It has always been on my mind that my blog is a privilege. Each time I do it, there is always a mental voice I ignored that reminded me that this isn’t a necessity, but a freedom I afforded myself. Like Dudley Dursley on his birthday, moaning he didn’t top the number of presents from last year. It felt spoilt. The goal is to write vividly about food. That’s it. On paper that doesn’t sound bad but in practice, it feels decadent. Spurious, even. The opportunities were never taken for granted. Probably because of that awareness, I was somewhat stoically insulated against the anxiety that something, someday could snatch it away irrespective of dedication or ambition. And with what some people have lost or dealt with, having to put my writing schedule on hold for three months hasn’t been the worse thing in the world. Regardless, it would seem in poor taste to carry on like nothing has happened. Who wants to hear my opinion on tempah or currywurst when there’s a pandemic raging through the world? In comparison, seeing my father taken away by paramedics is going to age you regardless of how stoic you claim to be. But while the blog was put on ice, things happened. Things changed.
The world is truly a different place from the one I published my last post in.
A few months ago, the idea of having to stop at the local newsagent to buy a face mask and hand sanitiser on your way to the train station was unknown. But this is just one of the adjustments that are being made. The train station is now number-density sensitive. Signs are placed outside that say “Please Wait Here”. I poked my head inside like a cat turning a corner and was beckoned in by face masked barrier staff.
Random thought: “What is it about train stations that age faces so quickly?” I reckon it’s something to do with the early mornings that go synonymously with them. It is an early morning, just gone 8am. Usually, between seven and nine, there are thousands of people heading into Liverpool Street Station on this platform, over a hundred filling up the place every 15 minutes. Today there’s barely ten. This in itself was so disorientating. To know that there should be people there, should be people who had places to go but are now Zooming their work in or furloughed out of their game and momentum was an unnerving feeling. Stepping onto the train is usually a manic rush to get to a seat. Instead, it’s a quiet and relaxed step onto the vehicle and choosing which carriage you want for yourself. For the first time in 3 months, I was on the way into London-town. Apart from work, I was leaving my house.
Every journey is usually punctuated by the automated voice messages with that creepy, mandatory cheeriness reminding you what the next station will be, please remember to take all personal belongings with you. There are now new messages. – WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER – KEEP SOCIAL DISTANCING. The electric screens pop up adjacently with the ever so slightly Big Brother message “Thank you for your patience – adapt to the new normal.” Something about that is so scary to me. And while the train doesn’t fill a quarter of its capacity, passengers do come in. The atmosphere between people is a little more suspicious. Hardly something I could blame them for either. No one can see that most cherished of social windows, our faces. Even if you don’t pick up consciously on it, that had an effect on me. The lack of expression on other people. Everyone has the same blankness. No smiles. No frowns. Pure utility.
Liverpool Street Station is divided up now into a systematic walkway. I’m not even sure why they bothered, there’s noticeably more staff than commuters; barely a dozen travellers during peak rush hour. But I needed to obey and right angle’d my way along the steel gates placed on the floor plan towards the Underground. We all know what that is like around 9 in the morning. Think again. The Central Line had a new destination on the track: Ghost Town. Every station has a scarce number of people waiting for their ride. While sitting on the train there was one person idly flicking through their phone that didn’t have a face mask. Even though I had only abided by these social distanced rules for one journey and a little over an hour, my anxiety spiked. What was this stranger risking? Should I confront? Leave alone? Pull the emergency cord? Is this part of the new normal?
“. . . It’s not that the people got sick. It’s like the city itself got sick. . .“
Central London was so sparse, so unbelievably quiet. There is none of that most rapturous of noises: chatter. I don’t know if London always had that level of security and police, but they are now noticeably everywhere. Letting you know that area is closed. This road is shut down. This way, sir. That way, ma’am. Instead of the usual choc-full of crowds and brimming energy we have a damp, naked and neutered city, full of naked, neutered people. Vulnerableness. It’s surreal. Buildings have wooden panels bordering up their windows. Tottenham Court Road, with all those great music instrument shops, now shut down and shut off. Taxis are another crudely erased missing character. No black cars speeding to and fro. The roads are a cyclist’s dream. Even the cumbersome buses behave themselves a little better. There’s sticking tape on the floors of public places, signs everywhere reminding you how far the 2-metre gap is. There’s red and white tape everywhere you look, on benches, on tables. Suddenly, one of the biggest cities in the world has become unfriendly. Unsafe. No matter where you look, there is a reminder that COVID happened. Is happening. Could still happen. COVID lingers like a ghost, like a bad break up, like an unpaid bill. It’s all in your head, until it isn’t.
It’s not that the people got sick. It’s like the city itself got sick. The city groans in pain and struggles to breathe. The few vehicles on the road sputter and cough. The temperature of the Thames boils. The London Eye is still. Unmoving, unblinking. An iconic fatality in a pandemic. Someone Mary Celeste’d London. It’s a muggy as fuck day with sweat clinging to my back already. The sky looks like it’s ready to pour down as I walk through the streets wondering how long until things are back to normal. From the Embankment back towards Covent Garden I find it. The smallest sign that things could one day be alright. You ever hear one of those jokes about how long it’ll take before Starbucks or McDonalds has an outlet on the moon? Well in the middle of the fuckin’ plague, we have this. . .
Alone, smack in the middle of London, like some comical fast-food oasis in amongst a desert. Sits. . . a Five Guys. Situated amongst closed coffee stores and furloughed feedbags and alliterated all sales. Close by is a Bella Italia, who reportedly has already gone into administration. Perhaps red and white is a fitting colour scheme for now times, the hazard tape matching the colour scheme of Five Guys. There’s a queue outside the door, orderly and quiet where I wait at the door till getting beckoned in by the staff behind a plastic wall.
I look at my receipt while waiting for my order. The receipt says I’m number 56. Something tells me that the counter hasn’t reset back to 100 yet. It was shortly before midday. Not bad, not brilliant either. I counted 4 members of staff balancing the till, the queue, the cooking and milkshake counter.
Every table and booth has a sign on it telling you not to sit. The coke machines are lifeless and dead. Too unhygienic for the masses I guess. But the grill still hisses from the frying and the kitchen is visible and alive. The staff appear a little nervous but work well within sync with one another. I’m standing beside the open cookery, the only customer waiting, initially. There’s something desolate about being the only guy waiting in a Five Guys. It’s like being expected to clap at karaoke when you’re the only one at the bar. Canned Heat’s On the Road Again plays over the PA speaker while I counted a good dozen meat patties on the grill plate. That to me is a good enough sign that there was demand. Lunchtime was about to happen and people still wanted to eat. I wait in line by the collection point and begin to wonder why anyone else would be here? Do they have some kind of dramatic Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads story that ends with them seeking refuge in fast food in central London? Had they promised all their friends a round the next time they all see one another? Had they been glued to BBC News 24 and had started to become good friends with the “Breaking News” Ticker? Had they rain checked plans they now never can keep with people who perhaps will never have plans again? Were they like me, just trying to find something to look forward to? It reminds me of the 7th Doctor’s I loathe bus stations – terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls.
Instant food critic, just add burger and fries.
The most important thing about a burger, says Gordon Ramsay, is to let that thing rest. The thing will stay together if you let the thing rest. Five Guys tightly packed foils help this process. And it would be rather anticlimactic if I stood on a street corner ramming the burger in at an awkward angle from my body so it doesn’t drip on my clothes. So I head through Leicester Square towards to the Embankment to sit in that most incorrigible of London icons, Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery looms over me, completely gutted of life. What I would give right now to sit there in front of the Turner landscapes. Instead of getting asked how the food was, I fend off pigeons. But to be fair if the pigeons want it too that must be a good sign, right?
The Cajun fries (£5.50) came in a styrofoam cup, which kept the flavour in rather than letting it soak into the paper carrier bag like McD’S or Burger King. They were crispy on the edges and soft in the middle, a perfect blend of perfect frying time and almost just as hot off the fryer. I fucking love this seasoning, it gives it a dryer taste and naturally, the spice is warming, what with having to sit outside in the elements. The chip portions are huge and spill out of the container and into the brown bag. You could quite easily split a large size generously between two people. This is one of the hacks of fast food. Never order the large fries at Five Guys on your own. To be fair they don’t cram their burgers full of nothin’ either. Portion sizes are massive. The burgers come stacked even before you add all your favourite toppings. If you’re a looking for a big massive fucking burger and fries, Five Guys.
The veggie burger (£4.50) is a mix of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, with added American style cheese with grilled slices of mushrooms at the bottom, which gives it that meaty flavour. It’s a slippery mess. But in comparison to the Burger King’s miserable dish mop, the impossible burger, it does scratch that plant-based itch. However, it’s going to be a while before the Five Guys veggie burgers compete with the likes of Mooshies. I guess the issue is that meat chuck and mince can be seasoned a bit more than a tomato or sliced lettuce.
In comparison to say, Honest Burger, who get a little more complex – their Christmas burger was an utterly garish misfire – Five Guys balance catering a classic, custom made burger meal. They keep it simple, but there are also 15 different toppings to keep things varied. I ordered mine with lettuce, tomatoes and grilled onions. (£9.95) Like when you compete with your mate’s on-point Subway selection, there’s a range and a difference to compare and make conversation over. And I guess that’s a unique selling point that keeps you coming back: ‘Did you try it with pickles?’ ‘Next time ask for mustard and chillies!’ ‘No, no no! You got to get the cheese in with the BBQ sauce!’
And I hate to say it, but the meat patty crams more flavour in, loaded with deliciousness. The bacon is stiff-crispy and thin and wedged in well to the body. The burger is packed with two layers of cheese and beef and bacon with the toppings wedged. And a gossamer spread of mayo on both top and bottom of the bun to fend off that dryness. One day, to satisfy my own curiosity, I’m tempted to order one with everything. But the bread just about barely keeps it all together as it is; dry, I’d be interested if Five Guys toasted them a little bit to keep them stiffer.
To suffice from not having refillable coke, I ordered a milkshake, with that most sophisticated of blends; peanut butter and salted caramel. (£5.50) Fat and sugar blended into a peanut musk. So thick it’s hard to suck through the straw and ice-cold against the London mugg with that little bit of sourness on top. It washes away the savoury, the grease and the salt from the burgers and fries.
There are still pockets of people, construction sites, workers on lunch breaks sat around on benches and the corners of the square. Staff are still here cleaning up the bins and sweeping the floor. A lone homeless man dozes. The mood, while off, is lightly cheerful. I think people are making the best of a bad situation and wanting some quiet piece of heaven, a Pret-a-Mange or a Starbucks, a packed lunch on a park bench, or conversation with a workmate. Although there was one moment when one of the cleaning staff sneezed and everyone in a five-mile radius froze up for three seconds.
While walking through Trafalgar Square I came across a scene. A homeless man was lying on his back like an upturned bug on the ground, in broad daylight, still as a statue jutting put onto the pavement outside the now-closed Waterstones. From my own witness, he didn’t seem to be breathing as I walked by. Utterly motionless. In other words, he was “in the way”. A jogger had passed by and alerted some paramedics. It’s one of those scenes in London life that happens every minute. But without the masses, without the noise and traffic, the sparseness and abnormality of it were amplified. Like watching a murder scene on stage in the theatre. All eyes are drawn, everyone’s brain working through the hard, physical evidence. Nevertheless, the banality of it all alarmed me. Is life still going to be so cheap post-COVID?
All of the Days We Haven’t Lived
And naturally, it starts to piss down as soon as I’m seated directly opposite the fountain, giving this a slight Shawshank Redemption feel to my meal. But of course, after the rain comes the sunshine. It’s as fitting a symbolism as I could pull out of the bag. The good times didn’t end, they simply had to be put on pause. There’s always hope, and we can live through bad times and see the sunshine again one day. I always believed that London was bigger and better than me. To be a part of this all felt so minute in the grand scheme of things, yet it’s been so important to me. I always knew that I needed London. I never realised that it could need me. Needed people to sit in its squares and parks and eat its food. Document their day to day lives. Even if that’s a Five Guys on a rainy day. This wasn’t just a Five Guys for me, this was a freedom. It was worth the weeks that fell off the calendar.
As you have gathered, this wasn’t really a food critic post as it was a post on the value of food, city and culture.
Internet humour tends to verge towards deliberately melodramatic. You don’t just feel something, but you take the feeling to it’s most extreme conclusion. You’re not just offended at something, you’re apoplectic with rage. You’re not mildly inconvenienced, your freedom and integrity is under attack. With that in mind it would have been great to write a comical piece about how “this burger made me see into the seventh dimension” or “these chips are the best thing that’s been in my mouth since my ex” but I don’t need ironic righteous indignation to jazz up the truth like that. The burger and fries itself could have been an utter shit sandwich and I’d give it a thumbs up. This was the mars bar you chomp down in 2 seconds when you’ve got low blood sugar. This was the gulp of cold water you drink while crawling through the Sahara. This was the Five Guys a food blogger eats after 13 weeks. Perhaps the crisp lettuce competes well with the mush of meat and the fat softness of melted cheese blends well with the fresh tomato slices. Perhaps I was just hungry to get out.
Why did I come all this way? After 13 weeks of a low profile? Putting plans on hold? Hoping my Dad pulled through? (He did, by the way.) Do I need to justify needing to get out of the house? Or should I commit to writing the sacrifices we’ve all made, the places we’ve all missed, all of the memory of loved ones and loved things to keep us all sane? Even if you don’t believe that life is short, you still get a good return investment betting on that fact. And nothing makes you more aware of the passing of time than being away from the people you love and the passions you have. Encumbered by the heaviest of duties in this day and age: to keep still. Perhaps I didn’t need the reminder that such epicurean delights are frivolous. But we don’t choose the life we get, and sometimes we don’t choose the lessons we learn either. So, let’s learn to eat together again, let’s go dancing and breath the clean air. I can write about the quality of food. But I don’t think I’ve ever made a point about the value of it. That’s the lesson I’ve learnt throughout this. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gold leaf $100 burger or a Covent Garden Five Guys. Value is subjective. Burgers are delicious. Let’s get through this.
But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain;
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breath when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.