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Gloriously funny with touches of unsentimental yet touching sorrow
on 16 November 2010
It is one thing to write cookery books and a cookery column in The Observer and another to lay bare your childhood and upbringing for everyone to see. Most people would gloss over the parts of their life they don't want to confront, especially if the episodes do not show them in a very good light. It is also hard to relate that life without the effect of hindsight and the adult view of the events related.
Nigel Slater gives us his child's, and then his teenage view of his life, exactly as it must have been then, without the adult interpretation. This gives it an immediacy which is very poignant and moving. Children are self-centred and to some extent, selfish, and it is a very believable take on a child's-eye view of the world. He is unsentimental and his humour is sometimes cruel but throughout, his anger and loneliness palpable and penetrating. While we may look at his world, we are not asked to pity him.
Each nostalgic episode is given an item of food from the sixties and the story of his life is recounted as separate incidents, not in sequence.
We learn about his family, the odd uncle and aunt, his brother and adopted brother, his father's job, his mother's illness - all snippets related as they affect the infant Slater with vivid reality in a few lines of spare prose.
"It was a pity we had Aunt Fanny living with us. Her incontinence could take the edge off the smell of a chicken curry, let alone a baking cake. No matter how many orange-and-clove pomanders my mother had made, there was always the faintest whiff of Aunt Fanny."
We can see the lack of love in his life after his mother dies and can probably see that he is, indeed, a difficult child and he doesn't seek to present himself to us as anything else. His need for love is shown by his hidden desire for a goodnight hug in bed from his father, who is only to be able to manage chocolate marshmallows in substitution.
He certainly equates food with happiness - his description of Sundays making crab sandwiches after the jolly father/son experience of shelling the crab was a classic. And then, the simple phrase 'After Mum died, we never had crab again...'
Yet he was, in part, frightened of his father. "You wouldn't think a man who smoked sweet, scented tobacco, grew pink begonias and made softly-softly trifle could be scary....Once when I had been caught not brushing my teeth... his glare was so full of fire, his face so red and bloated, his hand raised so high that I pissed in my pyjamas, right there on the landing...For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him."
As a child he was very difficult with eating, but yet he was discerning and appears to appreciate good food when it came his way, with a sophistication of taste and texture remarkable for a small boy. He was fascinated by Marguerite Patten's cookery book and used to read it by turns with Portnoy's Complaint behind the bookcase.
I found his complete recall of the `new' fast foods being presented in the 60's, fascinating. The fiasco with the grilled grapefruit, "I just thought how cool I was to have eaten grilled grapefruit. I boasted about it to everyone at school the next day in much the same way as someone might boast about getting their first shag."
Throughout the book runs the understated love for his mother and uneasy feelings about his father's new relationship with the cleaning lady, Mrs Potter.
"She was sitting there in one of the garden chairs, tight lips, tight perm, twenty Embassy and a cigarette lighter in her lap. 'Say hello to your Auntie Joan', my father said, enunciating her new name, quietly and firmly."
The culinary theme would not be enough to hold the interest and as an autobiography it must stand in its own right. There are no important people in Nigel Slater's story, no references of great significance and his portrait of middle class life is not affectionate. But he evokes time, people and place with such clarity and spare prose, with every episode linked to a precise memory, written in a vivid and energetic style. The people are just 'nobodies', and indeed, nobody would probably every want to write about them. Yet he makes them live their very ordinary lives under our microscope. That is why I think this autobiography is a fascinating read.