A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Vulpes Libris hasn’t had a Hatchet Job week for a while. Maybe it’s time, because I’ve found myself longing for just a little dose of venom. Or maybe it’s my recent discovery of Cyril Connolly that has given me a taste for the strong stuff. Either way, from time to time I find a well-crafted and argued, sincere and honest hatchet job is both a thing of beauty, and a means of recalibrating my own responses.
This critical antidote doesn’t have to be about books – any category will do. And it has to be just the right dose – too much of a bad thing can be just…. too much. Jay Rayner’s tiny Penguin Special My Dining Hell, 20 carefully selected broadsides at restaurants that should know better, fits the bill nicely, satisfying the craving while not outstaying its welcome.
Jay Rayner is a well known voice, in broadcasting and on paper. He is clever, self-aware and self-deprecating to a disarming degree, fiendishly articulate, funny and a terrific stylist. He knows that as a respected and feared food critic he has one of the world’s most enviable jobs, and that what he encounters constitutes the epitome of First World problems, but he tells us all that before we can square up to him and tell him ourselves.
So, let’s assume that the potential reader has battled through all the obstacles to reading this book – lack of interest in the following: food and in particular in food culture, London, the eating habits of the prosperous, business success or failure, the forthright opinions of a member of the metropolitan elite. Jay Rayner tells us what to expect in the front matter of the book, which includes a section headed Abuse for the author – if he’s dishing it out, he wants us to know that he can take it too. His approach to the law of defamation is to sail as close to it as he knows how – and he knows how. The introduction lures us in – hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable, mon frère, you know just how much you enjoy reading the stinkers. He cites Tolstoy’s famous line from Anna Karenina: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and applies it to reviewing restaurants. A recital of delicious dishes, thoroughly enjoyed in a comfortable ambience and served by skilful and discreet staff, can be so repetitive that a few hundred words once a week will do. This book is designed to show in how many distinct and previously undiscovered ways people can ruin food, and your evening out.
In actual fact, I found that repertoires of bad food can be almost as monotonous as good, but the real pleasure of these pieces lay in the dissection of the assumptions behind the business – the hostages to fortune in the concepts of would-be creative chefs and restaurateurs. The restaurant is a setting for a lunchtime or an evening, and may relieve you of a 3-figure sum – it had better be comfortable, or if exciting, in a good way. The menu is an expression of creativity – the execution really should match up to the ambition. The pleasures of the reviews lie in Jay Rayner’s way with words, his inventive, gleeful hyperbole, and his razor-sharp judgement of just how far he can go (From this I can tell you that ______’s does indeed celebrate British food, but only in the way a murderer might dance upon its victim’s grave). He’s fair to those who are innocents caught up in the nightmare (regularly stating that excellent waiting staff are ‘wasted here’). Every review has an endnote on its subsequent history, that can be summed up as Closed, Pulled its socks up, Morphed into something else. Rayner claims that at no time has a stinking review from him been the coup de grace – all these places contained the seeds of their own demise.
My favourite of all is a review of Abracadabra in Jermyn Street, a review that caught my eye partly because I think I used to walk past its rear entrance on the back way into the London Library, garish and looking very odd in St James’s. It was owned by one Dave West, cash-and-carry booze millionaire. When the restaurant was still functioning it could only be a public service on Jay Rayner’s part to describe the outrageous decor and ambience so that one could avoid the insult to the senses of going in there. Bad taste doesn’t begin to cover it. This review has the most astonishing endnote of them all: In the early hours of 12 December 2014, Dave West was found stabbed to death in the street outside his home, behind the restaurant. [H thinks – shall I ever take the back way into the London Library again?] His son, also called David, was later charged with his killing. Talk about unhappy families…..
To be pleasurable to readers who, like me, are otherwise gentle, kind folk in their everyday lives, the hatchet job has to be a well-judged lunge at a deserving object – otherwise it is just cruel (or else I am too squeamish). On VL, we have been careful to choose targets who are fictional, dead, or, if alive, not in danger of being (to quote the late, great and utterly wonderful Norah Ephron) busted back down to the Projects on food stamps by our little pinpricks. Jay Rayner takes bigger risks in his quest to save us from shelling out large sums of money on awful food in dire surroundings. But the main pleasure of this book is to assuage the desire for just a little bit of schadenfreude. I confess – there are times when that is my self-medication of choice.
Jay Rayner: My Dining Hell. Twenty ways to have a lousy night out. (Penguin Specials) London: Penguin, 2015. 96pp