Rogues' gallery

Mug Shots

Martin Rowson <em>Politico's, 144pp, £25</em>

ISBN 1842750658

It is always a pleasure to break in a Gay Hussar virgin. On this occasion let us call him "M", because as a back-bench Labour MP with some residual hopes of preferment, he may not wish to be publicly identified with your reviewer. He had the bean soup and beef medaillons. I forget what I ate, but I recall that the Balaton Furmint was on good form, and the Hungarian Merlot equally so - so much so, that we had another bottle, making three in all. We chased these away at the end with a couple of glasses of slivovitz, which, as Martin Rowson records in this hilarious satirical pageant of politicians at the trough, is personally blessed by the chief rabbi of Budapest.

"M" did not vouchsafe this, but I hear that, on his return to Westminster, he slumbered in his office for two hours, despite this being only the starter Gay Hussar experience, lasting little more than three hours. He will certainly have to do better than that, if he is ever to make the cabinet, much less a place in the res-taurant's rogues' gallery.

Delicious though it is (if you like central European stodge, available in Herculean quantities), you do not go to this justifiably famous eatery merely for the food and drink. You go to see, and be seen. That is why the diners sit facing each other across the floor, rather like the House of Commons. In fact, it sometimes feels as though you are in the chamber, with MPs' interruptions from a sedentary position flying from one side to the other, and discreet waiters trying to dodge the verbal flak.

The Gay Hussar has long been a house canteen for the film world in Soho, and quite often you find American tourists in there for the show, looking properly mystified. The real theatre, however, comes from the old Labour politicians, the older the better, and their journalist friends. This must be the only historical institution where the diners are Grade Two-listed, rather than the decor.

Here again, identities merge. Is that chap Alan Watkins the columnist, or was he a secretary of state for Wales in one of Harold Wilson's administrations? Is that Ian Aitken, once of the Guardian and still of Tribune, or a particularly bucolic agriculture minister of the 1970s? And is that Roy Hattersley, or the fellow who writes a column for the Sunday Telegraph? In his case, probably both. Above all, figuratively speaking, towers frailly the presence of Michael Foot, the former leader, who reminds us that Labour was once a socialist party. I have never seen Tony Blair in the place. He would hate it - another excellent reason for going there.

So the Prime Minister does not appear in this magnificent collection of 60 Rowson cartoons, drawn from the life at the tables of the Gay Hussar and now gracing the restaurant's wood-panelled walls. They are not exactly aides digestives, but they do evoke their subjects brilliantly. Rowson excuses the grotesqueries by claiming, disingenuously, that he "only draws what he sees". Well, thank heaven we do not all see the world through his eyes.

There are also some anecdotes to treasure here. Rowson kept his ears open as well as his eyes, and his running commentary proves he is no mean scribbler. He drew me lunching Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown. My guest was hosing down the kosher slivovitz like there was no tomorrow (there was certainly no rest of the day) and "having just made a particular point . . . he swung his hand towards his face with a flourish to draw on his cigarette for rhetorical effect, and missed his head" (author's italics). Clearly, a man who has successfully completed his Gay Hussar apprenticeship. "M" will need further tuition. It's a swine, but somebody has to eat all that Serbian chicken with dumplings.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act