The way of all flesh

IT is difficult to locate the centre of London exactly. Some would say it is Piccadilly Circus, others Trafalgar Square, yet others Hyde Park Corner (from which in old times distances were measured all over the country). Another candidate might be a junction of seven streets known as Seven Dials. It is barely half a mile north of Trafalgar Square, and before Shaftesbury Avenue was cut through the neighbourhood in the mid 19th Century it was known as a "rookery", i.e. a poor area of insalubrious narrow streets and hovels, and a haunt of thieves and prostitutes. It is a short walk from Soho on one side and from Covent Garden on the other — historic areas associated with the performing arts, the book trade, street markets and good restaurants, also with their share of low life.

This whole area has largely resisted the encroachment of large-scale commerce and the tall buildings that go with it, and a number of modest-sized businesses are established there, as they have been for generations past. For not much longer than the past six months I have been a customer of one of them, a walk of about 50 yards down one of the streets off Seven Dials, and can say with more than usual conviction that my visits there always gave me great pleasure. Am I talking about a print shop, an antiquarian book dealer, a seller of handmade shoes or a silversmith? No, this was a plain butcher — occupying a small corner shop of which many of the internal fittings have probably not changed little over many decades (but all serviceable and impossible to fault for hygiene). But that was only part of the attraction. The meat and poultry, much of it organic, came from known original sources — farmers in all parts of the British Isles whom the owner knew personally and had dealt with for years: there was lamb from Romney Marsh in Kent near the sea and from the north of Scotland, bacon from Shropshire (firm to the touch, unlike what you buy from supermarkets), special breeds of poultry — the list was long. What one bought there invariably tasted good and was not difficult to cook.

I had heard of its reputation from my business partner, and he finally persuaded me to buy a haggis there for Burns Night in January. I wished that I had taken his advice much earlier, because I immediately became a regular customer, almost an addict. It was more expensive than a supermarket, but the satisfaction, first of seeing the owner or one of his two assistants chopping or slicing succulent-looking meat off a side or joint and, later, of cooking and eating it was a combined gastronomic experience of a high order. On a blackboard was chalked a list of meat pies for sale; I once asked for a steak and kidney pie, and the assistant descended a ladder into the basement and brought it up from the freezer. They were all home-made by a private supplier in Sussex.

Under the belated influence of this place, I became a more determined and unashamed gastronome than I have ever considered myself before. Independently of this, although I shall never be a wine expert, I buy better supplies than I used to, because good food requires no less (with spicy Indian food, of which I am very fond, I prefer beer). I have also taken to buying fish from a Chinese fishmonger in central London's small Chinatown barely a quarter of a mile from Seven Dials — everything there, including large and magnificent eels, is spankingly fresh, and indeed there are two large glass tanks in the shop with one's future dinner swimming about oblivious of its impending fate. Christian civilisation induces guilt about enjoying the pleasures of the senses, and I am one who believes that these pleasures should be enjoyed to the full for as long as one has health and strength, and that when not indulged to excess they have only a beneficent effect on the state of one's soul.

The name of this wonderful butcher was an unusual one: Portwine, corrupted several generations ago from a French original; Seven Dials once had a colony of industrious Huguenot (French Protestant) refugees. The Portwine family have been butchers in the area since the mid-18th Century, and until two generations ago lived above the shop; they still own the late-Georgian house of which it forms the ground floor, a fortunate nest-egg for their future. Also two generations ago there were several Portwine branches around London — the one in Portobello Road, W.11 was especially well-known — but these have gone. For a long time the Seven Dials business alone held together a solid clientele of loyal private customers, many shopping there over decades, and a few caterers, and no doubt could have continued.

On a Friday towards the end of July I was close by Seven Dials and on a whim made my way towards Portwine's. As I approached I noticed an estate agent's board fixed to the building saying "shop to let". Could my eyes be deceiving me? The shop was still open, but the trays in the window, normally heaped with fresh meat, were mostly empty. The quiet middle-aged assistant was alone in the shop, and yes, he said to the regular customer in front of me, the business was closing. That customer spent over �50, availing himself of this last chance, and I too spent much more than usual. We and a lady, also waiting to be served, commiserated with each other. We could not really believe it. But the owner Graham Portwine had not been well, the assistant said; however, he would be there the next day, Saturday, when everything in the shop would have been cleared out, to offer a farewell drink to any customer who chose to turn up.

The key figure in this story is inevitably Graham Portwine himself. He is a man of intelligence, charm — and culture: invariably, when he was around, recorded classical music could be heard playing quietly in the background. He entered the business from school, and for two years learned the science of his trade at a college in Smithfield (another historic neighbourhood in central London which is home to a great wholesale meat market). I am not privy to the reasons which must have influenced Graham Portwine's decision to close, but I did hear that, although he appears to be in good health, he is actually in the early stages of a progressive disabling ailment.

But there is also a sociological factor. Graham makes a strong point of the fact that his father did not force him into the business 30 years ago, but it is hard to imagine that he ever seriously wanted a different trade or profession: as a butcher he has clearly not only been able to use his skill and knowledge, both inherited and acquired through study, to full advantage but has greatly enjoyed doing so. He also emphasises that he never tried to persuade his two sons to be butchers; but for them, crucially, the family's old trade had lost its appeal, and the question never arose. The elder is at university studying international politics — a far cry from butchery — and the younger is working for his A levels. It is two generations since the family ceased living above the shop and moved to the outer suburbs — a change involving more than mere geography. Graham, a gentleman to his fingertips, could span two different worlds, but his sons have completed the move. A family business cannot survive for long without a family to run as well as own it.

A year ago I wrote in this column about the sale, by its founding family, of the historic publishing house of John Murray, founded like Portwine over 200 years ago. The factors that led to that sale were complex, but one of them finds an echo in the Portwine experience: the two sons of John Murray VI, the last proprietor who ruled as well as reigned, were not truly interested in the business although both worked in it, and the sons of John Murray VII were not interested at all. A publisher has contracts and a backlist to sell, as well as a name, but a butcher has only goodwill. The goodwill built up by Portwine was considerable, but if I had been in Graham's shoes I would have preferred to close the business rather than let it be carried on by someone who might not have been up to it. Meanwhile, although there are still good privately owned butchers scattered throughout London, there is none left now in the heart of the metropolis. What more can one say except that a lot of us will feel, in heart and body, a continuing sense of loss at the disappearance of this admirable business. "The rest is silence."

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