After a night dining in South London, WILL SELF found himself thinking about our brave new isolationist world… over lemonade.
This week I dined – as I do most – at Taro restaurant near the Oval cricket ground. I began eating at another branch of Taro, in Soho, about five years ago, and noticed after about two, that the small, smiley-faced Japanese man often to be seen behind the counter, was also the subject of the cartoon that forms the restaurant’s logo, and which is blazoned on its façade, menus etc. This man is, indeed, Mr Taro – and to celebrate his own origins, he’s decorated the restaurant with blown-up photographs of his parents, when they were young, back in Japan.
Mr Taro opened the Oval branch recently – but he’s had one in Balham for a while. I never go that far south, but I often encounter him at the two others. Having learned I was a writer, he got straight to the point: “How many books have you sold?” And after a brief mental calculation – including foreign editions, but not accounting for returns or remainders – I said “A million”. Which I could tell impressed him: I suspect Mr Taro may cleave to Stalin’s dictum, that quantity has a quality of its own. Anyway, he serves Japanese lemonade in his restaurants called Ramune, which my youngest son always orders, together with a chicken katsu curry.
Ramune comes in an unusual bottle, plugged with a glass marble you push down into the bottle’s neck with a plastic plug, in order to open it. There are two thumb-shaped depressions in the bottle’s neck, and when you want to pour, you need to ‘capture’ the marble in these so it doesn’t impede the liquid’s flow. No.3 Son and I assumed this was for purposes of mild amusement rather than utility – and quirkily Japanese. But when we asked Jimmy Wales’s outfit, a different story emerged.
The so-called ‘Codd bottle’ was invented by one Hiram Codd, a solid English yeoman type, with a solid English common-noun-sounding name, such as you find in East Anglia, where the Selfs also hail from. So, born in Bury St Edmunds in 1838, Codd rose in the general ebullition of the industrial revolution, becoming a mechanical engineer, and, in 1872 patented a bottle filled under gas pressure, thereby pushing a marble against a rubber seal in the neck and creating a perfect seal. That was by no means all: the inventor also of a bottling machine, Codd seems to have been a mover and shaker in the carbonated London of the late Victorian era.
As we read through the entry, No.3 Son and I began to experience a certain bubbly frisson ourselves: Codd had been married in Holy Trinity on the Brompton Road, but he had a mineral water works on the Caledonian Road, then two further establishments solely producing the marbles – one in Camberwell, the other in, gulp!, Kennington. Yes, indeed, like a lemonade burp itself, what goes around comes around – and sitting in the Japonerie of Mr Taro’s restaurant in the Oval, we felt a certain frisson as we realised its creator’s revenant was zeroing in on us: Kennington is a half-mile off, and Codd had died, it transpired, at his house, 162 Brixton Road, a mere four hundred yards away!
What’s the moral of this quotidian tale of the go-round of invention and exploitation? You don’t have to be a devout believer in free trade or globalisation to see that without elements of both none of this could’ve happened: there would be no Mr Taro and his Ramune in the Oval, and no Codd bottle for that Ramune in Japan without Hiram’s bubbly mind.
Of course, I’m old enough to remember the days when you could walk down a street in the Oval, south London, and almost every parked car would’ve been made in England, by the English. In those days, the prime economic indicator that bothered people was the so-called ‘balance of payments’: the ratio of imports to exports. There was a sense of national humiliation in the imbalance of these two, although what was really humiliating was quite how crap all those Austins and Morrises were.
Personally, I’m looking forward to our brave new isolationist – indeed, autarkist – world, wherein English workers will make English things for the English. It doesn’t matter if Gauleiter Cummings or Comrade Jeremy is in the driving seat so far as I’m concerned, the important thing is that neither of them will follow in Hiram Codd’s footsteps, and… bottle it.