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‘The Forrests’, Emily Perkins, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 7, 2013 by adminLeave a comment

A backpacker Heathcliff, wielding charm rather than fists’

The Forrests is only Emily Perkins’ fourth novel in 14 years. Once again, it is worth the wait and once again Perkins is pushing herself as a writer.

Spiky, absurd humour tattooed her short story collection Not Her Real Name and her first novel, in 1998, Leave Before You Go. Her novels then became more serious: The New Girl studied raw, vulnerable adolescence; madness fractured a marriage in Novel About My Wife. In The Forrests, Perkins tackles a family’s progress from the 1960s to the 2030s, from childhood to senility, with no shortcut date headings or framing flashbacks, and does so superbly.

It opens in 1967, with the Forrests’ move from New York to New Zealand (Auckland, Perkins’ home city). The father, Frank, has high hopes of succeeding as a theatre director. He doesn’t. His wife Lee works at a deli, ekes out Frank’s meagre trust fund and sells off family heirlooms to feed the children. They are, in descending age, Michael, Eve, Dot and Ruth. Michael’s friend Daniel lives with the Forrests, sheltering from his broken home.

After three fruitless years, Frank tries his luck in New York and Lee temporarily moves the family into a “wimmin’s commune”. The children run wild but the sexual advances of an adult communard, Rena, destabilise Michael for life. Frank returns a sterner man but, luckless in New York and unwilling to take workaday work, his authority ebbs. Michael closes himself into his own dope-addled world. Frank inherits a pot of Forrest family fortune and returns to America to live in moneyed ease with Lee and young Ruth.

The Forrests becomes the story of Eve, Dot and Daniel finding their way alone, scraping through careers, unremembered at school reunions. Twisting through the sisters lives, Daniel disappears around the world, and then returns – still magnetic and enigmatic with “the terrifying agelessness of the constant traveller”.

He is Dorothy’s lover then, secretly, Eve’s, then, occasionally, Dorothy’s again. His bond to the family makes these relationships disturbingly close, obsessive and disruptive, like a backpacker Heathcliff wielding charm rather than fists. Both sisters marry and have children but are burdened by the hope of hearing from Daniel.

The story tightens its focus on Dot, struggling as marriage, family and motherhood swirl around her. “Adulthood was like this – your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.” Michael reappears, obese and paranoid; Ruth too, a corporate wife; Rena, hoping to make amends.

Perkins glides us through the decades with unobtrusive nods to disco, the Walkman, the internet, today’s recession and seamlessly into a future of battling gangs and receding pensions. This isn’t faultless. Dot appears prematurely decrepit at 50 (to this 50 year-old reviewer anyway) and becomes dotty too young. But Dot’s dotage, jumbled mind bemused by her body, memories and care home, is brilliantly done.

The Forrests is rich and its chapters so self-contained they could be read as 20 short stories. But pay attention: Perkins is concise and quietly allusive. Misread a sentence and you miss a jump in time. Pass over a dialogue comma and you won’t understand. Perkins makes us puzzle out the characters’ lives, because they are doing so too.

What defines The Forrests more though is the tapestry of description that startles on every page, the fine-stitched details of the family’s world that give the Forrests value and importance, and the novel a profound empathy.

2 June 2012

A dawn run in Florence, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…down the shuttered Via della Vigna Nuova and into the Piazza Della Repubblica’s deserted canyon.’

The Westin Excelsior stands on Florence’s Piazza Ognissanti, the River Arno on one side, Botticelli’s tomb in the Chiesa di San Salvatore on the other, and in the basement, a gym. Not finding gyms a tonic, I ignored it. But after a greedy wedding party week something was needed.

The something was a small map next to my complimentary bedside chocolate. It showed two runs through Florence, 5km and 8km, chosen by Runner’s World magazine. I drew the 8km route on to a bigger map (the original one was too small to read while running on the spot, lost) and set off at 6.45am on a Saturday.

Florence was chilly but fantastically empty. Along the narrow Via Ognissanti on skinny Florentine pavements, over the carless crossroads of Piazza Goldoni, down the shuttered Via della Vigna Nuova and into the Piazza Della Repubblica’s deserted canyon.

The flat streets made a good speed simple. The emptiness gave time to glimpse the city without falling over: the grimily gorgeous Duomo cathedral; green and white Santa Croce church sedate behind its Piazza. Ha, this was easy!

But then I crossed the Arno. Four hairpin bends staggered uphill. ‘Running’, I breathed like an asthmatic cart horse. Then the top, the open Piazzale Michelangelo and ecstasy after agony: Florence, laid out at dawn, the Duomo a liner ploughing through a terracotta sea, village lights on the slopes beyond.

A pleasing jog down hillside steps then a longer, almost rural uphill run. The narrow Via di Belvedere, between the old, biscotti-brown city wall and fields, rose straight up. No moderating bends, just gradient. But at the peak, under Forte di Belvedere’s walls, the pink-skied panorama again.

The run down, past waking houses bedded into the slope, came out near the Ponte Vecchio. Keeping to the Arno’s quieter south side, and energized by no hills, I crossed the Ponte alla Carraia and attempted a sprint to the Westin. Wary of sweating all over the elegant lobby, I caught my breath outside: a run to pump the heart and lift the soul.

14 January 2006

Beer and breakfast in Smithfield, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…burly, shaven-headed and looking, in his shorts and knee-length smock, like a Bruegel yeoman.’

It was 6.45am on a cool, blue-skied morning in the City of London. As the financial markets woke up, Smithfield Market quietened down. Butchers tidied sausages, chops and football-sized jars of pickle on trestle tables. White-overalled porters in health-and-safety trilbies trundled meat to vans. It was time for the pub.

Opposite the market’s purple and green Gate 16 is the Cock Tavern, open to all from 6am. It is a comfortable, basement pub: low ceiling, wooden floor, long curving bar, cream walls hung with black and white market photographs and traders’ red and gold signs – M.L. Offals Ltd, G. & E. Meat Ltd.

Butchers talked loudly at the bar or slim tables, relaxing after a hard day’s night. One strode in, burly, shaven-headed and looking, in his shorts and knee-length smock, like a Bruegel yeoman. Quieter City types sat over alcohol-free breakfasts.

With worrying ease, I drank a 7.00 am pint of Wells Bombardier bitter and read the lengthy menu. The breakfasts, and many and varied lunchtime steaks, are the work of Carmen Leslie, the tavern’s chef for 38 years.

How about grilled kippers, or smoked haddock and a poached egg? Why not compile your own breakfast: Welsh rarebit, bubble and squeak, and a liver and bacon sandwich? Or go traditional, with the Smithfield or Old English?

Steering clear of the Cowboy (beans, more beans and bacon) I chose the Cock Tavern, the priciest at £6.95: liver, kidneys, sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, beans and a fried egg.

It arrived crammed on an oval plate like a small range of hills. All the meat had made the short journey from the market and was delicious: thick, tangy bacon; smoothly peppery liver; smoky black pudding and, best of all, tongue-itchingly spicy kidneys.

The fruity Bombardier suited the food well. It took more beer and a cup of coffee before my breakfast was all gone. Outside, the streets were busy with wide-eyed commuters. I headed against them, ready for bed.

22 October 2005

Bespoke snuff in Exeter, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us.’

Walk into McGahey The Tobacconist in Exeter and you are swaddled in the sweet smell of Bovey Honey, Lustleigh Velvet, Zeal Champagne and dozens more loose tobaccos. Their fat glass jars jostle with pipe displays, ranked lighters and cigarettes.

Judges from the nearby Crown Court buy their snuff here and that is why I have come. Like them, I need a pollution-free tobacco hit in an increasingly non-smoking world. Martin (grandson of the original McGahey), who looks pleasingly like the bearded Jack Tar on Player’s Navy Cut packets, will advise on creating my own unique snuff blend.

He brings out the range: McChrystal’s of Leicester; Gawith Hoggarth; rectangular tins from Germany; round tins of Wilsons of Sharrow, whose snuff mill near Sheffield is still powered by water-wheel. They should make the blend, recommends Martin.

We take a spiral staircase down to the basement and sit in leather armchairs by a walk-in humidor. Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us. Each bears the italics of Fribourg and Treyer, the late-lamented Haymarket tobacconist whose snuffs Wilsons now makes.

Martin opens them one by one. High Dry Toast: fine, pale, pungent. Seville: coarser, orange-scented, “a good brain tingle”. Princes: peaty, moist, powerful. And Beau Brummell’s favourite, the dark, elegant Old Paris. But these, we decide, are too complex a base for a blend. So Martin suggests the simpler, smooth Wilsons of Sharrow SP. We agree on oil of May blossom blended in for freshness, and lemon for bite.

The order is placed that afternoon and four days later it arrives at my home in a green and gold-labelled McGahey tub. Opened, its citric scent has spring lurking underneath. I place two chestnut pinches on the back of my hand and inhale. My eyes water and nose tingles. The snuff, my snuff, ambles into the sinuses, then spreads potently out. The world seems brighter, my mind sharper and there is not a wisp of smoke anywhere.

13 November 2004

Pilsner, circa 1842, in Pilsen, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea.’

We walked through high wooden doors and along a wide, sloping tunnel, British beer lovers dipping into Czech history. Above ground sprawled the Pilsner Urquell Brewery: huge copper vats like upturned champagne glasses; tiled, Art Nouveau meeting rooms; the sampling room, where tasters clear their palates between sips with bread and cheese.

No nation reveres its beer like the Czechs. Old brands such as Pilsner Urquell and Budvar are potent symbols, constants of a Czechness that endured the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation and Communism. Ninety nine per cent of the beer Czechs drink is Czech.

Our thirsty party was on a purists’ mission. Pilsner Urquell, the first pilsner, was created in 1842 by Josef Groll, a genius headhunted by the burghers of Pilsen and “the rudest man in Bavaria” (to quote his father).

But since the 1930s, yeast has been filtered out before bottling. We were to drink unfiltered Urquell; the original pilsner in its original form, still made in small batches for comparison’s sake and, you can’t help feeling, love.

The tunnel branched, the arms leading into a five-mile network of arched, white-walled cellars, their sandstone floors grooved for rolling barrels. At the end of a branch line, we came to the place: twelve, six-ft. high wooden vats of Pilsner Urquell in its original form fermenting against a wall.

From a platform, we caught glimpses of the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea. We followed the pipes to the next cellar and stood dwarfed between double banks of oak barrels, each six ft. in diameter, containing unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, quietly maturing. The cellar man selected a batch he felt was ready. He firmly knocked a spiked tap into the barrel. We queued up, trying not to push.

In the glass it was a clouded gold, pale fragments of yeast floating within, the head thick but loose. The taste was sublime: elegantly light but rich, the bitterness rounded, velvety as stout but with the body of ale, the unfiltered yeast giving it punch – beer circa 1842. We murmured delightedly, and drank more.

23 July 2005

Inside a Cabman’s Shelter, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘It was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny.’

The Knightsbridge Cabmen’s Shelter stands isolated in the middle of Brompton Road. Built in 1875, its green panelled walls and steep felted roof suggest a park-keeper’s refuge, as do the panels’ florid latticework and its crowning dovecote-like chimney. The windows are frosted, and while the un-Knowledged may buy drinks and snacks from a hatch the interior is strictly for cabbies. Like all 13 surviving shelters, it is Grade II listed.

Captain GC Armstrong of St John’s Wood conceived cabmen’s shelters in 1874. The drivers could keep out of the elements and, as importantly, the pub. Booze-free shelters serving tea, coffee and bread and butter, with an attendant to cook food the cabbies brought in, would keep London’s cabs literally on the straight and narrow.

The first was opened in 1875 in St John’s Wood (handily for Captain Armstrong) by Arthur Kinnaird MP before a crowd of 100. Rules for customers stipulated no swearing and the publishers of The Graphic, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Fun and The Animal World provided seemly reading matter gratis.

By 1908 there were 47 shelters, each costing £200. The Duke of Westminster provided Piccadilly’s shelter, but who was Mrs Braithwaite, the benefactor behind the one in Hobart’s Place? Or Miss Roget, who financed the Knightsbridge Shelter? Subverting the ban on alcohol, cabbies gave the shelters pub-like names. Knightsbridge is The Bell and Horns. St John’s Wood, near Lord’s, is The Nursery End.

With the coming of congestion, one-way systems and parking meters, the shelters went into decline but soldiered on with T&GWU and GLC help. When the GLC folded, the bacon bap was passed to the Heritage of London Trust, which has underwritten the renovation of all but two of the shelters, at £25,000 each.

They take on the characteristics of the areas they are in. The Sloane Street Shelter gleams like a designer emporium. The Kensington Gardens trees overhanging The All Nations have left the roof rustically bowed and mossy. The handwritten cardboard signs on the Embankment Shelter mirror the begging signs of Embankment’s down-and-outs.

But what are they like inside? The Bell and Horns was decorated with Christmas lights the cold night I crossed to the middle of the Brompton Road. Cabs were parked on the rank down the centre of road but no sound came from within. I opened the door.

Inside, it was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny. Two benches ran along the white walls behind two long, thin formica tables with hinged leaves for squeezing into your place. Two people could pass in the central aisle, if they turned sideways. At the far end the owners bustled in aprons between a cooker, fridge and packed shelves of sliced bread and chutney. Cabbies were tucking into supper. They glanced up at me. The tall, dark-haired proprietress turned with a polite but sharp look.

“Yes?”

“Is this just for cabbies or can anyone …”

“Just for cabbies.”

I asked if it was true the shelters had names and a curly-haired cabbie explained. Another mentioned that Peter Raymond of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund and T&GWU had helped the shelters survive. The proprietress brushed past to serve someone, annoyed. I didn’t belong and, with a “Merry Christmas,” squeezed out.

22 February 2004

‘Children’ column on baby slings, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy.’

Lawrence is too fat for the baby sling now. Each of his legs is like a haggis on top of a black pudding. Yet as he wobbles on his rug or staggers about with his Douglas Bader gait, there is something magnificent about his size, like Sidney Greenstreet or the King of Tonga. A cheery soul, he carries the weight well. And without the sling, I am saved a sore neck, the danger that one of his flopping feet will kick me in the testicles and other, subtler pains.

Because like those stickers that say ‘Baby On Board’, a sling on a man seems like a boast. “Look at me!” it says. “Not only am I fertile, I am also a Good Father. I share the load of Parenting in a Sensitive manner and am generally Concerned.” Of course it isn’t usually a boast, just some bloke trying to be helpful. And helpfulness is in demand. My wife and I work from home and share the parenting, so I need to do my bit as a part-time househusband, or Mary-Ann as my Lancastrian parents would say.

Mary-Anning waits for no man: Lawrence is one, his sisters Rosemary and Rachael, three and six. When it’s my wife’s turn to earn the money for nappies, potatoes and Silk Cut Ultra Low (so mild that inhaling is a form of exercise) there are bottoms to wipe, playgrounds to visit and prams to be pushed. But at least there are no slings to be worn.

My first tussle with one came with Rachael. It took only half an hour to turn the straps, pads, harnesses, clips, loops, buckles and press studs into something almost like the drawing in the instructions. And only 15 minutes more to take it off and put it on the right way round. Just 20 minutes later, Rachael was slotted into it. Having checked that she could breathe, that her arms were comfy, that she could breathe, that her legs were through the right holes and that she could breathe, we set off.

So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy. A little unbalanced perhaps. There’s a slight worry that you might bash the baby into things if you turn round too quickly. And a feeling that if you fell over backwards, you wouldn’t be able to get up, but nothing too difficult. Before guilt got the better of me, I even found I could tilt my head backwards and have a cigarette, the smoke floating in our wake.

It was fun. Nervous fun (suppose I fell forward, she’d be squashed) but fun. Look, there was a man pushing a pram. Ha! How primitive! More important, how uncaring, abandoning his baby to a cold embrace of nylon, plastic and metal. Would it feel loved and safe? Where was the bonding, the pride? At Cafe Nero, even the black-clad folk perched over their espressos and novels seemed delighted by the sight of Baby and Sling Dad. The effect on the pretty girls behind the counter was remarkable. “Ooo,” they went and “Aaa”. “What a Sensitive, Caring man,” their smiles seemed to say. “Fertile too.”

I spotted other Sling Dads on our travels. One sat in a cafe quaffing cappuccino, a muslin square over the baby’s head to protect it from croissant flakes. Another lounged outside a pub, the muslin over the baby’s head to catch drips from the father’s pint. They were on the Tube, buses, restaurants. Their babies of course were uglier than Rachael, but I was not alone.

That was before my first pain in the neck and the months of trying to avoid flopping feet. There was no sudden revelation, no stranger shouting, “Oi, you with the sling. You look like a git!” Just a creeping feeling that, in a world full of babies, maybe Rachael, the sling and me weren’t that interesting.

Anyway, my wife looked better in it and she’d been pregnant, so she was good at pain. She pottered about the kitchen in the sling, filling bottles. Strode around the shops in it. Beavered at the computer in it. So now, if I want to feel Concerned, I need only smell the odour seeping from Lawrence’s nappy.

13 September 2003

‘Children’ column on autumn, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘He sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose.’

“Urngh!” Lawrence points down at the pavement. His face shows almost incredulous delight, his 18 month old mind stunned by his find: a leaf. He bends down, grasps about and slowly picks it up, then holds his trophy out as we walk. “Urngh!” Again he stops – another leaf. Lawrence grapples it off the wet paving stone and clutches it with the first. Trips to the corner shop are taking a while this Autumn. (Although not as long as when the shopkeeper decided I was Rowan Atkinson, and kept asking for my autograph.)

Lawrence finds the oversized communal garden next to our undersized flat even more exciting. Leaves gusted along the grass have him chuckling in wonder and stamping his feet. He starts to run with them before remembering he can’t really run. The wind tearing at the plane trees makes him laugh as much as his own wind. He ploughs smiling through knee-high drifts of leaves.

Last year he was too swaddled to notice Autumn, so all this is new. When it is too wet to go out, he presses his face against the French windows, watching the show. Or a hand has to be held against his forehead as he bangs it on the floor in rage at being kept from it all.

For his older sisters Rachael and Rosemary, Autumn means bigger puddles to stamp through until their socks are grey, and more fallen branches to trail inside and leave like an art installation over the dining room floor. Autumn brings better mud too. It is easier for them to mould and clings better to the “treasure stones” they dig up with twigs from the garden path. Then there are conkers.

When Rachael was three, we found some lying in ones and twos in a quiet alley behind mansion blocks. Their horseback polish and hedgehog shells seemed incongruous, suggesting cart tracks and copses. Rachael liked their different shapes and colours and how they were snug to hold, fitting neatly into her fist. When Rosemary was old enough, she took to them too. Like everything, conkers became a battlefield for their wills. They may be too young for the vicious miss hits of the game conkers, but conkers supply other grounds for scrapping.

Coming home from school in September, we stopped to pick a fat crop scattered over a back street. While Lawrence sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose, Rosemary and Rachael scrambled about claiming conkers, boasting to each other. They decorated an old Corn Pops box to keep them in. Rachael painted a tree and a horse on her side. Rosemary, annoyed by her older sister’s skill, went for impact, streaking her side with as many colours as she could. They painted a face on the cream-grey disc of each conker and ranged them neatly along the mantelpiece. “I’ve painted more than Rosemary,” said Rachael.

After supper, with the garden made bigger and spooky by night, they tool up for a Torchlight Walk. Rosemary goes for the sleek silver torch. Rachael favours the hefty black rubber one. I get the pink Tweenie number.

Outside, Rosemary warbles and shivers pretending to be scared. Rachael presses the giddy button and rushes ahead, beam waving wildly. They dance the spotlights up tree trunks and swoop them around the top branches. Black silent bushes and the searching beams make hide and seek more intense. In football they run with their own floodlight. Playing Dizzy (“You spin round and round and the first one to fall over is the loser,” says Rosemary) their beams arc across the trees and lawn. Neighbours peer from windows into the night, wondering what all the fuss is about.

16 November 2003

‘Children’ column on cars, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!’”

We need a car made from some thick rubber substance. Ground-in, saliva-clogged biscuit bits could be peeled off seats. Sick stains and ‘accidents’ could be hosed down. Spilt juice, crisp grease and the adhesive produced by half-sucked Haribo could be wiped away. Best of all, every few weeks the car could be turned inside out and rapidly shaken over a skip, emptying out shredded comics, furry fruit, grimy stickers, crushed water bottles and all the little rockeries of crumbs.

This detritus doesn’t only look rough. A few years ago I gave a lift to a trendy-booted, childless young account exec and a middle-aged art director. As soon as they got in, the account exec said, “Urgh what’s that smell?” I had no idea what he was talking about. The art director – who has three children – politely mumbled, “You forget the smell that children make.” This was when Georgina and I had only one child.

With three, the smell (presumably) is worse. Certainly just getting into the car is trickier. Rachel and Rosemary lark about, hopping between the front and back, turning the lights on and off. Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!” He squawks and punches, torso stiff, as he’s harnessed into his corner throne, the rigid German boots he wears to straighten his rubbery feet kicking inches from your temple.

Rosemary sits next to him, hands folded, not needing toys. The peculiar details of the passing world entertain her enough, that and the pleasure of noting the random, stressy errors in her parents’ speech. “You said Rachel instead of Rosemary.” “You said Saddam instead of supper.” Rachel sits next to the door, playing school or demanding we arbitrate in border disputes.

The car brings them small excitements. For Rosemary there is the glamorous thrill of driving up the ramp onto Sainsbury’s roof-top car park. The tilt of Lawrence’s car seat gives him a better chance to spot and name his beloved flags (“Na-na!”), planes (“Na-na!”) and trees (“Na-na!”). The journey home from Rachel’s school offers a scintillating choice: the nail-biting drama of driving extremely slowly towards red lights so the car never actually stops; or the covert ingenuity of taking switchbacks and obscure roads so we avoid traffic lights altogether.

Excitement disappears on the long motorway trips, North West to my tribal homelands, North to Georgina’s. Unable to speed the journey or map-read our progress, the intense pitch the children live at causes the hours to stretch into a tedium grey enough to make them weep. The car becomes their mobile half-home: cramped playroom, a dining room where they can’t leave the table and an awkward bedroom. They shove and bash each other territorially in sleep.

Travelling by day gives them chance for revenge. As babies, they protested against the sun-glazed boredom by waiting until we were just past the half-way break, then filling their nappies to straining point, challenging you to bear the smell for 100 miles. Once potty-rained, they’d protest by asking for the loo as soon as we got on the motorway.

There is baby rage too. Many hours were lost on one Scottish holiday giving Rachel puppet shows to stop her ranting. Glens and lochs slipped past unnoticed as dolls talking in funny voices were danced along the top of the front passenger seat (although, unlike our niece, our raging children have never struggled from their straps on the motorway, crawled forward and tried to put the handbrake on).

Night travel means they sleep longer at least. The car quietens, traffic thins, sweets can be eaten without trying to hide the fact from them. This is how it is all supposed to be you think: the children peaceful and secure; the parents calmly guiding them onwards. We arrive red-eyed and needing bed. The children wake, refreshed and ready to play.

29 February 2004

‘I admit that I like…airline food’, The Times

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Chicken? Where is the night out in chicken?’

Certainly the food in First Class is easy to like – the dimly gleaming caviar and petit four amusant, the port and Stilton that make your veneered cubicle feel like an Edwardian gentleman’s chambers.

But even in row 47 of Blocked Airways I find delight. Mysterious pieces of – what? Chicken? Fish? Who knows? That’s half the fun. ‘Pizza’ seeping enticingly through its cardboard box. Orange juice which arcs prettily on to row 44 when you prise off the skin-slicing tinfoil lid. Rectangles of cake and cheese. (Which is which?) The upside-down wine glass wobbling on the tiny bottle with a cheery plastic tap.

On the ground, this food would be disgusting. But you are not on the ground: you are 35,000 feet above it. That remains an exhilarating thought. It touches everything. The ordinary business of sitting to eat mass-produced food becomes extraordinary, five miles up. Cheap wine drunk while you are looking down on the Horn of Africa tastes like the sommelier’s priciest recommendation. Pizza over the Arctic wastes could have been made by Carluccio personally.

And when the exhilaration pauses and I think, “Hang on. Five miles. It’s a long way. We shouldn’t be up here. It’s against nature”, the rattling trolley and the cabin crew handing out trays like a thousand times before, become comforting, reassuringly grounded.

I admit that I don’t like….fine food. On earth, it’s much more complicated. You swig your aperitif and scoff olives, then the waiter spoils it with the menu. The problem is, choice makes me over-critical. What is jus but a tight-fisted portion of gravy? Garlic makes you smell, and burp. Fish means little bones between your teeth. Lamb means big bones skidding across your plate. Chicken? Where is the night out in chicken? Vegetarian? Well it’s all just vegetables, isn’t it? Resignedly, my gaze slips down to the steak, again.

2 May 2006

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