Thursday, April 07, 2011

Filthy Foreign Food

This Michel, as indefatigably Gallic as his mother, had been cooking for himself in his small London flat, and had in the last few days made himself ill by stuffing himself with filthy foreign food of his own preparation, in particular, Dixon gathered, spaghetti and dishes cooked in olive oil. This seemed fit punishment for one so devoted to coagulated flour-and-water and peasants' butter-substitute, washed down, no doubt, by' real' black coffee of high viscosity.- Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis, 1954

The past is, as they say, a foreign country.  In another novel, I might be inclined to see a satirical snobbery in this passage but then, those would be novels that don't take "Decent Englishman beset by insufferable arseholes" as their subject material.

After all, spaghetti Bolognese is now a staple of the British diet, coming in right next to fish 'n' chips and a mile behind chicken tikka masala, as best I can tell, and yet in 1954 it seemed deeply queer - in the old, though not-so-different meaning of the word - to one of the country's most celebrated authors.

Lucky Jim is still a cracking read, if not quite so hilarious as advertised, and its repressed, raging protagonist's war with the world in general has long since been hijacked as a British comic standard, and with good reason - Mark in Peep Show, Tim in The Office; maybe even Basil Fawlty, if you cranked up the snobbery.

Nonetheless, I couldn't help taking away the impression of it as an evolutionary step in modern British wingnuttery.  Chip away the comedy stylings and the snappy wordplay, and you're left with a parade of capricious, uppity women; bumptious Celts and the plummeting educational and cultural standards of the modern era.

It's all here - the ostentatiously demanding and self-involved females; the cavalcade of insolent Welches, Michies, O'Shaughnessys, McCorquodales and Ap Rhyses, and the damnable, interfering bureaucracy elevating dunces above their station.  Chuck it into a cocktail shaker and shoogle it up with a dash of multiculturalism and feminazism, and it's the Daily Mail with funny jokes.  It's quite an achievement on Amis's part that he's able to maintain Jim Dixon as a sympathetic character, when he basically whines and complains about everything from start to finish.

Not that this was particularly new in its day, of course - that old quote about how the people of England are never happier than when they are told they are ruined was minted in 1758.  Still, it makes plenty of sense to me that the great and the good were busy complaining of how Britain was going to the dogs, twenty-five years before I was born.

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