Sunday, 1 June 2014


I crashed out with a rotten cold last week, and took up Clare's recommendation to read Toast: the story of a boy's hunger - food writer Nigel Slater's acclaimed autobiographical memoir telling of his development as a food aficionado against the background of his childhood in 1960s Wolverhampton.

There was a very competent TV drama a while back - see Toast (film) - but that necessarily put more direct focus on the back-story, Slater's relationship with his dying mother, his emotionally incompetent father, and his rivalry with his gold-digging stepmother.

In  the book, the prime driver of the narrative is the food itself, the story being told via a series of vignettes about food and individual recipes (such as the title essay about toast) which repeatedly crop up as surrogates for love - or an attempt to buy it.

Despite the frequently loving descriptions of food, this is quite a dark story. While there's a deal of nostalgia - for instance, references to long-forgotten sweets - the overall picture is that early-1960s food was, more often than not, ghastly. I'm two years older than Nigel Slater, and recall exactly that; in fact, dull unpleasant food is one of the chief recollections of my childhood. This was an era when the best you could hope for was competently cooked plain food - meat, vegetables, apple crumble, cake, jam tarts, and so on - while the worst was simply disgusting. This was the time of the decline of the few remaining old-style grocers in favour of new convenience foods such as Arctic Roll, Angel Delight, Cadbury's Smash, Vesta meals, and Cadbury's Mini-rolls; of criminally poor-quality school dinners involving coarse over-boiled vegetables and gristly meat; of nauseating school milk; and of ridiculous pretensions such as putting a peach on ham salad or a pineapple ring on toasted cheese.

Although his step-sisters have disputed the reality of the specific characterisations of his father and stepmother, Slater has captured well the ethos of a decade and a social stratum with painful anxieties about class, where every choice or action - food preference, clothing, holiday venue, vocabulary - came under scrutiny in terms of class shibboleth (Britain was still in the grip of 1950s discourse about U and non-U English). This was also a time of discounting children (Slater is not told his mother is dying, nor allowed to attend the funeral), and of toxic casual put-downs; I've an identical recollection to Slater's of my stepfather joking "Nobody will be able to tell which is which" when I had a photo taken with a monkey on Southsea Pier. Slater's family problems struck a strong chord, and so, in some areas, Toast made extremely uncomfortable reading.

My only criticism, and it's a slight one, is that once you get past the 'foodie' aspects and vignette format, this is a quite formulaic bildungsroman, and furthermore one of the "Little Percy" variety.satirised by Aldous Huxley.
"Of course," Mr. Scogan groaned. "I'll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future."
- Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley, 1921
Slater does at one point get ribbed about his football boots, and if you amend Huxley's description to "goes to live among the chefs and dabbles delicately in Amour", the outro is much the same, his disappearance into the luminous future being his heading off to Piccadilly Circus, accepted as a Savoy Grill chef, to pick up someone to get a bed for the night. (A difference from the film is that the book gives considerably more continuity to his parallel journey toward realising his identity as a gay man).

That said, I'm less inclined to dislike the middle-class bildungsroman than I used to. I've come round to the view that there's an inverted snobbery surrounding such works. The angst of someone rising (or attempting to rise) to a creative profession from lower working class is considered worthy, or even inspirational - think Sons and Lovers, Lanark, Billy Elliot, and so on. But the tensions of rising from upper working-class or lower middle-class are just as problematical, involving not only snobbery from above and below, but also the complex class anxieties of being in an aspirational social stratum. Toast is a powerful study of those anxieties at a time of major social change, told through the medium of food and its role in a dysfunctional family.

- Ray

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