I haven’t felt that I’ve done the great British institution of fish and chips full justice. I’ve only written about chippies once before in this column – and that was the effete southern version found on the south coast at Hastings (I thought the piece unexceptionable, although it earned me the lasting enmity of the burghers). Finding myself in Wigan, I decided to remedy this deficiency – it is the pie capital of the world and host to the annual World Pie-Eating Championship. Surely in this rugged and forthright northern town I would find the sincerest of cuisines?
My guides to the mysteries of Wigan’s fast-food culture were three natives, Sam, Graham and Patrick, mutual friends of mine and the composer Robert Lockhart, who died in January after a heart attack brought on by choking on a steak sandwich. Robert used to rail against the insipid social mores of his adoptive southland, but I still think dying outside a gastropub on the Uxbridge Road was an unjust fate.
As a tribute to their d’Artagnan, I asked my Lancastrian musketeers to fire me in the direction of the most authentic chippie they knew and as one they chorused, “Well, if you’re reet clempt that’d have t’be Maureen’s in Springfield. She’s got the best jackbit in town.” Meaning: “If you’re hungry, Maureen’s serves the best food.”
The derivation of “jackbit” is from the expression for a miner’s snack lunch (also called “snap”, a reference to the sound the tin box it was kept in made opening and closing), and so ingrained in Wigan dialect is the now-vanished mining industry that my guides also laid claim to the expression “eat humble pie”, citing a strike in the 1900s during which the Wigan miners went back to work, while those in nearby Leigh stayed out. The Wiganers’ revenge has been to brand the Leigh folk as “lobbygobblers”, which is to say consumers of sliced, baked potatoes mixed with mince. Yuck.
This I took with a pinch of salt – but Maureen’s thick-cut chips came with a generous shaking and a gush of vinegar. Sam told me that the absolutely echt approach to Maureen’s was to pitch up with your own Pyrex dish and ask for: “A babbiesyed – leave t’elmet on – chips an’ pea wet.” Here’s the received pronunciation of this puzzling vernacular request: “A baby’s head [meat pudding], with the tinfoil on it and chips with the juice from the mushy peas [“pea wet”] poured over them.”
Other distinctively Wigan chip-shop eatables are smacks and scraps. You might think, upon entering Maureen’s austere premises (no sign above the door, plate-glass window with nets, a glassed-in heating cabinet) and discovering a pegboard with “Smack 30p” on it, that you had stumbled on some hellishly flagrant circle of post-industrial deprivation, but in fact smacks are slices of potato battered and fried – a cheaper alternative to Maureen’s chips, which come in huge £1.20 portions, mounded on bilious styrofoam trays and then parcelled in sheets of newspaper. Scraps, by contrast, are the freely given twists and curlicues of fallen batter – the toenail clippings of the great fried food god.
Thus you can have a barm (a bread roll), a chip barm – or, if you’re going for the full trinity of carbohydrate foodstuffs, a smack barm (with pea wet, naturally), for the bargain price of 55p.
Another northern phenomenon is a ladle of gravy on your chips – indeed, there seems to be a local preoccupation with moistness, as if it were necessary for your styrofoam tray to become a sort of homologue of the surrounding town, which encompassed us with its oblong buildings and dank thoroughfares. I had gravy and also a meat pie, but Patrick had mushy peas on his chips – a great green avalanche, lumpy with leguminous boulders. How it was ever remotely possible for Peter Mandelson to mistake mushy peas for guacamole is beyond me. He must have pea wet on the brain.
Life of pie
Through the door at the back of the shop I could see a fire merrily blazing in its blackened grate; on the wall were a number of jolly signs with gags on them (“If arseholes could fly this place would be an airport”), but there was little floor space, so we repaired outside to Gidlow Lane, where we stood around a concrete tub full of flowers and ate our lunch. We chatted about Robert Lockhart’s father, John, who was a sales manager for Greenhalgh’s, a local bakery and pie-maker. My own meat pie, once I had forked open its pastry, was a tightly coiled nubbin of greyish meat – but isn’t that the very essence of contemporary Britain? Are our minds not trapped in claggy inanition, while our jaws go on senselessly opening and closing? Then every so often one of us chokes – and dies.