Published 23 June 1996 Style Magazine 155th article
Eurostar performers: Michael Winner and Vanessa Perry with, from left to right, 'the professional
and lovely' Catherine Feeney, Christel Aerts and Valerie Derrier
I had to lunch with some Canadian film people in Paris, so I decided to take the Eurostar train. Door-to-door from my house, it would probably be an hour longer than flying, but it might be an adventure. It started ordinarily. Poorly signposted, but we found the train: rather unexciting, I thought. We were a party of three, and we'd been put in a smoking compartment. As a reformed smoker, I can't bear the smell of smoke, so my Mr Fraser had got on to Ms Deborah Aspin, the head of public relations for Eurostar Passenger Services, writing a very nice letter asking if we could be put in a non-smoking carriage, and might someone meet me with publicity material about the train. It used to be that the idiot of the family went into the army or the church. Now, they go into PR. Ms Aspin, far too important to deal with such matters, had her secretary, Ms Carless, tell us in no uncertain terms and more than once that the train was full, even the VIP seats were taken, so we could not possibly be moved to a non-smoking compartment.
It was no surprise to me that not only was the train not full, it was fairly empty. My smoking carriage had about six people in it, only a tiny amount of the seats filled and, as I wandered through the non-smoking carriages, I saw seat after seat empty and at least four places we could all easily have moved to. To this day, I have never received any publicity material about Eurostar. I think Mr Richard Edgeley, the managing director, could start a clean sweep by firing his entire non-publicity department.
But back to the choo-choo-puff. After a few tinny and inaudible announcements, we crawled off through the English countryside so slowly I could count the sheep in the fields before I nodded off. The food was totally beyond human belief. It made British Airways look like Nico Ladenis (my favourite of the three-star British cooks). The croissant was cold and rubbery, there were harmless cornflakes in a plastic container, the cutlery was a new low, and I nicked a fork to remind myself of this again. Actually, the "hostess" said I could take it. Then I tried a rubbery chocolate brioche thing, followed by what the menu called a "traditional hot breakfast (scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, hash brown, button mushrooms and tomato)".
When I say unbelievable, I mean unbelievable! I cannot remember anything worse ever being placed before me in my entire life. Tasteless, horrid, strange texture, a mad knife murderer disguised as food. On the plus side, the three girls serving were exemplary. Mr Edgeley should promote them all. They're far too good to be in his PR department, but he should find them something. They were elegant, charming, professional and lovely. Catherine Feeney was "the big boss", said her colleague Christel Aerts. The third girl was Valerie Derrier. Another pretty girl with a badge turned up, but not in uniform. She was Tania Jensen, who was doing a survey about the service received in Eurostar first class. "One of the guys thought his rabbit was tough for lunch," she told me. If breakfast is anything to go by, I'm surprised anyone who ate it had not jumped overboard.
But we would whiz into central Paris, what the hell! Just a mo', the train has stopped! In a field! It crept forward and stopped again. Passengers started walking, humping their luggage, through my carriage toward the front. "Bet we're going to stop at a small station that's shorter than the train," I guessed, brilliantly. Another tinny announcement and we pulled, much later, into St Denis, where we were assured that, on platform two, another train awaited us. Japanese people stood looking at their vast amounts of luggage piled in a freight carriage. We massed, close together, on platform two. Rather like prisoners being herded off to Stalag 17. But at least in Germany, the trains arrived. We waited. Eventually, a double-decker commuter train appeared and we crushed in. The doors closed, and we watched as Japanese ran up the stairs to the platform clutching enormous suitcases, to be ordered to wait by a French railway chap. Thus we crawled in to some far-flung part of the Gare du Nord.
I had a wonderful lunch at Tour d'Argent, but was confused by their "duck number" card. Mine was 845,718, since 1890. But I only had part of a duck. Did the people who got the other parts get the same number?
"There are strikers on the tracks at the Gare du Nord," I was told. "No trains can leave." Clever people the French. They couldn't bear to let me go.
Complaints of poor service and disgusting food are so commonplace as hardly to warrant the time taken to write of them. What nobody notices is the sheer ineptitude of hoteliers in England, and their look of utter incomprehension when you have the temerity to point out their shortcomings. Last Christmas, I reserved accommodation for my wife and myself, plus tables for the Christmas celebrations, at the Waldorf hotel in London, then asked for confirmation. "Ah. So sorry. We are not permitted to write to overseas customers unless they send an SAE." What? We returned home to Malta a week later to find I had left my wallet, with credit cards, in the room. "No problem," said the manager. "We have found it and will send it to you, if you send us £5 to cover postage." "But I have spent more than £20,000 with Forte this year. I've just paid you almost £2,000 for our week's stay. All my credit cards and driving licence are in that wallet." "So sorry, sir. Company policy, you understand. Do ring again when you have the postage. Goodbye."
Kingsley Fielding, Malta
I do so enjoy reading Michael Winner's section. I can see this keeps him extremely busy, but for a real treat he should give the Violets and Creme a try. This quality bistro is located at the top end of Henley-on-Thames, next to the town hall. What superb coffee. And the food is yummy and healthy.
Jacqueline Fuller, Reading
Can Michael Winner really have totally overlooked Gilbey's most enticing feature the wine (June 9)? The very extensive wine list is a result of the fact that Gilbey's imports its own wines from France and can therefore sell them at shop prices, providing exceptional drinking value. To miss such a feature as this implies that his usually hawk-like scrutiny was definitely on the blink on this occasion.
Lucie Messenger and Kevin Cruickshank, Beaconsfield and Maidenhead