I’M in a dislocated place, somewhere that’s been shifted by forces stronger than gravity. I appear to have strayed onto a planet similar to our own and into a land similar to our own – only it’s a land that’s been shuffled back about 60 years to when everything is monochrome, music is played on scratchy 78s, Scottish people talk with wonderfully soft accents like in Whisky Galore, and Englishmen wear tight collars that raise their voices an octave.
After a bath in piping hot, peaty brown water that leaves thick black rings on the enamel, I leave my Oykel Bridge Hotel bedroom – which I have festooned with all sorts of wet items – to dine in this salmon fishermen’s paradise, summoned by a gong deep within the bowels of the building.
I am immediately thrown off balance by the dining room etiquette. Everyone (everyone bar me, that is) has dressed smartly for dinner. The gentlemen are in their best tweed suits, the ladies newly scrubbed and made-up, and all are speaking in refined English accents of the type not heard since Baldwin was in charge. If Richard Hannay had gone to ground here, he would never have been rumbled.
There is a long table laden with dishes – but no menu, and no one to serve the food. This bewilders me no end. The others appear to be quite comfortable with this situation, whereas I suffer a mild panic attack. I am out of my social depth, and what’s more I can smell ingrained peat bog wafting from my trousers and overwhelming the rather more genteel fragrances emanating from the lady immediately behind me. All I wanted was a bloody bar meal for Christ’s sake – not a table at Claridge’s.
My fellow guests glance at me occasionally and smile politely. It’s the smile of a man driving a Bentley down a country road at night. He catches the startled eyes of a rabbit in his headlights and there’s a barely-discernible bump as the unfortunate beast throws itself under his back wheels. Pity. That’s the word I was looking for. It’s a smile of pity.
My skin becomes prickly and hot. Sweat begins to form on my brow. I am rescued from my dilemma by Lisa, a tall woman who is dressed like a waitress but just stands on ceremony by the kitchen door. She invites me to choose a starter from a table lavishly laden with food, which I do rather self-consciously. Melon wrapped in ham, as it turns out. No doubt it is posh ham with an Italian or Spanish name. I don’t enquire, just in case I utter the word “Plumrose” in an attempt to sound knowledgeable.
Behind me sits a couple from Kent, up here for the salmon fishing. He is a little chap in a suit just a shade too big for him – but a smart suit all the same. And he has a dashed fine clipped accent – obviously public school and old money. Across the room sits a party of four, all with dashed fine accents too, except for a chap with white hair and beard, who turns out to be an American. He has, though, one of those refined, Orson Wells-type accents and is very well-spoken, so does not seem out of place. The only other guest for dinner is a thin, grey-haired woman who sits in silence. Perhaps she entered this strange world through the same wardrobe as me.
The little man in the large suit is first to break ranks and go for the main course, leading from the front like a cricket captain. He struts to the table and starts carving an incredibly large joint of lamb. There is an interesting conversation about the merits of carving lamb across the grain as opposed to along the grain.
Second Man: “I say, I find it fascinating that everyone approaches a joint of lamb in their own particular fashion.”
Little Man: “Yes old chep, I thought I’d go for the top cut rather than the end cut because I rather thought the joint deserved it.”
Second Man: “Splendid job, though.”
Little Man: “Yes old chep, but you can cut from the end if that’s what you prefer.”
Second Man: “Rather think we’re committed now, old chep.”
Meanwhile, I am going for the soup. Lisa kindly directs me to a bowl at the far end of the table after I blunder into the gravy by mistake. The others are busy helping themselves to the lamb and its accompaniments. The soup is pea and mint, and goes down a treat. It’s at this point, while remembering to tip the bowl away from me as I finish the final slurps, I begin to work out the protocol.
This is no ordinary hotel dining room regimen with a menu; this is more stately home etiquette, where you sit down to dinner as a guest of the lord and lady – at a pre-ordained time, complete with gong – and partake of the delicacies the cook has chosen to divvy up for the evening. Yes, I’ve watched Gosford Park twice so I know what I’m talking about. I can hear Michael Gambon saying: “What’s cook conjured up tonight?” And tonight the cook has produced roast lamb with an assortment of vegetables. Take it or leave it old chep.
I go for the lamb, and carve along the top like the little bloke in the big suit. I help myself to boiled potatoes, croquette potatoes, mange tout, ratatouille and gravy – which I have visited before – and settle down to enjoy myself, though acutely aware that I smell rather foully, despite the hot bath.
There is a sudden and illuminating conversation across the dining room. The well-spoken American informs his party he has read that John Prescott is to be elevated to the Lords. The little chap in the large suit jumps up behind me and adopts a stance that can only be described as public schoolboy at bay – chin up, left knee thrusting forward, right leg trailing, fists clenched at his sides.
“I say old chep, forgive me for interrupting, but did I hear you say Prescott is going to the Lords?”
The American answers in the affirmative. He read it in his newspaper.
“What newspaper is that, old chep?”, says the little fellow, his stance now inclining more towards public schoolboy rampant.
It was the Telegraph, says the American. There are gasps as the diners accept that if it was in the Telegraph then it must be true. The single woman, who up to this point has remained silent and demure, suddenly says in a very shrill voice: “Oh my good lord, how absolutely embarrassing.” I continue to devour my meat and veg, feeling peculiarly secure in my working-class prejudices. I even shake my legs a little to waft around some bog odour.
There is another interesting conversion about the best way to remove deer ticks from one’s dogs. Lisa volunteers that oil is best, because it smothers the ticks and they drop out gasping for breath. Someone else mentions cigarettes to burn them off. After all, they are nasty things and spread Lyme disease, and there are rather a lot of them about this year – the blighters.
I catch everyone up with the courses, and help myself to more meat after the little chap does the same. The worrying thing is, there is a marvellous strawberry pavlova for desert and people are leaving the dining room without breaking into it. After much fretting, I breach it with a large silver spoon and smother a generous helping with cream.
I’m getting the hang of this dining room business. One should, I have decided, adopt the colonial approach. “I want salmon so I’ll bally well take some.” “I want pavlova so I’ll bally well have some.” “I want Suez so I’ll bally well take it, and bally Sudan while I’m at it, old chep.” Finally, I attack the cheeseboard then go to my room – after a Glen Morangie – feeling half human again, and certainly smelling like one.
In the privacy of my room I inspect my tired body and discover five deer ticks on my legs and one on my collar bone. I also have a nasty red rash almost encircling my left lower leg and itchy spots everywhere. I try to pluck out the little bastards but they have hooked themselves into my skin. I do what I think is the next best thing and douse them with petrol from my Coleman stove. I wonder what the conversation would be down in the lounge if my fellow guests, socialising over coffee, knew there was a mad anarchist in the rafters dousing himself with petrol.
“Never did like the cut of his jib.”
“Who’s that, old chep?”
“The chep in the stinky trousers who thought the gravy was soup. Didn’t speak a word all night.”
“Expect he thinks that throwing petrol around is some Trotskyist gesture.”
“My God, what an awful rotter. Pass the cream, old chep.”