Blackness, history & love, Books, Whiteness & racism

Against the Party Line

The IncomersThe Incomers by Moira McPartlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

I bought this book partly because I was so attracted to the beautiful manga style cover art centred on a gorgeously drawn black woman’s face. While her necklace looks African to me, her rakish curls of hair, sceptical eyebrow and thick gold earring give her a cartoon romantically piratical air! Meanwhile, two white women on the phone look as if they’re either dealing with a crisis or plotting some intrigue, but as it turns out, the protagonist, Ellie, isn’t a swashbuckling renegade and the other women are just gossiping. Their chatter, often cruel, is McPartlin’s vehicle for working through the harshness and bigotry of a rural mid-’60s Scottish setting. While the ‘pairty line’ vents toxic racism and ignorance, its status as a space for friends to speak openly enables some healing and changes of mind to take place. Religious fissures are bridged by family relationships, and the speakers feel comfortable enough to contradict each other and repent of previous convictions.

The perceptual centre of the novel is Ellie, recently arrived from an unnamed West African country to live with her husband, the factor of a wealthy landowning family estate, and their baby son, Nat. Racism defines all of her interactions in the new country, so the degree to which other characters are able to relate to her and treat her with respect and friendliness measures their moral worth; Ellie’s presence is an ethical barometer.

Her experience is central in other ways; for me the deepest theme here is pleasure, and Ellie’s genius for it is evident in her enjoyment of and love for her son, her interest in food, and especially her quickly formed and increasingly restorative relationship with the beautiful land, lovingly evoked by McPartlin with a warm intimacy that I found distinctive and resonant. It reminded me of Toni Morrison’s work: with hints of nightmarish history at the roots. The root speaks in the shoot, and newly replanted Ellie touches the medicine women’s maligned graves knowing her knowledge of herb lore and the local hostility towards her bequeaths here a tender kinship. She mistakenly calls them nuns, and this speaks to her experience in a missionary school and half-accepted fore-mothers. Female heritage has traction here, even if dubious and sad. The narrative vaunts solidarities between women without smoothing or simplifying rough edges and conflicts. In contrast to Ellie, the native residents seem… dour! From their grim religious outlooks to their drab clothes and bland food, they seem to refuse the pleasures of life.

The most careful, emotionally subtle writing goes into the relationship between Ellie and her husband James, who expects her to lose her identity in assimilation and expresses disappointment that she resists this, is too cowardly to defend her from the overt and thinly veiled racial hostility she experiences, fails to believe her, medicalises her feelings of loneliness and anger, complains about her cooking and breastfeeding and foraging and her gorgeous clothes, and gives his mother a pass on her racism, defending her from confronting her own bigotry and pushing the burden onto Ellie, who sees through his weak and racist behaviour and resists, gathering allies where she can. The only thing that can be said for him is that he loves pleasure, is affectionate and not physically violent. I loathed him and my heart ached for Ellie. My sympathy was unwaveringly with her. I experienced a world of contrasts through her eyes, with the author affirming her clear judgements and emotions.

Childhood is a theme treated with insight and imagination. I see the book as critical of the Scottish lifestyle of the period which has negative effects on health, and also of extractivism since mining corrodes lives both in Hollyburn and in Ellie’s native home. Religious bigotry marks the children’s lives as does their parents’ ill health. Only Ellie’s baby, breastfed and kept close to her in the sweet world of their mutual pleasure, is healthy in mind and body, but Ellie cannot be Africa in herself, she cannot entirely insulate her son from his new environment. In that sense, while there are a lot of optimistic trajectories here, there are no cosy resolutions. Rather than presenting a feelgood outcome that redeems whiteness, McPartlin equips Ellie with an impressive capacity to fight and resist racism without denying her vulnerability and need for support, calling on us all to decolonise ideas of community…

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Ecstasy of a Feminist Tragedian in New York

The New York StoriesThe New York Stories by Elizabeth Hardwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For me this collection divides along a line between story-driven episodes that unfold ideas & characters from a narrative, and pieces that dissolve these elements in a diffuse, intensely poetic, emotionally charged meandering. But perhaps I’m being overly convergent in seeing a line when I should detect a field of ambiguity and shade.

I often struggle with plotless writing but when I can feel a depth of glowing emotion as I can here I can appreciate. Hardwick conveys a moody, conflict-ridden yet implacable and transcendant love for New York City, partly (I’m not entirely sure how she achieves this shimmering web of effects) by piling images one atop the other in a profusion of witty contrasts. Another way she does it is by introducing vulnerable and unconventional personalities in a way that makes NYC seem like a sheltering haven where the fragile can survive

I think Hardwick is an analyst, but she manages to be remarkably gentle and unintrusive about it, never implying that misfortune or rejection is the result of some moral failure or innate deficiency. She grants everyone, however potentially pathetic, the generous sympathy of the tragedian. But of course, Hardwick is a feminist tragedian, not giving a pass to Macbeth by dragging his wife into the mud. I don’t mean that everyone she paints is an angel, but they are all feeling and struggling humans caught in currents and cross-currents.

I am sometimes exasperated with white malaise but Hardwick makes the floundering anguish of her characters both comic and pitiable, symptoms of the disease of civilization that the glowing embers of life force inside people are vainly trying to fight off. Besides, the prose is just about irresistible.

The final tale is my favourite; a black part-time maid has died, and the incident allows Hardwick to sketch New York’s racial contours, gently unpeeling the ignorance of liberal attitudes. As in the tale ‘The Purchase’, she also explores the shifting meanings of wealth and class in a supposedly classless society (this is the title of another tale), critiquing middle class greed in a way that indicts the social structure and treats characters humanly, without ever sliding into an author-voiced harangue.

The introduction by Darryl Pinckley is insightful and intriguing, lit by a warmth towards Hardwick that seems almost personal; a friendly appreciation rather than reverence. He gives us a critical and intellectual woman from the South in ecstasy in New York, a prose poet, a writer’s writer. Read her and fall in love.

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Three torments

Three Strong WomenThree Strong Women by Marie NDiaye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three abrasively unpleasant stories snagged on overlapping locations, like Khady’s torn leg and torn ear, snagged and then torn loose by impersonal brutality, a world that wounds.

NDiaye’s style reminded me of other extremely ‘interior’ texts, in particular The Hour of the Star. The prose is sophisticated, almost deliberately awkward and consciously repetitive. The grim subject matter demoralised me to the point of wanting to abandon reading, and the magical elements only enhanced the mood of miserable, grief-stricken, terrifying unheimlich. I did not enjoy reading.

For example, Ndiaye (for unlike in The Hour of the Star our narrator’s voice is not explicitly mediated) would flatly announce that a character felt some incongruous emotion… It is true that people feel incongruous emotions and perhaps the author wants to make me work harder to relate to people on or beyond the edge of sanity, but I found myself lacking in the requisite patience or compassion to feel other than baffled when someone found hostility reassuring or was disgusted by the unusually healthy and vivacious appearance of a beloved mother.

NDiaye’s characters do not feel what I would feel and so I constantly have to be told what they are feeling; it cannot be implied; no gaps can be left for me here; the lacunae are pushed to the margins of the interlocking narratives, where I would fill them if it weren’t for the gross inconsistencies between them, the lurking spectres of false memory, fogging the thoughts of our three severely unreliable narrators. I was so grumpy while reading that the conflicting accounts felt to me like authorial spite!

The low point for me is Fanta’s section, which is narrated by her mentally ill, arrogant and angry white husband. Why o why am I stuck in this poisoned psyche? I begged the author to reveal to me, but I was left to myself, to find some answer. Each narrative mercilessly punishes a ‘strong’ black woman for daring to exist unbowed; that’s why I found it so uncongenial and saddening. Why, Marie, why? I pleaded. She could have answered ‘Is it my fault I know a truth that is ugly? What right have you to hide from it?’ and yeah, I have no comeback.

But the themes and their bridges! Rudy’s racist mother’s obsession with little blond boys and Fanta and Rudy’s son, whose very name mocks her ironic blindness, which seems counterpointed to me by Khady’s obsessive desire for motherhood. But Djibril, an external character who seems particularly sane and likeable, is bound by that hinted-at angelic status to Norah’s glowing, menacing father, another maligned black male. Where does a bird become an angel or vice versa? Surely the crow-hustler-guide who leads cast-out Khady for a while is not from heaven? I have not understood well; the meanings of signs have escaped me.

But it is impossible to miss the sign of Khady’s strength, her implacable, instinctive self-love and self-respect, the blazing light that closes the book in its fearful tumult and anguish and outrage. It is through Khady that the ‘strength’ of Norah (who is busy) and Fanta (who does not speak for herself) is clarified and tempered:

She had even happened on occasion to feel proud of being Khady because – she had often thought with some amazement – children whose lives seemed happy, who ever day got generous helpings of chicken and fish and wore clothes to school that were not stained or torn, such children were no more human than Khady Demba who only managed to get a minuscule helping of the good things in life

Just as Lispector from under the weight of her worldly narrator lovingly reveals her meagre Macabea human and angel, I hear Ndiaye speak to all Khadys, Norahs and Fantas: ‘No matter what humiliation, deprivation and violence is piled on you, you are essence as well as existence, you are yourself, you are crucial and irreplacable to the whole universe.’ And to the rest I hear her spit ‘Do better’.

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Books, Colonisation, Gender, history, Political, Whiteness & racism

La mariposas

In the Time of the ButterfliesIn the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I’ve decided not to re-read this, so I can’t review it properly because I’ve forgotten my thoughts. I’m glad this was brought to my attention by the year of reading women selection because it’s an amazing story and an important piece of radical history. As other reviewers note, by focussing on the personal and making the sisters distinct (even idiosyncratic) and flawed Alvarez demonstrates that extraordinary courage comes from people like you and I (Malala Yousefzai’s book comes to mind here). Also, La Mariposas come across as awesome and heroic, but generally very feminine in the sense of a familiar traditional gender socialisation; nurturing, caring, with integrity stemming from avowed emotion, conscious of self-presentation, and aspiring to a passionate and stable family life, especially young Mate. I am inevitably projecting my own experiences onto Latin@ culture however.

My favourite voice was Patria’s, although I related more to willful Minerva in general. Patria’s self-awareness seemed extraordinary, and her religious faith challenged my (generally negative) perceptions of Catholicism and faith generally. If I felt the girls/women were bourgeois and privileged, that’s probably why Alvarez devotes a lot of time to conveying the texture of their experiences in prison and the relationships they built there. I appreciated Alvarez’s focus on women; the many men in the story remain peripheral. The limited attention to race is my main disappointment in a generally satisfying read. Brief mentions of the Taino and Trujillo’s white supremacy are included, and there is a little space for raising awareness in the jail, but we don’t see much confrontation with racism in the extensive character development.

For me what makes this so worthwhile and exciting is the depth and detail of characterisation. Sometimes I was really struck by the thoughts behind the thoughts, mostly of Patria, but also others, such as Mate’s confession: ‘I think I’m going to burst’ in a context that causes this to position the soul as desire and desire as a kind of fullness, the opposite of the classic formulation. On the level of the personal, this story gives much food for thought.

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Books, Colonisation, history, Political, Whiteness & racism

Dreams & Nightmares of Al-Andalus

GranadaGranada by Radwa Ashour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second Ashour and takes its place beside The Woman from Tantoura as one of my favourite books. Once again, the author deals with tantalising and difficult material with poetic and thematic subtlety and affectionate warmth for her characters.

It opens with a woman’s ghost, naked and free, walking towards Abu Jaafar. This man we know first by his vision and second through the brief flashback of his young assistant, a refugee taken in and apprenticed by the elderly book-maker. Abu Jaafar goes out to hear the news on the streets of Albaicin, a Muslim neighbourhood of Granada, where he hears rumours and, days later, the town crier, all in this flowing sequence than unfurls like a banner, carrying us deep, deep, deep into the world of this history, as if we are diving, diving, diving through air, seeing the land and all its spirits spread around, rising towards us, details blooming one by one from the background, literary sorcery.

I would like to humbly suggest that Radwa Ashour creates in this novel a vision of Al-Andalus, Muslim-Arab Spain, as a radically open society. The Muslim-Arab population of Granada is living under Castillian occupation and increasingly draconian Catholic rule. Their rights to freedom of religion, association and property, initially upheld, are soon revoked and they are presented with the choice of conversion or exile. Those who stay and pretend to convert are ruthlessly persecuted for displaying any sign of their identity as Arab or Muslim, books are confiscated and burned, the bathhouses are closed (the Castilians, it seems, do not bathe). It is a genocide. So, what do I mean by open?

I mean that among the Muslim people, nothing is felt to be prescribed or prohibited. If I had been in the habit of considering religious practice as a combination of these two aspects, I can see from Ashour’s Granada that this conception is inadequate. I do not consider the society ‘permissive’ since permission is given by authority, rather the mode is affirmative; tradition and custom are structures that affirm and provide vehicles for personal freedom under occupation, and deviations from discernable norms transgress only occupier ideology and regulation.

The occupiers prescribe Catholic practice and prohibit Muslim/Arab traditions, but the identity of the people is intact, is maintained in their hearts. Anxious Hasan, trying to persuade his friend Saad not to join the bands of freedom fighters in the mountains, produces a fatwa he has obtained from Morocco that it is allowed to pretend to be a Christian and give every outward show of it ‘if they force you to insult the Prophet, do so with the devil in your mind’. The Muslims lead a double life, one language and religion outdoors, and another in the (increasingly invaded and policed) private spaces of the home and in the mind and heart. Thus, freedom is the inner space and the local and wider faith community (they have hopes of support from North Africa and Ottoman Turkey, and many flee across the sea to Fez, leaving the land of many generations of their families). Hasan is arguing that it is not necessary to risk one’s life fighting for freedom since it is preserved in this inner space Saad’s reply is illuminating: ‘this is a fatwa about something else’. He hears no prohibition in the sheikh’s words against his choice to fight, just as Hasan is soothed in his own commitment to protect his family by affecting to follow the edicts of the Castilians.

Hasan’s behaviour is treated with authorial understanding, but, I think, subtle criticism. The society of Albaicin is non-materialistic from my perspective. People delight in the beauty of objects, but this relationship is not a proprietary one: it is about memory, identity and sensation as pleasure. This is evident in at least three cases, firstly with the books Abu Jaafar makes and his granddaughter buys, which are clearly aesthetic objects as well as revered carriers of knowledge and culture. Secondly, there is Maryama’s chest, an ancient object treasured by generations of her family for its artistry and utility. Thirdly, there is Abu Mansour’s bathhouse, a labour of love for his ancestors and himself, deeply tied to his sense of self, his place in his historical family and his living community. Hasan’s employers from Valencia are different; they are wealthy and concerned with preserving their status. When Hasan comes to agree with them that the freedom fighters are a hindrance to Arab prosperity and safety, I feel that Ashour has gently placed him on the other side to her own allegiance. On two occasions the narrative suggests that there is no finer gift than a dance.

The radical openness/affirmation I discern is most interestingly explored in the character of Saleema, Abu Jaafar’s granddaughter. She is extremely intelligent, disposed to academic study and strong willed. After marrying and devastated by the death of a child, she devotes her time to the study of medical science, brewing medicines and tonics, testing them, drawing on folk wisdom as well as the renowned works of Avicenna and other stars of the field from the Muslim/Arab worlds. This both-and open-mindedness is mirrored by the acceptance of her involvement by the fields themselves, particularly the local community which values her work. Saleema’s mother, Umm Hasan, is highly critical of her daughter’s preoccupations and condemns her for abandoning her husband and her gender role, but there is no suggestion that religious framing underlies this attack (and Umm Hasan is generally cast as a difficult, censorious person). When at the end of the novel Saleema compares people to books and considers herself as a text, it is as if the open literary and scientific tradition she has steeped herself in welcomes her as a star in its firmament, riding Ashour’s writing of her into eternity.

If Ashour affirms Saleema’s academic intelligence, she is no less energetic in her praise of the more practical genius of her sister-in-law Maryama, whose inspiration and vivacity are ‘famous’ in the community and often save the day. Umm Hasan is dissatisfied with her daughter-in-law, but Ashour endows her with the crucial quality of generous compassion as well as cleverness, capacity for affection and homemaking skills making her unassailable as one of the warmest places in the novel’s heart.

Faith under pressure is a key theme from the beginning, and its centre is Umm Jaafar, who must bear the pressure of Abu Jaafar’s loss of faith as well as the weight of occupation and her place as a pillar of peace and faith in her family and community. Maryama to some extent takes on her role, or at least takes the weight off her, and it is through Maryama that Ashour points out that Islam contains a loving and affirmative narrative of christ as a prophet of god. In the church services they are forced to attend, the ‘converts’ are connecting with a tiny, potentially consoling part of their true faith. Islam is thus presented again as a larger, more accommodating space, capable of peaceful coexistence with other faiths, in contrast to the Castilians’ inflexible, restrictive and invasive religious governance.

My favourite theme of all is the decolonial one, begun when Columbus and his crowd parade their plunder from the ‘new world’ including captured natives, through the streets of Granada. Saleema is only eight years old, but she rationally rejects the premises of imperialism: ‘it’s not a new world, just a different one’ and the entire crowd is left depressed and haunted by the sight of chained prisoners in the parade. Naeem, one of the trio of men at the centre of the story, is so struck by the sight of a young girl in chains in the parade that he cannot think of any other woman. Amazingly, Ashour later has him travel across the Atlantic with his Castilian employer, and meet another native woman, with whom he exchanges love and gifts, she of language, he of a dance. Indeed, nothing could be finer.

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Books, Colonisation, Gender, Whiteness & racism

The Pickup: a few unfinished thoughts

The PickupThe Pickup by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

New millennium, new rhythm. I think that’s what’s going on here. South Africans walking to the beat of hyphenated identities, flow and stutter, bounce and glide, at the mercy of beauty and ruthlessness… Gordimer’s ear to the ground heard this as it heard the sweet cadences of Ibrahim’s unaccustomed English and the mashed jerkiness of Julie’s cosmopolitan consciousness. The style! Attractively typeset to soften the mess all these pauses and interjections make of the page, it rushes, it breaks, it drives along like we’re in bad traffic, the enervated tailbacks of the millennial mind.

I think that white authors need to write diverse books, so props. It’s hard to do because you don’t want to continue the long crappy tradition of speaking for people you’ve prevented from speaking for themselves, taking the place of people you’ve disenfranchised. Before I even start I think, why am I writing this, I should leave it to people of colour to write about themselves… and here we go round the mulberry bush. Anyway, no matter how carefully and subtly it’s done, having a brown guy from a Muslim country end up being an agent of regressive patriarchy while a white woman’s freedom and superior judgement (or is it?) carrying the day feels problematic.

What’s this superior judgement about? That’s what’s really interesting, the lifeways and worldviews on offer to a economically privileged white woman in South Africa end up seeming equally spiritually unsatisfactory. There’s entry into the heartless hypercapitalist overclass, or the soulless camaraderie of rootless hipsters. Confronting the desert, Julie meets a silence so sweet it melts into poetry in her eyes and mind, it speaks to something buried, transforms her. She responds to the lure of a life of cooperation and mutuality with an expanded family and in communication with the land; she finds the rhythm her soul can dance to. Meanwhile Ibrahim values the stress on individual success that defines the milieu of Julie’s father. When they fell in love, he overlooked their incompatibility on such a deep philosophical basis and Julie lacked the awareness to formulate it. The upshot of betrayal puts the confrontation between individualist and communitarian values in a framework of gender dynamics, posing a thought provoking dilemma for feminist thought.

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Books, Political

How the bigger half lived

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is a brisk and efficient book full of interesting observations on interwar British society from a working class perspective. Powell grew up in a poor family in Hove, a seaside town on the UK south coast very close to Brighton. That the working poor lived in dreadful conditions during the period is no surprise, but what struck me was Powell’s praise of Hove, where during her childhood all the lawns were public space and filled with children of all classes playing (though generally not together of course, strict nannies keeping watch on middle class kids to see that they kept their clothes clean and stayed away from the rabble). By the time she wrote her memoir in 1968 it was all ‘laid out for people with money’ and there was nowhere for hide-and-seek. Seaside shows charged for seats, but those without money could stand at the back and watch. Even more agreeable to penniless children was the easily accessible countryside full of small scale family farms where they were sure to be allowed to watch and play and were likely to be offered home made lemonade. Thus, the text bears witness to a vanished commons, which can come again if we make it.

On the never again list however go most of the other experiences Powell describes. She won a scholarship at thirteen to continue her studies and wanted to become a teacher, but left school at the same age to start working in ‘domestic service’ because her family could not afford to support her. Powell notes that WWII completely changed the labour situation in the UK, allowing domestic workers to demand better conditions as the fighting took its toll on numbers of working age men, and women found more work available to them. Since service was renowned as appallingly paid, extremely hard work, and being a ‘skivvy’ was so disdainfully looked down on (in my view classism around work plagues British culture just as much today) that people were eager to find any other work, employers were forced to offer better pay and conditions as well as scale down their staffs as other sectors opened. However, during the years Powell worked as a kitchen maid, extremely long hours, humiliating treatment, minuscule wages and physically exhausting work were the norm. Her determination and intelligence helped her transition to the desirable post of cook (regarded as the best job in service), which gave her more time off, but pay was still poor and hours long.

While many middle class people in the UK pay someone to come in and clean for them regularly, and the very wealthy employ nannies, cooks and housekeepers, it’s the exception rather than the rule for these people to live in the house of the folks they provide services for. Thus, the worker has an external private life in which they are not defined by their job, something vitally important for dignity and self esteem in our individualistic culture, even more so with the influence of the mythology of meritocracy. What Powell rails against most strongly is the condescension of employers (thinking about Mr Collins’ use of the word to describe and praise the insufferably arrogant Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice) who aren’t capable of considering their employees equally human to themselves. She is enraged by the ugliness and carelessness with which ‘servant quarters’ are furnished and vigorously ridicules employers’ concern for the ‘moral welfare’ (ie religious observance and abstinence from sex and alcohol) of their staff when they care little enough for their physical or psychological welfare to provide them with unheated garrets, straw mattresses and leftover food.

Neither much of a feminist (she complains about the appalling fate of women who became pregnant while ‘in service’ yet asserts proudly that her husband got ‘good value from [her]’ in terms of cooking, child-bearing and housekeeping) nor an egalitarian (‘I don’t particularly envy rich people but I don’t blame them. They try and hang onto their money, and if I had it I’d hang onto it too. Those people who say the rich should share what they’ve got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin’) Powell is at least a forceful opponent of the mockably elitist culture of classism. She speaks warmly of one family she worked for who genuinely respected their staff as people and provided excellent conditions and care. I’m sceptical that Powell’s ‘hang onto what you’ve got’ philosophy is compatible with the cultural shifts needed to make that one good apple in the rotten barrel of employers the rule rather than the exception. It’s obviously scandalous that an academically inclined young girl was prevented by the failure of the state and social fabric from continuing her education, and instead had to undertake work that, she reports, caused her long term psychological damage.

I’ve got carried away discussing the social implications of Powell’s spirited and amusing memoir, but it is also fascinating from a food history perspective. Powell compares pre-war food very favourably with more modern fare, pointing out that everything was fresh as there were no refrigerators, and that bread and cakes weren’t made in cost-cutting factories. British post-war food culture has a dire reputation partly blamed on rationing (though the people of Powell’s class finally got enough to eat thanks to the regulations) so it’s no surprise to hear that the food of the twenties and thirties was more appealing than than of the sixties, but the inter-war diet of the rich as cooked by Powell for her employers was heavy on meat and fatty dairy products like cream and butter, which most likely caused the gout and other diseases of excess to which the sickly rich were prone in middle and older years. Pretty much within my lifetime London has become a good place to eat, mainly thanks to immigration, but also increasing health-consciousness that has led to more and fresher veg and wholefoods on offer. If you want to know more about this topic, check out this fun documentary series‘Back in Time for Dinner’ which starts in the ’50s = )

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