I was very fortunate to receive an invitation to the Burns Dinner being hosted by Simpson & Marwick in London, and as I had never been to one before I was delighted to accept. Thanks to other work meetings during the day I was cutting it a little fine going into London and so was hoping the venue would be easy to find because I had never been there before. It was the Merchant Taylors’ Hall at 30 Threadneedle Street, so I took the train to City Thameslink station and walked from there, coming to Threadneedle Street and being struck by the lack of numbers on most of the buildings. I hoped that the one building I wanted would be clearly marked. I walked past the Bank Of England and the Royal Exchange, took the right fork to continue along Threadneedle Street and then I saw it on the other side of the road – 30 Threadneedle Street, and a sign saying the entrance to the function was three doors down.
As I have said, I had never been here before and was immediately struck by the contrast between the innocuous entrance and the magnificence on the other side of the door. I was greeted by Celia Lauder, who, it became clear, was the mastermind behind the whole evening, and as I went into the Cloisters for the drinks reception, I met Gilles Graham, my contact partner at the firm, and it was great to be able to catch up with him.
Not before long we were called to go upstairs to the Drawing Room so that the dinner could be served, our walk up the staircase being accompanied by the sound of bagpipes. The tables had been beautifully set, from initial impressions I knew there was going to be interesting conversation this evening, and the very entertaining welcome speech from Gordon Keyden confirmed that I had been right to accept the invitation to what was going to be an excellent night.
In fact, the person next to me told me that this was a much sought after ticket, and that some people had been coming for years. So now I am hoping for an invite for next year…
Then the real proceedings of an evening like this began, with the piping of the haggis.
Piper Andrew Parsons led in the haggis, which was being carried on a tray, and behind that was another tray holding some of the Benriach 12 year old malt. They were all processed around the room before being brought to a table in the middle, where they were presented to Vikki Melville who, after offering the piper a dram, presented a very animated and dramatic Address to the Haggis, which involved a big spoon and a very big knife, and a lot of Scottish, so I have to admit I had pretty much no idea what she was talking about while I was enjoying every second of it.
The Selkirk Grace was delivered by Graeme Watson and then the first course was served, haggis with neeps and tatties. With a dram of the Benriach. I did eat haggis many years ago but I could not recall whether I enjoyed the taste or not, and while I have not drunk alcohol for over 12 years, I decided that I had to do this properly. In one of his speeches Gordon had suggested that if we wanted to take the dram aesthetically then we should pour it over the haggis, or anaesthetically then we should pour it down our throat. I decided to go with the aesthetic, and I have to say it tasted delicious. In fact, the haggis tasted delicious whether it was with the whisky or not, and the neeps and tatties were a perfect consistency.
The main course was a very tender grilled tournedos of beef with herb galette and wild mushroom confits, red wine jus and served with vegetable medley. Maybe it was because I had not eaten much all day but I wolfed it down, and it could not have tasted better. I had a selection of the cheeses and was glad I did because I liked them all, and it was nice to finish off with a cup of tea and a macaroon. We then had a short break and I took the opportunity to explore some more of this magnificent building. I should mention a fascinating tale I was told over dinner which has a connection to the building, which is owned by the Merchant Taylors livery company. Apparantly all of the livery companies are numbered but the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners could not decide who should be in sixth and seventh place, so it was decided they should alternate positions on an annual basis, and that led to the phrase ‘being at sixes and sevens’.
However, I did not spend a second too long looking around because the evening was not even close to an end, and now Andrew Constable gave us his speech to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, which was witty, insightful and sufficiently reverential while also telling us the tale of Burns and his brother watching the interaction between a hen and a cockerel when suddenly the cockerel turned away because the farmer had put down some seed, promptin Burns to exclaim to his brother that he hoped he would never find himself that hungry. It was an excellent start to this part of the evening and a very hard act to follow, so it was probably best that it was followed by something completely different in the form of the piping medley from Andrew Parsons, who was playing as he marched into the room up to the far end, before returning to the near end to stand and continue his medley. I do like the sound of the pipes and so thoroughly enjoyed this part of the evening. The Toast To The Lassies was given by Gavin Henderson, who, despite the name, is an English partner within the firm, and who strode into the room dressed in a Union Flag onesie over his suit, which Gilles later remarked to me “you do not see very often at a Burns Dinner.”
If you are going to dress like that then you had better have a great speech to back it up, and he did. Well, he almost did, but unfortunately just as he was approaching the end of a shaggy dog story of a joke he realised that the last pages of his speech were not in his hand but were back in the office on the printer. He recovered very well to finish things off in style and the ladies were properly toasted. It only remained for Anne Kentish to give the Response For The Lassies, which seemed largely to consist of laying into gentlemen in general, including a reference to the ‘sexist’ side of Robert Burns, and was very funny throughout. I certainly presume she was not being serious… A somewhat rough rendition of Auld Lang Syne brought a very enjoyable and entertaining evening to a close, and while others will surely have stayed on to continue to enjoy the wine and whisky, unfortunately I had to make my exit to catch my train, hoping that my first Burns Dinner would not prove to be my last.
You can see more of my photographs from the evening here.