Within a Budding Grove, with its hint at the similitude of erectile clitoral tissue and burgeoning plant life, is the somewhat suggestive translation of Proust’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs given by CK Scott Moncrieff. The more literal “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” is not without its sexual problematic – but, anyway, I invariably think of first one rendition and then the other every morning as I walk up St John’s Road from Clapham Junction, because tripping towards me comes a loose procession of young women, hurrying towards the station. Young women neatly groomed; young women in charming dishabille, frowsty from their beds; young women homely; and young women caught in that brief and startling window of beauteous opportunity that makes it inevitable that the human race will continue to propagate.
As they click-clack past Phones 4u, the pawnbroker and the Santander bank, their resemblance to Marcel’s covey of adolescent girls bowling along the promenade at Balbec is, at best, tenuous (especially given that the fabulously flirty Albertine was, in fact, based on Proust’s stolid Belgian chauffeur, Albert). But they still have that vivifying effect on me – their dash, their absorption into the hamster wheel of the working day that is yet figurative of the wheel of life itself! Their tense unconsciousness! And never am I more à l’ombre of the Clapham girls than when one of them breaks step and dives sideways into Greggs, the bakery. Fresh baking and jeune women – you don’t have to believe in the capacity of tea-soaked cake to summon involuntary memories to understand what a powerful gestalt this forms.
Branching out I like to think that I’m not alone in this – and, as there are 1,400 branches of Greggs throughout the country, it’s a fair bet that I’m not. Standing in the queue this morning, meditating on whether to opt for the £1.99 or the £2.25 breakfast deal (the distinction is about 500ml of tea and orange juice), it occurred to me that there was something rather special about the considerable niche Greggs has carved in the national unconscious. After all, Greggs is more ubiquitous than McDonald’s, it serves around a million breakfast customers each day, and yet its public profile is as flat as a Scotch pancake.
It’s the body snatcher of British fast food. Started on Tyneside in the late 1930s, the chain has expanded by snaffling up other bakeries – in Glasgow, Thurston in Leeds, Broomfields in London, Bakers Oven all over – and “rebranding” them with its own non-look: blue melamine fascias, wood-effect laminated floors, er … that’s it.
Greggs has become the archetype of what a certain kind of baker is: not a retail baker per se (and although “baking” is done on the premises, I suspect that this is only heating up pre-prepared dough), but rather a dispenser of farinaceous snack food – sandwiches, filled rolls, sausage rolls and so on – within a bakery ambience. I doubt that most people go to Greggs to buy bread, despite the stooks of French sticks and the baskets of bloomers. Rather, the bread is synonymous with nutritious, maternal bounteousness; that’s why the working girls, the labouring lads, the morbidly obese on incapacity benefit – all of us – roll in to get our fill. Most mornings, all I buy at Greggs is a 40p gingerbread man for my own little man (I’m a firm believer in the idea that education can only be undertaken with a high blood-sugar level) but, today, I had a sausage roll. I was expecting some ghastly, flaccid thing, but the pastry was puffy and the meat not too, um, worrying.
I also bought the local delicacy on offer, a piece of so-called London cheesecake. This was pretty strange, being not cake at all but rather a square of puff pastry not dissimilar to the casing of my sausage roll, while so far as I could tell there wasn’t any cheese incorporated into this sweetmeat, which instead was garnished with some sort of coconut or mallow shavings. Sounds disgusting, I know – but I ate it while writing this and, after dipping a morsel of the cheesecake into a spoonful of my tea, then letting it dissolve on my tongue, I found myself being mysteriously transported about an hour back in time – to Clapham Junction.