A single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want not of a wife but of a cookery book. The celibate hero/narrator of Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea, Charles Arrowby, despises marriage. His diary records his eccentric menus. One evening, he writes: "I had an egg poached in hot scrambled egg, then the coley braised with onions and lightly dusted with curry powder, and served with a little tomato ketchup and mustard. (Only a fool despises tomato ketchup.) Then a heavenly rice pudding." That light dusting of curry powder gives the game away. The novel, first published in 1978, describes an era when supermarkets as we know them did not exist and grocer's shops certainly did not routinely stock overpriced, plastic-encased "fresh" herbs and spices. In those days few white English people knew how to make curries. My mother would put dried curry powder, along with sultanas, into a dark yellow sauce to accompany the remains of the Sunday joint. And very heavenly I thought it was, too.
Charles, a 60-year-old actor, has withdrawn to a house by the sea to live the contemplative life. The village shop does not cater for gourmets: "Of course it is quite impossible to buy fresh fish here, as all the villagers tell me with pride." Accordingly, Charles purchases "deep-freeze kipper fillets (the poor man's smoked salmon)". These he unfreezes in sunshine followed by boiling water and eats for lunch "garnished with lemon juice, oil, and a light sprinkling of dry herbs". With them, he serves fried tinned new potatoes, then Welsh rarebit and beetroot.
Charles devotes several pages to discussing food. He means to describe his house but gets sidetracked into recording what he had for lunch: "Anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil . . . Then bananas and cream with white sugar . . . Then hard water-biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese." Charles never touches foreign cheeses: "Our cheeses are the best in the world."
Wisely, this Epicurean philosopher opines that one of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats. What a genius! Why have we, as a decadent, consumerist culture, forgotten that? How much more content we should be if, like Charles, we learned to cook quickly, not to despise the lowly tin-opener, to go on picnics, always to use proper table napkins and to offer guests "simple joys" such as fresh, hot buttered toast with bloater paste, spaghetti with dried basil, or plain boiled onions with bran, soya oil and a little cold corned beef.
Once he begins to pursue women again, Charles abandons his "intelligent hedonism" and his gourmet rituals. Alas. From then on the novel goes downhill all the way.