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View from There

Bringing Barbeques to the Barbarians
Anth Ginn

It’s summer. Beautiful bodies appear on the street, shed their winter skins and remind us what a joy it is to be a smart mammal with 3D, high-resolution, binocular vision plugged directly into an emotional neural network. Wrecked tanks, crashed helicopters and burnt out vehicles are removed from Britain’s public parks and beaches. Bomb craters are filled, landmines removed and deckchairs brought out of bombproof storage. Pale, grub-like, office workers crawl from giant concrete towers at lunchtime, roll up their grubby shirt sleeves, loosen their grubby ties, sip French glacial water from plastic bottles and graze in dense herds on any patch of grass they can find.

The British are more resistant to change than our cousins on the mainland. An example is the way we ignore the arrival of summer. We treat it like a guest that’s shown up at a barbecue too early and ignore it until the official starting time. The expression, “Cast not a clout until May is out”, from the ancient days before central heating, still holds sway. Although it may be hot and sunny, it’s still May. The Australians, Kiwis and South Africans, have been strolling around London in their shorts, T-shirts and sandals for weeks, but the British are still suspicious, “It could snow anytime.” Many still wear their overcoats and anoraks, sweating and insisting it’s still winter. A brave few put on sandals, but, not wishing to be reckless, they cover all ten eventualities, and wear thick woolly socks at the same time.

Another example of stubborn British conservatism is our attitude to that international, culinary beacon of summer, the barbecue. Often you smell it before you see it. All over the world, if the weather’s fine, people enjoy roasting their dinner outside. It was the first thing our Mesolithic ancestors did after discovering fire and making the first cup of tea. Britain, however, is uncomfortable with alfresco dining. It may be the lack of space between the dustbin and outside toilet in our back yards. Or perhaps we have good daytime TV. Whatever the reason, it’s taken generations of returned goods from our old colonies to prise the custom into our culture.

I spend summer in Cornwall, in a cabin on a cliff. (Unfortunately, this year, Natasha, my soulmate from Omsk, has become allergic to sea air and is staying in London to spend time with her aromatherapist.) The local aristocrat, the sixth Earl of Edgecombe, died a few years ago without a direct heir. The nearest living relative was discovered in New Zealand farming sheep. The seventh Earl came over to England and took up residence at Mount Edgecombe, his massive Elizabethan stately home. The seventh Earl is a down-to-earth Kiwi, and gets on well with the locals, who were pleased to have an Earl who didn’t treat them like another species of hunting dog. Walking through his grounds next to the Tamar, the Earl had a feeling something was missing. Then he realised, “This place needs a Barby.” At home on the South Island, they’d grill three or four Border Romneys for breakfast. He erected a five metre long grill, alongside the house and showed us what we’d been missing since the huntergatherers moved back to the UK 10,000 years ago and left their bags of charcoal in Calais. The Earl felt he was finally bringing civilisation across the sea, spreading the word of Barby to the barbarians.

Resistance to the Barby is strong, and many local authorities have banned them. At London Fields, a park in Hackney, a council employee spends every sunny holiday, going around the park, asking people to extinguish their barbecues. In Australia and New Zealand, public parks have areas set aside for barbecues. In London fields, families going to the park for lunch are told they either eat the meat raw, or go home and cook it. The Barbycop hasn’t done his job until the park is empty.

Private enterprise deals with rogue barbys more efficiently. At the Virgin open air rock concerts, a Barbycop sits above the crowd, on a small platform, sniffing the air for burning fat, or sizzling meat. As soon as he spots the carnivorous offender, he hurries down the pole and rushes through the crowd with a bucket of water, which he throws over the pagan flames and spitting, satanic sausages. In the world of free enterprise, actions speak louder than words. No Aussie, Kiwi or South African would ever stoop to such an anti-social act.

But the Southern hemisphere isn’t surrendering the barby without a fight. Although the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is a Tory, some of the local councils are controlled by the Labour party. Islington Labour council appointed Councillor Paul Smith as Environment Chief. Paul is Australian, and one of his first initiatives was to remove the ban on barbecues in the borough’s parks.

London’s comedy mayor, Boris Johnson, joined the argument, expressing concern for litter and burned grass, and promising an investigation. Councillor Smith responded, “Anyone who is opposed to barbecues is a killjoy,” he said. “I hope that during his investigation he talks to the people of Islington because the overwhelming majority think the parks belong to them and they would like to be able to use them to enjoy family picnics during the summer.” He pointed out that most Londoners, being naturally lawless, took no notice of the ban anyway.

The Barby wars usually drag on until the beginning of November, when the stink of cheap, scorched meat is replaced by the aroma from the ritual burning of life sized effigies of Catholics. The native puritans then return to their caves to celebrate the mid-winter, turkey- slaughtering festival.

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