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Food for thought

Two unsqueamish chefs adopt a very civilised approach to some unusual dishes

<strong>Could You Ea

Fergus Henderson and Jeremy Lee: I know both a little. I have interviewed Henderson, the chef at St John, and I once went stalking with Jeremy Lee. I was on assignment - kill the stag! - and Lee, who is chef at the Blueprint Cafe by Tower Bridge, was part of a group of cooks who were getting to know the provenance of their ingredients a little better. I took an immediate shine to him because, as we loitered outside our posh private hunting lodge - I knew it was posh because it was bloody cold, and running a bath took about eight hours - he smoked a fag. This gave me hope that I would not be the least fit person in our party. When the others left me behind to die on the black hill, Lee would be there, too, chewing on a last crumb of KitKat, crying for his mother.

And so it proved. I have a distinct memory of the pair of us, crouching miserably in the heather, giant raindrops hanging from the ends of our noses. We hunkered there until the gillie had done for the stag and then happily accepted a lift back down to the lodge in the Caterpillar mini-truck someone had sent up for the carcass. What wimps. Oh well. All of this, I'm afraid, very much added to my enjoyment of Could You Eat an Elephant? (14 January, 10pm), in which Lee and Henderson set out to eat strange animals in faraway places, though I am aware that others might have found it too Pooterish and polite to hold the attention. It was a little . . . restrained for modern tastes. Had it been in the hands of Channel 5, or presented by men less charming and more macho than these two, there would have been lots of repulsive retching and slobbering, and the whole thing would have soon descended into one, long Bushtucker Trial.

As it was, sometimes Henderson and Lee ate the taboo (to us) foods on offer, and sometimes they didn't. Songbirds and horse meat in Italy got the thumbs-up; so did cobra in Vietnam. But elephant in the Kalahari, where the animal is thought a pest, and rats and dogs in Vietnam, got the thumbs-down. I was mildly surprised by this. Both men are admirably practical and unsentimental about meat, especially Henderson, who likes to put squirrel on his menu. They care about the conditions in which animals are reared, on grounds of kindness and, ultimately, taste, but they are not squeamish. I began to be suspicious of their reasoning.

With the exception of elephant, which Henderson refused to eat because he'd had a thing for Babar as a boy, I wondered if they were influenced more by matters of aesthetics and hygiene than anything else. In Vietnam, snakes are skinned alive, yet the duo chowed down perfectly happily on the 13 dishes one reptile can produce. Why? It was clear that the restaurant where they were lunching had expert chefs. The dogs and rats, however, were served at somewhat more downmarket venues, and our heroes saw more behind-the-scenes stuff: the rats had their teeth pulled out so they would not bite those who would later cook them; the dogs were kept in cages the size of lobster pots.

Never mind. What I loved about this film was its lack of hysteria. The disconnect between the British and the animals we eat is tragic and tiresome; it enables us not to think about the conditions in which they are kept and killed, and it makes pathetic drips of us all, as we faff about with plastic and polystyrene and freak out at the mere sight of a feather. Not here, though. "We're a long, long way from the pony club," said Henderson as a horse was led into an Italian abattoir shortly before lunchtime. His commentaries were cherishable: arch and funny, but also unflinching and oddly beady. "This is a singular event," said Lee, as dog thighs appeared on his plate. "Hopefully," said Henderson. Cue laughter and, a little later, a contemplative smoke out back. I would like to see more of them: they are so very civilised. But that, of course, is precisely why they are unlikely to get a more permanent gig.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

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