William Skidelsky negotiates a picnic
Picnics with my mother involved as few man-made elements as possible
To celebrate my birthday last week, I decided to have a picnic. It was a decision I reached only after some prevarication, because in my experience picnics can be divisive affairs. I remember my parents arguing when I was young about what our picnics should be like; their attitudes to outdoor eating could hardly have been more different. A picnic organised by my mother would, typically, take place in a rugged location - a field in the middle of nowhere, a windswept beach in Cornwall - and would involve as few man-made elements as possible. From a rucksack, some slices of brown bread, a hunk of Cheddar cheese, a few apples and a Stanley knife would be produced. The Stanley knife would be used to cut the cheese to make sandwiches, before doing duty on the apples. A Thermos of tap water (or orange juice if we were lucky) might also feature.
My father's ideal picnic, by contrast, would take place on a manicured lawn, within close range of our car, from which we would take rugs, fold-up chairs (and possibly a table), wineglasses, as well as a selection of elaborate pre-prepared dishes. As my mother was responsible for most organisational aspects of family life, my father seldom got to realise his picnicking ideal. Nevertheless, it lingered in my mind, a seductive alternative to my mother's way of doing things.
When it came to organising my own picnic, therefore, I was somewhat confused. Whose philosophy should I adopt as my guide? In the end, I think, I managed to steer a course between the two. I chose to hold it in Regent's Park, London - not the most rugged of locations, admittedly, but it could have been Primrose Hill. I provided cutlery and plates, but these were plastic; I certainly didn't bring fold-up chairs. Wine was drunk, but out of paper cups, not glasses. The food was hardly elaborate, but involved a certain amount of preparation. I bought a ham from the butcher's, which I boiled and then glazed with mustard and brown sugar. I made a large bowl of Basmati rice salad (with diced pepper, fennel, tomato, olives and artichoke hearts) and a smaller one of sliced cucumber (dressed with yoghurt, garlic, olive oil and mint). I bought bread and mustard, plums and nectarines; my mother, perhaps betraying her principles slightly, baked a cake.
Even so, things threatened to swing decisively in my father's favour when one guest turned up with something called a "Picnic Concept" backpack - an all-in-one kit replete with plates, cutlery, wineglasses and bottle chiller sections. These are apparently the latest yuppie accessory, especially popular as wedding presents (view the full range at ww.picnicshop.co.uk).
Had my parents been given one of these when they got married, the course of my childhood might have been very different.