Making Flans for Nigel

Making Flans for Nigel

Many times in the wasteful and mass-commercialised decades since 1984, my mind goes back to an incident which raised my spirits and gave me hope. It changed my perception of our over-consuming society for ever. Nigel was a photographer from Hulme who lived with someone on my course. He was a genial but reflective soul who fitted the Hulme mould and had the industrial boots and big dark overcoat to prove it. He was two floors below us in the Chatham Tower and flitted in and out of our studio and would cross paths in the lift or the canteen. Occasionally we’d all go for a stroll ‘downtown’ to check out the dark side and it was on one such meander that we happened to pass through stuffy St Ann’s Square. Five minutes walk but several light years from the Arndale Centre, this high-end quarter was favoured by bejeweled ladies from Wilmslow with plenty of cash and little else to do but consume. It was a pleasant spring day and what passed for cafe society in the mid-eighties were enjoying the sunshine and taking the weight off their Prada. At one such table outside a swanky patisserie, Nigel spotted a large half-eaten portion of black forest gateau. No one was sitting there and it had clearly been left. Quick as a flash, he was on it, snaffling the leftover grub in a paper napkin and nibbling it all the way back up Oxford Road. I was full of admiration for his act but the tuts, frowns and whispered admonishments eminating from the pursed lips of the customers at the other tables made me think. Why is it ok to pick up someone’s discarded newspaper or hand over money for second-hand clothes and shoes but food is always such a no-no? It might be contaminated! Maybe they’ve spat on it! You’ll get AIDS! All highly unlikely of course, especially from one of the most salubrious eateries in the capitalist heart of Manchester. On other excursions he wolfed down lemon meringue tarts, vanilla flan, whole portions of apple pie and whipped cream. It really seemed as if the eyes of Mancunian cafe society were bigger than their pursed mouths. His one-man patisserie salvage act even became so successful that he never ventured into the city centre without a fork and spoon. He even started sitting down to gobble-up his grub. Only for a few minutes mind, because the stuffynose clientele would usually complain. Of course the staff didn’t mind, to have Nigel lick the platter clean saved on the washing up. Pretty much anything on a plate at a restaurant or cafe was fair-game, but he drew the line at takeaway food. A half-eaten Big Mac or rejected fish and chips were not on the agenda. Sweet rather than savoury seemed to be the general rule. Many times I was tempted to join him but Nigel’s success was undoubtedly through acting as a lone hungry wolf. He knew any kind of group activity would have drawn attention to the act and probably brought the curtain down. In the present era of food-banks and freeganism, where supermarkets throw out half their fruit and veg, he was of course wildly ahead of his time.

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