On those sundays when he wasn’t working an extra shift to keep up the mortgage payments on a house he’d never expected to own—his mother actually called him a “traitor to the working class” when he announced that he was planning to become a homeowner—my dad, a telegraphist by trade, did the prep work for Sunday dinner. (Dinner, for those unfamiliar with a fading British vernacular, is the meal referred to as lunch in superior circles; break-fast is breakfast both above and below stairs; and the feast known as dinner by those who hunt foxes is known as tea by those who race pigeons.) Within the bounds of a cuisine that pretty much consisted, in British working-class households during the 1950s and ’60s, of meat and two veg followed by “sweet,” or “afters,” in the form of some kind of spongy pudding leaking strawberry jam into a lake of custard, my parents, Denis and Kitty, were excellent cooks. And they both considered the fact that we had enough to eat a direct reflection of the principle of “fair shares for all,” first introduced into British politics in 1945 only to be demolished by repeated blows from an iron handbag four decades later.
The absence of fair shares from my father’s life prior to 1945 had been particularly acute. My paternal grandfather died when Denis was three years old, plunging Florence (“Flo”) Haney into poverty—and into the rougher parts of the East End, like Canning Town—virtually overnight. Three of her four sons were sent to the Alexandra Orphanage, in North London, the fourth to an aunt and uncle who could afford to feed him. For the first few years, my father once recalled, the food at the orphanage was only a marginal improvement on the gruel immortalized by Dickens. “In the early days, when I was a little child, it was bloody awful,” he said. “Just bread and marmalade for breakfast, sometimes cocoa instead, which came in a basin, and you ate it with a spoon. If you were lucky, there’d be some bits of bread in it. And on a plate beside that, there’d be marmalade again, maybe a dab of Marmite, a bit more bread and butter. And that was your breakfast. Unless you were spindly, like I was, in which case you’d be put on the porridge list.”
As the orphanage contingent trickled home at the age of 14 and found employment with the Commercial Cable Company, where their father had worked, life became a bit less desperate for Flo, who, in the wake of a short-lived relationship, was now a mother for the fifth time. Even so, circumstances still made moonlight flits and skimpy meals unavoidable. Food had to be stretched. Senile bread could be rejuvenated by immersion in milk. A slice of fresh bread packed an increased calorific punch when smeared with condensed milk. Or you could daub it with a farthing’s worth of beef dripping and add a dash of salt. Any bread surviving this onslaught of frugality and resourcefulness became bread pudding. Spotted dick (suet pudding spiffed up with a couple of currants) was usually made on a Sunday and then rationed out to provide no-frills teas (that’s dinners, remember) for a week. Saturdays saw Flo pushing the economic envelope with the purchase of eels, bought from the bucket and chopped up still squirming, or, in a very good week, rabbit, bought off the hook and skinned at home.
This was food keyed to subsistence, to survival. In a down-at-heel corner of a dithering empire, it attracted no adjectives. Perversely, however, I came to develop such an affection for this utilitarian fare, which has very little to commend it nutritionally and absolutely nothing to commend it aesthetically, that from an early age I would sometimes actually feel shortchanged when, for instance, my mother handed me a bowl of peaches, sweet wafers, and ice cream. Why? Because what I really wanted at that moment was a slice of spotted dick. Or a wedge of my dad’s take on canary pudding, which was about as simple as afters could get—a deliciously yellow hemisphere of sweet sponge topped with a plop of treacle. Or maybe, instead of dessert, some bread and beef dripping.
My discovery that in some circles an addiction to the lowlier comestibles is viewed as a character deficiency came at the age of 11, when I gained a place at a nearby grammar school. There, I quickly learned that I was being trained, despite my unquestionably plebeian background, to disguise myself as a member of the class (middle) into which a fair proportion of my companions in academic adversity had been born. Never again would I even dream of evincing in public a passion for condensed-milk sandwiches. Never again would I boast of the ecstasy occasioned in my ancestors by the sight of stewed eels encircling an archipelago of severely mashed spuds. My natural selectivity would go unremarked except within the confines of my own social subspecies; circumstances forced me to acknowledge the inadvisability of revealing myself, at an institution chartered by King Edward VI, to be the progeny of East Enders. For that’s a stratum in which I was—and, churlish though it may seem, still am—thoroughly content to be classified.
Oddly, some of my most vivid memories of the food I enjoyed when very young relate not to meals I devoured in my own home but to those dished up during ritual Saturday visits to my maternal grandparents and my aunt Jackie, who lived in a cavernous house in the northeast London borough of Redbridge. A major source of warmth for the entire building was the stove, from which my grandmother would triumphantly extract glistening platefuls of kippers, mackerel, and impossibly yellow haddock—or, every other week or so, supremely portly bangers (sausages). The customary accompaniment to this steaming cascade was outsize slices of white bread (fondly referred to as doorsteps) slathered with margarine, along with multiple mugs of murderously hot and tooth-dissolvingly sweet tea necessitating numerous trips to the outside lavatory.