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17 March 2021

It seems a bottomless pot of couscous may be a good way to test my sanity

Watching Ridley Scott’s The Martian, I feel a sudden affinity with Matt Damon eating his umpteenth meal of the same old same old.

By Nicholas Lezard

I have been rationing my telly streaming, partly as a matter of discipline, for the past year. As I think I mentioned once, I signed up to the appallingly named BritBox because it had all of Inspector Morse and its prequel, Endeavour (I will never watch Morse’s sequel again, because it has that tool Laurence Fox in it, and if he reads this, which is admittedly highly unlikely, and thinks I’m “cancelling” him, then let him fill his boots). It now has all the original series of Minder, which comes with a warning along the lines of “comes with attitudes representative of the times” – and there are some astonishing moments – but on the whole the episodes stand up as examples of comic brilliance.

Why, I wonder, this retreat into the past? I suppose the answer is obvious, really, the present being a somewhat dreary place, and when Minder was running I was “studying” for A-levels; when Morse was running I was with the woman I was to marry, long before the wheels fell off that relationship.

But last week I thought I’d switch to film, recent film, and remembered that my children had highly recommended Ridley Scott’s The Martian from 2015. This movie, in case you don’t know it, is about an astronaut who is left for dead on Mars by his crew, and faces years of isolation while Mission Control tries to work out how to, or even if they can, bring him back again.

I soon began to realise that this might not be the best film to watch during lockdown – especially as we were coming up to the anniversary of the first one. I do not think I need to belabour the points of comparison. I find myself both horribly drawn to, and deeply upset by, films in which isolation is a key feature; I remember Cast Away giving me the willies when I saw it for the first and only time. (I think I nearly fainted with empathy when Tom Hanks lost Wilson the volleyball.)

Anyway, there’s Matt Damon stuck in quite literally the middle of nowhere for the foreseeable future, and I am gripping the arms of my chair in a state of near-panic. The joy of the film is how his character uses his loaf to work out how to survive in such a hostile environment for so long (the film makes much of its verisimilitude). His biggest triumph is that by using human excrement he manages to grow a sustainable crop of potatoes. The only problem with this, and I suppose it’s not too much of a problem considering that the alternative is starvation, is that the only thing that he is going to be eating is nothing but potatoes for the next God knows how many days, and if things go wrong, for the rest of his life.

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[see also: Which of two distractions to concentrate on: a Twitter spat or a hand that has turned blue?]

At this point the film began to resonate at an even deeper level, for a couple of days before I had made myself couscous. By which I do not mean the grain itself, that’s beyond my skill. I mean the stew that goes with it. That’s relatively easy: all you need really is a knowledge of the spices involved, and some decent harissa – not a problem for me as there is an amazing Middle Eastern grocery, the Taj, two minutes’ walk down the road. Also, I was taught how to make it even more properly by my Tunisian friend Sonia.

Here is the problem: even though you only need one potato, one courgette, one small aubergine, one onion, one carrot, one tin of chickpeas and one tin of tomatoes to make a decent Tunisian couscous (use fine couscous if you can), plus a few merguez sausages if you can get them, this all adds up to five days’ worth of food for the solitary diner.

Now, to adapt Damon Runyon’s words on Nicely-Nicely Jones, I dearly love to commit eating couscous – the first time I tried it, in Paris, it was a where-have-you-been-all-my-life-moment – but there is a limit to how often one can eat the same meal every evening. And I have a horror of throwing food away (this can get to be a problem if one does not keep one’s fridge in good order, but that’s a revolting story for another day. And don’t say “freeze it”; I don’t trust my freezer, and there’s no room in it anyway).

So when I watch Matt Damon eat his umpteenth meal of potatoes while terribly conscious that later on I am going to be on my third meal in a row of the same old same old, and the amount in the pot doesn’t even seem to be shrinking, I experience a kind of hyper-panic that I suspect is not suffered by even the most suggestible of the film’s ordinary viewers.

I fully realise that this is not a logical reaction. In fact, it might even mean that I am going mad. After all, I am not a bad cook and my couscous is delicious, if I say so myself. But we need a bit of change and we’re all going a bit mad anyway, aren’t we? 

[see also: For most of us, lockdown life will pass. But for some, there is no “getting back to normal”]

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold