Illustration: Jackson Rees
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Will Self takes afternoon tea at the Savoy

It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet and soup kitchen combined.

I’ve written before in these pages about the terms of my grandparents’ gustatory existence: born in the late 1880s, they stuck fast to their ­agglutinative Victorian roots by putting away three square meals every day, and a couple of hefty snacks hardly less angular. Even as a child I thought they must be involved in some strange act of religious mortification (my grandfather was a lay preacher and president of the Modern Churchmen’s Union) in so flagellating their own insides.

Breakfast was tolerably full and English, with eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes, several rounds of toast, and sausages so thoroughly baked we named them “Granny’s Wooden Sausages”. Elevenses was bearable, because it consisted at most of a Bakewell tart, and possibly a Welsh rarebit. Lunch was solid – but by then we’d usually been out for a windswept walk on the seafront (they lived in Brighton) and so could just about choke the meat down, if not all of the three veg, and the roly-poly jam pudding. Making so much as a feint towards the cheeseboard was well beyond me until I reached my teens. However, even at that age, by the time tea hove into dyspeptic view the game was usually up.

My grandparents’ cook, the redoubtable Doris, would lay the table for exactly 4.30: white lace tablecloth; floral-patterned Royal Doulton crockery; silver teapot and hot water jug; cow creamer, honey pot, etc. There would be a plate of cucumber sandwiches, one of ham or tongue, and one of fish paste. There would be scones, or triangles of buttered white bread. The pièce de la résistance was an ornate cake stand, atop which sat the brown and menacing presence known as “Doris’s Chocolate Cake”, a ­comestible of such legendary heft and density that my father maintained, were anyone to choke down a slice without adequately masticating, that its sharp corners could be seen poking through the taut walls of their belly.

Anyway, you can imagine that with such childhood experience I have never found myself lying in some foreign field and wondering whether the church clock stands at ten to three – let alone if there’s still sodding honey for tea. But an American friend was in town and wanted the whole English-afternoon-tea experience, so I arranged to meet her at the Savoy. True, you can summon a repast styled “afternoon tea” in many less elevated establishments, but it usually consists of a desiccated macaroon and a stewed solecism of Twinings English Breakfast. If you want the real and authentic afternoon tea, such as would have gladdened Doris’s heart, it has to be the Savoy.

Mind you, I can never enter in under the art deco portico of the great hotel without thinking of Georges Bataille’s emetic-erotic classic Le bleu du ciel, which opens with the dissolute protagonist, Henri Troppmann, holed up in the Savoy with his still more rackety lover: a dipsomaniacal English aristocrat whose sobriquet, Dirty, is amply justified – the reader realises – when she calmly pisses herself in front of the chambermaid. I felt pretty dirty myself, striding across the foyer in my scuzzy blue jeans and descending to the famed Thames Foyer, the fons et origo of that great British institution, the thé dansant. Waiting for the maître d’ to find my name in the reservations ledger, I reflected that my adipose grandparents could have done with a lot more corybantic ­activity and rather less of Doris’s chocolate cake – and then my friend arrived, and beneath the wan, vernal light that fell from the restored glass cupola, we began seriously pigging.

A selection of finger sandwiches, including Wiltshire bone ham on coriander bread and coronation chicken on olive bread; freshly baked scones with home-made lemon curd and clotted cream; pastries, including a particularly toothsome éclair filled with vanilla pastry cream and slathered with lavender icing – and the whole schmozzle washed down with lashings of flowering osmanthus tea. Mmm-mm. You may wonder, gentle and socialistic reader, what possible justification I can provide for pigging out so egregiously in such a fat-cat environment. The answer is simple: afternoon tea at the Savoy is billed at a flat rate, £50. Steep for a stopgap smackerel, but not quite so appallingly plutocratic if you treat it as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

So we kept on – calling for more finger sandwiches (smoked salmon with lemon-infused crème fraîche and watercress this time), more pastries and yet more blooming osmanthus. The trolley was stopping at our table so frequently that other tea-timers were beginning to look askance; I’d drunk so much diuretic I was in danger of doing a Dirty, while my companion was surreptitiously unzipping her skirt to allow for further expansion. Then they brought the cake. I suppose in homage to Doris I should have had the Three Chocolates, but I couldn’t risk it, so instead carefully took the slice cut for me by the waiter and enfolded it in a napkin together with some spare finger sandwiches and a rather dishevelled scone.

A few hundred yards along the Strand from the Savoy, a “selection” of London’s homeless gathers each evening to receive soup and sandwiches from the Sally Army. I beat the evangelists to the punch with my Savoy doggie bag, which seemed to hit the spot – although an ex-soldier on crutches said the Three Chocolates cake was “a little on the heavy side”.

Doris would have approved.

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 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times