TableTalk – The Magpie Café Whitby

I’ve got cancer. Sorry to drop that onto the breakfast table apropos of nothing at all. Apropos and cancer are rarely found in the same sentence.

By AA Gill

This article is published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

I’ve got cancer. Sorry to drop that onto the breakfast table apropos of nothing at all. Apropos and cancer are rarely found in the same sentence. I wasn’t going to mention it, the way you don’t. In truth, I’ve got an embarrassment of cancer, the full English. There is barely a morsel of offal not included. I have a trucker’s gut-buster, gimpy, malevolent, meaty malignancy. And I’ve mentioned it because, as I write in the first person, and occasionally some of you might take me seriously enough to book a table on a recommendation, you ought to know if there are any fundamental, gastro, epicurean, personal changes that would affect my judgment.

If I were, for instance, struck down with palaeo-sidereal veganism, which I hope we would all agree would be worse. Or if I had all my teeth kicked out by an Icelandic horse on his way to the butcher’s. Chemotherapy can alter the way things taste. I am being rinsed with commando doses of platinum. My insides are being turned into road-rail, pig-lead, firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin trays. If ever things start tasting like licked battery terminals, I’ll tell you. Either that or I’ll be eating at Sexy Fish.

I’m forbidden from travelling on trains, boats, buses and planes. Nor can I drive. Jeremy Clarkson says this has nothing to do with getting cancer. I’ve been banned from riding a bike — even on grass, added the oncologist unkindly. So I’m not going to be plashing through marsh and fen to find outré openings (no change there — ed). If there was a good thing to say about cancer, and frankly this is medical bowel-scraping, it’s that it gives permission and excuse to friends to say and do generous things that the onset of gout or herpes might not have elicited. So, just after my diagnosis, I got a call from Jimmy Carr, who said, “Awful news, but I’d like to fulfil a bucket-list wish. I can pretend to be Jimmy Savile for a day. I’ve always wanted to do Jim’ll Fix It.”

“How kind. What were you thinking of ?”

“Well,” he said, “I’ve got to go up and do 10 minutes’ filming with Jeremy on his new show, and there’s a spare seat in the whirlybird. We can be back in London for tea. What do you say?”

“Where are we going? Paris, Deauville, Barcelona?”

“Whitby.”

“Now you’re talking.”

There must be an upside

If I didn’t have cancer, I would probably have passed on Whitby in October. But the thought that this might be my last chance ever to visit the place again clinched it. Whitby has the best fish and chips in Britain. So, the next morning, I get into the helicopter and there’s a manic Jimmy, gurning, “Nowthen, nowthen…” and we take off into the chilly Elstree dawn and chug north.  

“So,” he asks, “cancer — what’s the silver lining? There must be an upside.” Well, there is: you can stop worrying about Alzheimer’s, but even that is a bit tarnished because I’m already an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, and getting cancer is like going over to a competing charitable condition. Hey ho.

Whitby appears like a William Blake doodle over the North York Moors. As with most east-facing seaside towns, it both perches and hunches on the grey wet, with its gothic ruin and nudge-nudge naughty postcards. It’s a place that is both eminently dour and practical and utterly, bonkersly up some seaside spectrum. So, everyone on the street has apparently decided to dress at Millets for under £15 and attach themselves to a terrier. Or they’re dressing up as role-play therapy groups: there are goths, vampires and, today, masses of pensioners in Dad’s Army costume, platoons of spavined Home Guard and women going to collect their rations. It’s a steampunk version of Westworld. There are no tourists or trippers. They are just doing it for their own amusement.

Jimmy and I go in search of the Magpie Café, a fish’n’chip shop I deemed the best in Britain more than a decade ago. It remains completely, perfectly true to its calling. At 11.30, the little restaurant is beginning to fill up with retired couples in cagoules, coming in for an early lunch. But seaside fish and chips isn’t like other meals. We approach it with a proprietary fondness. This is grade 1 listed dinner, cultural heritage, a communion of secular us-ness. No one is eating fish and chips for the first time. Jimmy and I were given the table in the bay window, looking out at the wandering Private Godfreys and Van Helsings.

The fish is generous, fresh off the boat, battered with a loving authority. Beef-dripping twice- fried chips are thick, crunchy and floury. The curry sauce is authentically indigenous, free from any Asian aspiration. Mushy peas are marrow-fat bland sog, not blitzed garden frozen. They dance with a surprising elegance when dabbed with a douse of malt vinegar. There is bread that has been buttered as if there was still rationing and pots of brown, round-vowelled tea, and jam roly-poly that comes with custard and cream.

Jimmy and I are absurdly happy with the whole modest but profound table, each constituent panto part perfectly fitting in with its neighbour with a warming familiarity. We decided to judge, once and for all, the ancient north-south question of haddock or cod. And, as a Scot, I’m happy to say my national preference for haddock won by a slim, opalescent flake.This is, all things considered, without pretension but with utter self-confidence, still the best fish and chips in the world. Naturally, Clarkson disagrees and has his own Whitby favourite, Mister Chips, which is run by a messianically enthusiastic team. They have a board on which they write the name of the particular trawler your fish was landed from and, out of fairness, we took another complete fish dinner back with us on the helicopter. I have to say it was pretty damn perfect, and no one else in the ether of the world was having superior in-flight catering.

Photo: © LearningLark / Flickr

AA Gill, who died on 10th December 2016, was a celebrated writer and critic. He wrote weekly restaurant reviews, culture columns, features and travel pieces for The Sunday Times for twenty-five years up until his untimely death. He wrote two pieces about the cancer which struck him down so suddenly - both were written during his last month of life. AA Gill began taking nivolumab after writing this article.

The Sunday Times is a British newspaper whose circulation makes it the largest in the quality press market category. It is published by Times Newspapers Ltd, a subsidiary of News UK, which is in turn owned by News Corp. Times Newspapers also publishes The Times. The two papers were founded independently and have been under common ownership only since 1966. They were bought by News International in 1981.


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