Monday, 22 January 2018

Old books, old ladies and old food ideas.

I thought of the writer David Nobbs this morning. In his novel “Second from Last in the Sack Race”, the hero, Henry Pratt, is a great reader and admirer of the Biggles books and wants to write similar tales of daring-do in the skies. What reminded me of David Nobbs? The news that a rare first edition of the very first Biggles book is going to be auctioned.

“The Camels are Coming” was published in 1932 and contained 17 short stories about Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Smyth in the Royal Flying Corps. W. E. Johns went on to write almost 100 books about the intrepid fliers. Those were the days - rather more innocent days than we live in now! The book has a pre-sale estimate of £500 to £600. It’s a pity Mr Nobbs is no longer with us. I’m sure he would have been bidding.

Out and about in the village this morning, in the post office in fact, I realised that someone was struggling to open the door while at the same time supporting an elderly lady with walking sticks. So I held the door open as they entered the shop. This was when I realised that the elderly lady was our former neighbour. Martha, who now lives in sheltered accommodation in the centre of the village.

When we moved into our house, just over thirty years ago, she was at least 60, a short, bustling, occasionally bossy old lady. For back then 60 was a lot older than it is now. For years and years she did not seem to change, apparently frozen in time. The last time I saw her, which must be about two years ago, she was still a bustly, independent old lady, getting around the village under her own steam. And suddenly there she is, a shrunken old lady, with her care-assistant helping her in and put of shops. But then, she must be in her nineties now, still getting around, still chatty and totally compos mentis. Good for her!

When we are on our travels we often hear it said that the British have no true cuisine. This is something I dispute but not everyone agrees with me. Every other country, they say, has signature dishes, things that are instantly recognisable as French, Spanish, Italian and so on. But not Britain, apart from perhaps roast beef. This has sometimes been explained to me as being because our ingredients were so good that we did not need to create fancy sauces or fiddly ways of serving stuff. The quality alone would suffice.

Incidentally, this is the same reasoning I hear for the Galicians serving fish and potatoes as a basic dish: their fish is always fresh and their potatoes are the best in the world so what more is needed? 

Yesterday I came across a different explanation for the apparent lack of British cuisine. First came the Enclosures Acts, in the 17th century, taking away the availability of land to grow food on, and turning peasants into landless workers. Then along came the Industrial Revolution, leading to a mass movement away from the countryside into towns. And people lost touch with growing a variety of vegetables and simply made do with whatever was on sale. It’s a theory.

Incidentally, I read something this weekend about pasta not having been the national dish of Italy until some time in the 20th century. A quick internet search dates the first reference to it as 1154 in Sicily. But maybe Sicily doesn’t count.

So there’s a little conundrum for us!

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