Friday, 27 November 2009

The OK Cafe, 77 Piccadilly, Manchester City Centre

"I know you're not going to do a runner," said the man behind the counter as I paid my £4.64 for cottage pie, boiled potatoes, greens and peas. The comment said a lot for the OK Café's clientele, most of whom, it had to be said, sported shell suits, tattoos and an unshaven complexion – and that was just the women!

I liked the idea that I didn't look like the sort of person that 'did a runner' although secretly it has been an ambition of mine for some time. A few years ago I used to be the editor of a magazine in the hotels and fine dining industry and I remember reading a review of one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants in the Saturday Times magazine (penned by Giles Coren) where the bill for his meal was something like £383. Now that's a lot of money and I have often questioned whether such an amount is right, in an ethical and moral sense, when I consider that the OK Café would have cost me under a tenner for two. Alright, I'm sure that Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is not the sort of place that attracts those who like to do runners, but when a restaurant meal for two costs nearly £400 – the price of desirable 'consumer durables' like washing machines and DVD players – one has to question what kind of security measures are in place to prevent people from doing a runner.

It's been a while since I was the editor of that magazine, but I remember that Locanda Locatelli, an excellent restaurant run by an excellent chef (down-to-earth and not pretentious) was located inside a hotel. On one visit I asked where I might find the restrooms and I was directed through a door and found myself in the middle of a bustling hotel reception area. Had I finished my meal I could have just walked out of the hotel front entrance never to be seen again; and this got me thinking. Perhaps we should run a feature where we try to 'do runners' from expensive restaurants just to see how protected they are. The idea was, of course, ruled out by the publisher (far too exciting, far too good, far too controversial and we don't want people actually READING the magazine, do we?) but there were issues surrounding breaking the law that I hadn't really considered.

Having said that, my plan was to work out a 'winning point', a place where we could say we had successfully achieved 'doing a runner' from the restaurants in question. It might have been a distance of 500 yards from the table at which we had been sitting; there were various ideas on the table about that. Anyway, the plan was to reach the winning point and then return and pay the bill – assuming we hadn't already been stopped and carted off to the local nick.

I knew that I couldn't operate alone and would need an accomplice and chose as my partner in crime a PR girl, who will remain nameless. She was definitely keen and we worked out that we would need props – a fake mobile phone and a replica Fendi handbag, perhaps, to leave on the table and give the waiting staff the impression that we had to come back when, in reality, we had scarpered.

With meals costing so much, ie the price of a DVD player – the sort of thing burglars nick from houses – I felt, somewhere deep down that there was almost a moral obligation to have a go at 'doing a runner'. Food should never cost £400, that's plain greed on the part of the restaurateur, no matter what their excuse might be – food is never THAT good – and I should know as I have eaten in some of the best and most expensive restaurants in the UK and the world (but never paid for it, journalists tend not to). In fact if I had to pay for it, I wouldn't, in the same way that I would never buy a Bugatti Veyron, even if I had the money: at the end of the day it's only a car and I'm not going to pay the best part of a million quid just to pose and be poncy.

Anyway, back to doing a runner: it never happened. I even put the idea to the features editor of a well-known lads' mag – they think they're hard, or so I thought: they never returned my call, the cowards. So it never happened and probably never will. I did, however, case a few joints and can offer this advice to anybody who wants to have a go: hotel-based restaurants are the best bet, especially if they don't have their own dedicated entrance. Remember the fake mobile phone and the imitation Fendi bag, go there well turned out with a beautiful woman on your arm, order the lot: starter, main course, a good bottle of wine, dessert and then ask for directions to the restrooms. You can't both get up at the same time, that might arouse suspicions, but then I never got as far as actually organising a caper – just eating one!

Now that was an almighty digression, let's get back to the OK Café in Manchester – it was your typical caff – a mixture of Formica and plastic Gingham tablecloths, there were many copies of The Sun there for customers to read for free and the food was plain and honest. My cottage pie was one of the chef's specials and it only cost £4.65 with a mug of tea thrown in. As I left, leaving the change from a fiver as a tip, I started to wonder how desperate you would have to be to do a runner from the OK Café. According to the chef, it happens a lot.

Monday, 9 November 2009

I'm a big kid and I don't care...

I'm a big kid. I've been one ever since I was a little kid, when it was legit to act like a child, but it wasn't long before I discovered that people were constantly telling me to grow up and act my age, even when I was 'allowed' to be silly and irresponsible.

When I was eighteen I think my mum had a vision of what a student should look like: to her it was a cross between Dirk Bogarde and Richard O'Sullivan and it involved tweed jackets and yellow roll-neck jumpers, suede shoes and a scarf, with, of course, a neat haircut. My idea was totally different: unkempt hair, jeans full of holes and misshapen 'fisherman' jumpers from Millets. It goes without saying that I was told to grow up.

My problem is that, try as I might, I can't seem to grow up. Perhaps it's a lot to do with my profession. I write for a living and have been relatively successful as a magazine editor working on a variety of titles, largely within the field of hospitality, where everybody is having a good time all of the time. Perhaps that's it. While other people work for a living, I spend my time writing about what people could be doing in their leisure time, when they're not being boring and working. Result? Life is one big party!

But of course it's not just work and I'm not going to kid myself that I'm constantly looning around behind people who are trying to work, pulling faces and being silly while wearing a barber pole suit and a chromium top hat. No, that's not it. But it is all to do with being sensible, wearing sensible clothes, riding a sensible bike, reading sensible books and stuff like that.

I'm not going to tell you my age, that would be foolish, and it's tough enough out there in the job market at the moment without making life even more difficult, but it would be fair to assume that I'm old enough to know better about a lot of things, some of which I can't even mention. Equally, I don't want to come across as 'totally zany' and 'crazy', I'm not one of those 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' kind of guys either, I'm not the office wag, but I'd go as far as to say that I've made an arse of myself here and there on many occasions, normally in some way alcohol related.

And there have been plenty of times when I've thought I might have made an arse of myself when I hadn't. Like the time when I borrowed my dad's dress suit to attend a black tie dinner and then somehow mislaid the trousers. How? Why did I hand the suit back minus the trousers? Alcohol-induced paranoia set in and I started to wonder if I'd left the venue, a top London hotel in Park Lane, minus my trousers. I went back through my memory banks, started calling people who were there and saying, "So, what did you think of last night?" waiting for one of them, just one of them, to say, "Well, it was alright until you took your trousers off and started bragging about the size of your penis." Nobody said anything even remotely uncomplimentary about my behaviour, or my penis, and I realised that when I went round to dad's to hand back the dress suit, the trousers must have quietly slipped off the hanger and landed in the street somewhere. It was dark and I wouldn't have noticed. But even now, I wait with bated breath for the call and somebody reminiscing on past events. "Hey, Matthew, remember the time when you..?"

But what about that inappropriate bike of mine? Well, it is, for heaven's sake: it's a dirt jumper with no mudguards and it has a bit of attitude, a bit of cred. I should have bought something sensible with mudguards and a basket on the front, possibly a rack on the back, but I went out and bought a very expensive, slightly juvenile-looking Kona Scrap. I probably look a little out of place on it, to be honest, but nobody says anything, I like it and yes, I get a buzz everytime I go out on it. But why?

Why do I still get excited about things I got excited about as a kid? I still love the smell of a bike shop, the thrill of the new bikes lined up in rows, it's ridiculous. I should have packed up the bike ages ago, I should be much more interested in pension plans, the state of the economy, and other boring stuff, like my neighbour, who can't be that much older than I am, but he's one of those people who knows a helluva lot about car insurance and what it all means, he probably worries about his no claims bonus, he probably knows how much a gallon of petrol costs. I don't.

But then there is something irresponsible about my general outlook. I have two children but sometimes I'm a bigger kid than my ten-year-old daughter and while my 18-year-old is much cooler than I'll ever be – that's one thing I've never been, cool and I don't want to be – I view myself as younger than he perceives me to be: but I'm 'dad' for heaven's sake and it worries me. I hate the idea of growing up or being grown up.

There's nothing worse than going to parents's evenings at school where I find myself mixing with people that LOOK like dads. I find myself a little uncomfortable in their company because I view them as the grown ups and consider myself to be still not there, not quite in that ballpark. And yet I am in that ballpark I guess and it only hits home when I see photographs of myself and realise that I'm not getting any younger.

Look, I'm not that bad, but there's grey hair. Grey hair! And I start to wonder whether I should dye it or let it go grey and I start thinking about proper cool people who are older than I am: Pete Townshend; Roger Daltry; John Lydon (well, only just older) and I feel better about things. I'm not saying that Townshend and Daltry are big kids, but Lydon still has the spark.

In fact, that reminds me of something else that can be classified as 'big kid' behaviour: my current desire to buy and learn how to play the bass guitar. To be fair, it's something I've always wanted to do, along with owning a replica gun and an air pistol (I've had both), but I've just got to have one and will shortly be buying one. Right now I keep finding music shops and sitting there, Fender plugged in, trying to pick out bass lines. My excuse, by the way, is that I used to play the violin, the bass has the same strings but the other way around and, well, that's it. And I'm not going to deny that I still have rock star fantasies too and dreams that one day I'll pen the definitive 21st Century novel and make a fortune and go live on the beach somewhere in Northern California.

Perhaps it is healthy to be this way. Perhaps it's best to live in a world of unrealistic dreams rather than getting bogged down with being overly responsible and knowing too much about grown up things like tax and pensions and insurance and whether or not fully comprehensive insurance is a better bet than third party, fire and theft. I don't know.

But then I realise that in other aspects of life I have grown up, although I've never been a great 'car' person. I watch Top Gear with a sneer aimed at those Genesis-loving, real ale drinking, car nuts that populate the audience of the show. If I won the lottery I'd never go out and buy a Ferrari, they just don't appeal to me. I'd rather buy a house by the sea. I have no desire for large sums of money because wealth is not, for some reason, a key motivator in my life. So that might be construed as being a grown-up, although I hope not.

I don't like current popular music and would never pretend that I do. I want John and Edward to win the X Factor, but only because them winning would reveal the show for what it is: a load of old poppycock. Now there's a grown up, 'mum and dad' sort of phrase: poppycock.

Both of my parents are still alive, which is great. They're both 80, but it got me thinking that you don't really grow up until your parents die and you've no longer got anybody to call mum or dad, nobody ahead of you to meet the Grim Reaper. Perhaps I'll sober up when the ratchet clicks round one and I'm next on the conveyor belt of death. Perhaps then I'll start forgetting about playing the bass guitar, having rock star fantasies and riding off in to the sunset on my Kona dirtjumper. Perhaps not.

Mind you, a Kona dirtjumper; it's not exactly a Harley Davidson, that true sign of having a mid-life crisis. But I've been there, had that fantasy and managed to kick it. I didn't want to die young – and still don't. I worry about death because my big kid attitude is a sign of constant immaturity that will probably stretch to believing that my time should never be up, that I'm miles too young to die and have miles too much to do, even when I'm in my eighties.

Weirdly, make that luckily, all of my friends are big kids too, otherwise I'd have nobody to play with or go out cycling (although cycling isn't a pastime for big kids alone it's a great way to keep fit too). I've got another friend with an electric guitar, so perhaps him and I will form a garageband and make it big and....

I better go before I incriminate myself even more.