The last two decades has been a dizzy whirl of mispronounced culinaria. Photo: Getty
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How we get a taste for things and then forget how that happened

You are inclined to think that polenta and gnocchi, blinis and burritos have always been with us. But they are not part of our collective conscience as they would be for the people who grew up eating them.

There is a phrase Irish mothers are particularly fond of and which in recent decades they have had increasing call to utter on a regular basis – “’Twas far from that you were reared”. The “that” is often replaced by the name of some new-fangled exotic comestible or other such consumer item that their offspring have taken to extolling the merits of. One week it might be a piña colada, the next a panini (sic); it could just as easily be a 4K flatscreen TV or an Iranian art house film. The range of things that were once beyond the purview of the younger generation but which are now their bread and butter encompasses fancy coffees served up by tattooed baristi on first-name terms with everyone who orders off them, pulled-pork sandwiches and arcane Andean grains comprised mostly of vowels. It’s not that the Irish mammy disapproves of such novelties – she is wont to try them herself given the chance – it’s just her way of reminding the youngsters where they came from and of continuing to valorise the culinary and social culture which she had fostered around them.

Matthew Arnold, a man given to the certitudes of his time and class, defined Culture (note the big “c”) in 1869 as “the best that has been thought and said”. It’s highly unlikely Arnold was ignorant of the agronomical origin of the word but his own definition has been largely superseded by one that is a great deal closer to the sense of husbandry. No matter how snotty one might be towards the culture of certain social classes or sub-groups, few people dispute that they are “cultures”. Of course, “Culture” still has its vaunted and virtuous connotations, however unwarranted, which generally run in tandem with social progress, but culture is accepted by most as being everywhere. It is, in the first instance, what you are exposed to at an early age. For most people in these islands over the age of 35, the palette of that early culture was a relatively narrow one, regardless of whether you played rugby or football growing up, or whether you were into Leo Sayer or The Sex Pistols.

What exotic food there was in our childhoods was largely confined to Chinese, Indian, Italian, or, on special occasions, French. And even then, it was often of a version bowdlerised to make it safe for the northern European palate. More worldly fare crept up on us over the years – along came Italianate coffees, tarted-up tapas, Thai curries (who knew they had curry there too?), Lebanese mezzes fragrant with herbs and spices one previously knew only from mentions in colonial novels. Foreign travel became cheaper and the lower tourist classes ventured away from the sun hotspots of the Mediterranean and into the squares and alleys of old town centres; satellite TV made continental football, once glimpsed in brief snatches on foggy Wednesday nights, a staple entertainment. In retrospect, it actually all happened very quickly – the last two decades has been a dizzy whirl of mispronounced culinaria, Ryanair destinations bearing place-names topped with carons and umlauts, and frothy beers with old-fashioned labels which, until the Reinheitsgebot was explained to us, were assumed to be cheap muck. ’Twas far from all that we were reared, but we are fairly fluent in it now.

So ubiquitous are all these things now, we forget the process of acculturation we underwent to become familiar with them. Maybe it is because, for once, consumer culture brought them to us, rather than in the past when they were acquired by the more pro-active, and the wealthier. You are inclined to think that polenta and gnocchi, blinis and burritos have always been with us. But they are not part of our collective conscience as they would be for the people who grew up eating them. We don’t know the familiar warmth of eating your mother’s or grandmother’s version of a famous national dish, made the same way each time. We ate too, of course, and at times very well, but the cuisines of northern European countries are more fractured and sporadic and certainly less canonical than those of their southern neighbours; two Bosnians might be able strike up a conversation on the merits of the burek they used to eat for breakfast as a child, as might a Roman about their beloved cacio e pepe, further north the repertoire is a great deal more constrained. Asia and its richness of cuisine is another world entirely. The relative weakness of their culinary traditions has allowed Britain, Ireland and Scandinavian countries to be more inventive and more open to outside influences than countries with more robust food cultures, such as France, Italy, China, India and even the likes of Spain and Portugal, all of which have been slower on the uptake of foreign cuisines. It is also why vegetarianism has a much stronger hold in English-speaking countries and Scandinavia than in “strong” food cultures – it’s not that people in these other countries are less humane, the cultural force of traditional food is just too strong. And no matter how good the food might be in parts of London, Dublin or Copenhagen, the thinness of the tradition becomes more obvious in smaller towns, which are usually found lacking compared to provincial centres in say, France or Italy. Venture into the kitchen of a French or Italian home and the cultural difference becomes even starker again.

The process of acculturation is also obscured by age. The longer you stick around on this Earth, and, if you’re lucky, the more you earn, you will acquires taste and habits that you were scarcely aware of when you were younger, without even realising how you got to this point. You may even find that your accent changes, by design or otherwise. For some though more so than others the process is perceptible and it means a self-exile from the environment of one’s early years. In the moving title story of his collection If it is your life, James Kelman portrays a working-class Glaswegian taking the bus home from university south of the border. He is still in his first year, fresh enough to find aspects of his new social circles both fascinating and repelling. But he also feels himself changing, his rapport with his family shifting, much as Marty McFly begins to vanish in the family photographs in Back to the Future films, and, as inexorable as this all seems, he feels guilty:

My life had changed so much. Probably it would be harder to communicate now than it had been at Christmas, and Christmas had not been that easy. But that was life. And my own fault for not coming home before that. Mum was right to be hurt. Dad was hurt too but acted as if he was not. My sister told me. But what was I supposed to do? It was difficult. I would have failed all my essays if I had not worked through the holiday period. I was not brilliant. They thought I was but I knew I was not. Some were. I was not. In school I was but not down there.

The narrator is going through the same pangs of upwardly-mobile socialisation as Pip in Great Expectations, who suffers the slings and arrows of Estella’s snobbishness (Graham Greene was particularly ambivalent about Dickens’ masterpiece, calling it “a snob’s progress” and the discomfort of Joe Gargery when he goes to visit Pip up in London is still as palpable as ever for the modern reader). In our own bildungsromanen of life, there is something at the end that is clearly different from what there was at the beginning, even if one resolutely refuses to forget where one comes from. And even if you manage to keep yourself as “true to your roots” as you can, you can count on your children to finish the job off, symbolically at least. No matter what measures you put in place, your offspring will crush whatever last vestige of your original culture there was in you, with their Oedipal accent drifts, their alien mores and complete lack of interest in everything you held dear. And they will, in their turn, find, much too late, that they have changed too.

Acculturation is not something we see too often on screen or in books, largely because it takes place in the background – there are more egregious examples such as My Fair Lady, of course, but there the acculturation itself is the subject. One of the reasons Breaking Bad is such a powerful show is it offers us a slowly unfolding process of acculturation that is usually either absent from the screen or implicit. Walter White, in the words of the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, goes from being “protagonist to antagonist”. His gradual metamorphosis into a monster, eventually so far from his mumbling mild-mannered science teacher, is necessitated by a series of circumstances and the need to survive. It is also noteworthy for being a portrayal of criminal acculturation. We rarely see criminals or delinquents being “formed” – there are some examples such as Angels with Dirty Faces, Goodfellas or Peter Mullan’s Neds but usually in the movies criminals just are, assumed as an element of back story. They form an immutable alien community, inevitably mined from an underclass that “respectable” people both scorn and fear. Breaking Bad strikes a chord with (mostly middle-class) audiences because it sees one of their own mutate in such a terrifying yet compelling way. It is also a mutation that takes place relatively late in life, much later than the one that makes us more worldly than we started out as. Like so many appalling vistas one beholds in entertainment, it also functions to comfort oneself in the distance between it and one’s own existence. ’Twas far from many things we were reared, indeed, but whatever changes we have undergone we can at least be thankful we haven’t drifted quite so far as Walter White of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser