To Simpson’s-in-the-Strand for dinner with my old pal Martin Rowson, the cartoonist. It’s said of cartoonists that they always grow to resemble their caricatures (or perhaps it’s vice versa) but Martin bucks the trend. As the years go by, his politicians’ faces become either more oleaginous and orange or more brownish and creased; he, meanwhile, has the sea-green complexion of the truly incorruptible. Martin likes a restaurant – for a while now he’s been campaigning to save the Gay Hussar in Soho, which is in danger of going out of business.
I don’t know what he sees in the joint. The food is mostly goulash slop and it’s often full of bibulous politicians braying arse. It could be personal: Martin has spent scores of lunchtimes sitting in there caricaturing the patrons and a selection of his glyphs hangs on the walls. The only thing I like about the Gay Hussar is the word “gay”. I suspect it may have been the first Soho establishment to have this out-and-proud on its façade (in 1953) and, let’s face it, anything suggesting that eastern European soldiers indulge in the rough and tumble of the homosexual lifestyle is welcome during this period of international tension.
As for Simpson’s, it’s considerably older and not in the least bit gay. On the contrary, it’s a cavernous and gloomy establishment that positively reeks of the . . . establishment. Not the current one, you appreciate – they wouldn’t be seen dead anywhere as recherché – but members of the pluto-aristo-theocracy of the past, who pitched up there in order to stiffen their patriarchal beards with dripping beef. Disraeli ate at Simpson’s; Gladstone, too; and George Bernard Shaw was a regular habitué until his greasy beard wavered too close to the spirit lamp on the carving trolley. After that, whenever he was asked if he wanted to eat at Simpson’s, he replied, “Animals are my friends . . . and I don’t eat my friends.”
On the matter of the distinctive silver-domed trolleys on which the erstwhile Shavian beef was wheeled, these were invented at Simpson’s, which was originally a coffee house and chess parlour.
The idea was that wheeling the great slabs of beef around would be less disturbing to the grand chess and political masters. When I learned this, it made perfect sense. The shiny trolley has become a sort of icon of British imperialism during the past two centuries, rolling the length and breadth of the land, occupying dismal family restaurants aside remote arterial roads – and even travelling further afield. The Fashoda Incident of 1898 was resolved in Britain’s favour when General Kitchener sailed a flotilla of Simpson’s trolleys up the White Nile and surprised the French forces. He attacked them with rock-hard roast potatoes and giant Yorkshire puddings, an assault they were unable to repel, being inadequately equipped with heavy experimental rotisseries that were difficult to manoeuvre.
Martin had booked a table for us in the Grand Divan. This noble, foursquare, oak-panelled room with its elaborate plaster ceiling and leathery booth seating was once called the Grand Cigar Divan but after the Nobel Prize-winning oncologist Hoyo de Monterrey proved that even thinking the word could be carcinogenic, “cigar” was quietly dropped.
Our table was more or less in the grand piano so I didn’t hear a great deal of what Martin was saying while we slurped up half a dozen oysters each, but that was all right: we’ve known each other for many years, worked together, lived, loved and lost. On one occasion we even had a threesome with the late – and deeply lamentable – Ted Heath, a gay hussar if ever there was one. So Martin and I sat in silence listening to old show tunes and in due course the trolley was wheeled over, whereupon he did commit the rare solecism of asking for his beef to be . . . bloody.
The pianist stopped playing so abruptly that I thought he’d been shot; diners at other tables froze, forks halfway to their mouths (and in one or two cases, since these mouths were half open, their partially masticated contents disgorged); the imposing maître d’ who had shown us to our table had some sort of apoplectic seizure and fell to the carpet, frothing at the mouth; while the chef manning the trolley levelled the épée tip of his carving knife at Martin’s jugular and hissed, “We only serve our beef medium rare!” Honestly, what a lot of fuss over one of Bernie’s dead friends: the meat was fine but nothing to moo home about.
In truth, like the establishment it once housed, Simpson’s is beginning to feel distinctly anachronistic. On the night we went, it was full of tourists who were eating there in the same spirit as they’d tromp round Stonehenge or Windsor Castle: this was just another Big Enigmatic Thing the ancient Britons once made.
It’s a shame, because there’s a great charm to be found in the wrought iron at Simpson’s, its dusty plush, its chequerboard tiling and its general atmosphere: a sort of musty repose suggestive of that frozen moment before overfed, superannuated public school boys begin to pelt one another with bread rolls. While Martin was paying the bill I went upstairs to wash my hands. (Of course I did no such thing. I pissed long and noisily into a urinal like an upended sarcophagus – but when among Victoriana it’s best to euphemise.)