A Cautionary Tale for All Restaurant Reviewers

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The Apologist By (author) Jay RaynerI enjoy restaurant reviews – both writing them and reading them. However with the same sort of fascination that drew crowds to public hangings and floggings for many centuries, I’d have to admit that I like a review that gives a place a really tough savaging. I don’t necessarily believe all I read, but there’s something to be said for a strong opinion. So when I came across Jay Rayner’s book ‘The Apologist‘ I was hooked before I was half way through the first paragraph of cover ‘blurb’.

From Savage to Penitent

Rayner’s protagonist Marc Basset is a savage restaurant critic of the type that seems common in most major newspapers. In the age of the celebrity chef there’s a good trade in celebrity critics and Basset is one such critic. This is the man who described one meal as likely to “taste better coming back up than it did going down” and the staff of a fish restaurant where everyone wore waders and cagoules as “dressed for an exceptionally safe sex party”. After dipping his pen (or keyboard) in a touch more vitriol than normal, he cranks out an excoriating review of a top restaurant only to find that the restaurateur has taken his criticism rather too personally and has climbed into his own oven and roasted himself with a copy of Basset’s review taped to the over door. There’s not too much risk of misinterpreting such a gesture.

Basset is forced to examine himself and his writing and realises that he’s really not a very nice person and never has been. Even to the people he loves, he can be a bit of a bastard. Writing about one bad restaurant he proclaims that if he wanted food that bad he could stay at home and let his girlfriend cook for him. We’d be right in thinking this guy doesn’t deserve a girlfriend at all, let alone one who’d cook for him.

Facing up to his own snobby nastiness Basset decides it’s time to do the honourable thing and heads off to the restaurant to apologise to the chef’s wife. When it all goes much better than could have been expected, he discovers that ‘sorry’ really is a powerful word. The wife feels better (cue the mother introducing Basset to her small child who recognises the name and asks “Mummy, what’s a wanker?”) and less angry at him and makes him feel like less of a rotter. After years of being hooked on food and venomous criticism, Basset has found a new and dangerous addiction – repentance.

Not since Earl Hickey of Channel 4’s series ‘My Name is Earl’ set out to apologise and make amends to hundreds of people he’d lied to, stolen from or otherwise abused, has a fictional character taken such delight in wallowing in his past sins and asking for forgiveness. Basset is soon buzzing around apologising to all and sundry for all manner of misdemeanours. There’s the fat girl he kissed and fondled, the best friend from college days whom he set up to walk in on his girlfriend with another man, the colleague he made sick with bad fish in order to steal his job and many more victims. Basset’s eager to make amends to them all. He also vows to only write reviews that emphasise the good in the restaurants he visits which inevitably leads him to lose his job.

Just when it seems that Basset has blown his life and his career in pursuit of apology, he hits the big time with an apology to the girl who unburdened him of his student virginity. She insists on filming him and within a day or two his apology has spread around the world through internet film-sharing sites. Rather than turning him into a global laughing stock, the video leads to him getting a lucrative job at the United Nations as the Chief Apologist in the UNOAR – United Nations Office of Apology and Reconciliation. At a time when the world has lots to be sorry about the UN has adopted the teachings of a Professor Schenke who ironically and unapologetically stole his theory of ‘Penitential Engagement’ from a graduate student. In short Schenke’s theory says that a good apology reduces the cost of compensation and so makes excellent economic sense. All of a sudden, saying sorry is the dish of the day.

Basset’s perfect for the job. He oozes empathy and has a conveniently complex family history that sets him up to apologise for everything from the slave trade to aborigine persecution on his mother’s side and hoarding Nazi funds on his (Swiss) father’s side. If only he’d not boycotted South African apples when he was a student (and so become part of ‘the struggle’) he could have apologised for Apartheid too. Soon he’s buzzing around the world as the highest paid apologist in the business.

So is it any good?

Actually it’s not bad at all. The plot is cheesier than the cheese board at a top cheese restaurant and the believability factor ranges all the way from ‘no way’ across to ‘come off it’ but in spite of that it’s really very amusing. It would make a very good film that would probably sell very well. Basset is so full of self-loathing and repentance that you can just about forgive all the wallowing in childhood ‘issues’. Rayner paints us a picture of a thoroughly unpleasant man and then chips away at our revulsion until we’re all starting to root for Basset as some kind of avenging angel of the repentance movement. Whilst we can all see that sooner or later something just has to go badly wrong and the wheels have to fall off the apology bandwagon, it’s like watching a car crash that you know you can’t prevent – and seeing it in slow motion. One voice in your head is crying out “No Marc Basset, put down your drink and step away from the horny blonde waitresses” whilst the other voice is whispering “What the heck, do what you like and just say sorry afterwards”.

In the real world Jay Rayner is a restaurant critic so the ‘foodie’ sections of the book are predictably well written and unctuous in their descriptions of dishes and flavour combinations. An epilogue tells us that many of the dishes are real and tells us where he ate them and he seems to be at his happiest when writing about chocolate in all its forms and varieties. I have worked with chocolate and I personally just don’t find it very exciting but Rayner paints orgasmic descriptions of cocoa contents and the balance of flavours that will appeal to many. In places I’d have to say that he does go on a bit and at 434 pages long it could benefit from a bit of judicious editing. However on balance he’s not got too much to apologise for.

The Apologist was published in 2004 and was probably just a bit ahead of itself. If I’d read it then I’m sure my thoughts would have been on some of the big international apologies of the time – the Truth and Reconciliation hearings of South Africa and the old Pope finally saying “Oops, sorry for not doing anything to stop the Holocaust” both spring to mind. I remember Tony Blair attempting to ‘apologise’ for the slave trade and just looking a bit stupid because it was hard to see how he could really take personal responsibility for something of that type. But in today’s economic turmoil I think this book is even more thought-provoking than when it first hit the shelves. How often have you listened to a politician or a businessman squirming in a TV or radio interview as he or she tries desperately to give the impression of being sorry without actually saying so and most definitely without taking any legally-binding responsibility? The Apologist is probably more fitting now than it was six years ago. That’s not something that happens very often.
The day I finished reading this I was late leaving for work because I’d stayed in bed a bit too long polishing off the final chapters of The Apologist. As I drove along the M56 John Humphreys was interrogating Jackie Smith about her second home allowances and her husband’s mucky-movie-misdemeanour (this was a few months ago!) “But I’ve apologised, I’ve said I’m sorry and I’ve paid back the money” she pleaded. But the problem was she just didn’t sound like she meant it. It seems that “Sorry” is a very easy thing to say but repentance is very hard to fake. Maybe someone should send her a copy of Rayner’s book – or send her on a ‘Penitential Engagement’ training course


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Apologist (The)
by Jay Rayner

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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