‘I have such respect for their bravery’
‘I have such respect for their bravery’
Michael Hockney, the founder of the Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch, talks to Michael Murray-fennell
He never talked about it,’ Michael Hockney says of his father’s experience serving in the army during the Second World War, ‘but I do know that he saw some harrowing things towards the end when the Allies were breaking through and going into the prisoner-of-war camps.’
Instead, it was his time working as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence during the 1990s that first opened Mr Hockney’s eyes to the army and, in particular, the difficulties faced by some soldiers on their return to civilian life. Their plight prompted him to accept an invitation to join ABF The Soldiers’ Charity (originally the Army Benevolent Fund, founded in 1944) as a trustee. A few years later, he founded the annual Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch, which, next month, will be filling Guildhall in London for the 10th time as it raises money for the charity.
Curries are a staple of army messes and part of the Big Curry Lunch’s appeal is the informal, democratic aspect. ‘everyone sits at long tables on benches,’ explains Mr Hockney, ‘and there’s no seating plan—you could find yourself sitting opposite the Secretary of State for Defence or the Bishop of London.’ So far, the event has generated £1.55 million and both the Lord Mayor and Mr Hockney would love to see this year’s lunch take that total to £2 million.
This year, the focus is on those soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Hockney is keen to stress that, for the vast majority of the soldiers who leave the army, there are no issues; if anything, their time in uniform gives them an advantage. ‘They’re fit, they’re welldisciplined, they’re used to working under pressure. A lot of them have learnt amazing skills.’
Some, however, do face difficulties, both physical and mental. ‘Nobody who approaches the charity with a genuine need is
Agoing to be disadvantaged by a lack of funding,’ confirms Mr Hockney. Assistance could be ‘a small number of pounds to possibly helping an individual for the rest of their life. I personally can’t imagine the intensity of some of those conflicts in Afghanistan. I have such respect for their bravery and commitment’. number of the beneficiaries attend the lunch. ‘It can range from someone who has lost a limb or who has been seriously burnt in a conflict to someone whom the charity has helped with further education. You can see that there’s an inner strength to these people that’s helping them get through these difficulties.’
One of the aims is to raise awareness among the City’s younger generations of the role of the armed forces. Mr Hockney, whose distinguished career in advertising and management consultancy has been founded on a bedrock of qualitative research and statistical analysis, sees the issue as one of numbers. ‘Statistically, 30 years ago, virtually everyone in the country would have someone in the family who had been in the armed forces because of the Second World War. As we come to the end of that generation, the proportion of people with such a connection has reduced and there is a risk among the younger age groups of forgetting the soldier.’
He continues: ‘There has been huge coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and that keeps the army in people’s minds, but often they think of it from a political dimension. One of the things we are very keen to do is to remind everybody of the individual soldiers and the contribution and sacrifice they’ve made.’
Mr Hockney stresses that the City has been ‘absolutely amazing’. He highlights the support of the Corporation and Livery Companies, including his own, the Worshipful Company of Musicians, which regularly gives awards to young military musicians.
Music is one of Mr Hockney’s passions. He was deputy chairman of the english Chamber Orchestra and Music Society and classical music fills the rooms of his Twickenham home. A 1960s copy of an Italian virginal sits in one corner. ‘Same action as a harpsichord,’ he confides, ‘the plectrum plucks the string and then draws back.’
When not in the capital, he and his wife, elizabeth, are in Dorset, where he plays the organ in their local church. He was first introduced to the instrument while growing up in Liverpool and hearing it in Giles Gilbert Scott’s vast cathedral. The organist at his parents’ church taught him ‘the really important things— how to accompany hymns and psalms, how to improvise and how to do all that in a way that fits the service. He taught me the organist isn’t a showman.’ One can’t help but think it’s a lesson he has applied to other areas of his life, not least his unobtrusive but capable contribution to several charities.
Wine is another passion. While restoring their London home, he discovered the original 1635 brickwork behind the modern breeze blocks in the cellar. Out came the blocks, in went his collection of wine, previously languishing in storage. Some of the finest bottles feature in the intimate fundraising dinners for various causes that he and his wife host at home.
Which wine would he recommend with a curry? Apparently, it’s a topic of some debate among connoisseurs. ‘There are those who say you need a really beefy red wine to go with curry,’ he advises, ‘but there are others who say a softer wine. The first group might say a Shiraz, the second a Merlot.’
For his part, Mr Hockney recommends dry Rieslings with spicy foods (‘there are some very good ones from New Zealand as well as Germany’), but, with a curry, he prefers to drink beer, Cobra to be precise.
Whatever one’s preference— wine or beer—he reassures readers that there will be an unlimited supply of both at the Lord Mayor’s Big Curry Lunch. Michael Murray-fennell
‘I can’t imagine the intensity of some of those conflicts in Afghanistan