Fast food, the sustainable way

It is thanks to a childhood passion for the Whopper that I came to be interested in the sustainability of food. Like John Vincent, my business partner, I grew up associating fast food with the end of the holidays - a final fling before returning to school. John's dad, Leon, after whom our restaurants are named, tells me that John used to get so excited about his trips to McDonald's that he would lie on his front beforehand and thump the floor with his fists. My vice was Burger King - the butterflies would riot in my stomach as we walked down to Putney High Street for the pre-cinema supper.

Then, we grew up. And our waistlines grew with us. We realised that fast food has hidden costs, mostly in the gut department. The idea behind Leon was not altruistic. It was selfish. We couldn't find any fast food that wouldn't make us fat, so we decided to make it ourselves. And it became clear that, even if we hadn't given much thought to the welfare of the planet, it was important to those who ate with us. We wanted to live up to their expectations. One of the first things we decided as a matter of policy was that our fish would come from sustainable shoals. We took advice and decided to limit our buying to mackerel and coley. We quickly realised that this was too simplistic. Coley is caught sustainably in the north-east Arctic, the North Sea, Skaggerak, west of Scotland and Rockall, but is at risk of being harvested unsustainably in Iceland or the Faroes.

Even defining species by area is not good enough. Nature does not stand still. The Barents Sea has been warming since the early 1990s, leading to the recent bumper cod stocks. Over the past few years, this warming appears to have been luring migrating mackerel further north, away from Scotland and towards Iceland, which is allowing its fishermen huge mackerel quotas. The Scottish claim that this is putting mackerel stocks at risk. Try asking any restaurant that is dealing with food inflation and a consumer recession to get their heads round that.

The actions of a few restaurants in the UK are not going to be the solution to the planet's quest to feed itself sustainably, but the sector has political clout. A significant proportion of what consumers in the UK spend still goes on food. Restaurants have some ability to demand changes to the way we produce it.

At Leon, we've spent the past seven years trying to work out how to source responsibly, reduce our energy use and cut back on packaging. I've spent more time than I care to remember in a hairnet and a sanitised boiler suit, watching fish fingers come off the production line or wading through seas of poultry. I have learned how to spot line-caught fish (the flesh is whiter because, unlike net-caught fish, they are bled live) and recognise the ammonia burns on chickens' legs caused by overcrowding. (Those bright purple marks you sometimes see at the supermarket? Avoid.)

What became apparent was that the issues were too complicated for any restaurant to understand on its own, which is why we helped to set up the Sustainable Restaurant Association, a not-for-profit body that aims to guide restaurants. We know enough now to understand just how far there is to go. But, with luck, these baby steps will be among the millions taken, so that our children will be able to feed their children sustainably.

Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of the restaurant Leon

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide