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Monday, 18 March 2013

Capital by John Lanchester

Capital cities draw people to them (generally speaking - Athens is not quite fitting the bill on this one at the moment) for many reasons, the most important one being that a person can shed the shackles of their past and break the cast of the mould that they fit into before they arrived in the capital. The multiracial and multinational nature of capital cities allows people to express themselves the way they want, and to be who they want to be, without the burden of their past. It is interesting to observe this wide mixture of peoples as they necessarily interact wiht one another. But one thing is sure and that is that these miltiracial and multinaitonal people are not necessarily multicultural - we still like to stay close to our kind.

Capital by John Lanchester deals with a very descriptive account that scratches the surface and delves into the mind of the very separate lives of a variety of different people living or working in the same street of an inner-city London suburb that has seen many changes over the decades, reflecting the pot pourri mixture of the residents and their reason for being in the area: a family of Pakistani immigrant corner shop owners, a high class white British banker's family, a Polish immigrant construction worker, three generations of a white British family, a young rising soccer star from Senegal and his father, a Hungarian nanny, and a Zimbabwe refugee who has not yet been grated legal status in the UK. These people's lives criss-cross with one another, but there is never more than a casual acquaintanceship networking them, despite being in close daily proximity with each other.

The plot of Capital focusses on a mysterious person who raises a certain level of panic on Pepys St by targeting the street and showing photographs of the houses on a blog. Lanchester uses various aspects of these diverse people's daily life to show how different each race/class group is to each other, including food, bringing to the open certain feelings that the people in the story would not normally be so frank about in public. They are things we think about, but do not talk about, out of fear of exposing ourselves to political incorrectness. Britain may be multiracial, but Britain is not really multicultural.

The Pakistani owner of the corner shop is amazed at the plethora of his wares:
Ahmed loved his shop, loved the profusion of it, the sheer amount of stuff in the narrow space and the sense of security it gave him – The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph and The Sun and The Times, and Top Gear and The Economist and Women’s Home Journal and Heat and Hello! and The Beano and Cosmopolitan, the crazy proliferation of print, the dozens of types of industrially manufactured sweets and chocolates, the baked beans and white bread and Marmite and Pot Noodles and all the other inedible things that English people ate...
We learn that he is overweight and lacks exercise, so he's probably eating this junk too; the temptation not to try everything you sell, even though you know it is junk, is too great. But we know that he is also eating his wife's home-made Pakistani dishes:
Rohinka brought another casserole over from the stove and put it on the table. There was barely space for it: the table already carried two oven-hot dishes, one of chicken in cumin and the other of stewed aubergines, both of them resting on heatproof mats; a platter of naan wrapped in a kitchen cloth to keep them warm; and a bowl of dal, one of Rohinka’s specialities, something she cooked almost every day and never twice to exactly the same recipe. She lifted the lid of the new dish and a beautifully complex smell of lamb and spices, her recipe for achari gosht, floated above the table in a cloud of fragrant steam. The men made varying murmurs and groans of appreciation. The achari gosht was intended to change the topic of conversation, but it didn’t work.
The globally connected world allows immigrants to keep their food traditions, a comfort they can rely on when enter a new world that hides many suprprises for them:
If Zbigniew had to sum up London in a single image, there would be a number of candidates: a group of young Poles sitting in a flat watching television in their socks; two dustbins outside a house, with a plank of wood balanced between them, to reserve a parking space for a builder’s van; the Common on a sunny weekend day, with exposed white skin stretching to the horizon. But the winner would be the high street on a busy evening, full of young people bent on getting drunk – the frenzy of it, the particular pitch of the noise, the sex and anger and hysteria. Zbigniew had once had a sense of the British as a moderate, restrained nation. It was funny to think of that now. It wasn’t true at all. They drank like mad people. They drank to make themselves happy, and because alcohol was an end in itself. It was a good thing and people want good things, want more and more of them. So, because alcohol was good, the British wanted more and more of it. With drink, they were like Buzz Lightyear: to infinity and beyond!
Zbigniew lives a very frugal life in London, proving that it is possible to do this; his dream is to go back to Poland a rich man, so he can help his parents. He takes turns to cook with his Polish flatmate:
'Your turn to cook tonight,’ Piotr said in Polish. ‘I got some kielbasa from the shop, they’re in the fridge. Don’t eat them all before I get back, OK?’
Zbigniew notices how wealthy the British are; he surmises that this is simply because they are being paid too much money, a prophetic observation given the present state of the British economy:
A boy who grew up in a tower block on the outskirts of Warsaw could not fail to notice marble worktops, teak furniture, carpets and clothes and adult toys and the routine daily extravagances that were everywhere in this city. You also couldn’t fail to notice the expense, the grotesque costliness of more or less everything, from accommodation to transport to food to clothes; and as for going out to have some fun, that was almost impossible. The feeling of this cash leaking away just in ordinary life depressed Zbigniew. But in another sense it was the reason he was here: everything was so expensive because the British had lots of money. He was there to earn it from them. There was in Zbigniew’s opinion something fundamentally wrong with a culture that had all this work and all this money going spare, just waiting for someone to come in and pick it up, almost as if the money were just left lying around in the street – but that was not his concern. If the British wanted to give work and money away that was fine with him... it was a big thing in this country not to seem racist. In his opinion people made too much fuss about it. People did not like people who were not like them, that was a plain fact of life. You had to get on with things anyway. Who cares if people don’t like each other because of the colour of their skin?
When Smitty the anonymous street artist visited his grandmother at her home in Pepys Rd before she was dying of cancer, he drank a lot of tea with her, in the same predictable way that people around the world associate Britain with tea:
‘I’ve put the kettle on,’ said his nan. They went through to the kitchen, Smitty’s favourite room in the house and possibly in the whole world, because it was exactly like time travel to 1958. Linoleum – Smitty loved lino. A Coronation biscuit tin. A proper kettle, one you put on the stove, none of that electric rubbish. The world’s most knackered fridge. No dishwasher. His granddad had been too tight to buy one, and then after he’d died and his nan was living on her own there wasn’t enough washing-up to justify the expense... ‘It’s a different world,’ said his nan. She was fussing about with the teapot and cups. His nan was a bit of a tea snob and liked the whole ritual, warming the pot, doing it with leaves and not tea bags, proper cups.
But Smitty doesn't drink tea except at his nan's; he's a modern young man. Holding a styrofoam cup covered with a plastic lid and a straw sticking out of it is just as common here in Crete as it is in London - these days, everyone seems to be doing it (except for me):
... he did prefer his cappuccino piping hot... He wasn’t impressed by the performance of his new assistant, who had gone out twenty minutes ago, and who only needed about a quarter of that amount of time to get out and back, and who would therefore be returning with a cup of frothy coffee which was odds-on to be cold.
The stereotype of the white British - colour is an important distinction, as Zbigniew previously noted - is that they love cooking shows, love doing up their kitchens and buy ready food. Roger the City banker (he eats microwaved porridge for breakfast) and Arabella his spendthrift wife seem to fit this description:
He didn’t cook, except show-off barbecues on the occasional summer weekend at his silly boy-toy gas grill, and he didn’t wash clothes or iron them or sweep the floor or, hardly at all, play with the children. Arabella did not do those things either, not much, but that did not mean she went through life acting as if they did not exist, and it was this obliviousness which drove her so nuts. 
But when his wife sneaks away with a girlfriend leaving his to look after the children, I am amazed that Roger seemed to be somewhat of an egg-cooking expert:
Lunch was interesting. It was demanding to prepare – Conrad couldn’t remember which kind of eggs he liked, so Roger had to fry an egg and throw it away and boil an egg and throw it away and poach an egg and throw it away, before it was found by trial and error that scrambled eggs were the ones Conrad would eat. The confusion came about because he had said he liked the one which was eggy. Even allowing for that, Conrad was much less tricky than Joshua. He angrily refused everything Roger suggested before eventually deigning to eat a single narrow slice of crustless white bread with a thin smear of smooth peanut butter, and that was at the fourth attempt: the first slice was too thick, the second was defiled by the use of crunchy peanut butter, and the third by the use of too much peanut butter. Scraping the spread off and re-serving the slice with a thinner smear was by no means acceptable... For dinner they had the identical menu. This was two-thirds laziness, or exhaustion, on Roger’s part, and one-third practicality, since there wasn’t much else to cook... So for Christmas dinner he ate the boys’ leftover eggs and peanut butter, followed by a cheese sandwich, followed by two packets of crisps, and washed down with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1990, which was supposed to be the pre-Christmas-lunch aperitif. 

And for an outing, Roger took the children to Starbucks. The take-out coffee cup is a very important status symbol in the developed world - this expensive habit starts from a young age:
They went to Starbucks to get a triple-shot espresso (Roger), a cream-based java chip Frappuccino (Conrad) and a steamed-milk babycino (Joshua). 
I had to look these drinks up - yes, they all exist. The babycino is a very expensive way to prepare your young child's milk. But there are times when you do need to get out of the house, and Roger's time had come then when he was feeling the effects of cabin fever being stuck at home over Christmas with his young sons. And there are some people (like Mill the young detective assigned to the case of the Pepys St blogger) who had lunch on the go, and needed to spend time and money eating at cafes while on the job:
Mill went into a sandwich bar on the high street, realised that it was more expensive and pretentious than he was in the mood for, but couldn’t be bothered to abandon his place in the queue and go and find another one. He ended up with gouda and prosciutto and rocket on ciabatta, and a two-quid bottle of sparkling mineral water, which would make him burp during his afternoon’s legwork, but the bubbles at least gave the illusion that you were drinking something more interesting. Sitting at a window seat with his five-quid sandwich, leaning carefully forward as he ate so as not to get food on his suit, Mill got out his notebook and checked the names and addresses... Actually it was a good sandwich. Mill didn’t mind paying for things as long as he felt he was getting what he paid for
Mill was probably a sensible kind of bloke, and would appreciate a home-cooked meal rather than eat out all the time. His wife probably did cook every now and then, as did Smitty's mother:
She could see her cookbooks on the shelf, Nigella and Nigel and Delia and Jamie, the unopened books standing there as if reproachfully, their arms folded. At Sainsbury’s in Maldon she would stand in front of the frozen food cabinet, unable to discriminate between the Bird’s Eye fish fingers, twenty-four for £4.98, and the Sainsbury’s own-brand fish fingers, same-size box, in all probability made by the same people, for £4.49. But what if they weren’t the same? But what if they were?... She made Jamie’s guinea fowl with fresh oranges. It was revolting – the recipe didn’t work, it was one of Jamie’s duff ones – in fact it was an obviously stupid idea, chicken with oranges? – but she felt so much better because she had found the energy to make it.
Lanchaster's description of what Roger's and Arabella's children ate (according to Matya the Hungarian nanny's observations) would make one think that middle class British children have developed a gourmet taste for food:
As for food, that took a while for Matya to work out, and it was by no means a stable arrangement – he seemed to like baked potatoes, rice and chips, but not steamed potatoes; he sometimes did and sometimes did not like mash, he loved broccoli but hated cabbage, he liked cheese on some days but not on others, but always liked parmesan so long as it was grated, he liked meat but not burnt bits, dark bits, bits which had the appearance of potentially containing gristle even if they contained no gristle, bits which looked bloody or underdone; he disliked green flecks such as herbs, under all circumstances; he disliked the sight of dark spots which might be pepper; he disliked fizzy drinks but liked sweet ones; he liked fish fingers; he would not eat any kind of sausage except a hot dog; he liked pasta and pesto but not pasta with any other kind of sauce; it was impossible for anyone including Joshua to tell in advance of the food being put before him whether this would be one of the days on which he loved or hated bacon. A useful rule of thumb was that Joshua liked anything to which he could add tomato ketchup or soy sauce.

Personally speaking, this sums up a lack of culinary culture - anything goes, for any random reason. It seems a shame that Roger didn't take them to a greasy spoon instead of Starbucks, where they would have got a chance to enjoy something of their own. Tradition, it seems, is left to the tourists rather than the locals:
To celebrate last night’s successful dumping – though now that it had happened Zbigniew in his mind was more gentle and named it ‘the break-up’ – he took himself to the café round the corner for lunch. It was what the British called a ‘greasy spoon’ but in fact the food was not greasy at all, since it served salads and pastas as well as the large plates of fried food that British labourers ate. Zbigniew had acquired this taste and ordered a full English number 2, consisting of bacon, a herbed sausage which was not as good as Polish sausage but was still not bad, blood sausage, chips, fried bread, fried egg, mushrooms, tomatoes, and baked beans, a British speciality which Zbigniew had initially disliked but through repetition – they were often included as a standard ingredient – had come to like. As with many foods the British liked their secret was that they were much sweeter than they pretended to be. There was also a large mug of not very good coffee. This meal cost £6 but on a special occasion was worth it
*** *** ***

Lanchester's London stories, as many of his other works also deal with the UK capital, are full of insights into the thinking patterns of the different people that make up the city:
London was so rich, and also so green, and somehow so detailed: full of stuff that had been made, and bought, and placed, and groomed, and shaped, and washed clean, and put on display as if the whole city was for sale. It seemed too as if many of the people were on display, behaving as if they were expecting to be looked at, as if they were on show: so many of them seemed to be wearing costumes, not just policemen and firemen and waiters and shop assistants, but people in their going-to-work costumes, their I’m-a-mother-pushing-a-pram costumes, babies and children in outfits that were like costumes; workers digging holes in their costume-bright orange vests; joggers in jogging costume; even the drinkers in the streets and parks, even the beggars, seemed to be wearing costumes, uniforms. 
He tells us a lot of things we already 'know' about the different cultures that make up Britain, reinforcing the British stereotype. But despite its drab climate and high crime, Lodnon continues to be a magnet for people wishing to to get away from their own selves, in their attempt to create a new identity, of who they think they really want to be. If the socal make-up of London fascinates you, you will probably enjoy this book, and you won't mind when it drags on a little (it's a rather elongated story.) And if you buy it on Kindle, it's only 20p, which sums up the value of these ephemeral stories.

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