Sunday, June 21, 2009
My life turned full circle last week when I found myself sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor of my empty London house.
Before any friends or family fear the worst, let me reassure them that Jo and I have had no falling out. I’d gone to inspect the house after my tenant, a high-earning American banker, became the latest victim of the credit crunch. Over the three years of his tenancy my life has been transformed. New house, new wife, new child, and, thanks to Northumberland, a whole new world. Now the house is empty, there’s an opportunity to move back south again. Decision time.
The last time I’d rolled out the mattress it was in very different circumstances. Jo was still living in Los Angeles and I had arrived in London alone, with only my dog for company. There wasn’t a stick of furniture in the house. Tess and I sat on the floor and looked at each other. We clearly had to make a decision about the future. So we did what anyone would do in a moment of crisis: we headed for the pub.
There was a terrible old boozer down the road called the Wells Tavern, which I remembered for its warm beer and curled up sandwiches of dubious provenance. But at least it was local. As we turned the corner I blinked. It had become a gastropub. The sister of London’s leading food critic Fay Maschler had bought the place and transformed it. Mercifully, despite its comfy sofas and smart décor, it was also dog friendly. Tess wagged her way onto one of the sofas and I ordered fillet steak, a glass of good red wine and a bowl of water. Things were looking up.
I borrowed the manager’s pen and, on the back of the menu, began a list of all the things I’d wanted to do in my life but which thirty years of ambition had postponed. Spend more time with my children, write a novel, revisit my old haunts on Tyneside, see Cuba, lose weight – the list took two large glasses to complete. Right at the top was something I’d been promising myself for more than twenty years: a cookery course in Italy. Sadly my ex-wives had never been into cooking, but I really wanted to make my own pasta and learn the secrets of those powerful authentic sauces.
I left the pub determined to research some Italian cookery schools. Outside, Tess headed for the nearest tree. As I waited for her, I spotted a small handwritten notice pinned to the wall outside the pub. “Arte Culinaria”, it read: Italian Cookery School near Venice. The serendipity was the trigger I needed and it changed my life.
When I rang the number, the owner Antonella sounded more surprised than I was. Yes, there were vacancies. In fact I could come whenever I liked: the notice had only gone up that morning. How many people are you? I paused. “I’ll call you back.”
There was only one person I knew that enjoyed cooking as much as I did. It took two days to persuade Jo to fly from California to join me in Venice and we’ve been together ever since.
Back at the Wells Tavern last Friday, I read in the local paper about the latest spate of muggings in the neighbourhood. Fashion designer Nicole Farhi, who lives close by, had been nearly strangled by two men high on drugs; 18 other women had been attacked in just 2 months. There were stories of murders and gridlocked roads, poor air quality and an acute shortage of places in local schools. I thought of where we now live – clear roads, clean skies and pretty much crime-free. Decision time? We wouldn’t move back south for all the gastropubs in the world.