Pardon Me: Hardly An Epicure’s Delight.

Before I begin it may help if I supply a little contextualisation. Pardon Me recounts the adventures of a hapless British diplomat by the name of Madagan Rùn, despatched to South Africa to handle a dangerous outbreak of, what Oscar Wilde once described in court as, “the love that dare not speak its name.” Without wishing to spoil the plot, such as it is, the fact that the novel is an epistolary written by Madagan to Queen Victoria whilst he languishes in the Tower of London awaiting execution for Treason, indicates that things do not go altogether swimmingly.

The first ‘meal’ consumed by Madagan in the story goes some way to explaining the total dog’s breakfast he makes of his mission. Having had his glans penis scarified sans ether, following a rather unfortunate case of mistaken identity, Madagan goes in search of some pain relief. In order of consumption, he digests the following: a packet of Goulard’s Extract® and a tube of Patented Pulmonic Borax Glycerine® (by prescription, one to be taken orally, the other applied liberally to the affected area, ambiguous instructions, results disappointing); a jorum of rhubarb and magnesia, some green Indian Pills and a half bottle of nerve tonic wine (effect not unlike like trying to put out the Great Fire of London with a glass of cherry bounce); two packets of Lloyds Cocaine Toothache Drops®, a phial of laudanum and a goodly amount of finest quality, A Grade, apothecary strength heroin (worked rather too well, led Madagan to ‘go on a bender’ as they say).

Now according to some historians, freely available 19th Century narcotics of the type described heretofore were often a great boon to creativity. Take the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, they say, heavily under the influence of ‘the poppy’ when he wrote Kubla Khan. Or Lewis Carroll, Anglican Deacon by day, dropped a couple of Bunter’s Nervine Tablets one evening to rid himself of a migraine, wrote Alice in Wonderland. Well not so Madagan Rùn, who retches up a quart of ‘phiz’, falls asleep in a privet hedge and then gets himself embroiled in lavatorial improprieties with a famous playwright who shall remain nameless.

From here, gastronomically speaking at least, things improved somewhat, albeit temporarily. The feasting and sluicing on the steamer to the Cape is of the highest standard. Here is a sample menu: Braised Poulet aux Champighons, Cotelets de mouton, sauce tomates, blancmanges, figs and a Gin and Bitters with quinine to finish. I personally don’t speak much French, but it all sounds terribly bon. Mind you, some of the acquaintances Madagan makes on board are not quite so savoury, especially the evening he ends up doing the par du deux with Witt van Rudkill, a senior member of the Transvaal Afrikaan Boers who he mistakes for a Cook’s Tourist and subsequently spills one or two state secrets – which, as excuses go, is pretty shabby I am sure you will agree.

Once back on terre ferme the F&S takes a turn toward the spartan. Madagan quite rightly turns down the offer to purchase a selection of luxury items – Martell, Hennessey, Beams, Cavendish, Turkish Latakia, Havana, Cadburys amongst them – from Cape Customs, for the sound reason that the goods are clearly stolen, and the customs officials are clearly foreign. On the three week buffalo trek from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, journeying under reddened skies in roasting temperatures; against biting dust storms as sharp as needles; across barren stoeps and granite kopjes where only the occasional low-hanging eucalyptus tree provides a break from the dull red soil and sickly yellow-green grass of the veldt; Madagan and his batman Lumbago survive on a diet of native mealie and biltong with only boiled grass to wash it down with. For those of you who have never dined al la buffalo cart, mealie is a Zulu dish, the ingredients of which include cow-dung, whilst biltong consists of sun-dried meats, the ‘meats’ in question very much depending upon what’s available locally. Our intrepid travellers sample lizard, caterpillar, earthworm and an unfortunate klipspringer that had been rundown by a missionary driving a burro {a mule led vehicle notoriously difficult to steer}. It must be said that the frequent appearance of biltong on the menu in these parts very much explains the popularity of mealie.

Arrival in the gold shanty town of Jo’berg provides little respite from the table d’hôte. On first making the acquaintance of Big Chief Mwanga, the Cape’s most notorious gambler, money launderer, whore mongler, black marketer, drug dealer, arms dealer, sodomite and murderer, Madagan briefly worries that he himself may be about to appear on the menu. Even when Mwanga proves to be the most delightful of hosts, the carte du jour at his Coco Kabala Casino & Knocking Shop causes some more unwanted confusion. Select from the following:

# The Wavy Assegais {a relaxing shake} 2kr

# The Vuvuzela {a really hard blow} 4kr

# The Stanley {an adventurous missionary} 7kr

# The Rorke’s Drift {a little rear-guard action} 10kr

Christmas dinner with Cecil Rhodes and his adjutant Doctor Lander Starr Jameson only serves to prove the point that the Transvaal, whatever the Afrikaan Boers may say, is not exactly the Garden of Eden. Indeed, it is not the garden of anything. The festive meal begins traditionally with a soup course, described as la potage d’hôte de nos jours, though quite what this is no one is too sure, but it is rather viscousy. Next comes the fish course: Snoek, a perch-like sort of poisson, though more rubbery than perch, far more rubbery actually, like something one might buy the cat to put it off hanging about the ornamental fishpond. And so to the main course: broiled bustard, the ‘bustard’ being a variety of la grosse en dindon noted throughout the Cape for its refusal to fly and its tendency to go honk-honk all the time, which is really most annoying. The meal is suitably ‘complemented’ by a number of local vins, all of which have the added ingredient of Phylloxera; a wee beastie that infects the grape and leads the more inventive natives to call it ‘Wolves Whizz’ and use it to creosote their huts.

To add insult to injury (and food poisoning), this will prove to be Madagan’s last proper meal of the book. From hereon he must subsist only upon a diet of watery gruel and tepid ditch water. For guest of Queen Victoria at the Tower of London apparently deserve no better. And if you want to know whether this meagre fayre will prove to be Madagan’s last – well buy the darn book and find out, it’s only $3.99, or the cost of a starter.

Happy feasting, sluicing and reading.