Saturday, April 30, 2011

The food of love

It's always astonished me, given the incredible range of fresh produce that Scotland can furnish (salmon, mackerel, langoustines, mussels, venison, oysters, beef, pork, lamb...), that we are so notorious for unhealthy eating. The fact that it gets very cold and the weather's often miserable may have something to do with it (as does enough heavy drinking to obliterate the most discerning palate); but somehow over the centuries Scots seem to have been magnetically attracted to anything deep fried (even the vegetarians can join in: I well remember my friend D's love of a white pudding, no doubt soused in animal fat, from a certain chippie in Leith Walk). I can understand the appeal, of course; and I was thinking about it again today, at Fish On Fire, Glebe's finest fish and chip shop.

The first time I went to a fish and chip shop in London, I was astonished to find that there was actually a choice of fish. In any Scottish chippie, it's just "fush", fish and chips is a "fush supper", and the "fush" is always haddock. On the east coast, where I grew up, you ask for, and receive, "saltnsauce" dolloped lavishly across everything. On the west coast, a request for saltnsauce is met with a blank (and frankly insolent) look. The "sauce" is a patented, secret mix, the ingredients of which are closely guarded by every chippie (I can exclusively reveal that it's statistically highly likely to be watered down supermarket own-brand HP sauce), usually kept in an Irn Bru bottle of dubious provenance and advanced years.

Anyone not used to a Scottish fish supper will usually be horrified by it: where there should be crispness, let me bring mush, because the fat, stodgy, barely cooked chips, when you manage to peel them away to eat them, have wholly absorbed the fat they've been cooked in, on account of the fat fryer's connection being a little bit dodgy and cutting out from time to time; where the "fush" should taste of fish, its precious aromas and delicate flavour is drowned in saltnsauce, and besides the batter's hardened to the consistency of concrete by overcooking or, and you have to take your chances, so undercooked it still tastes strongly of flour. But despite eating what is, by any reckoning, a vastly superior version in Australia (chips cooked just so: crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside; chicken salt – oh the sophistication! – used for flavour; fish perfectly white, flaky, and fresh – the pristine example above is, of course, Australian), somewhere in a foreign field, there's a part of me that will still forever long for a proper fush supper. At the end of the day, nothing beats sitting in a car in the pouring rain outside the chippie in a godforsaken little east coast town, bolting down pure deepfried goodness that tastes of nothing.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

World of work

My very first job was in the town where I was born, Haddington, a short bus ride (or, given bus infrequency, a daunting cycle) from my village. I had a Saturday job in an art gallery and coffee shop called “Peter Potter's”, a job my sister had had before me, working alongside a selection of Haddington teenagers, one of whom, a Glaswegian, became my boyfriend for a while. I never met Mr Potter, and know nothing about him, but he did exist, a fact perhaps known to the local kids who used to delight in shouting into the letter box at the front door: “Peter Potter picked a snotter!”

Peter Potter's was a genteel, rather pretentious little place run by elderly ladies who seemed to enjoy playing power games. I was 14 when I started there, and was paid GBP2 an hour (even at the time, circa 1983, this was insultingly low pay, barely enough to get the bus to Edinburgh afterwards) to work in the coffee shop, serving ploughman’s lunches, baked potatoes, toasted sandwiches, coffees, teas and cakes to the good folk of Haddington  (as well as tourists getting out of the rain, and once, excitingly, Ronnie Corbett, who enjoyed a bowl of our cauliflower soup). As ambivalent as I was about working there, I’m sure I sometimes behaved ungraciously in my role as waitress, but there were only two complaints about me from four years of Saturdays: I was taken aside by one insufferable woman and told that I was “scruffy”; and I refused to serve tea to the daughter of some local knight of the realm, because she arrived, demanding to be served, when the place had closed, and I was packing up for the day and no longer on the clock. This was an early experience of imperiousness that I’ve never forgotten.

I remember wearing a particular pair of tight black cords with a broken zip which I tried to fix, ineptly, with lashings of sellotape, only to have some grinning men point out to me that my zip was down. I remember making the best toasties ever for my own lunch, stuffed with grated cheese, ham, raw onion and Branston Pickle. I remember the smell of fresh paint and wholemeal flapjacks. I remember looking out at the rain and longing for my shift to end.

I'm sure lots of things about this job have stood me in good stead: the ability to be incredibly polite (almost to the point of sarcasm, where they're not quite sure you're not being rude, but don't dare suggest it) to people who clearly think you (as a waitress, or a teenager, or a woman, or all three) are beneath them, and, as a corollary, a lifelong appreciation for waitresses; naturally, a distrust of the sort of people who run small-town art galleries; and the ability to make a damn good toasted sandwich.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

It's no game

I associate Scary Monsters, Bowie's last studio album for RCA (1980), with a very tall, dark-eyed, good looking son of a judge - that and Talking Heads' Remain In Light (also 1980) will forever be intertwined with a memory of an impossibly unattainable boy and his friends, hanging out on a sunny afternoon in a spacious Edinburgh flat with tall doors and light glancing in through the windows and the smell of fresh paint and tea, in the part of town where all the embassies are, listening to music, with me on the fringes – intruding by accident on the sounds coming from the living room – of what I understood even at the time (I was 12) to be incredibly cool.

Listening to Scary Monsters now it's readily apparent what an incredible record it is: pushing all sorts of boundaries, full of fascination. The title track is otherwordly: electronic dogs are barking, Bowie's cod-Cockney accent is strong, the lyrics are knowing but obtuse ("waiting at the lights, know what I mean"), and it's all delivered with a chilly dignity. Bowie has a knack of making the most risible lyric sound meaningful, even essential, and of somehow effortlessly tapping into the zeitgeist.

Although I love the title track, "Up the Hill Backwards" ("the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom/and the possibilities it seems to offer"), "It's No Game (Part 2)", and "Fashion", the most wonderful song of all is "Ashes to Ashes". The video is extraordinary - now he's in a clown outfit, pacing solemnly with other outlandish characters in front of an advancing JCB; now he's in a 1950s dream home; now he's in a padded cell - best not to ask, just accept it as it is. It still looks like the future.

The tall, good looking son of a judge became a monk; I last saw him walking down a country road in the place where I grew up, heading for the bus stop in the village. I suppose he left me with the indelible connection with this record, but not much else (I can't even remember his name): perhaps just a sense of longing and not belonging, and something just out of reach.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The White Stone of Lewis

Do not attempt
to lift the white stone.
It is smooth quartzite
and weighs a lifetime.

You would prove your back
could take the strain:
brave, ambitious
you can handle any challenge.

But other strengths are more sustaining:
able to change and take changes
lift old habits from heavy soil
get to grips with the smooth surface
of self deception.

Let others do the heaving and shoving
who shoulder burdens they cannot manage
and set their sights on defeating others
in pointless shows of strength.

You carry the stone with you:
crystal with hope
light with humour
smooth with complete integrity.

Tessa Ransford