BLOG Nathan Munday

NWR Issue r19

Table Talk: A Moveable Feast

I was in the south of France recently and visited the chateau at Pau where Henri IV was born. They supposedly used a tortoise shell as his cradle and the whole castle has become a memorial to that monarch who famously said: ‘Paris is worth a mass’, having renounced his Protestant faith for the French throne. We were on a guided tour, and to be honest, I was not that interested in the shell, the King, the gold frames and mirrors. What did draw my attention was… a big table. I think it was one of the biggest tables I had ever seen! Apparently, it could seat one hundred guests and I started imagining the noise, the food, and all the table talk that would have taken place around it.

‘Table talk’ has long been a kind of literary genre associated with memoir. My father had a copy of Martin Luther’s Tischreden (Table Talk) in his study which I remember flicking through as a teenager. It gives us a more realistic portrait of the ‘serious’ German reformer. From Beethoven to Orson Welles, the table has always been a kind of meeting point between us and them, recorded for us in book form. For Luther and his listeners, it was a cultural passing of the mantle; storytelling as well as theology – youths listening to elders and vice versa – nurturing generations and Reformation. But I bet you, that even your warmest memories involve a hearth, or a meal, or a table; something of that hue will appear somewhere in the annals of your mind. Sadly, TV and fast food robs us of this ancient discourse.

Table talk was instrumental in my first travel book, Seven Days, A Pyrenean Adventure. Throughout its pages, I try and take the reader to some of the different refuges where the evening meal became a highlight. Hikers slowly drifted down from the hills at 7pm. The smell usually told you whether the meal would be any good; this depended on the host which, in Pyrenean lingo, is called the Guardian. Fortunately, the conversations could be good even when the food was bad!

It was in one of these refuges – Refuge d’Espingo – that I met one of the central characters: an Ernest Hemingway lookalike who left an impression on me. We have kept in touch, and his emails and postcards are a continuation of that first meal we had when he shook that piece of soggy bone at the guardian in disgust: ‘It should not be in my stew.’ Various expletives followed! His table talk was story and myth; it was difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was not. In a way, it did not matter. Two years after that episode, both he and I shared another meal in an inn in Llandybie after cycling around the area. The lamb was good this time but his wine was not French, and therefore ‘not good!’ The feast had shifted from the high hills of the Pyrenees to a village a couple of miles from where I’d grown up.

About a year ago, I was staying in an old lifeboat station on the island of Nantucket (of Moby-Dick fame). There was a solitary man sitting in the corner, still damp from a dip in the sea. We talked a while. He was the son of a German émigré who had fled the Third Reich before things started kicking off. I later found out that he knew the Kennedys, and he spent all evening telling me about his Harvard days and his Atlantic crossings as a captain of an icebreaker. He was also most unamused that American refuges did not sell cold beer! We have stayed in contact.

For the real Ernest Hemingway, Paris was ‘a moveable feast’. Where there’s a person, there’s a story and even the most mundane table talk is something that stays with you for a long time. It is in itself a moveable feast.

Seven Days, A Pyrenean Adventure by Nathan Munday is available now from Parthian Books priced £8.99

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