A COUPLE of months ago I described how, in October 1990, Margaret and I tried to be married in Venice but were foiled by red tape. Returning to Essex, we resolved not to waste any more time and get the job done.
Having both been married before, myself in church with a big-budget ceremony and all the trimmings, Margaret in a register office, we agreed that there would be the minimum of fuss. Southend Register Office, no guests, no reception, then off to Brighton for the night.
Sadly, not so simple. Arriving for our pre-wedding interview at the council offices we were asked who would be the witnesses. ‘We just want to drag a couple of people in off the street,’ we said. ‘Or perhaps someone in the office could pop in to help.’
‘No longer possible, I’m afraid,’ said the registrar. ‘You need to supply your own.’
The date was fixed for November 14 (we didn’t realise it was our editor Paul Dacre’s birthday, also that of Prince Charles). Margaret’s old school friend Lynne agreed to be one witness while we looked at the rota at work and found a chap called Andy was off that day. He said he’d be there and was sworn to secrecy – the last thing we wanted was goons from the office tying tin cans to our rear bumper.
We arrived in plenty of time to find a gaggle of press photographers there – thankfully, not on our account. The Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams was in court, in the same building, accused of drink-driving after demolishing a wall in his Ford Sierra on the way home from a barbecue party. Having been remanded in custody until December 19, when he would be jailed for four months, he was driven away in a prison van surrounded by snappers trying to get shots through the windows.
The wedding ceremony was mercifully brief and the four of us adjourned to a basement pub/restaurant called the Pipe of Port, where we had lunch before sending our witnesses on their merry way. Then we drove to Brighton, where we had booked a night at the dearest place in town, the Grand Hotel.
As we checked in, I asked if it would be possible to have the suite occupied by Margaret Thatcher when the IRA bombed the Grand in 1984. ‘Sorry, sir, we don’t talk about that.’
The room we were allocated was pleasant enough but we were highly unimpressed when a domestic barged in to ‘turn back your sheets’ just as we were about to do what honeymooners are supposed to do. Minutes later another operative interrupted us with some message about the car park.
Before our evening meal we headed to the bar for champagne cocktails. It was heaving with freeloading union officials there for a conference, for which read jolly. As I waited to be served, a bearded Scouser demanded four of the dearest cigars available – ‘put it on the room bill’. We realised we were the only guests in the place not on expenses.
The rest of the evening was a joy, however, as we dined at our favourite restaurant of all time – One Paston Place in Kemptown. Formerly Langan’s Bistro, its chef was the brilliant Mark Emmerson, author of A Feast of Oils, Inspirational Mediterranean Recipes for the Healthy Gourmet, while the front of house was managed superbly by his French wife Nicole.
The rabbit dish I had that night was possibly the finest thing I have ever eaten, and I’ve shifted some stuff over the years. We visited Paston Place many times and were crushed when Nicole told us that they were moving to the South of France. We were also deeply saddened when we heard that Mark had died soon afterwards.
Back at the Grand, the Brothers were still knocking it back big-time when we arrived in the bar for a nightcap. Up the workers!
I have to say that our minimalist wedding was a huge improvement on my lavish predecessor. We would stress this fact to younger colleagues planning Hollywood-style spectaculars involving country venues and obscene amounts of dosh better spent on a future home. Did they listen? Did they heck!
ON most other visits to Brighton we stayed at a small hotel in Regency Square named the Dove. The first time, on a Saturday afternoon, we turned up on spec (this was long before t’internet) and rang the doorbell. A German chap came to the door holding a cordless phone and showed us into a reception room where we spent 15 minutes waiting for him to finish his conversation. Eventually we got fed up and stalked off in search of other accommodation.
The man came running after us. He apologised profusely for keeping us waiting but said he had been receiving an important business call from Germany. He introduced himself as Michael Kalinka and begged us to come back for a drink and look-round, which we did. The hotel was lovely and we were given the best room, with a sea view, on the first floor. Michael it was who recommended Langan’s Bistro for dinner and got us a table even though it was fully booked. Friends in high places.
Thus began an annual tradition to mark our joint birthday on June 13 (Margaret’s is the 14th and mine the 12th), even after our children came on the scene. Leaving them with a babysitter (Margaret’s best friend since the age of eight) we would motor down to Brighton, calling at a cactus nursery on the way, then arrive at the Dove for a drink with Michael. Champagne cocktails at the Grand, a pint in the excellent Hand in Hand pub in Kemptown and dinner at the former Langan’s. Bliss.
After a full English breakfast at the Dove (incidentally miles better than the Grand’s) we would meander home via another cactus nursery run by a lovely old guy named Bill Stevens and arrive home with lots of nice new plants. The perfect weekend.
Alas, it could of course not last. Michael announced that he was selling up and starting a language school with his British missus. He said he had been driven to despair by the customers, 99 per cent of whom were scumbags. One couple had, incredibly, pulled out their double bed, thrown an Indian takeaway against the wall and put the bed back in place. The only guests he liked, he said, were us and the Labour MP Clive (now Lord) Soley and his wife.
We decided to stick with the Dove under new management, but they immediately announced that Saturday-night-only stays were verboten and we would have to be there for the whole weekend – too long to be away from the kids. So that was that.
Now we are many miles away and will never make another day trip, but we retain fond memories of raffish Brighton and its hundreds of pubs, all full. Another great restaurant was Terre à Terre, which succeeded in making vegetarian fare great fun. And we had a lovely meal with our friend Nick at English’s, a seafood specialist beloved of thesps including Olivier. Terrific oysters. Happy days.
Old jokes’ home
Two little girls in school. One says: ‘There’s a used condom under that radiator.’ Her friend replies: ‘What’s a radiator?’
A PS from PG
Attila the Hun might have broken off his engagement to her, but nobody except Attila the Hun, and he only on one of his best mornings.
PG Wodehouse: A Few Quick Ones.