When Justin Knopp started collecting Letterpress printing machines the revival in letterpress printing was unheard of and he thought he was the last man standing. In fact he felt he was saving these old presses and giving them a home. This was a hobby, an obsession.
Now the craft has been revived and Justin's passion is his day job. Spending a day filming with him felt both evocative of another era and right up to date with the broader craft movement. The wonderfully mechanical sounds and the physicality of the process, the relationship between the type, the pressure, the ink and the bite of the paper creates a real human connection. Each machine works differently and is tailored to a specific job or task and Justin's enthusiasm for and affinity with the process made is reflected in each piece of work. Just like Dan Pearson's connection with the soil and planting, Joseph Warren's collection and manipulating of images, Jeremy Lee's experimenting with herbs, the joy of the journey is part of the creative process. There is also that sense of looking after something and wanting to pass it on. We at 451 are very happy to pass this film on - we hope it inspires you.
A short story by Claire Fuller
Harriet, lying on her back in her nightdress, stared up at the ceiling, and tried to keep as still as possible, only breathing through her nose. She smelled him first – the aftershave he had used, mixed with the warm scent of pillows and bodies. She didn’t feel the bed shift, no creak of the springs, although the mattress was old – the same one they had bought after they were married with some money given to her by her uncle.
Nothing had changed, but she knew, as she slid her left hand across the sheet, that she would touch the coarse dark hair on his back. His skin was warm and soft, not the flesh of a man who had been dead for three months.
There was a noise, a ‘hmm’ or an exhalation of breath.
‘Is it really you?’ she said into the dark, even though she knew it was.
He made a deep groaning, like he used to when the alarm went off before he got up to start work. ‘Let me sleep,’ he said. It was Bahir’s voice, low and rumbling as if he needed to cough, the sound of it making her tremble with relief and the possibility that she no longer had to live alone. She prodded his heavy flesh with her fingertips, testing his body to check it was real, until with a huff of effort her husband rolled over.
‘I’m here aren’t I?’
In the weeks following his death there had been so many things Harriet had wanted to ask him – whether she should hire someone to trim the hedge at the front, if she should buy a large packet of peas or a small one, how to reset the radio channels after a power-cut – but now, in bed in the dark, these questions appeared too trivial. And yet to ask the ones about life and death, and how he was here lying beside her, seemed like bad manners.
Harriet slid her left foot over to his side and touched his hairy leg with her toes, relieved that his body stretched all the way to the bottom of the bed. She remembered how, when they were students and Bahir was thin, they would take baths together in the afternoon and he would lift each of her legs out of the bubbles in turn and shave them tenderly, never nicking her skin, and then he would wash her hair, rinsing it out with fresh water from the rubber hose stuffed onto the ends of the bath taps, and tell her that he loved her. But that was forty years ago when Bahir was a different man, and Harriet supposed, she must have been a different woman too. It was impossible to put a date on when things had changed; a gradual erosion, like a magnificent rock eaten grain by grain by the wind until one day you look and too late, you see it’s half the size it was.
Now, in bed, a tear collected in the corner of Harriet’s eye, ran down her temple and soaked into the pillowcase.
‘I’ve missed you,’ she said. Bahir gave a harrumph. She turned onto her side, propped up her head with one hand, and rubbed Bahir’s large stomach with the other in the way she knew he liked. She could make out his profile against the bedroom curtains – his small nose, his full lips and the dent above his chin that went in slightly too much. ‘Are they feeding you well?’ she said. It was impossible to imagine who was doing the feeding, how he ate.
‘There is not enough spice in the food and the portions are small.’
‘I could get you something now,’ Harriet said, immediately regretting it. There was nothing in the kitchen downstairs that Bahir liked to eat – no chicken or beef, no milky puddings or chocolate. She had been cooking simply since he died, eggs and lentils; things that Bahir claimed gave him indigestion.
‘It is not allowed,’ he sighed. Harriet didn’t ask who made the rules wherever Bahir existed now. When he was alive, he had made them.
‘Your mother’s well,’ Harriet said. ‘She fell over last week, and I thought she’d broken her hip or her wrist, but after giving her the all-clear the doctor said she has the organs of a woman half her age.’
‘A son should not die before his mother.’
Bahir sounded angry, and to stave off one of his tirades, Harriet chose her words carefully. ‘She hasn’t been the same since you went.’ Bahir’s mother had joined the local Bridge Society when her son died and had taken up dancing. Harriet was happy to see less of her.
‘And the business?’ Bahir asked. ‘How is that getting on without me? No doubt you haven’t managed it well.’
Harriet wasn’t sure what to say. A couple of weeks ago one evening she had finally opened the ledger where Bahir used to enter the receipts and payments for the small company he had run from their spare bedroom, importing spices in bulk and re-packaging them for small shops around the country. Harriet had gone through the columns of numbers, adding and subtracting and double checking the information against the paper files. At midnight she started looking through the stock, marking down on an inventory the goods which were unaccounted for or those which hadn’t been received. She went to bed as the sky was getting light. The next day she arranged for her neighbour’s daughter to come round and show her how to turn on Bahir’s computer, how the mouse and cursor worked, how to send an email, and within a few days Harriet had replied to all the outstanding enquiries going back many months. She telephoned the bank and all Bahir’s major customers. The business was doing well.
‘Surviving,’ Harriet said, and then worried the word was inappropriate to say to a dead man. ‘I’ve hired a girl to come round after college and do the packing and the posting. I’m sure you’d like her. Her father owns the post-office on the corner of Richmond Road and…’
‘They wouldn’t stock my spices,’ Bahir cut in.
‘No,’ Harriet said. ‘But she’s a good girl.’ They were both silent and Harriet thought about the girl’s mother, who had become her friend since Bahir died.
‘Have you been walking Rex?’ Bahir asked. He didn’t wait for her to answer. ‘You need to walk him more. A dog that big needs a lot of walking. Didn’t I always take him out twice a day? Once around the block is not enough, not for a dog that big. He needs to run. He is a big dog.’
Harriet closed her eyes, and said, ‘Yes, alright Bahir. I heard you. He’s a big dog.’ And at the same time it occurred to her that she didn’t need to keep the dog which she had never liked, she could find someone else to look after him, walk him, whatever size he was. Bahir could no longer stop her doing anything.
‘Take him in the car up to the Rec and let him off the lead.’
Beside her dead husband Harriet smiled to herself and the couple were silent once more.
After a few minutes, Bahir let out a fleshy snore, a sound that Harriet had wiped from her memory, but now took her immediately back to the years she had lain beside her husband, awake and so tired and angry by the morning that her jaws ached from hours of clamping them together and keeping silent. This time she pinched him hard on the soft skin of his arm. Bahir woke with a yelp.
‘What are you doing, woman?’
‘You were snoring. I don’t want you to snore any more.’
‘I can do what I like in my own bed,’ Bahir shouted.
‘This is my bed now,’ Harriet said calmly. ‘If you’re going to sleep here you have to be quiet.’ She pushed her legs out and flung her arms wide, starfish fashion; they touched nothing except the sheets and Bahir’s pillow. Harriet rolled onto his side of the bed and curled up. She inhaled, and caught the last of Behir’s smell: aftershave and warm bed. And then it was gone.
Claire Fuller's latest novel Our Endless Numbered Days is published by Fig Tree.
At the time of filming Olia Hercules had just written Mamushka – a celebration of the food and flavours of the wild East – from the Black Sea and Baku to Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the film we follow Olia preparing and then hosting a pop-up at Mrs Atha’s in Leeds – in her own words ‘making people happy’ as they break bread together and in the process helping people in her beloved Ukraine. This is real seat-of-the-pants stuff. Olia has one menu in mind but loves to adapt and add according to the people and inspiration around her. Here, working with helpers from the local Gujarati restaurant she decides to add tamarind to the beetroot salad. In her book, Mamushka, Olia talks about wanting, through her food, to give ‘the messy geo-political mosaic a human face’. Watching the story of the pop-up in this film, and in The Wild East Part 2, is that process on a plate.
The book my daughter made: My daughter made this out of clay and paper when she was about four. She dictated the words and drew the pictures herself. It starts, “The fairies were playing on the mountains…”. She’s nineteen now and it’s been on my shelves all that time. There are a lot of books in my house, but this is the one I love the most. My daughter has moved on to other art projects now, but I’m still waiting for her next book.
A pine cone from California: I got married to my husband two and half years ago, and we were lucky enough to go to California on our honeymoon. We visited a few national parks including Sequoia where we went for a walk through the woods and I picked up and brought home this enormous pine cone. I had assumed, mistakenly that the biggest cone would be from the biggest tree, but in fact Sequoia cones are tiny in comparison and this one, I think, is from a sugar pine.
Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin: My Dad gave me this a long time ago. I can’t remember why or where he bought it from, but I’ve kept many things in it over the years. Most recently I would keep coins in it for my children’s school dinner money, but now they’ve grown and left school it only contains a solitary wooden Buddha. I like the fact that it has ‘Superior Reading Biscuits’ written on it, presumably because the Huntley & Palmers factory was based in the town of Reading in Berkshire, England, and not because biscuits are quite nice things to eat while reading.
Memory stick with music from my son: I like to write with music playing – often one musician that suits the style of the novel I’m working on. My son has been writing acoustic guitar songs for a long time and last November I finally persuaded him to give me some as a Christmas present. He hasn’t let anyone else listen to them, and I’ve agreed that I won’t play them to anyone else, but I’m allowed to have them on while I’m writing. Christmas has come and gone, as has my birthday. He’s been putting off giving them to me, but this weekend I’m going to visit him at university and I’m taking this memory stick with me, and I will be coming back with his music.
Claire Fuller's latest novel Our Endless Numbered Days is published by Fig Tree.
This is the first of 6 films on 451 with Dan Pearson covering his life in gardening and his gardens. First shown at his retrospective in the Garden Museum in London they reveal perfectly, in stages, his progression as a designer and plantsman. They also tell us something about gardening as a process, about taking time, looking around us, feeling comfortable in a space and about what harmony in the natural world means when you dissect it and try to replicate it.
In this first film Dan talks about his early inspirations such as the family garden pond where he lay everyday of one summer holiday watching the water turn green and observing the ‘alchemy’ as the green cleared. He also talks about his early mentors such as Geraldine Noyes quoted in the caption and the beginnings of his discovery of the balance of nature and what we disturb when we try to meddle and how we can combine the ornamental and the wild.
In our second film, ‘behind the scenes’ at Albion restaurant, we talk to proprietor Peter Prescott three days before opening. This is Friday afternoon and the official opening is Monday morning. Some customers are there so this is both a live performance and a learning and testing exercise. Every detail is under scrutiny from the number of raspberries on the raspberry tarts to lighting and temperature variations in the space. Most things will be solved by the Monday but with others the testing and tasting will go on for months. It is an exciting and dynamic atmosphere and the vision of Albion Clerkenwell being the hub and feeling like it has been there forever is achieved only by attention to detail, vigilance and the teamwork of about 80 people. The proprietor is both eyes and ears and, of course, anglepoise assembly expert.
‘When you get Frances cooking with her herbs, with her eggs – this is how it should be’.
The neutral background of a mini omelette is a good tasting environment for fresh herbs. It's perfect for that before and after comparison and an opportunity to discuss the correct ingredients for Fines Herbes, whether sweet cicely is a good substitute for parsley and the problems with chervil. For us this was a way to learn about taste and tasting and to be with two people not just doing their jobs but also indulging in their passion for ‘great, pure and clean flavours’.
In Fines Herbes 1 Jeremy talks about experimenting and about the relationship between ingredients and cooking becoming ‘more and more about less and less’. This film shows that to great effect and it also inspired Jeremy to return to Quo Vadis and put an herb omelette on the menu.
‘When Frances cooks it is a reaffirmation and reassurance that an omelette with herbs is one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat’.
This was one of the first films we made for 451. It was filmed at Tatty Devine HQ. We went along to talk to Harriet Vine about the Tatty Devine Autumn Collection but ended up getting an insight into her creative process and discovering what makes an idea a Tatty Devine idea.
The inspiration for the Fortune Teller collection was described by Harriet as science and yet not science, as coming from the world of telekinesis and clairvoyance. This progressed to gypsies and fortune tellers and ‘cross my palm with silver’ and the final piece (described by Harriet as ‘delicious’) comprised hands and a crystal ball.
Working alongside the thought process is the practical instinct of the designer – what does the material add to the idea, how will it work? Tatty Devine are synonymous with laser cut acrylic – what extra element or challenge does that bring to this collection?
There are many interesting and revealing moments in this film but what comes across most strongly is the drive and joy Harriet has in making something that has not been made before.
The reason that the restaurant business is so misunderstood is, ironically, because everyone thinks they understand it.
In some respects, restaurants are a very straightforward proposition: you sit at a table, you order, you consume, and then you pay. In other words, “you give me food, I give you money.” Would-be restaurateurs and chefs, particularly those who hold Master Chef in such high esteem (disclaimer: other reality TV cooking contests are available) go even further. They believe that the ability to throw a decent dinner party is all that is required to open a restaurant. A restaurant is, after all, just a dinner party with a till, isn’t it?
Well, unsurprisingly, no it isn’t. A restaurant is a complex operational and mathematical entity that requires an engine, a skilled crew, a carefully plotted navigational course and a strong and clear identity. Putting a few tables and chairs in a room with a kitchen at the back doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
And yet, because we all dine out and we all have a deep sense of familiarity with restaurants, we think we know how best to run them. And that, I’m afraid, turns us all into critics.
A cursory glance at the heinous TripAdvisor – and for a brilliant diatribe on the self-styled “people’s portal”, please read Marina O’Loughlin’s recent assassination here – reveals any number of amateur restaurant sleuths practically falling over themselves to slag off restaurants, often for imagined slights and negligible niggles. The venom with which some of them attack suggests either psychosis or affiliation with a rival business. Here is a selection of genuine comments from online restaurant reviews written by members of the public. (All typos, spelling mistakes, syntax, bad grammar and borderline illiteracy are the correspondents’ own, not mine.)
“The food was okay but no English food. They say they have but it’s all Greek the waiters were all foreign.”
A Greek restaurant on the Greek island of Crete.
“Staff was really friendly but we ordered drinks and they arrived too quickly.”
Friendly staff, efficient bartenders and fast service: how appalling!
“I didn’t eat anything because I was just having a cocktail but I looked at the menu and it was full of meat. I’m a vegetarian. Disgusting.”
This reviewer awarded the restaurant one star out of five without actually dining...
“my tomato salad was just tomatoes for £4.50 that i could buy in Tescos for £1”
A reviewer who clearly doesn’t get out much.
“We had high expectations because of all the great reviews but although the food was good, it didn’t blow me away. We expected more from such a famous restaurant.”
A two star review for a legendary London restaurant.
Now, it is the sentiment in this last review that really gets my dander up. How can an imagined experience or an assumed level of awesomeness be used to measure your critical response to a restaurant? This dichotomy is often exacerbated when the reservation is hard to come by because of a restaurant’s popularity. And add to that the tantalising wait of a few months between booking the table and arriving for dinner, expectations can be so high that no amount of superb cooking, attentive service and scintillating atmosphere will meet them. It is my personal belief that the people with whom you dine are as important to a restaurant experience as anything else, and sitting at the table, arms folded, defiantly staring into the room and waiting to be entertained will always end in disappointment. If that festers as the evening wears on, it can often end with a late night rant on TripAdvisor (or the like) where keyboard warriors vent spleen because there was no linen on the tables and the sommelier didn’t levitate.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course. I just wish they wouldn’t post their gripes in the form of an online “review”. If we have issues with our meal, we should take it up with the restaurant there and then. In my experience, the manager will always, always try to put things right. If we leave the restaurant without giving them an opportunity to fix a problem, we lose the right to complain later wearing our internet invisibility cloak.
Finally, if you must read postings on review websites and forums, follow this essential tip: ignore all the five star reviews (they were written by the owner) and ignore all the zero/one star reviews (they were written by the owner’s competitors and insane people.) What’s left is, usually, a lot more reliable.
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.
‘Believe it or not, it is a farm’, says Michel Roux Jr in one of our best subjects and films to date. The sustainability message is clear and the science is intriguing but it is the location that blows your mind. If ever there was an argument for location, location, location this is it. Thirty-three metres under Clapham Common this subterranean farm produces over 2,000 packs of micro herbs and salad per day. From micro broccoli and celery to pea shoots and wasabi mustard Growing Underground supplies Londoners with this amazing produce within 8-12 hours from harvest. Here we see Michel Roux taking about the sheer childlike adventure of these secret tunnels and the explosion of flavour that results from this very controlled environment. We hear about the early days of trial and error and the process from germination to harvest.
There is a wonderful serendipity in the fact that these tunnels, used by Londoners during WW2 are now used to feed Londoners. Even the stacked system they use to grow the herbs and salads mirrors the bunk beds used to harbour around 8,000 people.
Growing Underground is also offering very special tasting tour to 451life members – click on offers and apply now.
Twelve hours after salting, Ole prepares the salmon for the smokehouse. It’s a careful, intuitive process and each stage affects the final taste and texture of the salmon. Ole calls it a soft process. He fixes the anchor points in each fillet of salmon, hangs them on hooks and then rinses them off one by one. Once the water drips off the fish they are taken into the smoking chamber.
Ole’s grandfather believed that the movement of the salmon in the ‘wind’ of the smokehouse affected the enzymes and proteins and helped the flavour to migrate through the flesh. They are smoked in a mixture of beech and juniper - the beech is for the sweetness and the juniper is for the poetry. This seems to us to be an essential part of the craft – the romance of the process has an indefinable influence on the end product. Many brands spend years manufacturing this but here in this smokehouse it just happens.
A short story by K J Orr
September 18, Buenos Aires
The beginning is simple enough: I find myself in the park due to a sudden and overwhelming urge to go to the museum.
People speak of the shock of retirement. They warn of the possibility of profound depression. However, this is not something I expect for myself. The life I have built here over the years keeps me more than occupied, regardless of work. And so it comes as a surprise to me – this nervous and shifty feeling on waking. It is as if I can only sidle up to the day, like a neurotic suitor.
My restlessness increasingly translates itself into abrupt impulses. To put it bluntly, an urge presents itself much in the manner of the need to urinate or defecate, and demanding immediate action. It is due to just such an impulse that I find myself on the steps of the museum at an absurdly early hour without any real justification for being there.
The museum – established many years ago, and in part with my family’s money – houses a moderate collection of European art, mostly paintings, some sculpture, in a building of national importance, warranting both attention and preservation. It is a while since I’ve been there. Not since ’93 perhaps.
It is closed, of course. Everywhere is closed at this time of day.
I consider my options. I could return to the apartment. Carolina will be there soon enough to make my coffee and breakfast. However I have woken to a clear sky and it remains fine. It has been neither a long walk nor an unpleasant one, passing through the park. Under the circumstances I decide to walk on.
The jacarandas are coming into bloom. It is spring – and early enough in the day to find some moments of peace before the city’s traffic starts spewing noise and fumes.
I find myself gravitating to the edge of the park in the hope of locating a newspaper stand before heading for home.
It is odd how places local to us can remain invisible for so long – until one day they simply present themselves.
The café sits directly on the corner of what is, by day, a busy avenue. It is set back however, separated by railings, a broad curve of paving stones, and the beginnings of a long colonnade.
I cross the avenue and look in. I see a mahogany bar and small, round tabletops. There is no one in sight.
I try the door; it opens. I enter, and take a seat.
From my table I can see the park opposite, with its careful beds of colour, its gravelled paths and ornamental fountains.
As I wait, I watch light enter through the deco windows that overlook the colonnade. I watch greens and reds and blues from the stained glass play across the black and white tiling on the floor. They meddle with its orderly geometry.
I glance up and see a woman standing behind the bar. I have not been aware of her. She wears a pressed white shirt, a long black apron tied tight about her waist.
Cafecito, por favor.
When she serves me I notice her hands.
It becomes a habit. I spend every morning at the café, at the same table, served always by the same woman. She is the only person working there at this hour.
I wake myself up every day at five. It becomes automatic, no need for an alarm. I throw on clothes, and head out. I stroll in the park – without fail I go to the museum. I stand on the steps, look up at the door – it is always closed, the museum always shut. I observe the building for a few moments, and walk on. I trace my path beside the row of jacarandas.
At the edge of the park I cross the avenue. I look through the window of the café before entering and sitting in my usual spot.
The first morning I order my coffee in Spanish and every morning afterwards I do the same. This is unusual. Both in my line of work and in my social life I have been most used to speaking English – other than for that period at the start of the ’80s. I was schooled in England and trained for my profession there, so the language is habitual. It would be accurate to say that by and large I reserve the use of Spanish for communication with Carolina, and other help.
I might also mention that the clothes I am wearing on the first day I continue to wear every day, at this hour. I dress in haste – and while I do not quite head out in night attire the general effect cannot be far off. I am not one given to wearing sporting clothes outside the home, but a tracksuit is near enough the truth. I look as though I might have been speed-walking, for health. Suffice to say that according to my usual standards I am unrecognisable.
Now, therefore, I find myself each day close to home, in my neighbourhood, but at an hour when no one I know is about. I do not look as I usually would. I do not speak as I usually do.
The moment anyone else enters the café, I leave.
The rest of my day continues as before. I go home. I shower. I change into something more appropriate. Carolina has my breakfast prepared, as ever. I spend the day in social engagements.
I have spoken of my retirement as something unnerving, but I am not to be pitied. I live in the city’s most expensive district. My work introduced me to the wealthiest and most beautiful of Buenos Aires. I made them more beautiful under my knife; they made me wealthier. I was adopted into their circle, popular for my skills as a surgeon, but also for a family history woven through the streets in plaques and memorials: a flawless pedigree.
It is in truth quite some time since I’ve paid much attention to family. As a young man in the fifties, I longed to be rid of the burden of their decency. I could not bear the thought of following their traditions, their moral imperatives, faithfully treading the path of generations like a mule. I had inherited a good mind, and after some years of training in Oxford, England, I qualified as a surgeon, only to turn my hand to facelifts. I considered myself very clever indeed. I believe I was in pursuit of something perverse – the more vulgar the better. I returned to Buenos Aires and set up shop on home turf to make an exhibition of myself. The family were appalled of course, and I stopped seeing them.
It was a game. I took pleasure in playing the subversive. It suited me well.
The waitress asks me what I do for a living.
I laugh. I’m an old man. I’m retired.
She persists. She wants to know.
This is not a conversation I want to have. I enjoy being a stranger. I like this woman knowing nothing of my life, or who I am. I would like to keep it that way.
But it’s the first sign of interest she has shown me, and it would be rude not to respond. Our relationship until now – though largely mute – has been a thing of pleasure. It’s hard to explain.
I pause before speaking. I can say anything. I can say I was a poet. I was a road sweeper. I was a baker. I was an architect. She’ll never know.
I thrived. It didn’t matter who was in charge – throughout the decades, through all the ins and outs, the various shenanigans our country went through. While the leadership had wives and mistresses I was in demand. And while I have never possessed matinée idol looks, I flatter myself that I was their Hephaestus – these women love being done by an ugly man if he is craftsman to the gods.
I tell her I was a surgeon. I am not more specific than that.
I think it will end there, our chat, but she interprets what I say – she assumes I was a general surgeon, and goes on to tell me about the man who saved her brother’s life when she was eight, at the time her father disappeared. Of course, not everyone has had my easy run through the years.
Her eyes are warm as she relates this tale, nonetheless. She even takes a seat on the chair across from mine. When she has finished – the story is not long, but quite moving – she studies me in open admiration.
I know that I can end it there and then. A couple of words would suffice. But I don’t.
She holds out her hand and shakes mine, solemnly – as if we have some pact – before standing, putting the chair back in position, and resuming work.
I remain at my table. I finish my coffee. I retain the sensation of the smooth swell of scar tissue I felt against my palm as she took my hand. Not burns as I had first thought, but what must have been deep lacerations, horizontal, on both of her palms.
I think to myself, again, what does it matter? What does it matter what she thinks I did, the sort of man she imagines I have been.
When I get up to leave she stops what she’s doing and smiles at me from behind the bar.
I’m Beatriz, she says.
I maintain the illusion she’s created. It’s not hard. If she likes thinking of me as some sort of hero, should I stop her? I like these mornings, and am loath to disrupt them. I like the silent agreement, the way she mostly ignores me, works around me. And she obviously admires the work she thinks I have done.
Our mornings continue. The days are warm. The jacarandas bloom like fists unfurling underneath clear skies.
Irene Varela-Morales. She is an acquaintance – in her fifties. She doesn’t see me sitting in the corner, and I have no particular wish to be seen.
I gave her a noble nose. It improved things immeasurably and she’s well aware of it. She carries herself in such a way that her profile is always seen to full advantage.
Irene stands impatiently – though making sure she’s side-on to the approaching waitress – unwilling, it seems, either to take a seat or stand by the bar. There is a brief exchange – she doesn’t look at my Beatriz – and then she takes a table near the door. She faces away from the bar, towards the street.
Beatriz leaves to fulfil the order she has been given but is called back. Irene stands, and – visibly irritated, still side-on, without looking at Beatriz – casts her wrap across the table, into her face, with great force. Such is her surprise, and the speed with which it is slung, that it is all Beatriz can do to catch the thing before it slips to the floor.
She takes it, smooths it, hangs it on the stand beside the door. Irene could have done it herself. The stand is right there.
Beatriz says nothing. She returns to the bar.
Soon she is back at the table, putting down a coffee, milk and water, with a plate of medialunas.
The moment she has gone Irene calls her back. She speaks in English with a phoney American drawl. She says, ‘I don’t want that,’ of the medialunas, and ‘I asked for hot milk. Take this back.’
Beatriz doesn’t answer. She looks at the jug that Irene’s holding out. ‘Leche. Caliente,’ Irene says slowly.
Beatriz goes back to the bar and, moments later, returns with another jug.
‘It really shouldn’t be this complicated,’ Irene says. She speaks first in English and then follows it with Spanish.
She plays this game a good while.
A clean one.
Beatriz adjusts the awning over the windows, outside – the sun is in Irene’s eyes.
When she departs, she doesn’t leave a tip.
It is true that the people can be rude here in Recoleta, where there is so much money. The very wealthy too often forget their manners – maybe because they have no cause to remember them. Often they give the impression that it is not forgetfulness at all but clear intention that makes them do it, a kind of assertion of their greater importance in the world; a ruse of sorts that often works – at the very least, superficially.
I see it in Beatriz’s face.
It is true that many of them are my neighbours – these people are the sort of people I have known, my friends, even; though I have had no reason to discuss this with her. We have set the parameters of our acquaintance.
She pulls out the chair that sits across from me a second time. She lights a cigarette.
‘When they want to take their time, they take their time,’ she says. ‘When they want to get out of here quickly, they do. They want what they want and they make it known. “This is what I want. This is not what I want. What is this? This is not what I ordered. Get the manager – my maid called to reserve and this idiot didn’t write it down.” These people – they throw their money at you. They never look you in the eye. They like to assume that you are stupid. Maybe it’s more fun that way.’
She shrugs. She stubs out her cigarette, and then she gives me that smile. ‘These people,’ she says.
I don’t know how to respond. I reach across the table to take a sip of coffee but somehow – my hand is trembling, it’s been happening of late – I spill it. ‘Stupid,’ I say. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘They have been working hard, these hands. Give them a break,’ she says.
She takes my hand between her palms.
I cannot remember whether my acquaintance with Irene was simply professional, or more.
I have been acquainted with a number of women. The term ‘acquaintance’ is undoubtedly correct. I have not been one for long alliances.
I was married – once – an odd, abortive affair.
I have been so used to unravelling women, peeling back their faces, constantly imagining them into something other than they are.
It is not that I have not enjoyed them – far from it – but they are no more or less than the sum of their parts.
Irene Varela-Morales returns to the café. She brings a friend, Valentina – I forget, but I think the surname is Suarez.
They assault my table.
‘I told you he was hiding out in this place.’
She claims she spotted me from the first – knew she recognised me, but couldn’t place me in those ghastly clothes.
Valentina launches herself. ‘Look at you! I can’t believe you thought you’d get away with it!’
‘What a bad, bad, naughty boy,’ adds Irene.
Impossible to pretend that I don’t know them, that they’ve made a mistake. I’m just not quick enough off the mark. It’s far too complicated to attempt.
They seat themselves. Beatriz approaches. I try not to say more than I need, although the damage is done.
They order in English. I order another coffee, in Spanish.
She walks away. I watch her shoulders become small, like those of a child.
The conversation develops. I try to resist the talk of mutual acquaintances but can’t for long. Impossible to sit there and say nothing.
They talk loudly these women. They dominate any space they are in. It’s their way. If Beatriz were hiding in the kitchen she would hear every word.
‘So, Alfredo Martinez is dead.’
‘Not before time.’
‘Irene! Terrible!’ Valentina snorts.
‘Come on, but it’s true. He was ancient. They absolutely stuffed him for the coffin. He’d lost a lot of weight.’
‘And such a handsome man once. He really could have done with some work before such a public display.’
‘Mean of you not to offer, Julio Ortiz. A gentleman like you.’
‘I’m no longer able, as perhaps you know – my hands,’ I say. ‘And it’s not yet standard practice to offer a facelift to a corpse.’
‘You can do me any day,’ Irene drawls. ‘Dead or alive.’
‘Me too!’ Valentina adds.
‘But what about your hands? Don’t you try to tell me that they’ve lost their touch.’
‘Now, don’t be coy. We all know who has the magician’s fingers in BA!’
They laugh together. They are in fits at this smut.
I can’t help it; I am chuckling too.
They leave ahead of me, with promises of drinks, very soon, from all of us.
I linger on in the café, not sure what it is that I am waiting for. Beatriz has left the bill on the table. There is no further need for her to appear. I know she will not.
I take out my wallet and rifle for notes. My hand is shaking, yet again, and I drop it on the floor.
I have to get down on my knees. I gather up the notes that have fallen, pick up my wallet and, overheated, sit back in my chair.
I am still clasping a handful of notes. I put them away, and leave the precise amount on the bill, no more, no less, in small change.
I walk away from my table and out of the door, without looking back. I feel profound melancholy. The door swings shut.
Pay attention. This is important.
She is not beautiful. Her face is not symmetrical. As a rule of thumb beauty requires symmetry, and as with so many people, the two sides of her face don’t match.
Her left eye opens wider than her right – when she is tired her right eye can look half closed. In fact, there is a kind of heaviness to the right side of her face, as if it were somehow more susceptible – to what . . . gravity, grief?
Her lower lip is larger than her upper, and there is a jaggedness to the outline of the upper that is at odds with the whole. She has a dimple that is stretching to a deep line on her right cheek.
A smoker. Indeed, we have smoked together. It is a passion we share. I know, regardless, that she has smoked for some years, from the traces of lines on her upper lip; again, on the right.
Her left-hand side is something else. Her eye is bright and alert, a sense of humour always close at hand. She has green eyes, I may not have mentioned. Whereas on the right the lines that cluster around her eye add age and some sadness, on the left they appear to bear witness to laughter, joie de vivre.
She has a minimal cleft in her chin – almost another dimple – which lends her face strength overall.
When she smokes, she plants the cigarette between her teeth, in the very centre, as she lights it. Her first drag then is forthright, determined, before the cigarette wanders off to the right and hangs loosely, as if it might drop from her lips.
She has dark hair. It is of medium length, and most often tied back.
She is moderately tall.
She is – to hazard a guess, taking into account the puffiness beneath the eyes, the lines now visible on her forehead, the loss of youthful volume in her lips – in her late thirties.
She has a small waist. She has scarred hands.
‘Disappearances’ was the winner of the 2016 BBC National Short Story Award. An anthology of the award’s shortlisted stories is published by Comma Press and also as an ebook.
Good animal husbandry takes centre stage for Tom Adams of Coombeshead Farm – the much lauded guesthouse and restaurant in East Cornwall. We caught up with him when the idea for Coombeshead was just forming and met him at ‘Pigtopia’. We grabbed a unique moment with Tom and his favourite pig, Florence.
It’s quite an undertaking to decide to be your own supplier and yet listening to Tom talk about it and watching the pigs in this environment it seems a no brainer. These hardy woodland pigs that look like sheep are incredible characters (truth be told Florence in our experience thinks she is a cow). They are Mangalitzas, originally from Austria/Hungary around the Carpathian mountains. Their natural habit of living in woodland, routing for food and taking much longer to grow than other breeds are mirrored here at Pigtopia.
Being involved in the process is key to Tom. At his new venture at Coombeshead, Tom, alongside business partner and acclaimed chef April Bloomfield, takes this ethos one step further - everything is grown, reared and made on site.
This is a unique interview with Frances Smith. Seen in our earlier films, Fines Herbes 1 & 2 with Jeremy Lee, here she talks to 451 about the ‘gardening mindset’.
Frances is one of a long tradition of women who have developed herblore and was famous amongst chefs for her herbs and vegetables and her monthly newsletters. In this conversation she shares her knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for her nibbling safaris, her ‘fancy mustard’ and talks to us about helping ‘all the herbs’ to make ‘all the flavours they want to’.
As she says, 'this is a garden not a farm…we look after the plants as if they are individual people’.
Earlier this month, anti-noise campaigners Pipedown called for a ban on music in restaurants. That’s ALL music in ALL restaurants. They believe that the enjoyment of a nice meal can be severely marred or even ruined by the mellifluous strains of Acker Bilk or the mellow rhythms of Chet Faker. (Well, I suppose they’d have a point with Acker Bilk.) Pipedown cite “getting the order wrong” and “missing the punch line to a joke” as two of the catastrophes that might befall diners in a restaurant that plays music. Joanna Lumley is a supporter. If you are too, and you hate listening to music while you eat, they suggest going straight to the top by encouraging strongly-worded letters to CEOs of large organisations, and they advocate leaving stinking reviews on Trip Advisor if a hotel or restaurant plays music (because, clearly, there isn’t enough whingeing on there already.)
Now, call me eccentric, but if I go to a restaurant and I don’t like an aspect of what it does, I just don’t go back. I wouldn’t start a campaign to change the colour of the walls, or to improve the brand of liquid soap used in the loos, or to lobby for different crockery, cutlery or glassware. I’d just enjoy what’s important (food, wine, service, company) and if something really jarred, I’d choose to go somewhere else next time. No biggie. Trying to change such a fundamental part of a business is simply choosing battles that really don’t need to be fought. It’d be like going into Primark and complaining that they don’t sell Marks & Spencer underwear.
But when it comes to music in restaurants, I actually quite like it. I’m not talking about muzak, that nasty background mush that normally consists of popular tunes played by easy-listening orchestras, made famous in elevators the world over in the 1960s. I’m talking about intelligently put-together playlists that add to the dining experience, bring a little of the atmosphere of a good party, and have diners getting up out of their seats with their iPhones to Shazam next to the speakers in order to find out what that great track is. And with good music, it really is all or nothing. There is no point keeping the volume so low that no one can identify the band or the song – you may as well have opted for heinous wallpaper muzak after all.
I once gave a talk at a literary festival and spoke for 40 minutes on the London restaurant scene, its challenges, emerging trends and future predictions. There was a Q&A afterwards and, I’m not kidding, all the audience wanted to know was “why couldn’t restaurants get more comfortable chairs?” and “what do you do if someone at a neighbouring table is laughing too loudly?” Some people are determined to dislike their experience even before they leave the house to set off for the restaurant.
But, as they say, be careful what you wish for: You might just get it. I went to a new barbecue restaurant recently where the heavily-inked chef, looking more like the lead guitarist in Williamsburg punk band than a cook, swung, chopped, sauced and grilled his way through service, right in front of you (a sort-of meaty, hipster teppanyaki). The food was fantastic and the experience exhilarating, if slightly exhausting. But the music! Oh my god, the music. I’m not exaggerating when I say the vibrations from the speakers made the forks move across the table and the water in our glasses ripple. Conversation was conducted in bellows and clumsy sign language and my ears were ringing for a good few hours after the meal. On the way out, the charming female host (who turned out to be the rock ‘n’ roll chef’s girlfriend) asked if everything had been OK. I said that it had been excellent, in fact, but that the heavy metal playlist had been turned up to ear-bleeding levels. “Oh, we like the music very loud in here,” she said. “It keeps the old people away.”
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.
Very early one winter's morning 451 went to film Ole Hansen, the urban salmon smoker. We wanted to find out about his life as an artisan and to talk to him about why his salmon tastes so special.
In the late 1800s, Lyder-Nilsen was a salmon fisherman in Kirkenes, a small town in the Norwegian county of Finnmark, 240 miles north of the Arctic Circle. His smoked salmon was a great local success. Four generations later, Ole Hansen built a replica of his great-grandfather’s smokehouse in an old printing works in Stoke Newington in London.
Our first impressions were that this was a lifestyle with a distinct pattern and rhythm. Ole gets up at the same time every morning and goes through the same process but it is far from boring. This is real, meaningful and tactile work. The process is the point – it’s about touch and sight and taste and the knowledge gained from doing something over and over again.
Albion is a restaurant that describes itself as a celebration of Britain and the local area in every sense – wherever it’s location. 451 were lucky enough to be present at the very early stage in the development of Albion Clerkenwell – the mother ship! We are at the drawing board and also in the empty shell a few months before opening. The architect, Isabelle Chatel de Brancion, gives us a behind-the scenes view into the process right from early discussions to the evolution of the space and the design. Working closely with the Proprietor Peter Prescott and Sir Terence Conran this is a shared interpretation of Britishness – from the red and white theme upstairs to the countryside theme in the British charcuterie and cheese section and the more industrial feel to the pie room. As Isabelle says in the film it is ‘all about the materials, no faking’.
Watch out for part two next week, Restaurant Part 2: The Proprietor. Albion is just about to open – is it all ready, have they got it right?
Harriet Vine and Rosie Wolfenden’s journey from art school to market stall to the pages of Vogue and the aisles of Harvey Nichols was a remarkable and very quick. They have sustained and grown their very distinct ‘brand’ in an uncompromising and very British way.
In this film Harriet describes their time at Chelsea Art School as ‘an amazing opportunity to look at the world at a slant’. That seems to us to be key to their success and it is an outlook they have sustained and developed.
In our earlier film The Fortune Teller, Harriet talks about their jewellery having to work. It must not break when you jump up and down ‘on the dance floor’, it should sit back and look like it is meant to look when the dancing is over. In this film Harriet talks more about her process and the development of an idea, the demands of the material and the ideas of a form having presence – something she can sense at that very early drawing stage.
One of three 'ambient' films that were first shown at the Garden Museum retrospective on Dan Pearson. The films feature long sequences and natural sound effects to recreate the sense of being in these unique environments and spaces designed by Dan Pearson. These are truly immersive films but they are also 'visual radio', films to accompany your routine.
If you view these films on a larger screen you can experience the original effect of the installations at the Garden Museum.
In this series of films with Dan Pearson we have heard him speak about his mentors, his ‘career’ decisions and the lessons he has learnt professionally. In this film all the other conversations converge. We meet Dan at home, at his latest and most personal project – a 20-acre smallholding in the English countryside.
This is his third summer here and he feels he is just ‘getting his eye in’ and beginning to understand to ‘unlock’ the landscape around him. This is a long-term project – Dan says he is happy for it to take ten or twenty years. Not only are gardens an environment which contain history, materiality, time and light but in observing them we are also looking at how people have used them and how we will use the space. That takes time; it should as Dan says be, ‘discovered gently’.
Having watched Ole at work and tasted his salmon we wanted to find out what it meant to him to be an artisan. How would he define that term and how would he describe the journey he is on?
In this film Ole talks to us about what came first. His desire to create a taste from his childhood and then his moment of realisation that he did not have to return to Norway to do that, he could do it in London. Ole says in the film that ‘we are just communicating exactly what we do’. That is more a distillation than a description. The day to day process is intuitive and repetitive but it comes from taste memory, a hands on knowledge, an ability to problem solve and persistence.
This is not about ‘how to’ but about creating and telling a story – every day. His suppliers, all family businesses, are all part of that; from the salt used at the start of the process to the wood in the smokehouse to the paper used to wrap the final product.
There is a scene in the movie Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicholson’s character Bobby attempts to order breakfast in a roadside diner. He wants plain toast, which isn’t on the menu, but the restaurant has a strict “no substitutions” policy.
Bobby: I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee and wheat toast.
Waitress: No substitutions.
Bobby: What do you mean? You don’t have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what’s on the menu. You can have a #2 – a plain omelette, it comes with cottage fries and rolls.
Bobby: I know what it comes with but it’s not what I want.
Waitress: I’ll come back when you’ve made up your mind.
Bobby: Wait a minute. I have made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I’m sorry we don’t have any side orders of toast. English muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast, you make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager? I don’t make the rules.
Bobby: OK. I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A #2, a chicken salad sand, hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Although extreme, it’s a good example of how to order off-menu and a precursor to the peculiarly Californian trait of power-ordering that became so prevalent in the 1990s and persists to this day. But whereas Bobby’s motivation is straightforward (he just wants plain toast) menu-manipulation these days belies a more modern motivation: health.
Walk into Waterstones and you will find bookshelves positively groaning with beautiful hardbacks full of recipes by radiant young women selling alternative lifestyles of avocado, alfalfa shoots and abstinence. These books are best-sellers, simultaneously preying on our desire to lighten our lives, exist more healthily, and fit into a bikini in August. But this all comes at a cost, and the headlong hurtle towards health has left two casualties, injured and forgotten on the roadside: flavour and enjoyment.
In my restaurants, I see this on a daily basis. We are regularly asked to “hold the Parmesan.” It is now common to hear a request for “no butter.” And the most frequent foible of them all is for a dressing or sauce “on the side.” It is this last deviation which upsets chefs the most because, I suppose, it is effectively saying “I don’t trust you to use the perfect amount of jus/sauce/dressing as befits your judgement, training and experience, so I would like it in a little jug for me to use at my discretion or not at all.”
As well as removing the main vehicle for flavour from a dish, leaving the sauce or dressing in solitary confinement, isolated in a ramekin, compromises the whole presentation; it makes the food look unfinished and unappetising. With salads in particular, turning leaves over in a large bowl with just the right amount of dressing incorporates the ingredients, it binds them and transforms them from a bunch of dry leaves to a dish full of flavour and nuance. Dressing can be alchemic, elevating simple constituents to a level that is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Adding a little dribble at the table just isn’t the same thing at all.
Now, what these self-proclaimedly healthy cookbooks do, what the distrust of sauces, dressings, butter and cheese contributes, and what the promotion of abstinence (yes, Five:Two Diet, I’m looking at you) achieves, is to make us suspicious of richness and flavour. We are in danger of tolerating and subsequently accepting a culinary environment where blandness is ok. And let me assure you, it most definitely is not. I even see evidence of this dark conspiracy on supermarket shelves. Packets of chicken breast outnumber chicken thighs by five-to-one. (Breast = lean, bland, healthy. Thigh = fatty, tasty, unhealthy.) Low-fat spreads and margarines dominate the butter cabinet. Diet versions of popular foodstuffs (mayonnaise, biscuits, soups, coleslaw, hummus) battle for space next to their original counterparts. It’s depressing.
If there is to be one sanctuary from this pervasive march towards gustatory mediocrity, please let it be the restaurant. At least here, allow the chef to do his or her thing, enjoy the food, and relax in the assumption that the person in the kitchen has the best interests of your taste buds at heart. No substitutions.
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.
Experience a pop up restaurant first hand in this second part of Olia Hercules’ adventure in Leeds. Both behind the scenes, front of house and as the very lucky diners, any myths that Eastern European food is grey, brown and unappetising are completely dispelled. If being a chef in a restaurant is like live theatre every night then this really is the sharp end. It’s a one off, to a new crowd, and for a cause that matters. Green borscht, super garlicky poussins, Georgian beans, chopped beetroot salad, soviet pickled carrots. All accompanied by sourdough made by Olia’s friend with natural yeast from the Ukraine (tasting of the Ukrainian meadow) and followed by Ukrainian baked cheesecake with a very English twist - rhubarb and strawberry compote.
In this first film, Beth Chatto guides us through her world-famous gardens at Elmstead Market in Essex. ‘All my gardens have a story,’ she says. Although they are sited in one of the driest regions of Britain, you would never know that when you see the exuberant foliage growing around the series of large ponds in the Damp Garden.
From the lush foliage of the Damp Garden, we are lead up to the Reservoir Garden, home to many of Beth’s ‘family’ of favourite plants, species perennials, growing where they are happiest in conditions matching their native homes.
The Woodland Garden came about after the 1987 storm battered the Essex countryside bringing down many ancient trees. This gave Beth the opportunity to create one of her most loved areas with an understory of spring bulbs with carpets of snowdrops and hellebores relishing the cool conditions.
Finally, Beth leads us to her most famous creation, the Gravel Garden. Once the nursery’s car park, it is now the leading inspiration for dry garden planting across the world.
Photograph of my maternal grandparents: My grandmother lived with us since we came over here from Iran in 1979 and she’s almost like my mum. My mum was always here but she was more like my cool older sister. I was really very very close to my grandmother. She was tiny, beautiful and fiery – not fiery in a temperamental way but she was a very strong character. Everybody loved her. She was very outspoken but also the most generous person I’ve ever known in my life. She was a real provocateur – just cheeky and naughty and hilarious. Unfortunately my grandfather passed away in 1979 so I didn’t really get to know him but he’s very very special to me still.
Medals belonging to my maternal grandfather: He was very privileged to travel for much of his career and worked with governments around the world to improve labour conditions. In his career he was awarded lots of medals including a Nobel Peace Prize, the Legion of Honour, and an order from the King of Belgium. I was always fascinated with his medals as a child and I’ve always thought that if I ever up sticks and move, they’re going with me. They’re my connection to family, really.
My grandmother’s elephant purse: My grandmother was a very glamorous lady and she didn’t like touching coins, she was more of a notes person. So she always had a hideous little coin purse, she had lots of them, but this is the only one left in the house. And I love it. At times she would say, ‘Here you are, take it. Go out and buy yourself something,” and it would just be rammed with pound coins. Now I use it to put my credit cards in when I’m going out in the evening with a clutch bag. I could never throw it away!
My mum’s 1970s Gucci purse: This is from pre-1979 when things were very different in Iran. It’s vintage, it’s my mum’s, it’s about her youth and I held on to it in my youth. I just love it.
1980s Game Boy: It’s something that has forever been in my dresser drawer and I could never throw it away because it’s my childhood: it’s my childhood and how blessed we were, how lucky I was. I remember exactly when I got it. My cousins had one too and we just thought it was amazing. When I was a kid it was the 1980s and we didn’t have all the stuff kids have today like ipads and iphones. So this is just a nice thing that reminds me of my childhood.
Ray-Ban sunglasses: I can’t leave the house without sunglasses. I’m the only person on the Saturday Kitchen challenge board with sunglasses on my head! It’s not that I have them on my face – I’m not one of those idiots who wear sunglasses on the tube! I have them on my head and they keep my hair out of my face. I have two pairs and they’re just good old Ray-Bans; they’re timeless.
One of three 'ambient' films that were first shown at the Garden Museum retrospective on Dan Pearson. The films feature long sequences and natural sound effects to recreate the sense of being in these unique environments and spaces designed by Dan Pearson. These are truly immersive films but they are also 'visual radio', films to accompany your routine.
If you view these films on a larger screen you can experience the original effect of the installations at the Garden Museum.
A short story by Jill Dawson
The mist was falling as we arrived at the jetty. Mackay was just as I remembered him. Skin as crumpled as an old tobacco leaf, cap pulled low, eyes that slid away whenever you searched his face too hard. He lifted my case onto the boat, asked if Mr Johnston wasnae coming, then, after all? I said that my husband had been detained by business and would arrive tomorrow morning and I hoped they could send a boat for him at sunrise? Mackay nodded.
The rain felt soft on our faces. Mackay held out his hand as my foot slipped a little on the algae growing slimy on the jetty. ‘Watch that, darling,’ I said, over my shoulder to Ben. ‘Aye, gets pretty treacherous,’ Mackay muttered.
Ben sat beside me on the small plastic seat, tendrils of blond hair dripping, sou-wester pulled up to his chin. Trying, I knew, to look tough. His first trip out on the water since the accident. My heart did a little flip, as it always did, at the painfulness of what it must be to be a boy. I nodded towards the life-jacket pointedly left by Mackay on the seat beside us but Ben shook his head. A grin flitted. Mum. I always felt better when he teased me. Fussing again. Only a fifteen minute trip.
Mackay whipped the engine into life and a waft of diesel drifted up. Last time I’d seen herons, four juveniles lined up at the shore, as if to see us off. I looked for them now but mist clotted the air. Ben stared out to sea. A muscle in one cheek stood out, shiny with rain.
I considered pulling him close to me, but resisted. We huddled behind Mackay as the pitiless open boat began to hit the waves in jerky thuds. Grey softness hid the sea until the green lump of the island at last appeared.
‘There it is’, I murmured. Mist made Ben invisible, hazy. ‘Do you remember collecting mussels there? They call it ‘the island that loves to be visited’...’
The hood hid his eyes. He was almost with me. Mackay cut the engine. He tied the boat to the jetty before helping me. He loaded our case onto the quad bike and trailer, and set off, towards the house.
Ben pushed his hood down, gazing at the house: the croquet lawn, the tennis courts, the spruces. Yes, he remembered the island. He’d loved the squirrels that chased around tree trunks, the way lights twirl up a barber’s pole.
Mrs McAllister had the fire lit. ‘Just you then?’ she asked. She showed me the bottle of wine in the fridge, and the fish pie she’d left in the Aga.
‘I’ll be off up the lodge,’ she said. ‘Shall I lock up behind me when I leave?’
‘No, it’s fine…’ She had surely heard something; she looked at me differently. She didn’t look at Ben at all.
The kitchen was warm with a fish-scented fug; wind whistling outside. I spooned fish pie onto warmed plates. Ben and I tucked in. His man-sized appetite; always so comforting. We raised a glass of wine to the island. He’ll be sixteen this summer. I can allow that.
But as dawn broke, something changed. Even in sleep I could feel it, something in my heartbeat; tapping at the window. Pink light crept under the curtain and a boyish voice called: ‘Mum, mum! Let me in!’
I sat up. Here it came. Did I dare to open the curtain? I could hear the wind, like blood rushing in my head. I pulled at the heavy linen drapes, and there in the glass was his face. His big eyes. A look so anguished, so alone, I almost screamed.
I grabbed my dressing gown and ran barefoot downstairs, pushing the front door (it felt as if someone was behind it, holding it firm) dashing across the lawn, wet grass underfoot.
‘Ben! I’m here!’
How did he get there – where was he? He had always loved to climb. What had driven him from his bed? What was he doing - was he at the water’s edge? Oh, it was a mistake to bring him, a mistake; Daniel had been right. We’d fought about it, and Daniel had cancelled our flights to Scotland. I’d booked myself onto a separate flight, rented a car without him and now he was on his way here, following. The siren call of it: the island which loves to be visited.
I ran to the shore. Dawn light stained the water sepia, icy cold lapped my toes. I started to see something…. a shape. Ben?
No, a boat. I could hear the soft purr of an engine approaching. Now I could make out the figure of Mackay and another figure hunched beside him. Ben? Had Mackay found him?
No. Daniel was standing up, and I could tell that he was concerned. He was waving. Did he know something; had he found him?
‘Oh Daniel’, I sobbed as he stepped onto the pontoon. ‘Ben was here! He was at the window and… I can’t find him!’
Daniel put his arms around me.
‘Love…’, Daniel said, ‘…he’s gone. The accident. You know that. Let’s get you back to the house.’ The two men talked softly, something important, something about me.
Yes. I knew Ben was dead. He drowned on a school kayaking trip, that summer, five years ago. Fifteen years old. The sunny one, always leaping, always diving into water. Playful, natural, the one without fear. This was our last holiday together.
But I had known that if I held my breath, one last trip over water, he would come.
I allowed Daniel to put his coat around me. I stared back towards the sea. There were the herons again. Lined up at the shore, just as they had been five years ago. Juveniles. And as I watched, they dived into the sea, disappearing one after the other, like knives.
Jill Dawson’s latest novel The Crime Writer is published by Sceptre.
‘To know that I’m never going to know everything is really nice… I like that it’s different every day. It’s exciting’. Richard Snapes
We arrived to film him at 3am. He was already at work. We watched the rhythm of the day evolve. Nothing in this bakery happens by numbers. It relies on Richard’s skill, experience and intuition. Each different type of bread is proving at a different speed. Richard calls it ‘a weird puzzle’.
Richard supplies several local businesses in the Maltby and Druid Street area and has a stall at Druid St market every Saturday and his friend and chef Olia Hercules uses it frequently for her classes and pop ups. In fact his sourdough starter started life as pellets made from hop bloom, rye flour and a bit of water brought back from the Ukraine by Olia.
This film is a wonderful homage to real bread and to the skills and enthusiasm of Richard.
Coming soon – Richard ‘breaks bread’ with Olia and talks food and flavour.
451 set up our stall in Druid Street beside Richard from The Snapery and talked to both stallholders and visitors about their favourite food memories. From ‘smelly fish’ and porridge to wonderful stories of hospitality and moments from childhood, we heard and filmed a huge variety of people and experiences. We also ate some delicious street food!
Historian Theodore Zeldin says that ‘Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits’. Food is inevitably both the fuel and occasion for that conversation and Druid Street was the perfect venue.
When Sabrina Ghayour came along to talk to us about the evolution of her supper clubs and how she became the poster girl for Middle Eastern Food she generously brought the leftovers from the previous night’s supper club; Spiced Lamb Kefta, Naan Barbari (Persian Flatbread) and Morassa Polow (Persian Bejewelled Rice). She also brought a bag full of ingredients to make a couple of her favourite salads - Batinjan al Rahib (Smoked Aubergine Salad) and Blood Orange and Radicchio Salad. In the spirit of conviviality we filmed it and ate it.
Sabrina has done many pop-ups with celebrated chefs such as Anna Hansen, Bruno Loubet and Alexis Gauthier but this was a unique and very personal pop-up. It was spontaneous and delicious and perfectly represented the rich mix of cultures Sabrina has absorbed from Turkish and Armenian to Arab and Afghani and her skill in distilling the essence of the flavours and experience into simple and delicious food.
Kingsley Amis famously said that the three most depressing words in the English language are “red or white?” For anyone who has been to a second-rate book launch or a provincial gallery opening there must be a degree of sympathy. What, after all, is more disheartening than the choice between a warm glass of supermarket Sauvignon Blanc or a beakerful of corner shop Merlot? When I was a student, I didn’t know any better and would happily buy whatever plonk was cheapest at the local petrol station (“garage grog” as it later became known) but Kingsley Amis’s appreciation of good wine only exaggerated the ignominy of having to slum it at bad parties.
For me, however, the three most depressing words in the English language are “Is everything OK?” The context, in case you were wondering, is restaurants, and as someone who eats out two or three times a week (an occupational necessity, but I’m not complaining) when I am asked, “is everything OK?” by a waiter, it often has me spluttering into my soup.
On the surface, my reaction might seem counterintuitive. Isn’t it good that restaurant staff check back to make sure that the customer is content? Well, yes and no. Ensuring the punter is happy is one thing, but asking for a qualitative response is quite another.
I was having lunch at a new restaurant recently. The place looked great, beautiful design, clever lighting, tasty food and a buzzy atmosphere. The waiters were very pleasant, too. But the interruptions! Oh my god, the interruptions. The starter barely had time to acquaint itself with the table when an aproned fellow approached and asked me how it was. “It looks good,” I said, “I’m sure it’s going to taste fine.” When a different chap cleared the empty plate, he asked, “Did you enjoy your starter?” Although the timing was better with the main course I still had to field questions, namely “Is everything OK?” and “Do you like your skate wing?” The first was from a waitress I hadn’t seen before, the second from the maître d’ who had greeted me on the way in. (As annoying and as frustrating as this was, I have to say that Michelin-starred restaurants with famous chefs are far worse. “The chef recommends that you eat the chilled pea consommé first, the broad bean mousse second, and the mint gelée last.” But these joints are in the Premier League of interruptions and pointless interjections. Most places I go to have mere Championship League status and practice just the classic “Is everything OK?”)
Of course, the other problem I have with staff asking if everything is “OK” is that it suggests that “OK” is what the restaurant is aiming for, that this is the best we can expect, that the highest culinary achievement is for the food to be mediocre.
So what should waiters be saying when they perform that all-important check back on the table? It’s easy:
“Do you have everything you need?”
This gives the diner an opportunity to mention if something is wrong, point out an error, order another drink and offer a compliment if one is warranted. No awkwardness and no qualitative feedback required. And this should only happen once during each course, by the way.
Finally, here’s one of my favourite restaurant gags, taken from The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes by David Minkoff:
Q: What did the waiter ask the group of Jewish mothers?
A: “Is anything OK?”
Why are Mangalitzas the wagyu of pork and why are they Tom Adams’ breed of choice? It’s all about genetics it seems. Rare breeds grow more slowly, their natural ability to develop fat has not been bred out of them and the rich marbling throughout gives the meat an intense flavour and makes it very juicy. Indeed Mangalitzas were once so highly prized for their sweet light-tasting fat that they were traded on the Vienna stock exchange. However, genetics is only one part of the picture.
Fat is a vital part of the aroma in cooking and this in turn reflects the lifestyle of the pig – how and where they live and what they eat. These pigs are fed on cobnuts and acorns, whey from the local cheese and pea shoots and old peaches and nectarines from the local vegetable market. Unlike the bigger commercial pig farms, it is not about quantity or size of carcass.
Provenance is not a word Tom bandies around. Voted Young Chef of the Year by The Observer Food Monthly Awards 2017, Tom is a respected and conscientous cook and wants meat that has been well fed and looked after and humanely slaughtered.
The most wonderful thing about this film made with graphic artist, Joseph Warren, is the time it takes. It takes time to be creative. You have to know what to collect, what to point your camera at, what to ignore and why.
We first meet Joseph near The Shard in Bermondsey, London – one of the city’s oldest boroughs, right by the river Thames. It is also the site of some of London’s newest developments, The Shard being the most visible example of this gentrification. Joseph is looking in hidden corners. He picks up fragments of typography and imagery – from the side of a skip, ‘outsider typography’, or on an old wall behind a security gate. These ‘fragments’ could be gone tomorrow. However, Joseph is not an archivist or collector - back in his studio he starts to ‘play’ using what he has found to create dynamic and arresting graphic images. Stories are essential to his process and Joseph talks about our need to connect post digital. His use of maps, industrial typography and graphics creates a visual language that takes us beyond the reduced palate of the digital world.
A Stone's Throw from The Shard is one of our longer films and purposely so. We wanted it to reflect his trained eye and the pleasure he takes in his craft. In common with all our contributors Joseph’s work is built on putting in the hours and enjoying the process.
In the second film about plantswoman Beth Chatto, we hear of her simple childhood in Essex where her love of plants such as snowdrops and lily of the valley developed. After her marriage to fruit farmer and amateur ecologist, Andrew Chatto, two friendships inspire her.
Beth talks of her early days as a flower arranger encouraged by nurserywoman, Pamela Underwood, to exhibit at the RHS for the first time. But it is her meeting with artist and gardener, Sir Cedric Morris, at his home at Benton End in Suffolk that ignites her passion for species plants. As the family move to their new home on the fruit farm at Elmstead Market, Beth is finally able to realise her dream of creating a garden and nursery on the 8-acre site.
Although she claims not to have coined the phrase, ‘the right plant for the right place’, it does, she admits, sum up her gardening ethos perfectly.
A short story by Joanna Cannon
The woman who takes the overdose hears the morning start without her. The mechanical sounds of other people’s lives, whilst her own lies stagnant in curtained light. The woman who takes the overdose is not a fatalist, nor is she a coward, but she carries around so many layers of herself, she is unable to find her way back.
The woman watches her husband. She listens to a razor drag at his skin, the flick of water in a basin. The sounds, not the objects, are the bars of her prison. Not the walls or the ceilings, but the noises. The small noises are the worst. Tapping, ticking, breathing. Sometimes, when no one is looking, she places her hands over her ears, to stop the noises from creeping inside. The husband asks the woman if she is okay, and she replies to her husband that she is fine, because fine is an easy, deceitful word that slides from her throat and buries them both. He peers into the cabinet mirror as he shaves, and to the woman, it seems as though he is staring through the glass and straight into the bottle of tablets she plans to take, as soon as he leaves the house.
As the woman watches her husband, the doctor in A&E watches names on a board click from green to orange, to red. There is no control over the colours, and the doctor presses her hands to her eyes. She presses so hard, that when she looks up, all the colours have vanished and the whole of her world is painted black. But the sounds are still there. Not only the big sounds. Not only the swing and hammer of doors, and the shouts of a newly-woken drunk, but also the tap of a finger on a plastic chair, the click of the wheels on a trolley, and the whisper of a curtain, that draws around the cubicle of someone else’s life. The sounds fire from a mosaic of people who turn and twist in front of the doctor, and the people make her brain rattle itself against the sides of her skull. And it is not true that medicine is a vocation, because the doctor thinks that if medicine were a vocation, she would not want every single one of these people to disappear. And so, instead of looking at the people, the doctor stares at the list of jobs which she knows will never be finished, because radiology is not answering the phone and there is no computer free to check blood results, and another wave of people have washed up in the waiting room, which means all the colours on the board will change again from green to orange to red. The nurse who is sitting next to the doctor asks the doctor if everything is okay, and the doctor says everything is fine. The nurse smiles and passes the triage notes for the next patient, and the doctor tries to remember whether the nurse is called Steve or Chris, or Ed, because every time she works with Steve or Chris, or Ed, he has the same calm kindness. A calm kindness she once hoped she might achieve, in the days when inexperience tricked her into believing she could ever make a difference.
Whilst the doctor is trying to remember whether the nurse is called Steve or Chris, or Ed, the woman is watching her husband reverse their car out of the drive. She remembers a time when she also needed to wear a watch and reverse a car out of a drive, but the woman knows that time is ruthless, and it makes things that were once certain, quickly seem foolish and absurd. As the woman watches her husband leave, she hears the silence arrive to take his place, and it’s the silence which makes everything else bigger. It’s the silence which will send her upstairs, to the tablets which wait for her in a cabinet, behind a bathroom mirror. As the woman watches, she realises this could be the last time she will ever see her husband’s face, and the thought crouches in her mind for a while, and is bland and unmoving. She wonders if she should embroider the thought and make it heavier, but instead, she twists a wedding ring around her finger and listens to a noiseless house. She twists the ring so violently, it falls from her finger and spins across the floor, and the woman gets on her hands and knees to search, because she doesn’t want to die without her wedding ring. There is no one else to help her look, and because there is no one else to help her look, the woman begins to cry, and in those moments she manages to find even a little more hatred for herself – because she is woman who is able to cry for a wedding ring, but not for a husband.
As the woman is searching for a wedding ring, the doctor is asking questions in a cubicle in A&E, and the patient is saying, ‘you tell me, you’re the doctor,’ and the doctor is pressing the nib of the pen so hard into the notes, the paper is beginning to tear, and the doctor feels the noise of the pen bleed into her skull, and tells the woman that she might be the doctor, but she is also just a human being. The patient begins to shout about waiting times and taxes. She pulls a cardigan around her shoulders, and asks for the phone number of PALS, and the doctor apologises again for something which will never be her fault. The patient is still shouting when she hands the doctor a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, full of her regular medication which must all be prescribed, and the patient tells the doctor that she should consider herself lucky that she does a job where she never has to work weekends and gets paid a small fortune. There are so many words in the doctor’s mouth, none of them is able to leave, and so she snatches the Sainsbury’s carrier bag and returns to the nurses’ station, and for a moment, she forgets where she is and presses the palms of her hands into her eyes. When the black paint has washed away, the doctor sees the nurse (who is called Steve or Chris, or Ed) and he is staring and telling her that resus is empty, and she could use the computer there to prescribe the patient’s medication. And so the doctor takes the Sainsbury’s carrier bag, and she sits alone in the stainless steel quiet of resus, in a room where lives are broken and fixed, and lost. The doctor empties the contents of the bag. She reads the name on each packet. Warfarin and Ramipril and Simvastatin and codeine phosphate. The doctor digs her nail into the edge of the foil, and tries to remember a time when she knew none of their names. When the weight of other people’s lives did not press upon on her shoulders, at a time she could scarcely manage to bear the weight of her own.
As the doctor is prescribing the tablets, the woman is closing the bathroom door and rushing for the stairs, because the doorbell has rung and the woman is worried her husband has forgotten his keys and he will undo her day. Because the woman rushes, she misses her footing, and although the woman knows it is hopeless, her arms swim through the air, searching for something to save herself. Even though she didn’t even know she wanted to be saved. But still the woman falls and she shouts out, and the old lady who has rung the bell hears and pushes the door open, and says they need to ring for an ambulance. The woman does not want an ambulance, but the old lady chooses to ignore this, and she takes out a mobile telephone and punches a number into it, and makes her morning a more interesting one. When the woman arrives in A&E, she is invaded by uniforms and monitors, and lights, and she waits in a cubicle for the doctor. As she waits, she twists the wedding ring around her finger, and she remembers how her arms swam through the air, searching for something to save herself. And the woman finds it is a scene she can never unremember.
The doctor, who is still in resus, flinches when the nurse asks her to see the woman who has fallen down the stairs, because the doctor wonders how long the nurse has been standing there, and how much the nurse has seen. But the nurse says nothing. Even when the doctor gathers up the tablets she has been prescribing, even when she has to reach down, because some of the tablets have spilled to the floor. When the doctor arrives in the cubicle, the woman is still twisting the wedding ring around her finger. The doctor takes a history, but all the time she is watching the ring and watching the woman’s eyes, because the eyes may be looking at the doctor, but they are not the eyes of a woman who has only missed her footing on a flight of stairs. As the doctor combs for an answer, the ring falls from the woman’s finger and spins across the cubicle. The woman begins to cry, and so the doctor gets on her hands and knees and searches for the woman’s wedding ring on the floor of A&E, and the doctor finds it odd, because helping to look makes the woman happy, even before the ring has been found.
When the doctor tries to return the ring to the woman, the woman tells the doctor to put the ring in the hospital safe, because she has changed her mind and it doesn’t need to be worn. And the doctor remembers how a small act of kindness can make someone look as though they have only missed their footing on a flight of stairs, when only moments before, they had been lost. And she realises that the ability to make a difference is never destroyed by experience, but is only ever sandpapered down by the expectation of others, and the expectation you might have of yourself.
And so the doctor leaves the cubicle, and the woman who has only missed her footing on a flight of stairs, and she searches for the nurse, who is called Steve or Chris, or Ed. As she searches, she finds all the colours have vanished and the world is painted black, even though she has not pressed the palms of her hands into her eyes, and she finds the sounds that had buried themselves into her skull are now becoming more distant and faded.
When the doctor finds the nurse, he is in resus. He is holding a tablet, a tablet the doctor must have missed when they spilled to the floor.
The woman who has taken an overdose decides she is neither a fatalist, nor a coward, but has carried around so many layers of herself, she was unable to find her way back, and so the woman who has taken an overdose removes the stethoscope from her neck before she speaks.
She says, ‘I have done something, and I need to tell someone very quickly.’
And as she falls, her arms swim through the air, as she searches for something to save herself.
Joanna Cannon's debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is published by The Borough Press.
I have cherished this papier-mache orca my son Lewis made me when he was about seven, for twenty years. I love it and it has been in every study I’ve had since. He was in school in Amherst, America at the time he made it. It seems to sum up our life together, mine and his. I’ve long been obsessed by whales. I’d seen a pod of orca on a trip with Lewis to Vancouver Island, the year before, and I’d stayed on a Native Reservation in Canada with him when he was at toddler, too. The 70 year-old islander we lived with told me his astonishing whaling tales and they stayed with me forever (finding their way into my novel, Fred and Edie, and various stories). I’ve even swum with whales – mothers and calves, humpbacks - in the Caribbean. It’s like floating silently next to a jumbo jet that might at any moment roar into life and flick you into outer space: thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
This is a lucky bunny my gorgeous niece Lotte made me, to wish me luck, when my novel of the same name came out. She’s very talented and quirky and this knitted bunny is one of many wonderful things she’s created over the years.
The other things I’ve treasured are little drawings, especially this brilliant elephant by Felix, aged about three.
I love this Annoushka necklace, a birthday gift from my friend Geraldine. Geraldine and I have shared twenty years of friendship, extraordinary travels and some heartbreak too. She’s a hugely generous friend, took me diving for my fortieth birthday (this time I swam with sharks and turtles) so this beautiful present - the eyes are rubies, and it’s covered in diamonds – is one of the most precious things I own.
What I’ve kept is mostly about my children I realise. So the last thing is from my adopted daughter, who came into our lives when she was fourteen. This little glass necklace I call ‘Baby Poppy’. She bought it for me with her own money when we were on holiday in a glass-blowing studio in Devon. She knew I’d been admiring it, and I was touched that she noticed. It means a lot.
I actually have a box – the box I’d grab in a fire – and it contains all the things I feel are essential. Documents, old love letters, a Valentine from my husband, the children’s drawings. I could survive with that box (here it is). I’m not a hoarder, not at all. I do have some collections: Chie Mihara shoes, red lipsticks, but I also love to throw things out, let things go. I have a good memory, and I feel loved.
Jill Dawson’s latest novel The Crime Writer is published by Sceptre.
Although Growing Up chronicles Dan’s growing awareness and education about planting this third film is truly where he learns to cut his cloth.
This is where Dan gets an opportunity to create a large garden in Barnes from a family friend and that in turn leads to his first opportunity to garden ‘without borders’. This experience of creating a garden at Home Farm also coincided with the start of his travels to the Picos Europa, to the Valley of Flowers in Northern India and eventually to Jerusalem. Observing plants in the wild taught him that if you understand where they grow and what grows with them then you can use them sympathetically.
What is clear from this film is the long term relationship that Dan forms with the work he is doing, the sense of disappointment at leaving a garden he has been working on for 3 years (‘we’d only just started’) and yet the hunger for new discoveries.
As is alluded to in the caption to this film we hear from Dan about the contrasting challenges in designing for private and public spaces and about working on the Millennium Forest project – 400 hectares and sustainable for 1,000 years.
Working on gardens for garden owners is very different from being a cog in a bigger machine developing a public space. On the one hand there is time and space to refine and hone and a constant dialogue with the owner and on the other it’s not so much about personalities but about putting ‘our egos aside’ and responding to challenges. Dan loves both – the intimacy of the private relationship and the ambition and problem solving involved in the much more complex public arena.
Landscape design brings big dilemmas to solve but also the opportunity to contribute to something Dan feels strongly about – the idea of education and the importance of finding a way of respecting our environment and looking after it.
A short story by Rebecca Schiff
The housekeeper is having an affair. My parents talk about her affair when nothing is wrong with the car. When something is wrong with the car, they talk about the car. The car is a Toyota, and the place that fixes the car is also called Toyota. One of my parents drives the Toyota to get fixed while the other follows in the car that is not broken. They drop the Toyota off at Toyota and drive back together in the same car.
The housekeeper says the man is just a friend. My father says there’s no way that man is just her friend. My mother says she just hopes the housekeeper is being smart. My grandmother tells my mother the housekeeper wouldn’t do it. By “do it,” she means “have an affair.” My grandmother is around the house all the time. She and the housekeeper speak Spanish with different accents and are friends.
She would do it. She’s still doing it. She makes calls from our house. She takes calls at our house. She can only have her affair twice a week, when she cleans our house. I’m in high school, so I don’t know why I follow this. I don’t have sex. I don’t have anything.
The housekeeper has been working at our house for years, but nobody noticed her until she started having an affair. Before that, she was a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s probably more interesting than what she’s doing now. My grandmother sometimes bakes me a cake after school. She cooks, bakes, and speaks bad English. Sometimes it seems like she is our housekeeper. My grandmother had a husband, but I never met him. He wasn’t my grandfather. After he left her, she gained ninety pounds and never left the apartment she lived in in the country she lived in. This took a long time. My mother brought her to our house last year. Nobody talks about when she will leave.
I’m learning to drive. My mother and father argue about whose turn it is to take me out. Teaching me to drive is unpleasant. I’m not ready to face other cars, but they’re on the road anyway. In school, we can’t be alone in the car with the Driver’s Ed teacher. “I’m sure you know why,” the teacher says, alluding to a past or future crime. I don’t plan to get molested by him. I’m not that kind of sad.
Other kids have housekeepers. When a housekeeper quits, someone’s mom will give someone else’s mom “a name.” “Do you have a name?” “Sheila has a name.” There’s a network of moms who know women who know how to use a scrub brush, a scouring pad, a sponge mop. The women walk to and from our houses, without Toyotas.
“It’s good for them,” says my mother. My mother works with diabetics, so she wants the world to keep its weight down. The housekeeper is not fat but she’s not thin. She’s the right weight for a husband to start ignoring her and another man to still notice.
My mother tells my father, “If you have an affair, don’t bother coming home.”
My father laughs. My mother is a pistol from another country, a diabetic counselor. Who would cheat on her? Not my father. It’s not smart.
My mother likes the slang from this country, like “SOB” and “POS.”
“The husband is probably an SOB,” she’ll whisper about the housekeeper’s husband.
“POS,” she’ll yell when someone cuts her off.
“Thank God for AC,” she’ll say in the summer.
Maybe they don’t use acronyms in other countries. When I was a kid, we visited my grandmother in her apartment with-out AC. A useless fan moved air around. The shower took up the whole bathroom, and the toilet was somewhere else. Every time you showered, you had to mop the whole bathroom down the drain. I cried because I had never touched a mop before.
One day the housekeeper gets picked up in a van. I can’t see who’s driving, her husband or her lover, but I don’t know what either of them looks like. She bounces out of our house, so it’s probably the lover, or maybe she’s just happy to be done making beds for some family to lie in.
I’d like someone to pick me up and take me away. Some kids already drive. They drive their parents’ cars or, if they’re really rich, their own new cars. They look stupid driving a car they didn’t buy. This is America, though. Nobody cares what I think. I doubt my parents will buy me a car, though they will buy me college. I spend most of my time making myself worthy of this purchase. In between studying, I call my one friend, invite her over for a grandmother snack.
“Does she live with you now?” asks the friend, Louisa. My grandmother stands nearby in a hairnet, setting her hair for an event that never takes place.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think so.”
“When is she leaving?”
“Monday,” I say.
We eat cake with glasses of milk. Diabetics couldn’t have this snack.
“Good cake, Grandma,” I shout from the table. “Cake is good.”
My grandmother smiles like she understands more than what we say to each other. She rinses some onions to begin dinner preparations. That’s a way not to cry. After Monday, I’ll say there’s a problem with her knees and she has to stay longer to see American doctors. It’s true that there is a problem with her knees, long- running. She can’t really walk, and gets driven by my mother to Weight Watchers and to have hair electrolysized off her chin. If I learn to drive, I can take over these errands. It’s very motivating.
“My dad’s mom is more of a regular grandma type,” I say.
“She belongs to a golf club.”
“I hate golf,” says Louisa.
We have no time for golf. After this snack is over, we have to study together, which means Louisa shares her flash cards with me. As disciplined as I am, I cannot bring myself to make my own flash cards. I feel something like guilt, but I’ve already paid her in cake. I’m set for flash cards for the foreseeable future.
My mother comes into my room and offers us grapes on a tiny plate.
“We’re full,” I say. “We’re quizzing each other.”
“A plethora of snacks at your house,” says Louisa, practicing flash card words. “I like it here.”
“I’d prefer the snack wasn’t cake,” says my mother, but she can’t control what gets baked. Her mother is her mother. That’s the reason she gives my father for why my grandmother stays. My father seems ready for it to just be our family and the people who clean for our family again. My grandmother is not his family. His mother is where she belongs, eating her meals on a golf course.
The next day I get home from school and my grandmother is not there. I wonder if she’s left for good, if they took her to the airport and nobody told me. But her things are still in the basement, her housecoat, her shoes. The basement smells like her. She has sisters and brothers who smell like her, too. My grandmother was one of twelve. A few have died, but a lot are still left. They assist dentists or sell tools to dentists. My grand-mother was the oldest and didn’t get to go to dental assistant school because she was needed at home.
Where is she now? She could have gone grocery shopping, walked very slowly to the Dairy Barn to buy the cream she whips for my strawberries. I wait an hour. I eat rice cakes with nothing else. I call both parents and reach neither. I call the housekeeper’s number on the refrigerator. A man answers.
“Is Isobel home?” I say.
“She cleans today,” he says.
“She’s not cleaning here today,” I say. “I can’t find my grand-mother, and I thought maybe they went somewhere together. Sometimes Isobel drives her to the pool.”
“Isobel don’t have a car.”
“Right,” I say. I remember the van out front, sense he’s not its driver. “They take a taxi. From here. Isobel walks to our house and then they take a taxi to the pool. Swimming’s good exercise for old people.”
“Call the swimming pool,” he says, and hangs up.
Both my grandmother and the housekeeper are not where they’re supposed to be. They’ve escaped. I call my mother again. Her secretary says she’s left for the day due to a family emergency.
“I am her family.”
“Oh, I didn’t recognize your voice. Your grandmother, honey. She’s in stable condition, but she was struck by a car crossing the street this afternoon.”
“Shit,” I say. It’s not a flash card word, but something new I’m practicing.
“They’re at St. Joseph’s.”
I have no way to get to St. Joseph’s. Now my father calls and tells me to stay put. He says my grandmother crosses the street like a turtle. He says that she has been “banged up a bit,” but once she’s healed, it will be time for her to go home. By home, he doesn’t mean here. I tell him Isobel’s been lying about cleaning our house to have her affair. I tell him I don’t care, but I thought he should know.
“We’ll worry about that later,” he says, as though there will be a family meeting to decide what to do.
“How will Grandma get around after she goes back?” I say.
“Will she still go to Weight Watchers?”
“It’s an international organization,” he says.
I call Louisa, tell her that we may have to study at her house from now on.
“I hope you like celery,” she says. “My mother doesn’t want me getting fat.”
“I like celery,” I say. I like most things. It’s something my parents have always valued about me. I look in the fridge to see what remains. Yesterday’s cake, outlined in foil. The grapes we should have eaten instead. Cheese, which people eat for break-fast, lunch, and dinner in the country where my grandmother lives. I don’t know what they eat in the housekeeper’s country or in the country of her lover. Probably cheese.
The doorbell rings. Some kids’ doorbells make a song, but my parents probably never got that far in the doorbell catalog. They keep it simple— one kid, two sedans. Vans are for moms to drive around a brood, or for lovers who have to make deliveries. But there’s no van parked out front. Through the window, I see a man who looks as afraid of me as I feel of him. Without hearing his voice, I know it’s Isobel’s husband. We’re the ones stuck waiting for everyone else to come home.
‘Not That Kind of Sad’ is taken from Rebecca Schiff’s debut collection of short stories, The Bed Moved.
I have many treasures: perhaps trash to others but jewels to me, hard up against the tenuous membrane between child and adult.
Pieces of tree and spongy mosses populate my studio, a rare leaf skeleton too; charcoal from the bonfire; luminous yellow, sulphurous soil from a small Caribbean island, still “eggy”. And pumice pebbles that drift on to the beaches of surrounding islands from volcanic Montserrat.
I used to collect scrap: odd machines that extruded things like ceramic tubes, looking lonely in the scrap yard next to my student bedsit. Better they snuggled up with me. Oh where are they now?
These days I am bewitched by ancient glass. And I mean ancient. I want it very, very old and very, very fragile and the older and the more fragile the better. My 4th century Roman cosmetics vase in a limpid green is a case in point. Dangerous, as I am actually quite clumsy. Part of the thrill no doubt.
Very, very old but perhaps not as fragile, a fossil from the Northern Ridge of the Grand Canyon is treasure number two. I have a few of these, found while hiking.
I lived in Los Angeles for 2 years, working in the film industry, behind the camera, so a trip to the Grand Canyon was like going to the park.
I would drive there in my beaten up VW Golf – called a Rabbit in the US – bought at exorbitant cost from a gangster in the Valley. Long story. He offered me an Uzi with purchase too, one I could hand pick from his proudly displayed and extensive collection. I naturally declined. And when the car gave up its Rabbit ghost I kept one of the plates…to remind me not to buy rust buckets from wise guys.
Morrissey. Well how can you live without him? Or die? Seen just once in 1992 wearing a gold lame shirt at the Hollywood Bowl, besieged by adoring Mexicans.
A four-leafed clover, found one August bank holiday in Rye, Sussex – in the midst of pain: nature’s ever-present balm.
Finally, prototypes of a tap I designed when copper alloys were but a twinkling in the trend forecaster’s eye. I have the more developed models in my Devon home, complete with indices printed with pictograms of a snowflake and sun indicating temperature.
In the end I went for bronze, in both my bathroom and kitchen, with the kitchen tap also being operated by a foot pedal – handy when baking and water efficient so useful if you rely on a natural spring, as we do.
Perhaps one day they’ll go into production. One day.
We asked artist Joseph Warren to create an artwork based on Fahrenheit 451, the novel by Ray Bradbury. The brief was to create one single artwork which could be broken up into four hundred and fifty one pieces and distributed individually. This was part our celebration of 451life and part adventure – we wanted to see if it could be done.
Ironically Joseph has used Bradbury’s dystopian themes to create something beautiful and inspiring. This is a celebration of creativity – informed by Joseph’s own desire to archive imagery from our graphic past ‘Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories’. Ray Bradbury
A short story by Danielle McLaughlin
Ever since I turned left over Boland’s Bridge, Mrs Canty has been insisting that this is the wrong route. She’s been fidgeting with her headscarf – a green one today, with horses heads - knotting and unknotting it, a sure sign that she’s fretting. Now she is out of her seat, rattling the door of the bus, shouting through the glass at pedestrians. Her coat is so long that her shoes are barely visible: mannish lace-ups, worn out of shape and listing sideways. I tell her to sit down but I try not to sound too cross because, although she would test the patience of a saint, I am fond of Mrs Canty. Mrs Canty reminds me of my mother.
There is one other passenger on the bus: a fair haired, middle-aged man, short and squat – American, by his accent - with a map open on his knees. He’s wearing a white Aran jumper and I can tell it itches by the way he’s tugging at the neck. Each time he tugs it down, it springs back up to grab him by the throat. As Mrs Canty continues to rattle the door, I catch his eye in the rear view mirror and wink. He winks back, then gets up from his seat and, very gently, takes Mrs Canty by the arm. ‘Come along now, m’am’ he says, ‘we don’t want you coming to any harm. ’ He leads her back to her seat at the front of the bus and resumes his own seat, directly behind.
‘This is what happens,’ Mrs Canty says, ‘when they let women drive buses.’ I sigh, but hold my tongue. I’m good at that. I get a lot of practice in this job. And then of course, there was my mother...
Mrs Canty has come from the butchers, but looks like she might have been grave-robbing. She boarded the bus clutching a see-through plastic bag. Inside were brown squishy things like the kidneys of baby animals; rubbery giblets; shiny, purple livers. The bag is beside her on the seat, streaked and runny with blood, and I hope it is properly knotted.
Traffic is light this morning and already we have left the suburbs behind. We are at the edge of the city, driving past rows of industrial units and warehouses . The two-way radio crackles into life: it’s Margo, my boss, sounding tetchy. ‘Where are you headed?’ she says. ‘To the tea rooms,’ I say, and before she can say any more, I switch the radio off.
We are driving into countryside now, ditches thick with fern and foxglove.
‘Awesome,’ the American says, and I decide there and then to call him Benny. I like to invent names for my passengers and he is not a Raymond or a Quentin or a Sam, he is most definitely a Benny. Usually, when I have decided upon a name, I keep it to myself. Today, for some reason, I don’t. ‘You’re right, Benny,’ I say, ‘it is awesome.’
He is perplexed at my calling him ‘Benny’. He frowns, but doesn’t object. Instead he says: ‘It’s pretty deserted round here. I guess it’s the emigration, right?’
‘It’s because it’s the wrong route,’ Mrs Canty says.
Benny gives a knowing shake of his head. He and I exchange discreet smiles in the mirror. Mrs Canty sighs. As well as the bag of offal, she has her usual black handbag. She opens it, takes out knitting needles and a ball of wool, and begins to cast on.
I’m not supposed to be working today. Today is Friday, my day off. I wanted an earlier day off, I wanted Monday, but Margo said no. If she changed my day off, she’d have to change everybody’s day off and then where would we be?
‘What’s so special about Monday?’ she said. ‘You never have Mondays off.’
‘I want to take my mother to the tea rooms at Clody,’ I said. ‘It’s where she used to go with my father. She’s been asking me to take her for a while.’
‘You can take her on Friday,’ Margo said. ‘What difference will a few more days make?’ She looked at me and her look, though sharp, wasn’t unkind. I thought it might be a good time to tell her about my mother, about what the doctors had said, but then the shop steward came in so I didn’t.
Today is Friday, my day off, but I came to work anyway. There didn’t seem much point in staying at home.
I can hear the click, click, click of Mrs Canty’s knitting needles. ‘This happened before’, she is saying to Benny. ‘It was a young fellow last time, one of the trainee drivers. They set up a road block on the dual carriageway and he only got as far as Three Spires.’
Lately, Mrs Canty’s mind has begun to wander. My mother was the same towards the end. So it is hard to know what to make of her story about the road block. All the same, when I come to the junction, instead of turning right for the dual carriageway, I veer left and swing the bus down a grassy side-road. It is a narrow, winding road through a river valley. In the mirror, I catch Mrs Canty rolling her eyes, putting a finger to the side of her head, tapping it. There’s no need for that, I think. No need at all. And I drive faster until Mrs Canty takes her finger from her head and holds tight to the seat.
‘You sure this is the way to the Museum?’ Benny says.
Before I can reply, a rabbit darts in front of the bus and I brake hard. The bag of offal slides to the floor and bursts, blood and bits of internal organs splattering everywhere. Benny tumbles into the aisle.
‘You ok, Benny?’ I say.
He picks himself up and dusts off his jumper.
‘You don’t mind me calling you ‘Benny’ do you?’
‘Best humour her’, Mrs Canty says. She has abandoned her knitting and has taken out a rosary beads.
‘Benny is good’, Benny says. ‘Benny is real good. I had an Uncle Benny, from Utah, on my mother’s side. He farmed sheep in Sanpete County.’
‘My late husband drove a juggernaut from Utah to Missouri once,’ Mrs Canty says.
I turn to stare. It is always a wonder to me, how little we know about each other. I want to ask Mrs Canty about her husband and Utah but the bus is going too fast and wobbles on a corner. Benny is suddenly beside me, at my shoulder. He grabs the steering wheel, but I elbow him hard, really hard, in the stomach and he doubles over. ‘Sit down, Benny,’ I say. And he does.
The road has become a lane, more of a dirt track. This would have been easier if I had gone the dual carriageway. But no matter: I see the tea rooms in the distance, glittering in morning sunshine across the river. I am going to have to cut through the fields so I point the bus at a gate.
‘I need to call my wife,’ Benny says, tears running down his face.
‘Why?’ Mrs Canty says, ‘where is she?’
‘Back home in California.’
‘Much use she is there,’ Mrs Canty says.
‘I need to talk to her,’ he says, ‘to tell her stuff.’
Benny takes a phone from his pocket.
‘I doubt you’ll get coverage out here,’ Mrs Canty says. ‘They’re lucky to have electricity.’
He puts the phone to his ear, even though Mrs Canty is right: there is no coverage out here. He begins to speak anyway and as I rev the engine and aim for the gate, I catch the occasional stray word like ‘love’ and ‘precious’ and ‘sorry’. I hear a lot of ‘sorry’. And I think: what a waste. What a waste of all those beautiful words. I had high hopes for my mother’s last words. I sat by her bedside in those final hours and waited for the coming of angels. But at the very end, she sat bolt upright in bed and said, ‘Any chance of a cigarette?’
I press the accelerator and the bus leaps forward. It flattens the gate like it is the gate of a toy farm and then we are off, rolling and bumping downhill towards the river. Mrs Canty’s rosary beads are discarded on the seat beside her. A peculiar serenity has descended on her and she has gone back to her knitting.
‘If you’re not using those...’ Benny says, reaching for the beads, and Mrs Canty nods and knits on.
The field is steeply sloped and the bus gathers momentum. Rocks rip the undercarriage and I hear a ‘pop’ as the fuel tank punctures. On the other side of the river, someone is arranging tables and chairs outside the tea rooms. There is a domed white pavilion beside a copse of beech and beyond that, a hillside of purple heather. It’s easy to see why my mother loved it.
It’s quiet on the bus now. Not a sound from Benny or Mrs Canty, only the stutter of the engine, hurting, choking, and the spin of tyres on wet grass. And here all of a sudden is the water rushing up to meet us as the bus plunges headlong into the river. The steering wheel strikes me in the stomach, winds me. Things fall and crash and slide. Benny and Mrs Canty are thrown from their seats.
The water level is low, the mud of the riverbed thick and heavy. The bus rolls sideways like Mrs Canty’s shoes, rights itself again before settling into silt. I scramble to the door, struggle with it, water and mud pushing against me. I edge it open and squeeze out and then I am wading across the river, water up to my waist.
On the opposite bank, cars line the roadside: people have begun to arrive at the tea rooms. How lovely, I think. How lovely on a morning like this to drink tea at such a beautiful – no, awesome – place. Then I notice that two of the cars are squad cars and one is an ambulance.
People on the bank are calling my name. I look behind me and I see Benny. He is carrying Mrs Canty in his arms, holding her high above the water, only the end of her coat trailing in the river. She has lost her headscarf and one of her shoes, but she has a tight grip of her knitting. Sunshine is glinting on Benny’s fair hair, his Aran jumper is dazzlingly white. He ploughs through the water like some sort of god, mighty and victorious, Mrs Canty in his arms. As I look at the set of his jaw, I think of his wife back home in California and I say to myself: I wish she could see this, I really wish Benny’s wife could see all this. And I wish my mother could see it too, but my mother died on Tuesday.
Two men in high viz jackets are coming towards me through the water. A crowd has gathered on the bank and there at the front is Margo, my boss, although I almost didn’t recognise her, because she is crying and smoking a cigarette. My mother was always a martyr to the cigarettes. But in the ten years that Margo has been my boss, I have never seen her cry or smoke. And as the men reach me and take me by the arms, I wonder again at how little we know about each other, how very, very little.
Danielle McLaughlin's short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by John Murray.
by Jonathan Christie
I first encountered George Smart’s pictures when I was a student at Maidstone College of Art over 25 years ago. I was researching folk art in the library and came across a few thumbnails of his work in a book by James Ayres. Despite being poorly printed, they jumped off the page at me and lodged themselves in my mind.
Years later (by pure co-incidence) I moved to Frant, the village in East Sussex where Smart had lived and worked as a tailor in the first half of the nineteenth century. I discovered that the village hall had three pictures by him hanging on the wall. I’d see them every time I went to a jumble sale or pantomime and their unassuming charm always brought a smile to my face.
Smart's two main characters are Old Bright, The Postman and The Goosewoman. Both were real people, not invented by Smart, but locals he would have seen passing his shop window everyday. The villagers and tourists would also have seen them - maybe this is why they became his most popular pictures. They have a strong prescient graphic quality, reminiscent of a pub sign in their bold beauty, and their cut-out coats form such a striking, flat shape against Smart's delicate watercolour backgrounds. There is something for everyone here: paint, collage, humour and real life, right down to the glint in their glass bead eyes.
I always wondered why he was so under-represented in books and galleries. I glimpsed a couple in the British Folk Art Collection when it resided in Bath (now at Compton Verney), but Smart seemed hidden in the shadows. This formed part of a more general question in my mind concerning artists that were difficult to pin down in any quantity. Why was there no book on Christopher Wood’s paintings and drawings; or Samuel Palmer’s early work; or the complete works of Eric Ravilious? For me, George Smart was part of this puzzle and although some of these artists subsequently appeared in print, George Smart remained relatively obscure.
I have to stress that this wasn’t a constant concern, it just bubbled up every so often. When Tate Britain held its British Folk Art exhibition in the summer of 2014, my curiosity re-surfaced once again. Suddenly, from nowhere, twenty-one pieces by Smart were in the Tate Gallery… from the shadows of obscurity to the spotlight of one of the world’s most prestigious galleries. I began to think about writing a small book myself as surely now there would be interest in this artist. I was used to designing books, so why not finally write one myself?
My project began modestly. I thought that maybe I’d uncover a few more artworks than the Tate had managed to find (they only reproduced five in their catalogue) and scribble a few words to accompany them. I bought the slim black-and-white pamphlet on Smart produced by the Tunbridge Wells Museum in 1987. This seemed like something I could improve upon. Maybe my book could be in colour, and just sold locally.
Then I started to discover the artworks. Digging deeper than a superficial search, I came across scores of pictures, mostly in private collections. I got the opportunity to photograph some of these pictures and learnt the skill of shooting art under glass. I managed to get the lens right up close to the surface where Smart’s delicate watercolour washes and textured collaging was revealed. This was something much richer than I had previously imagined and I decided I needed to look for a publisher.
In the end, I found over seventy artworks (along with numerous other images) that really started to tell the tale of this tailor. Much of Smart’s life is a black hole of information. Where was he born? Did he go to school or take an apprenticeship? Why did he move to Frant? What did the clothes he made look like? How much did he sell his pictures for? Why did he die a pauper? These questions still remain partly unanswered, but I feel his pictures and labels tell us so much about who George Smart really was. They are full of humour and detail. His labels are witty and incisive. We may not have a painted portrait of Mr. Smart, but I feel his skill and character are finally revealed to a wider audience.
George Smart The Tailor of Frant: Artist in Cloth and Velvet Figures by Jonathan Christie is published by Unicorn Publishing Group.
Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I have been sitting on Ellen’s steps, in the sun. Ellen is my friend and lives nearby, and while her back garden is north facing and in shade most of the time, her front steps get the sun when it shines. And I have sat many times on these steps, watching our kids play in the street below, drinking tea and eating biscuits, drinking wine, laughing. She nods at the neighbours, or engages in full gossipy chats with them, supervises her children, relaxes. It always struck me that the steps are a precious thing to have.
It was Ellen who introduced me to Jane Jacobs, and Jane Jacobs would have delighted in Ellen’s steps. Jacobs was an urban planner and campaigner who wrote a book called ‘The Death and Life of American Cities’ in which she critiqued the predominant urban planning policies of the 1950s. Her interest was in ‘organic urban vibrancy’, the street in general, and the pavement in particular.
Jacobs felt that housing should be designed around wide, interesting pavements, with shops and destinations on residential streets, and with places for adults to be. The more people that are naturally in the street, passing through, sitting or playing, the safer the street becomes, because everybody acts as a small, regulating force, policing behaviour without even intending to. There is also a low-level interaction – those nods and gossiping – that allows for friendship and sociability and guards against loneliness and social exclusion. Many old neighbourhoods do this very naturally, but Jacobs saw developers and town planners moving in and trashing the very things that make these neighbourhoods tick, and all in the name of improving quality of life. The predominant model of her time was the high rise block, which has areas that are open to the public but unwelcoming, so anyone could be in them but very few are, a much more scary combination. She was particularly basing her ideas around the vibrant streetscapes of The Village in Lower Manhattan and other New York neighbourhoods, and took part in grass roots campaigns to preserve them. What she wanted to do was to celebrate the city, and what it does, rather than ship people out to isolating suburbs or housing blocks.
I live in a city, and mine is no high rise block, but likewise I have no steps to sit on and chat. I think perhaps we are some way between the two extremes: we do have shops, a park nearby, and reasons to be out and moving about, but equally we each have our own little front garden to insulate us from the street, often planted with hedges to keep the neighbours at bay. But while we can’t really change our architecture, it turns out that we can do something almost as good: Playing Out. Collectively a group of neighbours now has a permit to close our street once a month, and to release our normally screen-addled children out to whoop and scoot among the parked cars, to scrawl chalk flowers and hopscotch games down the middle of the road. A few hours of anarchy.
Except it isn’t quite anarchy. It gives them a little taste of what it is like to feel full ownership of an area, and all under the safe gaze of adults who are themselves tentatively taking control of their street, and getting to know their neighbours from behind the hedges. It helps turn my street into what I would like it to be, a place where we stop and chat and feel watched over, and that is vibrant, lively and safe. There is talk of a street party, of dinners, and book clubs, all fostered through spending just a little time standing out in the street with mugs of tea. It may not quite be Lower Manhattan, but we are enjoying our space and our neighbours, and reaping the rewards of living in a city.
‘No problem,’ I said, when I was asked to write about five treasured possessions. I was convinced I would be spoiled for choice, that I would have to somehow decide between dozens of objects I couldn’t possibly live without. In reality, looking around my house, there are very few. There are lots of possessions I enjoy and value (and for which I’m very grateful), but not many I consider to be essential to happiness. However, there are some which definitely make my existence easier (and some which are more of a bookmark in my life).
Lumie Light: My Lumie Light probably takes first place in the ‘making my existence easier’ category. Since medical school, I have always set my alarm for an ungodly hour (usually 3am), because it’s the only time my head is empty enough to write, and also the only chance I have to walk my dog in peace. Since I graduated, my timetable is less hectic, but I still get up at 3am and the Lumie Light (with its gradual, artificial dawn), means I usually wake naturally, and not to the almighty shock of bells and buzzers, and flashing lights.
A Pint Mug of Tea: I am generally propelled by tea and adrenaline, and I’ve spent years searching for the perfect mug. I finally found it in this one, and I’m so obsessed, I have two back-ups. I only wish I was kidding.
My Stethoscope: a stethoscope isn’t often required in psychiatry, but this one has seen me, not only through medical school, but also foundation year training and most of my specialty jobs. We have had some moments together over the years and although I could always replace it, I’m a touch sentimental, because it reminds me of the goals I’ve achieved and the obstacles I’ve overcome.
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep: I was lucky enough to visit Clays in Norfolk, to see my novel being printed, and this copy was first off the press. It’s travelled around the UK with me, to many events and festivals, and branches of Waterstones (hence being slightly worse for wear!), and for a story I didn’t expect would ever escape from my laptop, my heart trips over itself every time I see it.
Goat Necklace: The wonderful team at HarperCollins gave me this goat necklace on the day my book was published. It’s an incredible privilege to work with such a brilliant group of people, and it was a really thoughtful and totally unexpected gift. If I’m doing an event, you can generally spot it around my neck. Us goats have to stick together.
Joanna Cannon's debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is published by The Borough Press.
A short story by Clare Mackintosh
I knew she was dead. I’m not senile. Not yet.
But you can’t talk to someone for fifty years and break the habit straight away.
‘Cup of tea, love?’ I’d ask, letting the noise of the kettle fill the silence that followed.
I’d put on one of the soaps she always liked. Habit again, you know. I didn’t watch it myself: I looked at her chair instead. She spent a lot of time in that chair, watching Corrie.
The stairs had got too much for her in the end.
I helped her upstairs, for a few nights, but it hurt her, and upset us both.
‘I like it down here,’ she told me.
‘So do I,’ I said.
Even if we’d had the money, we’d have never got a stair lift into that tiny hall. And at the top, on the landing, where would all the boxes have gone? All around the house, they were, her collections. The dolls she bought at car boot sales, the piles of newspaper, the commemorative plates bought with the coupons from the Sunday supplements.
It wasn’t so bad, sleeping downstairs. What I missed in having Ivy next to me in bed, I gained from being able to look at her in her chair opposite mine. When she slept the lines round her eyes would relax, and I’d see the girl she used to be: before the new hips, and the blood pressure pills, and the stiff, arthritic hands.
It was the butcher who noticed.
Not the first week, but the second.
‘Mrs Harington alright, is she?’ he said.
One lamb chop instead of two, you see.
‘Just a bit off colour,’ I said, thinking it wasn’t so far from the truth.
I bought two the next week, and the week after that, and he didn’t ask again. I put the chops in the freezer and wondered what on earth I was going to do with them all.
Turned out I didn’t need to worry.
The council said ‘concerns had been raised’.
‘Concerns about what?’ I asked, but the woman with the ponytail didn’t answer. Looked instead at the flies that swarmed against the lounge window.
As soon as she caught a glimpse of my Ivy, that was that. She ran outside, clapped her hand over her mouth, bent over double by the drain at the side of the house.
‘How long has she been there?’ she said, and she couldn’t stop the shudder, even though she must have seen how it hurt me. She’s beautiful, my Ivy. Always has been. And now this girl, this officious council office junior, vomiting into the pansies.
She wouldn’t come back inside. She stood in the rain, on her mobile phone, taking furtive glances through the window. I held Ivy’s hand, so she wouldn’t be scared.
I didn’t watch them carry her out. Didn’t want to remember her like that, all laid out flat and shoved in the back of a hearse. In my head she’s young; twirling around at our wedding reception and trying out ‘Mrs Harington’ for size.
My ‘other half’, I used to say. What does that make me, now?
I lost count of how many people turned up that day. All in white paper suits and masks, like there’d been some sort of crime. None of them spoke to me, only her: the girl from the council, with the enthusiastic ponytail and the nose that wrinkled when she came close to me.
The bath had long since been filled with one of Ivy’s collections, but we kept ourselves clean enough. The kitchen sink had been good enough for us both when we were nippers, and I was still handy enough with an iron to keep myself turned out right.
‘You can’t stay here,’ said the girl from the council.
‘This is my house,’ I told her. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
And I didn’t. Not when the skip turned up, and they dumped Ivy’s chair in it (‘you can’t keep it, not now,’ they said). Not when they rifled through her collection of magazines, and tutted to each other as they cleared the kitchen of all our treasures.
‘It’s a health hazard,’ one of them said, holding up the desiccated remains of something that might once have been a mouse. I don’t know where he found it. I’ll admit the kitchen could have done with a tidy. But you could still get to the sink if you were careful and didn’t knock anything over.
It took them a week. They took the first skip away and brought in a second, and clapped themselves on the back as each room was emptied.
‘You’ll be able to sleep in your bed again!’ the girl from the council said. The others had taken off their facemasks, but she’d clung on to hers like her life depended on it.
I didn’t want to sleep in my bed. Why would I want to sleep there, without Ivy?
When the skips were full they brought in cleaners, bustling about with rubber gloves and replacing Ivy’s eau de cologne with Pledge. I sat in my chair as they worked around me, moving my legs for a vacuum cleaner so powerful it sucked the rug up along with the dirt.
‘Isn’t that better?’ said the girl from the council. She took off her mask and risked a quick sniff. ‘So much better!’ Her ponytail swung and she beamed at me, so clearly delighted I couldn’t bring myself to ask her why she was doing this. Wasn’t it enough that I’d lost Ivy?
‘Come upstairs,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you.’ She reached out to take my arm, then glanced at my sweater and changed her mind, flapping her hand towards the stairs instead.
The landing was empty, Ivy’s boxes of china gone, along with the bags of clothes she’d pick up from the charity shop to make into rag rugs. It seemed lighter upstairs, and when the girl flung open the door to the spare room her smile became even bigger, even more satisfied.
‘Lovely,’ I said, although in truth I couldn’t have told you what it was like before. It had been a while since we’d needed a guest room, and so Ivy’s collections had covered the bed, and – in time – the floor. Something had toppled over at some stage, making it impossible to open the door. We hadn’t worried too much.
‘Wait till you see your bedroom.'
We’d bought the house because of the bedroom. Because of the views over the field, and the window smack bang in the middle, which meant we could lie in bed and look out at the trees. It’s different now: of course it is, nothing can stay the same for all those years, can it? The room’s still lovely, though, with the wallpaper Ivy picked out all those years ago, and the quilt she made before her hands got too stiff. More than a year, it took her, stitch by stitch. Cutting out each square on the kitchen table, and spreading out the pattern on the floor by the fire. From time to time she’d prick her finger, wincing and sucking the blood before any more drops fell on the quilt. Over the years it acquired a few more marks: a smear of make-up, or a stray line from a pen as Ivy wrote Christmas cards in bed. Like the clothes she’d used to make each square, the marks charted our marriage; our lives together.
I’d forgotten the carpet was blue. Funny how your mind plays tricks on you. Threadbare, but blue, and undeniably clean. The curtains seemed lighter, too, and without Ivy’s hat collection on the shelves you could see the wallpaper. At least they hadn’t torn that down. I turned my head so the girl couldn’t see me sniffing the air, searching for something once so familiar I took it for granted. It wasn’t there.
On the bed, encased in plastic that crackled when I touched it, was our quilt. The colours brighter than they’d ever been, the stains steam-cleaned into submission. Not a trace of my Ivy.
‘It’s come up beautifully, hasn’t it?’ the girl said.
She can’t have been more than 25; no ring on her finger yet.
‘We’re not really supposed to, but it’s so lovely, and I know a brilliant dry-cleaner, and he promised to be so careful with it, so…’
She looked up at me; so confident she’d done the right thing.
She’ll learn. When she’s old, and her memories are tied up in boxes and bags stacked high in her loft, and every magazine, every piece of card is a snapshot of her life.
When her ‘other half’ leaves her barely whole. She’ll understand then.
‘You’ve done a grand job, love,’ I said to her. ‘I wouldn’t recognise the place.’
Clare Mackintosh's debut novel, I Let You Go, is published by Sphere.
In this final film we follow Beth Chatto telling us about her early days of showing at Chelsea in the late 1970s when she started her record-breaking run of ten consecutive gold medals in the Great Marquee. Whereas the stands around her were displaying flowers and plants forced into flower in heated greenhouses, Beth’s was a carpet of plants simply dug up from her own garden, quite unheard of in those days.
We hear how Beth combines her love of species plants with inspiration from the Japanese triangle of life linking heaven and earth with man in between showing us how this is reflected in her planting designs.
Beth Chatto’s books have become among the best loved of gardening classics. It is no surprise to hear her tell us that she wrote outside ‘standing, feeling the atmosphere, actually looking into the plant, looking and seeing the detail, smell, touch, feel.’
Even as the decay of autumn approaches, her mind adjusts, she tells us, ‘to letting all these lovely leaves and shapes and textures go’. ‘It is’, she feels, ‘almost a relief that that the overwhelming bounty of growth and life has gone to sleep’.
In this first film in our series with Jeremy Lee we followed him down to Appledore in Kent to meet with his old friend and supplier Frances Smith.
From his early days with Alistair Little and throughout his life as a chef Jeremy has always felt that is it part of his job to go and see and meet producers where they live and work. At Appledore everything grows naturally, ‘without any fuss or fanfare’ and 451 accompanied Jeremy and Frances on their journey of discovery - uncovering, picking, tasting and gathering herbs to experiment in the kitchen.
Frances pioneered the salad, as we know it today, and supplied most of London’s Michelin starred chefs. The ubiquitous British soft green lettuce may be delicious but as Jeremy says, 'it does not translate into restaurant food'. It was a privilege to listen in to this conversation between chef and supplier and to talk to Jeremy about flavours and herb lore and the extraordinary role Frances played in educating chefs.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less sentimental and more matter-of-fact (although some might simply say more grumpy.) I’ve also gotten really cutthroat when it comes to possessions. I will occasionally have a good clear out and take boxes and boxes of old tat to the charity shop. Or I might simply tip the contents of a drawer into a black bin liner and throw it into the rubbish. (That did backfire once when I reasoned that a cupboard I hadn’t looked in for two years could contain nothing I really needed, and therefore threw it all away. I discovered later that I had accidentally trashed all my wedding photos, including negatives.)
These days I would be a little more careful, I guess, particularly with my treasured possessions. Here are four of them:
My 1928 Gibson L-1. I’ve got a few vintage guitars, and I would struggle to choose between this and my 1956 Martin 018, but the Gibson wins because of its heavy scarring and tattooing. It has been customised over the years and has a number of fascinating transfers and illustrations. It’s also got such a lovely mellow tone. I bought it at Matt Umanov Guitars in NYC and even though I walked away when I first saw it, the sales assistant predicted I would come back for it because it was influencing me with its voodoo powers. He was right.
Elgin A-11 United States Army Air Force (as it was then known) wristwatch. I have a small collection of watches, not of the flashy big Rolex variety, but of the quirky and historically interesting variety. This one is a gift from my son Ollie and is described by military types as “the watch that won the war.” All the allied nations used this model and, uniquely, it was mass-produced in many different factories around the world to exact specification but without a maker’s mark. Mine is from 1943.
First Edition of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. I’m a fan of David Mamet and in a previous career I taught drama. I once got chatting to a very well-known actor in the French House pub in Soho. He told me he was preparing to play the part of Teach in a West End production of American Buffalo. I think he was very surprised that I knew the play so well and we talked for hours about it. A few weeks later I received this book with a lovely note thanking me for the seminar! This is just one of many treasured books.
My monkeys. This is an every-growing collection of small carved, moulded, forged and cast monkeys that my wife started for me and continues to add to. There are some very beautiful Japanese netsuke antiques along with miniature Chinese marble sculptures. I love them all but my favourite is this Victorian painted lead fellow. And just think – children used to happily chew on toys like this all the time!
In this third film with Tom Adams and 451 we go inside the freezer and get a rare insight into the usually hidden world of pig husbandry. This is the equivalent of the meat lover’s private view and we join Tom in ‘the exciting fridge’ at Warrens the butchers.
This is the world of dry aging. The Himalayan salt creates an especially dry atmosphere and an expensive and bespoke product. Unlike the big commercial farmers who are selectively breeding for large litters, large carcasses and lean protein – for Tom and his butcher, it is all about the fat. For this to be right for cooking and eating it has to be hung for long enough and chilled gradually so that the muscles don’t contract and cause the meat to become tough. It’s a watchful process. The most important aspect in all of this is the relationship between between chef and butcher.
To come up with five treasured possessions I would save vexed me for a little while. I am not by nature a hoarder: a mantra of ‘if in doubt, chuck it out’ has served me rather well. I dislike stuff. In order to paint I like to keep my surroundings minimal. In life in general too much clutter adversely affects my thought process. However on closer inspection there are certain objects I have clung on to with a very profound attachment.
My wooden easel. I have forgotten precisely what I was yearning for as my 12th birthday loomed, but it certainly was not a full size adult oak easel. I am embarrassed to recall I was very disappointed indeed! I have always painted and therefore the gift from my mother was a perfect choice, but the maturity to realise this eluded me at the time. However 30 years later it easily tops the list of my treasured possessions. I always return to my easel; it has been the most constant presence in my life.
My maternal South African grandmother was a cultured and inspirational figure. Her very grand home was full of beautiful art, sculpture and classical music was always playing. I was struck by a bronze bust of her father; the plaque on it read: ‘Brigadier Henry Lenton, Post Major General of the Union of South Africa 1926-1943’. Enough to fire up my imagination on every level! When she died no one seemed to have the slightest interest in the sculpture and so it came to live with me. Sometimes I look upon it and wonder how this great politician might feel perched on a driftwood shelf in a medieval Cornish net loft, but he gives me a sense of my family history and indeed love of art.
My charm bracelet was a gift for my 21st birthday from my mother. It had a single coin charm from Germany – my stepfather is German. My brother gave me two more charms; a rocking horse – I had a deep love of my rocking horse as a child – and a Scottish Bagpiper; I am Scottish on my fathers side. It stayed just so until I met my husband who started to add to my charms. He has given me a frog, so I might leap over adversity; a miniature fruit machine, to keep me lucky; and a fish, as I love to swim. The last charm added is the first I have bought; when my portrait of James Martin was selected for The BP Portrait I wanted to mark the occasion and I found a beautiful Silver Buddha charm which felt just right. I think there is something magical about a charm bracelet, that you can add memories onto throughout your life. I have a few spaces left!
My mother fell in love with a man who was not my father when I was six. She stayed married but kept her lover. I knew all about it, however it was never discussed. They had a secret love ring, a solid gold snake with diamond eyes which my mother always wore on her right hand. When I was 14 they ran away together and subsequently married. Many years later out of the blue my mother gave me the ring, again no conversation. It feels important in a way words can’t really express.
My sister is my best friend. She is a truly remarkable woman; we talk for hours every week. There are huge parallels with her work as a psychotherapist and my figurative painting. I think we are both pulled into a fascination of the human psyche. We have also both studied religion; she is working on a part time doctorate at Cambridge University. Both being raised in the same Catholic boarding school has had a massive impact on us. When she was Head Girl she was invited to talk about Mary Ward (the founder of the nuns who ran the convent) in front of Pope John Paul II at The Vatican. I was and am so proud and this photograph is so special. My husband always says my HQ is Rome!
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
For most of my professional life I have been on a mission to seek out the simple and the honest. I have an inherent aversion to fancy, froufrou and flimflam. In my experience, art, poetry, music, design and food are usually better when simple and uncomplicated. Less is always more.
But I do sometimes feel that I’m fighting a losing battle. Too often, praise is lavished upon those who seek to embellish and adorn, those who attempt to make silk purses from sows’ ears. And nowhere is this more prevalent than in the food world. You only have to switch on your telly to find programmes like Come Dine With Me and Masterchef where participants are convinced that the way to win cooking contests is to cram as many ingredients as possible into a single dish. On the latter show, Torode and Wallace’s charges undertake a bizarre and convoluted approach to cooking that has more in common with the contortionist than the chef. Their machinations are positively encouraged by the programme-makers and the general sense seems to be that contestants require an arsenal of techniques that must be used at every opportunity. The result is that dishes become bafflingly overworked and confused with ingredients falling over themselves to be noticed. Consider the typical dish, described in breathy tones by the narrator…
“Gareth is preparing charcoal-grilled quail leg, with pickled wet walnuts, honeyed baby parsnip confit, mousseline of forest morels, black currant jelly, bone broth reduction, truffle foam, beetroot crisp, on a bed of hay.” Stop, already!
I'm not sure whether Masterchef produces car crash dishes like the one above because they think that's what you get in try-hard restaurants or if it's the other way round. What I do know is that it puts me off going to fancy pants places and usually gets me scurrying for shelter amongst those simple bistros, pizzerias and trattorias where the food is less, well, manic. Something happened a few weeks ago, however, that made me reassess my prejudices. I went to The Clove Club.
Isaac McHale made a name for himself alongside James Lowe when the duo cooked in a variety of po-pup locations under the banner The Young Turks. He then set up The Clove Club, a small restaurant and bar in Shoreditch. His business partners, Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith take care of front-of-house and Isaac, as far as I can tell, spends pretty much every shift cooking in the open kitchen that faces the dining room. It was an instant hit. Accolades came thick and fast, reviews were unanimously breathless and gushing, awards followed and Michelin bestowed a star. I was convinced I would hate it.
How wrong I was. From the opening notes through to the final coda, the experience was positively symphonic. Highlights were buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt; mange tout and goat curd tart; flamed mackerel sashimi with chrysanthemum, cucumber and English mustard; asparagus en papillote with bacon, eucalyptus and mint; spring herb broth with mussels, golden turnip and mousserons… I could go on, but I'm making myself hungry again.
Why was everything so good? And what had happened to my default-setting distrust of fancy food? I realised that I had been barking up the wrong tree. The dishes I ate at The Clove Club that afternoon were technically brilliant, yes, but they also displayed a profound understanding for, and appreciation of, ingredients, seasons, texture and flavour. McHale had done his time, so-to-speak, and had learnt the important lessons and principles of good cooking before embarking on a project like The Clove Club. He wasn’t, like many ambitious chefs and virtually every single Masterchef contestant, trying to run before he could walk. His food communicated more than just flavour and technical ability, it spoke of confidence, assuredness and, well, love I suppose. My previous prejudice against a style of cooking often referred to as “fine dining” was actually, I realised, a battle with a completely different enemy.
McHale’s food succeeds so brilliantly because, actually, it is simple. It manages to get to the essence of its constituents with laser beam precision. There is no cocky swagger, no grandstanding, no showing off, no ego. And you can’t deliver dishes like the ones I ate by taking shortcuts or by copying. There is a good analogy in the wine world. Often, poor or average New World winemakers are criticised for producing wine that is heavy, over-powered and strongly flavoured. What they are trying to do, of course, is imitate the stunning complexity found in the great vintages of white Burgundy or the powerful profiles of aged clarets. It can’t be done. The reason those Old World wines are so feted is because they have centuries of expertise and tradition in their DNA. There are no short cuts to excellence.
It really is the most rewarding experience to learn something new, particularly when one is of such firmly-held and strong opinions, and I am genuinely grateful to The Clove Club for helping me see something more clearly: good food happens when there is skill, understanding, confidence and purpose, it happens when ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, and it happens when there is love. But it won’t stop me throwing things at the TV when Masterchef is on.
A short story by Sarah Leipciger
Ten metres up she’s peering at her toes, at the grip her toes have on the edge of the gritty concrete diving platform (which she cannot actually feel, all sensation seems to have left her feet). But her toes are knobbly and white; the grip is firm. Ten metres up the big old arms… the big old granddaddy arms of the oak trees in full summer leaf are shushing about in the wind, the same wind that catches her wet swimsuit, chill fingers across her skin. Ten metres up she looks down at the spot where her family has camped for the day, towels askew on a hot pool deck. One child is unidentifiable in a blue pool full of arms, full of sunburnt flesh, each splash like a singular scream; another child, the little one, has waddled off towards the drinking fountain, which she knows he can’t reach without help. Her husband on a faded green towel, a pink starfish lacking the heart to stretch to its full capacity. She cannot tell from up here if his eyes are open, if he sees their child who has wandered off. The boy makes it to the fountain and grabs both sides of the cistern and tip-toes to his full height and strains towards the spout and goes down again on his heels then tip-toes and strains again and repeats this two more times… gives up. She can’t see but imagines the tight pucker of his waiting lips. The unquenched desire. The boy stands dejected, toddler-taut belly protruding over striped swimming shorts.
Wake the hell up, she thinks. Her husband doesn’t stir.
The oak trees are a whisper of love in the ear. From here she can see across the lake, sailboats frozen on the horizon.
“You gunna go or what?”
Irritated, she looks over her shoulder and in that backwards glance nearly loses her balance. Her hands reach for something, find nothing, and a phobic wave tumbles through her stomach. She finds her centre of gravity and is steady. A boy, aged ten or so, arms like knotted rope and wet hair plastered to his square-ish head, stands at the top of the stairs that lead to the platform. A tuft of fluffy hair pokes up arrogantly from his crown; it too is blown by the wind. His apple-cheeked face is like something you’d expect to see on a 1950’s bag of rolled oats, or something. He still believes the world will deliver whatever he asks for.
“There’s three of us waiting,” he yawns.
She calls her husband’s name but it’s no use, the wind carries his name across the tops of the trees towards the lake, catches a lift on the wings of an urban-grey pigeon and is gone.
The water in the diving pool is darker–you could almost say richer–than the water in the other pool, the pool where her elder child battles the Saturday melée for a few inches of kicking space. This water ten metres below her toes is like cold blue glass. It shifts sluggishly, waiting to catch her tired body which, she expects, will fall clumsily, heavy with fear. Light refracts through to the bottom of the pool where the tiles seem to fold and bend and she considers what it might be like to observe the world from that particular vantage point, her back to the tiles, looking up through five meters of water to, and beyond, the surface. All she has to do is jump, release her breath, sink.
“Can we just go before you?”
No one’s ever died doing it. They wouldn’t keep it open to the public if it were a hazard.
She looks down at her sleeping husband. Wonders if he wonders where she’s got to. If he even realises she’s not there lying next to him. The child who was at the water fountain is no longer at the water fountain. She scans the pool deck, eyes alert for the black and white stripes of his swimsuit, well-trained to search crowded areas for her children by the pattern and colour of their clothing (the same details the police would use in some sort of report, she supposes, if the inconceivable were to ever really happen). Where the f is he? The numbness in her feet travels up her legs, carrying with it that rootless, bottomless thing she gets when she loses sight of this kid. He’s not back at the towels, not at the entrance to the changing rooms, nor is he at the umbrella where they sell drinks and chocolate bars. It’s like a lightness, like her feet are leaving the earth and when she’s about to fly off into a real panic she spots him. Where a second ago he was not, he now is. He sits crosslegged by his father’s head.
The water rushes up to meet her surprisingly slowly. There’s time to be surprised and somewhat nauseated by the inertia of her organs; time to be pleased by the way her body takes to this flight so naturally. She’s veritably aerodynamic. Given another go, she thinks she could fit a somersault or two in there. And though the landing is rough, with water shooting violently up her nose and into her sinus cavity, and though her swimsuit wedges itself tightly into the crack of her bum, she is filled with something much sweeter than all that. In a word, she’s thrilled.
Her older child meets her back at the towels with watery blood cascading down his chin. Someone belly-flopped on his head, causing him to bite his tongue. The small one proudly shows her a very neat pile of toenails he has harvested. Food for the ants, he tells her. Her husband pries open one eye, shields it from the sun. She positions herself so that her shadow falls over his face and he might be more comfortable.
He puts a warm hand around her ankle. “Where’d you get to?” he asks.
“Toilet,” she says. She’ll keep this one for herself.
Sarah Leipciger’s debut novel, The Mountain Can Wait, is published by Tinder Press.
After 12 hours the salmon finally emerges and Ole returns from his bed nearby (he lives ‘above the shop’). In that time the salmon has lost about 30% of its weight, the skin is dry and the fish looks extraordinary. Ole slices it and we eat it on sourdough with a little crème fraiche.
This is not the usual fare of thinly sliced salty salmon. It is more sashimi-like, sliced vertically so that we taste all the flavours from the smokey surface to the freshness of the fish near the skin. The fish also has different tastes from tail to top - women in his experience generally prefer the saltier top but each of his part of the fish has its own fan club.
48 hours ago this fish was swimming in the wilderness between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic and now it is ready to dispatch to customers and restaurants. In tune with the whole process and with respect for the taste and texture the salmon is not vacuum packed but simply wrapped in paper.
In this last part of our current journey with Jeremy Lee we were invited to Quo Vadis to talk kitchens, herbs and foams mousses and creams!
Jeremy took over the helm at this revered Soho restaurant in 2012 and has revamped, lightened and simplified the décor and revamped, lightened and simplified the food. Jeremy has many fans and no one who followed him from his previous outpost at the Blue Print Café has been disappointed. Lived in at one time by Karl Marx and housing kitchens that are ‘a cumbersome beast from another era’ it was interesting to talk to Jeremy about the heritage and the culture he is creating for new young chefs.
However the hero of the film is certainly the herb omelette created by Jeremy with Frances’ herbs. Devoured in minutes by his hungry brigade and instantly on the menu, Jeremy as always expressed it perfectly; ‘To elevate something so familiar and so friendly into something else is just fantastic’.
Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
My allotment work coat is faintly ridiculous: reversible, one side black, the other shiny silver. When I bought it sometime in the early 90s that silver lining seemed a very desirable thing indeed. I wore it shiny side out with pride, its combination of silver and puff seeming just the thing for standing in frozen but stylish nightclub queues.
It is now this jacket I reach for on these changeable spring days at the plot, for although its charms for me faded alongside my desire to hang around in dark, smoky rooms full of strangers, its thermal properties did not. It is still the warmest and most waterproof coat I own and as suited to my windy north Bristol hilltop plot as it was to the outside of those clubs, just down the hill. Today the jacket stays firmly black side out, and I blush faintly at the glamour of the lining, by the way it lays bare a never-quite-realised desire to be that girl - Neneh, Mica, Sharah - the sort of girl who can really carry off shiny puff. The black side is now faded by the sun to a charcoal grey, streaked with mud, ripped by rose thorns, artificial innards poking out here and there. The lining, however, remains as stubbornly bling as the day it was bought.
My allotment is at almost at the highest point in Bristol and from here, at the path end of the plot, with my small kingdom of fruit trees, leeks, well-bitten salad leaves and all behind me, I can see right across the bowl of Bristol, down towards those streets where I once shivered, silvery and self conscious, and up and out to the hills and fields right across the other side of the city. In the sunshine I can pick out the line of rooftops that marks the street on which I had my first Saturday job. I am about 12 minutes walk from the site of my first (unimpressive) kiss. I have not fallen very far from my tree.
Today’s job is painstakingly separating couch grass from soil where path meets bed, the Sisyphean task that has perhaps taken up more of my ten years on this plot than any other. It is energetic enough that in the thin sunlight I have worked up enough of a sweat to dump the jacket on the grass path, from where the liner is blinding passing seagulls. Both this particular task and the plot itself lend themselves to plenty of standing and gazing: the second I need to straighten up from bending there is that oh-so-familiar view to admire.
One of the great things about having an allotment in a city is the way it gives you back the sky. I may well live at one of the highest points in Bristol, but mostly I wouldn’t know it. Houses crowd around cosily, and only rarely does a vista open up unexpectedly down a particularly straight road, or right up at the top of the common where you can see beyond the trees. But up at the plot I see exactly where I am in the scheme of things. The view is big enough that I can see weather ‘coming in’, like some hoary old countryman sniffing the air for change or feeling it in his bones. I can spot a big rain storm on its way across Bristol and get home just as the first fat drops hit the pavement. I’ll be smugly drinking tea with my wellies off by the time it is pounding the windows. But perhaps my favourite allotment sky is this one: a scudding spring sky full of little fluffy cumulus clouds, with silver linings far lovelier than mine. Sometimes they are wondrously evenly spread, reminiscent of the opening credits of The Simpsons, with perfectly flat bases as if they have been dropped softly onto a vast glass plate. And almost always they go on for miles, stretching away as far as the eye can see. Right across my world. Digging out couch roots and gazing at the sky, shedding layers from working and pulling them back on from standing around; these are the ways I have spent my many hours on this little plot of land.
A short story by Lucy Foley
She lies in bed. Through the window the sky is white, as though pasteurised of colour. She is twenty-one, in Paris.
Yesterday they stepped from the train into the morning, blue-cold like a veil drawn over everything. She had a new scarf for this: grey and soft as a kitten’s ear. They could not check into their hotel until later — he had called ahead, the receptionist was unyielding — so they stopped for breakfast in a pavement cafe. It was so like postcards and book jackets, the place, that she herself felt strangely unreal. For a capsizing second she was sure that something — the cafe, or the two of them, or perhaps Paris itself — had to be a fiction. She tried to find a way to tell this to him, but concluded that it was too odd. If she could make him feel it, well, that would be different. But words… too blunt and clumsy. Besides: a year. Still too early to be nakedly oneself.
She had a tartine, coffee. When his order came it repulsed her; the bread stuck in her throat like childhood broccoli. The sausages were maggot-white, flaccid-looking. And so many of them. Had she seen a fissure of unease in him, too? Had he understood they would be like this, ordering in his schoolboy French? She thought not, though she also knew that he would never admit it. Saucisson, he must have seen, and that would have seemed familiarity enough. He proceeded robustly, with long draughts of coffee. When he finished (a queasy smile) she felt someone should cheer. Normally they would laugh about it. But here, somehow, on this special occasion, there isn’t space for that.
She had been warned about the size of hotel rooms in this city, but she hadn’t really understood. She doesn’t think he had either. When they were shown into the room she had felt an awful pity for him, watching her. She wanted to tell him that it didn’t matter. It could not matter less. But to say so would be to acknowledge that there is a shortcoming. If they survive this, these two days, then perhaps they will be able to joke about it in years to come. How many years? Two, perhaps, for the sting to be gone. And she will wait for him to mention it.
In an effort to save the situation they had fallen together onto the bed and it had screeched off its bearings and they had laughed but then she had laughed too long and too loud, and desire had fled the room.
It was only when he had gone to use the bathroom that she had realised the door to the bathroom was a curtain, not a door. The stream of his urine had echoed with almost preternatural loudness. She began to consider, warily, whether he might be doing it on purpose. Did he want her to listen? Something he had kept hidden until Paris, until the threshold of her twenty-first year?
To make certain she wore the mask of a card shark as he re-entered the room: blank-eyed, all-seeing. She found in his face a reassuring bashfulness.
In the afternoon they went to the Picasso house. She stood for some time before La Célestine: the pleasurable horror of it, like ice held against the tailbone. And the line drawings, which hurt her with their simplicity. He appeared behind her, suddenly, and she sensed he had a gambit prepared. I could do that. She felt an unfair foreboding of irritation.
Don’t say it.
‘I think I might go and sit outside for a bit.’
‘Are you alright?’
‘Yes, fine. Just got a bit hot in here.’
It was only after he left her that she realised he was still wearing his jumper. Weird. When she walked into the courtyard he was sitting on the bench and his eyes were closed. Was he… asleep? His eyes came open as she stood before him and he smiled and she forgave him everything, even the remark he hadn’t made.
Look at him. He is beautiful. A shock in a man, indecent, almost. And so kind. She does not deserve him.
A shower. He towelled her hair dry. A taxi booked to the surprise restaurant — because their hotel, well, isn’t really in Paris. As they stepped out into the night he had listed against her. She had turned and seen the oddness in his face.
‘I’m just going inside. I’ll only be a minute. Tell the guy to wait.’
She had found him, ten minutes later, behind the bathroom curtain, curled over the bowl.
A dreadful night. The bathroom, that fucking curtain. The soles of his feet comically pink in the gap beneath it. She had mixed him a rehydration solution from the kit her mother had furnished her with. He had waved it away; it wouldn’t stay down. She felt useless as a child. He had asked her to put her headphones in, find something that would drown him out. She owed it to his pride, she supposed. But she couldn’t do it. It was important, somehow, to suffer it too.
She turns from the white morning. So tired that she feels drunk, as though the night before had been soused in champagne after all. At her movement the bedding crackles with static. He is spreadeagled, open-mouthed, breath a little stale — hardly surprising — an unwholesome heat coming off him. His arm is thrown above his head like a surrender. The sheets have marbled the soft skin with pink.
His gamble: kamikaze brave. He has done all this for her and none of it, none of it, has been what it should have been.
This feeling, as she continues to look. More dread than joy. A weakening, an opening in the chest. Like the moment just before one is about to weep.
She had thought it would come in a revelation, holy light to the prophets.
This, this is as much something lost as something gained. A yielding of sovereignty.
No one speaks of this. She hadn’t known this is how it would be.
But it is, isn’t it?
Lucy Foley's new novel The Invitation is published by Harper Collins.
Travelling the length and breadth of the country looking for potential restaurant sites is exciting in terms of business development, but challenging when done by rail.
It is well known in my office, nestled nicely between two blue plaques on the sunny side of Golden Square in Soho, that I get the heebie-jeebies if I have to travel too far out of the ‘hood. Soho is neatly bordered by Oxford Street to the north, Shaftesbury Avenue to the south, Regent Street to the west and Charing Cross Road to the east. I feel safe within its confines and risk nosebleeds and panic attacks outside its four boundaries.
Imagine my horror, then, when my business partner suggests that we travel to Cheltenham, Kingston, Shoreditch and Tunbridge Wells to look at potential restaurant sites. He did precisely this last week and I came out in a cold sweat. But, in the interests of professionalism, and also so that I didn’t look like a total prima donna, I bit my lip and made the trip. Four trips to be precise, and it was every inch the traumatic experience I expected it to be.
This week, however, has been far, far worse.
Having already endured train journeys to Cambridge and Birmingham, I am writing this on the 09:06 from London Paddington to Plymouth. It’s a four-hour journey there, a ninety-minute meeting in a pretty Cornish village on a small branch line, and then a four-hour journey back. My heart rate is unusually high and serotonin levels worrying low. Not even a Snickers bar and a packet of salt and vinegar Discos from the buffet car has made it better. I’m having serious collywobbles.
But it’s not the destinations that are the problem. Cambridge is a beautiful city, Birmingham is so dynamic and exciting, the Cornish village of St Germans is exquisite (I wish I were staying longer) and Cheltenham rocks. Nor is it the restaurants we eventually open in some of the UK’s coolest towns and cities – I love them all and get as giddy as a schoolgirl when visiting. It’s the journeys themselves. Getting to these places is fresh hell.
There was a time when train journeys seemed glamorous. When I was a student in the 1980s, the thought of getting on an Intercity 125 from Newcastle to Edinburgh was as enthralling as a first class flight to New York might be now. But something went wrong in the intervening decades. Privatisation turned our mainline stations into messy marketplaces for third-rate operators putting profits before all other considerations. Trains are old and ugly, broken and dirty. Services are unreliable, crowded and slow. Staff are demotivated, despondent and irritable. Taking the train is much more likely to cause the strain these days than alleviate it.
It irks me that the stress begins well before the heart-sinking wait in the station. Have you tried to book a train ticket lately? The permutations and algorithms involved in navigating a way through the kaleidoscope of available options are breath-taking. Super Saver, Super Off Peaks, timed returns, open returns, designated routes, forbidden routes. How anyone manages to buy the right ticket is beyond me. It’s almost as if train companies are wilfully setting up barriers to make it difficult for their customers to find the cheapest route. Surely not...
I’m a cautious traveller and I often arrive at the station far too early. This affords me the dubious privilege of looking around, drinking poor coffee, Instagramming the architecture and studying the faces of the grey, downtrodden commuters. The haunted looks in their faces, the sloped shoulders, the dejected body language, the ever-present just-below-the-surface mild annoyance and irritation - if ever anything should convince you that train travel is a deeply miserable and unhealthy undertaking, it’s those poor souls with dead eyes trained on the departures board, unable to think because of the incessant, mindless tannoy announcements, and with their dread journeys still ahead of them.
So, take it from me, you are far better off staying where you are. Don’t leave the house/office/garden unless you really have to. And if you do have to leave, for God’s sake, don’t take the train.
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.
Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I once flew out of the country for a week at almost precisely this time of the year, to sandstone- and beige-hued Cypress, for a week of family wedding celebrations: mezze, swimming pools and sunburn. The countryside was parched in that glorious Mediterranean way. A few lingering spring flowers could still be seen – they lift their heads above the parapet briefly before the heat of summer truly hits – but the island’s resting state of cicadas and dust was very much in the ascendant.
We had flown out in mid-May and flew back at the end of it, and perhaps it was the adjustment I had made to an entirely biscuit-shaded landscape that make me sit up in my seat and gawp at the Somerset countryside as we descended into Bristol airport. Green. Green like I’d never seen. It had been green as we had left but growth at this time of year feels almost exponential, and by the time we returned, a little plumper, a little pink on shoulders and noses, the hedgerows and trees seemed to have leaped up at us by several feet. It was glorious to see.
I have been out in my own garden hunting for colour this week and have found almost none, unless we are counting emerald, lime and chartreuse. This was not the case a week ago when there were two shades of lilac in bloom, a small sea (the Baltic, perhaps) of forget-me-nots, and a bevy of blossoming fruit trees. All looked softly colourful, in a fluffy, pastel sort of way. Incidentally it won’t be the case in a few weeks: I found plenty of rose, clematis and other buds just about to break. But right now in the garden the blossom has faded and green is the colour.
It’s very possible that if I were a better gardener this would not be happening. I’m sure there are ways to bridge this gap and many gardens flushed with colour right now. But I always notice this lull in my own garden, a natural breathing space between spring and summer over this couple of weeks. Perhaps it is due to the plants I personally favour, and a predominance of fruit trees, or perhaps this is the just the way it should be. I don’t want to fill this lull with clever planting. I have come to like it, and I think it suits the season and the month, which has always felt more like a month of expectation than delivery.
The May Queen that graces village fetes at the beginning of the month personifies this moment in the year, and this sense of bigger things to come. She is traditionally young and beautiful, not quite a child and not quite a woman, but someone on the cusp of her full life. There is an innocence and purity about the crowning of the queen but she is not entirely guileless: there is a hint of a darker side to the celebrations (some traditions include a ritualised sacrifice), and just as the blossom that she wears on her crown will soon be pollinated, so the May Queen is essentially a woman on the edge of her sexual awakening. This is captured in rather melodramatic fashion in Tennyson’s ‘The May Queen’. Here our soon-to-be May Queen starts the poem all blossom, garlands and white dresses but before long is revelling in her status over the other unchosen girls and flirting cruelly with poor Robin, who she passes over for - one is lead to suspect - one of the ‘bolder lads’ she expects to meet on the day. Such flagrant enjoyment of her own beauty and youth cannot go unpunished of course and in true Victorian style we then fast forward to New Year’s day where we find our heroine dying of some unnamed illness that may bear mysterious relation to her ‘wild and wayward’ ways. That’ll teach her for messing with those shepherd boys.
Put aside the death-by sexual-liberation of Tennyson’s version and I do think the May Queen is a very apt figure for this moment in the year. Perhaps that is why she has persisted so long while so many other of our semi-pagan celebrations have drifted away from us. I like the idea that now, post-blossom, just a few weeks after May Day, the garden, the hedgerows, and the landscape are taking a breath – a green and verdant pause - before launching into the real burgeoning work of life: the fruiting and reproducing that it must complete before the year is out.
I’m not, in truth, someone who’s generally that concerned with material possessions. Yes, I like living in a nice house and there being full bookshelves in almost every room and the walls being decorated with good art. But they’re all replaceable, money permitting. What makes up my trove of treasured possessions are things that genuinely couldn’t be replaced: those classic items of sentimental value.
Folders of letters and cards: This is, in fact, just one of twelve similar folders. My family are the kind of people who send cards to say thank-you for the thank-you card. And I’m the kind of person who keeps them all: from grandparents, my mum, siblings and now my husband.
Philip Roth’s American Pastoral: He’s my favourite all-time writer and I made a film with him for the BBC in 2003: spending three days working with your literary hero is about as good as work gets. He signed this copy and we’ve exchanged letters in the decade since, all of which I keep in this book.
Marcasite necklace: This belonged to my maternal grandmother, Vivi, yet another present from my grandfather. I loved it as a little girl, and she always let me wear it when my mum and I would go for Saturday lunch. I rarely have occasion to wear it now myself, but I often take it out of the box just to look at and remember all those happy hours dressing up in my grandmother’s jewellery.
Computer and hard drive: Perhaps not the most poetic of items, but they contain every photo I’ve taken for the past decade, including wedding and honeymoon pictures, all the travel photos from two years living abroad with my husband, and the 50GB of photos I took of our daughter (every day) during the first year of her life. It’s also home to everything I’ve ever written in my adult life too. If our house was burning down, it’s the single material possession I’d save.
Hannah Beckerman's novel The Dead Wife's Handbook is published by Penguin.
Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I almost always take a train journey in May. That train journey is from my home in Bristol to London for the Chelsea Flower Show, and I speed through the hills and tunnels, lumps and bumps of the West Country, past our sweet and steep little complicated fields and out onto the flat lands of Wiltshire, all space and horizon, then through the endless suburbs and into Paddington.
Although I tend to think that I am in tune with the seasons because of my sowing, harvesting, sunburning and shivering activities at the allotment, it is only when I get out into the countryside – even if only via Great Western Railway – that the full force of them hits me. And in May the countryside is all about the may tree, the hawthorn. Every field, little or large, is lined with hedgerows bursting with these firework sprays of white may flower. It is a properly beautiful display, perhaps my favourite moment in the year, and I long wondered why the English have never developed a tradition of hawthorn worship to rival the Hanami of Japan, where entire families gather beneath the blossoming cherry trees to savour the fleeting moment.
In fact there are perfectly good reasons why we don’t hold the hawthorn in quite such esteem as the Japanese hold their cherries, for although it is a beautiful plant, and one I love in my own garden, it is a plant with a complicated history. A brief history of the hawthorn, and of those fields: once upon a time there were far fewer fields, or rather there were far larger fields, and farming took place in communally managed strips, which the farmers moved between year on year. Some had rights to many strips, some just to one, some rented a strip a year. It was a system that allowed even the poorer members of a parish to be roughly self sufficient in crops. And then in the 1700s and 1800s came the Enclosures, when those with rights to more strips were encouraged to bring them together and to fence them off, making the single strips untenable and completely cutting the renters out of the picture. The countryside began to slip away from those who had always lived there and worked it.
And the plant that was used to create the barriers that kept the rural poor out? Yes, hawthorn. Lovely thick, bushy, thorny hawthorn. Plants in their millions lined the new fields, entire fortunes were made on the growing of hawthorn. And these are the very same plants that delight us now every May. So it is perhaps not a plant that warrants unquestioning celebration in the way that a simple cherry full of blossom does. There is also the issue of location. In keeping with this history hawthorn generally abides on the boundaries of private land, tricky to reach and deliberately unwelcoming when you get there. Hanami-style mass picnics would have a strongly political edge.
Of course I planted it in my own garden before I knew any of this, just thinking of it as a lovely native plant that I might be able to prune into cloud shapes, and wanting to draw a little of that May railway journey into my own patch. It is edible too, the purple new tips have a nutty, appley flavour and the flowers taste of almond, and it makes a beautifully springtime salad with tips of garlic cress, slices of raw asparagus and a few of the first broad beans. My row of hawthorns along my own boundary was no grand statement about the fate of the countryside, nor was it intended to disenfranchise my lovely next door neighbour Jenny – she’s welcome round any time.
I would love one day to arrive at the end of my journey and find that one of the grand Chelsea gardens is filled with hawthorn bushes. For a start there would be no need to go through the usual agonies to make sure their chosen plants flower on the right moment: whatever weird winters, heat waves and hail storms throw at Chelsea, there is always hawthorn in flower at Chelsea time. But above all it is a beautiful plant with a rich and complicated history, and with a long-ignored story to tell.
There is a scene in John Maybury’s dark biopic of Francis Bacon, Love Is The Devil, where the artist, played by Derek Jacobi, upends a bottle of Champagne over the head of the photographer John Deakin. “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,” he barks.
The scene takes place in the Colony Room, a small and drab private drinking hole up a flight of stairs on Dean Street. Its regulars were mostly alcoholics or artists or both and although it had bohemian credentials and a certain grim charm when you were as arseholed as everyone else, in the cold sober light of day, it felt more like the inside of a diseased lung.
The Colony Room is no longer there. The space has been turned into a flat. Do I miss it? Yes I do. Every time I pass the doorway at number 41 or look up at the two sash windows on the first floor, I get a pang of nostalgia and the occasional flashback. Most of the people I used to drink with there are now dead.
Until quite recently, talk in Soho was often of the “holy trinity”. This was a reference to the three drinking dens of Dean Street, of course, rather than the Christian fairy tale. These insalubrious watering holes were The Colony Room, The French House and Gerry’s. Whereas the first is now extinct and the last is a private members’ club, The French House remains the most accessible and is still very much alive.
The French (as locals like to call it) was formerly known as The York Minster but got its nickname by virtue of the tenure of Victor Berlemont and later his son Gaston. For most of the twentieth century they ran the pub and dressed the part of the typical Frenchman, particularly Gaston who wore a comedy waxed moustache and looked like he’d come straight from central casting. As it happened, the Berelmonts were actually Belgian.
But it was, and still is, the clientele that make the French so distinctive. Squeezing into the tiny ground floor bar today feels much like it might have seventy years ago when Maurice Denton Walsh wrote:
“We fought our way in, pushing through the crowd of sailors, whores, airmen, negroes and French sailors. Close to my ear people whispered to each other earnestly, ecclesiastically. The thimblefuls of golden whisky spilt on dark cloth when elbows were jogged. Someone said playfully, ‘I’m feeling hysterical.’ There was warmth and dirt and love and disgust and poetry and sweat.”
Artists, actors and journalists may have replaced the sailors, whores and airmen, but the feeling of barely contained hysteria remains today, particularly on frenetic midweek nights. There is an charged and slightly edgy air that is partly down to the world-weary staff (they’ve seen all the moves, know all the tricks, deal with all the characters) and in no small part because of the regulars, who guard their local with an almost proprietorial pride and more than a degree of wariness of any newcomers.
If you try to use your mobile phone you’ll be thrown out. Ask for a pint and you’ll be made to look like a fool (The French House famously only serves halves.) Ask for directions to Chinatown and you’ll just get a vague arm gesture pointing south. And if you dare to be abusive to any of the staff, you’ll incur the wrath of the landlady Lesley. She is fiercely protective of her team who are more like family; some have worked there for over twenty years.
But despite its foibles, quirks and idiosyncrasies, The French is an institution and as such it deserves to be celebrated and protected. It feels dangerously like it could be the last of its kind in Soho. If it were ever threatened with redevelopment or closure I would be at the front of the crowd at the protests. Mine would be the loudest voice at the rallies. I would be the first to lie down in front of the JCB.
The walls of The French House are covered with evocative photographs of previous customers and notable neighbours. There is even a shot of Francis Bacon standing at the bar, looking perturbed. Maybe he was on his way to the Colony to pour champagne over John Deakin. Perhaps he’d just been.
I have studied that photograph a hundred times. There is something about the expression on Bacon’s face that is unsettling. His eyes are black, his face is ashen. Only recently, I realised what it is that troubles me: Francis Bacon looks haunted. When the great and good of Soho die, their ghosts come to The French House to drink.
Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbooks are international bestsellers and her twitter account and website have become the go-to destination for Middle Eastern recipes and ingredient wisdom.
We wanted to meet Sabrina because as she reveals in this film she didn’t set out to become the poster girl for Middle Eastern food – she started a supper club, cooked great food, worked hard and the word spread. Her's is not a story about hype, simply about talent and hard work and deft use of social media. As she tells us in this film, her first forays into cooking were not some ancient recipe learnt from her mother’s knee but boil in the bag rice and kosher sausages. She didn’t cook Persian food at her first supper clubs but they became an overnight success when she returned to her roots and started to explore and share.
Her mantra and indeed good advice for anyone cooking for friends – please yourself before pleasing others. While she was with us Sabrina very generously supplied lunch.
Not many people at the age of 10 spend the money from their Saturday jobs on plants but Dan’s education and love affair with plants and planting started very early.
As we heard in Childhood he can easily identify his mentors and is very generous in his descriptions of who taught him what. Here Dan talks about the plantaholic Mrs Pomfrey and his introduction to the pioneering Beth Chatto and her ‘right plant, right place’ revolution. He describes this as making ‘total sense’ to him and reminds us of her place in gardening history and of how she was doing something new and extraordinary.
However almost more revealing in this film is the beginning of his awareness of reading landscape and his wonderful description of evening bike rides and the feeling of the cool of the hollows and the warmth and sun of open spaces. Dan’s ability to communicate makes us feel l like we are reliving these discoveries with him.
The London food scene has changed significantly over the past six or seven years. Restaurants have embraced the innovativeness and energy of the street food movement, prices have come down, interior design is sexier than ever, service is casual and friendly and a new generation of talent in the kitchen means that we are now spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing where to eat: there are just so many good restaurants.
But in addition to the marked shift in the capital’s kitchens, there has been a revolution in the way we read about and discuss our restaurants. Food blogging was once seen as a slightly geeky pastime, the reserve of the nerd, on the trainspotting spectrum, so-to-speak, and often looked down upon by some of our national, printed press restaurant critics. Oh how the tables have turned! I think it could probably be argued that on-line reviewing and blogging has just as much, if not more influence on where we eat as printed reviewing and writing. A by-product of the massive virtual audience for these often-excellent blogs is a foodie community that is savvy, knowledgeable, discerning and influential.
There are some real characters in this community and, conveniently, they tend to subdivide into smaller tribes. I’m going to look at two of these in a little more detail.
1. The Neophile
The neophile is the lover of the new. He or she will be pulling on the leash to be at the front of the queue for the latest restaurant opening, neck-strainingly keen to try the most recent Hackney-railway-arch-pop-up.
Enthusiastic? You don’t know the half of it. A well-known neophile once selflessly endured an all-night bender after a boozy high-profile restaurant opening in order to be first in-line at the Bloody Mary breakfast launch of another new restaurant. I’d call that dedicated. (You, however, might call it liver damage.)
You will usually find him dining solo within minutes of the doors being opened while the waiters and chefs are still putting on aprons and the fresh paint is still drying. He’ll be the one simultaneously over-ordering, note-taking, tweeting, instagramming, photographing and engaging hungrily with the waitress, his combat trousers stained with butter drips and his heavy-framed spectacles smeared with chilli sauce.
He is related to the trainspotter in that both species are motivated by a strong desire to tick another box and claim another “got”. Been there. Done that. Had the signature dish. Time to move on
Quite often, he will never visit the restaurant again. Old restaurants have neither currency nor appeal to the neophile. They are immediately irrelevant and obsolete. There is the next new place to get to and cross off the list. If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Neophiles are young, determined and full of energy.
Most likely to say: “Fried chicken is the new burger.”
Least likely to say: “I think I’ll stay in tonight and have beans on toast instead.”
2. The OCD Chef
I know, I know. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a serious medical and psychological condition that should not be made light of in this way, but I’m just using the common vernacular.
These dudes are hard-core. No leaf is accidentally placed. Esoteric vegetables need to sit on the plate in regimented lines. “FIVE FUCKING SHISO FLOWERS ON THAT PLATE OF HAMACHI!” And woe betide the waiter who places a dish on a table the wrong way round. “Umeboshi at twelve o’clock. UMEBOSHI AT TWELVE O’CLOCK!”
You might (reasonably) argue that this is simply a keen attention-to-detail, right? Wrong. The OCD chef goes beyond “attention-to-detail” and straight into “hysterical control-freakery” faster than you can say “minute steak”.
Character traits? Slightly scary, slightly intense and with a permanent air of martyrdom. They have perfected the withering laser-beam stare of abject disappointment, capable of exterminating a junior sous chef at twenty paces. Although many of them scream and shout at their gamma and delta workmates to intimidate them into submission, some have a far more terrifying, softly-softly approach. “Oh, that’s very disappointing, Carl...”
In terms of appearance, OCD chefs come in both genders, are often tattooed prominently (think cleavers, knives, forks and butchery diagrams), they sport prison-chic haircuts and, inexplicably, they have a predilection for short-sleeved chef jackets. They do inhabit a variety of restaurants but the pedigree specimens are most often found in their own kitchen, as chef-patrons. If their name is above the door, peak OCD is guaranteed.
OCD chefs must possess the latest range of razor-sharp Japanese knives, no expense spared, and absolutely always require tweezers. Yes, tweezers. Essential. How else will those expensive micro herbs make it onto the plate?
Most likely to say: “Am I the only one round here who can do this properly?”
Least likely to say: “I’m quite relaxed about it. What do you think? Let’s have a vote!”
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival
A short story by Anna Metcalfe
In order to know when it was that he had been truly happy, Mr Arnold posed the question in terms of the gradient – when was I most happy? – so as to avoid inferring that he was, at that moment, unhappy, or worse: neutral.
The most obvious answer, and perhaps the answer towards which a great many of us would retreat, would be to say that he had been happiest in childhood: a time when the concept and question of happiness remained beyond satisfactory articulation, perhaps beyond thinking, and the simple, raw pursuit of it was what mattered most. But if, indeed, that was the case, he was certain that he could not remember it and, if he could not remember it, then it was of no use. If that early era of imagined happiness was not sufficiently luminous as to remain accessible to conscious memory, why, it may as well be the case, thought Mr Arnold, that I never experienced it at all.
He sometimes thought that if he were able to create the idea of such an era, with sufficient colour and shape so as to be able to feel as though he could remember it, then it would, later, once the effort of creation were forgotten, become a kind of pleasure in its own right. But that was not at all the same thing.
When the question first announced itself, it brought with it a tangible sadness. If I cannot recall when I was happy, he thought, then I must be either very miserable, very dull or very stupid. Mr Arnold could not even be sure what kind of response he hoped to produce. Should the ‘when’ represent a number of years, a golden phase of productivity and achievement, romance and travel and excitement, or general good living? Should it relate to a particular time in his life when he had been able to recognise in himself the feeling that he was in the place he ought to be in, at the time at which he ought to be there, doing the very thing he ought to be doing in that place and at that time? Or, rather, might it represent something as fleeting as a single moment, or a handful of fleeting moments, each containing some ephemeral, illuminative quality? Could the answer, instead, be conceived of as a growing sense of warmth, a progression of increasing and enduring contentment? Mr Arnold came to feel that it would never be within his powers to say: Yes, I was happy then. I see it now. This, here, marked the moment at which it started, and that, there, marked the moment at which it started to stop.
Nonetheless, his search continued. He strung together the important landmarks and achievements of his life, demanding answers from them all. At school? No. Well, perhaps there were flashes, but nothing he could remember well enough to pinpoint, and, on the whole, the experience was dulled with an overriding sense of anxiety. At university? No. Things were much too uncertain, his personality being too fluid and too easily influenced by whichever group of friends he had fallen in with at a particular time. During his first job as a legal clerk? Perhaps, but only a little. There was a sense of independence and freedom at the beginning that came with having a regular wage, but that quickly gave way to the dullness of routine and responsibility. His first holiday abroad? Yes, perhaps then, if only a little.
The holiday had marked the end of the era of his third job and the beginning of the era of the fourth, which merited a substantial pay rise. At that time, he didn’t know anyone else with the financial means or the availability to go abroad with him, so he went alone. His boss recommended France, in particular: Carcassonne. He had a little house down there, a little gite, that Mr Arnold could use gratuit. So he wandered the ancient, sun-soaked streets, ate and drank at the establishments recommended to him and watched the lives of the local inhabitants play out before him – the bakers in the morning, the men in suits at lunch, the farm boys on their bikes running errands in the town – as though it had been orchestrated solely for the purposes of his entertainment. He was, over those six days, to some degree, invisible. This was both a source of happiness and of freedom, that of having no obligation to a place. But for the duration of the holiday, Mr Arnold had allowed himself to slip into the skin of somebody else; the truth was that he did not have the proper disposition for travelling alone. Therefore, in order to enjoy it, he had assumed the mantle of someone with such a disposition, but this charade could not last forever, therefore it could not be happiness that he had felt for it was not truly Mr Arnold doing the feeling and it wasn’t real life so much as a fantasy world that bore resemblance to the south of France. So no, in fact, he had not been happy then.
It would have been wonderful to be able to say that the period of greatest happiness had begun with marriage and ended following the death of his wife, but that didn’t feel quite truthful either. It wasn’t at all the case that they had been unhappy, but happiness, if that’s what it was, had not simply begun on the day of their first meeting, nor on the day of their wedding. It was equally untrue to suggest that he had not been sad when she died, or that he had not grieved, but that was not the same as saying that her death was the cause of his ceasing to be happy, as, when she died, he had only grieved because he had been perfectly content when she was alive and because he was grateful and very glad to have known her at all. None of these facts, in and of themselves, made a moment of happiness, spread, as they were, over a long period of time, in which happiness had faded in and out.
The question acquired a presence of its own, with him as he ate his two boiled eggs at breakfast, as he read the newspaper, as he daydreamed by the window, as he drank the glass of milk, or, on occasion, scotch, that he liked to take at precisely half past ten in the evening before he completed the rituals of washing and teeth-brushing, preparing for bed.
Am I happy now? He ate a chocolate biscuit. What about now? He read a chapter of his book. And now? He went for a walk; he had lunch in Chez Thomas, which was his favourite café, with Mr Lambert, who was his only friend. He took an extra scotch at midnight. And now? And now?
The answer, when it revealed itself, came quite out of the blue. It arrived one afternoon, as he was sitting in the big yellow chair, which he had repositioned – with some difficulty, as it was a large and heavy chair – from the back of the room to much a brighter location by the bay window in the room that he referred to as his ‘day room’. He watched a bus pull up at the stop across the road. This was not an unusual occurrence — buses came and went every half an hour — but this particular bus reminded him of another bus: one that he had been waiting for fifty years earlier, just a week before his twenty seventh birthday.
It happened like this. It was early August, 1963. He had been on a camping trip along the north Norfolk coast with friends from school. He was making his way back to London, where he was working as a legal clerk (his second job) and had to change buses at Norwich, which meant a thirty five minute wait at the bus station. Upon arrival, he went to the ticket office and was informed that the bus to London was due to leave from bay number seven. (Such detail! Such clarity! How could he have failed to remember this before?) He placed himself at one end of the bench beneath the shelter, unzipped a side-pocket in his travel-bag to withdraw the necessary materials, and began to roll a cigarette. He lit up. Across from him was bay number four, where there was a bus – it was blue with a big yellow stripe – due to travel in the direction of Cambridge. Sitting at the back of the bus, by the window closest to him, was a girl, about his age, with short brown hair that was rich in colour but foreign in texture, thick and frizzy, bushing out at the sides. Her profile was elegant and she sat tall, her neck long and straight. She held in her hands a large hardback book with a dark red cover, perhaps something – he imagined – by one of the Russians – Anna Karenina, Notes from the Underground, perhaps a volume of Akhmatova? No. It was too large a tome to be a single work of poetry. But an anthology? A Complete Works? No. Absurd. She did not look the type to read poetry in public. It was a novel, to be sure, and she was enraptured.
With her arm at the necessary angle to support the weight of the book, the collection of chunky gold bangles she was wearing had slipped to the crook of her elbow. He gave a moment’s consideration to the jewellery. Where had she been when she put them on that morning, if, indeed, it was morning when she put them on? Had she arranged them on her wrist one by one, hearing each gold band making a satisfying clatter against the next as it adorned her arm?
He watched her intently, taking in every detail, every flourish – the slight pink in her cheeks, the small black space of her open mouth – and yet she did not once look up. I could get on that bus, he thought. I could learn her name. I could introduce myself as someone distinguished, mysterious, confident, spontaneous and free. We could become best friends, intellectual allies, kindred spirits. Perhaps, after the right amount of time has elapsed, I could in my own way become someone distinguished, mysterious, confident, spontaneous and free, without even being aware of my own transformation. Could I be that man? Am I not that man? Do I not contain the possibility of someone distinguished, mysterious, confident, spontaneous and free? We could fall in love. We could make love, before making the more traditional moves — marriage, property, children — but with more bravery, more conviction, more passion than all the others making those very same moves around us. And what a story we would have to tell, when friends of friends might ask us over dinner to tell the story of how we met. Or, none of that. We might have nothing to say to one another at all.
Perhaps she isn’t reading the Russians at all. It could turn out to be a dreadful decision, and a boring one at that. I could make a real blunder of things, spending money I don’t really have, on a bus ticket to Cambridge, only to spend more on another back to London, when it turns out she is an insufferable bore: vain, disengaged, never making any jokes of her own. It would be worse than if she were to turn out to be a character of some abominable sort. The real disappointment would be if nothing remarkable, nothing worthy of remark, were to happen at all.
The possibilities of accident and chance displayed themselves to Mr Arnold, bright, colourful and implausibly various. In the memory of this moment, a small point — a pin-prick — of contentment arose in his gut. It grew and warmed and became light until the sensation, only slightly painful, affected the whole surface of his skin. Sitting by the bay window in the large yellow chair, he replayed that summer’s day, over and over, waiting for the London bus, at the quiet, sun-drenched station in Norwich, and he tried to remember what it was that he had done.
Anna Metcalfe’s debut short story collection Blind Water Pass is published by John Murray Originals.
Food For Thought
The key to success in the restaurant business is not about making the perfect béchamel sauce, it’s simply about being nice to people, says Russell Norman
Buridan’s Ass is the name given to an ancient philosophical paradox where a donkey, positioned between two equally large and delicious bales of hay, must choose which to eat. Because the bales are identical and equidistant, the donkey lacks a reason to choose one over the other, can’t decide which to eat, and so starves to death.
I’m a bit like that when I go to a restaurant. If the menu is really well-written and everything sounds so enticing that I want to order every dish, I go into a sort of confused, trance-like menu meltdown. In fact, it was this terrible flaw in my personality that motivated me to open Polpo, a small-plate restaurant where all dishes are designed to be shared. I wanted my cake and I wanted to eat it.
But despite my love of food, my innate greediness and the feeling of rising panic I get just after ordering in a restaurant (“Did I order the right dish? What if someone else chose a better option? Will they let me try theirs?”) I have learnt a surprising truth over the years: restaurants are not, in fact, about food. Yes, you read that correctly.
A restaurant experience starts with the food, of course. That is the reason we book a table at lunchtime or at dinnertime, because we know we are going to be hungry then and that’s when we want to eat. But once the biological, physiological requirements of your stomach have been taken care of, the real restaurant experience takes over. It’s then that you realise that restaurants are actually about people.
My job as a restaurateur is to make you feel good. The word comes from the French verb restaurer – to restore. And the way I do that is principally by surrounding you with other people who are having a good time, employing people whose job is to make sure you have a good time and generally being as hospitable and accommodating as possible to make sure that you have a good time. A meal in a restaurant should be a transporting experience and it should make you feel better about yourself and the world around you when you leave than you did when you arrived. When people ask me what I do for a living and I mention restaurants, they will often then talk about food. I prefer to talk about hospitality.
My business strategy, one that I applied to my first restaurant Polpo in 2009, and to every one of the eleven restaurants I have opened since, is simple: I never lose sight of the fact that I am here for the benefit of my customer. Restaurants are multi-layered enterprises where hospitality, service, décor, design, lighting, atmosphere, music, conversation, food and drink all come together to create an experience that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Next time you leave a restaurant and all you can remember is the food, trust me, something’s missing. Good restaurants need more than a delicious bale of hay to tip the balance.
A short story by Carys Bray
She looks like an evacuee, sitting on a chair outside the school office with her lunchbox clutched to her chest. She smiles when she sees you. But it’s the sort of exasperated smile that your parents used to give, a smile that speaks of loving you anyway and despite.
‘Sorry,’ you mutter to the teacher whose smile also fails its welcome.
You need the loo. You are tomato-faced, sweaty. When you removed your cardigan earlier during the meeting that made you late, you were appalled by the sight of your milky arms and their thick winter coat of flesh; you immediately re-covered them and kept the cardigan on afterwards, in the greenhousing heat of your car.
You hold her hand as you leave the school together. It is warm, stickied by hot classrooms and wax crayons. She tells you a story about a boy called George who might love her. You buckle her into the car seat and listen to more about George.
‘He let me use his best eraser in the shape of an aeroplane, and he didn’t tig me at playtime.’
She doesn’t stop talking as you walk around the car to the drivers’ side. You have a little time before you need to pick up your sons from high school: twenty minutes to counteract your lateness. When you reach the end of the road, you turn right.
‘Where are we going?’
‘For an ice cream,’ you say.
You drive along the coastal road, past wet ripples of sand that stretch for miles. You can’t see the sea, but Blackpool is visible in the distance through the quivering heat-haze. You went to Blackpool once on holiday with your family. Your dad promised to buy everyone an ice cream, a proper one from a shop. He held the shop door open as you spilled inside, sunburned and sand-speckled. He shepherded you into a huddle and made a show of counting everyone, including himself.
‘That’ll be eight ice creams, please.’ He smiled his wide, pumpkin smile, revealing zigzag gaps of absent molars.
‘Can you do a discount?’ he asked as he emptied the contents of his wallet into his hand.
‘No? An extra small scoop for a reduced price, then?’
You reach the roundabout by the pier and turn off into the car park. The fast food restaurant is enveloped by scaffolding.
‘It’s closed,’ your daughter says firmly, as if she was expecting to be disappointed.
‘No, look. The drive-through is still open.’
You pull into a space next to the fabric warehouse.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I just need to pop into the shop and go to the loo.’
‘But you said I could have an ice cream.’
‘You can, but I really need the loo first. Let’s go quickly.'
She refuses to undo her seatbelt. She leans sideways, drooping out of her car seat like a little drunk. You reach for the seatbelt and your hand knocks into her.
‘Ouch,’ she exclaims, clutching her face, her neck, her shoulder. She starts to cry.
‘Where does it hurt?’ you ask. ‘I hardly touched you. I’m sorry.’
‘Owwww,’ she howls.
‘Where does it hurt?’
She won’t say. She cries heartily, wringing herself out. You lean back in your chair and stare at the pier needling into the distance, pointing towards the far-flung sea.
When she has finished crying you get out of the car and go into the shop. She follows you grudgingly, huffing and puffing up the stairs, sighing heavily each time you pause to allow her to catch up. While you are in the cubicle she peeps the scuffed tip of her shoe under the door. She scowls at you in the mirror as you wash your hands.
You hurry out of the shop and she darts after, stopping as she notices what you have already observed: a long queue of cars snaking up to the drive-through window. You glance at your watch as she exhales loudly.
‘I’m really sorry,’ you begin.
‘If you hadn’t gone in that shop . . .’
‘We haven’t got time to sit in the queue. We’ll be late for your brothers.’
‘You were late for me,’ she says.
You drive away from the beach, over the hump of the Marine Bridge, toward the high school. You turn the CD player on. It’s her favourite track, a carnival song about Alice in Wonderland. She extends her right leg and switches the CD player off with the tip of her scuffed shoe. Her eyes slice anger at you and she fixes you with a fierce, dredging stare. Then she turns her head, rests it against the passenger window and watches as the wide plane of the beach and the distant view of Blackpool recede.
In Blackpool, your dad handed you a reduced-price ice cream. The tiny scoop topped the cone like a pea on a drum.
‘Say thank you,’ he prompted.
You zipped your lips tight shut and watched other families order normal-sized ice creams, strewn with sherbet and pink sauce. Your older brothers scooped the ice cream from their cones in a single, gobble-lick.
‘You haven’t said thank you,’ he repeated as he marshalled everyone out onto the pavement.
‘Are you going to say thank you?’
You shook your head. He tried to take the ice cream from you. He tried to snatch it for a ransom of gratitude, but he knocked it out of your hand and it landed upside down on the pavement.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
You gazed at him through slit-thin, witnessing eyes. Blackpool Tower loomed like an enormous salt shaker, a tram passed in a gust of warm air and you slotted a picture of the scene into the projector of your memory. When I grow up, I will never disappoint my children like this.
Carys Bray's short story collection Sweet Home is published by Windmill Books.
451 met Sandor Katz ‘the Fermentor’ in a beautiful barn conversion deep in the Sussex countryside. Hosted by uber kitchen designer Johnny Grey, we had a sociable and informative day, met some interesting people and took away some sauerkraut we made ourselves – a perfect 451 event.
Sandor is a true evangelist for fermentation and he described how as a New York boy his love of sour garlicky pickles eventually led him on a journey of discovery of all products of fermentation and a desire to experiment. We talked about and tried various fermented products such as Natto – a pungent and unusual Japanese soy ferment and Kvaas a fermented beverage from Eastern Europe. We discussed sourdough starters and then had a delicious lunch of salami and cheese and pickles and all things fermented.
Michael Pollan gets it just right when he says that Sandor makes you want to try things to see what happens and you can see from the film that everyone got their hands dirty and indulged in the somewhat magical and serendipitous world of bacteria and microbial mystery.
How bartenders’ errors have made cocktail history
It started with the Americano, a humble aperitif consisting of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda. Originally called the Milano-Torino when served in Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan in the 1860s, the drink gained popularity among Americans visiting Italy in the early twentieth century and thus got its new name. Ian Fleming called it “the least offensive of the musical comedy drinks” but still thought enough of it to make it the first drink to pass James Bond’s lips for his inaugural outing in Casino Royale.
But it all started to go wrong (and by wrong I mean, of course, right) in 1919 when a bartender at Caffè Casoni in Florence was instructed by Count Camillo Negroni to give his Americano a bit more clout. Some accounts have the bartender grabbing a bottle of gin in error. Whatever. The result was one of the most fortuitous mistakes in cocktail history. Count Negroni liked the drink so much he gave it his name and the bartender garnished it with a slice of orange to distinguish it from the tame Americano which, in those days, came with a semicircle of lemon.
For a cocktail that was born of a mistake, the Negroni is a pretty fine drink. With equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, it has balance, strength and attitude. It encapsulates, in three fluid ounces, the Italian culinary agro dolce tradition of bitterness and sweetness battling it out and then agreeing to be best friends. Orson Welles was rather partial and said of it “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” OK, Orson. Try telling that to your doctor.
The story gets even more curious. In the 1950s another bartender, this time at Bar Basso in Milan, was in a hurry making a Negroni and picked up a bottle of prosecco instead of gin. He made a drink that was more like a Spritz than a Negroni but, so the story goes, the punter liked it and it became a favourite. It was called a Negroni Sbagliato (a Wrong Negroni) and they are now served all over the world.
The Americano/Negroni/Sbagliato sequence is probably my favourite tale of accidental cocktail making but it is by no means the only one. Just a glance at the murky and complex history of the Martini reveals all manner of accident, mishap, snobbery and error.
The Martini, it is largely agreed, was invented at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and was taken as a pre-ferry tipple by people heading to the nearby town of Martinez. The mix of gin to vermouth was two thirds to a third and it contained maraschino cherry juice and orange bitters; an unappetising combination that would find scant appeal these days. But the drink gained mass favour and nationwide prominence during prohibition when gin was one of the easier spirits to distil illegally. It also got simpler, thank goodness, and with the repeal of prohibition the quality of gin got better and the Martini was made progressively drier.
But how did we get to today’s recipe of choice, which calls for the vermouth to be barely an ingredient at all but rather a tiny drop, a meagre ice cube-coating, a mere whisper of homeopathic proportions? I believe the answer is snobbery.
Successive generations of Martini drinkers and notable control freaks have insisted upon ever more particular and extreme recipes for this cocktail, once described by the controversial Baltimore journalist Henry Mencken as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet”. Here are some of them:
Luis Bunuel suggested the correct gin to vermouth ratio was achieved “simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window - leaving it unbroken.’”
Winston Churchill suggested pouring gin into a glass and then simply bowing in the direction of the bottle of vermouth, or even, by some accounts, in the direction of France (where good vermouth originates).
Ernest Hemingway called his cocktail a Montgomery, being 15:1 gin to vermouth, the odds favoured by the Field Marshall before going in to battle.
But it is the mistakes and aberrations committed in the name of this noble cocktail that upset me the most. Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for. He makes his hero ask for his vodka Martinis (as if vodka weren’t controversial enough) “shaken not stirred” - a cardinal sin in many a bartender’s book. He also has Bond mix gin, vodka and Kina Lillet in the Vesper. How can that ever be right?
But although mistakes can be successful, the general rule of thumb is that things don’t work if they are too contrived. There is a lovely scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Annie (Diane Keaton) collapse in shrieks and giggles as they clumsily handle some live lobsters. Woody tries to recreate that previously spontaneous moment with a subsequent girlfriend and it all falls dreadfully flat.
Likewise, don’t for a moment think that the success in Bar Basso with the Negroni Sbaglaito all those years ago can be achieved with a mistakenly-grabbed bottle of Blue Curacao. In fact, nothing can be achieved with a bottle of Blue Curacao. A blue drink is always, always a mistake.
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival
Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I have been in Cornwall for the past week and have found myself furiously photographing walls, as I often do, trailing behind my family on every walk as they roll their eyes. I am keen on walls generally. I have always thought that in a parallel, fantasy life - one in which I have been given a dose of artistic talent - I would have been a fabric or wallpaper designer, that if I were ever an artist I would have been one that works on a flat plane. Because I love a spread of pebbles on a beach, a daisy-studded lawn, ripples on sand, a good lichen-covered wall. Flatness and pattern. But alas I was not blessed with the relevant artistic skills, and so I find myself endlessly photographing walls. And Cornwall gives good wall. There is nothing quite like a Cornish wall anywhere else, or rather I must refer to them by their proper name: Cornish hedges. A Cornish hedge is part wall, part earth sculpture, part planter, and a thing of great beauty. My phone’s memory overfloweth.
Passing through Cornwall they are easy to take for granted, being hedges, their job essentially being to tell us where we may or may not go. But in fact they are rather special. The structure is a bank of earth, held in place by a stone wall on either side. The top is turfed and sometimes planted with hedging plants or trees, and colonised by wild flowers. This design is thought to have grown out of the surrounding conditions: windy, exposed fields, thin soils in which windbreak plants struggle to grow, rock and stone in abundance. And the Cornish have been building them for around 6000 years, with some of the most ancient ones still essential to keep livestock in and prevent soils from eroding away into the sea. They are, to quote one Cornish hedge expert ‘...a rare instance of major prehistoric remains still in everyday use for their original purpose.’ Not only that, but they are being built anew all the time too, with no great fuss or ceremony. They are simply the right thing.
Here’s why a Cornish hedge works so well. The central core of subsoil is kept cool and moist by the surrounding rocks, while rain trickles down through the cracks but excess is thrown off by the outward slope of the walls. So the inside is moist but not too wet, providing perfect growing conditions for any seed that alights, often seeds that wouldn’t stand a chance in the surrounding thin soils. Early in the year they can be covered in woodland plants such as primroses and violas, but these are protected from drought and too much sun by the later growth of summer flowering campion, bluebells, foxgloves and scabious. Later there are berrying plants. On shadier, damper hedges ferns multiply. In hot, dry spots aeoniums sometimes alight. There is barely a moment in the year or a place in the county where Cornish hedges don’t look fabulous. In winter, when growth dies back it falls between the cracks and so the soil within becomes enriched over time with decaying plant matter, becoming ever more welcoming to plants as the years go on. So perfect are the conditions and so very lengthy has been the Cornish hedge’s reign that many of the plants that live on them are refugees from the landscapes of pre-cultivation Cornwall: plants from long-lost ancient woodlands and heathlands.
I have returned from past visits to Cornwall with energetic thoughts of creating my own Cornish hedge here in my garden in Bristol. Why not? They are such brilliant horticultural features, so adaptable to conditions, so welcoming to the plants that grow upon them. But it wouldn’t seem quite right to plonk one wholesale into north Bristol. Even within Cornwall there are subtle regional variations: the ‘herringbone’ patterns of north Cornwall where thin pieces of slate are the predominant material, the stacked style that makes best use of the round granite boulders of Cape Cornwall, the carefully jigsawed-together style borne from the shale around St Austell. Part of their beauty is that they just look so right where they are, braced against the stone-strewn moorland landscape, topped with thrift next to the glittering blue sea, or all mossy and ferny in the valleys. Landscape, history, stone, style and plants are all one. They are a horticultural phenomenon and are best enjoyed as part of the place that produced them, even when your husband and children are getting really, really bored.
When I was growing up in suburban west London in the 1970s and 1980s, dogs seemed like a permanent presence on the streets. We didn't have a dog in our family (there were too many children and not enough space to allow such an indulgence) but many of our neighbours were dog owners and certainly all the ne'er-do-wells at the pub had bruisers with studded collars, straining on chunky chains. Most were mongrels; canine cocktails of indeterminate breeds. The only pedigree specimens belonged to wealthy families who had off-street parking and double glazed Everest conservatories (they usually had Alsatians) and the angry dipsos at the pub (mostly fighting breeds - bulldogs, Rottweilers and Staffies.)
It was a different era in terms of dog husbandry, welfare and etiquette, too. No one cleaned up dog shit from the street. It was simply left where it fell, sometimes huge and steaming, until someone stepped in it or until it turned white in the sun. (That's something you never see any more - white dog turds.) Dogs were often left tied up outside shops - dognapping didn't exist - and they were frequently left all day in the back yard, barking for hours on end, until the householders came back from work or bingo or the pub and then kicked it, fed it or walked it.
Urban dogs are a completely different kettle of fish. These days in central London, it's only genuine residents and authentic bohemians who keep them, and Soho is home to both. The dogs of Soho are a perfect reflection of the individuals we find within the boundaries of Oxford Street, Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. Some dainty, fluffy, indulged and groomed, others raw, hardened, ripped and mean. (Just like a regular Thursday night on Old Compton Street, really.)
Here are a few of the better known pooches and their human custodians:
Bastard is the charge of Hamish McAlpine. A forthright, controversial and outspoken fellow who once headed up the independent film distribution company Metro Tartan, Hamish can occasionally be found at the French House on Dean Street or pacing the pavements with Bastard, a Boxer with a surprisingly tolerant and thoughtful nature. It is somewhat disconcerting, however, to be within proximity of Hamish when he wants the dog's attention. All you hear is a loud bellow of "BASTAAARD!" Out of context, it can be a little worrying.
Guinevere and Edna
Soho power couple Richard Beatty and Florence Knight, the former an award-winning restaurateur and the latter the Sunday Times food writer and celebrity chef, are the Brangelina of Brewer Street, the Burton and Taylor of Tottenham Court Road. With owners of such pedigree themselves, it might be difficult for their dogs to get a look-in, but Guinny and Edna are celebrities in their own right. They are a familiar sight around Golden Square and occasionally as far north as Regent's Park and they greet everyone with great enthusiasm and wagging tails. Guinevere is a Cockerpoo and Edna a Daschapoo. Dogs don't come more designer than that.
I remember clearly when Mandana Ruane got her Border Terrier, Jezebel, several years ago. I bumped into her on Lexington Street outside the Academy, a private members' drinking club above Andrew Edmunds restaurant. Jezebel was such an adorable puppy that I am not ashamed to say that I fell in love. If I'm honest, I probably decided then and there to get a dog of my own. Now Mandana also regularly walks Tess (art dealer Karsten Schubert's Border Terrier) and it is always a treat to see Jezebel and Tess bouncing along Beak Street together.
Monty and Modesty
Of all the dog owners in Soho, Babette Kulik is the undisputed queen. She is the Dr Doolittle of dogs, not just for her own gorgeous mutts, but for the whole doggie community. She runs The Society Club, and art gallery/bar/bookshop on Silver Place, and it is not unusual to see it teeming with poets, artists and off-duty burlesque performers along with any number of four-legged friends.
Molly, Babette's beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (one-eyed and deaf) is sadly no longer with us. But Monty and Modesty most definitely are. The former is an 18 year-old Chihuahua (hunchbacked and on five different types of heart medication every day.) The latter is an 11 year-old Bulldog bitch (midlife crisis) who gets grumpy after 6pm and refuses to cooperate. The new kid on the block is a charming and scatty Golden Retriever called Madeleine. Her party trick is to forage food from Soho's gutters where her favourite snack is human vomit.
(I don't live in Soho but four of my restaurants operate here, with two more in Covent Garden, and three further afield in Clerkenwell, Chelsea and Notting Hill. Dogs are welcome in all of them. Polpo, Polpetto, Mishkins, Sputino. Woof!)
Picked up because he was one of the youngest participants at Chelsea and a natural communicator, TV loved Dan Pearson. However and, as ever, he did not want to follow the same route as everyone else and in this film Dan tells us about that decision and how and why he moved on.
In 1992 Dan starred in the very first garden makeover programme called Garden Doctors. He then did a series for Channel 4 called Routes Around the World and in 2008 filmed a 12 part series for BBC2 called A Year at Home Farm, the garden ‘without borders’ he designed and which he talks about in Into the Wild.
More commissions came in and he had to respond quickly. He got the opportunity to work with Sir Terence Conran on the Roppongi Hills development in Japan and began to learn the vital skills that would inform his later career – confidence with scale, new ways of communicating both culturally and also professionally.
My first coffee every day is a passable cortado made with a Nespresso machine in my suburban kitchen. It’s usually enough to power me through the 18 minute train journey into Charing Cross where I will sometimes neck a macchiato on-the-hoof from Caffè Nero before marching into Soho with something quirky but comforting on the iPod - Field Music and Wild Beasts usually hit the spot.
It’s only when I get to Cambridge Circus that my real coffee day begins. Everything up to this point has been functional, medicinal almost, just enough to get me this far. My problem now is: Where do I go for my first proper coffee?
Soho has more coffee shops than I could shake a stick at. It’s a characteristic of the area that goes back to the 1950s when the emerging folk rock and rock ‘n’ roll scenes were centred around the many authentic coffee bars set up by Italian immigrants. It was London’s first taste of this style of coffee, made using roasted beans, a Gaggia machine and foamed milk. The best known places were the Top Ten on Berwick Street, Heaven & Hell on Old Compton Street, Bar Italia on Frith Street and, most famous of all, The 2 i’s at 59 Old Compton Street. This tiny shop and basement is credited with being the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll with the likes of Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donnegan and Cliff Richard all starting their careers there.
Only Bar Italia remains from this golden era of espresso. But, ignoring the variable quality on offer from the multi-site chains like Nero, Costa and Pret, there is a new generation of caffeine peddler. And it is to these that I take my not-inconsiderable disposable coffee budget for my early morning fix. (With an average of three bought coffees a day, I estimate my annual coffee spend is somewhere in the vicinity of £1,875. That’s an appalling amount of money.)
Flat White on Berwick Street and The Milk Bar on Bateman Street are often cited as the go-to Soho coffee joints. I have to admit that the quality of the coffee offered and the care and attention-to-detail exercised by the baristas is impressive. My gripe is that the coffee is always tepid. The (mostly Australian) staff tell me that this is the correct way to drink it and that any hotter would burn the milk. I’m clearly thought of as an unsophisticated heathen, judging by the looks they give me when I request a “hot skinny piccolo”.
Lina Stores, one of the two great Italian delis serving Soho for over half a century (the other being I Camisa) is well-known for its fresh pasta and dried goods, but probably not always thought of for its coffee. It should be. Their espresso is excellent. It’s drunk in the proper Italian fashion, too, standing, and down-the-hatch in about sixty seconds.
A relative newcomer, with several Soho locations, is the rather excellent Fernandez & Wells. The founders, George and Rick, have cornered the local market in great quality, made-on-the-premises sandwiches, panini and pastries as well as serving carefully crafted coffees including my current favourite, the “Stumpy”, a sort-of cortado with attitude. There are several copycat operations nearby (no, I’m not going to name them) but Fernandez & Wells still rules the roost.
But the place I hold closest to my heart and where I will head, on a regular basis, for my last coffee of the day, is Maison Bertaux. This patisserie and coffee shop has been serving croissants and cafés au lait from the same delightfully dilapidated Greek Street location since 1871. It is eccentric and charming, as far from the anonymous and corporate high street coffee chains as it is possible to be. Sisters Tania and Michelle run things in a wonderfully parochial way, seemingly chaotic but actually remarkably efficient, looking after their regulars and welcoming newcomers with equal love and attention. The coffee may not be made by artisan baristas, bearded and inked (who scold you for wanting a hot brew), the single lavatory may not be for the faint-hearted, the crockery may have the occasional chip and the tables may wobble alarmingly, but there is nowhere I would rather be.
(By the way, if you make it to Maison Bertaux, and I strongly advise that you do, don’t leave without trying the Dijon Slice. Legendary.)
A short story by Amanda Jennings
The river flows quietly within its banks. It is early in the morning and a haze of mist skims the peaceful water. A ribbon of smoke. Everything is tranquil. Still. Unaware.
It’s the beginning of April. April the first. A day for fools. Though the dawn cracks the spring sky promising midday heat, right now there’s a crispness. A chill that brushes my skin with icy, teasing fingers.
You April fool.
I walk with purpose but without destination. I can hear their voices behind me. Their peals of laughter, which echo like a silenced bell in still air. I ram my hands over my ears. Press hard. Head in a vice. On I walk. Once or twice I nearly go over on the soft ground underfoot. Goodness, how it’s rained these past few weeks. Cats and dogs and mice and hamsters, as Ma would say. A bloody great menagerie falling from the sky. I feel as if I’m fading. I’ve been fad-ing for weeks. For years. I’m barely here. A shadow of a person. Invisible. But not invisible enough.
The bells start up again.
Go away. Leave me alone.
I press against my ears harder still until silence finally wraps around me. I drop my hands, unsure, but the bells stay away. Good riddance. No place for them here.
To my left is a small copse beside the water. Brambles thread through branches, knotting themselves into the trees as if trying to swallow them up, inching over them, a creeping, smothering cloak of thorns. The tree escapes the scrub at its base. Roots corkscrew into the river bank, gnarled and coated with muddy moss. I step off the path. Something pulls me. Something powerful. I can hear whispering now, voices whispering over each other, battling to be heard.
‘Just you shush,’ I say. The sound of my voice makes me startle. ‘Just you be quiet.’ The whispering stops but the bells start up again. So up go my hands like they’re on springs and slam against my ears.
My foot slips on the wet clay. I stumble into the trees. A branch stabs my face. Rakes my skin. I touch my cheek and see a trace of blood on my fingertips. And at that moment – at ex-actly that moment – I see her.
I gasp. I can’t help it. The gasp knocks me backwards and I fall. Probably tripped by another root. There’s mud on my skirt from where I landed. I see Ma’s knitted brow. Her cloudy eyes. She tuts.
‘Oh, dear me, that stain will need proper greasy elbow.’
‘Not greasy elbow, Ma. Elbow grease.’
‘Don’t talk back. Cheeky mare.’
I look again at the river. I don’t want to. I want to turn and run but I can’t move. I’m frozen solid. Caught in a witch’s spell. My heart hammers, forcing blood in pulses through my weary veins.
There’s a woman in the water.
She floats beneath the surface. Suspended. I think I knew she’d be there. Her hand stretches up towards me. Fingertips reach for the surface but don’t quite make it. Her skin is white. Lips tinged blue. Her hair moves with the water’s gentle ebb like strands of spider’s web floating around her face.
My breath catches.
I wonder for a moment if it’s an April Fool. I inch nearer. Peer closer. It’s no joke. She’s dead, for certain. Dead as anything. I’m surprised to find I’m not as scared as I would have thought I’d be. She looks too peaceful to be terrifying.
She looks safe.
I glance over my shoulder and see no-one. I hold my breath. My knees buckle and I catch myself on a branch. She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Serene and calm. Held in a moment. Her mouth open. Eyes too. What’s she trying to say? She is staring right at me. Through me. Inside me.
Who knows you’re here?
Nobody. Nobody knows. Nobody but me.
‘She’ll rot,’ Ma says, her voice splitting the stillness. ‘Rot until she’s nowt but sticky black flesh and a vague memory.’
‘Ma,’ I say. ‘Don’t be nasty.’
‘True though. We always knew she’d end like this.’
‘Who is she?’
Ma smiles and taps her nose. ‘For me to know and you to find out.’
‘Tease,’ I say under my breath.
‘Fool,’ she says back.
I hear a noise from the path. I tuck myself tight into the trees, into their scratching twiggy fingers. I don’t want to be seen. A crow caws in the sky above me and a wood pigeon answers, hollow and mournful.
Hush. Don’t tell anyone I’m here.
The noise is a runner. He’s wearing lycra the colour of boiled sweets and I can clearly see the shape of his whatnot. I look quickly away before I have thoughts. His face is red. Sweating. His cheeks puff in and out like he’s one of those fish. A puffer fish. Puffing and sweating and running in lycra.
She’s dead already, I mouth to myself. Nothing you can do. Even if I call out, there’s nothing you can do. She’s going to lie here. All alone. Peaceful. It’s what she wants.
But should I call out?
‘No,’ Ma says. ‘What good would it do?’
I look back at the woman in her watery coffin. Her eyes are glassy, swollen marbles, ready to pop right out. I imagine them rolling down her face and falling through the water, landing with a soft plop in the silt, staring up at me from the muddy bed. I close my eyes tightly. Don’t want to lose them. But when I do, they are there.
I’m holding my mop. Got a bucket of water. And in they march. All white teeth and shining hair. See how they swagger.
She stares right at me. ‘You’re in my way, you waste of space,’ she says. The others laugh. Such pretty laughs the girls have. Like ringing bells.
I don’t reply, just step aside and try not to catch eyes with her, that one with the hips and the hair and the sass. She walks into a cubicle. But she doesn’t close the door. She sits. Pulls her flimsy knickers down. Just a scrap of white lace, like a doily, looped around her thin, brown ankles. Her eyes are locked on mine. Even though I try not to look, I can’t help myself.
Why didn’t she shut the door?
‘Don’t watch. You’re such a lecher. You’re always watching me.’
It’s lies. I’m not always watching her. I’ve only seen her once or twice. Maybe four times. But when she’s near she’s hard not to look at. She’s one of those types. A magnet. My eyes, iron filings.
She takes some paper. Reaches between her legs. Wipes. Then she stands. Doily knickers up. She holds the paper between the tips of her fingers as she walks towards me. Then she drops it with a smile and it falls like manna at my feet.
‘Go on then. Pick it up.’
So I do.
You should have said no.
‘Your mother just died, didn’t she?’
I turn away to hide my face. I can feel tears brewing. I don’t want to cry because Ma says tears are for wedding cakes not cheeks.
‘Mind you,’ the girl says. ‘If I was stuck with you my whole of my life, I’d want to die too.’
And then she walks up to me, close, so I can smell her, all perfume and privilege. She leans close to my ear. Whispers. Her breath is hot and creamy with cigarettes, mints and spite.
‘I’d want to kill myself.’
Then she smiles again and they all turn and walk away, swishing and laughing like bells.
‘She died of age!’ I call out.
But they are gone and I am left holding that piece of wetted tissue, while their laughter ech-oes around me.
The runner has passed me now. I don’t call him back; it’s too late and, anyway, he looks busy. Important things to do. Most likely heading home for breakfast. Of course, he’ll have a wife. And, of course, she’ll be pretty. I can see her making pancakes. Not papery Shrove Tues-day ones, but the smaller, spongy ones the Americans like, the ones they smother with dark syrup and blueberries. I’ve never tried a blueberry. I imagine they must be very sweet and very plump and burst in the mouth like sugary fireworks.
The path is empty again. I look back at the river. Little insects dance around the water and tease the surface. I step close to the bank. Kneel down. I don’t care about the mud anymore. She looks like she’s cast in aspic. Lips parted. Mouth open and asking for blueberries.
‘I don’t want to die in a river.’
My words disturb a bird, who pushes from the branches above in a flustered rush to escape.
‘Then go home, love.’
Ma’s voice is soft as marshmallow now. I haven’t heard it that way in years. I remember her how she was. Warm and kind. Different to the cranky stranger stuck in her bed, eyes silted up with unrecognition, sour and rotten, death creeping over her like mould on old food.
I think of our bedsit. Her sheets cold. The two-bar heater with only one strip working. The building it sits in, overrun with rats and hopeless apathy. Replete with lost souls. Four walls. Memories and photographs fading together.
‘I have no home, Ma.’ I reach out and graze the water with my fingertips. ‘Just this river now.’
Tiny, see-through fish dart about the dead woman, swim in and out of her empty eye sock-ets and her open mouth that begs for blueberries. As I watch she begins to fall away. Drops through the water. Slowly fading. I want to grab her. I want to pull her from the river and put my lips to hers and breathe life back into them. But I stay motionless and soon she is gone. The river keeps flowing, moves silently onwards as the sun rises on another bright day for the laughing bells and the runner and his pretty, pretty wife.
I do up my coat, button by button. ‘It’s cold, isn’t it, Ma?’
She smiles and nods. ‘It is. Don’t go without a coat, love.’
I ease myself down on to the edge of the bank. My legs in the water. Waist-deep now. It’s warmer than I was expecting. Welcoming, even. It covers my chest, then my eyes, and finally, as the crow calls out above me, it closes over my head and my hair, which is just the colour of spider’s web.
Amanda Jennings' new novel In Her Wake is published by Orenda Books.