Restaurant critic Jay Rayner talks to Rebecca Wallersteiner about his re-published novel The Apologist – and why he’s never had the urge to say sorry for writing a bad review.
When I arrive at the bar of The Ivy Club, in Covent Garden, to interview the writer Jay Rayner it is easy to spot him.
Surrounded by other media stars, he looks just like his headshot in The Observer, for which he writes a popular restaurant column.
Tall, charismatic and generously-built, Rayner wears a brightly-coloured shirt, which suits his flamboyant personality. It strikes me that he is slimmer than his deprecatory self-descriptions lead one to expect.
As well as his newspaper work, Rayner is also a popular presenter for Radio 4 and BBC 1 and is the author of eight books. He has recently been nominated Critic of the Year in the British Press Awards.
In September Rayner’s darkly humorous cult novel, The Apologist, was published in e-Book format for the first time.
Why is he re-publishing now, I ask him.
“When I first published The Apologist it managed to be ahead of its time and predict a whole political movement,” he answers.
A decade on, the novel, which satirises the crocodile tears of international politics, is now more topical than ever. “For politicians, the past 10 years have been the sorriest decade; Tony Blair said sorry for slavery, Gordon Brown apologised for the treatment of code-breaker Alan Turing; Barack Obama asked forgiveness for the treatment of Guatemalan prisoners and David Cameron apologised for almost everything,” says Rayner.
A highly humorous blend of foodie satire and political romp, the novel follows the adventures of restaurant critic Marc Basset, who has never said sorry to anyone, until a chef to whom he gave a damning review roasts himself to death, with the review stuck on the oven door.
“Wracked with guilt, Basset apologises to the man’s widow and discovers he enjoys the experience so much that he decides to apologise for everything he’s ever done wrong,” says Rayner.
An entertaining, philosophical satire with a lively plot and believable characters, The Apologist perfectly captures the zeitgeist – as flurries of politicians’ crocodile tears threaten to drown us all.
Thanks to the encouragement of his famous mother, the late Claire Rayner, he has always had an interest in food and politics.
Apart from being an agony aunt, writer and broadcaster, it is less well known that Claire was also an adventurous chef.
Rayner has vividly written about how he ordered escargots on his own at a hotel at the age of 11, having temporarily absconded on a school skiing trip.
Does he like Jewish food?
“I have a long and abiding relationship with the salt beef sandwich and my mother made a mean chopped liver, gefilte fish and chicken soup,” he answers.
There was always matzah in the house, not just at Passover. “We ate bagels and garlicky new green pickled cucumbers, which she sometimes made herself.”
A generous and kind soul, Claire not only nurtured Rayner’ interest in food, but also his writing. I knew her when I worked at The Times and never failed to be impressed by both her integrity and her courage.
Rayner’s father, Des, an exhibited artist, also acted as Claire’s manager. Unlike his son, Des was not interested in the ‘variety of the table,’ preferring simpler foods.
“My father never lost his taste for a good salt beef sandwich. Though he was in no way religious, it linked him to a kind of Jewish community now all but lost,” remarks Rayner.
So what are his own religious beliefs?
He pauses, then answers emphatically; “Although my mother wasn’t religious, she was a humanist and so am I. As a cultural Jew, I know what my identity is and have never indulged massively in psychoanalysis. My father was an only child and I never met my grandparents, so this made me ambivalent about extended family.
“Families are harder to report than wars as you have fewer witnesses and the stories are unreliable.”
What did he have for lunch?
I start to feel hungry as Rayner describes the succulent seasonal grouse he has enjoyed at a game lunch earlier in the day, up in the Boardroom of Fortnum’s, with Terry Wogan, Guy Ritchie and the US Ambassador as fellow guests.
He apologises to me for name-dropping and admits that he can’t resist. With so many culinary temptations on offer how does he manage to keep in shape? “
As I am greedy, the way to keep myself from an early grave is to exercise. I go the gym three to five times a week,” he answers with a smile.
Has he ever said sorry for giving a bad restaurant review? Rayner replies, without hesitation; “I don’t make a habit of apologising for my reviews and haven’t had a cause to do so. My job is to sell newspapers and write as interesting copy as I can.”