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Issue 2

My Victorian Appetite

A young American in 70s Britain

WORDS BY ALEXANDER LOBRANO
ILLUSTRATION BY JUN CEN 

The year was 1976 and a restless young American was looking for a change. Fascinated by the Victorian age and eager to shrug off his privileged milieu, Alexander Lobrano escaped his East Coast college to spend a year studying in England. Here, he recalls the country he found, the people he met and the unpretentious food he came to love.

 

The hard, handsome blonde woman hid her stump in a thick navy-blue wool mitten. With her remaining hand, she deftly lit one Gold Leaf cigarette after another with a quick flick of a match on the long metal file on the table next to her. The electric fire glowed orange in the glazed brown-tiled grate, rain lashed the window of the lounge behind thick curtains, and we pretended to listen to the radio. I stared at the fire, and Mrs Dixon stared at me.

She knew that there was only one reason why a preppy, upper-middle class American student on an exchange year in England could possibly have ended up in the lounge of her terrace house in a rundown industrial town in the Midlands. And that was, well, sex. This was what explained the – on the face of it – sociologically improbable relationship between me and her stunningly handsome son, Jeremy, whom I’d met a few months earlier at a smoky club in Earls Court.

Once or twice since Jeremy had gone out to buy booze – Babycham for his mum, Strongbow cider or whatever red wine was cheapest for me, lager for himself, plus more fags, and bread, eggs and back bacon – we’d exchanged smiles. Then I quickly returned my gaze to the trio of electric bars wired into a curved chrome stand that was meant to reflect some warmth. The heat was sufficiently strong for me to wonder vaguely if my trouser legs might eventually burst into flame. But behind my back, the cool dampness in the room crept up my spine and made me shiver from time to time. 

I sat down at the kitchen table, pinched one of her cigarettes, took a slug of Babycham and marvelled at how much my life had changed

“Did Jeremy tell you what happened to my hand?” asked Mrs Dixon, who kept insisting I call her Sheila, though she knew full well I wouldn’t, because it would break a social taboo too deeply ingrained. I always addressed my mother’s friends by their last names: Mrs Hauge, Mrs Blundell, etc. I nodded.

“I’m so very sorry, Mrs Dixon.” She snorted. “I bet you are, love,” she said and took a sip of her Babycham. “I worked in a hosiery mill, Alec. That’s what we used to make around here. And the machine I was on kept sticking, didn’t it? The cold weather made the grease seize up, you know. Hadn’t been properly cleaned since the war, I expect. So I stopped it and reached in to fix the jam. But then the brake broke. I didn’t feel a thing, but I did hear meself scream.” She paused to light another cigarette. “So now I’m living the rest of my bleeding life with just one hand, cuz a bunch of old cunts in Mayfair needed their silk stockings, didn’t they?”

In a silence the radio couldn’t completely fill, I kept hoping to hear the metallic rustling of Jeremy’s keys in the lock. “Do you like chips, Alec?” “Oh, I do. Very much.”

“Let’s get to work then.”

We went into the kitchen, with its old cooker and deep enamelled sink, and sat at the kitchen table, where I peeled some potatoes and cut them up the way Mrs Dixon showed me. She put them in a bowl of cold water and covered them with a cloth. Then, standing side by side at the counter, we made a sauce with salad cream, ketchup, Colman’s mustard, dried parsley and a little malt vinegar.

“Pink and pretty, tastes nice too,” said Mrs Dixon, who sampled it with a swipe of her index finger. 

salad cream


Next I chopped up the leftover gammon steak from lunch and mixed it into the sauce. Mrs Dixon found a stalk of withered celery at the bottom of the fridge, so I chopped that up too and mixed it into the salad.

“Course, if I’d known how fancy you’d turn out to be, I might have bought a little tin of pineapple,” she said, playfully prodding my backside with her stump.

She told me that after the accident she’d gotten her job as a crossing guard (or ‘lollipop lady’ as they called them in Britain), because a man working for the council fancied her. Then she had a good rant about Jeremy’s father, a lorry driver who went off to Canada one day without so much as a word.

“Goes nice with the gammon, it does. Hot or cold both, it’s just as good. Can’t say why really, since you don’t see pineapples growing around here, do you, love?”

When she put on a plastic bonnet to walk through the rain and use the loo at the bottom of the garden, I sat down at the kitchen table, which was covered with an oilcloth with a meteor-shower motif. I pinched one of her cigarettes, took a slug of her Babycham and marvelled at how much my life had changed in such a short space of time. 

A greasy newspaper cone of fish and chips or a good fry-up in a cafe with mint-green Formica tables moved me in ways Robert Browning never would

“I’ll pay your tuition fees, but I won’t give you any money to live on,” my father had said when I’d told him I wanted to study in London. This was his way of keeping me enrolled at the small but prestigious college in Western Massachusetts that he’d attended and loved, and which I loathed for its atmosphere of generational privilege and preppy camaraderie. But I took him up on his dare with rather little thought, and worked all summer to arrive in London with nowhere near enough money to live on for a year – reckless, perhaps, but also possessed of a newly dawning boldness.

When my London-bound Air India 747 lumbered down the runway in New York on a sparkling September morning in 1976, little did I know I was soon to become a student not just of Thomas Hardy and William Morris as planned, but of pie and beans, jellied eel and treacle tart. My decision to study abroad was born of an obsessive fascination with Victorian Britain, its literature, art, architecture and engineering – especially the massive steel-girder railway viaducts leading into the grand neo-Gothic stations of cities like Glasgow and Birmingham that seemed to be on the verge of becoming Ozymandias-like monuments. With no premeditation, but rather inevitably, I also became an avid pupil of the cooking and foods that had nourished the Victorian builders.

What I immediately discovered when I arrived in London was that a greasy newspaper cone of fish and chips or a good fry-up in a cafe with mint-green Formica tables not only moved me in ways Robert Browning never would, but that these foods created a potent personal intimacy with a period of time and a way of life I’d never known. Alluringly salty, fatty, crispy, savoury and sour, the Victorian working man and woman’s diet was easy to love. It was cheap, comforting, humble and easily shared. 


carrots

After answering an ad in Time Out, I ended up sharing a room with a lovely Australian in an unheated maisonette in Fulham Broadway where the two other couples were Irish-Scottish and Rhodesian-Welsh. Since I had no money, I lived in a way that was light years removed from my affluent, emotionally chilly upbringing in leafy and somewhat smug suburban Connecticut. I was broke, shy, educated and American, and so a total puzzle to the people who casually populated my daily life in Fulham. Why, wondered Dimitrios, the Cypriot barber who ran the shop below our maisonette, would anyone willingly forsake all of those casual American comforts seen on television – central heating, kitchens with huge fridges, dishwashers and so on.

This was a time when Fulham was still home to hard-working immigrants and retired civil servants who’d have blushed if you’d struck up a conversation about hanging baskets, those suspended pots of flowers and greenery that have now become one of the gentrified borough’s most clichéd emblems; in their ears, the phrase might even have sounded rather naughty.

Always quick with a saucy remark, the kind ladies of the North End Road Market gave me broken carrots and bruised potatoes when they broke down their stands, plus the occasional bosomy hug or pinch on the cheek, while the maiden librarians at the large red-brick public library near where I lived made me misty-eyed when they invited me to their private Christmas party in the staff office. They sent me home – woozy from too much Harvey’s Bristol Cream – with a tartan carrier bag filled with homemade mince pies and a tin of frosted biscuits which, when I opened it, smelled softly of bedsit, or talcum powder and sour milk. 

My favourite restaurant had a waitress called Tracey who was constantly telling people that the frilly white curtains in the front window were made from her old knickers

I felt oddly peaceful at Mrs Dixon’s kitchen table, partly because I was tired but mostly because I felt safe. It had been a long, wet, dark journey from Liverpool, where I’d spent the previous day studying the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Walker Art Gallery, to this steep street of sooty brick houses in a Midlands mill town. But I was keen to see Jeremy, and I’d liked the things I’d eaten in smoky little cafes along the way. A plate of scouse and mashed swedes with milky tea for a few coins in Liverpool before I got my train, then a sultana scone with strawberry jam in Birmingham, and finally a nice bacon bap in Coventry before I got a bus in the drizzle to Jeremy’s home town. In those days, I was hungry all the time.

We’d met a month before in a grotto-like bar in Earls Court, and had quickly become inseparable, because, aside from both of us wanting lots of sex, the other thing we liked to do was eat. Jeremy, it turned out, worked as a verger at a London cathedral. The best part of his job was the flat that came with it, which had a bathtub that overlooked London Bridge. The cook for the clergymen usually sent their leftovers upstairs to us, but when that didn’t happen we’d go out for scampi and chips, jellied eel and mash, egg-bacon-chips, beans on toast, or steak and kidney pie. 

scampi


The neighbourhood heaved with simple restaurants that served these foods, but my favourite was the one with frilly white nylon curtains in the windows. The pink Formica tables had a Sputnik pattern and were perpetually damp (the rapid turnover of customers was such that they’d always just been wiped clean). There was a waitress called Tracey, who was constantly telling people that the curtains in the windows were made from her old knickers and that she was an old tart and proud of it. Without calling any attention to it, they actually baked their own bread every day and made delicious cakes. Their black pudding, also homemade, was excellent. And because the owner was Anglo-Italian, the spaghetti bolognese was light years from the overcooked pasta in sweet tomato sauce usually found in such places.

That said, I couldn’t quite make myself like tinned spaghetti on toast, and I surprised myself by missing vegetables; the only ones that figured in my new diet were tinned beans, mushrooms and tomatoes (the latter two always served fried), and maybe the occasional soggy, grey Brussels sprout. 

That whole weekend smelt of wet wool, Fairy Liquid, Colman’s mustard, spilt beer and cigarette smoke – all rendered against a larger olfactory canvas of coal smoke and suet

When Mrs Dixon came back inside, she was wearing plum-coloured lipstick and had combed her hair back. Without asking, she poured me some Babycham and sat down at the table.

“My Jeremy’s very handsome, innee?” she said. I looked away in dread. This was the thing I didn’t want to talk about. “You are too, Alec.” “Thank you, Mrs Dixon.”

“So the thing is, could you please take him back to America with you? You see, there’s nothing for him here, love.” I was speechless. And then the handsome Jeremy, with his green eyes and wavy, caramel-coloured hair, walked into the kitchen, and Mrs Dixon and I shared a good, hard cackle. “Wut? Wut is it? Wut, Mum? Wut, Alec?” Jeremy said, and we laughed even harder.

The gammon salad was delicious, as were the nice crunchy chips. The next day Mrs Dixon’s friend Susan came over, and they made a shepherd’s pie, crust and all. That whole weekend smelt of wet wool, Fairy Liquid, Colman’s mustard, spilt beer and cigarette smoke – all rendered against a larger olfactory canvas of coal smoke and suet, because we fried almost everything we ate aside from the gammon salad and the shepherd’s pie. 

gammon


A year later, I went back to America. Jeremy joined the army, eventually moving to Australia. We lost touch. I lived in London a second time after finishing university, and notwithstanding the enduring appeal of Bird’s custard, Branston Pickle and Marmite, the British diet had already started to change during Thatcher’s years. To wit, it was a lot less British.

The once-pervasive public smell of frying, especially with suet, was missing. Then the microwave oven upended everything by ushering in ready-made meals that stirred pleasant memories of holidays taken in Mediterranean countries. Today, of course, you can still find pies of various kinds in British supermarkets, along with Cornish pasties, Scotch eggs and various other British foods like Cumberland sausages, but jellied eel and mash have become a sort of arty heritage food.

For my part, even though I’ve lived in Paris for many years, I still miss the sweetness, sincerity and even the food of the tearooms and caffs that nourished me as a student. I recently confessed this yearning for a lost world that was never really mine to an English friend in London, and she chortled.

“Of course you do, darling – it was all so fascinating to you because you were slumming!”

I cringed, because she was so wrong. I would never have cast the life I lived in those days in such disparaging terms. Instead, I was a little lost, but very happy. And not only do I still have a soft spot for Sheila Dixon’s dressing for a good cold gammon salad with chips, I miss her company, too. She’s gone now, but I often think of her and Jeremy when, despite my French partner’s theatrical revulsion, I occasionally treat myself to beans on toast on a gusty night in Gaul.