Archive for the ‘Books from my collection’ Category

Cookery, Class

November 30, 2012

I read a nice essay by Katherine Whitehorn in the Observer Food Monthly once, on eating alone.

I’m not sure if I eat terribly differently when I do it alone. I know that, of necessity, what with me being a news widow and all, I eat a lot of my meals on my Jack Jones. I don’t think that there’s a huge difference between what I do by myself and what I do in company. Last week, for example, I had a fairly elaborate stir-fry with deep-fried tofu and miso soup drunk from a bowl on the side.  Tonight I am having roast butternut squash with some black-eyed bean mushroom sauce thing. Not deliberately over-elaborate with candelabrum, polished silver and stiff linen like M. Blanc, then, but not an ascetic’s dinner either. I might experiment with stuff a bit more if it’s just me, but I definitely don’t shovel hunks of cheese or slabs of chocolate down my throat. Or rather: I do, but that’s as well as and not instead of.

I own a copy of Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter. Here it is:

It’s a 1963 Penguin, inscribed with the message “Oct-’77 To Martin from Mum with love.” (Nothing to do with me.) I used to own two copies, but gave the more recent one, with a cover like this, away.

Again, not sure where I acquired this volume, or the other one for that matter: probably Colchester (post-graduate with plenty of time on hands + not much money + surfeit of charity shops = fantastic second-hand book collection). I do remember very clearly, however, the first time I ever encountered this book. It would have been sometime around 1989, when I was at Oxford, and sharing a house with the scion of a minor branch of a major family. He had been given it as a gift and I read it avidly because, more than Entrance Exams and subfusc and boys from Eton and ivy-filled quadrangles and girls actually – actually! – called Cordelia, it gave me a clear insight into the ways of the middle classes, and made me realise they are quite different from us.

First of all, the acknowledgements credit Elizabeth David, which is a dead giveaway, because Britain is divided by the post-war cookery book: David, or Marguerite Patten. Will you be cooking courgette and herb risotto or mushroom-stuffed eggs when the revolution comes?

But this is a lovely book and I keep going back to read it and I think that Whitehorn is a wonderful writer and one hell of a woman. Give me this book any day over Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which took me ten years to finally get round to finishing. (There’ll be more of that another time.)

I love the cover. I like the way that this is “a Penguin Handbook”, a no-nonsense manual for getting stuff done. I like the way she encourages people to work with their limitations. I admire the way she encourages people to try new stuff – something that British people do very well, as anyone who’s ever tried to find miso or garam masala or jerk seasoning in a Northern European supermarket will realise. I love the way the book describes early Sixties bedsitland as vividly as anything in Muriel Spark or The L-Shaped Room. I adore looking at the strangeness of the dishes she describes, exotic in their old-fashionedness: tripe Catalan (tenpence worth, with tomato paste); curried macaroni; mutton rissoles; green pea sandwiches; coffee jelly. It is a time of “super-bread” and evaporated milk (not, you note, “evap”.)

This was a world that was alien to me, and which always will be to some extent. It was a world of dinner parties (still a novelty for me in ’89). A very U world indeed where “paper napkins” are only “socially O.K.” when handing round hotdogs. And this – this is the bit that has stuck in my mind after all these years – was a world where parents sent spies round to check on you. Whoah. Your parents deploying someone else to poke their nose into family affairs and see if you are behaving? Worse. Having your parents’ friends round to dinner? I still think that’s weird.

Although I love the way that Whitehorn writes, peppering the text with anecdote, illustration, literature, other cookery books, there’s something about the whole thing that scares me slightly, like having your tea round your teacher’s house.

Have I cooked anything from this book? No. And I’ve always wondered whether lots of people really did knock up Haddock Monte Carlo on a two-ring. And if they did, what did it really taste like?


The Leather Boys

February 3, 2010

“Oh my Gawd! Big Mary’s on that ship, darling. You’ll ’ave to do just what she says. She’ll draw a knife if she’s upset.”

This edition is from January 1969, from the New English Library. It’s a reprint of the original 1961 edition, which was published under the nom de plume Eliot George (get it?).

I think I bought this in the mid-1990s, when I was a student at Essex University, but I don’t remember exactly. Normally, I inscribe the date and the place I bought a book on the fly-leaf, but I haven’t with this one. It probably came from a charity shop, which Colchester was rich with at the time. I think I remember reading it, if not acquiring it, around the same time as Cruising by Gerald Walker, in which I also omitted to jot a time and place, but I see cost me 40p.

The covers a bit of an oddity, because there aren’t any biker babes in this book; in fact, women don’t feature large in it at all. It was probably issued under this cover to lure in a straight male audience (who may have been in for a bit of a surprise when they read it) and perhaps was cashing in on the cult appeal of the film The Girl on a Motorcycle, released the year before. By then, this book had already made it to the big screen,  with a Sixties Britflick cast that scores a perfect 10: Rita Tushingham, Dudley Sutton, Betty Marsden from Round the Horne, Mike Baldwin off Coronation Street, Dandy Nicholls.

Dick and Reggie are two 18 year olds who hang out at a bikers’ greasy spoon that is no doubt meant to evoke the Ace Cafe on the North Circular (and where, in fact, scenes from the film were recorded). Dick loves his nan and dressing sharp. Reggie loves his motorbike and hates his wife. Both boys end up loving each other.

They inhabit an era when young thugs said ‘smashing!’, Primrose Hill was a shabby backwater, a Perry Como haircut was a sign of youthful rebellion and the working classes began every aitch-word with an apostrophe, meaning the page ’as a ’orrible, ’ard-to-read look, as if someone ’oo ’as really shakey ’ands ’as scattered ’undreds and thousands over the ’ole page.

They aren’t wrong ’uns, really, Dick and Reggie. Rather, they are good boys who have fallen in with a bad crowd. They don’t like the violence but they have to do it because they are trapped by their own masculinity. Their whole existence fetishises machismo: the bond of the gang; the casual hatred of women; the tight leather clothes and throbbing machines between their legs. They love male things and societies of men but don’t know what to do with that love yet.

In the course of the story, they do over a church-hall dance and pour a pint of milk over the head of a vicar.

They do over a janitor’s shed just for fun.

They do over a newsagent’s for a share of the dosh.

They plan do over a picture house then run away and join the merchant navy. Go to Australia, get a new life together.

Freeman’s prose is clunky, workmanlike and with none of the verve or sass of American counterparts from the time, but it’s a nice enough little portrait of a world on the cusp of a big change. The working classes know their place, know they don’t like it and are bloody well about to change it through hire purchase and pop culture and holidays abroad.  It draws a neat comparison between parallel criminal underworlds – gangland and gays, explored to its fullest and best effect in the work of Jake Arnott – and how young men could and did drift between the two. It also dips its toes into the secret life of the merchant navy, with a cameo from the obligatory parade of shrieking pansies.

Women don’t come out of it well, though: they are thick and vain and nagging and avaricious, with insatiable sexual appetites. They will ultimately betray you. As a portrait of gayness it’s not too bad, capturing the thrill of first love as it flings you round like a switchback railway. It is mercifully free of handwringing and guilt – which perhaps made it endure longer than the other dimestore paperbacks that came out at the time – and there isn’t much furtiveness, which makes it a refreshing read. But the book can never let the reader forget this is the 1960s, when homosexuality was a problem and as such, needed a solution – still the case to some extent in representations today (look no further than Brokeback Mountain for an example of this). The solution, of course, had to be death for one of the young lovers. I’m not going to tell you which.