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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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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