Perfection is a state of mind. But you can find a picnic spot almost anywhereby Will Self / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread /and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness…” My father, so far as I know, was not much given to quoting from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but whenever a picnic was proposed this hackneyed line would issue from his lips—with the inexorability of night following day, or ants converging on scattered crumbs. Frankly, if I were my dad I’d have avoided romanticising the al fresco eating experience. I suspect he saw himself, in his mind’s eye, as one of the sitters for Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe—obviously not the seated nude, or the bathing lovely, but more likely the bearded bohemian in the Turkish toque who’s lying back on the rug and discoursing, at length. My father loved to discourse—especially at length.
Like Manet, he also had a vision of the perfect picnic spot; and again, like the post-impressionist, Dad’s also involved bowers and pools and neatly-cropped sward. I know this because as we bowled along the highways and byways of Britain in our crap Austin, he would sing out: ‘There’s a perfect picnic spot!’ pointing towards some alder-fringed sinuous rill, beyond a field full of bullocks, that, once we’d unloaded all the gear and struggled across to it, invariably turned out to be hard against a sewage farm or a humming bypass. Never daunted, Dad would marshal us all again, and we’d embark once more on the quest.
In time “Peter’s perfect picnic spot” became just one of the coinages with which my mother—a markedly less romantic figure—would taunt my father; drawled in her New York accent it summed up all of my father’s risible folly, his dreaminess, his impracticality. I felt divided in my loyalties; I could appreciate my mother’s line of attack—what was the point in searching for ages for somewhere to eat a couple of ham sandwiches and munch an apple? But I also intuitively grasped what my father was aspiring to, which was nothing short of transcending his workaday existence and, through this bosky portal, entering unto the condition of the eastern voluptuary. He had the loaf of bread, he had the jug of wine—it was just unfortunate that he had us kids and his wife whining beside him in the densely-inhabited British countryside.
You might’ve thought that such experiences would’ve put me off picnics for life. Not so. What, however, they did inculcate me with was a strange kind of double-mindedness; I still believe that the secret of a good picnic is location, location, location—but I also think that this location can, quite objectively, be dreadful yet still provide the setting for a great picnic.
You may’ve noticed that I’ve said nothing much thus far about food—and that’s because I think it of little account. A proper picnic is a bare bones affair, the food eaten semi-recumbent. There may be a small camping stove for tea—but that’s as elaborate as it gets. All those hefty hampers, folding chairs and collapsible tables are only there to simulate not having a picnic, and if you submit to their logic soon enough you’ll find yourself at Glyndebourne, having spent hundreds of quid to picnic in a field with other upper-middle-class folk as if you were some new kind of opera-loving farm animal.
No, the Rubaiyat has it about right—once you’re out in the wilderness proper all you need is the basics. Personally I favour a hard, sharp cheese, an oatcake, some chocolate and a cup of tea. In truth, this is actually what I eat at home as well—so I suppose you could say I’m always picnicking. I do make an exception for foraged food. I’ve had some memorable picnics with foragers: one on the Blackwater estuary eating oysters straight out of the water, another on the Orcadian island of Westray supping razor clams dug straight from the damp sand. Indeed, I think the best meal I ever ate was probably a rabbit, puffball and samphire stew cooked in a biscuit tin buried underneath a beach fire in Suffolk—but that was many years ago, when the world was young and you could get into Narnia simply by twisting a Rubik’s cube.
If you keep your food simple you can always be on the lookout for that elusive desideratum. I walk a lot, and tormented by my father’s Ahab-like quest for the perfect picnic spot, I like to be able to drop to the ground and feed whenever I come across a place that provides the right vista/sun/shadow/rocks/waters—delete where applicable. But paradoxically, I also like to picnic wilfully in distinctly unpromising spots: below motorway flyovers, beside stagnant canals, beneath the flight paths of major international airports.
There is a great joy in transforming a small plot of land for a short period of time into your own—and consuming a meal is a perfect way of doing this. John Locke held that we become entitled to land—or any other natural resource—by dint of mixing our labour with it, and even picnicking is a means of doing this: sat on a spread cagoule, chomping my cheese and oatcake, then brewing up a cup of tea and smoking a cigarette, I transform whichever location I happen to be in—whether virginal or bastardised—into a place of comfort and repose. I lie back on one elbow as the jets screech overhead; I discourse at length to my fellow artistic revolutionaries; then I tell the girls, “Get your kit on, we’re going…”
The moral of this story being that you can find a picnic spot almost anywhere—but perfection will always be a state of mind.