THE GREAT MANGO ROBBERY

As a small boy the trip to Gateway food store with mum was a lifeless chore of dolour, Cavendish Square Swindon 1976 wasn’t the greatest of shopping experiences, but unfortunately, back before caring, it was all we had. Amongst its sparse but rich selection was Dewhurst, spilling the sweet sickly stench of death, permeated into the sawdust footprints of its patrons. Devon Savouries, where in summertime I would stand mesmerised, watching the freightage of industrious ants, transferring sugary debris back and fourth from the lavish display and of course a cycle repair shop, where gleaming wrought iron grifters sat ready to be purchased. There were the usual splattering of newsagents, hair salons and public houses around its many alcoves, one in particular the Cock Robin pub, where kids would have their heads ruthlessly shaved for the price of a pint, as their fathers watched on whilst enjoying a pale ale…or two.

Central to this Utopia of consumer habits, stood, proud as brass, the Gateway supermarket. Nothing in comparison to the labyrinth style supermarkets of today, the Gateway boasted three isles, two checkouts and half a dozen trolleys. The entrance was grand, well it was to me, huge double glass doors, one pane boarded up, due to the previous evenings drunken debauchery. Above these aluminium framed doors proudly hung the sign, a motif, a symbol of power and safety, a sturdy green image of two towers, a portcullis and the words Gateway in bold Helvetica. The first time I walked beneath this daunting symbol my aspirations of what lay in wait were somewhat shattered, no knights in shining armour, jousting or jesters, what greeted every customer was a rusty trolley dragged from the brook, and a frumpy looking employee, cigarette in mouth named ‘Iris’, carefully stacking tins of a certain product, claiming to contain no lumps of fat or gristle……GUARANTEED!! 

Shopping for food when I was a kid seemed a painful exercise with no rewards, the shelves a palate of dull pastel colours, all shouting false claims of exotic luxury and adventure. I’d watch as mum piled in the smash, dried vesta curry for dad and of course the 3 lit container of vegetable oil, an essential ingredient needed to top up the always warm chip pan. The oil selection of today with its Pantone of glorious golds and greens, virgin press and blends, are a far cry from the wall of ‘crisp n dry’ we had back then. The chilled section, with its tantalising ‘Ski’ yoghurt range, which was in fact a special treat and of course ‘Spam’ and ‘Brains’ faggots, which, alternated their way into most mealtimes. I didn’t know any better, the food on offer for my social demographic, was to me, all there was, and on the rare occasions when a ‘Fray Bentos’ was served, I literally had died and gone to heaven. Unfortunately my taste buds and interest in food had all but dried up or to be true never really started, following years of over salted and dull miserable looking concoctions, all served on translucent pyrex plates, but all this was about to change

At fifteen I took a position at the Wiltshire Hotel Swindon as banqueting waiter, hours and pay of no concern, in fact I never turned down a shift or questioned my earnings. Once a week I joined the queue along with the rest of the waiters, chefs, doormen, housekeepers, outside the accounts office, in order to receive my small brown envelope, stuffed with a few greens a blue and some coppers, this weekly task had become my new ‘Fray Bentos’. Following the end of a function, it was my responsibility to carefully salvage any gateaux’s, trifle and butter, reassemble pieces and portions, in order to form a whole new serving ready for the next day. I would often sneak a spoonful of the thick birds custard and dessert topping, but this came at a risk, as being caught by the chef, would result, not only in public humiliation but a thump or two, so the indulgence was very rare. However it was the fridge which changed my knowledge of food, experience and appreciation.

One evening when placing the newly rejuvenated desserts back into the walk-in fridge, I noticed a strange looking box. It wasn’t like the other fruit crates of slatted wood, but an artistic version, brightly coloured, alluring and more importantly closed. This pandora’s box had limited wording on the side “Mangoes” and a country of origin, of where, the location I couldn’t even begin to imagine was. Each time I returned to the fridge my bravery took me closer and closer to peer inside. I’d heard of mangoes, in fact seen them, but never actually tried one. As my shift ended I threw caution to the wind, and with the stealth of a ninja opened the box to reveal the plump orangery green fruits lying inside, like strange jewels.  At this point I heard the chef calling, followed by the sound of his wooden clogs. In panic, I grabbed a fruit, tucked it into my jacket and ran for the door, bidding farewell to my comrades.

The walk home was a few miles, dark and often wet. I dreaded this passage, as its path took me through some unsavoury areas, however on this occasion, I had lost all fear, for within my grasp safety stowed away was the stolen mango. I walked with added spring that night, eager to leave behind the hotel so as to find somewhere quiet and alone in order to inspect my wares. I don’t for one minute condone this behaviour, as I had stolen, for which I felt terrible, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to sample this exotic treasure. Once I considered my position to be one of safety, I reached in and pulled out the plump fruit, which was now not only stolen, but like my brow, dripping with condensation, having been so abruptly transferred from fridge to pocket in this daring robbery. Lifting to my nose I drew in the aroma, it was unlike any other scent I had experienced, even better than a cherry ski. I had no training or previous knowledge into how this fruit should be approached, and so with confidence and excitement, bit straight into it’s flesh, skin and all. Juice flooded my mouth, the sweet juicy perfumed flesh tasted delicious, although I felt the skin maybe not as easy to digest. Working around the skin, discovering the odd shaped stone inside, my journey home had become an adventure, I was a young boy experiencing something new, exploring the world through a fruit, stolen from a fridge in Swindon, Gateway was now a distant memory.

My exploration didn’t end there, each shift became a new experience, I had become a professional thief, stealing to feed my first for new tastes. The Kiwi was next, which again taught me that sometimes skins are best removed, the papaya with its black bitter seeds, different oranges, olives, asparagus stems, which are actually quite good raw and fresh cooked beetroot, of which to date I had only tasted pickled, sat upon a pile of hot steaming smash. Before I had exhausted the fridge, the final fruit to fall into my possession was the avocado with its rich glossy emerald jacket. I had delayed my theft of this item due to it’s boringness. I had tried pears many a time and wasn’t a great fan. My youth only ever saw one type, bruised over ripe and at times sour. The flesh was grainy and once down to the core never held its shape, unlike an apple which leaves you with the perfect cartoon core. What could be any different from the pears I knew and the avocado I didn’t? That night the same stealth ridden theft took place, I then headed for home. Had I learned nothing??? Taking my bite through the skin I waited for the sweet grainy pear flesh but instead was greeted with an almost tasteless milky paste finished with a slice of what seemed like a conker, I thought I’d been duped, was this real, was it off, was it ripe?? I didn’t have a clue. The remains of the avocado and the mouthful I’d taken ended up over someones garden wall, I had tried this stolen fruit, offered it a fair hearing, but in the end decided and for many years after that the humble Persea Americana was not for me.

My adventures with food were short lived, slowly as time passed the excitement in taste tapered to a point where it became very rare to find a fruit or flavour of which I hadn’t already experienced. Now at 47 I feel I have exhausted all but a few items, and of those which are left, serve no real interest. Don’t misunderstand, there are cooked dishes of which I enjoy discovering, but it’s the fascination of those raw ingredients which are missed, the child like exploration and excitement of awakening taste buds for the first time, have given way to bitter black caffeine and the thick smog of Philip Morris.

As a father my voyage of discovery is now shared, albeit as more of a spectator. I envy my son, I once had his wide eyes and impatient fixity to explore further than he can reach. I delight in watching his senses mature, revel as he discovers that chocolate, is not the only nectar(Although hard to beat), those fruits I stole at risk of being beaten are now staple ingredients, readily available. They may have lost their shine to most, but introducing these fruits at a steady pace without fear of reprimand to a yet untarnished palette is as exciting now as it was back then.

It wasn’t until I took up photography that something did reignite my own guileless interest towards these basic and often overlooked ingredients. When looking through a camera what you see is yours to frame, to determine the angle and at what point the composition is aesthetically pleasing to your own eye. The German Philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about the optical unconscious, stating that the camera and cinema have the ability to record aspects of reality that do not fit into the natural optics, namely because they are too quick, small or disperse. We see these details but do not perceive them as information. When taking photographs of what I considered as fairly mundane vegetables and fruits, this notion of the unseen was brought to life. The more you stare through the lens at subjects the more you see, the apple with its blemishes, beautifully shaded exterior and perfectly formed stalk reaching from its core to the sky, the fissures naturally occurring between each cabbage leaf, made even more alluring by the rippled fleshy leaves. As I stare I often recall the great mango theft, the fervour now of my experiences are explored through the lens, not dissimilar from the stolen tastings all those years ago, the only difference, it is now the eyes that are rewarded. All of a sudden the normality of food has once again taken centre stage, I see so much more, appreciate the absolute genius in that something so simple, has grown from nothing. 

With the supermarkets offering so much choice I feel we have become numb and oblivious to what not so long ago was classed as exotic, it drives me insane to see vest clad men rummaging through the sprouts at Christmas, tossing to one side rejects which have failed to make their grade… Sometimes we should all stop, hold the object in our hands and explore, examine its form, admire its colour and imperfections. I have realised with the help of a lens, that there is still so much more to see and explore, objects all to familiar do in fact have so much more to offer, hidden beyond our initial perception, further than what we first see, a return to childhood, a chance to regain an inquisitive nature…If only we look harder.