Penelope Lively visits the scene of an illicit tryst in Rosamond Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets..from The Literary Lunch Back to listing

AT HALF PAST 11 on a London night some time in the Thirties, Rollo and Olivia, the central fisgures of Rosamond Lehmann’s novel The Weather in the Streets, visit Rules restaurant in London’s Maiden Lane. They are lovers and have just been to bed together for the first time: “We went through into the farther part and got the corner table, and sat on the red plush, side by side”. They order sausages, lager and coffee. Olivia observes “women by Derry and Toms with artificial sprays pinned on…men with thinning, sleeked hair, stiff collars, face and neck all in one….”

There’s not a sausage on the menu today, although they could do you a Guinness or a Newcastle Brown, tea or coffee. The decor is much the same as it was when seen through Olivia’s eyes: the walls crammed with theatrical prints: the gilt and the fringed lampshades; the stuffed pheasants; antlers jutting from the walls. Ceiling fans that gently swirl”…an atmosphere of a sort of sensuality and romantic titillation” was what she thought, but then she was in the first throes of passion – for a married man. And yes, it will all end in tears. A marvellous novel that those in love should avoid like the plague.

We had booked a table for 8:15. The place was packed and we were chuffed to be allocated one of the alcove tables; red velvet, I’d say not plush. No stiff collars today either, although a good deal of thinning hair (the clientele is mainly fortysomething plus, and distinctly london-flavoured). Not a tourist within earshot. A theatrical male foursome at the next table, a young couple being entertained by her parents opposite. And a solitary male diner who read a copy of The Times (supplied by the restaurant just like viennese coffee houses) on a stick and then worked his way through Black pudding, partridge nd a hefty treacle pud with two helpings of cream, all washed down by a half bottle of red.

I hadn’t been there for years. It was a favourite haunt of my father’s. He took me there when I was 16 and confronted me with my first Oyster. “Well?” he said, watching my face. “Yuck!” said I – or the late forties equivalent. “Thank God for that,” said my father. “That’s going to save me some money. And a few other chaps later on, I daresay. Here, give me the rest.” Much later, he also treated my husband and myself to lunch there, which both of us had more or less forgotten, until it came surging back with the red velvet, the gilt, the antlers and the framed Smithfield rosettes.

Not to mention the food. My husband is a meat man. “Ah…” he said happily, poring over the menu. Aberdeen Angus rib-roast. Rack of Lamb. Wild Highland Red Deer. Fallow Deer. Breast of any game you fancy, from Pheasant to Teal. Braised Woodcock. Fish for the more faint of heart; John Dory, salmon Fishcakes, Turbot. Puddings that are pure nostalgia: Queen of Puddings, Bread and Butter Pudding, raspberry Syllabub Trifle. This is your traditional English kitchen. Forget Elizabeth david. Forget the River Cafe. Rules is a timewarp, and proud of it.

Olivia makes the place sound rather more downmarket than it is today. Maybe that’s why Rollo took her there. He’s rich and upper-class; probably the likes of him didn’t frequent Rules, so he reckoned it was a safe place for an illicit tryst. They hold hands and smile into each other’s eyes: the alcove banquettes would definately be best for that – those minded to do likewise should avoid the central tables with upright chairs and neighbours cheek-by-jowl.

The Weather in the Streets is very much a novel of its time (that scandalous abortion, the rigid class structure), but is also a distinctly feminist work, which makes the association with Rules a curious one. I cannot think of a restaurant with a more masculine feel to it. There’s a distinct whiff of clubland, and the menu is the wet dream of every man whose womenfolk have been muttering about cholesterol levels and serving up a nice green salad. All of which may well mean that it’s still the place for a furtive assignation. But personally, I think that if in that situation, I’d be a mite put off by the Guide to Game which shows a bunch of chaps done up for shooting – its about as vigorous an image of male bonding as I’ve seen.

The second brochure is a history of the restaurant. My husband picked it up to read over coffee. “Something hre about the literary associations,…Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evely waugh, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Dick Francis and Penelope Lively…” he said.

What? Who? Good grief! It’s a wise woman knows her own work. But a subsequent trawl fails to turn up the reference. Shome Mishtake? Signed bottle of champagne to the first reader with sharper eyes.