Food programmes are having a strange effect on me: I watch them and feel nauseated. Masterchef, The Great British Bake Off, Great British Menu, half a dozen others. In the past I’ve watched and loved them all, sharing the exhilarating triumphs and gut-wrenching despair of the trembling hopefuls. A thousand times I’ve held my breath with them, waiting for the axe to fall: ‘The person leaving us this week is… Wendy.’ Cue the tears and blotchy, shell-shocked face — and that’s just me.
But lately something’s changed. I noticed myself finding the way the experts and chefs talked about the food vaguely distasteful, and the feeling grew stronger. It came to a head during an episode of Masterchef when some ‘executive chef’ was instructing an eager wannabe in the method of assembling his signature dish. The poor contestant placed a quenelle half a centimetre to the right of where the chef wanted it. ‘No.’ The guy looked deadly serious, as if he were delivering news of a terminal illness. ‘That’s no good. Do it again.’
That’s when I realised what was troubling me: these people actually think this stuff matters. Lengthy lists of obscure ingredients are subjected to a bewildering succession of processes, transformed into the most unlikely dishes, and assembled for service with intense, squinting precision. But is the ‘explosion of flavours’ these deluded foodies rhapsodise about when they describe their dishes really any better than a standard-issue bacon sandwich?
It sounds like a bit of a cliché to say that living in reduced circumstances gives you perspective and teaches you what is really important, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I think a great many prisoners learn to appreciate that there really is a difference between what you want and what you need. And nobody needs food to look like art. With the right mindset, our happiness is not at all dependent on having the things our modern, lifestyle-obsessed culture tells us we should want. This is hardly an original observation, but long-term prisoners are in a unique position to confirm its veracity.
I’m writing this from a cell a touch under seven square feet. This is my bedroom, my study, my music room, my dining room, my gym — it’s even my garden. In this little room I prepare and eat food, read, write, play guitar, watch TV, exercise, sleep, tend my plants; and I’ve done this for so long I don’t feel even slightly cramped. I think of houses I’ve lived in and I cannot fathom what I used to do with all that space. It seems to me that people lay out their rooms and homes with massive empty stretches of floor between all their stuff for no reason at all. Think about it: what is the point of all that vacant acreage? When I picture where and how I want to live after prison, I think the kind of cheap little flat usually rented to debauched students will be more than big enough for me (once it’s had a thorough clean).
These reflections have made me wonder how long this enlightened attitude can survive post-release? This is my first (and only, please) sentence so I don’t know if the acquired perspective and humility lasts. I hope so. My current cell doesn’t even have a toilet — there’s a night sanitation system. You press a button and wait for the door to click open and let you on to the landing, never more than one prisoner at a time, so my access to the recess means waiting in a virtual queue with a load of other guys. (Note to Parliament: ‘slopping out’ did not end in the 1990s.) The same was true of my last jail, so it’s been ten years since I experienced the incredible luxury of having my own loo, my own sink, and the opportunity to use them without having to queue for an indefinite period of time. Several hours sometimes. When I finally get that privilege back, I’ll never take it for granted again.
If the privations of prison — moderate privations, in the grand scheme of things — mean that we take a measure of humility back out into the world with us, along with a healthy indifference to the prevailing culture, we should try never to lose it. Certainly, if ever you see me in a chic restaurant, peering at a meal elaborately arranged on a piece of artisanal slate, making sniffy comments about the ‘presentation’, you have my permission to get me recalled to prison.
Anyway, I must dash — Great British Menu’s on.