April 25, 2014 7:33 pm

English picnics – warm bubbly and other traditions

‘I once turned down a picnic with my editor because I suspected that the champagne would be tepid’

What would be the essentials for a fine and relaxed picnic?

When my editor spotted this question online, she warned the inquisitor that I might not be best qualified to dispense advice on picnics, as I had once turned her down to “picnic” on a park bench in St James’s with a bottle of champagne. My immediate suspicion was that the champagne would be tepid*, which in turn reminded me of the “tepid bananas inseparable from an Australian picnic” mentioned in Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film creepy enough, with poisonous ants and vanishing girls, to put anyone off the whole idea of a picnic.

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David Tang

Yet the English have an abiding affection for picnics, no doubt entrenched by those rare idyllic summer days in England when fizz with cheese and pies are enjoyed in the open air, which DH Lawrence described as an aphrodisiac, at least with his women in love.

Then there is of course Brideshead Revisited in which Charles and Sebastian ate strawberries and drank wine “on a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms”, invoking further the romance of a glorious sunny day in the English countryside that beckons the picnic. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the last chapter, which had no punctuation, was full of romance when Molly recalls her love for Bloom at a picnic when “the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth”.

So I understand why the English have a fondness for the picnic. Nonetheless in Emma, Jane Austen warned us that a picnic is often a “hit-and-miss situation”, and it was certainly a miss with poor Dr Aziz in A Passage to India with his elaborate picnic near the Marabar Caves, after which he is arrested for alleged impropriety with Adela. In To the Lighthouse, Mr Ramsay had a picnic on a boat and his daughter was desperate to throw her sandwich overboard, which should warn us about the danger of indifferent food – as indeed we found in Martin Amis’s Dead Babies as everyone “gagged in unison when boiled eggs were produced”. Sir John Betjeman also alerted us “sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea”.

On balance, I am a bit of a pessimist on picnics. As an urban Hongkonger (a new entry in the Oxford dictionary) I was not brought up to have picnics, and I must have been spoiled in the early days when I came to England to “picnic” in the car park at Royal Ascot in morning coats and with Fortnum’s provisions and folding chairs popping out the large boot of a limo. Although even at Ascot, with large brollies and vehicular shelter, lashings of rain have a debilitating effect on a picnic, not so much because of the wetness itself but how it dampens the conversations.

And therein lies the essentials for a decent picnic: good and meaningful conversations, or romantic conversations between lovers. That’s all one needs – not the food, or the drinks, or the blankets. A good picnic, like any repast, is only enjoyable, especially with the bonus of nature in full bloom with a brilliant blue sky and rolling landscape, when it is anchored by like-minded people talking with their brains and imagination.

Which I am sure I would have done with my editor and one of her colleagues at their picnic, although I said “no” because I was dreading the prospect of arriving to find the park bench already occupied, and by the more alarming prospect of an old streaker in a dirty mac.

. . .

Following my declared preferences on lavatories, I have received a few enthusiastic nominations of the best loos in the world, all of whose criteria seem to depend on a spectacular view. When I stayed in Lhasa, one of the highest cities in the world, I felt exhilaratingly elevated whenever I stood in the bathroom of my hotel, not only because of the view of the Potala Palace but the sensation that I was on top of the world. Beat that!

. . .

I have also been offered solutions for barging into the middle of the row at the theatre. A correspondent suggested the “easy” solution of booking seats in the middle and arriving at least two hours early. How stupid and ludicrous can this be? It’s always difficult enough to get to the theatre on time, let alone arrive two hours early. OK if you were a couch potato, but I ain’t one.

*I always ensure that Aldi chills my fizz – Ed.

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