Legends in my lunchtimes

TEN YEARS ON: Members of the WGLC in customary pose, hold signed menus at their 10th anniversary lunch, the last in Joe Allen’s Exeter Street premises. Pictured clockwise from bottom left are Alastair McIntyre, Terry Manners, Alan Frame, Roger Watkins, Pat Pilton, Ashley Walton and Richard Dismore   Picture: THE WAITRESS

ROGER WATKINS reflects on 10 years of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club

I once had a friend who had a fetish for “keeping in touch”. Before the age of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, communication aids he would have blessed, he used to make a point of regularly contacting friends and acquaintances alike by phone, letter and more importantly, in person.

I don’t hear from him now because he is dead (although I am sure he is working on that) but it was his philosophy, I suppose, which lead to the formation of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club which celebrated its 10th anniversary on June 15, 2017.

 How it started

The club was launched in a very informal way (we were Expressmen, after all!). For years founder member, the much-missed Craig Orr, a former Express Night Editor, and yours truly always added the message “we really must have lunch in the new year” to our Christmas cards and, of course, we never did.

 Until 2007, that is.

 Then, as I had retired in April of that year and had the odd moment or two, I suggested to Craig that we did, indeed, meet.  The venue had to be Joe Allen because we had been eating there off and on since it first opened in the seventies.

Craig, maybe appalled by the thought of a one-to-one, suggested that Pat Pilton and Dick Dismore also be invited. Thus Craig and his former deputy night editor, Pat, and Pat’s former deputy, me, and my former deputy, Dick, had a great lunch. The most popular menu? No prizes for guessing Caesar salad starter followed by Eggs Benedict (with a side of chips).

 The club grows

The first meeting was on a Friday but this was not at all convenient for Dick who, by then, was deputy editor of the Sunday Express and was required for tedious news conferences etc.

 So the second lunch was on Wednesday, November 28 when another former Express Night Editor Terry (P.K.) Manners joined the band. Initially, we met about once a quarter but by the end of 2008, when former Chief Sub Alastair McIntyre and former Executive Editor Alan Frame had become regulars, we slotted into the every other month format that still exists.

 In 2009 former Royal Editor Ashley (Take in PA) Walton joined after a fortuitous meeting with me in Gran Canaria. He and Joan were reliving a past scoop (I See Cap’n Bob On A Marble Slab) outside the waterside bar which served as his office ("Los Blancos? No problemo, Señor”) when Carol and I happened to saunter by. 

 Another member who joined almost by accident was the late, lamented Terry Evans, Picture Editor of the Sunday, who applied because he was  so fed up seeing us in what he regarded as his canteen (he even had a small plaque inscribed “Sir Terry Evans” behind his favourite table for two). 

At first Jeremy Gates, former Express Travel Editor, attended but he found it difficult to get to Joe’s and David Eliades, former Express Night News Editor, then came aboard.

 Welcome guests

We have entertained some sparkling guests over the years. They include, off the top of my head, the great Robin Esser, Chris Buckland, Nick Lloyd, John “Bomber” Burns, John McEntee, Mike Deane, Liz Gill, Gill Martin, Melanie Whitehouse, Helene Costas and Wendy Payne.

Annie Leask was our star guest one Christmas. When Terry Evans suggested her I, jokingly, said she could only come if she dressed in a skimpy Santa outfit. Terry took me seriously so Annie, a real trouper, changed in the tiny cloakroom at Joe’s (now gone) and graced our table (very popular she was with other lunchers, too).

That was exceptional, it should be said (nowadays we invite wives and partners at Christmas). Normally, I tell our guests that all they have to do is to “turn up and talk bollocks”. Like the rest of us.

 Regalia, steward please

At some stage, in a singularly masculine way, we decided that the WGLC needed some “branding”. Thus, we commissioned our iconic Tipsy Crusader logo from Express cartoonist Graham Allen followed by two fairly garish club ties and, recently, polo shirts.

 All are limited edition and are, of course exclusive. It’s now considered poor form not to wear at least a club tie to our meetings. (Indeed, we are assured that Terry Evans was wearing his at his funeral!)

 A lunching legacy

Our latest lunch was the 58th meeting of WGLC and I have managed to attend every one (mainly because I have changed dates to fit in with holidays etc).

 They’ve all been at Joe’s, except one: on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 we became so pissed off with the “revamped” menu introduced by the restaurant’s new owners that we decamped for a very pleasant lunch at the Chinese Cricket Club in New Bridge Street. It wasn’t the same and, protest made, we slunk back to Joe’s for our Christmas extravaganza, the menu improved  and we have been made most welcome in what is known as “the Naughty Corner” ever since.

Attendance is usually excellent and Terry (P.K) Manners and Pat must be praised for journeying from Harrogate/Huntingdon/Lincoln and Stratford upon Avon, respectively. Terry did take a break when he was a Malteser (not with the less fattening centre though) working in Valetta for a while and Pat holds the record for the best excuse for non-attendance: “It’s press day on the parish magazine”. David Eliades is in second place with: “I’m going to the opera with Bamber Gascoigne.”

 Snap happy

By 2016 our lunches had become such a regular event in the lunchtime life of Joe Allen that a portrait of all our eight members, replete and rowdy at our usual table in the Naughty Corner, was affixed to the wall complete with a brass plaque bearing the legend: “The World’s Greatest Lunch Club”. This, we are assured, will be transferred to Joe’s new premises.

Any Blanks?

It’s humbling to realise that over the years the WGLC must have spent more than £20,000 at Joe Allen. Think of all those lettuce leaves, that shaved parmesan, the poached eggs and the chips. Not to mention the carafes of house wine.

 Absent friends

We usually launch our meetings with this increasingly apt toast. Not only is it proposed to former pals we’d love to have had at our lunches (Diver, Cocksworth, Benson, McGrory, Holder, Tory, Luck, Shrimsley, Reynolds, et al) but to beloved WGLC members who passed on to the Great Newsroom etc: Craig and Terry.

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Terry’s sudden death was a huge shock. The last contact I had with him was a few days before our April, 2015 lunch. He emailed to say how much he was looking forward to it. Sadly, he never made it. His well-attended wakes, at Amersham, his home town and, of course, Joe’s were a testament to his popularity. Incidentally, what he would have made of Joe’s forced move doesn’t bear thinking about.

Onwards and sideways

So, thanks to someone called Robert De Niro, Joe’s is having to leave its beloved home in Exeter Street to take over what, until recently, was an Indian restaurant just around the corner in Burleigh Street. The WGLC will be there, of course, in pride of place sometime in September.

Final thought

Although club members usually throng to Joe’s there was one poignant occasion (August 27, 2008) when only Craig Orr and I could attend. By then, cancer had begun to rule him; he’d lost his hair because of chemotherapy and the facts of life, and death, were increasingly obvious. I still recall the poignant conversation we had when he reminisced about his life, his work and, in confidence, his often complicated family life. I never saw him again: he was too ill to attend our October 29 meeting that year and died a few weeks later.

But we had finally had our one-to-one.

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HOT AIR: Members of the WGLC blow out their anniversary candle

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre