Food for Thought
Once, as you probably don’t have to be reminded, King Belshazzar, that Babylonian bad guy in the Book of Daniel, “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” while carousing with the stolen tableware of the Temple of Jerusalem—a piece of bad manners for which God, unwisely left off the guest-list, slew him. This ancient cautionary anecdote hovers over Burgess’s Any Old Iron, a novel of the first half of the twentieth century, when (like today) the praising of the wrong gods still flourished, with ideologies taking the place of idols—Communism, totalitarianism, nationalism, Anti-Semitism, imperialism, and capitalism. The uninvited guest at the table of twentieth century is the individual, whom a collectivist era has no place for—or if it does, the place is on the menu. The two world wars swallow up liberties and lives on such a scale that an onlooker like David Jones, the paterfamilias of the book’s circle of main characters, leaves it to the next generation to try to make sense of, and they can’t. The narrator, a philosophy student whose sister marries into the Jones family, arrives at a nihilism so thoroughgoing (“The value of life was a kind of Schopenhauerian illusion fostered by the survival mechanism,” etc.) that he makes a career-change and becomes a terrorist: “spatter [people] out of existence with a brengun and they wouldn’t be missed.” Jones’s son Reginald, as keen as his father for “an explanation of the kind of world we are living in,” learns moral relativism from his own government—which punishes him for killing a lone German in neutral Spain but itself ships thousands of Russians to death in their homeland—and concludes “there was nothing in the world that was not ambiguous.” After something more solid than official hypocrisies and personal impermanence (his marriage is a thing of mutual infidelities, absences, and wrangling) he fixates on the unearthed sword Caledvwlch, the “demythicised truth” that will compensate for his unsatisfactory, insubstantial modern life. This, plainly, is ridiculous. What he is after, like the rest of his generation, is a nourishing sense of the past, but he comes at it—like the Welsh nationalists—in the wrong way. “I can’t smell,” he notes at one point. “That’s one thing I’ve lost. The olfactory nerve damaged in bloody Spain. Cabbages and roses all one.” And—as neurologists and Marcel Proust teach us—the sense of smell is closely related to the memory centre of the brain, which an odour can abruptly awaken to forgotten scenes of the past. “It was a pity that Reg had lost his sense of smell,” the book’s last sentence runs, and Reg is like most of us.
Unlike most of us is Daniel Tetlow Jones, who seems soft-headed and cold-hearted, when in fact he is as wise as his Biblical namesake—unmoved by modern fripperies—and as devoted and passionate in his own way as his medieval namesake, Dante—with his sister Beatrix, obviously, as the Beatrice on whom he lavishes his (Platonic, “brotherly”) love. Dan is a fishmonger, following in the food-trade footsteps of his father, whose job of cook was no mere livelihood but a “hidden avocation,” and who once answered with his fists an army cook’s sacrilege of spitting in the soup. Dan “reek[s] of fish,” has fish “sewn into his flesh,” spends every spare minute in wartime fishing in European lakes and rivers, and aspires after the war to nothing but running a fish shop, which to him is a high office—on a par with Christ “feeding the five thousand, as Dad used to say.” Christ, indeed, “is a fish,” at least iconographically, and (so the narrator says) “the smell of fish is good and holy. It was a stinking fish that Tobias in the Apocrypha used to drive out the demon Asmodeus.” Food, in other words, is a metaphor for less tangible nourishment, and the implication is that the modern world is starving for it. “Food was a sort of temporal language, a link between the generations,” and the ideologies of the modern world want to break the links to the past that nourish the present: “Now souls are going to be hammered into copies of an archetype decreed by the great collectives. America and Russia are the same man with twin hats on.” Dan’s passion, then, quaintly idiosyncratic in one sense, is heroic in another. He “was always tough and went his own way,” somebody comments of him, fittingly—for it is the individualists, if anyone will, who will resist the influences of a collectivist era. Hence it is recipes, not prayers, that run through the head of Dan’s father on his deathbed, who dies baffled by the twentieth century but able at least to console himself that “he had fed people well, and that was something.”