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238 pages, Paperback
First published January 15, 2003
An odd book in that you start reading it and only realise after a while what it is. An autobiography told through the medium of food. Which is only logical, I suppose, given that the author is a food critic for The Observer. But I thought it was nicely wrapped – the thing about writing an autobiography and publishing it is that you either have to just write down what happened on the assumption that everyone wants to know about your life, which works if you are Mick Jagger or Hillary Clinton or Paul Auster (assuming you like these people – you've certainly heard of them, which is the start-the-ball-rolling point of (auto-)biographies). Or, if you are not quite so famous, or maybe you’re writing primarily for yourself, to set your life in order, or pick over stuff that bothers you… you have to wrap it up a bit.
So Slater wraps it up in a) understatement (which is why you don’t quite get that it’s an autobiography at all for a few pages) and b) food. Experiences are accompanied by tastes and associations with dishes that his mother served up or which he found out about when he first became interested in making a profession out of… food (first as a cook, then as a critic)
He also wraps it up in a deceptive tone. The voice of the book is sometimes dead-pan, frequently comic, often elusive, and always subtle. The elusiveness is sometimes due to the trick that here is an adult man recounting events from a child’s perspective. As in one of the reasons why the young narrator likes Josh, their gardener:
I liked the way he would let me choose a biscuit … and the way he never turned his back on me when he was drying himself with his frayed green-and-white-striped towel. Exactly. The understatement or the missing information has to be filled in by the reader, which for me is the mark of a good writer. One that lets his readers think for themselves. That’s at the centre of good writing for me, always. It’s what makes writing a fuller, more versatile art form (in many ways) than television or cinema or even theatre. Here, it is clever how Slater tells what he knew then rather than what he knows now. Clever because it re-captures more closely the autobiographical events than if he had written, say, at the time I only realised xxx; what I know now is …. That is more interesting for the reader, because it is interesting to read through the eyes of a child, and then work out for yourself what is, or was, going on. It adds a dimension to the narrative that is very valuable in the sense that it is more realistic, as well as more moving. (And, one suspects, it helps the author work things out, what was going on).
It also, often, adds comedy. As a boy, he wonders why, when he walks the family dog in the late evenings, the cars parked in the car park are occupied, emit grunting noises and jiggle. Of course we know why (there are people shagging in them), and it makes the scene much funnier than if Slater had written something like: at the time I didn’t realise what was going on; what I know now is that the cars were all full of people shagging (LOL) …. Not.
Everything is told through the medium of, or at least with strong reference to, food. So when his mother dies when he is nine (beautifully and movingly described, through the lens of a young boy who didn’t really know what was going on – he didn’t go to the funeral), he describes how his father, touchingly, brought him marshmallows to eat before he went to sleep, because he knew that his son had desribed marshmallows as the nearest thing to kisses, and that it was his mother’s goodnight kisses that he missed most.
I enjoyed this autobiography, partly because elements of it, particularly the descriptions of middle-class dinner parties, morals and food of Britain in the 1970s reminded me of my own childhood, and partly because it was cleverly and sensitively written. I’m not into food or cooking, which the author obviously is – it became his profession and indeed the most important thing of his adult life – but that didn’t matter.
Slater has managed that very difficult thing – an autobiography which, once you have read it, you feel you know its author, but that there had not been too much of the author in it. Nobody likes having a one-sided conversation, when the person who’s talking just never stops talking about themselves. That person is inevitably a crashing bore. Slater manages to talk (write) only about himself, but there is enough in what he says about how he interacted with the world, and what the values and morality and social mores of that world (middle-class Britain in the late 60s and through the 70s) were to make it interesting and entertaining.
With the right voice, autobiographies of relatively unknown people can be interesting. If they are written well. And Toast is such a book.