Made in England: grumbling on the bus, Brexit and pub stodge
There must be many Johns in England who dislike eating from slates, the EU and change
Fish and chips with mushy peas. Photograph: iStock
Claire and I were packed into our seat like a pair of bilious sardines as the bus rattled, swerved and rumbled through the Oxfordshire countryside, roughly thrusting us first in one direction and then another.
Red-faced and sweating after scrambling on board, she had scanned the rows of young, skinny passengers before squeezing in beside the only one who, like herself, was neither.
We bonded quickly with a pleasant little grumble about everything, and Claire said she was hoping there’d be no delays because she was going out for dinner that evening with her husband, their son and his girlfriend.
“That’ll be nice,” I said.
“I’m not so sure about that,” she said.
“My son likes to try new places but John doesn’t like that. He’s very what you might call traditional. He doesn’t like the menus where they call everything something different and you don’t know what it is. And if they come over to the table and say ‘Hi guys’, he’ll just say ‘Right, that’s it’ and we have to get up and leave.”
Their son felt that John should move with the times but John thought it was the times that had got it wrong and ought to change. As she ran through his skirmishes with waiters and restaurant managers down the years, I found myself with John all the way.
“The last time we went out, they gave us the food on slates. John said, ‘Can I have a plate?’ She said, ‘Sorry we don’t do plates, only slates.’ John said, ‘Could you not keep one or two plates in the kitchen for people who don’t like slates?’ ”
John thinks we should have just told them we’re leaving and left and doesn’t think we should give them any more of our money
I said “I couldn’t agree more and what’s more, I didn’t see what was wrong with round, white, normal-sized plates as opposed to huge squares and rectangles and vast, sunken dishes.
“John says that too.”
“And tablecloths. They seem to be banned altogether.”
She looked away and I knew at once that I had gone too far and driven the conversation into a ditch. To be fair, if she had to listen to one grumpy old curmudgeon at home all day, why should she have to put up with another one on the bus?
I decided to change the subject and asked her how she thought Brexit was going.
“John says we should be out already. He thinks we should have just told them we’re leaving and left and he doesn’t think we should give them any more of our money. He says we can compete with the best in the world. He says it used to be Made in England, didn’t it, not Made in Japan or Made in Germany. He says Theresa May is too weak to stand up to them, and I said, ‘It’s a hard job’, but John says if she’s not up to it she should let someone else in who is,” she said.
I nodded and smiled but I wasn’t really listening because while she was rambling on, something crossed my mind.
“Are they gastropubs?” I asked her.
“The places John doesn’t like where they say ‘Hi guys’ and give you your food on a slate. Are they gastropubs?”
“I suppose they are,” she said.
Everyone is fed up with gastropubs, according to the latest edition of the Good Pub Guide, which reports that pretentious food and indecipherable menus are alienating pub goers.
“Pubs and good food now go hand in hand, but many chefs appear to have gone Masterchef-mad. We really aren’t interested in eating kabsa, katsuobushi, matbucha, succotash, tataki or verjus in a pub. We don’t want our dishes adorned with carrot fluff, edible sand or fish ‘foam’. Leave that to the swanky restaurants. We want good, honest pub grub,” it says.
This sounds persuasive enough until you remember that “good, honest pub grub” in England consists of bangers and mash, ploughman’s lunches, Scotch eggs and pies composed of indeterminate meat encased in suet. And if the gastropub can be dispiriting, it is seldom as dismal as the traditional English pub with its slot machine beeping in the corner, the football on the telly, the squelchy, stinking carpet underfoot, the taps along the counter dribbling out their soapy beer and the ever-present chance of getting glassed for looking at someone the wrong way.
For all its talk, the Good Pub Guide has chosen as its pub of the year The Cock at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, which serves a menu including Butternut Squash Bavarois, Honey and Thyme Beetroot Press and a Duck Parcel with pickled carrot and ginger.
John wouldn’t like that.