Beryl Bainbridge

Diary - 1 February 2003

All one needs is celery

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I was brought up to pay little attention to vegetables, apart from beetroot, which was served every day, and carrots, of which we had two each on a Sunday, on the grounds that they enabled Spitfire pilots to see in the dark. And then last week I arranged to meet a friend in the bar of the Waldorf Hotel, and while waiting ordered a vodka-and-lime, no ice. After some time had passed, a small vase arrived with an enormous stalk of celery stuck in the middle and a radish floating alongside. Up until this moment, I had been feeling fairly gloomy - whether we are content or in a disturbed frame of mind depends, ultimately, upon the kind of thoughts that pervade our consciousness - but after half an hour spent sucking on the celery stem my mood altered, and I found myself humming. My friend having arrived, we crossed the road in the direction of Somerset House, and once there sat in a plastic tent watching the skaters glide and tumble upon the ice rink. A strange thing happened; the faces sweeping by, the outlines of the magnificent buildings, the small stars in the night-sky became magnified, clear as crystal. The radish I still held lay like a rose in my palm. Forget carrots. All one needs is celery.

Camden Town High Street could be mistaken for the set of a gangster movie. Down-and-outs swearing at you as you pass, police cars with sirens wailing speeding towards Kentish Town, bicycles careering along the pavements, large dogs sprawled across their owners outside the back entrance to Marks and Sparks. Last week my grandson became the victim of something called the Lebanese Loop. He had just put his credit card into the hole-in-the-wall outside the NatWest bank and tapped in his numbers, when someone clapped him on the shoulder. He turned round, and a man asked him where such and such a street might be. At that moment another man finished the transaction, grabbed the money but not the card, and they both ran off. The origin of the term hole-in-the-wall is rather interesting. In the 19th century the prisons had openings in the outer wall to allow relatives to pass food inside. Wasn't that kind, and ultimately so much cheaper than today's arrangements?

Once a week, more or less, I meet my friend Anselm for breakfast in El Sordido's down the road. It is the most excellent cafZ in the world; their eggs, bacon, fried bread, sausage and tomato - you can have chips if you want, even at eight in the morning - are unbeatable. Many people of great intellect, though not quite the equal of Anselm, can be seen there in the early morning poring over books on philosophy, dictionaries at their elbow. Over the last few years we have seen many regrettable changes in the view from the window. Where once a sweet old lady could be seen doing a wee-wee into a paper bag, there is now a freshly laid pavement, and on the wall of the nearby building a mysterious sign, apparently made out of watercress, spells FARM. As there is not a cow or a hen in sight, nor any explanation, this remains a puzzle. We talk about many things of great profundity, particularly related to the happenings of the previous week. Anselm says that Pythagoras recommends we review each night the doings of the day. So I told him about the Lebanese Loop, and he was very curious and rather animated, until I got to the bit about the money being stolen, at which he seemed to lose interest. Turns out he thought I'd said Lesbian Loop.

My youngest daughter, her husband and three children have gone to live in the wilds of Scotland for a year. There are only 13 in the local school, aged from five to 11 and all in the same classroom. They cannot get television, or carrots for that matter, but phone calls are free after six o'clock, and there's a mountain and a loch outside the window. There's also a farm at the bottom of the hill and they were all invited to watch the birth of a lamb, after which the farmer told them they should avoid eating the meat because it was full of additives. The mother got her baby through a needle; the foetus was injected with chemicals to make it grow fat; the lamb was injected with antibiotics as soon as it slipped out, and most of them perished anyway. A lamb, he said, was born to die. My daughter says that the children all turned very pale and have now become vegetarians, which is not easy as there are no supermarkets. Salmon is out, too, as most of it comes from the salmon farms and they're full of additives as well. My littlest grandson phoned me after six o'clock and said that eating food was disgusting.

Some weeks back I went to see Hugh Massingberd's play Ancestral Voices, based on the diaries of James Lees-Milne, that great conservationist, biographer and man of waspish wit. I took with me a young man of 19 who spent most of the interval asking me who the hell Lord Redesdale was, not to mention Vita Sackville-West, Kitty Mersey, and Norman St John-Stevas. And who was Chatsworth? A poet, was he? It's odd, isn't it, how the past gets forgotten. I wonder if the young man's children will one day ask who Mrs Thatcher was, or what exactly happened to Princess Diana. Judging by the way education is going, perhaps they won't have heard of Matthew Arnold or Dickens or even Shakespeare. And will it really matter? What has knowing the works of those names done for any of us, beyond filling our heads with words?

The other day I received a letter from the Liverpool corporation telling me all about the wonderful new scheme they have for refurbishing the old cemetery of St James's Mount. Would I perhaps give a donation? I wrote back and said that I'd prefer it if they took to court those persons still living who tore out the angels with wings and the tombstones, including that of Mrs Hemans - she who wrote 'The Boy stood on the burning deck' - and generally wrecked the cemetery in the 1960s. It's a bit on a par with the list the city has circulated in a bid to become the cultural centre of Europe, which features Michael Owen shooting more goals in a season than anyone else and the opening of the John Lennon airport. It's enough to make one weep. Perhaps I should just lie down and gnaw on a stick of celery.