Anarchisme sur l'herbe


The most memorable picnic I ever ate was on a sparkling summer day in Stoke Newington cemetery a couple of years ago. It was organised - or rather, flung together - by a bunch of anarchists, to celebrate May morning. The food was suitably haphazard. It was a bring-what-you-can and eat-what-you-like affair. An anarchist friend and I carried long baguettes under our arms on the train from Cambridge. We ate them with felafel balls and odd wedges of Camembert and fruit. Our fellow diners among the gravestones produced various vegan concoctions: nutty cakes and tabbouleh-style things in boxes. There was a woman with dazzling cerise hair nibbling crisps and hummus, and a whiskery fruitarian who brought a vast brown bag of tomatoes, which he amiably offered around before munching his way through them, splayed on the grass.

Nothing tasted particularly special, as I recall. What stays with me is the shambolic air of bonhomie - the merriness with which the anarchists discussed ley lines and personal liberty as they ate and their children played. It felt a bit like being a character in News from Nowhere. After the meal, which sprawled over several hours, a little boy produced a box of "free things" to give away. To round it all off there was a three-sided football match.

All the best picnics are rather anarcho- communist, though not all of them are eaten by Kropotkinites. It is the ad hoc nature of the meal, as much as eating outdoors, that makes a picnic a picnic. There should be a loaves-and-fishes atmosphere: picnics should be infinitely expandable and collapsible, according to the company, the weather and the mood. No one knows the exact derivation of "picnic" (originally the French "pique-nique"), but the word first signified a potluck, to which different people contributed different courses. A picnic is a hotchpotch, a messy anthology of food. It is not a plastic-boxed sandwich and warm Lilt snatched on the nearest available patch of green during lunch hour with shirtsleeves rolled up. As Richardson Wright observed in 1943, a picnic "should never have the slightest air of haste or responsibility".

This is not to say that you can't plan ahead. Tortillas are a magnificent al fresco food, but it is important to make them slowly. Fry slivered onions and potatoes (and possibly green peppers) gently in olive oil. Mix them into a large quantity of eggs andseason well. Return the mixture to the pan over a flame barely warmer than a candle, occasionally pulling the sides in with a spatula to create a domed effect and only turn when you are sure it won't collapse (patience!). The result is a gilded savoury disc, very good with crusty bread, mayonnaise and little tomatoes. If one of the party brings a flask of chilled sherry, and another a salad of parsley and capers, so much the better. Other pleasing offerings include pan bagnats stuffed with peppers and olives, dressed crab, miniature tarts, cold roast lamb and cold watercress soup.

But you shouldn't let the planning go so far that the fun is lost altogether. Some people are bossy about picnics and want to turn the whole venture into a pass-the-parcel of Tupperware and greaseproof paper. I remember creaking hampers filled with exactly two, non-negotiable rounds of sandwiches per person, one hard-boiled egg (no salt), soup from a smelly Thermos and a Penguin biscuit. Such occasions could be more claustrophobic than meat and two veg indoors. The cardinal rule of picnics is that the tastes of one should not dictate the tastes of all. My anarchist friends were on to something.

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war