Friday, August 19, 2011


"All human life is there." That's what they used to say about the late and unlamented News of the World, perhaps adding that there was some inveterbrate life forms involved too.

Today, all human life seems to be on Twitter. When I tweet - as we Twitterers say - about broad beans or early spuds, I get a moderate response. When I comment on shrubs, there is a deafening silence which suggests either that shrubs have passsed the Twitterati by or that devotees of this particular social network have just become a bit glib about shrubs.

However, when I mention sweet peas, Twitter comes alive. There are tweets about how they remind people of dear, departed grandmothers, about the need to pinch out the side shoots, about the date of the first bloom, but especially about the scent. Sweet peas, I conclude from this quite unscientific observation, are held dear, clasped to the collective bosom of this particular social network.

Sweet peas are, of course, annuals and annuals are mildly bothersome in that you have to sow the damn things every year. And the means preparing a bed. Perennials are a doddle, by and large.

Sweet peas are, contrary to what a lot of people say, quite difficult to grow. They need a rich soil (two bags of well-rotted manure form the foundation for my short row each year), they need something up which they can climb, and ideally they need a bit of pinching and de-shooting here and there in order to encourage suitably stout flower-bearing stems.

They climb by way of tendrils (which I always think of as tentacles) which fasten on to any object which can aid and a abet them in their life of climb, including themselves. The tendrils of a a sweet pea will, in the absence of anything more suitable, cling to the plant itself. Sweet pea is the one plant which can, literally, tie itself up in knots.

If you let your sweet peas just scramble away, obeying the laws of the jungle, they will produce blossoms which, in turn, will provide you with intoxicating scent. But their very short stems will be crooked, the blooms will be small and because they will be hard to pick, the crop will be small. If you want lots of lovely sweeet peas you need not just rich soil and a climbing frame on which they can gambol upwards, but also lots of patience for guidance and the application of string and wire or whatever else you might use in order to keep the plants from contorting themselves into a promiscuous mass of green knots. And, most important of all, you must pick the flowers every day. By denying the plants the opportunity to set seed you encourage more blossom. It's cruel, perhaps, but it works. You must never let your sweet peas sit back and think that their job is done; you must be a slave driver.

The rewards are great. Sweet pea, for me, is the smell of summer. They were not a regular feature of childhood; I suppose my hard-working and frequently ill mother, who loved sweet peas above every plant except roses, found herself unequal to the task most years. But they did appear, perhaps in bunches from my grandmother's garden.

While the scent is what sweet peas are really about, it's not the alpha and the omega. Not quite. The colours are glorious too, ranging from dark reds that are almost black to delicate lilacs and lavenders.

Open a seed catalogue - Unwins is the best in this respect - and observe those colours, those giant flowers, those ultra-hybridised sweet peas which clearly sell well enough to justify all this colour photography. The thing that beats me is how people obviously buy whole packets of one colour, one variety. Can you imagine their gardens?

I expect that these are bought by sweet pea exhibitors, a somewhat perverse bunch who spend all their spare waking hours between Autumn and, golly, late Summer, torturing sweet peas and bending the plants to their iron wills.

I buy one pack of sweet pea seeds every year: mixed colours, ideally an old fashioned blend for superior scent as the bigger, blowsier, more dramatic and more recent sorts are rather deficient in this essential respect. And if I'm organised, I will sow them under cover in October, producing the first blooms the following May. Or, if I am being my usual chaotic self, they will finally get sown in late May and burst into flower in August as the first hint of autumn hovers in the air.

The sweet pea itself originated in the Mediterannean and found its way to these islands thanks to botanical tourists who liked the scent. The early sort, the original Lathyrus odoratus, was grown in England for the first time by a schoolmaster in Essex in 1701 and was described in Henry Phillips' book of 1824, Flora Historica as "the emblem of delicate pleasures". Phillips goes on to say that it had really caught on over the previous century and was now to be found "in every garden, from the palace of the monarch to the cottage of the peasant, where it equally dispenses its fragrant odours, without regarding the rank of its possessor."

This Bolshevik amongst flowers, according to Phillips has a perfume which "although delightful in the open air, is found rather oppressive than reviving when confined to close apartments, and we therefore caution ladies from admitting it into their chambers."

The Victorians were made of sterner stuff and the vastly improved sweet pea hybrids introduced by Henry Eckford, one of the great head gardeners, took them by storm, with ladies wantonly cavorting with them in their boudoirs by the 1890s. These were the so-called grandifloras, bigger, more highly scented and appearing in a much wider range of colours than the earliest kinds.

Then came a mutation in a single grandiflora sweet pea plant which grew in the gardens of Earl Spencer (yes, that Spencer family) in Northamptonshire. The blossom was bigger and the edges of the petals were a little bit frilly. From that plant descended the so-called Spencer varieties which so enthralled the British public that competitive sweet pea growing became somthing of a national obsession.

The old Eckford varieties are still in the best in my book. That Spencer mutation proved, in the end, that bigger and better came at the expense of fragrance. The latest, sometimes monstrous, varieties of sweet pea are quite light on scent and can be admitted to even the chambers of even the most delicate ladies with impunity. Perfume may not be what sweet peas are all about but it's what attracted the attention of gardeners in the first place. And it's what makes me go through the whole rigmarole of growing the damn things every year. (ends)

Friday, April 15, 2011

You know what I mean?


Sigh. Or, as Slavoj Žižek puts it in his recent book on the dialectical discursivity of self-actualising practices within late-capitalist faux-communitarian formations, 'Sigh'.

When Kevin Myers, himself a kind of pre-Saussurean signifier for the kind of interpellative mauvaise foi so redolent of what Habermas so pointedly thematises in his recent paper on the surreptitious structuration of autologically self-codifying media genres in 1970s West Germany, opens a recent article with the words: “We all know that the remarks in the garda car about rape were unacceptable”, we all know that he cannot possibly mean what he says. For it would surely be taking the intentional fallacy to a ludicrous – and ludic? – extreme to ascribe monological 'meaning' to the 'word' “unacceptable”.

Inscribed in that word is the very masculinist category of 'acceptability' which so patently serves as a kind of significatory Trojan horse for Myers' rightist ideologemes to disseminate beyond the matrix of his soi-disant textual ejaculations. He, in short, says X in order to insinuate, sous rature, not-X. A green sheep, anyone? Kind of like the guy at the football match (or should that - in a kind of subaltern gesturing to the primacy of the yankoid hegemony – read: soccer?) who insists on cheering for his favourite team.

We've all met him. The Bud-swigging, Springsteen-loving dude who cannot quite bring himself to admit that his real allegiance is channelized not to 'this particular team' but to the authoritarian notion of 'teamhood' itself.

It is both symptomatic, telling and revealing that Myers follows up his innoculative disclaimer about the “unacceptable” “remarks” (Myers' rhetorical disinflation of the state-sponsored Garda speech acts duly noted) “about” rape with a methinks-the-gentleman-doth-protest-too-much clincher: “That much is obvious.” For is there not a covert ideological complicity between the notion of obviousness and the concept of rape? Do not both partake of a certain phallogocentric unicity? Did I not recently co-write a book? Did we not set out to reality-test our belief that there is a great deal of social injustice in Europe? Did we not, to our surprise, find this hypothesis confirmed at every turn?

Do you, Kevin, still dare to eat that peach?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The first duty of a chicken wing...

It seems that Nando's is becoming the acceptable face of fast food. Not only did Observer Food Monthly run a lengthy paen of praise some time ago, but now John Lanchester has reviewed the chain for The Guardian last Saturday.

Lanchester is a fine novelist and memoirist but his restaurant columns are...well... rather anodyne. And he likes Nando's chicken burger. Well, we all have our little weaknesses; mine is the mighty Big Mac.

"It is mysteriously popular with musicians," he writes. Mysteriously? If John Taverner and Simon Rattle were regulars, I could see the point. But he's referring to Jay-Z. Nothing mysterious about that at all.

Chicken wings marinated in piri-piri can be delightful (and if you want to try some, there are decent if nuclear ones at Gourmet Burger in Ranelagh). But the first duty of a chicken wing is to be crisp. Its second duty is to be succulent within its crisp coating.

I've been to Nando's twice, first in Dundrum, latterly in Camberwell and I have to report that their wings are consistently unpleasant. The marinade is fine, which is just as well as they spend 24 hours in the stuff. But the grilling process appears to steam the wings. They are flabby, wet, unattractive things and such appeal as they have for the fans must be down to the spiciness.

The big appeal for parents, of course, is the notion that chicken is healthy. That and the "bottomless glass" of fizzy drinks that is Nando's hallmark. Diabetes on tap. On the plus side, I have to say that the service is flawless. Nando's could teach the average restaurant a thing or two about cherishing the customer.

Nando's, in case you're interested, is expanding in Ireland. This is a boom time for fast food. The latest outlet is planned for lucky old Cork.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Not quite a restaurant review

Last Saturday night I repaired to something that used to be one of South London's best kept secrets, a restaurant with no signage and just an intercom through which you negotiate entry. It's called Upstairsand I loathed it. Let me count the ways...

I know that it's probably asking too much for staff to appear actually keen to take coats but I find it a bit unsettling to hang around trying to offload the outer vestments. I also quite understand that restaurants with a "buzz" the thing but I'd honestly prefer to be able to communicate in speech rather than sign language while waiting in the crowded bar. And when you ask when your table will be ready, it's really much, much better if the waiter doesn't reply that he doesn't have a clue.

So far, so average. But this is the story of a restaurant that did some very good things, if the reviews are to be believed, when it first opened. When we ordered a bottle of white wine at the bar - and not the cheapest one on the list but a respectable Viognier - I really didn't expect it to be opened and poured, straight away, into two glasses which were shoved in our general direction. Having encountered two corked bottles in the space of a week, I don't just expect to be asked to taste I also regard it as minimal courtesy to the people who are paying the wage bill.

A few days later, as I was nodding approval of a bottle in Polpo I mentioned to the waitress that as it was under screwcap (or Stelvin as the closure snobs would have it) that it was pretty darned unlikley to be corked. "But it could have lost condition," she remarked. Bloody hell! This is true and I was very glad, for once, to be put firmly in my box by someone who appeared to be not much more than fourteen. Actually, this happens quite a lot to be honest. I don't mind at all.

Later, at our table, a carafe of red was poured with no opportunity to taste. And this time it was dispensed by the manager.

This lack of courtesy (which, to my mind, equates to "these punters don't have a fucking clue so what's the point?") was enough to poison my mind. I was, as a result, perfectly prepared to hate the food but, in the event, it was pretty good.

Okay, the portions were virtually homeopathic and I say this as someone who generally has great difficulty in clearing the average restaurant plate. However, the dishes concocted by Upstairs chef Oisin, a Louth man by birth, demonstrated that there is real skill in the kitchen - but that it is bedevilled by portion control and sheer stinginess.

A combination of Jerusalem artichoke with what I guess was fresh goat's cheese and toasted hazelnuts was subtle and pretty close to sublime were it not for the nuts getting a rather too fiery roasting. And a miniscule piece of de-boned skate with silky parnsip puree and parsnip crisps was pretty well faultless. Even a skimpy dish of butternut squash (yawn) ravioli was delicate (yes, really!) and sweetly delicious.

My London companion was enthusing about the value at this stage. £25 for two courses. Value? Value? Sorry, but this is Brixton. I know there's bugger all competition but it's only a stiff walk to The Canton Arms in Stockwell or Lambeth (depending on how your estate agent is likely to describe it). I'm sorry (no, not really) but twenty-five bloody quid for two miniscule if well cooked courses is not value at all. Especially when the whole general attitude in the place seems to be predicated on the management's ill-founded notion, L'Oreal-like, that they are simply worth it. They aren't.

It was packed, of course, which just goes to show that a restaurant can live for ages on a reputation that may once have been well deserved. Especially in somewhere like Brixton that has enough youngish middle-class, aspirational idiots who want to be able to stagger home after a wildly overpriced meal in a place that they (mistakenly, surely?) still consider to be cool.