A man (not Will Self) surveys an array of spoons. Illustration: Jackson Rees
Show Hide image

The changing fortunes of my family can be measured in our use of the humble spoon

When it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do.

For the past fortnight or so, I have been much exercised by the handsome “personalised spoon offer” that Kellogg’s has had blazoned on its Rice Krispies boxes. My youngest and I decided we very much wanted a spoon with our own slogan engraved on it and he began working on the words while I set about eating enough of the desiccated little blebs to justify buying the two further boxes we needed to obtain the “secret code numbers” required to unlock the spoon trove. On the back of these boxes are winsome pictures of happy new spoon-owners – but we were dismayed at their lack of ­imagination. All their spoons were simply personalised with their names (Carol, Keisha, Tarquin, et al) and the Kellogg’s cartoon brand mascots, whereas we were thinking of something surreal and subversive, such as: “Which orifice? Your choice.”

Actually, when I saw quite how innocent the other spoon-personalisers had been – how untainted by corrosive irony – I wondered at the depths of my psyche. What is it about cutlery that spoons up from my unconscious such anatomically perverse thoughts? I meditated on my childhood. Our American mother often used to remind us of her childhood in the Great Depression and used this early experience of privation to justify her habit of nicking cutlery from hotels, restaurants and even transatlantic liners: for years, we stirred our hot chocolate with some particularly chunky Queen Mary-monogrammed teaspoons.

My father brought different cutlery to the table (what a pleasure it is for once to use this expression both metaphorically and literally). An epigone, he entered the marriage with several canteens of old family silver. As a child, I was fascinated by these polished, hardwood boxes, with their green-velvet-lined interiors in which lay odd-shaped fish knives, pinioned in rows, and spoons personalised with family crests. But he – and therefore we – were on the social down escalator, so there were few occasions that merited the deployment of the entire shiny complement: knives, forks and spoons arranged in descending order of size so as to parenthesise the placemats. In truth, such was the queered problematic of my mother’s snobbery that she regarded certain forms of tableware as hopelessly non-U, reserving the full weight of her contempt for those petit-bourgeois families that cinched their serviettes (“napkins” is the acceptable term) with personalised rings.

Hmm, personalised rings . . . I feel rather like the young Freud – the Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life who discovered such rich seams of suppressed psychic content hidden beneath quotidian tongue-slips and semantic glitches. It would be a simple enough spoonoanalysis were I to have grown up intent on repairing the fortunes of the House of Self so that once more, as in days of yore, a quince spoon was required at every meal – but I didn’t. True, I am a reader of Private Eye’s Me and My Spoon column and I also have a fascination with sporks, the liminal status of which is a constant reproof to our collective obsession with cookie-cutter categorisation, but as regular readers of this column will be only too aware, the last thing I want is an amuse-bouche served in a china spoon.

What I do like is the thought that the ancestral cutlery will continue to tinkle and clank down through generations of Selfs and that, at some point in the distant future, one of my descendants will peer wonderingly at the faint letters incised in the handle of a spoon they’ve known since birth but never properly examined; and with the assistance, perhaps, of some late-21st-century optical technology of which we can have no ken, painstakingly decipher: “Which orifice? Your choice.” I would further like it if my hypothetical descendant was then visited with a similar epiphany to Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land”, so apprehending the folly of not just personalised spoons but all human endeavour.

It is a factoid oft retold that the flimsy fork is a comparatively late addition to the solid British table. Right up until the early-modern era, even the highest in the land were perfectly happy to eat with knife, spoon and fingers-in-lieu-of-tines. Were William Burroughs to have written Naked Lunch during this period, he would presumably have chosen a different title for it, given that this one was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s insight that a naked lunch is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. Forks are evil instruments, stabbing weapons comprised of four or five épées welded together. Knives are often the subject of amnesties but a spoon amnesty would be whimsical. As for fingers, there’s no telling what they might get up to.

No, when it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do. Only the spoon is rounded and smooth and often brimming with milk like a lactating breast. Only a spoon will nurture you and care for you and love you unconditionally. So there’s nothing in the least surreal or subversive about our personalising slogan, because that’s the thing about a spoon: it doesn’t judge you, it accepts you for who you are unreservedly and equally it accepts whatever it is you want to do with it. Which is just as well, because I for one take a dim view of extra-cutlery relationships. Running off with a dish . . . ? Hey diddle-diddle, Spoony, what are you like . . .?

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 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear