Tea at Terminal One: a very civilised sit-in against Heathrow expansion in 2009. Photo: Rex Features
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Felicity Cloake: How your picnic hamper can change the world

A picnic seems an apposite choice for anarchists – a meal exempt from the usual formalities, sweet and savoury mixed in a glorious jumble and eaten supine on the ground.

On May Day 1978, Finsbury Park played host to an unusual party. A yellowing flyer for the Anarchist Picnic (dedicated to “all prisoners rotting in the world’s jails”), now in the archives of the Bishopsgate Institute, urges freethinkers to bring their own food, drink, musical instruments and kites, promising in return “mass football (N London v S London)” and a Punch and Judy show.

A picnic seems an apposite choice for anarchists – a meal exempt from the usual formalities, sweet and savoury mixed in a glorious jumble and eaten supine on the ground, often with scant regard for “table” manners or even cutlery: as the anthropologist Margaret Visser puts it, “a thrilling reversal of normal rules”.

A brief rummage online produces a recent “picnic protest” against Windermere parking charges, an “axe the bedroom tax protest and picnic” in Margate, and innumerable munchie-heavy cannabis “picnics” in support of drug legalisation from Surrey to Sydney.

The 2009 picnic protest against Heathrow expansion, conducted on the floor of Terminal One, was particularly sumptuously catered for, with a journalist reporting “scotch eggs, Carr’s water biscuits . . . wild-rice salad, a broccoli and brown pasta dish, couscous, cupcakes and beautifully made cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off”. (The slogan? “Climate change is no picnic”.)

There are fewer green issues on the menu, and less broccoli, at Kentucky’s annual Fancy Farm Picnic, where politicians come to canvass votes, often by pledging their support for the local coal industry, from an audience visiting primarily for the nine tonnes of barbecue pork and mutton.

But politicians love their barbecue, too. President Obama soured his already fractious relationship with Congress last year by cancelling their customary White House picnic, usually held in early summer – “in time” (as the congressional commentator David Hawkings explains) “for the afterglow to shine favourably on some bipartisan deal-making in even the most rancorous election years”.

Whether that was to blame for the subsequent government shutdown is unclear, but this year it’s back on – scheduled for 17 September, just a week before the House breaks up for the midterms, and “essentially too late, in other words, to ratify before the election any legislative breakthrough that might get scrawled on to the red-checked tablecloths”.

Britain also has a proud history of political picnicking; in its heyday, the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic attracted speakers such as Arthur Scargill, John Prescott and Clement Attlee. Now it seems we’re reduced to feminists scoffing sushi on the Circle Line to protest a woman’s right to eat in public, in the wake of the risible “Women Who Eat on Tubes” Facebook furore.

And yet, around the world, people are still fighting for the right to protest at all – last year several Vietnamese activists were arrested at human rights picnics in public parks; and in the Islamic state of Algeria, hundreds risked their freedom at public picnics during the Ramadan fast. More recently, demonstrators against the Thai military coup were reduced to giving away their food under the slogan “Sandwiches for democracy!”, after the park where they had planned to hold a picnic rally was sealed off by the authorities.

Lest you doubt the power of the picnic, in August 1989 the Iron Curtain was lifted briefly to allow a pan-European picnic on the border between Austria and Hungary. Six hundred East Germans managed to escape through the open gates – an event Helmut Kohl later described as hammering the first brick from the Berlin Wall. It fell three months later. Perhaps a picnic can change the world, after all.

Next issue: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge