Nigel Slater changed my life. Or rather, his recipe for chicken wings with lemon and cracked black pepper did. I was once a shamefully unashamed fussy eater, who barely cooked or thought with any imagination about food, and I rarely even glanced at Slater’s cookery column in the Observer Magazine. But something about those glossy, sticky wings caught my eye – and my appetite – back in 2003. I followed the recipe myself and miraculously pulled out an identikit glossy sticky feast from the oven, the warmth and aroma showing me that extra magic that no Sunday supplement ever could. And I was converted: to cooking, to eating, and notably to Nigel. I followed his column avidly. I bought Real Fast Food and started to build a repertoire: penne with walnuts and gorgonzola, chicken breast with pesto and mozzarella, scallops with lime and coriander. Every recipe delivered what it promised and what I craved. It was easy; it was fun; it was delicious. And Nigel’s words guided me generously throughout. Despite my complete lack of expertise, he never talked down to me. He taught me to notice the changing sights and smells in my pan, and helped me to understand the consequences of however I was choosing to slice and chop ingredients. He coaxed me into making my own choices with his subtle suggestions: substitute the walnuts with pine nuts; try rosemary instead of thyme; if you’re daring, melt the cheese in the pan rather than under the grill. Never any pressure, just encouragement to follow my own senses.
I like Jon Ronson. I never realised quite how fascinating a person he is until his recent appearance on the Richard Herring Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP!)
After that interview I started following Ronson on Twitter, and yesterday he appeared on my timeline with a series of tweets that move from curiosity to despair in under a thousand characters:
I don’t twig what “swimming” might infer initially, and I suspect that Ronson doesn’t either. I’m thinking more along the lines of the “ooh look at that interesting eccentric” that pops into your head when you see an old man going for a January dip in the pool on Hampstead Heath. But events become very dark very quickly. And the narrative is very brief, even with the throwaway detail of the conversation about Steinbeck, and the now inappropriate interruption of a message delivered to a different audience in a different tone and for a different purpose.
Ronson’s decision not to stand and gawp is admirable. We all tut at the rubbernecked voyeurs who slow down to pass the unspoken tragedy of a mangled car on the hard shoulder, but our tutting tends to be at its loudest when we’re being held back in a queue, and strangely absent when we take our own turn to pass by and stare with gory thrill and that sense of there but for the grace of a god that I don’t believe in…
Ronson takes the righteous path by walking away: there’s nothing he can do to help; there’s nothing anyone gains from his presence as a spectator. And he leaves the story hanging. Now laden with dark symbolism, it’s all over too quickly, and I feel guilty for wanting to follow the story to its conclusion. The writer walks away but I’m still peering back to work out what’s going. My curiosity is not sated. ”
“I’ve gone” bears incredible weight. When do we ever say “I’ve gone”? “Gone” reflects the absence on a person or thing from the location and perspective of the speaker “She’s gone” means she’s no longer here. But it’s unfeasible to state “I’m not longer here”. With “I’ve gone” Ronson is both absent from and present at the scene. I read and I am there too, but not there at all.
When Ronson appears on my timeline again today I catch the final tweet in a sequence that contextualises and completes the story. It’s heartbreaking and it’s eerie. And my timeline presents it to me in reverse, like an episode of Columbo: the brutal facts first; the background and explanation following piece by piece. And this is not the author’s intention. The medium is dictating the way I digest the message. And again I feel guilty. For all the heartbreak, I feel another thrill of the new. I have never read a text in this way before. And how often do we ever experience that?
Ultimately, though, the message here renders the medium insignificant. Ronson links to a newspaper article, again poignantly brief, telling the story in three paragraphs that quickly dissolve into isolated sentences. The poor girl beside them, looking away. Not returning our gaze.
“English & proud. If you are too, read this leaflet!” ENGLISH & PROUD is the largest text on a glossy fold of A4 currently being posted through letterboxes across the country. It’s a message from a right wing “political” party, compelling the public to show their pride on the 22nd of May by voting for the English Democrats, whoever the fuck they are. Sitting neatly alongside this urge for proud English behavior at the ballotbox is an emblem far more readily associated with the England football team than the European elections: the three lions. It’s no surprise, perhaps, as we head towards a World Cup, that English nationalists should try to cash in on the imagery of the national football team. But wherever did we get the notion that there’s any sense in being PROUD of your nationality? Your nationality relates to the circumstances in which you are born and raised; it’s about where you’re from and not what you’ve achieved. Back in August we didn’t expect Manuel Pellegrini to feel proud that he had the Premier League’s best squad and the most money available for adding to it; fair enough, perhaps, if he wants to feel proud that by the season his squad had accrued the most points.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a fellow 12-year-old after at a school in the South East, not long after my family had relocated from the midlands. I was shocking at how many kids at my new school claimed to be supporters of successful clubs to which they had no genuine attachment or association. One boy in particular, who “supported” Everton wound me up more than most. “Have you ever even been to Everton?” I asked him, to which he made some kind of Joey Deacon face / noise and said “Everton isn’t a place. Everton’s in Liverpool”. If only we’d had Google Maps back then. And this was the sort of kid who would refer to Everton as “we”, with PRIDE. How cheap is pride if it can be derived from backing the obvious winner? Likewise, to be proud of a past that neither you nor anyone you no made a contribution to is bullshit. Much better to be proud of who you are now and what you represent now. And if you’re not, do whatever you can to make the present something to be proud of.