Transport yourself, dear reader, to the British urban landscape of Larkin’s mythical moment, ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. You are young, educated, ambitious, and have moved, alone, to a big city – London, even – eager for the experiences and opportunities your newly acquired adult status and independence dangle tantalizingly before you. Yet as you grapple with the baffling new exigencies of the lowest rungs of the career ladder, you also find yourself lodged in the lowliest form of metropolitan habitation: the bedsitter. You long for excitement and sophistication, but your life looks, feels and very probably smells like a cross between Lucky Jim and The L-Shaped Room.
And you are hungry. Not just metaphorically hungry for life, love, power and glory – you need actual food, to comfort your loneliness, to ease and warm social contact, to nourish the inner man or woman, to warm the heart and fill the belly, to set you up for the life you want. And you have to provide it – buy it, store it, peel it, skin it, fillet it, chop it, cook it, serve it – yourself. ‘Convenience foods’ barely exist, and only in shops that shut at tea-time. Fast food is fish and chips.
But help is at hand in this cheerless and cash-strapped struggle. Never mind sexual intercourse – which, according to Larkin’s teasing line, ‘began in 1963’ – though it might have been a consolation. That year also saw the Penguin paperback publication of Katharine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter, which turned the 1961 McGibbon and Kee hardback with the unpromising title of Kitchen in the Corner into a best-selling handbook for more than one generation of fledgling adults.
It is sensible, practical, brisk, funny and a little bit bossy – but its true genius, which infuses the merely instructional, lies in its recognition that its readers are real people, with hopes and dreams that
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