Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Shooting Party: Classic Edwardian Gore and Glory

I recently viewed the newly restored version of The Shooting Party (1985), the final film made by British acting great James Mason. It is the cinematic version of the novel (1981) written by Isabel Colegate about a world on the brink. I had originally seen it some years ago, but on this occasion it held new meaning, given my recent interest in all things Edwardian and starting this blog - ostensibly about Edwardian food.

The poignancy of the film lies in its fictional timing - 1913 - the last gasp of Edwardian Britain and the comforting certainties that its inhabitants, particularly the aristocracy, take for granted. The weekend shooting party (or a "Saturday-to-Monday," as the word "weekend" was not yet current) epitomizes the lavish entertaining conducted by the landowning upper classes in the period. The film both highlights the fine balance of class relations under this paternalistic system and the strains that would soon bring an end to the "old ways."

The aristocrats in the film live up to their status: indulging in clandestine, or semi-clandestine affairs, strutting their egos in the shoot (which leads to tragic results), concerned with their immediate desires and petty domestic dramas. They play-act their social roles, unaware of the coming catastrophe of the Western Front. The thundering of the guns foreshadows the preparation of more serious armaments; the extreme slaughter of the estate's wildlife is a metaphor for man's continual greed for more.

The film's treatment of class and social relations is in many ways much richer than the predictable shenanigans of the upper class guests. Nothing is portrayed in a simplistic or moralistic way. The complexities and contradictions of the vanished state of rural England are explored, sparing no quarter but at the same time presenting that way of life with great sensitivity and compassion. The plight of the rural poor, the strain following the closure of common lands in the late 18th century and the necessity that drove many to the dangers of poaching, are all depicted straightforwardly. Nor do "issues," to use the modern term, always fall along expected lines. John Gielgud, in a brilliant performance, plays a sort of lower middle class socialist pamphleteer intent on promoting his cause of animal rights at the shoot. He is spurned almost more thoroughly by the lower classes than the upper. While James Mason, as Sir Randolph Nettleby, is politely condescending to the man who has interrupted his shoot bearing a risable placard, such troubling new ideas are more directly scorned by the village lads and "beaters" whose labour enable the day's entertainment for the landed classes. They are as invested in the existing system as the lords and ladies they serve.

At the same time, the sorrow of Sir Randolph for his dying indigent tenant (who has also indulged in poaching) is certainly real (that is, of course, for a fictional account). For him, noblesse oblige and the conduct of a gentleman still matter supremely. Nor is the anger of his young granddaughter any less real, directed against the Austro-Hungarian aristocrat who is attempting to woo her, and who dismissively claims that the dead man "was only a peasant." In his arrogance he is unaware that in the coming war his entire way of life, and the Empire that gives him his prestige, will be entirely decimated. She hits back with the phrase "we all knew him," indicating that fact that, for all its wrongs and inequalities, the England depicted in the film was still a society. People, rich or poor, important or inconsequential, still in some way belonged. In the final scene of the film, the poor dead man is borne across the desolate fields in a procession of the great and the humble, like some elevated train of the Elizabethan "chain of being." It represents a disappearing world where the fact that "we all knew him" became less relevant, where large and unseen forces such as the corporation de-personalized the world of getting by and getting the better of one's fellow human beings. The lord of the manor might well have mistreated his peasants, but he still had to look them in the eye. The advent of a new world, and the recession into mythology of the world of The Shooting Party, altered all that.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 9 October 2010

What Food-Contrarianism Should Not Be; Or, the Act of Using One's Brain

You may have heard of the "Heart Attack Grill," an "eatery" in Arizona that self-consciously plays up its disgusting, fatty, and unhealthy food. Its rather ghastly theme features a hospital-like decor, waitresses dressed as nurses, and enormous burgers cooked in pure lard that come in single, double, triple, and quadruple "bypass" versions. Patrons who weigh in at over 350 lbs. eat for free. I am wary of even linking to the restaurant's website, but if you must have a peek, it is here. The restaurant bills itself as "taste worth dying for!" which I am most certain that it is not. It is crass, a pure gimmick, designed to gain attention, which - as the mere existence of this blog post concedes - it has.

Eating Like an Edwardian, it need hardly be said, certainly by definition echoes some elements of food-contrarianism (we won't address Dennis Miller's assertion that "contrarianism is creativity for the untalented"). Hopefully it should be equally obvious that what is intended here is most definitely NOT contrarianism of the Heart Attack Grill ilk. A true Edwardian has little time for these gaudy, bombastic quasi-libertarian ideas about food - ideas that can all too often turn into politically inclined postures about non-existent bureaucratic plans to, say, ban butter. It is true that modern food regulations have changed the processes of food production and sale, mostly for the better as it must be said. As with anything in life, when something valuable is gained, some other element may well be lost. We may be bereft of the taste of the unpasteurized, for example, but on the whole we must all be rather grateful to live in the age of inspection and regulation. From dawn to dusk we are protected from the worst vicissitudes of our food supply. When the system does break down - as, for example, it did with recent listeria outbreaks in Canada - we are distressed and shocked. These failings are thankfully rare. Imagine living in a world where, as in Victorian Britain, as much as one-third of meat sold was rotten or contaminated. We also tend to romanticize past eras as rural idylls, where we blithely imagine that food was always fresh from the field or the barn. But this has not been the case for quite some time. Upton Sinclair's famous 1906 novel about (or rather exposé of) the American meatpacking industry in Chicago, The Jungle, provoked outrage and provided impetus for future reforms regarding food safety.

We must therefore balance any impulses to "food-contrarianism" with a dose of facts and reality. While we may seize our prerogative to eat as we wish, it behooves us to simultaneously use our brains. Which, ironically, will tell us that, given modern farming methods, it may not be the best idea to eat brain. We now have nutrition information to tell us that excess sodium (mostly from preserved foods), saturated animal fats such as lard, and a surfeit of meat in general are not beneficial to one's health. Food-contrarianism certainly won't make such facts cease to exist.

So much for that side of the coin. There is, of course, the converse argument which I would forward. I feel quite strongly that we have lost a bit of the stoicism and, perhaps, fatalism of previous generations. The constant barrage of health and nutrition advice (on the balance, as I have noted, good) has made us rather more self-obsessed. This cannot be the best thing. And I hate to be the one to break this to you, but no matter how much of Dr. Oz you watch, or leafy greens you eat, unless you have exceptional genes you are not going to live to 102 and expire quietly after a full day on the golf course.

I think on the whole the injunction: "don't eat anything your grandmother would not recognize as food" more or less suffices. Eat real food. As someone who is averse to industrialized fast food I think this may be the sole key to any diet. The Edwardians did, at least, eat "real food" - which I think is far important than obsession over single issues, such as fat or salt content. I recently read an excellent article on salt from, in which the author declares "... at the end of the day, the sodium question is still about eating real food, and eating in moderation. These single-boogeyman approaches to being healthy are insane." I heartily agree.

So, use your brain. And pay a bit of attention to the desires of your stomach. With a modicum of common sense and caution, enjoy yourself.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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