It is my confident assertion that one cannot create great art in squalid conditions. If you want to inspire someone to excel themselves and produce marvels, you have to pamper them. Pour them fine wine, feed them good food, let them sit in comfort and relax. Then you will get works of true genius. If you doubt me look at what little was achieved in the Butcher Lane Dining Rooms.
The dining rooms can be found at the Ropewalk end of Butcher Lane and they are only a couple of streets away from the Warrens. It is not a select area; nor one likely to produce a discerning clientele. I have avoided eating there. It is not the place I would enter to meet a patron, but occasionally one is looking for somebody and it that means the dining rooms, then so be it.
I remember on one occasion talking to the proprietor. He was boasting about the quality of the customers and he gestured to where Fanal Winthap was seated. He was dining alone and had a book propped open in front of him. Aea help me but the proprietor described him as ‘a man of letters.’ The man was a petty mage! Scarcely one step up from a hedge wizard. He barely aspired to be a necromancer. Still it gives you an insight into the folk who ate there. They were neither discerning nor select.
The proprietor was a ‘gentleman’ called Dash Fugewit. His biggest claim to fame was that he considered himself both intelligent and cunning. Frankly I discounted the first claim, and allowed the second purely because even the lowest of animals can exhibit some purely instinctive slyness. His regulars were cut from the same cloth.
I remember the case of the Charity Paupers’ Kitchen. Dash Fugewit and some of his cronies were engaged in a discussion on how they could make good money quickly and easily. One idea rose to the top, much as a large lump of excrement will float to the top in a privy. Nobody knows who suggested it but Dash clasped it to his bosom and made it his own. He would start a charity kitchen to feed the paupers.
He advertised it widely, he had posters printed, soliciting donations of food. Indeed he even printed a handful of business cards. On these he was listed as ‘an officer of the charitable society’ and several eminent persons within the city were named as being the founders and leading lights. I think I can guarantee that none of them had even heard of the charitable institution their names were endorsing.
Dash made sure that the posters were pasted on the walls in prosperous suburbs. He reckoned that this meant they reached the largest possible number of donors, and at the same time were seen by the smallest possible number of those who might hope to be in receipt of the charity. Then with his business cards he made his way through the city talking to those who sell provisions, and managed to importune donations from some of them.
These donations were largely foodstuffs that could no longer be sold, bread that was a bit stale, vegetables that had a tendency to droop, fish that smelled more strongly than one felt it perhaps should. Still Dash took them all.
When he surveyed what he had collected, he was struck by the fact that the goods he had gathered were in some cases superior to the provisions he had in his storeroom. Thus rather than cooking this food and offering it free to the indigent, he cooked it and served it to his usual customers instead.
This worked really well for the first week. He was raising some money in cash donations, and he was collecting a considerable quantity of food as donations. But inevitably something had to spoil it. In spite of his efforts the impecunious of Port Naain got to hear about the charity. Dash was now faced with a problem. His usual method of dealing with those begging for a meal was merely to issue his more burly customers with clubs and offer a free lunch to the one who drove away those who were pestering him. Unfortunately generous donors were in the habit of arriving with sums of money. It cannot be doubted that they would have been somewhat put out by Dash’s usual methods.
So instead, after considering his options, he decided he’d better feed these people. But where was he to source their provisions? Obviously he didn’t want to spend money on them. Fortunately he had another idea.
Every restaurateur will tell you that diners are wasteful. All of them will have a bin into which they scrape that which has been left on the plate and will send it as swill. Given the standard of his meals Dash had more swill to get rid of than most hence his bin was, in reality, an old cauldron. It was a considerable vessel, large enough to bath in or to cook a whole horse. So rather than tip his swill to be collected, he hung the old cauldron over a fire and cooked it again. This ‘stew’ was then served to the hungry poor.
Now to do justice to Dash, lesser and greedier men would have watered the stew down to make it go further. Dash was above such sordid tricks. Indeed to be fair to him, he always checked the donations of food most carefully. Should they include anything that he felt his regular customers wouldn’t stomach, he would chop it fine and add it to the cauldron. As he used to comment, it would inevitably find its way there eventually, he merely saved somebody the task of pushing it indecisively around their plate before discarding it.
By this time Dash had inadvertently attracted the attention of those who assuage their pangs of conscience by making much of their charity work. They pointed to Dash and his charitable endeavours (and their part in them). Dash found himself regarded as a stalwart champion of the poor, a hero of those who had nothing. Indeed he was even encouraged by some to consider popular demagoguery as a career. He was briefly tempted but then he had further problems to deal with.
The stew he charitably fed to the poor and cooked in the great cauldron was always over the fire; the cauldron was never completely emptied and was regularly refilled. This wouldn’t have been a problem had he not had an unexpected rush of customers late one evening. A dozen turned up at once, somewhat the worse for drink and demanded feeding. The kitchen and larder were almost empty; there was nothing but the contents of the cauldron. So Dash served each of his customers a generous portion of stew. They ate it with great enthusiasm and congratulated him on the improvement in his cooking. Indeed next day at lunchtime some of them returned and brushed aside his menu and demanded more of the stew. Dash served them. Word got round and more and more of his regulars turned their backs on his normal fare and instead purchased his stew.
This left Dash in a quandary. Previously he had not begrudged the poor their portion of stew. But now, when he was being offered hard cash for it, being forced to give it away pained him. Yet he could hardly chase the poor away, as sundry benefactors were still paying him money to feed them.
What to do? The end came when the city watch arrested him. They were investigating the disappearance of Bouncer Queel, and they’d had a tip off. It appears that Stee the Knife and ‘Thin-cut’ Norgan had been seen carrying the body of Bouncer Queel through the back door of the Butcher Lane Dining Rooms in the dead of night. Dash couldn’t honestly comment either way, he had been guest of honour at a prestigious charity fundraising function at the time. The watchmen took the cauldron off the fire and poured out the contents. Then they took trowels and similar implements to tackle the thick residue that still adhered to the bottom of the cauldron.
After careful examination they found a considerable quantity of small bones, plus a cheap bronze ring with the name ‘Queel’ cut into it. They presented this evidence to Dash Fugewit as he sat in a small cell and asked him to explain their presence. Candidly Dash admitted he couldn’t. Their presence was a complete mystery to him.
The watch officer then asked Dash about any larger bones. He confessed his mystification, but did comment that occasionally he would put a mutton bone in the cauldron and he’d assumed any bones he found were merely from that source.
He was then asked what had happened to the skull. Dash apparently looked shocked and commented that he’d assumed the skull he’d found had belonged to the same creature that had provided the mutton bones.
The city watch considered the evidence and felt it was lacking. They released Dash. Not only that but they issued a statement at the same time thanking him for the information he had given them about crimes committed about Stee the Knife and ‘Thin-cut’ Norgan and trusted that this information would lead to their arrest and summary conviction.
Dash disappeared immediately on reading their statement and it is assumed that he fled the city.
The Butcher Lane Dining Rooms were taken by a new tenant who was content to run them along more conventional lines.
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As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink”