The World of Yesterday
or As Time Goes By
It’s the only absolute permanence in modern life; that nagging feeling that perhaps things aren’t what they used to be. That all too often, for every step forward, for every supposed improvement in “the standard of living” and GDP, we lose the best of us along the way. The aching feeling, which seems to grow as you get out of bed each morning before breakfast, is of course nostalgia. Britain, as a nation, exists in thrall to it. We lead the world in it with such distinction that almost everyone else is at risk of succumbing to our own heritage brand version of it too. Our Queen is the unofficial head of state for the globe, British tourism, and the costume drama industry burgeon under its influence.
It can be a force for good in the world, as well as bad: On the eve of Brexit, the late-writer A.A. Gill argued that the Leave argument–rather than being a clear, informed socio-political movement–was nothing more than a nostalgia-fuelled jaunt down Memory Lane, the bungalowed cul-de-sac at the end of life – although, of course, he said it better. Gill was always cuttingly astute, much more so than any writer writing today. Like all fans of Gill, I’m most nostalgic to know what he would have made of the news last Friday, when Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the founders of The Wolseley and its sister restaurants, were ousted from their own eponymous business by financiers. As well as being an almost permanent fixture at their restaurants, Gill wrote four books for Corbin and King. Each used the menu of the restaurant it covered to tell its tale. Life for all of us, restaurants included, can best be written as a history of meals.
Chris and Jeremy have fuelled the life of the nation’s capital for over forty years. First doing so with Le Caprice in 1981, they followed that with The Ivy, and then J Sheekey. Importantly, all three restaurants had a history of their own before C&K gave each, and the city that blossomed around them, a better life anew. The Ivy first opened in 1914, and was a frequented by stars from the theatre community – later it would become the lushest of green rooms in London; Caprice (without the “Le” in those days) was opened by Mario Gallati “formerly of The Ivy” in 1947; J Sheekey pre-dated them both. The Ivy (never in need of its modern geographical suffix) will forever be a stained-glassed cathedral to the historical hospitality that it witnessed under C&K (no matter that it has since been rejuvenated by renovation, like an elegant, ageing duchess who goes to see a cosmetic surgeon for breast augmentation in her senility). For that reason too, every new Ivy that pops up, will never be a place of pilgrimage. Le Caprice, the first great casualty of Covid, now sits closed to everyone. Anyone who was ever fortunate to have dined there is left with the taste of regret, knowing that they should have done so more whilst they still had the chance. Nostalgia is as much about the meals you didn’t eat, as those that you did.
It was The Wolseley in 2003 which marked a new era for C&K. Historically, as everyone now knows, the grand building on Piccadilly was originally an Art Deco car showroom. There, Jeremy and Chris found themselves on new ground. What they did was somehow magnificently re-invent the idea of the European grand brasserie. Everything from the chopped liver to the apfelstrudel was seasoned with a perfect soupçon of a brand of mitteleuropean nostalgia that not even Escoffier himself could conjure from the kitchen. They say that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach and yet The Wolseley, in the confident maturity and lightly worn sophistication of its founders, appealed first to the brain. It whispered with the accent of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, writers who would be increasingly read by those who still read literary books in the age of the internet. In doing so, it hummed to a certain underlying zeitgeist at the heart of the British cultural elite. Sigmund Freud, (whose own grandson, the artist Lucian, frequented it almost daily) might have questioned that perhaps its appeal was a subconscious recognition that Great Britain, now more than ever, is never more than a devolutionary step away from Austro-Hungarian collapse. Regardless of whether that might be the case, that was the wonder of the Wolseley. Like any cultural masterpiece it was so rich with small details and a sense of meaning, that one could almost ruminate on it at length (especially when partaking in the hedonistic delight of dining alone), long after the lustre of the first ten viewings wore off. Every moment spent in that vaulted space was a genuine pleasure, an education and a feeling that for the price of a schnitzel you could taste self-betterment. It was high-brow, but in such a way that never spoke down to its patrons. It was a return to a more civilised time, other-, or perhaps, older-worldly. Glamour without the glitz, elegance without excess. Whatever it was, it was chicken soup for the soul of a London often at risk of losing itself.
Each of the other restaurants that followed offered up their own historical and cultural references. Every one evocative of a sort of modern country house collection. Artefacts from a cultural Grand Tour. Mementos of a life already lived, that you could learn from. The story of each restaurant would invariably be seasoned with the stars that would frequent them, drawn towards the same stimuli otherwise lacking elsewhere in life, just like the rest of us. Rather than gaudy celebrity, it was those who you’d read about in the Sunday supplement, not those on the front page of the tabloid, who defined the restaurants as patrons. It seems almost demeaning to think that people spotting was why people really went. If anyone did however, the main draw was Jeremy King himself. Jeremy embodies the restaurants he imagined. Summoned up like a benign manifestation of another age. Bedecked in vintage Timothy Everest three piece suits and Turnbull & Asser ties, he wears the wistful look of a man who learnt latin, does The Telegraph crossword, drives a Bristol car, and has just the right Shakespearean quote memorised for that particular moment when needed. Paternal rather than patriarchal. When it comes to restaurants and restaurateurs they don’t make them like that anymore, but he did. And that was really why we were all there.
In the face of everything, the ousting of Jeremy King by Minor International from his own restaurants, is what is so surprising and completely bewildering. The fact that Minor would then, so ungentlemanly-like, ban him from entering what he created, is more evidence of the distinctly modern malaise that everyone went there specifically to avoid. Anyone who loved The Wolseley and frequented it, is left confused why Minor so grossly misunderstand exactly what it was their own restaurants were selling – their purchase price becoming a detail in the story of grievous corporate misgovernance from an epic not yet written. Minor will write their own tale for the broadsheets as they open up more Wolseleys. Each corporate manager will seek to fictionalise their accounting to hide their losses under future potential gains – a type never to be realised or brought to fruition. The purpose of it all will be to one day sell off the group to others more foolish than themselves. That’s the fiction franchise that now defines our age.
The Wolseley on Piccadilly will forever hold charm. That is the power of nostalgia. Right now, however, like a once grand ocean liner, with Minor International at the helm, The Wolseley is taking on water in the sea of moral standards. The sun has set and the air in the dining room is growning chilly. Cold corporate ice is ahead. Even if the great, unsinkable ship never sinks, it will never again sail with same glory that it once did.