21 October 2014

Pickles in Literature: What We Have Learnt

Posted by John Clegg

  • ‘Neither fish, nor fowl, nor good Red Herring’ is an expression long overdue a revival. It might be valuable for books that can’t decide which section they belong in, like Simon Gough’s novel-cum-travel diary-cum-memoir The White Goddess.
  • Pickles seem to inspire writers to sentences which never end, which probably accounts for their complete absence as subject-matter in both Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver.
  • If we can evaluate Shakespeare’s personal tastes from the presence or absence of certain foodstuffs in the plays, then he wasn’t much of a pickle man either – I don’t think there is one positive mention (in Quickly’s speech in Henry IV Part II, there are some unappetising prawns in vinegar, which are ‘ill for green wound’).
  • Eric Pickles’ favourite book (or at least his choice for Desert Island Discs) is Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. His favourite pickles are cockles served on pigs’ knuckles from Truckles. His favourite cake is Eccles. His favourite things to raise are hackles.
  • Research into the Grass quote has turned up a marvellous German saying: ‘Ich träume süß von sauren Gurken’, roughly translated as ‘Sweet dreams from sour gherkins’.
  • Sylvia Plath has a pickle-jug in one poem, but there are no pickles in there (only a sprat which is a metaphoric foetus), and an unkind commentator might well wonder whether the word was chosen arbitrarily as a rhyme for ‘snug’. Keats kept his own sprats in washing tubs, which seems much more sensible and humane.
  • I was almost certain there was a poem which started ‘As one put drunk into the pickle barrel’, but it turned out to be ‘packet boat’. That’s what too many late nights thinking about pickles in literature will do for you.