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London Notes

Should water sparkle or fizz?

Should Water Sparkle?
Control of the Groucho Club in Dean Street, Soho, was sold last year to a trio of city slickers for about £11.8 million (about $17 million), bringing unexpected enrichment to the raffish gang of publishers, writers, and celebrities who set it up in 1984 as a place for their kind of people to hang out. The company that now runs it is called New Kapital, with a “K”, and its chairman is Rupert Hambro, a pin-striped City banker. His partners are Matthew Freud, a big-time PR consultant who recently married Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elizabeth, and Joel Cadbury of the chocolate dynasty, a reputedly charming man-about-town with floppy hair who already owns various pubs and restaurants in London. The Groucho’s old guard, proud of the club’s slightly sleazy informality (something that may also have appealed to Bill Clinton when he dropped in there before Christmas), have been anxious to resist any threats to its character from the men in suits.

But apart from the expulsion of Toby Young after he wrote in his book How To Lose Friends and Alienate People about an incident of cocaine-sniffing at the Groucho, things seem to have carried on just as before. And Toby Young, to be fair to the new regime, seems to court this kind of humiliation (quote from Graydon Carter, editor-in chief of Vanity Fair: “You take one look at him and say, ‘He’s out of here’ “). Apart from the occasional arrival for dinner of a shy-looking City type, perhaps trying to impress a young woman with the trendiness of the club in which he’s taken a stake, the crowd remains predominantly “artistic” and laid-back. There have been one or two subtle little changes, however, which suggest that the new management has started to make its mark.

One is that the dining-room waiters have been ordered to refer to mineral water with bubbles in it as “fizzy”, as opposed to “sparkling” water. One can only speculate as to the significance of this change. The toffs of the gentlemen’s clubs in St. James’s, Mr. Hambro’s natural habitat, would certainly say “fizzy”. They would consider “sparkling” to be embarrassingly refined, genteel, and middle-class—not to say American. But this change sits inconsistently beside a decision to change “chips” on the menu to “chipped potatoes”. This seems to suggest a shift in the opposite direction towards greater refinement, though nobody in England ever says “chipped potatoes”—except in British prisons (see below). Some people aspiring to modern gentility may say “French fries”, as the Americans do, but everybody else says “chips”. A more urgent problem facing the new management is the mouse that ran around the dining-room the other day. Even “artistic” people do not like mice with their food, and the management sent a bottle of champagne as a placatory gesture to the guest who saw it. But as far as we know, there is still no move afoot to gentrify the mouse with the name of “vole” or “hampster”.

An Angel as President
When Tony Blair reaches his 20th anniversary as our leader, I expect there will be a lot of stuff in the newspapers extolling his great qualities. But he will find it hard to match the avalanche of praise from the Egyptian media in celebration of Hosni Mubarak’s 20 years as President of Egypt. This has been conscientiously accumulated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, which has found Mr. Mubarak described, inter alia, as “an angel in the form of a president”. Even the most craven of New Labour supporters would be unlikely to say this of Mr. Blair. Al-Ahram, Egypt’s main newspaper, noted that “although 20 years have passed since President Mubarak took power, the river of sacrifice has never stopped flowing”. In an article entitled “Twenty years of love”, it also quoted some schoolchildren as saying: “We love him. He sails the ship of his country through the waves and the tempests wisely and serenely, without becoming agitated.” And in yet another article, it noted: “There is not a single decision or appointment by President Mubarak from which the fragrance of fatherliness does not waft.” Much was made in many articles and interviews of Mr. Mubarak’s commitment to democracy. “Mubarak is the only Egyptian ruler whose regime has been characterised by a democracy free of treachery, surprises, and violation of human rights,” one journalist toady wrote. The only dissenting voice has been that of Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist, who expressed a modest hope that in the future there might be freedom of the press and more than one candidate in Egyptian presidential elections.

Culturally Appropriate Food
Like the rest of the al-Qaida members captured in Afghanistan and now interned at the US’s Cuban naval station of Guantanamo, the three British prisoners can be expected to be fed three times a day with “culturally appropriate food”. This sensitive-sounding diet is supposed to be evidence of the humane treatment these prisoners are to enjoy behind the razor-wire fencing. (Jeffrey Kofman, an American journalist who has seen the conditions at Guantanamo, says that prisoners sleep on foam mattresses, have a chamber pot, and are issued with two towels, one of which can also be used as a prayer mat).

“Culturally appropriate food”, as defined by the American military, is hardly very cultural. The three Britons—they claim British citizenship, though it’s not yet known for certain whether they are in fact British, any more than it is known whether or not they are Muslims—cannot expect chicken tikka masala, recently nominated Britain’s new national dish, any more than an Algerian prisoner can expect couscous or a Yemeni salta—a stew made with lamb or chicken and cooked with lentils, beans, chickpeas, and coriander. The Guantanamo diet is what might be called common dominator food—food that can be eaten by as many people as possible without offending against any one person’s diet or religion. It is unquestionably bland—even blander than the food packages parachuted to starving Afghans by the US Air Force last autumn, which at least included “vegetable entrées”. According to a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Captain Riccoh Player, military commanders consulted nutritionists and Muslim experts before settling on a menu of pasta, crackers, oranges, granola (a fibrous breakfast cereal), and bottled water.

Compared to the rather strict interpretation of “culturally appropriate food” adopted at Guantanamo, “culturally appropriate food” at British prisons is more interesting—culturally. A Home Office spokesman says that all British prison facilities must provide menus that take into account the different religions and medical concerns of the people detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. For example, at New Year’s Eve “tea” at HM Prison Service’s Dartmoor establishment there were four choices of main courses: “Tandoori Style Chicken served with Garlic and Coriander Nan Bread; Two Grilled Lamb Sausages with American Cajun Sauce; Breadcrumbed Fish Fillet with Lemon & Tartare Sauce Sachet; and Chinese Stir-Fry Vegetables tossed in five-spice power”. All four choices were served with “Chipped Potatoes or Turmeric Rice, Garden Peas & Sweetcorn.” After months of pasta, crackers, oranges, granola, and bottled water, one would imagine that even the even the most militant British al-Qaida member might start clamouring for a deportation order and the right to be locked up in a British prison for the rest of their lives.