Borough Market: the FT Life and Arts Diary 9 June 2017

London, you are glorious. You are also brutal, bogus, ruined and you smell. For the past few days, in the shadow of Saturday’s attacks, I’ve been trying to see Britain’s capital as others might. It’s a mystery. Why are we all here? This grubby city lacks the scowling romance of Paris; the sybaritic pleasures of Barcelona; the adrenal sex-appeal of New York. What’s attracting the down-jacketed tourists? Are they hoping for actual spells in the queue for Platform 9¾? Is Piccadilly Circus really the stuff of their dreams? Are they expecting to bump into a Beatle?

Two decades ago, to provincial Brits like me, coming to the capital seemed a non-negotiable staging-post, like losing one’s virginity. These days, to live, as I once did, 25 minutes’ walk from Soho, one would have to be either the Queen or a homeless person. In the new Central London, one is never more than a metre from a banker. The skyline is clogged; factories have been developed into downlit cubbyholes for nascent plutocrats. Why, if it wasn’t for the culture and the shops, would anyone voluntarily live here? Who would contemplate raising tender young lives in a poky rat-run where the air is fumy and the soil is infused with coal-dust and exhaust? Never mind children: what about plants?

So why stay in London? I’ve never been inside St Paul’s. I don’t (whisper it) like theatre. Department stores depress me and hipsters are silly. One word: ingredients.

I know; it’s ridiculous. In the era of internet shopping, virtually anything is available, for a price. That isn’t the point. Take me to the Hungarian shop on Finchley Road, for sour cherry compote and ground poppy seeds with which, one day, I will replicate the spectacular cakes of Budapest, or Salvino’s off Camden Road for serious mozzarella, artichoke liqueur, Italian cereals and a fresh supply of Pocket Coffee: the caffeine-filled chocolates that fuel my days at the British Library. Make me happy: drive me to the northern suburbs to browse in the Asian pleasure dome of Wing Yip: frozen pigs’ feet and new-harvest rice and bags of mayonnaise; 14 kinds of seaweed snacks; sweet-potato jellies; cuttlefish crisps; wildly unidentifiable soup-herbs; teas containing Solomon’s seal, or walnuts, or Job’s Tears; all the woks of humankind. And, if I flag, I can eat dim sum until I pop.

The meals I envisage are fantasy, of course. My rampaging cookery book addiction often provokes a violent need for, say, dried barberries, even if I rarely use more than a spoonful. The pleasure is in the imagining; saucepan travel. And its zenith is to be found at Borough Market.

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The food market at Borough is more than a thousand years old; the cold-brew coffee stands and kangaroo-burger purveyors slightly younger. Did medieval scribes, for comfort after a bad week’s illuminating, roam hungrily between the trestles of medieval tripe, groats and custards, planning delicious refectory feasts? Millions of us visit annually merely to eat: Welsh salami, flinty oysters and sophisticatedly oozing cheese toasties and the barbecued thighs of happy chickens. Food-obsessives like me gaze in Coleridgean awe at the sublime greengrocery: splayed puntarelle, porcini and muscat grapes, or the magnificent reek of the vast Cheddars at Neal’s Yard Dairy, ripened in clothbound, flagrantly unpasteurised. Passers-by queue for complicated doughnuts. Office workers drink pints after work; for the British, crowding on pub pavements beneath dripping hanging baskets is our passeggiata.

It’s a harmless place of pleasure — or it was. And now that the peace has been shattered, rather than wallowing in fear or bigotry, all right-thinking Londoners will be returning to Borough as soon as possible, for a defiant chorizo roll and a moment of gratitude, for the freedom and tolerance we still enjoy.

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Sometimes, of course, it’s all too much. We are adjusting to new levels of fear, addicted to (yet frightened of) constant bad news. Others cope by running or knitting or, inexcusably, golf; I walk through my kitchen door into a world of extraordinary beauty, fascinating complications and, crucially, foodstuffs. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined “flow” as absorption in the moment, when time seems to stop. He considers it the key to happiness; I’m sure he’s right. I discovered gardening during a miserable time and, whenever stressed or distressed, currently several times a day, I wander out, feet bare, unsuitably dressed, immediately at peace. The pleasure it gives me takes many forms. As a (usually) novelist, most often sitting in a state of caffeinated self-doubt in front of a screen, the thrill of feeling a breeze in my face or rain on my back, of snuffling up great lungfuls of musty tomato leaf or rose geranium or petrichor, of witnessing orgiastic earthworms by torchlight or happening upon a lost dragonfly is limitless, and essential, despite the fact that my garden is, by country standards, barely extant; roughly eight by five metres, mostly paved. But my chief delight is gastronomic. While others grow tulips, I cultivate bitter salad leaves, wild strawberries and, annually, an apple; I write this eating an insane but, for me, perfectly normal, lunchtime omelette featuring: sorrel, dandelion, spinach, chicory, marigold and sage flowers, mint, lemon thyme, tarragon, golden oregano, parsley, Greek and Italian basil, bulls-blood beetroot and nasturtium leaves, mizuna, red Russian and Cavolo Nero kale, three experimental baby vine leaves and a single pea shoot.

Naturally, I’ve tried growing more hardcore ingredients, including barberries: disaster. This is London, after all, not Iran. It’s so much more fun to buy them. After all, isn’t that what London is for?

The writer is a novelist and author of ‘Rhapsody in Green: A Modern Garden Notebook’

 

From the New Yorker

Second Read

A Gardening Book for Those Who Hate Gardening Books

By Charlotte Mendelson

  May 31, 2017

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Dear famous gardening writers: please shut up.

Of course you mean well. We, your tentative, inexperienced readers, shy of hosepipe and clumsy of secateur, appreciate your attempts to make our lives more beautiful. We share your fantasies of roses, zinnia, clematis; of bowers laden with grapes and pomegranates, or cool spaces for entertaining, with creative seating solutions and solar lighting. But some of us live in cities. We are merely gardeners-in-waiting, with only a tiny growing space, or nothing at all; other people’s gardens, not to mention gardening books, intimidate us. We barely have room for a strawberry plant, let alone sweeping grassy vistas. And while we may nurse secret dreams of self-sufficiency, orchards, pigs, blackcurrant gluts, and “Little House on the Prairie”style pickles, some of us buy our apples. I know. It’s a shock.

When we are messing about in the soil, each of us experiences the same disappointments and pleasures, the same balm to the soul. So why isn’t garden writing universal? Reading is life to me, so shouldn’t I spend every non-gardening moment delighting in the classic garden writers?

In fact, I never read them. It’s not them; it’s me. Try Gertrude Jekyll, the queen of geometric Edwardian garden design, or Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s aristocratic seducer (described by the playwright Noël Coward as “Lady Chatterley above the waist and the gamekeeper below”): the moment they refer to blocks of pink roses, to the Lower Barn or lily ponds or, curse them, manure heaps, my empathy dies. It isn’t only the posh Englishness, the ancestral fountains, the “help.” It’s that I want to see, in actual print, somebody confess that, when, at last, she finds a square centimetre of soil, it is invariably on top of a nameless allium planted last November, much too shallowly, with insufficient grit, rather close to a horrible mauve geranium bought out of pity.

Christopher Lloyd, the great modern British garden writer, published a book in 1972 called “Shrubs and Trees for Small Gardens,” for plots “of no more than an acre”; I own approximately 0.0015 of an acre. I do try not to be bitter. But how can I engage without a bench, pond, greenhouse, log pile, sundial, decking, terracing, pleaching, topiary, water butt, gate, nuttery, parterre, arbor, beehive, stream, rockery, gravel, or hammock? I own no potting shed or wheelbarrow or, sadly, any chickens; I have nothing to topiarize. Besides, my heart is in Asian vegetables, edible perennials, fiddlehead ferns, and callaloo, not flowering shrubs or stringy English beans. The old guard leaves me cold: irritated, not inspired.

Fortunately, there are a few glorious alternatives: books by writers who happen to garden. If you are a reader who gardens, or wants to, then they wrote for you. Katharine S. White, the New Yorker fiction editor whose gardening columns are collected in “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” recently reissued by NYRB Classics, understood the deep pleasure provided by nursery catalogues and seed lists. When you’ve run out of those to read in the bath, her intelligent observations are marvellously soothing. For sheer opinionated pleasure, you cannot beat “Green Thoughts,” by the American Eleanor Perényi, whose two gardens were on a Hungarian ancestral estate and, after her divorce, in Connecticut. Perényi’s honesty, intolerance, and appreciation of all that makes gardening a joy—night, vegetables, dung, experimentation—make me forgive her everything. Even acres.

Most urgent of all, run out, right now, and find “The Gardener’s Year,” by the Czech playwright and polymath Karel Čapek, who invented the word “robot” and, after becoming the Gestapo’s Public Enemy No. 2, died, in 1938, of double pneumonia and a broken heart. Čapek’s own gardening had taught him a secret: peonies may bloom, the sun may shine, but those of us who garden barely notice. While others are sniffing the roses, we have our bottoms in the air and noses to the ground, occupied with the part of our gardens that we truly love: dirt. As he put it, if a gardener entered the Garden of Eden, “he would sniff excitedly and say: ‘Good Lord, what humus!’ “

“The Gardener’s Year” is warm, charming, adorably illustrated by the author’s own brother, and, almost unique to its genre, funny. Čapek is particularly brilliant on the travails of town gardeners: the lack of space; the impossibility of laying one’s hands on the ingredients for really good compost, the ash, dung, lime, charcoal, silt, guano, and moss without which our soil, allegedly, will be thin and poor. Ordinary garden soil, on the other hand,

Generally consists of particular ingredients which are: clay, manure, rotten leaves, peat, stones, shards from pint bottles, broken bowls, nails, wires, bones, Hussite arrows, foil from chocolate wrappers, bricks, old coins, old smoking pipes, sheet glass, mirrors, old labels, tin pots, bits of string, buttons, shoe soles, dog dirt, coal, pot handles, wash-hand basins, dishcloths, bottles, railway sleepers, milk cans, buckles, horseshoes, tin cans, insulating material, bits of newspaper and countless other constituents which the astonished gardener wrests from his flowerbeds every time that he hoes. Perhaps one day he will unearth an American stove under his tulips, Attila’s grave or the Sibylline Books; in a cultivated soil everything can be found.

Forget the lily ponds; Čapek is the Thurber of compost. Wit and cow dung: What more could you possibly want?

Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.

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