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  1. Culture
29 January 2023

During a meal at one of London’s finest restaurants, I put my life in mortal danger

By the time the sponge pudding arrived I was snapping my fingers at the risks and signed on the dotted line.

By Nicholas Lezard

A most unusual lunch. Not very down-and-outy at all, except for my not being expected to pay a penny for it. This is the thank-you lunch for my having helped a businessman write the eulogy for his cleaner, a commission I mentioned in my column of 7 December. I had suggested lunch as my fee, and he gave me carte blanche as to where. So I thought in for a penny, in for a pound, and cheekily asked to be taken to Rules, London’s oldest and probably poshest restaurant. Well, shy bairns get nowt, as an ex of mine once said; and “you don’t ask, you don’t get”, as another ex put it. She added: “Of course, sometimes you ask and you don’t get,” as she watched a certain look creep across my face.

The latter used to feature in this column under the description WIL, which stood for “Woman I Love”; and my entrepreneur, who had read the columns in which she appeared, said she was invited too. Blimey, I thought, but as she and I are still on friendly terms, I asked her along.

So there I was, after a seamless journey from Brighton, dressed in my best black 501s and neckerchief, sitting with the WIL(ed) to my left, and opposite me, reading from left to right, a peer of the realm, my host, and a strikingly attractive lady with a pendant in the form of a diamanté skull. They looked like an interview panel.

Few social situations intimidate me these days, and this was not one of them. The WIL and my host were doing Dry January, which surely can be put on hold if you’re at one of the few places in London that knows how to make a really good martini. I most emphatically do not do Dry January; it seems like a very silly month to perform this mad and lamentable experiment – which incidentally is the term George Santayana used to describe a life without happiness. So I got stuck in and sang for my supper, so to speak, by telling the company all sorts of stories from a lifetime of scandalous regret, with extra name-dropping, for I like to sprinkle a little stardust on my anecdotes.

[See also: I can survive without teaspoons – but find myself thwarted by an unshuttable window]

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There were a couple of sticky moments. One I won’t describe as it would be unfair; but the other had repercussions. It was during one of those oh-do-you-know-so-and-so conversations, and it turned out that the Strikingly Attractive Lady and I did have a couple of acquaintances in common, the only problem with this being that two of them were the self-styled contrarians Toby Young and his colleague, James Delingpole. You may not have heard of the latter but the last time I checked he had described David Icke as a very important thinker. Takes all sorts, I said to myself.

The conversation moved on to Ukraine. At which point the SAL said: “I’m not sure there’s a right or a wrong side in that conflict.” By this point we were on the main course, and on the third round of alcoholic drinks. I am, thank goodness, not a belligerent drunk, quite the opposite if anything, but that needed a counter-claim. “Let me demonstrate with these pepper pots and napkins,” I said, doing a quick impression of Russia invading a sovereign nation and murdering its population.

At which point the peer revealed that he ran a charity that recruits volunteers to drive refugees from Lviv to Poland – or something, I forget the details. Would I be interested? Heck, yeah, I said. For the war against Ukraine has been distressing me from the beginning, and besides, two of my grandparents were from Lviv.

This is not the first time I have been fed at Rules and volunteered to go to a danger zone. The last time was when the organiser of the Dhaka Literary Festival in Bangladesh invited me as a guest, very shortly after the terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in 2016; 29 people died, most of them Westerners. By the time the sponge pudding arrived I was snapping my fingers at the danger and signed on the dotted line.

Ukraine, though, is another matter. The next morning I woke with a dim memory of the afternoon before. Did I really volunteer to go there? Again: blimey. For someone who is capable of staying in bed all day if it’s a bit nippy out, never mind under bombardment, this is quite the leap. And I am underprepared. My fitness is not great, and I do not know either the Russian or Ukrainian for “Don’t shoot”. But damn it, this column takes its title from Orwell and look what he did in Spain. I checked on the situation in Lviv and it seems to be no more hairy than Portsmouth on a Saturday night – so far. I am going to have a Think.

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con