Friday 4 April 2008

The pub inspectors

14st 1lb; zero alcohol yesterday; a round 1,400 days left to live; Coquetdale.

I spent the morning writing the hilarious proposal for the hilarious book that is going to make my fortune; or, more likely, spark the rejection letters that will leave me wondering whether to try and revive the PR business I have spent the last four years systematically destroying, or apply for a job stacking shelves at the spanking new Sainsbury’s in Alnwick. It will be a very tough call.

Then at lunchtime I faced another challenging mission: testing a pub with my aunt to see whether it was suitable for a birthday lunch for my MUCH OLDER brother, who will be 70 tomorrow. Not that we are actually taking him out tomorrow, for reasons too tedious to go into here. But we will be taking him out at a future date, assuming that he has not keeled over and died in the meantime.

Spike Milligan used to say that the ideal job was testing virgins for Which, but I reckon that testing pubs takes some beating. Or it would do if I had a chauffeur and I was doing the testing somewhere other than Northumberland, where the pubs, by and large, are not up to much. We got into this position because my brother did not fancy the pub that my aunt suggested for his celebration, and nominated two others instead.

One I had visited quite recently and actually had an excellent three-course lunch at a remarkably modest price. The snags, in no particular order, were that the place did not serve any real ale; that the dining room was packed with the most depressing collection of crippled geriatrics that I have seen since I made the mistake of calling on my late mother in her twilight home at feeding time; and that the bar, where I ate instead to avoid them, was infested by the dullest man in the world and his silent wife. This Olympic champion bore made a solitary half of bitter last a full 45 minutes as he treated the barman to a detailed description of the deficiencies of the Austin Princess, with special reference to the errors in its production process that accounted for them. I almost wept with the sheer boredom of it all.

The other potential venue I had not visited for years. When last there, my then girlfriend and I were both presented with steaks which were virtually inedible. When the barman came to clear our plates, I pointed this out in a polite sort of way, expecting to be offered an apology and perhaps an alternative main course, or at least a free pudding or compensatory drink on the house. Instead he returned promptly with a bill and suggested that we might like to pay up and clear off. I was younger, greener and keener on a quiet life in those days, so I did. But, as you can imagine, it left me in no hurry to go back.

Still, “Under New Management” signs had been hung outside the place at least three times in the intervening years, so it seemed only fair to give it a go.

I knew as soon as I arrived that it was also going to be infested with geriatrics, as every vehicle in the car park was positioned so as to take up a minimum of two parking spaces. I was not disappointed when I got inside, though there was a screaming brat competing with the out-of-tune muzak to add a bit of atmosphere. The geriatrics were of the considerate sort who either realize that they cannot communicate without yelling at the tops of their voices, and so do not speak at all; or else have arrived at the same conclusion because they simply have nothing else left to say to each other after half a century or so of marriage. I always find the resulting silence rather inhibiting, while the relieving clank of ill-fitting dentures attempting to masticate tends to put me off my food.

The barmaid (which is a generous use of English, since she was older than I am) was much more interested in talking to the waitresses than in serving customers; we were not permitted to sit anywhere within sight of the real fire which was the one cheering feature of the place; the mats on our table looked filthy, though on closer inspection they proved merely to be worn out with age; the gents was closed for refurbishment, and the only alternative was a disabled lavatory reachable only through a door marked “Private: Staff Only”; and when I came to dry my hands, the paper towel dispenser was conspicuously empty.

As for the food: well, here’s the weird thing. It was absolutely first class. I ordered fish and chips and received a huge plate, over the edges of which hung a cod that must have been picked up in understandable error by one of those Japanese “scientific” whaling expeditions. It was crisply battered and perfectly delicious. The chips were very good, too. And when I asked for tartare sauce it came homemade in a jug rather than in a horrible little sachet. 10/10 for cooking, 3/10 for ambience.

So we decided to take my brother to the other place, on the understanding that if the most boring man in the world is there again, I shall steel myself to say “I’m terribly sorry but would you mind going home now, otherwise I’m afraid I shall have no alternative but to kill you.”

I’ll let you know how it goes, and when my case comes up.

No comments: