Why do we assume all doctors are good? We don’t think there are no bad cooks or bad plumbers. But everyone thinks their surgeon is the best in the world. Recommended to one such, I booked an appointment. He rattled off his spiel about the pros and cons of surgery, physio or jabs for a bad shoulder, while looking at the ceiling and at his watch. He waved away my scan: ‘I never look at those. Just heaving oceans of muscle. They all look the same.’ He favoured surgery, but I asked for a jab. It hurt like hell and made no difference. So I went to another ‘top of his profession’ consultant, who gave me a jab, while looking at the scan on a monitor to hit the right spot. It worked. After nine months, I can move my arm. Yippee.
You might believe really bad food was hard to get in the UK now: B&B breakfasts are ambitious, pub food has changed beyond recognition, the country glitters with Michelin stars. But when were you last in a big three-star hotel? It’s like going back to the 1950s. The misnamed Futures Hotel in Plymouth serves a ‘steak sandwich’ of overcooked roast beef, reheated in thick gravy and sandwiched, gravy and all, in factory bread. The Weston Hotel in Burnham-on-Sea gave me beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with less than an ounce of goat’s cheese and no beetroot.
I exempt Holiday Inn from these moans when they have Marco Pierre White doing simple, flavoursome food in the bar. The Double Tree by Hilton in Bristol have gone further and opened a great MPW Steakhouse Bar and Grill. The only downside is the sight of the great man everywhere: on huge posters, framed pictures, cartoons. When my daughter was 16, his tousled angry looks glowered from her bedroom walls. Can it really be that the good ladies of Bristol still consider him a pin-up?
Almost 30 years after the event, I finally got to see the reclaimed and renovated Liverpool docks, containing the biggest clutch of Grade I-listed buildings in the country and a constant stream of tourists happily spending money in museums, attractions, restaurants and bars. The Albert Dock tells an amazing story, from modern marvel in 1848 to rapid decline 50 years later when the sailing ships it was built for disappeared. Silted up and derelict, by 1980 the talk was all of demolition. Today it’s a marvel of regeneration. We often hear that the British are useless at grands projets. The Scousers aren’t.
I was in Liverpool to visit Hugh Baird College, the brainchild of the former education secretary Kenneth Baker (now Lord Baker), who has always had a bee in his bonnet that schools should equip children with skills as well as knowledge. Hugh Baird’s cohort of 14-year-olds come from schools that have been unable to interest them. Yet at Hugh Baird they thrive, doing plenty of English and maths and also getting City and Guilds qualifications in a trade. I watched students in air-hostess uniforms going through safety routines in an aircraft cabin, cooking and serving in the public restaurant, styling real customers’ hair in the beauty salon and arranging flowers in the florist shop. I went on a tour of Liverpool where tourism students gave the commentary in an open-topped bus. Discipline is strict, but the students love the place. All are expected to get a job or go on to university for a degree in tourism, engineering, design or health. If he wasn’t there already, I’d be rooting for Kenneth Baker’s elevation to the Lords.
I’m having a struggle with the planners. Before you can even submit an application to turn a barn into a cottage, you need to have the bat man round, and he costs a grand per visit. I thought all would be well when five, yes five, ancient droppings were all he could find. But no, his report declared the house eminently suitable for a bat roost, even though bats obviously don’t think so.
My heart sinks because I have been here before. My last bat encounter (when I was renewing our roof) ended with me having to take down the scaffolding and lay off the builders all through the winter and most of the spring, until the bats left for their holidays in May. Whereupon the scaffolding went up again and the builders scrambled to finish the roof in time for the bats’ return at the end of the summer. By then their old abode had had a makeover with hessian-covered rafters to make perching easier, a new entrance under the roof tiles and an optional bat-box in case they wanted a sleepover next door. I was tempted to put out a notice: ‘Welcome home. Central heating on. Milk in fridge. Sleep well.’
Prue Leith is a restaurateur and the author of Leiths Cookery Bible. Her sixth novel, The Food of Love, is now in paperback.