Saturday, 20 December 2008

Chronicles of A Dyspeptic Man: Celebrity Chefs

You are not a fan of Christmas. This Christmas, you anticipate, will be subdued what with the credit crunch. The looming recession, predicted to worsen in the New Year, will put a damper on people’s enthusiasm, and they will waste not as much money on unnecessary trinkets, unhealthy food, sweets guaranteed to rot your teeth, and alcohol guaranteed to clog your arteries, as they otherwise would. You would not be eager to spend money buying useless presents for relatives you do not like (and who probably hate you in turn) for Christmas when you are not sure you would have a job in the New year.

Of the many things that irritate you about Christmas the top spot ought to go to the festive cookery programmes. There is, for example, this implausibly voluptuous (according to some tabloids) celebrity chef, married to an implausibly wealthy (second) husband, living in an implausibly glamorous house (the décor of which is implausibly tacky), preparing morsels of implausibly bland food, tossing her hair, pouting seductively, fluttering her eyelids and smiling coquettishly at the camera, contriving to position her body in a way that she hopes would hide her fat arse, licking cream and butter off her fingers in a manner that is explicitly suggestive of oral sex, it is a wonder you do not get a hard on. Could it be because the woman is not so much voluptuous as fat, and wears her make-up that makes her look like an RTA victim? You recently watched one of her Christmas specials—just to reassure yourself that the woman still had a fat arse and was more insincere than a worm—where she spent fifteen minutes preparing chocolate bonbons which looked (and probably tasted) like dark brown turd, on which she poured droplets of viscous white chocolate sauce that looked like cum. So much for her presentation skills: a big blob of bodily fluid balanced on a mound of bodily waste. She then proceeded to suck on to a bonbon, as though it was sweet-tasting testicles, making repulsive noises, screwing her eyes shut, attempting to arrange her facial muscles in a way that she obviously thought was sexy and gave a verisimilitude of an orgasm. After a few seconds she swallowed the muck, heaved an exaggerated sigh and proclaimed to the camera (in a voice that was so husky and deep, it probably caused the glassware in the kitchen to tremble) that it was ‘deeleeecious.’

Then there is this other irritating so-and-so, the blond mushmouth with gaps in his teeth wide enough to drive a tractor through, and a fat tongue. He is probably thirty, looks like he is twenty, behaves and speaks like a fifteen year old with Down’s Syndrome, and, between him and his annoying wife (whom he refers to with a silly diminutive and who has written an unreadable book on how to cope with motherhood), the two probably have a combined IQ of a cockroach. You have watched him prancing about in his Christmas Special, talking non-stop, inanely, adding dollops of butter into everything, making horrid concoctions of poisonous vegetables, anchovies and other vile things you do not think should be legal, and carving turkey as though he is performing skull-base surgery. In the last few years he has come all over like a rash, replacing, you have to admit, some equally irritating television chefs—for example, the one with the improbable hair (which exploded upwards from his skull in hundreds of glistening spikes and which he touched from time to time in the middle of his cooking with his fingertips, not, obviously, in an effort to smooth it, but rather in the furtive, half-conscious manner an adolescent might touch his pimples, just to make sure that the horrible thing was still there), or the six feet bald bastard with a permanently plastered grin on his face and about six pounds of muscle between his ears. He, the blonde cretin, when he first started, operated from a flat in London. He had an overfriendly, over-informal style, and talked asininely, repeating a few stock-words, his vocabulary probably comprising no more than two hundred words. His recipes, like him, had no class or taste, and some of his pukka dishes were so vile, you would not serve them to a dog. He has come a long way since those humble beginning, and, perhaps, is not as daft as that, all appearances to the contrary. Somewhere underneath that pallid mug, without any obvious evidence of intelligence, is a cunning mind at work, conjuring up new ways to gain publicity and fill his coffers. He is worth several millions and lives on a sprawling estate somewhere in Suffolk (where he lovingly rears chickens and geese, which he then lovingly massacres; and chunters with men with scraggly beards who look like idiots in search of villages and are as clumsy and inarticulate as he); he has learnt a few more words such as ‘obviously’ and ‘furthermore’ (although you expect him at any time to say ‘fart’ or ‘belly-button’); but he still has no class and his food is as rotten as ever. He launched a campaign a few months ago, making a ‘stinging attack’ on the nation’s ‘booze and pies’ culture, attracting, in the process a lot of publicity and headlines. In your considered opinion, it is about time someone made a stinging attack on this talentless publicity-monger, preferably with a baseball bat. The blabbermouth with his nannying ways has become a self-appointed, self-inflicted campaigner for healthy meals and livestock welfare. He advocates nurturing the chickens, say, with a lot of love and care—‘Oh! Aren’t they cute? Oh! They are so cute!—before killing, roasting and eating them. His method of getting the nation to eat healthily is to describe his fellow compatriots as drunken laggards who do not know the difference between good and bad food, and go on anti-obesity scaremongering, making hysterical, low-level television programmes in which he pours slithery liquid on fat women allegedly to represent all the fat they are consuming. Apart from being in poor taste, it is a bit rich coming from him, seeing as his paunch rivals that of a pregnant woman in mid trimester. It could not be richer if he weighed it down with gallons of double cream he adds to his yucky puddings. However, it is almost as rich as his hypocritical hectoring on behalf of poor farmers who, he bemoans, are being fleeced by the supermarkets, although he has no qualms about trousering 1.2 million pounds a year one them pays him to endorse their products. His campaign for healthy meals in schools may have won him admirers amongst champagne socialists who view the plebs as recondite collection of semiliterate, untrustworthy, dangerous individuals, their brains addled by alcohol, fatty food and fizzy drinks, who need to be kept in check so that the rest of us can live in peace, but his ‘healthy school-dinners, high in nutritional value’ were given a resounding thumbs down by the school children: in some parts of the country the number of children opting for ‘healthy’ school dinners fell as much as 75%. They would rather have Turkey Twizzlers than the tasteless, uneatable muck he dishes out. When will this precious little sod realise that adding any which herb you happen to lay your hands on to the dish you are preparing does not make it tasty? It may well be that the nation needs to eat healthily; what the nation most certainly does not need is a prattling half-wit lecturing them about it and going on silly crusades.

Finally, there is the foul-mouthed one. He thinks he invented the F word. Anything that can be faintly connected to ‘cultivated’, ‘decent’ or ‘nice’ is an anathema to him. You do not know whether to roll on the floor with laughter or cover your eyes in embarrassment as you watch this middle aged man, with a face that has a close resemblance to a dried prune, plucking a turkey (‘I still pluck my own fucking turkey, mate’) and acting as if he is in Baghdad. Looking at him you cannot but wonder for how long, boy and a man, he has tried to be insensitive and ill-bred, to hold his own amongst glowering boys and saturnine men whose real or (more probably) imagined jeers have blighted his childhood. He revels in spats; nothing gets his adrenaline going like a squabble that gives him the opportunity of macho posturing, be they his one time mentor (whose arse he vacuum-cleaned when he needed them) or former protégée who threatened to outshine him. He likes to talk about his troubled past, his unhappy childhood, the broken home he comes from . . . yada yada yada . . . all of which, whether true or not (you do not really care), is recounted with the aim of adding to the cloudy radiance he has carefully cultivated around him over the years. He arrived on the scene around the same time as the blonde cretin, but he pursued a different strategy. Whereas the blonde cretin was all luvy duvy and made middle-aged housewives have thoughts they would not admit to, the walnut-faced interloper fostered a macho man image with a fly-on-the wall documentary—made possible by the half a million largesse he received from a father-in-law whose wealth was as filthy as his, the foul-mouthed-one’s, mouth (his perk for putting up with the anorexic daughter of the multi-mllionaire)— in which he continuously cussed and uttered profanities and bullied his staff. All of this might just have been bearable if his recipes were any good. They were not; they were as foul as his language. Since then he has opened restaurants, made countless cookery shows (in which he has found, incredible as it may seem, participants, many of them professional chefs, willing to bear his insults and offensive language on national television) and published glossy cookery books (all of which are only of use the morning after you have partaken unwise portions of extra hot vindaloo the night before and have run out of toilet paper). He probably thinks he is witty; but his idea of wit is to make lewd jokes about spotted dick and sexist, chauvinistic comments about a fellow chef who, the old boiler she might be, possesses one thing this arrogant faker will never have: class. He is a craggy-faced, overbearing twat who would not recognize subtlety (or humility) if it hit him in the face; who is just a jumped up dinner lady with grossly hyperinflated (as inflated as the silicon-enhanced breasts of his mistress) sense of self-worth (how much skill is required to boil cabbages and put meat in the oven?); who, if he managed to take his head out of his rectum and look around, would realise that shouting in a pretend macho way while stirring lamb casserole is just pathetic, and, more importantly, does not make good television—it is about as enjoyable as your tooth being pulled out without a local anaesthetic by a dentist who has had lots of onions and garlic for lunch.

Your Christmas wish is that all three of the above, who have no discernible talent or beneficial use, do us a favour and stop hogging primetime television.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Book of the Month: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

Queen Elizabeth (the second) of Great Britain, during her long rein that will soon enter its sixtieth year, has become an indelible part of the British society. Figurehead she may be—being reduced to read out prepared speeches when the parliament opens and throw garden parties for visiting dignitaries—the quietly dignified, taciturn old woman is regarded with something approaching deep affection by her ‘subjects'.

How does the queen spend her time? What are her hobbies? If she finds any leisure time from her onerous duties of opening Old People’s Homes and sitting for portraits, what does she do with it? Does she like reading books, for example? Well known for her exotic hats and the love of horses and her corgis, the queen does not have the reputation of being an avid reader. It would be fair to conclude, on the basis of published biographies, that the queen does not have an entrain for books (unless, perhaps, they are horse-related). But what if the septuagenarian queen develops a penchant for books? Alan Bennett, an institution in himself in British literature, in an entertaining and quirky novella—at more than hundred pages it is not quite a short story, but neither is it a long short story as some have oxymoronically chosen to describe it—muses on this delightful what-if. The queen is the uncommon reader (Bennett allowing himself a bit of play on words in the novella’s title).

One day, led by her corgis, the queen discovers, on one side of the palace grounds, the City of Westminster travelling library, and inside it, a not-very-pretty scullion, who is a voracious reader of photography books and homosexual authors. Incredibly, the ginger-haired, acne-ridden adolescent becomes the queen’s literary cicerone, and, beginning with a novel of Ivy Compton-Burnette—‘I made her a dame’ the queen responds apropos de rien when the librarian informs her that her choice of author is not very popular these days—the queen starts her literary odyssey that takes her through works of Henry James, Beckett, Proust, Balzac, Genet, Turgenev, Trollop, and Hardy to name just a few. The queen’s newfangled enthusiasm for reading does not go unnoticed, and, amongst the equerries, is a cause for concern. The concern is tinged with annoyance and envy when Norman, the kitchen-boy, is lifted from his lowly position and promoted as the Royal literary advisor. The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, who is from New Zeeland (and a source of gentle raillery in the novella) and who takes himself and his job a little too seriously, gets concerned when the Queen begins to lag behind, indeed seems uninterested in, her duties—a ride on a supertram, a ukulele concert, a tour round a cheese factory—and the less-than-amused prime-minister’s less-than-amused special advisor contacts him to complain that that Sir Kevin’s employer had begun lending his employer books on history of Persia and expected him to read them. (When Sir Kevin feebly responds that Her Majesty likes reading, the special advisor retorts that he likes getting his dick sucked, but he does not make the prime-minister do it). Sir Kevin manages to get rid of the troublemaker Norman when the queen is on a tour of Canada: he is dispatched to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, to study English; but his absence has no impact on the queen’s new-found love. Indeed, so engrossed is she in her pursuits that she appears to her equerries forgetful and absent-minded, raising the spectre of Alzheimer’s disease. In desperation Sir Kevin turns to Sir Claude Pollington, ‘a safe pair of hands’, who has served loyally generations of Royals (beginning with the queen’s grandfather George V), and who has been working, for the past several decades on his memoirs, tentatively titled Drudgery divine (he has managed to write a couple of paragraphs). The vicenarian Sir Claude, in clutches of senility, agrees to remind the queen of her duties, and ends up giving the queen an advice that only adds to Sir Kevin’s headache: he suggests that the queen should write. As the novella progresses, the twists in the story appear to expand exponentially. Whether the finale of the novella—it can’t be revealed here given its nature—is an anticlimax or a bombshell (as Sue Macgregor on BBC Radio 4 described it) is a matter of opinion; what cannot be denied is that it catches the reader by surprise.

The Uncommon Reader is a devilishly clever novella that can be enjoyed at several levels. For the most part, it proceeds at a gentle pace, wheeled along by Bennett’s gentle, dead-pan, at times self-deprecating, yet tongue-in-cheek humour—Bennett has several gentle digs at the monarchy without ever attempting to mock or humiliate—and deceptively simple prose. At times, though, Bennett, without much warning, shifts gears and the narrative becomes a boisterous slapstick that has the readers in stitches (Sir Kevin’s meeting with Sir Claude and Sir Claude’s meeting with the queen are cases in point). Bennet’s work is always distinguished by mischievous wit, poignancy, and odd characters; and The Uncommon Reader is no exception. However, it is not just a quirky, comic tale; it is also a book about reading books (the novella contains references to many authors (both present and past) and famous literary characters; it is more than just a book about reading books—it is an ode to reading and its everlasting delights. It is a celebration of reading itself, an exploration of how reading can profoundly influence and change one’s outlook and the way one relates to the world—the queen, who, at the beginning reminds Norman, somewhat sententiously, that ‘one has a duty to find out what people are like’, says, later, to sir Kevin: ‘One reads for pleasure; it is not a public duty.’ As the queen transforms—at one point in the novella, the queen, in conversation with the vice-chancellor and the professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, remarks that reading softens a person up, while writing does the reverse—so does the reader.

The Uncommon Reader is a superb novella. Grab it on a rainy day when you are feeling glum. It will bring joy to your existence.