Published: 23 February, 2012
by PETER GRUNER
Repressed Jewish angst finally explodes with morsels of fish and chips splattering the wall in Michele Hanson’s hilarious new book, when her mother throws the dinner at her sulking father.
Food and anxiety are major themes in What The Grown-Ups Were Doing, a touching story about Tufnell Park writer and Guardian columnist Hanson’s childhood in straight-laced 1950s Ruislip.
The book, as well as being the current Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, was also discussed as part of Jewish Book Week.
“My mother was obsessed with food and a brilliant cook,” Hanson said this week. “Sadly I didn’t pay sufficient attention to her in the kitchen and I don’t cook so well.”
Unlike the nice parents of her Christian friends, Hanson’s mother Clarice and father, Ad (short for Adolf – not a name that went down well in the Second World War), both children of East European refugees, shouted and argued with each other, much to their daughter’s acute embarrassment.
Ruislip was a pretty boring place, writes Hanson, with nothing open on Sundays.
People tended to go “barmy” living there.
Hanson’s mother threw a plate of homemade fish and chips at her father after a particularly bad day when he had been grunting in response to his wife’s questions and refusing to engage in normal conversation.
Clarice just wanted a little interchange with her husband, an acknowledgement that she was there, that she had cooked the fish beautifully because she had schlepped all the way down to Berwick Street market to buy it.
She called him to the dining table.
“‘Here. Take your sodding dinner,’ screamed my mother,” Hanson writes, describing the moment the food is thrown at her father. “But it did no good. My father left the room, and we had our dinner without him, with my mother carrying on about what a miserable bastard he was.”
Father, a former pupil at Holloway Boy’s School, was sulking because of anxiety about the ladies clothing business he ran in Soho.
However, he perked up when women friends of his wife visited, and then he could be flirtatious and charming, sporting his rather mischievous-looking Errol Flynn moustache.
Home life was never dull, Hanson writes: “Someone was bound do something extravagant like cook, scream and row, laugh, crack a fairly vulgar joke, talk about money, or be rude about the neighbours.”
Then there were the unusual snacks like olives, chicken liver pate, chopped herring and chopped egg and onion on matzos.
Her mother enjoyed and was an extremely talented Latin American dancer but her poor father could never get the moves right. “Look at him, the potz (penis), my mother would complain, almost fondly. He’s got no bloody rhythm,” Hanson writes.
Hanson believes that her lifelong hatred of frocks came from having to wear one as a bridesmaid. It was organdie and net, in pink and pale blue, with a little round neck and itchy little puff sleeves which all looked “horribly soppy”.
Her mother, famed for her cheesecake and strudel, was very touchy about food. She threw a fit when she asked what young Hanson had to eat at her friend Linda Bates’s house – and was told not very much.
It transpired that Linda’s mother had cooked a delicious cauliflower cheese for the family but sadly there wasn’t enough for little Hanson. Instead, she was offered cake and orange juice.
“We feed their children,” Clarice complained, “and they starve ours.”
Mrs Bates had sinned in a number of ways, writes Hanson. “Everything was her fault, because she was the mother and in charge of food, and she had not done what a proper mother should do.”
In another scene Hanson is taken by her aunt Celia to a carvery restaurant in the West end. On Auntie’s plate there was a meat mountain.
But she wasn’t planning to eat it all straight away. Hanson writes: “She was planning to take a few rolls, put the meat in the rolls, wrap them up in paper serviettes and put the rolls in her handbag. She would have them for tomorrow’s lunch.”
• What The Grown-Ups Were Doing, by Michele Hanson, Simon & Schuster £14.99.