Not even the law of chance

Laurie Lee, another writer whose prose I admire. Having read Cider with Rosie years ago when we lived in the Cotswolds, not far from where Lee grew up, I am once again enjoying this marvellous memoir of Lee’s childhood in the remote village of Slad.

Consider the following passage about mealtimes:

Jack … had developed a mealtime strategy which ensured that he ate for two. Speed and guile were the keys to his success ….

Jack ate against time, that was really his secret; and in our house you had to do it. Imagine us all sitting down to dinner; eight round a pot of stew. It was lentil-stew usually, a heavy brown mash made apparently of plastic studs. Though it smelt of hot stables, we were used to it, and it was filling enough – could you get it. But the size of our family outstripped the size of the pot, so there was never quite enough to go round.

When it came to serving, Mother had no method, not even the law of chance – a dab on each plate in any old order and then every man for himself. No grace, no warning, no starting-gun; but the first to finish what he’d had on his plate could claim what was left in the pot. Mother’s swooping spoon was breathlessly watched – let the lentils fall where they may. But starving Jack had worked it all out, he followed the spoon with his plate. Absentmindedly Mother would give him first dollop, and very often a second, and as soon as he got it he swallowed it whole, not using his teeth at all. ‘More please, I’ve finished’ – the bare plate proved it, so he got the pot-scrapings too.

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