Why Borough Market Makes the World a Better Place

LoveBoroughlogoFour days after the attacks on London Bridge and at Borough Market, the Market is still cordoned off. This beautiful public space, at the heart of my local community – and the global food community – with its huge population of residents, workers and visitors, remains at the epicentre of the painstaking and important work that needs to be done after these terrible events.

My friends at Borough Market have generously commissioned me to write some pieces for their website over the last year or two, most recently on the theme of Utopia. That series has only just started, but it in the current circumstances it feels like even more of a gift, and an even more powerful concept, than it did before. For me (and lots of very brilliant scholars – I can’t claim to have thought of this all by myself), Utopia doesn’t mean a descent into unbending ideology or an impossibly perfect design for living. On the contrary, Utopia represents an unfolding, flexible journey of the imagination and a desire to make things better. It’s a constant, pleasurable striving for more humane ways of organising our world and living in it together. Given where we are today, it feels more  important than ever to recognise, celebrate and continue to build on all the aspects of food, place, community and shared culture that Borough Market so consistently and brilliantly brings to us.

It’s hard not to feel helpless in the face of such events, but there are always ways to do something. The Red Cross has designed a particularly brilliant campaign called ‘A Saturday Night for London‘. It’s come up with a way for everyone to raise money, remember those who died and support those suffering in the aftermath by participating in mass acts of public conviviality: exactly the kinds of sociable shared activity we associate with Borough Market, and one of the ways we celebrate our city every day.

The Market and its people are having an incredibly tough and upsetting time, so let’s try to support them however we can. We can all keep in touch using #LoveBorough.  Join this very special community – whether in person or virtually – on its voyage into the future.

To read more on Borough Market as Utopia, go to this page on the Borough Market website.

The Cosmonauts’ Dining Table

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Mir space station base module table, c. 1990. See full detail in the excellent catalogue – Millard, D (ed.) Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. London: Scala, 2014, p 133.

After years of research and diplomacy – and unimaginable feats of transport and exhibition construction – the London Science Museum’s new show, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, is at last underway. Besides setting the record straight on the USSR’s pre-eminence in the development of space travel, Cosmonauts brilliantly expresses not only the technological prowess but also the deep humanity and emotional intelligence underlying these developments. While much of what is on show is impressive and awe inspiring, there is also something deeply moving about seeing Tereschkova’s charred and abraded Vostok capsule, Gagarin’s space suit, contemporary film clips and assorted relics of commemorative souvenirs – a lab coat scrawled with an impromptu celebratory slogan, specially designed china, playing cards and even a samovar. They bring the whole epic adventure back down to earth even as you find yourself gasping in front of an experimental lunar lander and marvelling at the range of technological suiting designed for maximum comfort and safety in every extreme of the space environment.

For me, though, the most thrilling aspect of the exhibition is one of the most basic and ostensibly least exciting: the table from Mir, shown in the photograph above looking as much like a model from Thunderbirds as a relic of the space age. I’ve written and thought about that table, and used it as a core argument for the contrast in space culture between the USSR and the USA, but I’ve never seen even a decent photograph of it before. I knew it was an amazing object, with its central suction device to manage crumbs and its heating compartments for the food; and that the very presence of a dining table was a radical statement of convivial intent in a total habitable space of 90 cubic metres, but I was unprepared for its beautifully designed fold-out sections and contrasting grey-blue and ancient red colouring. It’s still hard to imagine being a Cosmonaut strapped down to dine on some canned chicken stew and Borsch from a tube as the cosmos hurtles by, but seeing an object of this nature and scale certainly helps me to begin to enter that imaginative space. If you are anywhere near London before 13th March 2016, don’t miss it.

Dining with Thomas More

Dinner at Thomas More's house. Episode 2 of BBC TV's adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Dinner at Thomas More’s house.
Episode 2 of BBC TV’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Thomas More’s reputation for asceticism is clearly reflected in the BBC’s new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In episode 2 Stephen Gardiner mutters over a dull and sparse-looking dinner at More’s house that there is absolutely no danger of the household Fool’s excitable behaviour resulting from too rich a diet; shortly afterwards, on the boat journey back to Westminster, he complains to Thomas Cromwell how hungry he is. In contrast we hear that Cardinal Wolsey, even as he travels towards his final downfall, asks his loyal servants urgently to send him quails. Food imagery is used to nice effect to tell us most of what we might need to know about the natures of these men—and the nature of their enmity with one another—on multiple levels.

Likewise, in More’s own island state of Utopia, food-related imagery operates as an effective satirical device and a means of pointing to the everyday realities of life in a better society. Descriptions of communal dining and the collective harvests brought home by city and country dweller alike point the reader to the possibilities of a society in which every citizen contributes to both the production of its sustenance and its enjoyment. Straightforward social and cultural themes such as good husbandry and good eating—including a clear indication of what the right dietary choices are and what they say about people—ground the fiction, underpinning the radical with the commonplace and thus making Utopia a reasonable account of what might be possible.

But Utopians are not the hair-shirted ascetics More himself is often depicted to be. While at pains to point out they chiefly value the joys of the mind, they also pursue the enjoyment of good health, and “the delight of eating and drinking, and whatsoever hath any like pleasantness, they determine pleasures much to be desired.” (83) Individual bodily gratification, experienced without gluttony and excess but with an enjoyable “delectation” in both food and drink, contributes to the fitness and happiness of the body politic. (81-82)

By contrast, the vain and worldly, more impressed with wealth, title and display than simple pleasures and good human fellowship are unable to eat well. Subject to poor taste and bad judgement in their food (as in everything else), they are likely “to accept bitter or sour things for sweet things”. (81) The Utopians’ exploitation of the Zapoletes as mercenary soldiers is partly justified by descriptions of their uncivilised eating habits: “abhorring from all delicate dainties”, they live in ramshackle houses, foraging and hunting rather than cultivating the land. (101) Similarly their bondsmen (or slaves) are said to have an innately corrupt nature, reflected in their willingness to undertake animal slaughter. (64) Though they might enjoy eating meat or fish prepared at a safe distance from the city, no Utopian has blood on his or her hands.

While Utopians eschew boisterous behaviour and excessively sumptuous fare, their communal dinners are not the sparse and joyless affairs served up by More in Wolf Hall. The dining room is designed to be calm and orderly, with due reverence given to the elderly, but children and adults mix at the tables and lively conversation is encouraged. The food is far better than anything one could prepare at home, and within the Utopian order, pleasure and engagement of all the senses is essential. Indeed, “No supper is passed without music. Nor their banquets lack no conceits nor junkets. They burn sweet gums and spices or perfumes and pleasant smells, and sprinkle about sweet ointments and waters, yea, they leave nothing undone that maketh for the cheering of the company. For they be much inclined to this opinion: to think no kind of pleasure forbidden whereof come no harm.” (67)

Whatever the truth of dinner at Thomas More’s house—and whether he allowed himself or his guests this kind of sensual gratification at dinner time or not—I find it very encouraging to consider that from the moment the term utopia was coined it required full exercise of all of the pleasures of the table.

 

[Page references are to the 2008 OUP paperback edition of Utopia. See: More, Thomas, Francis Bacon, and Henry Neville. Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis and the Isle of Pines. Translated by Ralph Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.]