I could not at first remember why I bore a grudge against the late Angela Carter. But a rapid search turned up, as its first item, a review in The London Review of Books for 24 January 1985, of The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and me. The piece is uninformed, egregiously silly and vindictive in a class-warfare way. Angela Carter mistakenly thought that Ann Barr’s books for the now renamed Harper’s & Queen magazine, The Sloane Ranger Handbook that she wrote with Peter York, and the Foodie Handbook with me, were modelled on an American book, The Official Preppy Handbook, published just before the Sloane Ranger. Apart from the accidental appropriation of “Official” and “Handbook” there was scarcely anything in common among the three books, and I can assure the reader that Barr and Levy had not read the Preppy Handbook when they hatched the idea for foodie-dom in 1981. In any case, my grudge was more about Angela Carter’s tone than about her sloppiness with the facts.
But it did prejudice me when I came to reading The Village in the Valley: Travels in Mexico & Italy by Corinna Sargood, as she introduces the entire volume by saying that “Angela was a great friend of mine,” and says that Angela Carter had asked me to make another series of linocuts to illustrate the second Virago Book of Fairy Tales that she was editing. As I had calculated that it would take about three months to complete, it seemed a good opportunity to decamp to another country and to work there.
Corinna Sargood is the ex-daughter-in-law of the late, and very great, Patience Gray, the Englishwoman who lived like a peasant in Puglia, and wrote the wonderful Honey from a Weed. (I’ve written quite a lot about Patience, with whom I stayed for a few days in Italy, and who became a friend.) Sargood had been married to Patience’s son, Nick, and she did the superb line-drawing and linocut illustrations to Honey from a Weed.
Now Prospect Books, the publishing house founded by Alan Davidson, and run by the enterprising Catheryn Kilgarriff, has issued a beautiful volume detailing Sargood’s travels, meals and work in Mexico, with a few bonus essays added on about her travels to the Italian house Patience shared with her sculptor partner, Norman Mommens.
Sargood and her “stalwart companion,” Richard, a furniture-maker, share her former mother-in-law’s penchant for living like one of the people, and settled for a few months in St Miguel, a barrio of “the village in the valley.” They renovated and decorated their little house to such an extent that before they left it, they held an exhibition of its furnishings and decoration.
She’s careful to describe the exotic food and drink they encountered at their neighbours’ houses and when travelling in Mexico (and to Guatemala to renew their visas) and, besides the stunning, generous illustrations, there is the added attraction of a tiny plot. Sargood skilfully refers to the moods of their landlord, Don Càndido, and these cause the reader to wonder how this man, who had toured the USA with a father-and -son toreador “act,” will treat his tenants. It’s the stuff of a gripping memoir.
One of the Italian chapters contains a classic vignette of dinner with a local contessa, course by delectable-sounding course, with a punch-line worthy of an O. Henry short story. I shan’t spoil it. But I will insist that Sargood is a better writer than Angela Carter ever was.
The Village in the Valley: Travels in Mexico & Italy
Prospect Books, 288pp., £20