Other people’s newspapers are always so much more interesting than one’s own; don’t you agree? There I was in an Italian pasta joint at the top end of Islington just before Christmas, the day after the Battle of Mandelson’s Mortgage broke out. I had just passed Clive Anderson walking his dog. Naturally, I had bought a copy of The Guardian to see what the smug Left had to say on the matter (Mandy’s mortgage, not Anderson’s dog). But the man at the next table had The Sun, and that was far more illuminating.
It all came down to the front-page pictures. The Guardian – which had broken this story – could only manage a shot of a strained Mandy getting into his car. The Sun, however, had an image of the persecuted spin-doctor in happier times: at ease in his Eames recliner, in his Seth Stein interior, surrounded by ministerial red boxes.
That picture said everything. Mandelson’s stylishly minimalist surroundings and Eames chair expressed the ambitions of the cultured politico finally indulging himself, having achieved power. And the red boxes indicated that he now had a Government department to lead – power with responsibility, at last. And then some hacks came along and spoiled the dream by asking questions about how exactly he had paid for it, and whom he had thought to inform about the loan – so out of Government he went. To be laid low by your taste in interior design – life is so unfair, sometimes.
I gave up on The Guardian, which that day was patting itself on the back even more heartily than usual. I stopped thinking about politics, too, which was even easier. Instead, I pondered the aesthetic implications of the Sun picture. Minutes before, I had been faced with the choice of two restaurants, either side of the same road. One was a recently opened world-cuisine kind of place, frightfully tasteful in the minimalist manner. There, you would not be at all surprised to find the black-rimmed rectangular spectacles of New Labour’s cultural stormtroopers gathered convivially round a bottle of mineral water, served by wannabe actresses/models.
On the other side of the road was the aforementioned Italian pasta joint. Been there for ever, decor unchanged since – who knows? Ten years? Thirty years? Full of gorblimey bottle blondes with their thick-necked menfolk, plus a few students. Fifty per cent of the clientele are probably on income support, another 10 per cent on rapidly vanishing grants. You are served by broad-beamed Neapolitan peasants.
Well, you know which one I chose. There are times when only the womb-like, pasta-lined interior of a wholly unself-conscious Italian restaurant will do. It was a cold, rainy day, but I splashed across the traffic-choked road to get to it. I appreciate, in a quiet way, all the kitsch touches like the candles in Chianti bottles, appalling sentimental murals of Italian landscapes, the artfully crude plasterwork, the swags of fishing nets with those glass-ball floats. Though, to be honest, you seldom find all these together any more, and my chosen lunch place was a bit short on some of them. But although the kitsch, cheap Italian eatery of beloved memory is becoming less common, it will, I hope, never die.
Mandelson and his friends would not be seen dead in such a place, I reflected. They must still think that an Eames recliner is the epitome of cool, but there’s hope for them: the recliner with its puffy black leather cushions is by far the most vulgar of all the wonderful chairs that the Eames office produced over the years. And minimalism, of course, is very much last year’s thing. The Eameses’ own lifestyle was never minimalist, but all about comfort and clutter.
I found myself recently in a public discussion with architect Sean Griffiths of Fashion, Architecture, Taste. Presumably, we were meant to represent opposing views, but we ended up agreeing on most things. Sean was asked what he thought about Ikea, the ubiquitous Swedish furniture store. He replied that he had hated Ikea ever since it started using the advertising slogan “chuck out your chintz”. He went on gleefully to forecast a revival of 1980s-style tacky Post-Modernism, complete with pink granite trimmings. Now I’m not sure I’d go that far, but he’s right in one sense at least: the fashion for the minimalist interior is as dead as Mandelson’s ministerial ambitions. Which means, presumably, it in turn will be revived in a year or so.
It was a good lunch: with a glass of very rough house red and various side-orders, it came to exactly 10. If and when the recession bites hard in Clive Anderson land, I think I know which restaurant – and which decor – is going to survive the shake-out. And I find this knowledge curiously cheering.