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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

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage