When the duck starts taking off, you know it was a really bad idea to drop acid in the Chinese

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

I’ve shifted my business back to Wong Kei. As regular readers of this column will be aware, the realest restaurant meal I eat – in terms of both its Heideggerian thrownness and my own helpless habituation – is a plate of barbequed pork and crispy pork rice, with a dish of Chinese vegetables in oyster sauce, washed down with a pot of green tea. I’ve been eating this meal week in, week out for over 30 years in a series of restaurants around Soho in London.

I began in Man Lee Hong on Lisle Street in the late 1970s. When that establishment closed in the early 1980s, I shifted to Wong Kei – then in the mid-1980s I upped sticks to China China on the corner of Gerard Street, where I remained for almost two decades until it changed ownership and became one of those hateful all-you-can-eat buffets. Forced out in the early Noughties, I scurried down Newport Place to the Canton, where I was perfectly happy until a couple of years ago the gaff was sold from under me and the quality of its hog dropped precipitately. Homeless for a while, I wandered the streets disconsolately, toying with esoteric Chinese medical practices – cupping, candles stuck in my ears, twisted roots to resurrect my own . . . twisted root – until a few months ago, on impulse, I returned to Wong Kei.

I’d been gone so long the entire establishment – all four storeys – had upped sticks and moved. True, it has only shifted a few yards into Wardour Street but in many ways the new Wong Kei is worlds apart from the old. I remember my late lamented mate Smiler telling me about a grim episode in the old Wong Kei. He’d gone in to eat a nourishing congee in the throes of a serious heroin withdrawal, and on impulse thought he’d ask the waiter if he knew of a good acupuncturist who could alleviate his suffering. Some things in Wong Kei – such as the vertiginous language barrier – don’t change, so Smiler mimed the insertion of needles; perhaps a little too vigorously, because the waiter began nodding his head, then led Smiler through a back exit into an adjacent basement where a rather fearsome Tong-ish type offered him an ounce of smack at a knockdown price.

My own drug experience in the old Wong Kei was equally bizarre. I’d been with a friend at the Notting Hill Carnival, where, oppressed by the crowds, we had retreated to the top of one of the structures in the Meanwhile Gardens adventure playground. Up there it seemed like a good idea to drop some acid. My friend – who was and remains an impatient fellow – couldn’t wait for the major hallucinogen to come on, and so suggested that we hightail it into town and have a Chinese meal. Ensconced on the top floor of Wong Kei – with time decelerating to the ever-so-’umble leg rubbing of a fly that skulked beside a stray grain of rice wearing the face of Uriah Heep – my foolish pal ordered dish after dish. Then, as they began to arrive, each one more phantasmagorical than the last – glacéed giblets, chickens feet in birds’ nests, three flattened flying ducks – he got the fear and fled, leaving me to settle my own rebelliously fluttery stomach and the bill, before clawing my way out into a London full of ghosts of the civil dead.

But as I say: that was then – and this is now. Wong Kei’s new premises have none of the outright seediness of the old. This is a handsome building in the art nouveau style – Sara Bernhardt laid the foundation stone, Henry Irving the coping stone, and according to an English Heritage blue plaque on the facade, it was for many years the premises of one Willy Clarkson, wigmaker and theatrical costumier. I once unveiled a blue plaque for H H Munro (Saki), the prose laureate of the unheimlich. It was in Mortimer Street and the chairman of the relevant committee, Loyd Grossman, came along to conduct me on to the scaffolding outside the inventor of Sredni Vashtar’s former rooms. I had no idea what to expect from the own-label presenter of Masterchef, but Grossman was charming – never more so than when the two of us had to clamber across a desk at which its occupant continued to work (the flat is now an accountants’ office). How apt, we both remarked.

Perhaps if everyone in government had eaten at Wong Kei, there’d have been no need for them to suspend the putting up of these helpful identity pucks – my bill came to £10 including a tip. Then I did something bizarre, and asked the guy at the till what Wong Kei meant – a piece of information I’d failed to solicit since Thatcher’s first term. “Famous,” he said. And there we have it.

Crispy duck in the window of a China town restaurant. Photograph: Getty Images

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories