Monday, 16 June 2008

Supper # 29 - skip-diving, London

I'd heard about this guy who lives like a king from diving into skips all across London. When I spoke to him he told me that the pickings are rich and the sport is a favourite of his. I wanted in on this activity and made sure that a date was plotted for my return to London last week.

We meet up outside M&S on the Kings Road, him in his combat gear and accompanying rollie, me in the most impractical pair of gold flip-flops possible. Off we go, down the ramp to the back end of this national behemoth, Rob stalks purposefully towards the skips and starts rolling his sleeves up.

"D'you ever get caught?" I ask, hoping we might have to encounter an irate manager. But apparently it's never happened. Rob dives and I watch. If I'd had a pair of rubber gloves I might get a bit more stuck in but everything is covered in blue food dye. I'm not sure if they do this for fear of being sued in this stoopid world or if they just want to spoil all the fun. Anyway, Rob is not deterred - with a look of absolute concentration he begins pulling out loaves of bread, potatoes, fruit salad, some chicken (rejected), seafood risotto (rejected), sarnies (rejected) and carrots. Then the river runs dry and we amble off into the heart of Chelsea and on to Knightsbridge. I wanted to gain access to Harrods' bounty but of course Fayed would never permit such a thing. Skip after skip either eludes us or holds nothing. We refresh ourselves in a convenient watering hole and Rob opens up to me about his slightly Victorian childhood, the all boys school he hated, his love of poetry and of running away to Wimbledon Common when he was 16. He calls it his sanctuary and has been pursuing freedom ever since.

Rob thinks you're either free or you're not. I say that freedom is a perception and has no rule. He disagrees and believes that if you're part of the system then you're not free. He's been living in hostels, squats, on sofas, floors for years, avoiding having a bank account, avoiding having a drivers' license, only taking jobs that can be left with ease. And all the time he's defying freedom I can't help but notice the look in his eyes that thinly shields a vulnerable boy.

West London gives us nothing more so we move over to the neighbourhood - up to Clapton where he and his buddies have just moved into an industrial unit. A quick change into someone's hiking boots and socks gets me ready for round II of the skip assault. We lag off down the road, onto a bus and round the back of a Tesco Metro. I feel strangely invisible in my borrowed combat gear, like I fit into this world of urban foraging - that to passers by I am a bin diver, slipping underneath the law.

Pickings are richer here and Rob is re-energised. He's been feeling a bit embarrassed about the quest taking so long. I try to reassure him it's ok but am finding it hard to fathom how spending your whole day scouting around for food scraps in order to avoid buying dinner is freeing. He pulls out a box of eggs (battery), some bananas (great for the pud I have planned), Flora, cookies, more bread and a jar of Jalapenos. We go into the store to buy the basics - I need chocolate, sugar, cream and butter. He suggests I use the skipped Flora. I recoil in horror. There's an awkward silence which gets diffused when we get to the wine aisle and bond over the rioja.

THE SET UP: Back at the ranch there are people milling around, spraying pieces onto backdrops, turning up in old fire engines, making papier mache masks, returning from a fun run. Rob gets stuck into dinner. It's 11pm. We don't eat til 12.30am. I am touched by Rob's total determination to pull off this skipped dinner. I feel like he's mortified at how the day has gone and, having heard about all the delicious food I've had so far, wants to pull something pretty special out of the bag.

WHO CAME: Rob, Dave, Jess, her artistic looking fella, Pie, Russell, some Danish documentary maker and a guy who lives in a pub.

WHAT WE ATE: Rice, mustard mash with sweet potatoes, tomato and ginger bruschetta and julienned cabbage, carrots, parsnip and chilli in red wine. Everyone dives in hungrily. Pie sounds like he hasn't eaten for a while. My favourite is the bruschetta.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: I talk to a really interesting guy about nomadism in this country - about how we are always going to be skewered in our attempts to roam because of being an island - everything for us is a leap or a tail-chasing circle. It's true, we have a load of crusty travs from Britain but a lot of them are tied into other countries. This lot talk of a network of thousands which takes in Brighton, Bristol, London - who are all known to one another. They meet up at Nowhere, Burning Man, out in Portugal, down in Orgiva. They discuss Banksy and the conspiracy theory behind it and I learn about a documentary maker called Phil Leach who does what I'd do if I weren't quite so female.

THE PUD: We decide not to do it. It's 1.30am and Bananas Foster ain't the lightest of puds. I promise Rob I'll return and make it for him. I think he likes the thought that I owe him a visit.


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