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Nostalgia and the 'caff'

"I’m really genuinely terrified that we are losing for ever the caff. And I mean that very specifically: the caff not the cafe ... literally somewhere that did egg and chips and a cup of tea. They are genuinely vanishing and it’s such a shame because there’s nothing like them." Mark Gatiss

Mark Gatiss is a British actor/writer/director. One of those actors that you always recognise but whose name you don't know. You would recognise him as Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft in the TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch if you watched that, for example. He wrote most of it too. But this is not about Mark Gatiss, it's about what he said at the top of the page. It was taken from an interview in the most recent Guardian newsletter which was about various food related things. Just a passing comment, but for me it triggered memories of the transport café on the motorway that ran along the edge of the university estate.

The passing of the years can romanticise things can't it? Nostalgia is created. 'The Good old days' and all that. Coincidentally in the same newsletter in fact was an article by Nigel Slater about the 20th anniversary of his memoir of his childhood Toast - which became a television series - or maybe it was a film, and also a stage play. A double case of nostalgia in a way - the nostalgia for the time of his youth and the nostalgia for Toast in its various iterations, because they obviously meant a lot to him. He has seen all of the various stage productions for example.

The memoir was about his unhappy childhood and the food that punctuated it - all mostly awful stuff. Well the kind of food that the vast majority of the British ate back then. Most of the chapters had the title of one of these dreadful things. I just picked it up at random and opened it to Fried eggs, then there was also Garibaldis; Bourbon biscuits; Sherbet fountains ... and so on. It was a very sad story and yet, nostalgic. The writing of his memoir began by him being asked by The Observer to write a piece about the food of his childhood, about which he was doubtful because of the awful nature of the food.

"I explained how jelly with mandarin oranges, Abbey Crunch biscuits and Smartie-studded birthday cake had been a lifeline to a small boy whose early life had been far from idyllic." Nigel Slater


"The reaction from readers was uplifting. I had obviously underestimated the number who had also lived through the dubious delights of jelly with evaporated milk. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who knew their humbugs from their Nuttall’s Mintoes." Nigel Slater.

I suppose the romanticisation occurs because we were young then, and when one is old one regrets that we didn't appreciate what we had back then - which is fundamentally youth. However awful that time might have been we just regret that we are no longer young, and so the years when we were actually young get romanticised.

Things were so much more vivid back then it seems. Even the broken hearts of love affairs gone wrong, become romantic memories in retrospect. I was going to say that we only remember the good bits and black out the bad bits, but this, of course, is not true. Particularly if there was trauma, as in Nigel Slater's case, but even if there were just occasional bad moments, or broken hearts we gloss over them and concentrate on finding good in the bad. And no that's not true either for those who have truly suffered when young. Real trauma would stay with you forever. I am lucky. All I had to cope with was genteel poverty, an often absent but very loving father and bad food - well some bad food, interspersed with excellent but basic food.

So back to where we started and the 'caff'. Those few lines in an otherwise only mildly interesting article struck a chord with me because that transport caff memory, expanded, of course, into a nostalgic trip down the memory lane that is my time at university.

This is an old photograph I found online of the actual place. It apparently opened in 1963 - my second year there and it was run by Fortes. In the bridge across the road was a posher - though hardly posh - restaurant. We would eat in the transport caff where the lorry drivers ate - the building on the bottom left. The university is off to the left along a longish road. In fact all the land at that side probably belonged to the university.

I seem to remember going there fairly often. Maybe we went there on Sundays because the refectory - shown here - was closed on Sundays. We had to fend for ourselves. Some of us would just cook up something like baked beans on toast in our residence, but sometimes we would walk with our friends down to the motorway caff where we would eat laden plates of transport caff food like the one at the top of the page. A plate full of artery hardening things like chips, fried eggs, sausages and bacon, plus the inevitable baked beans, which were, curiously perhaps, the healthiest things on the plate. Cheap and cheerful I suppose - and very British. The routiers cafés in France have rather better options.

Or are they? Everybody loves chips of course, whether they are cut thin or chunky and whatever they are cooked in. Bacon is also almost universally loved - even if these days the posh go for pancetta - which is fundamentally bacon. The fried eggs may have been replaced by poached and the tinned beans by chick peas, but breakfast is huge. Below are two examples of modernised versions of the same thing - there are lots more, and curiously the one thing that it is difficult to find in all these breakfast plates is chips. They've been replaced by sourdough toast.

Back to 'the good old days'.

I tried to find a photograph of the actual caff but could only find ones of the 'posher' bit upstairs. this is not the actual Keele one, but it's similar I think. the other one is perhaps nearer to what the caff was like, although it's not 'our' one.

Occasionally we went there late at night. Probably a bit drunk after an evening in the Union. It's a rather weird thing to do now that I think about it, but I do remember doing it. I also remember eating there with David and some of his friends once, which is also a little bit unlikely. Well the David that I know now anyway. He, like I, was obviously different back then. But then again he does like beans on toast.

This is a photograph of the entry to the Keele motorway services today from which I see that you can get Subway, KFC or Burger King - well a whole range of fast foods and other things including a Waitrose and a WH Smith. I wonder if today's students go there on Sundays for a bite of food and a bit of socialising? I wonder if they will view this so very ordinary location with nostalgia too when they are old? Will they dream wistfully of KFC?

Mark Gatiss deplored the fact that the kind of daggy food that was consumed in 'caffs' all over the country has been replaced by trendy sandwich and coffee bars - by cafés. Today's Keele service station is just as daggy in its way - the food is certainly not a whole lot better but perhaps it's more industrialised and not as completely British as a big plate of fried eggs, chips, bacon and baked beans. And today's Pret a manger sandwich bars will one day be considered very passé, like wimpy bars and 'cafes'.

Considering all the places I have eaten in my life - some of them very high class - how is it that I can actually remember what I ate at the Keele 'caff' and not what I ate at Paul Bocuse in Lyon, for example? Other than the snails which were the 'free' appetiser. Well you would remember snails wouldn't you? And I do remember the occasion very clearly. But I don't remember the actual food. Mind you the nostalgia associated with the Keele 'caff' is not for the food - it's for my youth. For what I sometimes think were the golden years.

I looked for quotes about nostalgia and found they were overwhelmingly negative I have to say. Shouldn't dwell on the past and all that. "The vice of the aged" said Angela Carter. But she died in her 40s, so would never have known what it is to be old. Nostalgia is indeed a bit sad. I guess it's a lament for our youth - long, long, gone - and all the things one should have done but didn't, and all the things one did do but shouldn't have. Life was just beginning, or so we thought, although of course it had been going for some time, and the best was yet to come - love, children, grandchildren, travel and lots, and lots of food. Even fried eggs, chips and baked beans.


"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were." Marcel Proust

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