my dad, his fingernails and a secret new pie filling

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's a truism that the most lovingly written article, the hardest- hitting news story, will be wrapping for fish-and-chips in the morning. The metaphoric force of this observation is undimmed now that chips are served in bland white paper or, worse, cardboard cones printed with a jaunty mix of tabloid typefaces. I feel the truth of the cliche more than most: one of my childhood tasks was to kneel on the floor with a blunt kitchen knife and slice copies of the Guardian into neat bundles for the family fish-and-chip-shop. To nervous adults I seemed to be flailing the knife like something out of Indiana Jones, but long practice had taught me an effortless economy of movement, just as later, a robotic temping stint taught me how to fold 1,000 mailshots and stuff envelopes with a minimal flourish.

Living at the shop meant my parents were never far away. I sat in front of the TV knowing that they joked and scooped and battered on the other side of the frosted-glass door which spilled a greasy golden light into the darkened living room. I only had to knock on the glass and in a few moments an arm would thrust through from that numinous other world brandishing a shining bag of chips. After a few months of this, I naturally developed a violent antipathy to them (the chips, not the parents).

In a tiny village the fish-and-chip shop was as vital a place as the church or the pub, the fryer as recognisable a character as publican or priest. When I answered a "Where d'you live?" with "at the chippy," envious cries of "lucky thing!" arose from my tiny peers. We lived in a beautiful old Regency cottage with "1823" over the door. Adjoining the house was a mouldering shed furnished only with a shelf, a wooden chair and a tin bath, where the village unfortunate removed the eyes from the spuds. It was thrillingly scary to watch him mumbling and splashing and waving his peeling knife. One incident is indelible. I don't know how this came about - my childhood memories tend to lack before, after, causality and motive - but I remember a huge, heaving, sticky pile of maggots at least as big as myself in the yard, presumably the result of a mound of peelings in hot sun. Caring, sharing daddy took me to admire this marvel of nature, and made me stand back while he poured petrol over the writhing mass and ignited it. The larvae crackled from white, blind plumpness to a quite appetising reddish-brown, and the crust cracked and split to reveal a wriggling core of animated rice-pudding. Blaaaagh!

It might have been after this that dad started to deliver vats of liquefying peelings to local farmers for pigswill. One day he was boosting up a country lane in our half-timbered car with two uncovered dustbin-sized containers in the back, when another car pulled out and he had to brake. He enjoyed a moment of Zen-like calm before a tidal wave of pigswill hit him in the back of the neck.

Eventually we moved, got a bigger place - "The Chipper" - which was fantastically popular with local students. They never saw the cellar, periodically infested with mice and rats. It was a grand day when we had the microwave installed: hot food, cold plate! It seemed an evil kind of karma to me. Dad was heartbroken when he went back several years later and found that the chip-shop had been turned into - anathema! - a Chinese take-away. "You never get good chips from a Chinky," he moaned.

Dad certainly was a wizard with chips. He also made the most fantastic pastry, and invented, or so he claimed, a delicacy called the hot-pot, a silver-foil dish of meat and vegetable stew with a pastry lid with a hole in it the size of an old 10p. A brief diversification involved giving up the chips altogether and moving into wholesale pie-manufacture. He tells another, absolutely unrepeatable story, the key elements of which involve long fingernails, piles, a secret new meat-pie filling and a passing Hygiene Inspector.

I was never keen on chips myself, after these traumatic early experiences, but on a cold, rainy night in Brighton recently I bought a 50p bag from a Chinese near the seafront. They tasted like microwaved sea-slugs. Dad would have been chuffed.

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