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My need for oysters was so great that I nearly started a fight at the farmers’ market

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Time for a showdown at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. It is not normally, you would think, the kind of place one walks to on a Sunday morning with “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” playing on the internal soundtrack, is it? So let me explain.

First, the market. This was billed as one of the chief attractions of the area when I landed in it. I accepted this billing: I am a sucker for artisanal produce, dancing cheeses, chickens so free-range they have to be tracked down with detectives, bread that breaks paving stones if a loaf slips from your hands. Then again, I am not a fan of paying the kind of prices that these people demand. I know that there are economies of scale enjoyed by supermarkets but unavailable to the smallholder, but still . . . paying a fiver for a small bag of stalky spinach is not for me, I’m afraid.

However, there was one attraction that kept me going back week after week: the Maldon Oyster stall. There, for £1 a bivalve, or £5 for six, a jolly bearded fisherman right out of central casting would open oysters for you until either he ran out or you burst. I may be horribly broke all the time but a little luxury on a Sunday is acceptable, I think. It became a ritual: I would go down there with my children and after a while the two eldest would join in. Imagine: a ten-year-old English boy eating oysters! My heart swelled with pride. (I should add that this oyster-eating business represents a personal triumph. I used to get very sick indeed, after a bad oyster experience, every time I tried them again but a wise woman advised me to wait seven years. This advice, which sounds like something out of a fairy tale, actually worked and, touch wood, I have never had a queasy moment since. But it meant my late twenties and early thirties were oyster-free.)

Anyway, one day Beardie Oyster Man decided that doing two London markets every weekend was too much and he decided to drop the Marylebone one and stick with the one off Sloane Square on a Saturday. That’s too much like the suburbs for me but I wish him well. (Free advertising alert: Maldon Oysters really are great.) The slack at Marylebone was taken up by the fish stall on the other side of the car park: smaller and run by a man of sinister mien and pronounced surliness, as opposed to the Cap’n Birdseye warmth of the former. The new oyster man took to his duties with all the bad grace of someone who resents earning an extra 500 quid from upper-middle-class ponces and tourists between the hours of 10 and 2 on a Sunday. He has a high turnover of assistants, for some reason, and often, when serving alone, will not open your oysters for you. I once asked to borrow his knife and do it myself, for I craved some on the spot, and, with the absolute minimum conceivable degree of grace short of outright abuse, said “no”. Internally, I christened him Bunty Oyster Man, or something very like that. (Shift a letter along.)

Last week it snowed and the idea of eating a freezing oyster as the flakes fell on it seemed almost unbearably attractive. Bunty Oyster Man had an assistant; the queue was small; the oysters were there; but the condiments, I noticed, were stashed under the table. The assistant, though, was happy to retrieve them; but Bunty Oyster Man said no, no one was to be served shucked oysters. I offered to do it myself again. No, said Bunty Oyster Man. That evening I resolved, next Sunday, to go along prepared, like the Walrus and the Carpenter, with my own knife, vinegar and pepper. If he was going to be a bunt about opening my oysters, I’d do it in front of him.

This was an idea that had a lot more mileage in it after a bottle of Shiraz than when considered in total sobriety on a Sunday morning, especially as Bunty Oyster Man looks like the kind of man who beats his fish up if they don’t behave themselves. But I was determined and, with the Beloved, set off for the market prepared to do my own shucking, if he couldn’t be shucked to do mine. We timed our arrival for high noon (hence the soundtrack mentioned above).

You can guess the rest. He opened the oysters with no more than his usual ill-temper – they were quite delicious and I even said so – and honour all round was saved. But he will have to be on his guard. I can quite understand how a stallholder can have contempt for his customers but there are limits. One day, there will be a reckoning. The Marylebone Farmers’ Market will be renamed Hadleyville, and I will afterwards also answer to the name of Gary Cooper.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.