 35 years ago, in that Cycladic taverna, hygiene was not high on the menu, my espadrilles crunched on broken egg shells, avoiding litters of scrawny kittens eating up the scraps ; mosquito traps dangled from the ceiling and the odd dead one dropped into my omelettes . I sipped ice-cold retsina infused with aroma of pine, watered down and made cloudy, so as not to get too tipsy, while orders came flying in. I am a curious cook, in a quest for new recipes, without always following them exactly or making up my own .
I have been at Manorbier, foraging for free food, harvesting wild garlic to make pesto, using the young leaves instead of basil, substituting pine nuts (that are practically 10 pence per kernel) with walnuts. Dame Emily, whom I have given the epithet of Lady lite bites, has introduced hot food to enliven the cafe's menu of 'lite bites' ; when I suggested I could make wild garlic and nettle soup, she went pale. Wild food just wont do. I would not last a minute at the castle cafe and I was not even allowed to carry out the food trays during a hectic peak lunchtime period, not being an employee.
The tyranny of red tape instigated by the E.U and enforced by beastly council pencil pushers, allows little scope for imaginative cooking. Inspectors posing as customers, swoop down un announced on kitchens to check on the minutiae of hygiene ; that every microwaved baked potato is speared with a thermometer to make sure its exactly 83C, that there are separate fridges for meat, dairy and vegetables, that each tupperware box of coleslaw, coronation chicken or tuna mayonnaise is labelled, dated, used within a week and initialed by the person that made it. Nettle and wild garlic soup was not going to be on the menu, lest sheep had peed on the leaves. How different from my cavalier catering at the taverna in the 1970's.
Bonkers and thats just the half of it, we can't eat Pakistani mangos now, because they might contain worms or bugs. Health and safety is the death knell of free enterprise; health fascism is getting a grip, (a case of the iron hand in the glove, ) in our over regulated lives.. oh and every baked spud has to be taken account of. And yet up country in Asturias my brother telephoned me to say he has has just had a local delicious delicacy for lunch; young donkey meat sausages.
Leading up to Emily's party at the castle, one of the panic buttons was " what will happen if the bats fly into the crypt ?"
"Well they'll get tangled up in the lady's buns?" I ventured.
"No worse" she said, " we would have to quit the crypt because they are an endangered species." Humans may interfere with their night flights and someone in our midst might report to the health and safety police. This was getting ridiculous.
"What are crypts for anyway?" she asked me.
"Dead bodies" I replied and began the task of bringing all the souls together as a convivial 65 strong supper party. I spent hours planning the placement, picking up flat pebbles on the beach, inscribing names in silver and gold felt tip; it was like drawing up the Treaty of Versailles, seating Welsh, English and Irish, taking into account, various warring local factions. At the 11th hour, two key guests chucked and the placement went all awry, pebbles dropped to the floor, and a muddle ensued, but it did not matter, since the acoustics of the crypt made conversation virtually impossible and some guests took selfies to pass the time, until the fire refused to draw and guests were smoked out.
Dr Johnson pronounced direct questions rude. The art of conversation is on the wane. I was landed with that murderous opener ' So What do you do?' . Indirect questions on the other hand, encourage genuine curiosity and what one does in life, will be winkled out gently, as one discovers common ground. Then came the 'where do you live? And so on, I pretended I was an interior designer, just for the hell of it.
'Of what?" he persisted.
"Crack dens; its London Inc, now, don't you know, and in the property bubble, even these dens of iniquity come at a premium," Luckily on my other side, was a whiskered Anglo Irish gardening historian, and in pressing close to hear his anecdotes, his whiskers tickled my nose and I was reduced to fits of giggles.
My elder son tarquin refrained from getting tipsy, while being barman, the bat colony hung firmly under the eaves, and lively conversation ensued in the candlelit chapel upstairs until a blues band struck up and we all danced wildly under the stars . The party, despite a few minor set backs, sparkled with hilarity, a frisson of flirtations and fun.
Among many of my teenage haunts, like Biba and Greek islands, was John Sandoe, in Blacklands Terrace, off the Kings Road, where I would linger for hours, taking refuge from marauding hoards of punks and Teds, frightening the wits out of Sloane Rangers, getting books on my parents' account. There I returned for a party to celebrate their expansion, spilling over into the next door house over two more floors with more of their ingenious sliding bookshelves; if only mine were like theirs, as my books are double or triple stacked. According to my old friend Will Self, who drafted his first novel in my Pennine cottage some 20 years ago, the bookshelf is in decline, as people no longer read. And the world would would be less awful, if Amazon went bust and there were more independent book shops and reading of books. I am appalled that my local Kensal Rise library has now bitten the dust and even its pavement pop up protest library was destroyed and taken away in a skip while I watched the loose pages rolling along the pavements like tumble weed scattering their stories to the wind.
On prominent display at Sandoe, were Edward St Aubyn's latest novel 'Lost For Words' , a savage satire on the booker prize and 'What you Want' by Constantine Phipps, I read the latter. Phipps has not published for 20 years and judging by this incandescent masterpiece , he may well have taken nearly a quarter of a century to write it. Entirely written in rhyming couplets , it is Homeric in spirit and takes the form of Dante's Divine Comedy. It reads like a contemporaneous Iliad and Anead, the beaches of Troy are replaced by Goan ones and Dante's purgatory is a theme park; where I feel I am, when dragged, by my sons to Disneyland . It is an effortless read; the metre keeps pushing this heroic and heart rending tale forward, with fluency and erudition. The ancient hero is someone who could face death while the modern one can face life. Subtitled 'In Pursuit of Happiness', the main character, Patrick, told in the first person, is the epitome of the modern hero. I would be surprised if this novel in verse did not become a modern classic.
An unsung hero of figurative painting, irrefutably one of the best exponents of romantic landscape has to be Tobit Roche, who has stuck to his hard won images of India, traveling there every year , for 40 years, to paint plein air and sketch , (and no cheating with photographs, just a strong pair of binoculars ). Returning to his studios in Brixton and Hastings, with images of deep lush valleys, Mogul ruins, dramatic mountains, hot dusty plains shimmering in the heat, burning in his mind, to paint sublime landscapes, evocative of the mysticism and strangeness of the sub continent. Painted, using scumbles and glazes, often scraping the paint away to great effect and to convey a sense of distance, of those vast panoramas, that are India. If you are an Indiaphile , these sublime landscapes will appeal, unpeopled, they capture the vastness and emptiness, the colours and the spirit of place, so vivid, that one can almost smell the earth just after the rain.
In his youth, Tobit's mentor was Duncan Grant and caught the last of of Bloomsbury and its milieu. Tobit's father, Paul Roche, was an eccentric and poet, and a distinguished translator of Latin and Greek Classics, he carried a small pendulum, no choice, no matter how trivial, (or important for that matter ), was made without consulting his talisman. When Paul and Tobit came to stay in my Pennine cottage, we had a ball. Paul brought his own bull shot mix; marmite and whisky or may be it was gin? Soon we were all on the marmite mix . I had selected Tobit's work for a critic's choice at the Terrace Gallery, Harewood House in Yorkshire and we when walked the moors to far flung pubs; out came the pendulum, whether to a have a half pint or pint of bitter ? Usually the pendulum swung in the direction of a pint, followed by a marmite chaser. Paul Roche really was the most erudite and funny man.
Tobit Roche's exhibition, 'Lost Horizons' is at the sumptuous red velvet walled gallery belonging to a gracious and learned Indian, Indar Pasricha; an expert in the field of Indian art and artefacts. At 22 Connaught street, W.2 until 1st July:Prices from £850 - £10,000)