Sunday, 12 May 2013

Arrogance, haute cuisine and appropriate dress

The Bonfiglioli ABC   (continued)

C: Career, university

Around Bonfig, life was sometimes scary, at times embarrassing, at others inspiring, but never less than edgy.  His influence in my life (a few months) ranks with that of Mr H C Todd, English master at Slough Grammar (five years or more) and of Arthur Mees Childrens Encyclopaedia (1940 to date).  

My friends from school, Brian Pearson (L) and
Peter Leech,in their first year at Oxford.
     When he told me hed got into Balliol on the strength of a thesis on heraldry, I resolved that that was the college I would go to.  I had good A level results, best in the school, and a County Exhibition to defray the cost. (Were there student grants in those days?  I can’t remember.) 
     Many of my schoolmates, who had opted for Uni first and National Service second, had already completed two years at Wadham and other colleges of that rank One, I found out recently had gone to Balliol.  By 1954, when I applied, Balliol had had so many applications that year that I had to sit another exam.  Eventually a letter, complimentary but crushing, told me that the standard was extremely high that year and I had not got a place.
     With the arrogant stupidity of youth, I decided if I couldnt go to Balliol, I wouldnt go to any other college.  Daft, or what?

     Bonfig had that sort of effect, on me and I believe on many others. Now and again, I still catch myself wondering what, in some situation or other, he would have thought or said or done. 
     Even now.    

     Im seventy bloody eight years old, for Petes sake!

     Exceptional food and expensive clothes are lovingly and wittily described in Bonfiglioli's novels. He lingers over them like no other thriller writer I've read - and he gets away with it.  Yet these necessities of life (leaving aside the adjectives) are but two of the contradictions which not only abounded in Bonfig's life but almost defined it. 

     In his novels, Charlie Mortdecai dines on caviar ('the real Grosrybrest, ; Jock . . . spurns Beluga and Ocietrova') or partridge breasts in jelly, casserole of pheasant or 'a medium-sized hen lobster, split and broiled with a great deal of butter'.  The author's tastes were much more prosaic.  His wife   (and who would know better?) writes, 'Despite the elaborate references to food in the books, Bon liked quite humble dishes and had developed a repertoire of hearty, tasty food to encourage his Balliol friends round.'

     Only once did Bonfig and I eat out together.  It was in a basement cafe just off Union Street, Aberdeen's main thoroughfare.  The meal was plain to the point of ugliness, a fried fillet of haddock on an ungarnished plate, served with bread and butter and a cup of tea.  Bonfig tried to talk it up, extolling the virtue of simplicity and the Aberdonians' empathy with the sea and its creatures.  Was he having me on?  I'm still not sure.

     On the subject of dress, Charlie Mortdecai assumes the status of arbiter of correctness for the occasion. Contrast that with Bonfig's all-too-obvious relief at the limitations of Army dress codes.  When my friend of the mountains, Irene, invited me to partner her at her sister's wedding reception, Bonfig's enthusiastic support and advice was almost comparable to that of best man for groom.                                

     'Ah, you'll need to wear your No 1 Dress uniform.  That's the great thing about the army: the correct dress is prescribed for every occasion.  You can't go wrong.'

     He was right, of course.  No 1 Dress is a smart, very dark blue suit, with  contrasting piping in your regimental colours, brass buttons a-shine and a natty peaked cap.

     I looked great in it.  Must track down that picture.

Next week:  Correlations.  Conclusion.

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