Wednesday, 25 June 2014



It’s Friday night and we have people coming round for dinner to celebrate my fiancée’s birthday.  I cook roast chicken legs with clementines and arak, roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs and caramelised balsamic vinegar, aubergine baked in spices and served with bulgur wheat, yogurt and fresh mint, okra, pepper and tomatoes, a salad, asparagus simply in lemon juice and spring greens in a yogurt and tahini sauce with pine nuts.  For dessert I make a strawberry and mascarpone tart on an almond biscuit base, crushing the biscuits between my fingers lest the food mixer leave them too fine.  I get in from work at six and serve just after eight.  Everyone enjoys the food and, despite the mountain on the table, there’s hardly anything left.  I’m offered compliments which are gratefully received, but there’s a bit of me which is surprised that anyone is impressed.  I don’t find cooking difficult.  To me, it’s straightforward:  just following recipes in a book, a bit of project management in ordering the tasks, being able to keep several processes running in your head at the same time and the occasional moment of inventiveness if something isn’t quite right.  Maybe it’s the complexity of the dishes and while it was a special occasion, it’s been a long time since I served up anything as routine as spaghetti bolognaise.

It never used to be like this.

Writing in the Guardian magazine a few weeks ago, the novelist Joshua Ferris lamented his wheat intolerance which meant he was prevented from eating all the wonderful foods he’d discovered as an adult.  Ferris wrote of his childhood meals consisting of lumpen, mystery grey meat supposedly vaguely related to beef, wilted salad and mounds of fried potatoes.  Plentiful food and perfectly fine in its way, but devoid of excitement.  An ITV sitcom of a diet.

His story sounds familiar.  Growing up we always had nice, healthy food.  Lots and lots of fresh vegetables, salads in the summer, much of it grown from the garden.  The meat and fish were of a good quality; there were no chips to be had in our house.  But, like much of the country’s food in the eighties, it was quite safe.  It hadn’t been introduced to garlic or rapeseed oil or paprika.  Unlike Ferris I don’t see this as a failing, but just what was available in the suburbs during Thatcher’s decade. 

As a teenager I started to experience more diverse cuisine through curry houses and Chinese take-aways as occasional treats, but even by the time I went to university in the mid-nineties, I was still a stranger to the kitchen.  The only cooking I’d done was on a camping stove with scouts.

If there’s one thing which has changed in British society drastically over the past twenty years, leaving it almost unrecognisable from what was there before, it has been the rise of food.  From my own first, incompetent attempts at spaghetti carbonara (served with boiled vegetables on the side) to more recent efforts the transformation has been outstanding.  And it’s happened everywhere.  Even penniless undergraduate students wax lyrical out artesian pizza, artichokes and fresh avocados while sucking on tea, the leaves for which have been gently, individually folded and the water sweated to a pitch just shy of boiling by the strength of the sun alone.  Broadsheet newspapers ooze food columns, professional cooks and amateur contributors sallying forth with their solution to the perfect croissant.  Local markets, farmer or otherwise, are increasingly more about the experience and the purchasing of obscure products – unusual cuts of meat, veg last commercially grown in the fifteenth century which were recently introduced to someone’s Kentish orchard, coffee that’s harvested from raincloud refreshed hillsides and then triple filtered.  Taste, colour and invention coming at you like a screaming express train.  All so moreish, all so exciting, all so, too much.

I find myself wondering whether enough’s enough.  Yes, meat which hasn’t been inflated with water and forced to survive by eating its cousin’s eyeballs is going to taste better.  Yes, vegetables which haven’t been bred to meet supermarket aesthetic tests and still has the odd bit of dirt clinging to it is vastly superior, but it’s all going too far, isn’t it?

Pizza, burgers, pulled frickin’ pork: the conversion of rudimentary foodstuffs into something gourmet, turning the basics, even fast-food, into a gastronomical experience sustaining an industry of bloggers, writers and people with cute beards and no discernible profession. 

We went for pizza not so long ago in Honor Oak Park, at the newish place where the tired Italian Restaurant used to be.  I say newish because getting in has been nigh on impossible, with tables booked for weeks in advance so it’s been open for months.  It was nice.  I mean, it was a really good pizza in a charming environment, backed up with friendly staff (even with the beards, skinny jeans and fake glasses) and a slick business model which meant everything was fresh and quick.  But at the same time we were treated to an exposition on every product – from the plate of olives comprising three varieties chosen from hundreds across Spain and imported exclusively to the rocket grown on a city farm over towards Hackney marshes and cycled daily down to the SE23 to keep the carbon footprint low.  All very admirable, but at the end of the day it was some olives, some salad and a circle of dough with melted cheese on it, even if that cheese had been plucked from between an ancient Italian farmer’s toes using a satanic ritual.

I started to teach myself to cook at university.  Thanks to the advice of a couple of female housemates, I began to understand how it all worked.  By the time I moved to London I was vaguely competent, if somewhat over-reliant on pasta, chilli, Angliacised curries and bangers n mash.  It wasn’t until around 2003, my disposable income fully established and the food fetish really kicking off the capital that I took each meal so seriously.

When my fiancée was still my girlfriend and we first moved in together, I pulled out all the stops on the cooking front.  I’d made dinner for her several times over the previous year and I knew that she liked my food, but I headed off down a dead-end of trying to never make the same thing twice, of winding myself up in an arsenal race of bigger, better, bolder, flashier food every weekday night.  Patties, soups, broths, cassoulets, skillets, grills, baked, fried, raw, shaken and sweated. 

I enjoy cooking for her and she, I think, enjoys eating, but my point is this:  by the exceptional becoming the everyday what do we have to look forward to?  Foodies are everywhere.  It’s like a national religion whereby declaring you just fancy a tuna and mayo sandwich is tantamount to heresy and punishable by social crucifixion.  Ignoring for a moment the equal rising in diabetes and obesity which is surely just as aligned with excessive cream, butter and cheese as it is fried chicken, coke and a lack of exercise – food is not holy.  It’s a trend, and the problem with trends is that things tend to whiplash back in the opposite direction. 

Take cider.  The addition of cider to the trendsetter’s palate in recent years has seen quality stuff, like Thatcher’s and Aspall’s amongst others, become readily available over things like Woodpecker.  There are all sorts of lovely ciders, using different wood on the barrel to infuse interesting flavours, creating a smokey hue, a sharp cutting tang, rescuing poor old Perry from perpetual obscurity, but it’s also seen every commercial brewer get on the act producing unending dross.  Craft beer will be next as even McEwans and Newcastle Brown Ale seek start farting out overly flavoured piss to cash in on the market while proper breweries who have been carefully producing amazing beer for centuries without the need for hipster endorsement will be left by the wayside as the cool kids flee back the safety of Carling and Castlemaine four-x.  It’s ironic, obvs.

Food shouldn’t be a religious experience, it shouldn’t be a sensation, it shouldn’t be cool and fashionable and people shouldn’t hang around in the street on wet Peckham evenings waiting for a table at a place serving, essentially, overpriced beef patties in a bun with some salad, heavily fried potatoes and beer with an over-inflated sense of its own importance.  Food just should be.  Then it might escape the backlash.

Doesn’t mean you can get away with cooking it badly, mind.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Confessions of a stag night


No, not mine, you big silly you.

However in the run up my recent last night of boyhood bachelordom a long buried memory came bubbling to the surface.  Recollections of the very first stag night I went on when I was all of seventeen years old.

There was this guy whom I’d been friends with at school, but in the year or so since we’d left, I to college and he to work, we’d drifted in and out of each other’s orbit.  We were still friends.  Sometimes, I’d even have described us as close, but maybe not as tight as we’d once been.  It was partially living different lives, but also he was one of those unusual people who seem endlessly fascinating when you’re in constant contact, yet once a degree of distance has been established they’re just that little bit strange.  Not that I could have told you that at the time.

So seventeen years old, maybe eighteen.  Early nineteen ninety-seven, I think.  This lad had met a girl, in America, over the internet and he was leaving the country to marry her.  Back then I vaguely understood what the internet was, but had never used it.  They must have met in some chat-room, not on a slick website like the sort I ended up using years later.  Older, it seems obvious that he was desperately unhappy.  There were nights of oblivion, more frequent than most teenagers.  There were weeks of solitude.  There were fresh scabs just peeking out from his cuffs, occasionally where one hadn’t healed properly a patch of dark red turning black would show on his sleeve.  He was struggling to find a way to escape.  That’s what happens when you go to work at sixteen doing, god knows what, something mind numbingly tedious in an office in the centre of Birmingham.

We were a ragtag bunch of misfits, those of us who tended to find ourselves in his company with little else in common other than the same sort of friend in the same suburb on the edge of the same city.  I don’t think any of us quite believed it was real.  That it was a joke or another boast that’d be proved a lie.  Or maybe we thought he’d go and be back in a couple of weeks having discovered her to be a tattooed biker with a goatee and pet pythons who needed some domestic help with benefits on the sultry nights.  Whatever, it was a badly written script.  It never felt true.

Still, we did the only decent thing and threw him a stag do.

It was a basic affair.  We got a shed load of beer, maybe some pizza, probably a bit of weed and whacked some tunes on the stereo in his Mum’s flat.  It was kind of like many other Saturday nights, except someone ordered a kiss-o-gram.

That’s how old school this was: we rang up a woman advertising in the yellow pages to come and take most of her clothes off in his Mum’s lounge.

I’m struggling now to remember what she looked like.  I probably couldn’t see her properly through the cigarette smoke hanging around with us.  I remember the minder who hovered in the hall making sure we kept our hands to ourselves.  I think she arrived in a long black coat which she wriggled out of to reveal underwear, bra, knickers, suspenders and stockings.  All black, cheap and shiny they looked slick to touch, like oil.  Stretch marks to the edges of her stomach, creases and crinkles the brain tries to airbrush.  Blonde hair falling in tired dried up semi-ringlets, combustible a testament to eighties style products.  Maybe if I’d looked her in the eye I’d have seen some suggestion of why she did it, but I didn’t.  She wasn’t the first naked woman I’d seen, but there hadn’t been so many that it was yet mildly boring.  My eyes were elsewhere.  I guess she did it for the same reason everyone else does in the end:  she didn’t have much choice.

It was all rather playful rather than sleazy and certainly not sexy.  There was some messing about with a whip, the lad may have been obliged to drop his trousers and pretend to be spanked.  I think she permitted photographs.  There wasn’t any jeering or sneering or acting obnoxious, I think we all felt awkward, wanting to look, not wanting to look.  Wanting more, wanting less. 

She wasn’t young, or rather wasn’t young to me.  Maybe early thirties, which eighteen years ago felt ancient.  Now, of course, it feels like only yesterday.  She was bubbly, but clearly bored by the whole thing.  As she posed, her bra removed, her knickers dropped to her high heels, one arm draped across the lad’s should, the whip hanging from her chipped nailed fingers, she asked: ‘So, if this is a stag do why aren’t you all out on the town?’

There was a cherub-faced kid in the corner, a bit flushed from a couple of beers, his sensible hair ruffled.  Normally he was quieter than all the rest of us, one of those who just became lost to the background, but at that moment he chose to pipe up:  ‘The thing is, some of us can’t always get served.’

You know those looks that people have, the moment when everything just clicks into place and realisation doesn’t dawn but clatters, head first, smack into your mind?  She had one of those looks.  She didn’t need to ask ‘so how old are you’.  She knew.  The knickers came up and the bra went on, swiftly and efficiently.  Without another word or over-played pout she got into her coat and left with her minder muttering murderous grumbles. 

I seem to remember the evening ended with me sitting on a wall trying to control violent hiccups, halfway home, my head in my hands, watching the world swirl away in a pretty beer fog. 

A few days later the lad flew away to the other side of the world and none of us ever heard from him again.  A new life, a clean start.  I wonder what happened to him.  I wonder whether he found an American dream, chasing down the dusty old highway to nowhere in a beat up old Buick, country stations on the radio or whether he became another boring soul in a boring prairie town, pushing paper round a desk waiting for something to happen, knowing it won’t.  I wonder whether he is happy or sad, whether he found love or at least something that mattered. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Squat (Tyrwhitt Road)

Some of this happened like this, some of it didn’t.

Back when you’d often find me wandering the streets of Brockley either too late in the evening or too early in the morning, depending on your point of view, I wearily turned off Lewisham Way and headed up Tyrwhitt Road.  The Talbot hadn’t quite reinvented itself at that point and was a boarded up husk of a pub, the front forecourt scattered with debris and leftover memories.  If you had told me, that evening, of the happiness I’d find in a flat further up the road, that this would be the place where I would feel calm, I’d have laughed in your face.  I was in that kind of mood, it was that kind of night and I was that kind of drunk.

Next door to the Talbot stands what must have once be a proud, Georgian detached townhouse.  Placed at the end of the street, on sentry duty, its first owners must have been affluent indeed to have filled its double fronted, four storied rooms.  Ever since I’ve lived in London, though, its paint has been peeling, the front steps cracked and swallowed over by weeds rushing away from their roots towards the sky.  The basement windows were permanently ajar, the roof missing numerous slates; as the sun came up there would usually be a man, often with dreadlocks and his shirt off, sitting on the wall, smoking a hand rolled cigarette.  Like much of Brockley was at one time, it was a squat.

That evening the music thumped, a deep reggae beat that throbbed through your arteries, a swirling red spotlight rolled gently out the upstairs window, briefly dappling the pavement outside and then swinging back inside.  The door was open.

Why not, I thought.

Inside was a heavy, sweet cloud hanging just off the ceiling; the music growled up the walls, soloud it was barely audible, like a pulse.  People flittered in and out, lost to themselves.  I thought no-one was going to even notice me drifting in, until, in the rotten carpeted lounge, where a dozen or so people were draped across the floor, a younger lad with a blur to his face, asked:  ‘Who’re you looking for?’

‘Oh, I thought Steve was in here?’  In my experience, there’s always someone called Steve.

‘He’s out the back, I think.  Try the kitchen.’

In the kitchen there could have been someone called Steve or there might not have been.  I took one of the warm cans of Stella from the open fridge and kished it open, before continuing my explorations.

In the garden I met a girl.

Underneath the summer stars she was luminous, her brown hair scrapped back tightly into a pony tail, the stub end of a joint between her fingers, a glint of the stud in her nose. 

‘I don’t know you,’ she said, the accent faintly Liverpool.

‘No, you don’t,’ I replied swigging my beer.  ‘I was just passing through.’

‘Isn’t that what we’re doing?  In the end?  Just passing through?’

‘This garden, or life in general?’

‘Why don’t you come, sit with me?’ I sat amongst the overgrown grass and let the tips bustle against my neck.  The air was thick, sultry even.  The night promised much, which was unusual for life hadn’t seemed to provide a lot up to that point.   We didn’t say anything for a while; just sat quietly as the night inches towards morning and the galaxy tumbled above our heads.  She smoked, I drank, both letting possibilities hang.

After a while she asked: ‘Have you ever read Aldous Huxley?’

I hadn’t, but for a moment considered lying about it, before deciding to be honest in my ignorance.  She began to talk about doors of perception, about the shifting transcending nature of existence, waxing lyrically about literary and social courage.  I confess, I was more than a little drunk and began to tune out.  Besides her narrative was packed with failing similes, casting images with her words which didn’t hang quite right in the night.  Her comparisons tripped over themselves, tied each other in inconsistencies until I gave up, leant back on my elbows, closed my eyes and remembered times when this whole scenario wouldn’t have happened, and before that times when it would.  

‘Shall I tell you the secret of the universe?’ she said, after a pause.

I opened my eyes and looked at her. I could have kissed her in that moment.  The angle of her neck, the way she’d moved closer to whisper to me.  It would have been so easy.

I didn’t, but very occasionally I still wonder if I should have done.

The other day, as I rode down Tyrwhitt Road on a slightly different route to work than usual, I noticed that the last squat in Brockley had been cleared and was being renovated, no doubt to be sold on for a couple of million.  The area keeps changing, keeps ploughing through its gentrification towards who knows what end.

‘You know ,’ said my fiancée in the craft beer bar that’s just opened up by Crofton Park station, ‘you’re going to turn into one of those old Brockley bores, moaning on about how much more edgy and cool it used to be while still enjoying the new cafes.’

‘I’m fairly sure I’m one of those already.’

I don’t cope with change well.  I find it unnerving.  Walking through the centre of London, the other day, I was horrified at the amount of Oxford Street, Soho Square and further up Tottenham Court that seems to be coming down.  The streets are like the city’s fingerprints, when they change, so does my relationship with it.  Changes to Brockley I take personally.  I thought the craft beer bar was great, it was a fun night with some seriously tasty booze, but would I rather have had the old off licence back and a few less beards, trendy wool hats and, deck shoes and pale stripy trousers about?  Maybe.

I think it might be there’s a tipping point.  I shed no tears when the old Alpha Jazz Club - home of gangland violence with the only drink offered to strangers like me was gin and lime cordial (no ice) - closed down and became the more community minded Jam Circus, offering real ale and decent food.  But maybe that was because, at the time, the Brockley Jack was only marginally more welcoming than the Alpha and served ale which was likely to leave you with an upset stomach, which left Mr Lawrence’s as the only viable watering hole up that end.  These days there’s choice in abundance.

I find myself trapped between the old school working class world and the new affluent upper-middle classes sweeping through the area, not really (at least in my own head) belonging to either, wanting to take the better bits of both and discard the arrogance or the scuzz.  Maybe that’s the perfection we all want in the end – and anyway I’m kidding myself if I think that all those kids in the squat didn’t have Mums and Dads they could call up for a loan when things got desperate.

And I never have read Aldous Huxley either.