My cousin Henrietta Lamb worked for Peter Quennell doing picture research for History Today, a similar world to my own. Friends since birth, it seemed an obvious move for us to share a flat together, She earned eight pounds a week and I earned six.Once we were installed in the flat beneath my parents' house in Cheyne Gardens, we busied ourselves enjoying a London of a very different sort. These were Basement Days. The flat was dark and rambling, with a bathroom at the back that it took some time to discover... At the front the tiny kitchen, more of a galley than a room, seemed already part of the dustbin area. To our relief, a man found lurking there in the early morning turned out to be a policeman in quest of unpaid library fines (mine) rather than an official from the Council complaining about the unsightly jumble. The sitting room also had a good view of the dustbins out of its murky windows. In short, this seemed to us to be an ideal place to give dinner parties, especially as the great Elizabeth David had recently published A Book of Mediterranean Food.
We grappled with its revolutionary concepts and argued about the details as explorers in the South Pacific must have discussed unknown flora and fauna. For example, what was one to make of this enormous stone at the centre of a so-called avocado pear? Was the stone to be left in place as a sort of noble centerpiece or thrown away? Going for the centerpiece was only one of the many decisions we were to get wrong. Then, stuffing an aubergine seemed an awful effort for very little result; I did not fancy the taste of either aubergines or the new favourites, peppers, but was far too anxious to keep up with the times to admit it.Courgettes were delicious but presented a different problem; if these were the miniature version of something called a courge, might it not be simpler and more economical -- we were always on the lookout for that -- to buy one large courge? Whatever that was. When it turned out to be a form of vegetable marrow, there was disappointment, since wartime cookery had contained all too many insipid marrow dishes. As for real mayonnaise, the memory of my struggles to whip it up still embarrasses me, as well as the unacknowledged fact that all the time I longed for that reliable old bottle of Heniz Salad Cream we were supposed to be replacing. The Goncourt Brothers once wrote that the time of which one does not have a dinner menu is 'a time dead to us, an irrecoverable time.' All I can say is that for me the Basement Days will never be irrecoverable so long as the last aubergine remains to be stuffed.