Saturday, 5 July 2008

YOU WERE MY SUNSHINE......................

Forced as I am, like that wicked old Cavalier Lord Rochester, from the pleasing billows of debauch on to the dull shore of lazy temperance, there is no point in dining out any more. Except at Chinese New Year, which we celebrated every year when we lived in Wales at the Sunshine restaurant, Menai Bridge, guests of chef/proprietor Louie Tong and Diana Leung.

Chinese food is better eaten with tea than wine. Its names are celebratory enough. Five Willows fish; Chicken Chessmen; Velvet and Satin Chicken, made with golden needles (dried lily flowers) and cloud ears (tasty fungus); Yang Chow; Lion’s Head (sounds more exciting than meat balls); my favourite, Wun Tun, Cloud Swallows, chicken-filled filo pastry, moulded to resemble Imperial Goldfish.

The Chinese take food and drink with becoming seriousness. In his seminal book “The Importance of Living”, the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang lists twenty-one proper moments for drinking tea, including “when the children are at school”. It is bad manners to eat until all are ready or the host says “Sack fen” (nice rice). Rude to point chopsticks upwards or at anyone, but not to spit out bones or lift your bowl to your mouth. When replete, place chopsticks horizontally on plate, not bowl.

Traditionally, Louie Tong is Daai See Fooh, Grand Master of the Culinary Arts “combining the talents of a connoisseur, knowledge of a herb doctor, sensitiveness of a mother-in-law and the benevolence of a clucking hen.”

New Year marks the return of the God of the Kitchen after ascending to heaven to report on his earthly family to Sheung Duy, the Almighty God. Back in those happy days in Wales, we all wore our finery to pay respect to ancestors, family and friends. Happily there was never anyone there from the HSBC, so I was able to omit the tradition of settling all debts.

Talking of which, I was never quite clear why we were invited to share this feast until I discovered I was a dead ringer for the Chinese God of Prosperity, who is mostly belly, though there, alas, the resemblance ends (HSBC managers please note.)

Mind you, the belly helped at the banquet, which included two kinds of soup,Thai chicken salad, Cantonese roast pork, Japanese sushi, potato cakes, chicken wings and tempura, Chinese dumpling, lobster crackers, Dim Sum, spare rib, roast duck, Malay pork satay, Mongolian beef, Indonesian chicken curry, Thai red curry and four different puddings. As George Meredith wisely said, “Kissing don’t last; cookery do!”

One year I won a rabbit in the raffle. Thank Sheung Duy, I did not win a dragon.


Now that the newspaper column has become the Chiltern Hundreds for unwanted editors and their wives, it was a poignant pleasure to read again two of the masters of the genre. (Note to the young or foreign: The Chiltern Hundreds is the office without power given to politicians who have outlived their usefulness but could turn nasty if abandoned.)

“Cassandra at His Finest and Funniest” and “The Best of Mulchrone” have both been re-published by Revel Barker, rapidly becoming Archivist to our Inky Trade.

Inevitably comparisons are made. My own view is that Cassandra had the edge on Mulchrone, which is a bit like saying Byron had the edge on Milton.

I would put Cassandra on a level with the great essayists like Lamb, Hazlitt, Coleridge at his best and de Quincey. And that is the highest compliment I can pay. Only Montaigne reigns supreme. But he, of course, invented the genre. It is a very distinguished genre. Before I downsized my library I had a twenty volume set of British columnists which included Addison and Steele and the great Sam Johnson. His thundering rhetoric on the folly of defending the Falkland Isles was a great comfort during that foolish adventure by Mrs Thatcher to defend a land owned by British Coalite; a war, in which brave men died to save the right to be British of islanders we had just deprived of their passports, fighting an enemy whose officers had been trained at Sandhurst, with the RAF and in the Royal Navy,; an enemy armed with weapons we had sold them. A war for which we were so unprepared and all but lost that we had to hire civilian shipping to ferry our troops. A war the Royal Navy was desperate to fight in the face of proposed cuts in its strength.
In their book.” The Battle for the Falklands” Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins told how Admiral Sir Henry Leach in full Admiral’s regalia storme into a cabinet meeting and insisted the Navy could send a task force.
With a bitter irony the guns had scarcely been silenced before Goose Green ws put up for sale.
Viewed as literature, such columnists as Connor, Mulchrone Ian Mackay and Robert Lynd (who founded their school in the Daily Dispatch) are truer to their roots in Montaigne than the novel has been to its beginnings. From Thomas Deloney, the first novelist, a pedlar who tramped the roads of East Anglia in the days of the real Elizabeth, selling his tales on market stalls., through the “journey” books of Fielding et alia to the last thriller novels of Dickens and Collins, only the detective novel has followed “as the night the day” a discernible succession.

Mulchrone , Connor, Mackay and Lind obeyed Montaigne’s dictum that the only subject he was qualified to write about was himself.
They had his eye for anecdote. He tells of an old woman in his village who was raped by fourteen soldiers and said it was the only time she had ever been pleasured without sin. He busied himself amongst life’s trifles and gave them importance.

Of the four writers under advisement, Mulchrone is, in my view, the best reporter. His account of the Denbigh Pie is my favourite piece of reporting. It is written with love, but with a gimlet eye that misses nothing. He was equally good on greater occasions like the wedding of Princess Alexandra, in which he correctly saw a love match

“Their happiness in each other lit the old stones, dimmed the light of the monster called TV, put pomp in its place.”

And later:

“They smiled their joy right at the great challenging head of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And his Grace of Canterbury just had to smile back (As it was his first wedding in the Abbey he probably welcomed the opportunity) ANYWAY IT WAS AS IF THE NORTH FORELAND HAD BROKEN INTO A GRIN.”

To appreciate that magnificent line you would have had to see Archbishop Ramsay and his profile of a prophet. I would also include Mulchrone’s most famous line “Two rivers flowed…….” But he denied authorship. About the only writer I know who would have been so honest.

Cassandra’s quiver of words was bigger and he used it to deadlier effect on the minutiae of life. His was the definitive description of a hangover: “A hangover is when your mouth tastes like a tram driver’s glove. When your boots seem to be steaming and your eyes burn in their sockets like hot gooseberries.”

He was my favourite food writer. A garden writer par excellence writing “Boots Boots Boots” or boasting about his sunflowers. A truly Great Word War Wager, his invective darkened the skies like the arrow night of Crecy. His hatred of the Christmas Card Artillery was Olympian. “I am an old gunner in the Christmas card Artillery…….”

I only met Cassandra once, when we briefly shared a urinal in Withy Grove. Mulchrone was an old and deeply valued friend. Mackay I met occasionally in the Manchester Arms where he shared a drink with another of my heroes, Whitney Rowland.
Robert Lynd, perhaps the most elegant writer of them all is new to me. He comes recommended by another chum from Daily Mirror days, Colin Dunne, who has earned his own place in this Pantheon

Now Cassandra and Mulchrone stand side by side in brand new suits at my bedside, published by Barker. Only Lynd and Mackay are missing. Though not even Revel with his creative genius can match the first edition of Mackay, which gossips happily with first editions of Connor and Mulchrone in my garden library and contains an actual typescript column.

I once told Victoria de Los Angeles that, if my house caught fire, the first thing I would save would be her recording with Bjorling of “La Boheme”. I lied. I would save Lynd, Cassandra and Mulchrone, and especially Mackay because of that original of one of his columns. I would give a King’s Ransom to own Lynd, Mulchrone and Cassandra originals.

You can get the books from or on any decent online bookshop.

And for two more good reads try


THE BIGGER THEY ARE…………………………………

Internal Revenue Service
Post Office Box 447
Bensalem, PA 19255
Dear Sir or Madam:
For over a year now I have been trying to get a payment of £60, a royalty owed me by Random House. They tell me they cannot pay me until I get an Individual Identification Number from your office.
I have made several attempts to disgorge such a number from you without success. I have sent you my driving licence and my passport, which you have returned with admirable promptitude together with a letter telling me that you cannot accept them, although they were unquestionably issued to me. I have offered you my NUJ life membership card, my BBC pass and my Fenland Fare Concessionary identity card. None has met with your approval.
Now you tell me you cannot issue a number because my passport is out of date. My passport is out of date, as I have explained, because I am 79 and have no desire to re-visit even those few remaining corners of the planet which your country’s foreign policy has not destroyed. A second reason I am not renewing it is that at my age I will not be able to get the insurance to which it would bind me because that would cost me more than the £60 America owes me.
Since the US is already bankrupt and deeply in hock (5 trillion dollars) to China and Japan, amongst other unfriendly countries, hasn’t paid its UN dues for years and owes millions in the East and Europe, I do see there is a national disinclination to pay your debts.
Fear not, I am not going to sue you for my £60.
Things could have been much worse. I could have been writing from New Orleans. As it is, I have an explanation for your administration’s incompetence in its “efforts” to rescue the luckless blacks. I only hope if they get out despite your efforts none of them needs an Individual Identification Number.
Ian Skidmore

(from reader Chris Sheridan who says, No - of course it's not funny. But I did enjoy the community order sentencing)

Ian Noll, 39, rigged up a gas canister in a car to drive to a beauty
spot to kill himself. A court yesterday (mon) heard he had a change of heart but forgot to turn off the canister filling the car with explosive gas. Noll of Garth Villas, Merthyr Tydfil, lit a cigarette and then the car exploded in a ball of flame. He suffered severe burns to his hands and face. At Newport Magistrates Court he, admitted taking his brother's car without consent for his suicide attempt. He also admitted arson

Noll was given a 12 months community order and was ordered to
complete an enhanced thinking skills course. His licence was endorsed
for taking a vehicle without consent.