The Art Of Living

‘Off we went with our parsley-flecked teeth to see Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy’

Maureen Lipman

“Free Speech Puzzle”, 2014, by Ai Weiwei, on show at the Royal Academy until December 13 (© Ai Weiwei)

In the space of 24 hours recently I ate two of the best meals I’ve ever had. The circumstances were somewhat festive, so the mood was heightened but, nevertheless, on both occasions the message got home: the simplest is the best. Just as a bed of white roses or a basket of purple pansies shows off the species at its purest, so a simple one- course dinner with exquisite ingredients beats any number of marinated quails stuffed with nuzzled truffles nestling in a coulis of sasparella and fenugreek foam with pomegranate-infused straws, delighting in their own insouciance.

My partner, my chap, my young swain as I like to call him, being as he’s not even in the second flush of youth, had an “all clear” on a biopsy. He drove over to my flat for a silent hug of relief, bringing a small packet of Sardinian bottarga and a lot of garlic. I supplied a French loaf, olive oil and lemons. We worked silently together, peeling the wax off the smoked grey mullet roe, chopping up the garlic, squeezing the lemon juice and measuring the oil. The breadstick warm from the oven went on the table with a bottle of good white wine. A candle may have been lit. We clinked glasses and made wide-mouthed frogs of ourselves for 20 minutes or so, saying little other than “mmmmohmygohmmmmoh”, sipped our wine, watched the news and turned in. As Tennessee Williams once wrote, “Sometimes, there is God so suddenly.”

The following day, we smelled of garlic so strongly that the dog curled her lip and backed away in search of a one-way ticket to Transylvania. We went out looking for parsley for the breath. When I was growing up in Hull, there was no such thing as garlic. Not in our house, nor the houses of my friends, As for herbs — well, we had mint growing in the garden specifically to make mint sauce for lamb and to sprinkle on new potatoes. That was it herb-wise. Sage, rosemary and thyme was a folk song not a condiment. Cardamom was a heart condition.

When I came to study drama at Lamda in 1964, there was a fellow student, Annabel, who had already graduated from Oxford and held dinner parties! Dinner parties, where you lingered at the table to a musical background, flaunting your garlic breath joking and talking till gone midnight. Revelation. 

Back home, unless relatives came or High Holy days beckoned, dinner was at lunchtime and tea was at dinner time. Soup, meat, potatoes and tinned fruit arrived at the table via Mum, who leapt up before each course was finished to avoid a gap in the proceedings, and food was bolted down while reading your comic in time to get back to Z Cars. Eating was something to be got through without incident. Dining out was unheard of except for a nice cup of tea in a “departmental” store after a row in the shoe department. Every house one visited had its own distinctive smell of fish or baking or onions — and we didn’t use “one” as a pronoun either.

Another thing we never did was visit an art gallery. It wounds my remorseful heart that my parents sacrificed so much to educate me to favour things from which they felt so excluded. But off Guido and I went with our membership cards and our parsley- flecked teeth to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy in Picadilly. It is quite astonishing and its message hits you in the sternum like a mallet.

His childhood in hard labour camps and his years of captivity have toughened his soul and given him a cussed courage which makes you fear for his every living breath. He may not be to the taste of his Chinese overlords, because he will not bow down to despots, but his work is subversive, muscular and provocative. And so beautifully crafted. After establishing an enclave of artists’ studios in Beijing, he was asked by the local government in Shanghai to design and oversee a magnificent new studio made by traditional and modern craftsmanship. Just as it was completed, the government in Beijing informed him he had abused planning permission and it would be demolished. Which it duly was.

The opening party was held anyway, a crab supper which had hidden meaning — the word for crab being almost homonymous with the word for harmony — for the 400 guests. They did not include Ai Weiwei, who had been placed under house arrest. A part of his exhibition features rooms with spy-holes where you can view him eating, sleeping and using the lavatory whilst being watched by two Chinese guards.

And yet we recently welcomed, courtesy of Comrade Osborne and the words “Made in China”, the Chinese President to our banqueting table, albeit with their own chefs doing the catering. Poor Prince Charles had to give time and hospitality to a man who presides over 500 executions a year, the state persecution of religious minorities, the imprisonment and torture of dissidents including a Nobel Laureate who asked for peace, and the annexation of the Dalai Lama’s Tibet. All of this with no outside threat to their country.

So where were the demonstrations from the great and the good? Is anyone planning to boycott kumquats and lanterns? Or ban Chinese academics from Cambridge cloisters or film-makers from the London film Festival? Or chant meaningfully outside Chinatown?

We left the exhibition vowing to return soon. We passed restaurant after café after pop-up gourmet deli after serious street food venue. On the radio the winner of the Great British Bake Off and British obesity were battling each other for airtime, Jamie Oliver was everywhere, and Nigella was back and beautiful. Yet the queues at Eat and Pret and M&S were witness to a thousand ready-made meals in a thousand Bags for Life.

We bought goat’s cheese, quince jelly, tomato and chilli jam and baked figs in Paxton and Whitfield in Jermyn Street, a shop specialising in masterpiece cheese and all that surrounds it. Around five o’clock, we ate the crumbly, ashy cheese with salt and celery crackers, and all the accoutrements. I don’t take my freedom or my good fortune lightly when I say it was sublime.

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