The train to Bognor Regis was late on Monday. And the crackly voice announcing this at Gatwick railway station sounded really upset about it. As upset as I was when I woke up with a cold, to the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman was dead.
Perhaps some people know where Bognor Regis is. I’m afraid I don’t. And the fact that the Bognor Regis train was delayed by ten, then 20, then 94 minutes appeared to be bothering no one, except the poor woman on the loudspeaker, who by now was on a bit of a ledge. Even people going to Bognor Regis must be a bit hazy about whether it’s a seaside town or a Monty Python punchline. (You know, think kings and toilets.)
Mercifully, my train – the Gatwick Express to Victoria – was not delayed; I had grown worried about the mental wellbeing of the station’s disembodied voice. So I didn’t find out if anyone actually ever got to Bognor Regis. For all I know, they’ve all set up their folding deck chairs on the platform, knotted hanky and string vest akimbo.
But I was well on my way to the new offices of the Guardian at Kings Place, about to engage in what can only be described as a soon-to-be-graduate’s act of desperation: a Guardian Masterclass. The Observer’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, would be teaching seventy of us how to write a column, and keep writing it. I’m someone who replies to any question about my ambitions for the future by paraphrasing anti-folk singer Kimya Dawson: “Someday I hope I get paid to be me.” So this class suited me down to the ground, and I fully intended to spend the next three hours being insanely jealous of Rayner, and the fact he gets to do exactly that.
Yep, I’m writing a column about a class I took. A class about how to write a column. Wow, I’ve gone all meta. I feel like I need to begin in a ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ sort of voice. Don’t worry, I won’t.
Kings Place is beautiful, although the Kings Cross area in general isn’t much to shout about. The foyer area is full of very stylish (yet exceedingly uncomfortable) chairs scattered around like a herd of nervous multi-coloured antelope on spindly legs. I understand the rule goes that the level of discomfort suffered by the occupants of such chairs is directly proportional to their future success, so I practised sitting in positions of varying professionalism while I waited for the class to start. Just in case.
I’m pretty sure I was the youngest person there, which made me briefly smug, then quickly terrified. There was a 50-50 split in the room, between people who were actually interested in writing, and people who were practically wetting themselves at the prospect of seeing the floppy-haired food critic in the flesh. Although, there was also a woman who chucked out a question about Rayner’s often-biting criticism, along the lines of “How do you sleep at night?” I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t secretly hoping she was the proprietor of an establishment he’d slated, who’d plotted an elaborate revenge we might all get to witness – maybe something involving the hurling of a soufflé.
Alas, we were treated to no such display, but instead to an onslaught of gushing praise feebly disguised as questions about the work of a columnist: “So, how do you keep your writing fresh? Because yours is so clever, and I never tire of it, and it never ceases to make me laugh…” These episodes only further convinced me that Jay Rayner’s job is entirely geared towards my particular hubris and greed – to spend a considerable portion of your life eating incredible (though sometimes ghastly) meals, to be paid to write your own opinions, and to be actually praised for just being yourself? Sign me up.
What struck me most about Jay Rayner was how well he’d get on with my Uncle Nigel, a chef-turned-optician who recently decided to open a restaurant in Edinburgh, with his partner Gary. I suggested they name it in tribute to a gaffe made by my 80-something grandmother, struggling to find the politically correct description for ‘two men who live together and call each other “darling” a lot’: The Poofters. It works quite well in conversation actually, as in:
“Are you having dinner at The Poofters tonight?”
“Yes, seven courses. I’m expecting sea bass, a trio of something, too much wine, perhaps an île flottante, and cramps from overeating in the car on the way home.”
In response to my suggestion, Uncle Nigel told me that, when I graduate, there’ll be a job for me at The Poofters. Cheers, Nige – after all my practice of sitting on uncomfortable chairs, planning my glamorous life as a columnist, I end up as a waitress. But one who writes a really kick-ass specials board, obviously.