“We live in a Faustian, Brechtian, Kafkaesque garden of insanity. And I kinda like it…” Recorded to an audience of nil at Cottage Donnington (thank you, Sally) after a regrettably inexpensive bottle of Tesco’s finest. You get what you pay for: this audio is free.
When it comes to the trauma of lunchtime, I tend to accelerate the process by making it as unappealing as is humanly possible; particularly when working on site. My colleagues usually bring in something home-made, flaunting its worth from inside a little tupperware container with clip-down sides, accompanied by a lengthy dialogue about ingredients, how long it took to make and what was eaten the night before (apparently the journey is the thing, not the destination). However, cookery gives me the fear. So, instead of preparing something nutritious and delicious from the comfort of my barren kitchen – which also gives me the fear – I choose to take the heat off by allowing someone else to do it for me. This is not without its own inherent set of problems.
Tesco Express on the Pentonville Road is a culinary deadzone. The Meal Deal section is frequented, 24/7, by anyone that life has frowned upon – the unloved, the depressed, the haters, the hated and those, like me, who just want to get it over with. Our purchases are edible sackcloth and ashes with which we punish ourselves on a daily basis, so checking out becomes one of Danté’s inner rings of Hell. For there at the tills, they will judge us; for our lamentable taste in processed cheese, for our weak grins as they ask what we have planned for the weekend, for not taking a Tell Me How I’m Doing card with which we can rate their quality of service online, and for not knowing that a Twix and a Fanta do not constitute part of our five-a-day.
‘Rickin’ (4/5 stars) wants me to fill one of those eco-unfriendly 5p bags with my quarry; he wants to tell me what a lovely day it is when outside, Hurricane Desdemona is whipping toupees into the street; he wants me to enjoy my meal when I want anything but (if I genuinely wanted to enjoy a meal, there is a strong possibility I would not be buying it from Rickin in the first place). This doesn’t deter him: if I could just sign up for the Club scheme right now (in front of a queue of people, aching for release), I’d be eligible for astonishing discounts on stuff I don’t yet know I want. And I’d be in for a further 10% off the impossibly cheap swill I already have in my basket when all I want is for it to be reassuringly overpriced, so I have something to bitch about to my workmates when the whole sorry shebang is at an end.
Today’s sandwich had a yellow sticker on it: it was 20p cheaper because it was out of date. Curiously, this meant that it no longer counted as a Meal Deal and consequently I paid an extra 70p for the entire shooting match. We live in a Faustian, Brechtian, Kafkaesque garden of insanity. And I kinda like it.
The 1970s. When school meals were cooked up by some of the sickest minds this side of the Neuremberg trials…
It’s Boxing Day (or the Feast of Stephen in parlance of yore). For reasons completely beyond me, I once again find myself in Sainsbury’s and it’s packed. Because it’s not like there’s been enough food and drink doing the rounds over the last week or so, has there? Anyone with half a cell knows that those gargantuan, seasonal sherry cask snack buckets are cynically filled with enough compressed air to have us queueing outside the sliding doors at opening time the minute the Big Day is over. And of course we’ll throw in a few bottles of your astonishingly half-priced Prosecco. You bastards.
In much the same way that our Dickensian antecedents enjoyed a sneaky day out to the asylums to work off the figgy pudding and feel better about themselves, there is a certain schadenfreude to be had from inspecting the baskets of others. I mean, hello? Do you actually need a ‘four cheese feast maxi-pizza’ when you’ve only just got back from A&E? And excuse me, you’re only kidding yourselves with them reduced Absolut festive tubes (branded shot glass included) for your dismal commutes on Monday. I despair, I really do.
Actually, I’ve come here for a new bathing sponge; my existing one has corroded to the point where it self-abrades on contact with human flesh, and unattractively dries down to a burnt sienna/raw sewage patina. I did briefly consider a trip to Oxford Street to take advantage of the pre-January sales and snap myself up a once-in-a-lifetime bargain. However, the crippling expense of getting there on public transport considerably outweighed any projected savings and besides, I prefer to spend my hard-earned cash locally. Also, the fact that said sponge has no discount whatsoever and comes in a pre-wetted bag with a decorative font saying something about luxury on it, somehow makes it all rather sexy:
Let them eat pizza as I wash away my cares. Ka-ching!!!
I’ll let you into a secret: whilst I was on a consumer high, flashing my cash as if I was Pouffe Daddy or something, I went onto that eBay and spent a bit more. My electric toothbrush, now a veteran of the game, has been losing power of late, and it occurred to me that I could raise the thumb (like for one of those ugly turkeys, spared the knife by benevolent opportunists) if I simply replaced the non-replaceable lithium Li-Ion battery. It will require some rudimentary soldering skills and a willing army of Facebook friends, but I know it’s possible. Ionic Industries (‘helping you fight built in obsolescence’) have now mailed a £10.50 landfill alternative to my home address and by Jiminy, do I feel like a million dollars! And that, in a nutshell, is my Christmas message:
Be kind to others but make sure your arse is covered. Because you’re bloody worth it.
See you in 2016 x
This week, it’s the contentious subject of foodstuffs. Practical solution to the endemic crime of celebrity chefs also included at no extra cost, along with convincing dystopian alternative for those who prefer their lunch to take three minutes and come from a pot.
I met someone famous last week. I’m not saying who, that would be beyond vulgar, but the reason I bring it up is to highlight the broader issue of celebrity and the effect it has on those within its orbit. For example, I like to think of myself as a man of the world, perfectly able to hold my own in conversation with people I don’t yet know, and the odd sprinkle of wit and charm adequately greases the wheels for the recipient to feel they haven’t totally wasted their time. It’s a game of badminton, in which the shuttlecock of decorum is gently rallied back and forth until someone cracks and heads off towards the canapés.
Throw in the curveball of fame, however, and these unwritten rules of polite discourse go straight out the window. Any joy to be had from chasing a sentence to wherever it may lead is countered by the suffocating fear of coming across as a bit of a tit. The celebrity in question can usually spot this, helpfully discussing themselves until you are able to regroup, but by now you’re already on the back foot and the vocabulary of gibberish is all you have left to draw from. The more you try to address it, the worse it gets. I often witnessed this with my father, who loved to ‘drop in’ to his local and chat away with verve to those brave enough to approach him. It more often than not culminated in a bizarre face-off, kicking up the following complex algorithm:
Shameless self-promotion plus apparent good nature divided by loss of will to live if he talks about agriculture one more time plus please don’t buy me another pint, I hate beer and I’ve got an expensive bottle of Pouilly-Fumé open at home which I’ll tuck into after you’ve shut up, is the square root of continued local and/or national prestige minus face if I bail too early
Obviously, this is subjective. If I were to be so bold as to suggest an pertinent alternative for those soon to meet and greet someone in the public eye, perhaps it would be something along these lines:
Anonymity plus alcohol plus neutral meeting place equals bolstered confidence minus mutual reference points minus self-awareness plus alcohol plus alcohol divided by inability to remember celebrity’s focal work is the square root of something to talk about in the pub later divided by time taken to achieve same*
A more accurate formula probably lies somewhere in between. Something to do with the synthesis of courage and generosity from both active parties, the onus being on the former. For he/she may still recall a time spent on the other side of the tracks, whereas the latter is single-handedly navigating terra incognita and trying not to blush. And adding another alcohol to the above.
*algorithm does not apply to current Duke of Edinburgh
The 1970s. A decade of strikes, skyrocketing inflation, shocking trousers, way too much hair and cars that didn’t start in the morning. But to this then knock-kneed schoolboy with nascent food issues and a paranoic fear of authority, it will forever be remembered as the one that threw up the Pig’s Table. And I mean that quite literally. Let me get you up to speed:
The Pig’s Table was a monstrous form of ritual trial and humiliation, cooked up by some of the sickest minds this side of the Nuremberg trials and brutally administered by a stringent headmistress and the minions under her employ. These punitive cronies were known collectively as The Danes, whose sole remit was to concoct a regular school meal that could be instantaneously jettisoned by any formative digestive system within a fifty foot radius. In this they were ruthlessly efficient. The universally feared Egg Nest™, an impossibly thick substrate of aqueous grey potato, cunningly concealed beneath a quagmire of zygotic discharge, was the jewel in their crown. Even Heston has not yet superseded this appalling Frankendish, and God knows he’s tried.
In the days before CCTV, food slop bins were manned in shifts. The trick was to get your plate of Egg Nest™ in there at point of changeover and make a break for the door before the new guard had worked out what was going on. But alas, as many did try, so many more failed and were instantly fed into the sausage machine of corrective punishment. First, an guilt-inducing rebuke. How that the thousands, if not millions of disadvantaged children in some of our poorest nations would be pathetically grateful for the delicacy you had just rejected. At which point you resisted the urge to mention Parcel Post. But then came the killer. Your penance would be exacted the very next day. You would suffer the Table.
I’ll take you through it. Like Spartacus, albeit unshackled, you were led into the refectory, filled to capacity with one hundred plus Lords of the Flies with an immense thirst for cruelty, and thrust towards a table for one. This braying throng, despite having narrowly missed the margin themselves, saw you as legitimate quarry and mocked mercilessly as you gingerly took your seat, steeling yourself for the imminent arrival of yesterday’s Egg Nest™. When it turned up, more congealed and pitiful than before, so began the painfully slow process of its consumption. The inevitable gagging was met with a wall of pre-pubescent ridicule, sweat, bile and fear meshing together as one as you prayed to whichever deity was in the vicinity to make it all stop.
It did eventually. But as you collected your thoughts in the ensuing nauseous aftermath, you knew you’d never be the same again. You had become a husk, a grotesque traumatised ghost of your former self, and mealtimes would from now on be heinous culinary skirmishes for you to fight and lose. So then, lunch anyone?
People say that your world shrinks or expands in direct parallel with your immediate environment. If you so happen to be the Foreign Policy Minister of a suitably distressed nation, your brushstrokes will, by default, be rather broad. If, however, you are housebound for whatever reason, the tiniest of details can get magnified beyond all recognition, often becoming the primary focus of your day. And ever since I decided to seismically alter my own life parameters by switching an active job for one that ties me to the computer, my home kitchen has become an exotic new tundra, populated by minuscule, indigenous creatures with whom I must learn to cohabit. My favourite being the common ant, three of which I have become quite fond.
It starts at lunchtime. The minute that multipack of American-style bagels is in town, Dominic and Samantha get active (yes, they have names), darting up to and away from the chopping board without so much as a by-your-leave. They do get on my tits a bit, so I have developed an early warning system, whereby I knock several times on the worksurface and usually they get the message. Obama, on the other hand, does not. His remit is to push the envelope, which invariably he does by hopping up to the cucumber slices and flicking me a V. Fair enough, but I most certainly would not care for him to end his days in my sandwich. So I have words. Stern ones.
A grown man reprimanding a single ant for insubordination must appear somewhat irregular to the uninitiated. But rules are rules, no matter how diverse the cultural boundaries, and Obama would do well to take them on board. Being a big softie, I tend to let him off on the proviso he doesn’t nose-dive into the coleslaw. Because then I’d just get plain ugly. As well he knows.
Yesterday though, he pushed me too far. I had torn off the Marigolds and set them down by the sink. It’s my way of saying ‘in a few seconds I’m coming through with a J-Cloth. Steer clear.’ Dom and Sam totally got it as per, but Obama took umbrage and stood his ground. How exactly do you alert an over-cocky formicidae to the real and present danger? That with one brutal left swipe, I could create more havoc for the little shit than Hurricane Katrina or that big tsunami a while back, without batting an eyelid? Even the clattering of expensive Japanese knives and the sonic deterrent that is Milton Jones on Radio 4 did nothing to stem his tenacity. So I flipped. Crouching down so that our eyes were level, I blew him straight into the washing up bowl. And then apologised profusely.
There’s been no sign of him today. He’s definitely not dead, because I rescued him with a spatula and dried him down with kitchen paper. Probably sulking with Dom and Sam, I’d imagine. But we’ll work something out.
Is it just me, or does every superstore these days feel the need to talk to us customers as if we have successfully navigated a maiden voyage to the lavatory without sullying the floor, or caking ourselves in our own oomska? If you’re not sure what I’m on about here, pop over to your nearest supermarket of choice when you’ve read this. I can guarantee that within five minutes of entering the building, an intrusive announcement, broadcast to all by a Robson Green clone imitating Mick Jagger, will suggest you make a small diversion to the bakery isle, where freshly-made, three-for-two doughnuts will help you live well. For less.
It’s not the content that bothers me particularly though. It’s the delivery. That sudden plunge, from innocuous mid-range to deeply offensive baritone, has been cynically calculated to recall in every shopper the halcyon days of their childhood, when mummy would almost come if you managed to down a forkful of fish finger. This then triggers a rush of serotonin to the brain, and has us scurrying like insects towards whichever wretched product is currently on promotion, in order to keep the high going.
And it doesn’t stop there. Why not punish yourselves further by putting in a quick call to your broadband provider? Just for the sheer hell of it. If and when you manage to get past the teenage cheerleader and her plethora of unfathomable options, you can enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at tinnitus-inducing volume, until she starts banging on about the hash key should you fancy a few more. Has anyone ever done this? Actually opted for more options? The only reason to do so I can muster is because you have been lured, as if by sirens, into a perpetual loop of doom, seduced by the prospect of discovering the magic key that will end your purgatory once and for all. At a premium call rate, naturally.
I know this makes me seem like a terrible Luddite. Or one of those Grumpy Old Men you see on the telly who have already become versions of their own disdain. But hold up! If technology really is as smart as they make out, why can’t we get to choose the voice of whichever organisation is preaching at us? Based on preferences stored up there in the Cloud and fully configurable to suit our mood? All of a sudden, that dreaded Sunday excursion to Ikea doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Just as you begin to glaze over in the BILLY bookcase department, Mariella Frostrup virtually detects your loss of will to live, and purrs something suggestive about meatballs into the headphones provided. And before you know it, you’re making a beeline for the restaurant as your family struggles to keep up.
Not bad, eh? Maybe Apple should consider something along these lines when that watch of theirs comes out next month. And maybe then I’ll consider a third doughnut.
It is 19.45 in the picturesque market town of Sherborne, northwest Dorset. I sit alone in a curry restaurant, waiting for an entry-level jalfrezi to arrive and listening to chutney classics from behind an MDF-constructed jali, separating me from the next booth. And I am midway through authentically enjoying an authentic Indian lager brewed in Luton, when Grant and Phil Mitchell (sic) burst into the neon with a disgruntled lady in tow, demanding a table:
Phil: Oi Oi! Haas abaht a bladdy ruby, me ole cobber?
Grant: And make it sharpish! We’re proper Hank Marvin!
Waiter: Good evening, gentlemen! Taking a seat, thank you please.
Phil: And the missus wants it girly tonight ‘cos…
Both: She caan’t handle it!!! (peals of hysteria)
The gruesome threesome are ushered to the next table (despite the restaurant being completely without custom bar my own) and begin to peruse the menu. Tonight, Phil will opt for a vegetable thali (because he’s been suffering from meat sweats), six masala poppadums, three naan breads, an assortment of side dishes (curiously, almost exclusively meat-based), and several pints of said authentic beverage. Grant, on the other hand, is taking no prisoners. He’s having one that “blows yer bladdy doors off” and a plate of chips to complement. And several pints of same, natch.
Grant: And daan’t hang abaht, neeva!
My vantage point behind the screen allows me a discreet glimpse at Phil’s long-suffering bride (let’s call her Goldilocks, even though she’s a brunette). She is caught deep inside a vortex of bravado and common sense, knowing the evening’s outcome depends heavily on her choice of dish: Too mild, and she faces mockery on a scale hitherto uncharted. Too hot, and…well, probably the same but at least she’ll be spared the Ring of Fire. But she cannot drag her heels, for the waiter is hovering:
Waiter: And for you, madam please?
Goldilocks: I’ll…er…What do you recommend that ain’t too ‘ot?
Waiter: For you, the chicken korma, madam. Very popular, thanking you please.
Goldilocks: Go on, then. I’ll ‘ave one of ‘em.
Phil: A korma? Wassa blaady point in that?
Grant: She’s a woman, Phil. Don’t you know nuffin’ ?
Phil: Samtimes I wander what I bladdy see in ‘er, you know what?
And so it goes on. However, Goldilocks’s ritual humiliation is cut mercifully short thanks to the timely arrival of Phil’s poppadums, which he proceeds to fill to bursting with the complimentary pickles. This has the secondary effect of creating a brief lull in conversation, for in order to save face, Grant cannot be seen to be siding with the enemy. To bridge the gap, he gestures through the screen in my approximate direction, as if to coax me into his nirvana:
Grant: Oi Oi, mate! How goes?
Experience has taught me never to engage in such affairs, no matter how alluring. With my cover now blown, I make a hasty beeline towards the bar and settle my bill, leaving an unnecessarily healthy tip to secure my anonymity. Although Phil, it seems, already has me down:
Phil: ‘Kin nonce.