Nigel Slater was brought up in the fifties as a shy single boy in a middle class family.  His father was the manager of a small factory and constantly irritable.  His mother was seriously ill with a lung complaint.  Nigel was lonely; his interest in food developed because he was hungry for some variety in his diet;  hungry for affection.  His mother couldn’t cook.  When in doubt, as was frequent, she made toast.    

On the night, she died, his father couldn’t tell him.  Later Mrs Potter (Joan) entered their lives as a cleaner.  She was brassy, canny and efficient, seduced Nigel’s father by the way she looked at him as she polished the brasses and how she wiggled her bottom as she dusted under the dresser.  She made housework irresistibly erotic.  And she was a wonderful cook.  Her steak and kidney pudding  was a work of art; her lemon meringue pie sheer sensuous delight.   

She caused quite a stir when Mr Slater took her to the Masonic Lodge dinner.  The ladies looked askance with grudging admiration.  ‘She may be as common as muck but she certainly knows her cleaning fluids.’   Smitten, Mr Slater proposes and buys a house for them all in the country.  Nigel is very unhappy and competes with Joan for his father’s attention by learning how to cook,  but Joan undermines him by forgetting the afternoons he returned home with a meal.   One afternoon, Nigel returns to find that his father had died mowing the lawn.  Joan announces, ‘it’s just us now, kid,’  but Nigel has other ideas.  He walks out of her life into the kitchen of the Savoy.  

This film emphasised the traumas that could befall teenagers when parents transgress family taboos.   Nigel, traumatised by grief for his mother, could not tolerate his father’s new found sexual interest in Mrs Potter and resented her intrusion into his father’s life.   He felt excluded, rejected from my own family,  betrayed by the one he should be able to trust.  He was a prisoner in his own home, yet he could not leave while his father was alive.  Home life not only has to be boring enough to want to leave it but stable enough to be able to.  To leave home, teenagers must neither need nor care for their parents.  Nigel could only do that after they had both died.   He became a wonderful chef and food writer,  but kept the idealised view of home alive in his writing and cooking. 

The film made me think about Stephen, my stepbrother.  His father, Ron, fought a successful campaign for custody after divorcing Margaret, only to put him his the care of first his own parents and then my mother, Doris, who had divorced Wallace to be with Ron.  But Doris resented his presence; ‘I’ve got one chance of happiness and I’m not having it spoilt by that little brat.’  Stephen and I  weren’t close; we never really lived together.  Mum had already left me in Taunton to board at school and then I got a sequence of live in jobs before going to university.  I didn’t really see Ron’s house as home; we’d already left home two years previously.  But Stephen must have been very unhappy.  He wrote me an letter after Ron died, disappointed and angry that he was never mentioned in the will.  Stephen came out in his late teens, about the same time Nigel acknowledged he was gay.    

Lee Hall’s rewriting of Nigel Slater’s book, Toast, the story of a hungry teenager, was screened on BBC1 on December 30th.   Helena Bonham Carter was so sexy as Mrs Potter and yet last week she was also perfect as the dutiful consort  in the King’s Speech.   Nigel’s stepsisters were upset by the portrayal of their mother, which they considered inaccurate.  This week, Agnatha von Trapp, the last surviving von Trapp sister, died.  She had reputedly never got over the fact that her father, Captain von Trapp, was depicted as a strict martinet in The Sound of Music.       

Advertisements