Lemonster: a sculpture of a giant lemon made out of lemons at the 2013 Fête du Citron in Menton, France. Photo: Getty
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It was the slice of lemon in my whisky that started it all

On the scale of outrages this ranks fairly low but I am driven to complain by a desire for simplicity and purity.

I am in a pub in the middle of town, taking my first sip of a whisky and soda, and it is all about to go horribly wrong.

It’s one of those pubs that you now find all over central London near the major tourist attractions: gussied up and overlit, faintly reminiscent of how it used to be but overlaid with a kind of corporate blandness so that no one going in there, from any nation on earth, need feel overwhelmed or in a place that is not like millions of similar places around the world. They serve fat chips with little tubs of mayonnaise and tomato sauce; the staff are young and foreign and wear tight black shirts.

This one is popular with people spilling out – after either work or pleasure – of the Royal Opera House, which is close by. You can tell that once upon a time (but not for about 60 years), it was a very nice place indeed.

The night is getting on. I want to go home but the person I’m with wants to do some catching-up with others and quite understandably so. When she gets up to get a round in and asks me what I want, I say, “Just a small whisky and soda, please,” as I was full from the beer I’d had while waiting alone, with a book, at the originally agreed venue, the Lamb and Flag. I take a sip of the whisky and notice that there is something wrong with it and I see a slice of lemon bobbing about.

The point of whisky and soda is that it is one of the safe, easy and universal drinks. There’s a gag in one of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that goes that every civilisation in the cosmos has a drink with a name sounding exactly like either “gin and tonic” or “whisky and soda”; it’s the kind of drink, moreover, whose instructions of manufacture are entirely included within the name. And yet, here it is, with a lemon where it has no place to be.

On the scale of outrages that can be perpetrated against the self, this ranks extremely low, I have to admit. So what perhaps moves me to go to the bar and ask for a replacement is not just the unwelcome taste of the thing but a desire for simplicity and purity to be protected. I wait for one of the little blackshirts behind the bar to notice me. I have distinguished myself from someone just standing at the bar with a drink, which isn’t going to get me served any faster, by taking the lemon out and holding it between pinched finger and thumb, like a small, wet, severed ear.

“I’m afraid someone has put a lemon in my whisky and soda,” I say.

“Who served you, sir?”

“No one served me,” I say. “Someone else got it for me.”

I am beginning to get a bad feeling about this. That “sir” was one of those “sirs” that serves just as well as an insult.

There is a bit of faffing about behind the bar as the drink is taken away from me and my small Gauleiter returns to ask me again who served me. I repeat my answer and there is some more faffing about and when he comes back to ask me the question a third time, something in me snaps, for I am tired, I’ve already had more to drink than even I strictly want, the past three months have been shit, this whole business of making a fuss about a lemon is getting me down and, to tell you the truth, I am beginning to get very tired, in a big-picture kind of way, of life’s boring party trick of giving you a bit of happiness and then taking it away again and there is something ugly within me that needs to be let out, so I say, “I’ve told you, no one served me. I just want to know what a slice of fucking lemon is doing in my drink.” I waggle the lemon in an offended manner. At which point he plonks down a couple of two-quid coins and tells me to leave his pub.

“His?” I ask myself, irrelevantly, as I go back to the table and say that, for the first time since I can remember, although it must have happened before in 35 years of pub-going, I have been thrown out of a pub and the faces of the company are suddenly doused in embarrassment and I realise very quickly that no one is going to be on my side for this one and I wonder if my mini-Mussolini realises that, because of a simple slice of lemon, events are going to be set in motion that will possibly have momentous effects on at least two unsuspecting lives.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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I can’t be the only one who has noticed that every dish in the Western world’s a cheese sandwich

Raclette, cheesy crackers, baguettes – even ice-cream is just cheese in waiting.

Scientists examining a chicken nugget have discovered DNA from over a hundred individuals mixed into a fowl mush. It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, I always used to say to my kids when they ordered nuggets, “You realise that’s made of crushed-up chicken eyelids and testicles,” but I still imagined these were the parts of at most two or three bodies. And while no one with eyes (lidded or otherwise) could fail to see how disgusting the battery farming industry is, this new intelligence gives it a truly diabolic cast: what we’re participating in here is a sort of chicken holocaust.

I mean, I like Sadiq Khan well enough – I even voted for him to become London mayor; and I applaud his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first day in office. But c’mon, now, Sadiq, that holocaust took place some time ago, while you can walk past any takeaway, anywhere in Britain, and see a teenager put a hundred chickens in his mouth at once! How much better it is when they stick to their staple food – one that has sustained generations of European and American children, and that, one hopes, will do so for many more years to come. I refer, of course, to the cheese sandwich.

A few weeks ago I was having supper at a pizza joint with my friend Cressida, when she remarked, apropos of my ordering a Caesar salad: “Well, it makes a change from eating a cheese sandwich, which is basically what our kids have at every meal, and we ourselves do for a high proportion of them.” Then she began to itemise some of the meals that are “basically a cheese sandwich”. Lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese, a tricolore salad with a piece of nice, crusty bread? All of these, basically, are cheese sandwiches reconfigured – as is almost all Italian cuisine, the pizza being only the most egrcheesgious example.

“But what about a lovely serving of cassata, or an ice-cream treat?” I hear you moan. To which my only reply is: add a wafer, and in all but name you have a cheese sandwich right there on the plate in front of you. After all, what’s ice cream? Only cheese-in-waiting. Cheesy crackers, cheese footballs, the Swiss raclette – the French onion soup served with a chunk of baguette – the humble ploughman’s lunch, or the businessman’s haughty oysters mornay; all, let’s face it, are basically cheese sandwiches. I’m not arguing that this food monoculture is a bad thing – on the contrary, with whole flocks of chickens being immured in nugget-hecatombs, it’s comforting to realise there are still some things in the world that are fairly undifferentiated. True, a cheese sandwich can be a baroque creation, with choice ingredients piled high on a seeded bun: a meat pattie, lettuce, tomato, a wedge of cheese and a dill pick— Oh! silly me, that’s a cheeseburger.

But alternatively a cheese sandwich can be beautifully simple. Consider the lonely Anatolian shepherd, a figure out of antiquity with his woollen cloak and untreated hypotension. See him withdraw a hard disc of unleavened bread from the folds of his cloak; see him withdraw a lump of hard cheese from some other folds of his cloak. See him combine them – and reflect that what you are witnessing is a way of making of a cheese sandwich which has remained unchanged for millennia, perhaps since the very first Anatolian grabbed a lactating ewe and rubbed its udder against some emmer wheat, so commencing the whole strange business we call civilisation.

About ten thousand years later, this phenomenon has bodied forth into the world we see about us: a society in which fortunes can be won or lost on the turn of a cheese toastie. One multimillionaire who owes his fortune in large part to an ability to dream up felicitous combinations of basic wheat and dairy products is Jamie Oliver. On his website, he discusses making a cheese sandwich with such oracular eloquence that, reading him, I felt I had a direct connection to some great prophet or otherwise holy man.

“A toasted cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing,” he writes, at once drawing our attention to the sheer wondrousness of God’s creation, “but I’m not messing about here – this is the ultimate one and it’s going to blow your mind.” Whoa! There it is – suddenly you’re in the presence of Ecclesiastes, half expecting Jamie to assert that, of the making of many cheese sandwiches, there is no end (which indeed is the case, especially if you’re taking young folk camping).

Instead, the man who has done more for Britain’s children than anyone since Lord Shaftesbury admonishes us in more exultant tones: “But there is a particular sequence of events that needs to happen in order to achieve the most ridiculously tasty, chomp-worthy sandwich.” In other words, the road of wisdom leads to the palace of excess, because: “Follow this recipe, and it will always make you feel good. It is also especially useful when you’re suffering from a light hangover. This is when the condiments – dolloped on to a side plate like a painter’s palette – really come into their own.”

Stirring stuff, which is why I’m getting up a subscription to replace Eros with a life-size nude statue of Jamie Oliver pointing a fondue fork towards the East End.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster