No axe to grind but it just had to be French
THE choice of restaurant Aix for lunch with author Max Arthur was made very simple: he just did not want to go anywhere else and was crestfallen when an alternative venue was suggested...
THE choice of restaurant Aix for lunch with author Max Arthur was made very simple: he just did not want to go anywhere else and was crestfallen when an alternative venue was suggested.
That is the kind of man he is - he generally gets what he wants but does not have to resort to strong-arm tactics because his old school charm, glint in the eye and utter confidence usually win the day for him.
On confirmation of the reservation at the Crouch End establishment, he exclaims, "Thanks, old thing, that will be excellent," a comment typical of his genteel behaviour, which is occasionally punctuated by a politically incorrect (but infinitely forgivable) comment.
Arthur, who lives in Crouch End, has hit the literary big time relatively late in life, mainly through collecting evocative accounts from servicemen of the First and Second World Wars, whose stories had been lost in the mists of time. But these huge successes were preceded by at least one utter flop.
"I decided to write a book about Manchester United's Munich air disaster and interview those connected with it. I worked with the club on the book and they ordered loads but only sold a few because they had published their own book and were pushing that.
"There were thousands of returns and they rang me to ask me to come and get them. I felt really cheated and it was a financial disaster."
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That blow did not, however, stop Arthur in his tracks and as our starters arrive - whether this is a coincidence or not, I don't know - his story is relentlessly upbeat.
Arthur tucks into his salad landaise, which includes smoked duck breast and foie gras.
He assures me it is delicious and his tastebuds obviously do the trick for his writer's imagination as whimsically he says, "Don't you feel we could be in any small town in France now," with a nod not just to the cuisine but the sunshine coming through the window and the thoroughly French décor.
My starter is seared scallops which are cooked to perfection and simply melt in the mouth, leaving me ready for Arthur's next instalment.
Despite his wrangle with Manchester United he carried on writing and scored a big success with Above All, Courage, a book of eyewitness testimonies from some of the serviceman who fought in the Falklands War.
The Daily Telegraph described the book as "the most revealing and authentic frontline book yet", and it put Arthur, a former serviceman himself, on the map as an author.
"That book was a success and helped me get over the Manchester United problems. The Falklands soldiers had amazing stories and I'd like to take the piece as a play over to the Falklands and Argentina."
Other serious war testimony books included his seminal Forgotten Voices of the Second World War and, more recently, Last Post, which consisted of interviews with the remaining veterans of the First World War.
Arthur has been asked to read a short obituary on Radio 4 for all the veterans who pass away.
"It is a great honour and a privilege although I don't get long enough on air to do them justice."
As our main course arrives Arthur regales me with the news that in 1970s he had a decently busy acting career with lots of TV speaking parts (Dr Who is one of his credits) and theatre work, all because "I wanted an element of risk in my life."
Arthur went for a magnificent looking steak for his main. "It's marvellous," he says. "This is the only good restaurant in north London."
My sea bass with spinach and cherry tomatoes was simply stunning but perhaps the most satisfying find of the afternoon was coconut panettone with pineapple accompaniment, a dessert with real wow factor.
As we leave Arthur is still on sparkling form, charming the waitress and talking excitedly about the launch of his book on the Edwardians.
"The big thing in life is to touch real beauty," he had told me earlier and that is the key to the man - whether it is an excellent meal such as this, a beautiful woman or tales of war heroes
- he savours life to the full.
o Max Arthur dined
with John Dunne
Tottenham Lane, Crouch End (020-8340 6346).
o Open lunch and dinner.
o French cooking at its most authentic.
o About £30 a head with glass of wine.
o Three-course lunch special for £15 a head.