The Untimely Death Of Jerzy Gruszka

My writing set-up

A few years ago, I was approached by a few people* who said, “You know what, Gary, your columns really are top-drawer, but they’re only ever 750 words long. What you need to do is write a novel featuring the same sort of character who appears in your columns. I bet you it would be really successful.”

These people were mistaken in several ways, but the two errors I’d like to focus on at this point are: a) The character who appears in my columns is not a work of fiction. I am he. It’s all true; and b) it would not be really successful.

Of course, it was only after I had written such a novel and tried to flog it for a year that the point I made under b) above became clear. I do not know if you are aware of this, but novels take some time to write, unless you’re one of those successful American airport fiction novelists who can pass on their work to a farm of typists, and when I had finished it the market had changed. Apparently we’ve all heard quite enough from middle-aged white men. WHEN, OH, WHEN WILL MIDDLE-AGED WHITE MEN BREAK THE GLASS CEILING?!

Anyway, the point is that there’s a novel sitting on my laptop, and I’m never going to make any money out of it. And if you are – or were – a regular reader of my long-running column, you’re more likely than most to be interested in reading it.

So, seeing as we’re all cooped up indoors for the foreseeable, and unless somebody talks me out of it, I’m going to release a chapter a day from tomorrow (Friday, March 27, 2020) until it’s finished. It won’t see you through the entire lock-down, but it might keep you diverted for 15-20 minutes a day.

It’s called The Untimely Death Of Jerzy Gruszka, and I’ll link to the first chapter here.

*Real people, not people I have invented to make me look good.

The Big Staying In: Day One

A bee, drawn from memory

ONE of the advantages of a full lockdown situation is that human contact is very limited, especially if your partner is one of those key workers we have these days.

It is not so much that I prefer my own company, more that I am aware that a little of me goes a long way, and it’s probably better for all concerned if I am left to fend for myself.

Anyway, this morning, on Day One of the Big Staying In I put some breakfast dishes and such into the kitchen sink, then went for a shower, then put on a dressing gown, then topped up my existential anxiety with a quick scroll through Twitter, then found a YouTube video which explained in detail what was wrong with a film I didn’t like, then made a cup of tea, then drank it…

“Oh, yes,” I thought, as I went to deal with the used cup before I got fully dressed, “I must deal also with the previous dishes, about which I had forgotten.” And so I went to the kitchen sink…

One of the disadvantages of a full lockdown situation is that it is very difficult to pass the message on to the animal kingdom. And, disappointingly, I found that an uninvited bee the size of an M&S mini mince pie was having a lie down among the dirty dishes.

I am not good with bees, or any insects which carry stings on their person, which is sort of the point.

But I am also aware that, before the current situation, we were very concerned about the reduced number of bees buzzing about the place, and I did not want to be responsible for a further reduction.

What I needed to do was persuade the bee to go outside without testing my memory of whether you use vinegar or baking soda on a bee sting.

Reader, I said “shoo” to a bee. It worked about as well as you might have expected.

So I pulled up the blind, then watched the blind fall, then pulled up the blind again, then watched the blind fall again, then pulled up the blind again, this time with the cord at an almost imperceptibly different angle, and opened the window over the sink.

Then I used a small stream of water to guide the bee into what I’ll call the drain guard. I don’t know the real name of it, and neither do you, but it’s one of those removable things that you put over the plughole to stop largish objects from clogging up your drain.

But the bee was very close to the protruding centre of the drain guard, and, if I went to grasp the centre, my fingers would have been dangerously close to the bee’s bum. So I thought for a moment, and then grabbed some tongs from the drawer.

Then I picked up the drain guard and its insect passenger, with the tongs, using all the dexterity of an Operation player on a well-frequented bouncy castle, and pushed it through the window. “Get out, you furry bastard,” I yelled. I shook the drain guard, and the bee tumbled out onto the window ledge, and the drain guard tumbled out of the tongs and onto the patio.

“Gah!” I said, and headed towards the patio doors. I didn’t wish to go into the garden in my stockinged feet, and a pair of my girlfriend’s flip-flops were near the exit. Now, I am not a natural flip-flop wearer and would normally shun them, as I have enough difficulty keeping hold of things with my hands.

But I put them on. I wouldn’t say I slipped into them, as it’s quite difficult to wear flip-flops and socks at the same time. I felt awkward in my own company.

But I slid open the patio doors and stepped outside, safe in the knowledge that nobody would see me at the back of the house, with my bestockinged and flip-flopped feet and flip-flopping dressing gown.

I arrived at the fallen drain guard. In the time it had taken me to decide on flip-flops and then find the patio doors key and then to flip-flop to the scene of the impact, the bee had somehow flown back to the guard and was circling inside it.

I was incensed and, without regard to my own safety, I shook the guard, ejecting the bee. “BUGGER OFF, YOU ABSOLUTE SOD,” I cried.

“Morning,” said my girlfriend’s neighbour over the fence, self-isolating in his garden.

And this is just Day One. I don’t think this lockdown is stringent enough.

REVIEW: Röski, Liverpool

What we were eating in the 1980s

I went to Röski, and, when the waitress poured gravy into my sherry, I understood why the restaurant’s name contains a shocked-face emoji.

Röski is Liverpool’s latest attempt to bag a Michelin star. On the surface, there’s no reason why the city needs one – Manchester hasn’t got one and you can’t move for gourmet Yorkshire pudding joints and Thai burger places there – but, on the other hand, Manchester hasn’t got one.

So MasterChef: The Professionals winner Anton Piotrowski has installed himself inside the former and much-loved Puschka on Rodney Street, changing the warm interior into a sort of duck-egg minimalism, and switching on his “Behold! I am very clever” beam to attract the right sort of attention.

This is fair enough, he is very clever, and we’ll get to that, don’t you worry. But the reason Liverpool has failed to trouble the Michelin guide is not so much about food as it is about service. It’s the Scouse Waiter Problem.

The thing about service in a Liverpool restaurant is that it’s great. It’s really friendly. And that’s the trouble. Scouse waiting staff tend to treat you like you’re their friend. I’ve even been called “mate” a few times, despite my studiedly stand-offish demeanour. I mean, how dare they? How bloody dare they?

Basically, there’s an informality about the proceedings, bordering on laissez-faire, and if there’s one thing the Michelin inspectors are not hoping to encounter, it’s that.

Röski is very different. The front of house staff – led by Piotrowski’s partner, Rose – treat you like guests. They’re not going to ask you to be their Facebook friend. These are professionals. There’s warmth, obviously, but they know why we’re there and we know why they’re there. They noticed our table was wobbly about four seconds after we did, and scurried over with a wedge three seconds after that, which is showing off, quite frankly.

Why are we there? Well, it’s not for the playlist, which was a mix of Motown and Stax that Saturday night, familiar as a hug from an auntie. It’s the food. It’s always the food.

The normal menu is suspended on Fridays and Saturdays, replaced by a tasting menu, which begins with incomer Piotrowski’s tribute to a scouse chippy tea. A cheesy chip is triple-cooked and glazed with Lincolnshire Poacher, and dribbled with a Wagyu gravy. Served on a katsu curry sauce slick is a breadcrumbed Wagyu beef nugget. Wagyu beef features heavily on the menu. I can only assume Piotrowski made a mistake on the order and put an extra zero on the end. And then there’s a Bovril butter to be spread on sourdough from Baltic Bakehouse.

Oh, yes, the Wagyu gravy. Glasses of fino sherry are served “at room temperature” with the meal. “We’re going to pour some gravy into your sherry,” the waitress tells us. “You’re bloody not,” my head says. “OK,” my mouth says. A drop of gravy drops into the glass, and the waitress swirls it round, turning the perfectly good sherry into a sort of 50s milky coffee.

Fair enough, Piotrowski knows best. The gravy brings out that umami taste that makes a good sherry, and the sherry somehow boosts the beefiness of the gravy.

He’s built up enough trust now. Bring it on, we think. He does.

Next up are gin and tonic crab, a clean-tasting crab mayonnaise with cucumber and papaya, and, in a frothy burnt butter sauce, a scallop which could be eaten with a spoon.

Asparagus with salad cream, and langoustine with wasabi were well executed, but only memorable because I pinched a copy of the menu.

“What Came First?” gets us back on track. A riff on a chicken and mushroom pie, it’s a powerfully-flavoured chicken velouté , covering wild mushrooms, served in an egg shell, and accompanied by a pile of bay leaves covered in dry ice, which atomises the herb, turning it into a perfume.

The Wagyu beef returns, because of course it does, in the form of a tartare served with burger mayonnaise – imagine McDonald’s special sauce with a touch more poke – and sliced gherkins. He’s having a laugh, now, is Piotrowski, gold put to the use of paving stones, and still not losing its lustre. Along with the tartare is a hoi sin duck, crispy on the outside, and tenderly pink inside.

And then we come to the red cabbage bolognaise. It’s a pile of what looks like a bog-standard ragu, served on top of a stone, and dusted with some Parmigiano Reggiano. And it really does taste like mamma used to make, specifically my mamma.

But there is no meat. Somehow, Piotrowski makes red cabbage and tomato taste like beef. Wagyu beef, probably.

It is as brilliant as it is pointless. If you’re going to show off how good your meatless ragu is, it’s got to be the the best ragu I’ve ever had. Honestly, Anton, I could give you my mum’s recipe (“Ingredients: mince, jar of Dolmio…”) and save you hours in the kitchen.

A squab pigeon comes next, on a wild garlic sauce. It’s a rosy breast, and a beautifully rendered leg. There’s not much meat on the leg, obviously – you’ve seen pigeons – but there’s a Chinese proverb which says “The closer the bone, the sweeter the meat” and you can’t knock the Chinese. Not after the Huawei contract.

Puddings start with “1980s”, Red Leicester attached by a cocktail stick to compressed pineapple with a Red Leicester custard, and end with “pina colada”, a coconut cream with pineapple sorbet. In between is a bit of chocolate crème fraîche nonsense with shards of cep-flavoured caramel. It’s magical.

There’s a decent short wine flight, by the way, including a grapefruity Chenin Blanc from Devon, of all places. I think it was a Chenin Blanc, I wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was too busy making sure the waitress wasn’t going to pour gravy into my glass.

I don’t know if Röski is going to break Liverpool’s Michelin duck, but if it does I won’t be wearing a shocked face.

Röski, 16 Rodney Street, Liverpool, L1 2TE. 0151 708 8698. roskirestaurant.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday. Tasting menu only on Friday and Saturday. Tasting menu: £75. Short wine flight: £40. Premier wine flight: £65.

My Brexit Journey

The author, on the day he bought his car

LAST summer, after years of getting the bus, I decided I would buy a 2007 Volkswagen Eos. The intersection of the Venn diagram of people who understand the implications of that statement and those who are keen opponents of Brexit is quite small. In fact, hello, Jeremy Clarkson. Nice jeans.

For those of you who are unaware, a VW Eos is a hard top convertible car, which was discontinued a few years ago for reasons which will become clear.

I had always wanted a hard top convertible because owning one is like owning a Transformer. All one has to do to put the roof down or bring it back up again is press a button, and then 17 individual motors whirr and fold or unfold the several components into a little package which is deposited in the boot. Can you think of anything more cool than that? No, you cannot.

But people said to me when I was considering my purchase, “Gary, you are an idiot. It’s older than your youngest child, and she goes to Big Big School now. You’re counting on 17 individual motors to work? You don’t even have T-shirts that old and T-shirts don’t have moving parts.

“You will regret this, you total nincompoop. Buy a normal car, which will get you from A to B, and which will not cover you with water every time it rains and you brake suddenly.”

I pooh-poohed all of them. They were just being massive spoilsports.

I marched to the second-hand motors dealer and spent an amount of money I will never see again on this car. There’s a reason why they call the people who sell cars “dealers”, isn’t there? You don’t call a greengrocer a “melon dealer” or a butcher a “mince dealer”. But we do refer to arms dealers. And drug dealers.

And, for the first couple of months, all was more or less well. This is because I bought a convertible car in July. When the rainy season came, all was more or less unwell. The seals between the individual parts of the roof which keep out the rain did not.

I went on to the internet to try to find out why this was happening, as if I did not know why it was happening. Even so, there was an expensive oil I could buy which would lubricate the seals. And so, every few weeks, I would lubricate the seals, a job not even a zookeeper has to do.

It did nothing to help, and so, every time it rained for more than 38 seconds, water would fill a channel, waiting for the moment that I would brake, at which point a tide would empty over my trousers, and run down my seat, gathering in a pool in which I would sit.

And then I lost my job. Well, “lost” is a bit too much. What happened is that I intentionally mislaid my job in exchange for some money. But it meant that I had enough cash to have the seals replaced, just as soon as I got round to it…

It appears that I have a tremendous tolerance for mild liquid inconvenience. Besides, I discovered that if I took the roof down for a moment, the water would drain away. I got used to this solution.

So, after a morning of heavy rain, I went to my car and took down the roof. And when I put it back up, one of the 17 motors gave up the ghost. The sun roof refused to close, and the rain started again.

I drove six miles to my nearest VW dealership as the rain came down and asked them to please make brum brum good again. They would definitely be able to fix it. But they couldn’t do it for another six days. Luckily, the motor came back online, and I was able to close the sun roof.

I went back six days later. A mechanic who specialises in the Eos and its ways took a look at it. “Yeah,” he said. “We need to replace this seal.”

“Thought so,” I said, smugly.

“Thing is, if we replace that seal, we have to replace this one as well,” he continued. “Basically, we have to replace all the seals.”

“Oh,” I said, less smugly. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Also, they don’t make the seals anymore, so we’ll have to source them from somewhere.”

I did not like the sound of this. “H-how much do you think it would cost?”

The mechanic quoted me a figure that was roughly equal to the amount for which I had bought the car eight months before.

“We could do the work,” he said. “But it’s not worth the bother.”

I don’t go out to work anymore. I don’t really need a car, I thought. I’ll just test the promise made by webuyanycar.com to destruction.

I was given a quote which was nowhere near half the amount I paid for the car, but was enough to let me walk away with some dignity, and I made an appointment to take it in.

But it had been raining on the morning of the appointment. I went to my car to take it on our last drive. And, before I thought about it, I pressed the button to lower the roof and drain the channel. And when I pressed it again the sun roof refused to close.

So I drove in the rain to see the webuyanycar.com man. He noted the condition of the sun roof, and reduced the offer by three-quarters.

I walked away with a tiny fraction of the cash I had splurged on the car, and something even more horrible occurred to me – I had just experienced a Brexit metaphor.

I was fine taking the bus everywhere before. It wasn’t perfect, but at least I didn’t have to insure my bus, or pay road tax.

And when I decided I wanted the independence of a car, I didn’t go for something sensible, I went for a teenage boy’s ideal car.

And when my friends and family told me of the pitfalls of convertibles, I dismissed their warnings as Project Fear. They were talking down unnecessarily complicated midlife crises.

And then, when things went wrong, I blithely kept calm and carried on. There was nothing structurally wrong with it, after all. It still got me from A to B. All it needed was a bit of grease on the seals. And so what if I had to sit in a pool of water? Ducks do that all the time and they’re happy enough.

And, when I finally faced reality, having chucked away a load of money, the car was so utterly fucked that I walked away with little compensation and even less dignity.

And the German automotive industry failed to come to my rescue, because it turned out they could very easily do without my business.

Books, though

SO, a few weeks ago, I released the third volume of my columns, Massaging A Ghost. You’ve probably forgotten that I used to write a column. I rarely mentioned it.

It is totally still available from Amazon, by the way, if you want it. It’s in paperback and on Kindle because that’s what people like and I am a people pleaser. In theory. Technically, I am what they call an aspiring people pleaser.

Anyway, these columns went up to the beginning of 2006. But my column finished at the beginning of 2009. That means there were three years of columns still uncompiled. I don’t know about you, but I reckon that state of affairs simply cannot stand.

So I am delighted to present to you, the largely indifferent public, the fourth volume of my columns, Accidental Gravy.

An out-of-focus picture of a book

Just like its predecessor, it is available in paperback (£7.99) and on Kindle (£3.99). “Why is it so much more expensive in paperback, Gary?” I hear you ask.

“Well,” I reply, “printing things costs money, and putting things online costs less money, and that’s basically why they don’t print The Independent any more.”

Anyway, buy it. I don’t mind which format you use. It’s none of my business.

COLUMN: January 3, 2019

A jug with too much milk

IF anything epitomises my ability to self-sabotage, it is my love of a nice cup of tea.

First, you have to bear in mind that only about one in six cups of tea could possibly be called nice, because people’s taste in tea, far more than in coffee, is a subjective thing.

This is why I am not in the tea round in the office. I would find it an administrative nightmare if I were making the tea, and intolerable if I were receiving the tea.

There are charts, for instance, of ideal tea colour, which are fine as far as they go. But they don’t take into account the amount of milk that people like. You could ask for a 4B on the Tea Colour Scale, but that could be stronger in the brewing stage and more lavish in the milk addition stage than you like, yet still be the correct colour.

And every tea bag is different. Every kettle of water is different. Sometimes they react in subtle ways to each other, meaning you can have a transcendent cuppa, or you can have something that tastes like Katie Hopkins sounds.

The point is that I am drinking five cups of average-to-poor tea for every one satisfying cuppa, even if I am making it myself. If tea were a football manager it would be sacked before Christmas.

Second, tea makes me look like a loser when I am attempting to look like a sophisticated man about town.

You see, the sophisticated way to finish off a meal is a coffee. I have no idea how we came to decide that. Presumably somebody thought the best way to finish off a beautifully cooked, balanced, and seasoned meal would be to destroy the taste buds with the bitterest substance known to man.

Just because I refuse to abandon tea for this upstart, waiters give me that look when I ask for tea, the international symbol for “Technically, the customer is always right – I’ve been on a course – but I’m looking at you now and if I owned this joint, not only would you be barred, but I would see to it that no restaurant in this town would admit you in future. And I would set fire to your trousers.”

So they bring me a small pot of tepid tea, a jug with too much milk, and no biscuit, even though my companion, who is unaccountably drinking coffee like a traitor, gets one. And I drink it, because it’s one of the five-in-six and increases my chances of getting a good one next time.

Third, I work a hilariously stupid shift, from 1.30-10pm. It means I usually get home just before 11pm. In order to get enough time in the morning to do something practical, or merely enjoy the moments that I am not at work, I should really go to sleep around midnight.

But what I actually do is walk through my front door, and put the kettle on. Because I am programmed to wind down by having a cup of tea. I am northern. It is what we do.

And when I get to bed, just before midnight, that is the moment when the caffeine in the tea kicks in, along with all my brain’s synapses. A potentially sleepy person is transformed into Dynamo, The World’s Widest Awake Man.

This is when I wonder things like which brave soul first decided that you could eat blue cheese, why they invented parachutes before they invented aeroplanes, and if Top Cat would now live in a wheely bin.

It means I never get to sleep before 1.30am, which is why I’m tired all the time. Either the tea or the job has to go.

And it’s not going to be the tea, I’m afraid.

I have been writing this weekly column in some form since 2009, but all mediocre things must come to an end. I’d like to thank the people who have made it possible – especially Charles and Eddie, MD and Figgis, and Rihanna and the estate of the late Sir David Frost. And bus drivers.

I’d like to thank the people who supported my column, and those who are no longer with us, especially my mum, and my good friends Suzi Moore, and, heartbreakingly recently, Simon Ricketts.

And finally I’d like to thank all my readers, even the ones who write to me about Brexit. Please buy my books. I have a tea habit to maintain.  

COLUMN: December 27, 2018

The Bee Gees

I’M HAPPY to announce the first annual Gary Bainbridge Column Awards Of The Year For Things That Are A Bit Sub-par – the GBCAOTYFTTAABS, or Geebees, if you’re in a hurry. These, of course, are not to be confused with the Bee Gees. In fact, you would be a total idiot to get them mixed up.

The Geebee for Missing The Point goes to the people who the BBC keep finding on the streets of Britain who say, “I don’t understand why we can’t just get out”, when asked their views on Brexit. Simply put, if you don’t know why we can’t just do it, you shouldn’t have been allowed to vote for it. Or you’ve resigned as Brexit Secretary.

The Geebee for Being In The Right Place At The Right Time goes to the man who was in my lift last Tuesday, who stepped forward when we got to my floor, leaving me in no doubt that he was exiting, then stopped, blocking my path, and allowing the doors to close.

Special mention should go to the man who tried to blow up a cash machine near my home – I heard the explosion at 11.45pm and assumed it was a firework, which, frankly, is an argument for conscription.

This man did not realise that if you want to set off an explosive device, it is sensible to be as far away from the blast as possible, and was therefore witnessed absconding from the scene blackened and smouldering, like Wile E Coyote after the failure of a Road Runner/firework rocket scheme.

The Geebee for Supportive Opposition goes to the Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn MP. The Prime Minister’s greatest asset, he steps in ably whenever she is in trouble and yanks her out.

Mrs May is having the sort of bother with Brexit negotiations that would sink most leaders on the morning of Prime Minister’s Questions? Mr Corbyn will ask six questions about buses and libraries. There isn’t a ball rolling gently in front of an open goal that he won’t send ballooning over the crossbar and into Row Z.

The Geebee for Unsolicited Decoration goes to birds. This is probably not all birds. We can probably dismiss emus and penguins. This year, partly owing to my purchase of a car, I have been plagued by birds, and, specifically, their droppings. I was attacked, for instance, on my way to a swanky book launch.

But also there is a parking spot on my road which I had noticed was always clear, and I wondered why nobody ever parked there. Then, one night, I came home from work and the road was packed. So I parked in the spot.

Next morning, my car looked like Worthy Farm after the Glastonbury Festival. I assumed it was just one of those things and took my car to be washed.

But the next time – the number two time, you might say – I parked in the spot it happened again. The spot is underneath a tree, yes, but there are many trees in my road. I can only assume that this tree is the lav-a-tree.

The Geebee for Dawdling goes to the two mums who brought their sons to my barber when there was only one barber on and when I was in a hurry. Both of these mothers kept getting the barber to do a bit more.

The gall! I have only once in my life asked the barber to do a bit more after being shown the back of my head and even that turned out badly. These women did it three times each and they didn’t even look embarrassed.

Even worse, the barber had Basic FM on his radio, which made the wait feel even longer, and they played the Take That cover of How Deep Is Your Love? instead of the Geebees version. Imagine having access to all the records in the world and playing that version instead of the original.

Other winners of Geebees this year include people who think Jacob Rees-Mogg is clever because he’s got glasses and he’s got an O Level in Latin, people who use the term “umami” without thinking of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, busking accordion players who only know one song, slow walkers who stop suddenly, dog owners who say, “Oh, he’s only being friendly”, waiters who call your party “guys”, and long-running newspaper columnists who don’t know when to call it quits.

Must do something about that. Maybe next year.