The Prime Minister surprises us with a visit to The Punter
Prime Minister David Cameron enjoys tea and laughter at the lakeside villa of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He was back in England the next day for beer and a burger at The Punter (below), beside the River Thames on Osney Island.
Saturday’s front pages had been filled with photographs of David Cameron and Aung San Suu Kyi at their ground-breaking meeting in Rangoon. It hardly seemed possible, then, on the evening of the same day to be looking at him across a table in my local pub as he reminisced about his student days in Oxford.
“We were coming the right way,” he told me of the journey home. Asleep as his jet sped west, he had clawed back time sufficiently to present himself refreshed and eager at the informal dinner at The Punter on Osney Island, marking the birthdays, a few days apart, of his wife Samantha and younger sister Clare.
No one had expected him, indeed his presence had been expressly precluded when arrangements had been made with landlord Tom Rainey, a long-time friend of the family, who was also able to use the occasion to introduce them to his partner Lisa and their newly-born son Sam. This, one supposes, is how prime ministers must often travel, their destinations arranged on an instant in collusion with the security personnel.
I didn’t ask how long he had been back; not long to judge from the affectionate looks and endearments he was sharing with the charismatic Sam Cam.
Such was the celerity with which he was spirited into the Thames-side pub from the dark-windowed Range Rover purring in the street outside, that almost no-one saw him come.
Bizarrely, his presence went unnoticed for fully 80 minutes by the large party there celebrating the engagement of a pair of young Australians. Their astonishment, once they ‘clocked’ the British Prime Minister at this unassuming back-street pub, was a joy to behold.
Nor can I pretend that I was anything less than mightily tickled by the signal honour being paid to the place. I thought of Arthur and Joan Mathewson, Alan and Barbara Wilmer, Steve and Jan Denny, Ray and Jennifer Brown and Henry Dean — all the tenants I have known over 40 years at what was formerly The Waterman’s Arms. Wouldn’t they have loved it too?
In the days of the first of these the Camerons would have had to make do with a dinner of a pickled egg popped into a bag of crisps, or else go hungry. Tonight from chef Paul Fox’s extensive menu Mr Cameron had chosen squid and one of The Punter’s justly famous burgers. These were washed down (to use that unsavoury metaphor) with draught bitter.
All had been greatly enjoyed, prompting — once I had been invited to join the party — a discussion on food. Had the trip East given the gourmet premier a range of consistently exciting meals, zinging with spices and exotic tastes? Sadly no. On every occasion — and the Prime Minister spoke of this with genuine regret, kindly not cantankerous — the food offered throughout his historic mission had been in what was hoped would be the approved ‘British’ style. This, like security, is another cross that high-up politicos must bear.
Spice figured in our conversation, though, as Mr Cameron spoke fondly of his days as a Brasenose undergraduate, living for a time at the city end of Cowley Road. His local restaurant — opposite his student lodgings — had been the Jamaican Eating House, then as now a famously idiosyncratic operation.
As Mr Cameron talked of his memorable meals there, it crossed my mind that we might conceivably have dined at the same time. Perhaps on the night that Rosemarie and I arrived with friends at 7.30pm and were served our first morsels of food, jerk chicken, at about 11pm, half a dozen Red Stripes having been put away the while by each of us.
One of the party lost his shoes, I think. Or did he retrieve a pair mislaid earlier? I forget which — if I ever knew.
On Friday night Rosemarie and I had dined at the Bull in Burford and stayed overnight in a room once slept in by Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Recollections of this excellent establishment — props. Jean-Marie and Clare Lauzier — were offered by Mr Cameron who lunched there during a constituency visit to the town last year.
On Sunday, I was at another establishment once patronised by us both, the Luna Caprese in North Parade Avenue. This was celebrating a remarkable 50 years of serving the Oxford public with an enjoyable dinner hosted by owner Juan Luis Castro.
Lack of space prevents an account of the event this week. But I must mention the cutting from The Times I noticed in the entrance area as we left. This concerned activities of the Bullingdon Club during Mr Cameron’s student days — among them a visit to the Luna.
It struck me that both headlines on the piece were appropriate in the context of The Punter dinner.
“How young Cameron wined and dined with the right sort,” said one. The other noted: “He was great company, always articulate and witty. He could handle his drink.”