The Mock Turtle

Argus title : It’s time for the cup that cheers

This week is National Depression Week, intended to raise awareness of the widespread problem of depression. I really ought to write a worthy article about it. But, to be honest, I’m too depressed.

Cardinal Ratzinger, the hammer of heretics, once a member of the Hitler Youth, has become Pope. For a heretical Catholic like me this is grounds, if not for despair, then at least for grave concern.

There are terrible things in the newspaper. At the start of the week the death was reported of a 12 year old boy who had been so badly bullied that he hanged himself. Then a MacDonald’s worker was stabbed to death in Chichester, in full view of adult and child customers.

And later in the week, Daniel Nugent, who had previous convictions for domestic violence against his partner, was found guilty of yet another assault. He’d dragged her around by her hair in front of their children, stripped her naked, hit her with a broom, bit her and rubbed a dirty nappy in her face.

The judge spared him a prison sentence, supposedly “in the public interest”. It’s a decision which must have caused both outrage and despair. One wonders which public he was talking about.

The weight of such reports in the news reinforces my view that depression is often not an illness, but a reasonable response to terrible events or circumstances which seem senseless, unalterable or out of control. When we hear reports such as these it can seem that there is no possibility of safety or justice. Despair seems reasonable.

The road to recovery often begins, not with Prozac, but with a growing awareness that it is possible to change circumstances and challenge injustice.

This is something Irene Parry, whose funeral at took place this week at St Peter’s Church in Brighton, understood very well. A former probation officer, she chose to work with people whose addictions, homelessness and poverty made them chaotic and unable to access services. She knew they had often been unjustly treated, especially in childhood.

Twenty five years ago, when I worked with Irene, few probation officers welcomed clients who were homeless or addicted. Irene was happy to take them on. In their turn, every homeless drunk in Brighton fought to have ‘Mrs Parry’ as his (and occasionally her) probation officer.

There was occasional tension between clients of Scottish Protestant or Irish Catholic origin. I chuckled to see that the piper at her funeral had instructions to start the proceedings with the Scottish Calvinist hymn “Amazing Grace”, but to end it with the Irish “Danny Boy”. Irene was evenhanded to the last.

She provided a superb service to her clients. A latter day Miss Jean Brodie, they were her ‘crème de la crème’. She would appear in court on their behalf immaculately dressed and perfectly coifed – always offering practical solutions, housing, treatment and support.

She never gave up on anyone, though she recognized that the seriousness of some offences warranted prison. She’d keep contact with them there and plan housing, treatment and support for when they left. This is, of course, what should have happened to Daniel Nugent.

Despite the fact that Irene’s was a life well lived, it was still desperately sad to say goodbye to her. It is hard to believe that someone of such indomitable spirit is gone. Certainly, no one in the packed congregation could believe she was 83.
All in all, this week I’ve felt the need to cheer myself up. In these circumstances, I did what I always do – I visited my mother and headed for our favourite tea shop, the Mock Turtle.
As I opened the heavy door and stepped over the polished brass doorway I felt, as I always do, a sense of safety, peace and familiarity. I found myself sniffing the air like an animal. There is a particular smell of polish, baking and fresh flowers which is peculiar to the Mock Turtle.
The window shelf is crammed with home made cakes, scones, Florentines, shortbread, and their huge, cream-filled meringues. As people come in you can see their heads swivel to check what flavour of meringue is on sale that particular day. It’s a sure way to tell a ‘regular’ from a new customer.
The tables near the ancient cash register groan under the weight of yet more cakes, tea breads and jams. The shelves above are packed with the home made jams, marmalade and lemon curd.
All tea shops are civilised places, but the Mock Turtle more so than most. With its willow pattern crockery, collection of old plates and tea pots and its drop-leaf oak tables and chairs, it embodies tradition. No alcohol is served, so there’s no inebriation, just innumerable cups of tea and coffee and home cooking.
The lunches are traditional. You can choose between classic omelettes, immaculately cooked fish and chips, or egg, bacon and chips better than any I have tasted anywhere else. If you’re not very hungry, there are a variety of old fashioned light snacks – such as perfectly poached or scrambled eggs on toast.
This is the only place I know that still serves anchovy or sardines on toast. And, if you want to – and I often do – you can order piles of marmite toast, or stacks of plain toast, dripping with butter and accompanied by jam or Sussex honey.
“I wonder how many times we’ve had one of these?” my mother muses with satisfaction “ as she tucks into her beautifully served welsh rabbit, delicately moving the sprig of parsley to the side of her plate. “Hundreds” I answer, truthfully.
The Mock Turtle was opened in 1972, by Gordon and Birthe Chater, respectively a former horticulturalist from Eastbourne and an ex-hotelier from Denmark. Pool Valley wasn’t their ideal site for a tea shop, but it was all they could afford at the time. They’ve been there ever since. They’ve found a formula that works and see no need to change it.
Over the years they’ve gathered a fiercely loyal clientele drawn from Brighton & Hove, but also from other parts of Sussex and the world. Tourists flock to the teashop and its cream teas are particularly famous in the USA and Japan, where the tea shop is listed in several guidebooks. Korean television filmed there not long ago.
Customers of all ages cram into the tiny premises and regulars get to know each other. It’s hard not to. Gordon and Birthe politely insist that customers share tables. Table-mates stare longingly at each other’s orders and the world famous meringues regularly draw comments from strangers.
Gordon and Birthe do all the baking and cooking themselves. Everything is made from scratch from the very best ingredients. For example, Gordon insists on using californian walnuts for their walnut loaf. “Because they’re the best” he says simply.
They use 2 types of cream – thick Guernsey cream for the cream teas and for the cakes a lighter cream from a farm near the Kent border. They even blend the tea themselves.
It’s time-consuming labour-intensive work. And it is difficult to imagine that when they retire – as they surely must some time – anyone else will be prepared to put in the effort. As they say, “If you do something like this, you have to love it”.
Almost none of the traditional small businesses remain in Pool Valley and East Street. Where once there were craftspeople plying their trades, now there are fashionable small shops and chains such as Gap.
The city has become fashionable and there is a coffee shop on every corner. However, traditional English teashops have all but disappeared.
Only the Mock Turtle remains which, as its owners say, has “stood still while everything else has changed about it.”
It should not be lost, nor should its standards be compromised, not least because it is recognised by residents and others from all over the world to be quintessentially a part of Brighton.
One thing is clear. If the Mock Turtle ever does close, there will be a wave of depression over the South East, the like of which has never been seen before.
And the loudest wails of anguish will come from me.

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