By John Fraser
Having grown rather tired of the elaborate, over-priced and under-nourishing meals you find in some more trendy restaurants – the ones where the chef needs a pair of tweezers to assemble your dish – I tremble with delight at the prospect of an indulgent, butter-saturated French feast.
Plonked on a street corner in the affluent London township of Belgravia, with outside tables and authentically grumpy French waiters, La Poule au Pot is a delightful step-back-in-time French brasserie that reminds me of Paris. And not in a bad way!
It has the advantage of a reasonably priced (for London) two or three-course menu, with a good choice of classic brasserie nosh.
Lord Monson arrived after me, so I had been able to tuck into the still-warm crusty baguette. A jar of peanut butter with that would have done me for lunch, but I was determined to see how well the place performed overall.
London restaurants are obliged to serve their patrons free tap water, and given the price of wines in UK restaurants that is often all we SA visitors can stretch to. Chateaux Thames it was.
However, his Lordship decided to hand over a Lord’s ransom, and we also shared a 50 quid bottle of an enjoyable claret, the Chateau Lescalle 2005. Very nice!
Before chatting too much, we decided to order. I opted for the Tarte à l’Oignon, a delicious, creamy onion tart, sliced generously.
Then I had the melt-in-the-mouth pintade rôtie – the guinea fowl.
Once again this was a generous portion, and again it was excellent. It came with a potato gratin – perfectly cooked potatoes swimming in cream and garlic. So simple, yet executed so impressively.
Lord Monson opted for the paté, an unsightly pile of the stuff that could have been served a little more elegantly. Although it looked like something one might step on, it tasted like something one might happily lick off the pavement.
This was followed by coq au vin – a French attempt to imitate one of our chicken potjies. Once again it looked a bit ordinary, but it hit the spot.
All in all, the meal was more than I had hoped for. We did not need desserts.
While we were ploughing through the food, we chatted, and my first question had to be about restaurants.
Did the 12th Baron Monson of Burton find that having a title secured him a table more easily in the best restaurants?
“I have never felt brave enough to say: this is Lord Monson. It’s so pompous. However, I had a girlfriend who used to ring up and say: Hello! I would like to book a table for Lord Monson and three guests,” he chuckled. “On arrival, I would be warmly greeted as Mr Lord Monson.
“I think that now in London it doesn’t help; having a title is like a double-edged sword.”
However, he has found the title useful in some of his campaigns, as it does mean that people take him more seriously, and he can get their attention more readily. He found that when he changed his e-mail to include his title “the effect that had was quite strong – in dealing with government departments, Ministers and journalists.”
He is not a sitting member of the House of Lords, and he has needed every arrow in his quiver – for he has been through a lot.
For nine years he fought to uncover the truth about his son Alexander, who was 28 when he was murdered in police custody in Kenya some ten years ago.
“He was taken to a police station and beaten to a state of unconsciousness, put on the floor and left to die,” he explained.
“A friend of ours badgered the police to take him to the hospital. Having beaten him, they handcuffed his unconscious body and bundled him into a police car – took him to hospital and manacled him to a bed and the police told the doctors to treat him for a drug overdose.”
Without the correct treatment, he died 5 hours after his arrival in the hospital.
The pretext for the arrest had been that Alexander had been taking drugs, but Lord Monson is adamant that he had not been, but was beaten up and killed by the police.
“The autopsy said that,” he said. “I have been told this is standard Kenyan police practice. I never believed it was drugs. I believe this was a pretext.”
After a long campaign, the policemen responsible were put on trial and sent down for manslaughter, although there is now an appeal to get the sentences elevated to murder convictions.
“Will this change much? I hope so,” he said. “Kenya is a country where tourists go. I am writing a book on it – it will be part of my memoirs.”
As if the loss of one son were not enough to torment any parent, the peer’s second son Rupert committed suicide at 21, after a battle with drugs.
“I suspected my second son was smoking marijuana. It can have a therapeutic effect. I had no idea how strong (the skunk variant) is now – it’s a Frankenstein product, it’s been messed around with, genetically altered,” he warned.
“It’s like moving from a shandy to a brandy. Rupert, like 50 000 young people a year, had to have medical help for skunk addiction and for the damage it had done. With him it was severe – he became psychotic. Once somebody has become psychotic, you never really recover.
“He was very promising: an Arts scholar, a good-looking boy, a fast bowler at school, the world was his oyster – and he became demented, even with medical assistance. He kept being visited by delusions of being pursued by goblins and demons. This is not uncommon.
“We tried to get him into a hospital, but he was sent back home, and I had a call from his mother, who said she couldn’t find him. A mother’s instincts are very rarely wrong on such matters. Police looked, and they sent up a helicopter with heat-seeking technology. They directed his mother, and she found him hanging on a climbing frame. He was still alive, and it took him 3 days to die.
“I had to talk her out of committing suicide five times.
“I created an awareness campaign. I said the law should be changed. Marijuana should be legalised – but only the very mild stuff, the shandy not the brandy. This sparked a big debate and it definitely helped.”
After the death of his sons, Lord Monson’s brother became the next in line to the family title, but His Lordship is campaigning for the law to be changed as “women should be able to inherit a title. Times have changed. We live in a world where women should and must have equality.”
If this campaign succeeds, his daughter Isabella will become his heir.
Most recently, he has become heavily involved in supporting Ukraine.
“Two weeks after the invasion I had a call from a friend of my late son, who said he and another friend of my son wanted to take an ambulance or two to Ukraine. I offered to scale this up.
“Then I joined forces with someone else who was doing this for a group called Ambulance Heroes, now funded through Help4Ukraine. In six days, we had enough money for six ambulances.
“They are there now – one I am told has been blown up by the Russians.”
When we met in London in mid-May, the total had risen to over 20 fully-equipped ambulances, and his fund-raising was continuing; he also pursues the search for volunteer drivers.
“My great grandfather set up the Red Cross in Italy during WW1, in Rome. His daughter-in-law worked for the American Red Cross in London during the blitz. Maybe it is in my DNA to do something to help,” suggested Lord Monson.
“We have helped to provide rent-free accommodation for Ukrainians who come here and are also setting up a refugee support group. Many refugees don’t speak the language; they are emotionally shattered – they have left their families behind. We support a group that extracts refugees.
“I am like a jockey on a runaway horse. I can’t get off.”
Lord Monson is landed aristocracy and can trace his family back to the 14th century, with direct ancestors at the Battle of Agincourt.
Although he has a title, he doesn’t sit in the UK’s upper legislative chamber, the House of Lords.
“To be a sitting peer you have to be elected by other sitting peers, and if they don’t like the look of you or they prefer other candidates, those other candidates will be elected,” he explained. “The whole thing about heredity titles and their right to have a position in parliament is ludicrous. It is offensive to many.
“I think the Lords should be changed, with a vote by a wider plebiscite, not a particular plebiscite – to bring in independent wise men and women, not attached to any political party.
“I put myself up as a candidate 4 times, and I only once got a vote. I am told I am one of the best-known Lords in the country, I am in the press so often because of my causes. I would like the House of Lords as an extra platform, but I can continue in any event.”
Finally, I asked him about the British royal family, as we were meeting with the Queen’s Jubilee in the headlines.
“Kate Middleton is the best thing that has happened to the monarchy – the granddaughter of a coal miner. She is magnificent. If it came to a war, I would lay down my life for her.”
He was less impressed with Prince Charles’ other daughter-in-law.
“As to Megan? I knew from the outset there would never be a happy outcome,” he reflected.
And so we departed: he for more good works, and me for a long and snore-filled nap after all that yummy, rich, artery-clogging French food and wine.
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