The latest Real meals column from the New Statesman:
“. . . they do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas”
So writes Jorge Luis Borges in Tlön, Uqbar Orbis Tertius, in my – not especially humble – opinion, among the finest pieces of short fiction ever written. In conceiving of a world of philosophical idealists, for whom the persistence of objects in space and time is as preposterous as mysticism to Scotto-English empiricists, Borges gets close to explaining my response to the Lorelei, a pizzeria/coffee bar on Bateman Street in Soho, London.
I must’ve first eaten at the Lorelei in the early 1980s, and at that time we youthful students were all struck by the anachronistic air of the place: its Formica-topped tables, rush-bottomed chairs, oxblood-coloured vinyl banquettes and scuzzy lino floor were redolent of an earlier age, an age also enshrined in its Cimbali espresso machine and the sconces of its dim spotlights. As for the mural, it would be difficult to respond to this implausible creature as Heine did to his Lorelei: “There sits the most beautiful maiden/On high, so wondrous fair/With glittering gems she is laden/She combeth her golden hair.” For this one had pretty dun hair, beige skin and a grey tail for that matter – still, it could’ve been the lighting.
We ate at the Lorelei because it was cheap – very cheap. And the pizzas were … fine – not great, but acceptable. There was a small corkage fee and you brought your own rotgut. I never forgot about the Lorelei, but we are all gastropods and over the decades my stomach inched me off elsewhere. Then, about 10 years ago, I happened to detour along Bateman Street – a quiet backwater – and there she was, still beckoning from the bricky bluffs alongside La Capannina “Gentlemen’s Club” (another mysteriously long-lived establishment). I went in and the joint was exactly, uncannily the same – right down to the row of dusty rubber plants in the front window and the pile of 25kg flour bags on a chair by the door. As I sipped an espresso and smoked my pipe, I wondered if the Lorelei might be a sort of mystic portal, through which I could reach the fabled Tlön, so unaccountable was its persistence in space and time: after all, the rents round here are astronomical and most eateries have the life expectancy of subalterns on the Western Front.
At home I Googled the Lorelei, and found a woman writing about eating there in the 1960s and how it was unchanged since then apart from the loss of the jukebox, which had a great selection including Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Boeuf-Sang”. I began to have weird thoughts: Might some little-read essay of Hazlitt’s – “On the Stagione”, perhaps – include observations of eating there in the early 1800s? Was the Lorelei a hangout of the Ivy Lane Club, one not immortalised by Boswell only because he objected to grated carrot dominating the side salad?
Anyway, for at least half a century the Lorelei has been doing its thing, so it seemed only just to take some boys there. Robert Graves said that as a child he was kissed in his pram by Swinburne, and that Swinburne had been kissed in his pram by Tennyson, and that Tennyson . . . well, you get the picture: I liked the idea of confronting these pizza-obsessed whelps – it’s pretty much all they’ll gnaw – with such an ancient lineage of Margheritas. Besides, where else in this world – or any other – can you read on a menu the enticing phrase “topped with prawn sauce”?
Needless to say, they found the Lorelei surpassingly weird. The youngest put his face in his hands within minutes of our arrival and moaned, “Well, this is depressing.” His older brother couldn’t quite credit the prices on the menu, which were in pence, saying, “How can it be so cheap?” It’s true that the prices had gone up in the 30-odd years since I first ate there, but a signature Lorelei pizza (sardines, mozzarella, tomatoes, anchovies, olives, oregano) will still only set you back 690p. I had a rigatoni matriciana for 600p and a side salad (still with Boswell’s hated grated) for 250p. For four the bill was a mere 3,233p – but how long can this go on? Il Padrone is, to be frank, getting on, and so to paraphrase Heine, “I know not what evermore grieves me,/What makes me sorrow so:/A tale of old times never leaves me,/A tale of pizza ago …”