Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Peel an orange, and other things Britons won't do


Britons are now too busy even to peel an orange. John Walsh pauses for a moment to consider the other everyday rituals in danger of extinction

Wednesday, 4 June 2008



Oranges are declining in popularity, according to Grocer magazine. They were introduced to our larders and kitchens from Asia 1,000 years ago, and their juice is our favourite morning heart-starter – but the actual spherical bomb of vitamin C, fibre, potassium and folate is less appetising with every passing year.

Why? Not because we've gone off the taste, but because we find them too difficult to peel. It's pathetic but true. Compared with the easy-peel, lighter-weight satsuma and tangerine, the noble orange is considered too big, too messy and too inconvenient to denude with your human fingers.

A spokesman for Fruitmann, importer and exporter of fruits, explained that consumers just don't feel it's worth the bother taking the skin off an orange (let alone taking the pith). "A recent study," he said, "showed that we spend only 15 minutes eating lunch in the UK on average."

When did we get into such an all-fired hurry that we don't have time to peel an orange? Shirley Conran once opined that life was too short to stuff a mushroom, and she had a point. But broaching an orange isn't a chore; it is, or should be, a pleasure, because it connects you with the complicated texture of the fruit world, and it repays your assault on its packaging by the freshness of its interior, the astringent fizz of zest, the tart sweetness of its secret, liquid heart.

We shouldn't complain that we're too busy for such things. We should appreciate the texture of everyday life, not gallop through it. The main course of action recommended by Proust (as noted by Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life) is to slow down and luxuriate in the sensuous details of ordinary actions – of which the patient undressing of the orange is just one. So here, we consider lost moments of self-indulgence that would bear rediscovery.

1. Peeling

It's not just oranges. When your children have for years demanded oven-ready chips, it's easy to forget how much you secretly enjoy peeling potatoes: the flat blade of the peeler gliding over the smooth knobbly surface, through this crevice and over that outcrop, as the pale compliant peel lifts away in a long, unbroken, ectoplasmic string.

Some frantically busy types (the fools) may consider peeling a waste of time, but once it held the key to the future. Nervous Victorian virgins used to fling an unbroken apple peel over their left shoulder and turn round to read the first letter of their future husband's name in the appley folds on the floor.

2. Lunching

The biggest tragedy to befall corporate man and woman is the arrival of lunching "al desko". We are such ferociously busy people, are we, that we cannot tear ourselves away from our womb-like workstations for an hour? Oh please. It was bollocks when Gordon Gekko said "Lunch is for wimps" in the film Wall Street, 21 years ago; it still is.

Lunch is one of the great slow-motion boons of mankind. It's good for you. You need not become insensible from cocktails, nor eat to excess, nor feel you have to climax every lunch with banoffee pie. But all the familiar procession of menus, bread, spritzer, soup, scallops, chicken and ill-advised digestif has a power to soothe and invigorate that beats any desk-bound egg-mayo-on-brown.

3. Washing...

... the car, that is, although any act of ablution can be improved by doing it lentamente. You're a busy driver. You're rather spend five quid on subjecting your lovely motor to the frenzied dervish-dance of the car-wash, or the ministrations of a thinly smiling Latvian with sponge and squeegee?

Get real. You're missing out on so much. Give yourself half an hour with bucket, sponge, chamois and Arcade Fire on the stereo, get into the rhythm of spongeing, wiping, hosing and chammying, and see how it lifts the stress from your day. It'll make your car gleam just as if it's been through a carwash, only the wing mirrors won't have been sheared off.

4. Writing

We've relied too long on email to send each other not just work-related initiatives, but personal notes, gossip, declarations of love and obscene suggestions through mystic cyberspace. They all (except perhaps the last) used to be the province of the letter, written by hand, sealed with saliva and festooned with stamps.

Of course letters take ages to write; that's the point. When writing directly on to paper, you need to collect your thoughts and marshal into a logical sequence all the things you wish to say. Whatever they are, they'll sound infinitely better on folder paper than in an email. And you can meditate, as WB Yeats did, on the tiny point where the nib of your Montblanc Meisterstück meets the vellum paper and the ink of your desires flows out.

5. Shaving

How did we lose touch with the luxury of the old-fashioned wet shave? Dragging a three-blade Gillette Mach 3 from Sainsbury's across your soaped cheeks before catching your 9am train is so barbaric. The Real Man Shave, once enacted every day in a thousand Manhattan barbershops, is an enjoyable ritual: the hot towels are wrapped round the cheeks to soften the bristles, the badger-hair brush whips up a storm of lime-scented froth in the shaving jug and anoints your cheeks and chin, then the stropping of the cut-throat razor, the glide of the fearsome metal through the crackling undergrowth, then more hot towels and the curt sting of bay rum around the glowing cheeks. It took ages. And it was magical.

6. Reading

Who has time to read any more? What, sit down for three hours of an evening and engage with a text about made-up people and events? When there are bars to frequent, and America's Got Talent on Channel 4? Don't make me laugh.

But how about if we turned off the TV, chose a good book and found somebody to read it aloud to you? You might enjoy it, once you'd stopped wriggling and insisting you must go and check your email. It's another lost art, somewhat eclipsed by the rise of the audio-book, but its relaxing and pampering qualities are ripe for rediscovery.

7. Strolling

How long is it since you entertained the concept of Going For A Walk? I don't mean the urgent dash to the shops on Saturday afternoon, or the purposeful not-quite-run on the common in your expensive trainers. I mean the purposeless amble through the backstreets of your fashionable suburb, taking in the sights, peering through windows (but don't push your luck) and greeting neighbours with a cheery doffing of one's Homburg. The lack of any actual goal, other than getting out of the house and seeing what the world is up to, is what gives the random constitutional its old-fashioned charm.

8. Tea-making

There's so much more to it than flinging a bag in a mug, dousing it with boiling water and jabbing at it with a spoon until it's dead. The Japanese chanoyu tea ceremony was a fabulously protracted four-hour affair involving bamboo ladle, iron pot, charcoal fire and lots of bowing and sipping. You needn't go that far. But scalding an old-fashioned Brown Betty teapot, adding real Assam tea and hot water and letting it brew for seven minutes (while you find cups, spoons, sugar, milk and silver strainer with drip-tray) produces the most satisfying (and relaxing) results.

No comments: