David Lodge’s Changing Places is absolutely my favourite comic novel. If you haven’t read it, you should do so immediately. From the startling, original, precise, intriguing first sentence, Lodge tells the story of two lecturers of English Literature who swap jobs, continents – and then houses and families – for six months. The novel’s scope takes in the ever-changing scene of academic and modern life in England and the USA, as the characters debate the topics of central heating, the Vietnam War, the value of Radio One, and abortion.
Philip Swallow, of the dank, conservative University of Rummidge in England and Morris Zapp, of the liberal but troubled Euphoric State University in the USA are polar opposites. Swallow has quietly failed to specialise in anything other than writing expertly-honed exam questions with which to terrorise unsuspecting undergraduates. Bogged down in the question of improving his cold family home, in concerns about the children’s ‘O’ Levels, and how to pay the next bill, Swallow distinguishes himself in deftly awarding elusive marks of ‘B+/B+?+’. Where Swallow fails, Zapp excels. His world-leading publications on Jane Austen have defined the field of English Literature, and he has just embarked upon the most exhaustive study of the topic to date. He is sought-after, successful, rich… at least, until he arrives in Rummidge.
An aerial view reveals Rummidge to be a ‘dark smudge’ on the horizon, a place where it is perpetually raining, has rained, or is just about to rain. Everything exists in monochrome. Everything is disintegrating. Everything is ugly. And Morris Zapp is largely ignored by the staff of the English Department. (Lodge gives the most wonderful description of the peculiar English social etiquette for meeting – or, rather, not meeting – new people.) In his distress, he desperately visits his counterpart’s wife – Mrs Hilary Swallow.
Both Zapp and Swallow are unfailingly sexist in their attitude to women. It is therefore unsurprising that the main attraction Hilary holds for Zapp is that she (he decides) must be able to cook. Uninterested in her conversational ability, Zapp cultivates the acquaintance because he is tired of ‘TV dinners and Asian restaurants’. Luckily enough for Zapp, Hilary’s idea of a joint is a Sunday roast (compare her husband’s quite different experience of that word in Euphoria State!) and she is an expert at whipping up a bowl or two of soup in a jiffy.
Whilst Zapp longs for some ‘authentic’ food, Swallow finds that he rather enjoys the uniform, sanitised, commercialised products of America’s food industry. He tucks into take-away pizza, chomps on a bacon sandwich (with ‘uniform’ strips of bacon), and makes peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for Zapp’s kids. This may be the only respect in which England wins over American in the novel: Hilary’s cooking far outstrips the meals the characters consume in Euphoria State.
If you are living in the UK, the soup recipe below will hopefully inject a bit of colour into our otherwise damp and cloudy summer.
3 medium potatoes
1 large handful fresh coriander
1 vegetable stock cube
Salt and pepper
A little oil
2. Add the vegetables to the pan.
3. Make and add the stock, and then the salt and pepper to taste.
4. Simmer for 30 minutes (or put in a slow cooker for as long as you like).
5. Roughly chop the coriander and add to the pan (save a little for step 6), then transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until smooth.
6. Serve with a garnish of fresh coriander.