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Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Mr and Mrs Patel at the Triangle

Lunchtime in Leeds often sees me in the company of Mr Patel, who is the owner of the local newsagent, Triangle. Previously, I had been lunching a Dee's, a traditional English "greasy spoon" cafe, when the thought of yet another fried egg and mushroom "bap" (large round soft bread roll, not to be confused with barm-cakes which are large square soft bread rolls), was just not appealing anymore.

The British "greasy spoon" is the traditional working men's diner. To achieve full success, paint must be peeling, tables much be cheap laminate, rocking unsteadily as you sit down, and Dee (or insert name of Proprietor), must look as if they have been consuming their own food for years, with only two or three coronary by-passes as a result. In the old days, it was practically compulsory for "chefs" to be slaving over the stovetop while smoking a continual chain of Capstan Full Strength cigarettes. The only drink on the menu is 'tea'. Coffee is often listed as an item to be purchased, but, well, just do'nt. The tea is special though, unlike anything you have ever imbibed before, with seemingly addictive properties. A grease spattered food hygiene certificate is usually displayed near the till, less of a proud boast than a disclaimer.

I had become a regular at Dee's, eating there most lunchtimes and reading a paper when one day madness overcame me. I approached the counter and asked for a chicken club on rye, with Mayonaisse and Dijon mustard, and a large decaf. The cafe went silent and Dee just stared at me, hands on hips. Frantically, I tried to cover up : "Only joking, Dee, just the usual please!". To my relief, Dee laughed. "You Scousers..." she said, shaking her head. The cafe joined in the laughter, with a few additional witticisms from the regulars "I'll have an Earl Grey", or "Hey Dee, y'owt any caviar?", "Fuckin Mayonnaise! By eck". Despite the jokes, and the fact that I feel very welcome in Dee's now, I realised, it was time for an occasional change.

Knowing nothing of Leeds, I found the Triangle by accident, hidden in the maze of backstreets near my work, and found that Mr Patel and his wife cook bhaji's, putak's and other amazing edibles on a nightly basis. Their store, nominally a newsagent, is Mr Patel told me, more of an outlet for his cooking these days, as his children have all left home. In fact, Mr Patel seems to resent people buying newspapers, calling the Press "rubbish" and urging customers to buy a good book(from somewhere else) instead. One day he informs me with a wink and a broad smile that he does'nt like selling newspapers because the incredibly neat layout of his display gets disturbed whenever anyone selects a Daily Mail,Guardian or Times. Patel is definitely a neatness freak, and the store is clean, bright, cheerful and looks like it gets repainted every weekend.

The Triangle had become a regular haunt when I told Mrs Patel about the other "Triangle" I knew, which was the Triangle Pub in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax's Triangle was an establishment with a confused lineage, as the proprietor claimed that the name was an Anglicism of the Gaelic "shide Na Gael" (pronounced Shee-ne Gael). This supposedly translates as "Spirit of the Gaels (Celts)" and despite the fact that this translation is utter rubbish, this supposed name, and the interior decor, and the temperament of the musicians that Grasshopper and I, one night witnessed, fit perfectly with Nova Scotia's enthusiastic, but often misinterpreted, embrace of anything 'Celtic'.

Firstly, the decor of Halifax's Triangle, to anyone raised in Britain,is very confusing. Mostly this is because the pub's policy of being "more Celtic than thou" have led to them lining the walls with flags representing every terrorist group operating in Ireland. Further more, in a move which is either breathtakingly naive, or is one of the boldest aversion therapy-based Peace initiatives of modern times, the flags of groups from both sides occupy the same wall space. Anywhere in Ireland, (and possibly even more so in England), where the Red Hand of Ulster flag (representing various Protestant paramilitary groups like the UDA, UDR, UDF, UVF, UFF) was hung, you would definitely not find the Irish Tricolour, the IRA's Armalite logos, or Sinn Fein colours in close proximity, unless it was just prior to a group of one faction about to burn the flag of the other while parading their own.

Musicians at the Triangle also demonstrate a rudeness that would be considered atypical of stereotypical Irishmen. Grasshopper and I, on my recommendation, went to see a guitarist whose fretwork was pure wizardry. Unfortunately, his personality, did'nt quite match. Half way through his first set, an audience member left her seat near the front of the stage, possibly to visit the bathroom. The person, an obviously enthusiatic fan of JP Cormierre, for that was his name I think, tripped just as she passed the stage, and knocked a microphone stand. "Watch what the Fuck you're doing, you fucking idiot" , our charming performer spumed, throwing visual daggers at the embarrassed woman, before bad naturedly launching into another piece of marvellous digital dexterity. Shortly after, Grasshopper and I left for another establishment, where we got seriously entertained by a group of Newfoundland musicians who had genuine Irish accents, but no pretensions towards Celticness. That night Nashville was on the agenda.

Back at Leeds Triangle, the discussion has led here because early in my visits to the Leeds Triangle I discover that Mrs Patel has studied anthropology at University and, as a by-product, interested in anything Celtic. This Celtic interest was sparked because for a while, she and her husband lived in a town in China while her husband, a (now) retired civil engineer worked on a construction project. "They found Celts there", she tells me, "Ancient Celts in graves, living on the Silk Road three thousand years ago". Mrs Patel also knows all about Mohojandaro and the early Indian civilizations. There is a very weird synchronism at work here, so I decide to tell Mrs Patel about my quest to answer the question "Civilization: Why?" by early February. MRs Patel is opinionated, and she lets me have it "You can study the nuts and bolts of civilization all you like" she says "But really, REAL civilization is within us. We are either civilized people, or we are not, and making a great big city like this one, or Uruk, or Mohojandaro does'nt make us civilized. Cities are just economics, and they will come and go".

I'm stunned. I have to admit that "Civilization: Why?" had turned out to be a bigger project than I had imagined and was looking at revising my completion date back to late March because of some economics-based questions that had recently come to my attention. But Mrs Patel has answered, most of these questions. Cities(and by implication civilization) are in part, just a product of economics, and as such, like all complex human systems, we (humans) can either allow those systems to control us, or we can decide to control them. Mrs Patel is very civilized - "Take some bhaji's with you" she says.

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