I’ve been away. From here, I mean. Though you may not have noticed, quite rightly. It’s been an interesting month, of reading books, one sometimes after the other, like the courses of a meal. And books that aren’t remotely about food or eating still contain passages that made me stop and want to write them down or pause. Logan Mountstuart, the writer in William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart, eats dog food. First by mistake and then by choice, because it’s cheap and he’s now poor; he particularly likes the rabbit (‘especially with the liberal addition of some tomato ketchup and a good jolt of Worcestershire sauce’). This precipitates his move from London – leaving just as Margaret Thatcher becomes prime minister, 1979 – to France. A ‘rich haul’ of ceps and girolles, an occasional mushroom omelette, two meals a day and wine and potato crisps at night. He dies, I believe happily, his body discovered in the garden by a friend ‘who had come to Cinq Cypres with the gift of a basket of apples’.
I was relieved when he left England, his cramped basement flat in Pimlico, and spent his last years in a ruin with a dog and a cat in France burning cherry logs, avoiding the spitting acacia, with pine ‘bringing up the rear’ and eating proper food. The end of a wild journey through the century.
This meal, the one pictured here, was largely taken up with talking about books. We ate at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. I bumped into Ralph Fiennes picking over some oranges outside Leila’s Shop on the way there. It’s that kind of place (you can make your mind up what I mean by that…I like Ralph Fiennes. I like oranges. Perhaps it was the dark splendour of the interior of the shop itself that scared me). I felt more at ease with the van on the corner selling bacon baps and cups of tea the colour of malt. I don’t know what that says. And the old lady serving had yellow hair, like the colour of crayons. I’ve had more bacon baps in my life, and stewed tea (bag in) than hake, and laverbread butter, and apple galettes. I suppose that might be it.
Anyway, we ate the very refined food, as pictured, and talked about food writing. Or rather we rasped over the clamour of voices and general scraping of chairs, reduced to occasional semaphoring. What was that about Diana Henry? etc. I am old, longing for quiet. And dare I say it, I’d rather read an actual book – a novel, or a memoir, a biography – than a cookbook, however learned. We all have to eat; a brilliant book will have stuff in it somewhere, about food, about the time, all in context and memorable.
I have no idea how Andrea Ashworth recalled with such detail the food of the 1970s, of her childhood in Manchester, in Once in a House on Fire. Terrible things happen to her, to her sisters and mother. Sometimes the bleakness and violence feels too sad to bear, but the details are poetry and she is a child again in the telling – Asda versus Kwik Save (Asda infinitely superior – ‘Kwik Save smelled of the weather’ ). When times are hard they eat boiled potatoes under ‘an avalanche of salt’ or Rich Tea biscuits sandwiched by ‘a glance of marg’ and wrapped in newspaper. When there’s a windfall there’s Country Life butter, real milk, ‘half a pound of white Cheshire cheese…grainy brown bread, Weetabix’. And then there’s whatever they’re given to eat or drink at the places they pitch up to in the middle of the night, on the run from a crazed stepfather – hot Ribena in Auntie Pauline’s caravan.
Or this about her favourite refuge: ‘I found myself falling in love with the edge of Auntie Vera’s toast, where the crusts were always slightly burned and butter caught without melting, so you got a glob of it on your tongue’.
Or there’s this, for beautiful words, all on their own: ‘I missed our daytime television and the haunting half-whistle of The Clangers, hiding in moon craters, singing circles to each other through the big black – echoing without words.’ I could go on. Anyhow, it’s better than a cookbook in my view and leaves you feeling full. I hope you read it. The end.