This September, our first ever book club is starting with what you might think is an unusual choice, Rick Stein’s memoir, Under a Mackerel Sky. Here’s what I made of it. Feel free to add your comments below!
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When I saw this memoir for sale at WHSmiths, I bought it without a second thought. I have really enjoyed Rick Stein’s books and TV programmes over the years, and actually feel he has, in a tiny way, influenced what I do for a living now. I’m a bit of a fan, shall we say. When I first saw his programmes, especially the Food Heroes series, it made me properly engage with food and provenance for the first time. I decided to only eat free-range meat. Then I started an online local food directory, which a family member now runs. After that I started a food blog, and now this site…
I identify with this flawed but very likeable, intelligent entrepreneur, always have – perhaps because he wears his heart on his sleeve, as I like honest people, even if they are far from perfect. Reading this funny, sad and enjoyable memoir has only made me like him even more…
The first part of the book focuses on his childhood and youth. A shy and unconfident boy from a privileged and educated background, he doesn’t do that well at school. However his parents were unconventional intellectuals: importantly, his mother encouraged him to read from an early age (“I’d been reading serious books ever since I learned to read”) and his literary passion is a thread throughout the book, which is heavily seasoned with quotes from classical novels and excerpts from poems. He enjoys a bucolic childhood, and his eccentric, wealthy family is generally a happy one. He tells us about his musical passions, of discovering rock and roll, and then forming a band at public school. The reader can see each stepping stone forming, and how it will lead to his eventual career as a successful restauranteur. This early love of music leads him to host teenage parties, which result in him becoming a mobile DJ, then a nightclub owner – and finally running restaurants. This section of his memoir ends with a terrible thing happening. A family tragedy occurs and it’s this event that shapes many of Stein’s decisions and actions – and character – in the following chapters.
The next part of the book is about Rick travelling to Australia, to escape really. And we can see that his experiences here, as he works his way around the vast country doing a myriad of awful jobs, are shaping who he is becoming. It’s an advertisement for encouraging your kids to get out into the world and experience life in all its colours – as he goes home to England a much more confident and well rounded person. “Coming home to Cornwall felt like Odysseus returning”.
When he returns he manages, as a mature student, to get into Oxford to study literature, and he mingles here with extremely clever people (many familiar names are dropped here, which makes for an interesting and atmospheric backdrop) who make him feel inferior. He meets his first wife, Jill, during this period and a serious incident – caused by him – nearly kills her and results in a nervous breakdown:
“All of that [incident], and drinking too much, and fear of Finals, precipitated a kind of nervous breakdown… not helped by some of the stuff I was reading, which seemed to be all about the meaningless of life.”
It’s easy to see, as a reader, this highly sensitive and hedonistic young man was still grieving over the aforementioned family tragedy. But even when he writes about these testing periods of his life, there is great humour. Here he describes a panic attack in Paris with his friend by his side:
“I was rooted to the spot thinking my death was imminent. Francis asked if I could find somewhere else to collapse, it was bloody inconvenient in the middle of a main road. I became very irate. “You bastard,” I said. “This is really serious.”
After Oxford, he goes to London to “make his fortune running a mobile disco”. You have to admire him for doing this; indeed in everything he does, he is the definition of a trier. At this point and throughout the book, despite difficult times he never gives up. He always has a go, works his arse off, despite enormous self doubt, which is a constant backdrop throughout. Earlier in the book he says that “most of my life I have had to fight against a creeping conviction that I might be completely useless”.
In the section of the book where he eventually sets up his restaurant he comes across as an unbelievably hard worker, but with a short temper (these two things are clearly related), even telling numerous (admittedly deserving) customers to “fuck off” and getting into fights with a few. Still, you sympathise with his cause.
He doesn’t steer clear of the ‘Padstein’ issue (a journalist dubbed Padstow this after locals got a bit miffed with his ubiquitous businesses which have somewhat taken over the village). He admits that he made mistakes in dealing with some locals, who he was annoyed with when they got in the way of further plans for growth, stating that the reason people came to the village in the first place – to their holiday cottages – was because of him! However he says the comeback, which was a negative press article resulting from a leaked email where he displayed pomposity, was an act of hubris. He constantly displays humility and is acutely aware of his flaws, and for this reason you warm to him despite his often misguided actions!
When, later in the book, he talks about his TV career, he allows an enjoyable peek into the process of programme making. He depicts the making of Rick Stein’s French Odyssey as somewhat bacchanalian, with daily hangovers and tiffs creating an often tense mood onboard the tiny barge they all shared whilst filming. As for the descriptions of eating and drinking whilst filming these programmes, the words jump off the page and come to life (and make me want to jump on a plane to the Med). Here he describes a lunch in Galicia, Spain, whilst filming Mediteranean Escapes.
“…we sat down to lunch and started with some grilled sardines as fresh and sweet as young hazelnuts. We shared a couple of the spider crabs. We drank Albarino, the local white wine, which is grown on trestles so as to keep the grapes off the ground… After the fish we had rare steaks: very fresh and cooked on charcoal…The whole meal, the bar, the locals, the spontaneity of it… I was overwhelmed with joy. David filmed me coming out of the bar and saying I’d just had a lunch of such delight that it felt to me like being in love.”
I know what he means; I’ve had those kinds of lunches!
One of the reasons I have always loved Stein’s programmes is that they aren’t just cookery shows; they mix travel with culture and, often, literature. As a literature graduate I’ve always enjoyed the times when he quotes a piece to camera or as a voice over. The India show was peppered with Kipling quotes; the series about Cornwall featured the poetry of Betjeman; the Spain programme, Hemingway. On this subject he says: “On the surface it’s only food, but there’s an underlying seriousness about what I wanted to get across. I was trying to put food into its context in life.”
As an ‘entrepreneur’ myself (slightly cringing as I describe myself as that, but I suppose I am), I admire Rick’s undeniable work ethic and unstoppable ambition, which you can’t help but feel is out of some need to constantly prove himself (aren’t all entrepreneurs built this way though, to crave love through achievement?). It’s the madness in us that drives us forward, I suppose. Even if that madness comes from a traumatic experience, which in his case it definitely did.
The book’s last part brings us to the current day, and his relationship with his second wife, Sas. He has mentioned her previously and you know where it’s heading… To his credit, he never talks about the failing of his marriage to Jill, his first wife; rather he talks about the growing fondness he has for his future second wife, Sas – stating only when he was divorced from Jill and that they remain business partners. He does allude to the impact on his family his divorce has had:
“Whenever I feel depressed about how much trouble and pain I’ve caused, I go back there in my mind and I’m filled with a sense of acute clarity of that morning, that it’s no longer a question of right and wrong. It had to happen.”
The memoir ends with a recollection of a recent occasion, when out swimming in the sea he has a realisation about the tragic event that shaped his former years and affected his whole life. He finally lets go of the past. Good for him.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you are a rebel, a traveller, a foodie, an entrepreneur – go get a copy. You’ll recognise yourself in these pages, as I have. Rick Stein’s journey (so far) inspires me to knuckle down and work hard, but most of all, to enjoy the good times, as he so clearly has and continues to do.