I want to pause here for a while to introduce you to Suzy.
She and I have been married on and off for 55 years. We met at a friend’s
party. But she was with another bloke so I didn’t get to talk to her much. We
met again at the same friend’s house and began to see more of each other.
Both her parents were stage folk and Suzy was an actress. She had very little
interest in serious music, preferring easy listening.
This was familiar ground to me as my mother often professed to like
serious music but secretly preferred the same sort of easy listening, except for
one thing – she adored Richard Tauber. Suzy hated him.
At the time we met, Suzy was 21. Very pretty, with natural blonde hair,
huge green eyes and a lovely figure that she never seemed aware of, which
was so refreshing. She loved to laugh and was easy to entertain, as she still is.
And she has never developed expensive tastes.
Being half Scottish, I suppose she would think of herself as
straightforward with only a slight deviousness. In fact, she is perfectly
lovable. Not only very good in the role of mother, but lately as grandmother
too. We are all very proud of her and I can’t believe my luck that she’s my
Work began to fall off by September 1956, so, with a blithe unawareness
of bad timing, Suzy and I got married, with Aubrey Johnson as my best man.
My father, who had a strange sense of humour that rarely showed itself,
leant forward from the pew behind me and whispered, just as my lovely bride
was entering the church on her father’s arm, “Of course you realise, it’s not
too late to change your mind”.
The day before the wedding, the vicar who married us took us all – bride,
groom and two sets of parents – into his office and delivered a lecture on the
subject of the permanence of marriage to which we all solemnly murmured
agreement. At the time, my parents had been living apart for years and Suzy’s
parents were both on their second marriages. The reverend himself
subsequently hit the papers with a fling with his secretary.
When Suzy found a job in one of the big London hotels, I began to think
about a second career. I had been taught to cook by my mother, who was
brilliant and had her own restaurant, El Patio in Rupert Street. I began to find
work as a cook, mainly in the coffee bars that were springing up all over.
Peter Marriot, a friend, got me some valuable work in the kitchens of
L’Ecu de France in Jermyn Street, then later opened his own restaurant in the
Earls Court Road with me as a sous chef, rising later to head chef. The
venture did not last, but one day Edward Smith walked in and we got talking.
Burly and rather shy, Edward was one of the most delightful people I have
ever known and we soon became friends. “Bear”, as he was always known,
was opening a coffee-bar-cum-restaurant in the vicinity and wondered if I
would care to join the venture as chef. In those days you could do things like
that; everything was so much simpler; nowadays you need permits and health
checks, and safety regulations at every turn.
His place, Le Grisbi, became our permanent address for the next five
years, gathering around us more friends than we had ever had, but also having
so much fun.
There was a wonderful atmosphere surrounding these cheap and cheerful
places, patronised by young people, and run by them too, in that amateurish
way so dear to the English. These coffee bars were the start of a youth
movement that grew into the pop culture of the 60s.
Suzy came to join me and added glamour to the staff of pretty girl
waitresses serving typical coffee-bar food – a touch of French, a touch of
Italian, and all cheap.
One day Suzy came down to the kitchen laughing, “There’s an American
upstairs asking if we do spaghetti sandwiches. What do I say?”
I went up with her and spoke to these guests. I said that we didn’t serve
spaghetti sandwiches but, as a special service, I would make them, provided I
could watch them eat them.
It didn’t go down very well.
“What are you, some kind of wise guy?” he yelled, “come on dear, lets get
out of here.”
So I never saw someone eat a spaghetti sandwich. Is it even possible?
Suzy and I lived in a large flat above the restaurant where I had a studio.
When I graduated to being restaurant manager, we hired Anna, a fiery Italian
chef who made wonderful hamburgers (or “hamburgesas”, as she called
them). I was required to work only in the evenings from 6.30pm until we
closed at 1am, so I was able to continue composing and after a time had about
60 pieces published.
Much of this was recorded background music, made for music libraries, at
that time a new field. Music had become popular as background music in
hotel foyers and railway stations and other large public areas. Originally,
popular songs were used under licence from the publishers. Then new music
libraries were set up by entrepreneurs who realised there was money to be
made from this market. They started commissioning orchestral mood music
from composers, initially for background music, but then started branching
out, providing music for wider uses such as low budget movies and TV films
and documentaries, all of them needing a cheap source of music. The
composers, myself included, had to provide music to cover any eventuality
from earthquakes to new discoveries in the growing of wheat.
This music was recorded cheaply, usually abroad in Eastern Europe, and
added to the library. The client told the library what his film was about and
was given a tape or disc of several pieces to choose from that might be
suitable. He would pay a fee and a small royalty, which was split between the
library and the composer.
It proved so successful for me that I still get royalties from these early
After five years running The Grisbi, both Bear and I felt we had too many
other interests for us to continue running our “caff”. Bear had been in the
book trade and had continued part time, but he now wanted to start his own
One day he was standing outside the restaurant enjoying a fag when he
was hit by a flying hundredweight of potatoes from a passing lorry. His leg
was severely broken, which meant hospital and recuperation. We decided to
sell the Grisbi and go our separate ways.
We never lost contact and remained the best of friends, often going on
holidays together, to France, and later to Spain before it became the popular
tourist destination it has now become.
Once, we stayed at La Sicania, a beach side hotel in the as yet
undiscovered village of Cullera, south of Valencia. Arriving in the late
afternoon, we changed into swimwear and filed one behind the other into a
calm sea as warm as bathwater, the setting sun straight ahead turning the sea
to fire. Another idyll I shall never forget.
Bear and I remained best friends until his sudden and shockingly early
death at just 47 years old.