I met my friend Paul for a late breakfast at the excellent Dalston Lane Cafe. I had corned beef hash and egg with added black pudding and so did he, but he had added beans too. I like beans but I don’t think that they should be eaten with anything except toast and butter – and then cold. If you warm them, either by heating them in a pan or by placing them on a hot plate in conjunction with, in the present case, corned beef hash, they lose that lovely shiny quality and become dull in colour, stodgy and regrettably sweet.
On a previous occasion Paul had attempted to order the corned beef hash with added bubble & squeak, but they said no. Their contention was that corned beef hash was no more than bubble with added corned beef, and they should be allowed to know: they saw what went into the pan.
Selling double bubble, they suggested, was more than their job was worth.
At one level I’m sure that they were right. But it is not that simple and it did not stop us arguing (between ourselves, not with the management of the Dalston Lane Café, who had better things to do) about labels, about whether the hash to which corned beef is added is ‘the same’ – before the corned beef is added – as bubble, even if it comes from the same pan. Plato, I remember asserting, would have had a thing or two to say on the subject. He would have reminded us of the pure forms taken, in his world view, by ideal corned beef hash and ideal bubble.
Actually of course, being Greek, he probably would have referred not to corned-beefless hash but to mince-free moussaka. The principle however remains.
The timing of these meetings is strictly regulated by the amount of time that the London Borough of Islington allows Paul to leave his car in one of its designated parking places without penalty. Afterwards I took the bus home. It had to be a Number 38 bus, and there are different varieties of these, so you can imagine my pleasure when the first Number 38 bus to come along was one of Boris’s faux Routemasters. These are clean, new and beautifully designed, a joy not only to travel in but to get on and off, and I have no truck with mean-spirited nostalgics who say that nothing is as good as a real heritage Routemaster, with smoking on the upper deck and backchat with a cheerful cockney clippie.
My pleasure was increased when a young woman of the Afro-Caribbean community got on. She was generously proportioned, with a bottom of which she was clearly and justly proud. You could tell that she was proud of it as it was covered merely by thin black leggings and although her top half was submerged in a variety of scarves and a bulky jacket, below the waist all was classical simplicity.
I looked at her with respect and admiration. This was made easier by the fact that she decided to remain standing, even though seats were available, and she stood looking away from me. Black leggings, as I say, were stretched tightly across her bottom. She was a young woman and free from any but the most anatomically essential wrinkles, but such as there were could be seen clearly.
She was wearing a thong. The whale-tail, as I believe they are called, appeared briefly at waist level before disappearing from view. That was not unexpected. What was surprising was that the thong had a label attached to it which was clearly visible beneath the leggings just at the point where the thong itself became submerged.
One was reminded of the cowboy hat left, in films of the traditional sort, on the surface of the quicksand that has just swallowed its owner.
Is it fanciful to report that the label announced that the thong was a thong, who made it, the size, its material and how to wash it? Of course it did. Labels do. Failing eyesight and residual good manners precluded my looking closely, so I cannot give you details. No gentleman, even with 20:20 vision, would. Probably no gentleman would have noticed in the first place. Of course you have no way of knowing whether I made her up altogether, in which case no impropriety took place.
The principle however remains.
I had as I say been preoccupied all morning with labels: when is bubble bubble and when is it hash? Indeed when do the vegetable leftovers become bubble in the first place? Is it when the keen eye of the chef identifies a potential plate-companion for his corned beef? Does it make a difference that the chemical constituency of the left-overs, before the intervention of the chef’s keen eye, is identical to that of the bubble?
Over our late breakfast at the Dalston Lane Café Paul and I had discussed the point in the Catholic mass at which the wafer becomes for believers the actual body of Christ. Had it always been the body of Christ, Paul mused. No, I said, with the knowledge derived from an Anglican upbringing, the priest has some special words to mutter and when he does, and only then, does the change take place.
Are the sacerdotal mutterings the equivalent of the chef’s eye’s falling on the pile of day-old cabbage, previously destined as organic waste but at that point determined to be rescued, and not only rescued but changed, utterly, into bubble?
Or as the case may be into corned beef hash.
Or by analogy into the body of Christ.
And so it was with the attractive young woman from the Afro-Caribbean community. What label had she adopted? What message had she decided to send to the world? The main one was simple, primal and did not need anything to spell it out: ‘I am here and I am amazing’. And this message was subtly undercut by another: ‘I am a product of La Senza. I am to be washed at a temperature of no more than forty degrees Centigrade’.
I have always set my face against semiotics (if that is the right word) but maybe there’s something in it after all.