Show Hide image

Breakfast of champignons

At what mute, inglorious juncture in the history of British cuisine did the "all-day breakfast" make its appearance? I can't recall it being scrawled on a yellow cardboard sunburst in Magic Marker until the early 1990s - which makes sense, dating it to the same era as 24-hour rolling news and the export of western values through the cross hairs of a USAF bombardier.

This is not to suggest that Saddam could have been ousted during the first Gulf war by laser-guided egg, bacon, sausage, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, chips and toast - but the all-day breakfast coincided with a devastating new onslaught by irony on Britain's social structure. Certainly, as the British middle classes loft-converted their way out of the recession of the early 1990s, they began eating all-day breakfasts (or "fry-ups", as these are known to graduates), while washing them down with copious amounts of "builder's tea". Before this jumbling of mores, a café was a caff, and its clientele was decidedly proletarian.

Greasy does it

Lunching with the writer Nick Papadimitriou at the Max Café on the Wandsworth Road, we mulled over caff food as we dabbled our chips in the shocking fauvism of our oval platters. Nick observed that the meal was a Proustian madeleine, a sense datum linking one unerringly to the past. But which past specifically, I wanted to know? Nineteen seventy-four, Nick snapped - it's always associated in my mind with leaving Emerson, Lake and Palmer concerts feeling incredibly hungry. But why, I pressed him, were you famished after prog-rock gigs? He grimaced: because they went on and on and on - especially Greg Lake's bass solos.

Socially descending, I had also taken to the caff in the mid-1970s, during a period when I took jobs as a road sweeper and a brickie's mate as a means of working off my Levin complex. My man-of-the-people shtick didn't last long, but it did leave me with the conviction that bulky, high-fat caff meals were an essential part of manual labour - or, at any rate, industrialised society. It seemed to me that the origins of the full English blowout must lie deep in the Depression of the 1930s; that the key component was the "tea-and-two-slices" that Orwell described as the dismal staple diet of the lumpen proletariat, during his wanderings down and out in London. The trimmings, I hypothesised, must have been added one by one - egg, then bacon, then sausage, etc - as affluence seeped in. Probably not until the early 1960s (when the rockers were doing a ton-up on their way up the Great North Road to the Ace Café) was the repast we now know fully assembled.

No smoke without fryer

Although we grew up only a couple of miles apart in north London, Nick's take on the "tea-and-two-slices" was quite different: I loved the sound of it when I read Orwell, he told me. You've got to understand that there were weekends in our house when if my dad had gambled his pay packet, there was nothing to eat but bread and marge, so for me it's always been a weird form of comfort food.

I'd asked for chips but no toast, while Nick had requested toast but no chips; however, we both got both - which seemed only fitting, buried as we were deep in the carbo-pap of yesteryear, the great whitish foundation that underpins the steadily depreciating asset of contemporary Britain.

Still, we'd enjoyed our all-day breakfast at the Max Café; everything was as we recalled it - the skyline of squeezy sauce bottles, the crystal minaret of a Sarson's vinegar shaker. The tabletop was even Formica, its splodge-dots reminiscent (at least for those of us who went to too many prog-rock gigs) of the paintings executed by Henri Michaux under the influence of LSD.

We had drunk white mugs of stewed tea, and now the definitive seal of the all-dayer was upon us: that film of yolk, fat and tannin that's tangible to the tongue as it seeks to free a twist of bacon gristle from between molars. Nick was slightly amazed that the health fascism de nos jours hadn't done for the caff blowout, but I pointed out that while a tabloid still lay on the counter (blazoned with reassuring paranoia: "Freed after using sword on intruder"), there was one element missing from the Max Café: the smirch of tobacco smoke. Without this sepia overlay, there was no disputing the clarity of the present: this was indeed 2010, and so the indigestion commenced.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum