Still lazy after all these years Rowley Leigh
Rowley Leigh is a terrible sloth. He chose an arduous life as a chef and restaurateur because it’s the only job that forced him to work hard
When I was eight, I spent two terms at a preparatory school in the suburbs of Belfast. Three times a week, we were given ten words and expected to learn how to spell them. On the following day, we were interrogated. Having the sort of brain that found this very easy, I merely had to glance at the list and would have no trouble reiterating the spelling the next day.
Others were less fortunate. Each failure meant a smack of the ruler across the open palm the next morning. I remember a tall, red-headed girl called Sally who simply could not spell – the concept of dyslexia was unknown in 1958. However hard she struggled to remember the order of letters in ‘sequence’ or how many ‘c’s appear in ‘accommodate’, she was humiliated in this fashion on every day in the catechism.
My facility was the enemy of diligence. Throughout my schooling, I managed to be close to bottom in every class when it came to term work but close to top in exams when industry became less relevant.
I did very well in those subjects in which I had an interest and poorly in anything else. The Latin-loving editor of this magazine will be shocked to hear that at O level I (just) failed Latin with a grade 7. I retook the exam, motivated by a desire to go to Oxford, where Latin was required if you wanted to read English. I got a grade 8. I retook it again, but by that time my indolence and a competing desire to go to Cambridge rewarded me with a grade 9.
My indolence finally caught up with me at Cambridge. I survived two years, largely because my charming and kind Director of Studies was as lazy as I was. I would leave a note in his pigeonhole, apologising for my essay’s being unfinished, and he seemed perfectly happy to postpone. The result was that I wrote three essays in two years, and
attended just two lectures and very few tutorials.
It was not that I lacked intellectual curiosity. Even if Cambridge English was a fairly joyless experience in the late 1960s, I pursued other interests. I was not so interested in Mallory’s Morte d’arthur, the metaphysical poets or Milton. But I filled my head with the concepts of French structuralism and read Hegel, Marx and Freud. I read Althusser and Lacan and dabbled in student politics of the most anarchic variety.
I became adept at doing very little. The result was that I crashed out of the university with a ‘special’, a pass mark so ignominious that I could never have put BA Hons after my name.
I stayed in Cambridge and pretended to write a novel but in fact merely
continued to gain prowess at table football, went to race meetings at Newmarket and antagonised the local constabulary with minor offences for drug possession.
I joined my parents on their newly acquired farm in East Sussex. There were elements of rural life that appealed to me. I grew my own vegetables and began to cook on the old Rayburn stove in our cottage. I enjoyed tractor-driving, especially those simple tasks involving circumnavigating a field while the mind would wander far away.
In the end, the drudgery of farm work – the early rising to feed the cattle, the humping of bags of fertiliser and cattle feed and the endless tinkering with faulty machinery – lost its attraction. I set off for London.
‘The sense of urgency in any professional kitchen kept my indolence at bay’
My first two years in the capital saw me perfect the art of the afternoon man. While I played at writing a novel and had a couple of forays into journalism, I was in fact a low-life Bertie Wooster.
Arising mid-morning, after a perusal of the Sporting Life over coffee I would progress to a greasy-spoon café for a hearty breakfast around lunchtime. I would spend the afternoon in the Temperance snooker club before taking alcoholic libation in the pub across the road and then progressing to the tawdry pleasures of the night. This state-sponsored life of indolence was arrested rather promptly when I was struck off the dole. I had to get a job.
The job I chose was that of a grill chef in a new restaurant that was opening in Covent Garden. I had previously applied for a job as an inspector with Egon Ronay, a position I thought both commensurate with my talents and appropriate for a man of leisure.
While they were sympathetic to my cause, my ignorance of gastronomy was sufficiently palpable that I was rejected with the suggestion that I spend a bit of time in the industry and perhaps reapply at a later date. That date has still not come.
The Rock Garden – now the site of the Apple store on Regent Street – was not a gastronomic temple. The menu was the usual mix of hamburgers, chilli con carne, club sandwiches and a few unspeakable salads.
And yet I loved it. The sense of urgency required in any professional kitchen kept my indolence at bay. I progressed. I eventually became an apprentice at Le Gavroche, then a mixture of the workhouse and an SAS training camp.
I even enjoyed that. There was simply no time to be lazy. I eventually became a head chef and even then my conscience would not allow me to be lazy: it was necessary to show an example and, besides, I loved the work.
I did develop one habit of indolence which was to get up half an hour early and spend an hour in the bath with a good novel. Reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March or an hour spent in the company of Aubrey and Maturin seemed a more rewarding preparation for the day than a premature arrival at the workplace.
And so it has gone on. After twenty years of cooking, I started to write a weekly column and have done so ever since, perhaps as a penance for all those essays that I did not write in my school and university years.
As many editors will attest, I have not always been the most punctual of contributors. Both my books and the internet conspire to distract me all too easily from the matter in hand. Journalism is similar to cooking, inasmuch as they both have deadlines. The only difference is that hacks deal in days and cooks deal in minutes.
If I tell people I am fundamentally lazy, they say that cannot be the case because I have worked so hard. The fact is that I have arrived at my chosen ways of earning a crust precisely because I am very lazy indeed.