Gerald Diffey has been in hospitality for four decades. He has run cafes and pubs and nightclubs and fine dining restaurants. With business partner and friend, Mario Di Ienno, he owns and runs Carlton North stalwart Gerald’s Bar and its doppelganger of the same name in San Sebastian. And he’s written a book.
In American writer Paul Auster’s words, “Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them. In the same way, perhaps, experiences present themselves only to those who are able to have them.” Diffey is one of those people.
Beggars Belief is a collection of vignettes – childhood memories, observations, anecdotes from his travels and the bar, and more – with recipes and advice. They were all handwritten over the course of 12 years in notebooks, exercise books and scraps of paper that Diffey shoved into a shopping bag and gave to his journalist and author friend, Max Allen, to see what he thought. Allen thought they were wonderful.
“The book is about 25,000 to 30,000 words,” Diffey tells Broadsheet. “There were four times that Max had to transcribe it all and polish it up. He’s broken up the flippant bits and the bits of nonsense. And after he put it together and I proofread it for the very first time, I said, ‘Oh, you’ve done wonders with this’, and he said, ‘I haven’t done anything with it, I’ve just put it in order … and corrected the punctuation and spelling’.”
In one vignette, “Waiting”, Diffey refers to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and how he deliberately makes one chapter tedious, and the next action-packed. Diffey says Melville “slowed down the narrative to bore you, to slow down your heartbeat, to make you feel like the crew. Becalmed, nothing to do but gen up on whales. And then, at the nadir of tedium, he throws you into an adrenaline-charged fight to the death. It’s literary genius.”
Diffey goes on to compare telling a story with serving a meal, emphasising how important pace and timing is in both instances. In the book, pace and timing almost take on a life of their own. There are funny moments that make you grin, and then poignant reflections that speak to the challenges of both hospitality and his personal life.
There truly is a lifetime in this book. And while it’s not a long read, it is a rich one. There is a heady memory of a childhood birthday party where a flying bowl of custard hits Diffey in the face and makes him aware of the “flavour of cold vanilla and a curiously warm sauce of blood dribbling from my nose, mixing with the custard to create a food memory I can still taste today”. He calls it “utterly delicious”. He also recounts a lunch on the side of a volcano in Sicily and a dinner on a beach in East Timor. And in “I went on holiday by mistake”, Diffey’s European getaway is disrupted by the Mount Eyjafjallajökull eruption, and he finds himself in San Sebastian. Loving the traditional restaurants and bars, the architecture and the “unbroken traditions of fishing and hunting”, he decided he wanted to be part of it all. So, he bought a bar there.
“I haven’t ever done anything else,” says Diffey. “But from my life and my experience, hospitality is so much more than the sum of its parts. That’s the story I wanted to tell. A lot of people will go into a bar … but they won’t take anything in. They’ll just have a nice time and won’t know why they had a nice time.
“By taking apart all the little elements and sticking them back together again, maybe people will go, ‘Ah, now I can appreciate the place even more than I did because I’m starting to see the nuances and the detail’. Nothing is here by accident. Mario, my business partner, and I spend hours agonising over the smallest thing and perhaps no one ever notices but they’d notice if it wasn’t there.”
We’re sitting amid it all, at the Rathdowne Street bar, gazing around the room at his vast array of collectibles. “There’s a story here in everything and that was the starting point [of the book]. Even the staff ask what certain things are or why I have it there,” he says. “I really did just start it to tell the story of this and that, but once you go down that rabbit hole, you find so many more tunnels to explore.” One of the examples he uses in the book is his grandmother’s teapot. “You can’t tell the story of that teapot without talking about three generations and their histories and struggles because that’s what is imbued in it, to me. The stories of simple little things became much bigger stories.”
Some of Diffey’s turns of phrase were inherited from his British grandma. Though, “most of them are unprintable,” he says. “That love of quirky language and slang is so much more descriptive. There’s a line in there – one of my favourites of her expressions – is when I am describing the first time I met my wife and the expression is, ‘her looks wouldn’t pity her’. It’s poetry.”
The name of the book comes from the last time Diffey spoke to his grandma in Kent. “She thanked me for calling and asked where I was,” he writes. “I told her I was still in Australia. ‘Orztraylia?’ She perked up a bit. ‘Orztraylia? Sounds like you’re in the next room dear.’ We chatted some more but she was soon drifting off. Never one for the phone. Kept it short because she had other things to do. But as we parted, she said again: ‘Orztraylia? It beggars belief’.”
Reflecting, he says, “I hope that the book gives little tips to people to understand that there is more in this than you know.
“The worst thing over the last two years has been the social distancing. People haven’t been able to come together and break bread. And, you know, that’s why people are so excited, and it is also why people are so hurt. You can’t underestimate the importance of being together and having a shared experience, and it just so happens that every shared experience in your life is going to be over food and wine, pretty much.”
Reading Beggars Belief feels like you’ve been perched at the bar with a Whisky Sour and Diffey, listening to him spin a few yarns over the course of an evening. You’ll smile and laugh, frown, raise your eyebrows and maybe shake your head. You’ll want to cook the fish he says reminds him of a dish he had in Paris, and you’ll be all the richer for it.
Beggars Belief is available to buy from Gerald’s Bar, at all good bookshops and online.