Sugar and spice

Renegade or Halo2

Timothy Mo <em>Paddleless Press, 478pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 095241936X

Near the start of Timothy Mo's new novel, the narrator - Rey Archimedes Blondel Castro, aka Sugar, an illegitimate half-American, half-Filipino "nigger" - says: "I was just too weird a mouthful . . . I guess I made the shortlist a lot more interesting but I was never gonna make the final cut." Rey is referring to his failure to be admitted to the priesthood, but his words could easily be construed as an authorial aside. Mo, too, has invited excommunication, from the literary world, by publishing his last two books himself. Certainly his solo voyage under the Paddleless Press imprint has drawn a few vultures to the banks of what is assumed to be shit creek. To cap it all, he has abandoned London after 20 years, in favour of his native Hong Kong. Mo, however, like his latest protagonist, doesn't simply resist the racial, social and professional undertow, he seems positively to relish the challenge of doing so. And if a novelist can sink or swim by nothing more than the quality of his fiction then, on the most recent evidence, this is one buoyant writer.

Renegade or Halo2 (an apt, if off-putting, title) is a multicultural, multi-layered display of imaginative effervescence - literally and metaphorically a mixed-race confection. Halo2, pronounced "hallow-hallow", is a dessert made of incompatible ingredients that prove surprisingly delicious in combination. Rey is both renegade and halo2: born to a Filipina bar-girl by way of a US serviceman, his size and blackness set him apart from his childhood fellows. Taken in, educated and then rejected by the Jesuits, he signs up as a law student, only to flee into exile after being framed for murder. That is about as much plot as you get. From here on, Rey's story is a quixotic, globe-trotting sequence of adventures. The narrative departing from chapter six is the Philippines-to-Philippines shuttle, calling at Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Middle East, Bombay, Plaistow, Cuba and Florida.

The chain of events that transports Rey from place to place is well constructed, although the sound of credulity being strained is audible on a couple of occasions. I found the London section less engaging than the rest, a victim of the city's familiarity amid so much exotica, and the diversion to India is indulgent even within the rambling framework of the picaresque. Nevertheless this is one of those richly entertaining narratives that sweeps a lenient reader along on the momentum of its energy. There are formal and thematic parallels with Salman Rushdie, but Mo is less boastful of his erudition and less densely inaccessible. Like Rushdie, he is preoccupied with the displaced. The novel is peopled with refugees, outcasts, racial hallow-hallows, legal and illegal immigrants, Gastarbeiter, boat people . . . the hotch-potch of humanity that makes up the marginal population of most postcolonial cities.

Mo is an ideal chaperone in this landscape of interlocking prejudices, a world he knows at first hand and has exploited fruitfully in his fiction. This is in every sense an international novel, by a writer brimming with confidence. In Rey Castro he has fashioned a hero at once unique and archetypal. An outsider even in his own country, a perpetual misfit, a victim of racism who somehow survives within the armour of his own sense of identity. His tale could make you depressed about the common language of interracial animosity. That it doesn't is due to the upbeat tone that suffuses the writing and to the narrator's irrepressible optimism. Mo, like his creation, may be something of a "weird mouthful", but the sourness and sweetness of non-conformity do not appear to have left him embittered.

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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