After university, I went to work at a literary agency, Murray Pollinger. The last job I held there, before I moved on, was to be responsible for all rights that were not book rights in England and America. In other words, film, TV, radio, theatre, foreign, serial, etc. It was exciting work, because the agency represented some of the most astonishing names in children’s literature in particular, and numerous award winners, from Carnegie Medal, to Whitbread and Booker Prizes and 3 Children’s Laureates.
Their most famous author was Roald Dahl. A fascinating man. Very fair, very straight, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He seemed happiest in the company of children, because they saw things so clearly and could usually be relied upon to give you an honest answer. Above all, he could be very generous.
Whilst I was at the agency, Danny, The Champion of the World was filmed for TV and came out in 1989. A stellar cast, including Jeremy Irons and his son, Sam, Cyril Cusack, Robbie Coltrane, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Hordern, Jimmy Nail, Ronald Pickup, Jean Marsh, et al, all gathered for the preview. I showed up, a trifle later than I’d intended, to be greeted by Roald, who was holding court. He introduced me to all these people, plus Sinead Cusack, who had accompanied her husband and son, as “the best bird in the business”.
Flash forward a month or two, and I told Murray and Gina Pollinger, and all our authors that I was getting married and taking a month’s honeymoon. Roald announced that he wanted to give us a wedding present. He duly came into the office and handed me an envelope. He said it did not look much, but I was a foodie, so he thought I’d like it. He instructed me to open it that evening with my fiancé and then act on its instructions.
I carefully stashed the envelope in the inside pocket of my jacket, so as not to lose it. I took it home to Malcolm and explained what it was. We unfastened the envelope with real excitement and a great deal of curiosity. Inside was a card which, when opened, read:
“To Caro, the best bird in the business!
This entitles you to a meal at my favourite restaurant. Ring and book a table under your own name. Show up on the night, tell them who you are, and my credit card will do the rest. I expect you to eat and drink the very best of everything, including drinking champagne all night, if you want to.
We chose a date when we knew we weren’t busy. This was an evening to savour. I rang the next day and booked a table. I told them, as I always have to, that they needed to know that I was desperately allergic to mushrooms. The date was set for a few weeks later, when we knew we had nothing planned for that day or the day after and could deliberately keep them clear.
The appointed night came. We dressed to kill. We showed up. I stepped through the door and when the mậitre d’approached us, I told her my name. She smiled broadly. She led us to a table in the window that was undoubtedly the best spot in the restaurant. She poured us a glass of champagne that was already waiting for us on ice in a bucket at our table.
The meal was an absolute dream. We didn’t actually order a thing… They told us that they wanted us to have a gastronomic experience. That the chefs were each wanting to showcase their special skills. That they would bring us appetiser-sized portions of everything to try. Was that OK? Would we trust them? We told them that indeed we would.
Dish after tempting dish arrived. And despite the fact that the champagne was permanently on tap in its bucket, every one was served with a different wine. The sommelier brought each wine over and told us a little about its provenance. There was a glass wall into the kitchen, so we could see the chefs at work. We could also see them studiously avoiding being too obviously interested in our reaction to the food, if the dish that they had cooked came out.
Time seemed to telescope outward, other diners came and went. And through it all, we were clearly the source of a great deal of speculation. Just WHO were we? We didn’t look like anyone they recognised…. but? Surely, the treatment we were getting, we MUST be? I mean, for heaven’s sake! Why were WE getting such special treatment? There was quite a lot of discreet whispering behind menus….but, for obvious reasons, no one could quite place us…. The waiters, who had all entered into the spirit of the evening, weren’t letting on… So, by the end of the evening, the other diners were still none the wiser. No conclusion had been reached.
However, when we got up to leave, CLEARLY without PAYING…well…
………you could have cut the air with a knife…
The astonished silence lasted until we exited the building. And the door closed behind us…Then the crescendo of noise, followed us up the street. I occasionally idly speculate just who it was I was mistaken for….