While researching my Discriminating Guide to London I came across a vogue in restaurants largely in Oliver Twist’s topography of the city for Dickensian fare. Under the guise of honest ’tilled from the soil, bringing the sow to market’ wholesomeness menus are reduced to a most basic level. Fashionable ingredients such as mackerel, beetroot, chops and cabbage wouldn’t trouble the conscience of the Pilgrim Fathers.
Perhaps it is understandable after an age of foam, micro herbs, jus and pansy petal-strewn dishes that chefs return to John Bull cooking of ingredients with a British passport. But it does come to a pretty pass when you leave a Farringdon dining room unchanged since it opened in 1869 £100 lighter after a meal of pork and pickled walnut terrine and a plate of mince served with a few fronds of watercress.
To be fair the Quality Chop House is a favourite of ours and better half footed the bill after a tax bill left me thinking a career picking pockets on Clerkenwell Green might be a serious option. Everything served was beautifully cooked and prettily presented on mis-matched antique china plates. The original wooden chop house booths have romance and the checkerboard linoleum floors, chalk boards and spring flowers arranged in a higgledy-piggledy fashion in milk bottles have charm.
As it happens I prefer chops and cabbage to overwrought haute cuisine and think meadow flowers in milk bottles more appropriate for the Chop House than Moyses Stevens. But there is a sense of unease paying for a single meal what the Victorian working man who ate here in the 1860s would take two years to earn. The average weekly wage in the 1860s was 15 shillings or 75p.
The Dickensian echoes in Clerkenwell and Holborn are strong. Dickens placed Fagin’s den on Saffron Hill roughly behind the De Beers HQ on Charterhouse Street. I understand the structure of the den was a rough sketch of the Oxford Arms; a dilapidated galleried coaching inn in Holborn built after the Great Fire and destroyed in 1876. Moving the den to Saffron Hill would have placed it directly above the Fleet Ditch; a stagnant cess pit that ran the course of Farringdon Street before sliding down into the Thames.
Farringdon and Holborn in the year Oliver Twist was published (1838) were quarters where extreme poverty festered in the darker corners behind the houses of the professional if not aristocratic classes. Dickens was brilliant in showing how fragile the veneer of civilised London was in districts such as Clerkenwell. The feral, violent underclass – Dodger, Bill Sykes, Nancy – moved like quicksilver between the cracks in the divide.
Now we might well think London is an eminently more civilised, safe place to live nigh on 175-years after Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. I would question that theory now there are over 8.6 million inhabitants compared to under 1.5 million in the 1830s. Risk rises with the population.
The fear isn’t so much that Bill Sykes might break in to your house and steal your silver but that fortunes fail and the Marshalsea debtor’s prison beckons. The banks are much more threatening than the criminal classes and, in some cases, are one and the same thing. I often find the past a more comfortable or comforting place than the present don’t you Rowley?
I’ve fought with the ‘do it yourself’ culture that has been imposed on us by the institutions that we used to trust. Online banking, self-service check outs, reading your own metre, click and collect are all variations on the theme of DIY. It’s all terribly clever selling ‘do it yourself’ as a pretence that you are in control. You’re basically doing someone else’s job and eventually doing them out of a job.
I could have wept when I saw the BBC’s squadron of news anchors pretending to film a selfie this morning in the name of promoting a ‘you ask the questions’ initiative ahead of the General Election. So now professional journalists who have spent a lifetime building a respectable career are being forced to sign their own death warrants. Why employ professionals when the public will do the job for free?
Now that everybody’s opinion is ‘valued’ those trained for a specific role are being made redundant. Of course you’d tell me to adapt to the age – survival of the fittest and all that – but what I find hard to bear is the dumb acceptance that technology has to be embraced and accepted as progress. I was barely off the telephone when I was in my pomp as a fashion writer for newspapers. Ironic isn’t it that the communications boom has caused a complete breakdown in leisurely telephone calls and letters.
Thank God we had the tech-free years that we did. I’m feeling vaguely Amish about mobile phones. We managed terribly well without didn’t we darling?