Wednesday 8 June 2005

Mourning a master of his craft

These days chefs seem to have become our new aristocracy. Where else would you turn if you wanted someone to sort out school meals, host a reality TV show or front a big-budget regional advertising campaign?

Well, I’d like to put in a word for an altogether humbler breed: the publican. Last week my favourite landlord sadly died, and I feel a sense of loss far greater than anything I would experience if Jamie Oliver were to slip beneath one of those huge Sainsbury’s delivery lorries.

Ray Matthewman, if he had been Japanese, would assuredly have been declared a Living National Treasure. As well as being about a foot shorter than he actually was.

True, he had the good fortune to be married to a brilliant and award-winning chef, Marion. Their pub, the Warenford Lodge near Belford, served the best pub food in the county.

But it wasn’t just the certainty of an outstanding meal that drew me back again and again to this inconspicuous and perhaps rather unprepossessing inn. It was the chance to commune with Ray – a man who brought to the role of publican a glorious mix of lugubriousness and occasional misanthropy.

I always introduced him to visiting friends as the most miserable pub landlord in Britain, and he never demurred. Certainly no matter how bad things might seem in one’s own life, Ray was always suffering something worse.

Over the years he survived a variety of horrible illnesses against all the odds. Such as the time he was at death’s door with blood poisoning caused by being scratched by his cat, which he had presciently named Claude.

Throughout his woes, he was warned by his doctors that the first and second things he must do were give up drinking and smoking. His total disregard for this advice can only be termed heroic.

Tales of his distinctive approach to customers abounded. Ask for more detail about the food, and he would fix you with a beady eye and read out whatever was printed on the menu. Very slowly.

Once a couple enquired whether the bill of fare displayed on the bar was the bar food menu, only to receive the reply: ‘What’s it look like? A ****ing bus timetable?’

Another gent, on paying his bill at the end of the evening, offered a few suggestions on how Ray could improve the ambience of the place with tablecloths, candles and background music.

‘Well, we won’t be doing any of that, then,’ he said firmly. ‘People like you might start coming back.’

He probably did come back anyway. Because what more can anyone ask from life than a superb meal, a little too much to drink (except, of course, when driving) and a chance to be cheered or insulted by a true master of his craft?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant and pub-goer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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