Déjeuner sur l’herbe: the finest pleasures lie in the sensations that come with simple eating outdoors. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
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Ditch the posh stuff and enter picnic paradise

Keep things streamlined on the food front, so as to leave more room on the rug for important stuff, such as people.

I could never trust anyone whose heart didn’t perform a pirouette at the mention of the magic word “picnic”. “There is no more perfect way of spending a hot day,” the herbalist Hilda Leyel wrote in 1936. Even seaside drizzle doesn’t seem so bad with a squashed cheese sandwich and a damp bar of Fruit & Nut in your pocket. Jane Grigson wasn’t the first to notice how absurd it is that “a nation whose weather is so unpredictable should be such ardent and accomplished picnickers”, but there’s method in our madness. As usual, the Famous Five have already solved the mystery: “Food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”

For reasons not yet understood by modern science (but rigorously tested by me), this is as true of a bag of Frazzles as it is of a fricassee of foie gras. As Grigson observes, the “food doesn’t matter a damn, so long as it is of top quality”. But though fresh air is a rare old seasoning, no mere “meal deal” could bring the same pleasure as Ratty’s “fat, wicker luncheon basket” in The Wind in the Willows, with its “cold chicken” and “coldtonguecoldhamcold- beefpickledgherkinssalad­frenchrollscresssandwiches­pottedmeatgingerbeer­- lemonadesodawater . . .”

Lucky old Rat had a rowing boat to transport all of this treasure. If you’re carrying yours on your back, I’d recommend the infinitely simpler spread that he puts together for his exotic, seafaring cousin: “a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far southern slopes”.

With the addition of some weepingly ripe summer fruit, it’s difficult to improve on his menu. As the sagacious rodent clearly realised, the most important quality in picnic food is patience, which definitely rules out the chicken mousse and chocolate soufflé recommended by Mrs Leyel in her gloriously impractical book The Perfect Picnic. It should be able to stand being jiggled up a mountain or across a city park with happy equanimity. It shouldn’t sweat or melt in the heat, unless that’s desirable (a sturdily boxed Brie is ideal, so long as you can cope with the whiff en route) and it should be at its best at air temperature, rather than cold or hot. Finally, it should be easy to eat with fingers – far more in the spirit of the whole affair than plastic knives and forks.

Keep things streamlined on the food front, so as to leave more room on the rug for important stuff, such as people. There’s no need to spend hours baking a quiche that will only get crushed during transportation when little gladdens the heart more than plump packets of home-made sandwiches, generously buttered to stave off sogginess, served with tomatoes or fat, pink radishes and a jar of yellow mayonnaise to dip, plus a paper bag of sweet cherries to finish. (Oh, and crisps. No picnic, however posh, is complete without at least one packet of crisps.)

To drink, well-insulated bottles of crisp beer or light white wine will never fail to satisfy thirsty picnickers (mellow cider has the advantage of requiring no advance chilling) but, in the absence of a Blyton-style babbling brook, take plenty of water, too. You never know, someone might actually get round to drinking it.

A good picnic shouldn’t be fancy. You don’t need to faff about with serving spoons or salad dressings or cocktail shakers when you’ve got good food and conversation. Pack those and you’ll have paradise on earth – after all, 50,000 wasps can’t be wrong.

Next week: 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 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution