Friday 13 April 2012

The Snow Goose

You wait for a bus and then four come along at once. You have a day where all you see is pregnant women. You spend a week where a song you love that you haven’t heard for ages comes on the radio at home, in a passing car, in a shop, in a restaurant.
I love it when things like this happen. It wakes us up a little bit and makes us take notice of what’s going on around us. It stirs us to talk about the oddities of life and its random daily occurrences. We can celebrate them.

Something similar recently happened to me. It jolted me back into something I haven’t done in a long time. The short story. Let me explain.
Once a week, I work voluntarily in a bookshop in Kew, west London. It’s one of those fabulous little places which you can get lost in and now I spend an afternoon each week sitting in the sun in the window, randomly reading tomes off the shelves, drinking tea, planning classes and writing. A couple of weeks ago I came across a first edition of Ted Hughes’s short story collection Difficulties of a Bridegroom. I didn’t know that Hughes had written short stories, so I sat down and read one of them. It was brilliant. Chris, the bookshop owner, then gave me the book and on the bus home I read another one of the collection’s stories.

Last week, Chris was sorting out some books in the shop and passed me The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. It’s a skinny, pale blue hardback book with a picture of a goose flying imprinted in silver on the front. “Read this,” he said.
By the end of its short 31 pages, I was almost in tears.

She came running to the sea wall and turned her eyes, not toward the distant Channel whence a sail might come, but to the sky from whose flaming arches plummeted the snow goose. Then the sight, the sound and the solitude surrounding broke the dam within her and released the surging, overwhelming truth of her love, let it well forth in tears.

It is a descriptive and emotional story of love, art, nature and the power of kindness. First published in 1941, it is truly a story for those wretched years; what it means to be a man, to lose a love, to do your bit, to see beauty where others see ugliness. It is a testament to man’s relationship with nature, to man’s relationship with himself and to the sacrifice some will make in order to make the world a better place.

The snow goose in the story is the unexpected visitor, the messenger, the bridge between worlds. It is the symbol of freedom, of choice and of loyalty. It shares the protagonist’s isolation and it comforts his heart by bringing a young girl, and eventually her heart, to him.
And this story, as well as the previous short ones I read by Hughes, have brought short stories back to me. Ideas for short stories pop into my head all the time; how many first lines I have mentally written while on the bus, on a run, in the middle of a class. But now I am making myself get back to one, work on it and post it. Thus, I declare that my next post will be a short story.

Or The Snow Goose did not work its magic.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Kentucky Fried Crap

Martín came back from his classes last week with a story about how one of his classmates is in love with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). They had had a discussion about fried chicken and how, for Martín, it was a completely weird concept. You put chicken in the oven, or on the parrilla, but you don’t wrap it in some golden stuff and fry it. Do you? He was totally intrigued.

I could tell his curious nature was getting the better of him because he wouldn’t stop talking about fried chicken.

“Have you ever tried it?”

“What, fried chicken?”


“Ah, no.”

“But it’s not like McDonald's or Burger King, is it?”

“If you’re asking if it’s some massive fast food chain which dishes out fairly dreary meals that all taste the same and are full of salt and sugar, my guess is yes.”

“Can we try it?”

So, a couple of days later, we went on a fried chicken expedition. Martín even knew where our local KFC was in Ealing. How? Father Google, of course.

The menu, surprisingly enough, was full of chicken. Chicken in strips, chicken in balls, chicken in bread, chicken with a dip. Twisters, Zingers, Ranchers. The menu read far more like a fairground map than anything I’d want to put in my mouth. We opted for dipping strips and a couple of pieces of the original stuff. It came to nearly £9, and those were the cheap options.

There’s a reason besides the food I don’t like fast food restaurants. The tables are so square and the chairs are so awful. The walls are bright with ridiculous colours and smiley-faced graphics. The ‘free’ drink on offer is a fizzy one. People leave their leftovers and litter lying about. The posters magnify the artificiality of the food. The serviettes don’t do anything. These are soulless places.

And yet all manner of people go there. On this Monday lunchtime there was a suited and booted businessman; two grandmas; a biker all in leather; mums with young kids; two teenage boys and, unfortunately, us. We sat in the sun by the window.

It wasn’t so disgusting I had to hurl. I finished my three dippy chicken bits. But it wasn’t great. It wasn’t even near good. The chicken was the colour of death; pallid and pasty. And it was chewy in a wet kind of way. I know chicken should be moist, but not like it’s got little streams running through it. That’s not what Delia means, surely?

Martín’s foray into fried chicken went well, but then, with Argentine taste buds the extra salt and sugar would go down extremely well. “I think this is much better for me that a burger, don’t you?” he said. “It feels a lot better, and there’s no bread.” This is very much progress from the man who asked for a basket of bread in a Chinese restaurant.

An hour later, we were both reaching for the water and feeling that post-fast food stomach lurch.  This always happens to me: the thirst and feeling of a brick being in my stomach, solid and stubborn. How can people eat and live like this? I dread to think what that chicken’s coated in to entice uncultured taste buds back time and time again. I asked Martín to add his KFC meal to his calorie counter. He refused to find out. He obviously secretly thinks it’s all very bad stuff and doesn’t want to know.

And now, neither do I. I am no foodie snob. I have no interest in closing down unworthy restaurants with what I write. Each to their own, right? I am happy eating goat road-kill curried up in Africa; or trying an eye, feet, insects, insides from animals around the world. You have to try anything once. For this reason, I went to KFC in the first place.

But, as I won’t be eating eyes again, nor will I be munching on chicken shapes in KFC. There’s something OK about eating something in its truest form, even if you find it disgusting. But the plastic-tasting meals at KFC, or indeed any of its fast food cousins, aren’t things I can get to grips with, let alone stomach.