Get behind me, Satan

Meryl Streep brings back some painful memories.

Last night I watched The Devil Wears Prada. I was expecting to be entertained with a light-hearted film and, indeed, I was - but what I was not expecting was that it would transport me back nearly 15 years to my own start in the world of fashion "journalism". At some points I almost began hyperventilating at the memories.

My boss was not an editor-in-chief, as Meryl Streep's character is in the film, but a fashion editor. However, the way she acted was very grande dame. From even before I officially took up my post, I was getting phone calls asking me to ring Italy to call in some Italian designer's wares. But the fun really began when I was on the payroll proper. I started work when she told me to, finished when she said I could. When she was in New York or Milan for the shows (I only went to Paris with her) I had to sit by the phone at work in case she rang. I would take her copy to the foreign editor who would, quite rightly, in the light of serious world news, not care one jot how many layers John Galliano had entrapped his models in that season. I was not allowed to go to the loo because it was not permissible to miss her call. I drank very little.

Once, in a scene that I would not have believed had I not witnessed it myself, she asked me to call in everything pink for a pink story. I would have to lay everything out and she would walk up and down and scrutinise it. I would have no idea if I had failed or succeeded until the end. The silence was gut-churning. I duly called in every shade of pink to be found in the northern hemisphere and spent most of the night laying it out for her on racks. She came in the next day. "What's this?" she spat. "Our pink story?" I ventured. "I asked for blue, not pink!" No matter that she was wrong and I was right, the whole process had to be repeated.

She would often draw a pair of shoes, or a dress - entirely from her imagination - and say, "Find me this." And I had to. The more obscure the things I found, the more insane her demands became. However, my contacts book was growing and I had developed an ability to track things down that I used extensively in other jobs. Perhaps she almost did me a favour.

To fail would mean being called to sit next to her while she would, in the same low, passive-aggressive voice that Meryl Streep's character used to such great effect in the film, tell me how very much I had disappointed her. Eventually, one day, I found the strength to resign - that day's dawn shone especially brightly. I ran out of the office on my last day afraid, excited, and almost whole again. Happy days.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

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