I look at Darrel’s whisky and wonder if it has aniseed undercurrents. I am drinking Horse Piss, which is the house brew of The Crazy Horse gastropub in Bree Street. The idea here is to offer a traditional but top quality English gastronomic experience in a pub setting, so the menu (crafted by Matt Manning of One Ingredient) offers the likes of Scotch eggs, Yorkshire puddings, ale pies, and gammon.
We are seated in a red leather booth, which is nice, but completely isolated from the bar because of a huge staircase. The staircase takes up too much space and tilts the balance between privacy and ambience from British drinking hole to Welsh gulag. There’s also an upstairs section, which feels even more isolated when we snoop around. Will the food make up for it?
Darrel Bristow-Bovey has just returned from a lengthy stay in Turkey. He is a real writer and this is what real writers do: They go to Istanbul and rent spacious, old apartments overlooking a strait where they write big things that drive people wild. But that’s not even the most enviable thing about Darrel.
The most enviable thing about Darrel Bristow-Bovey is that he happens to be as witty and eloquent in person as he is on the page. Which is pretty damned enviable because he’s so witty and eloquent on the page that they once had to make him an extraordinarily young judge of the Picas – the now-defunct South African journalistic Oscars – after he kept winning all the prizes every year. They literally had to promote him to give the rest of us a chance.
“I was on this river boat,” (these days the D-Bomb is paid vast sums of money to go on European leisure cruises), “and someone had told this guy, Barry, that they thought I was Jewish, so Barry comes up to me and he says, ‘From the moment I saw you I knew it – you are one of us,’ and I didn’t know how to respond because he’s giving me the secret wink that you guys give each other –”
“There’s no secret wink!”
“Oh, there’s definitely a secret wink and he’s giving it to me, and all I said was, ‘Oh that’s very kind of you, thank you,’ which is probably the most Waspy response ever, so then I had to avoid him for the rest of the trip because I didn’t know how to pass as Jewish and I didn’t want to say ‘No, I’m not’ because I didn’t want him to think that I didn’t want to be Jewish or, even worse, that I was denying being Jewish, in which case he would hate me for being a self-hating Jew, which would make him, weirdly, a little bit anti-Semitic. And I didn’t want to be responsible for that.”
Our food arrives. We ordered the pork scratchings and the signature beef Wellington to share because a pub is one of the few places where men can share – overshare, even – without shame. The crackling is perfectly cooked, with mighty slabs of skin that you can dip into a highly righteous mustard mayo.
The beef Wellington justifies the gastropub label. The fillet is tender, and comes with what for me is the highlight of my culinary year so far: the gravy. By the end of the meal, Darrel and I are dipping our potato wedges directly into the gravy up to our knuckles and licking it off our fingers like sultans.
Forget the staircase, I’d sit in a dentist’s chair for this grub. “So good that I resented having to share it,” says Darrel.
I move on to the rich and chocolatey Black Cab Stout, one of three Fuller’s beers on tap at The Crazy Horse (in addition to the Jack Frost Blackberry ale and London Pride) which one of the owners, I think it was Ryan Harrison, had insisted I try. (Ryan’s “What good is owning a pub if you can’t give someone a free beer?” is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.)
If I were a good conversationalist, I would tell Darrel about the time I worked on the Dorling Kindersley guide to Turkey at Struik Publishers, or regale him with the issues I’ve had being a blonde Jew trying to pass as a Jew while actually being Jewish. But I’m not, so instead I resort to the Golden Rule: ask a question.
“So what do you write, when you are in Istanbul? The play?”
“I’m about ten minutes away from finishing that mother******,” says Darrel.
“The first draft was a piece of shit. The second draft is pretty bad. There will be a third and maybe, God help me, a fourth.”
I love it when he talks like this. It gives me hope.
“Have you ever heard of Dennis Potter?” asks Darrel. “He wrote these really weird and quite good TV plays for the BBC, like The Singing Detective. But he had arthritic psoriasis so he had to tie the pencils to his fingers, which had become like claws. Then he got cancer on top of all that. And he was given six months to live. Suddenly he realised that he needed to write all these plays and he didn’t have enough time. So on his desk he had a flask of morphine and a bottle of champagne, and he’d just write through the pain because he had to get this stuff written. He did this interview with [Michael] Parkinson where Parkinson said, ‘So are you going to get it done?’ and Potter said, ‘If I don’t get called into these stupid interviews I just might.’ He was writing two plays at the same time. One was called Cold Lazarus, about a guy who dies but his brain is kept in a vat so he comes back. The other is called Karaoke, about a writer who keeps hearing snatches of his play being spoken by people around him. So they’re deeply moving because it’s about his situation. But anyway, how I see myself as Dennis Potter is that I’m eventually going to make this breakthrough and start writing, and then I’m going to freak out that I only have however many years left of writing. And I’m going to ruin the second half of my life by saying, ‘Ah, I should have started earlier.’ And every minute has to count.”
So the food, while truly impressive, was only the second best thing about The Crazy Horse pub for me, after the conversation. But if writing is thinking onto a page, and conversation is thinking aloud, then why aren’t all writers conversationalists?
Must be something in the raki.