Thursday, August 26, 2010

Half-Arsed England And The Missing Kidney

Stodge for the English soul...
I spent six weeks this summer in my native England, but feel that the visit can best be summed up by one lunch time in a café in Settle, where I ordered steak and kidney pie with chips and gravy. Not the kind of food you’d want on a summer’s day, you might think, but this was an English summer’s day - outside it was chilly and raining. Okay, so not the sort of food you’d want on any day if you wanted to live a long and healthy life, but English food has a gray, relentless attraction to those who grew up with it, culinary merits aside. It’s always as bad and as good as you remember.

“How was your food?” asked the polite waiter. “Well, I ate the steak and kidney pie with hope in my heart right up to the very last mouthful, but I never found the kidney,” I replied. This was a big mistake. In England, when invited to pass an opinion on something, you must be too polite to tell the truth. Only afterwards do you bellyache, at length but safely out of earshot. It’s not the done thing to cause offence. “That’ll be six pounds 50,” was the indignant response. No urgent enquiries to the chef asking why the hell he’d served up a steak and kidney pie with no kidney. No generous discount or free dessert. Not that you’d want an English dessert, even for free. Dumping jam sponge with custard on top of steak and kidney pie with chips and gravy (even allowing for the absent kidney) would be the gastric equivalent of the bombing of Dresden.

I left the café feeling bad for having complained about the missing kidney. I was the intrusive foreigner who’d offended local sensibilities. In America when you complain, there’s usually compensation if you bitch long and hard enough. In England, after decades of mediocre government, the forgotten imperialists expect everything to be half-arsed. We stayed in a faulty cottage which had the most rudimentary equipment – blunt kitchen knives, cupboards with no backboards, power cuts when you used too many electrical items at once, loose shelves, a stereo and a TV remote control that didn’t work, and not one but two semi-functional barbeques. There was so much to complain about we didn’t know where to start, so we didn’t bother. Didn’t want to make a fuss. After a day or two you get used to it.

On our second day there we watched the half-arsed England football team lose to Germany in the World Cup, looking like they really couldn’t be bothered to play at all. Then the half-arsed weather set in – cool days, cold nights, a surplus of grey clouds, and the inevitable downpour on the day we took the kids to Blackpool. Another day I was on a train from London to Leeds and missed my connection to Settle by a minute. “When’s the next train?” I asked. Three and a half hours. “Why didn’t you hold the connection?” Different train companies, grunted the man at the Leeds station information desk, adding by way of further explanation, “Privatisation.” Even our excuses for things not working are half-arsed.

Since coming back to America, people have been asking me, “Did you have a good summer in England?” It was fantastic, I assure them. Because I’m not one to complain.

13 comments:

Gorilla Bananas said...

Let that be a lesson to you. Don't visit England unless you're the guest of someone rich with a mansion. Are you sure the pie you were served wasn't a steak pie? I don't know what's so good about kidneys, they're just piss machines.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

It most certainly was a steak pie. But kidney was definitely advertised as part of the nutritional deal.

Mark Sanderson said...

You complained? That takes real courage. My cooker packed in recently. I say recently, it was the day of the FA Cup Final, but fortunately my landlord offered to replace it. He did so six weeks later.
A friend suggested I should complain about the delay and ask for money to be taken off the rent in compensation. Needless to say I did nothing of the sort. Not to his face anyway.

No Good Boyo said...

"Muddling through", but where to?

There's a lot to be said for Britain, mainly the (remaining) pubs and the jokes. But food and services are appalling and expensive. I'm increasingly convinced we need to be annexed by the US or become part of Belgium, for our own sakes.

Although there's not been any kidney in steak'n'kidney pie for some time. Just 'nad tubes.

Nathan said...

We just returned from the shores of Lake Superior. Very nice, very good service where we stayed. Try it next time, and come down and visit us in Minneapolis.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Mark - yes, you got your cooker, you shouldn't push your luck. Myself and three mates once had a flat in Walthamstow where the shower didn't work for two weeks. The landlord suggested we go to Leyton Baths until he could get it repaired. So we took the admission costs off our next rent and he was outraged. (Never mind that after a dip in Leyton Baths you needed to stand under a high-pressure shower of industrial disinfectant.)

Oh Boyo, you're right about prices. A quid for a pack of crisps? Last I recall it was 2p. Mind you, that was 1971. 'Nads are full of all kinds of vitamins, I hear.

Nathan - beautiful lakes, quality service. What on earth would I have to moan about?

RawknRobynsGoneBlogWild said...

There wasn't even a slice of liver in that kidney pie?
New follower here, and I like your writing style.
Happy weekend.
Robyn

wee.scotty said...

I feel the same about the pub who charged £3.75 for some warm tinned grapefruit segments with half a glacé cherry on top and called it "grapefruit cocktail". I could have bought five tins of canned segments for that money from Tesco. AND the NZ lamb chop that was like shoe leather (12 quid) AND the squirty cream on top of so-called "chocolate fudge cake". Absolutely disgraceful. Luckily, there are still some good pubs about, the one I chose near Settle was just abysmal.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Oh no, my blog's become the sounding board for angry Scottish pensioners! Do keep us updated on your next fascinating pub meal, wee scotty.

Also, welcome to Robyn - hopefully I'll manage to write something more than every three months to maintain the interest of my globally expanding readership...

Sonja Wild said...

Hey Ian, it's been a while - a series of long and lost years, to be honest - since we've been in contact, but reading your latest blog entry just gave an otherwise foul day some sparkle. I guess the way the British see Great Britain and the way they write about it (and that they can't ever stop writing about it - and complaining) is part of the magic of it all. For us, at least. Because mine is a country of mediocrity too, but no one seems to be able to comment on that with a bit of wit. Almost no one. I still wonder about the kidney pie though. Ever did, ever will. Why on earth? I guess I will always be grateful for NOT having a kidney in my pie. The Missing Kidney may be a mystery, but it might as well be a gift. Or so I think. Hope you are well? Still very happy you liked the chapter about your novel. Still like the novel very much. Would love to hear from you!

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Sonja, just sent an e-mail to your old address, let me know if it hasn't arrived - great to hear from you again. For the information of anyone interested, Sonja is seriously cool - the only German academic I know to have written a doctoral thesis about the place of football in English language fiction. She also supports FC Nuernberg and runs for office in the name of Social Democracy.

Nathan said...

Wow. I feel like I am not getting enough done when I read Sonja's CV.

Sonja Wild said...

Thanks a lot, Ian. Though this has nothing to do with the way I see myself, it is nice to read nevertheless. Your E-Mail arrived safely and I answered yesterday. Not sure though whether my answer went straight to spam due to my funny name ...?