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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 55 - Oh chip shops of Scotland, when will we see your like again?


OFT, when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, my mind, especially in these days of uncharacteristic heat, returns to Africa, where I spent some khaki-clad years, a-serving of good king George VI.

In oven-hot nights, sleeping under tropical skies, dominated by the glowing bracelet of the Milky Way and the Southern Cross and a host of other alien stellar arrangements, I used to brood wistfully beneath my army regulation mosquito net in which I was bitten regularly by regulation mosquitoes, not only of meteorologically-turbulent nights in Edinburgh, of stern, Calvinistic vertical winds and the rectitudinous face-slap of horizontal rain but also of chips that passed in the night.

I saw them, as if in a desert mirage, fried in golden glory, cosy in small bags with serrated edges, or visualised under the protective wrapping of brown paper or, more often, a newspaper page. The last were usually accompanied by fish, battered and browned to a state of succulence and, when spiced with sauce and vinegar, producing nourishing food for mortals or provender fit for heroic gods at the tables of Valhalla who were not too worried about getting their arteries clogged with cholesterol.

Ah, the old chip shops of Scotland, when will we see their like again? Many are still around - according to the Sea Fish Industry Authority, there are more than 8,600 fish-and-chip shops in Britain, selling 245 million suppers a year - but a growing number have metamorphosed into restaurants while others, who still cling to the austere purity of the original concept, have introduced curry carry-outs and other exotic elements that I, as a chip shop fundamentalist, regret.

In fairness to today’s more enterprising operators, there were, even in the chippies of my youth, distinct diversions from the true, gastronomic paths. There were the cognoscenti who favoured the pudding (black or white) with chips, unswerving adherents to pie suppers and there were some shrewd-looking haggis supper loyalists who would buy nothing else.

It was often in these Edinburgh weather-beaten nights, when the wind keened a threnody among the chimney tops, that children, playing under the shivering, blue, northern constellations in the sodden streets, would occasionally break off, if someone had spare pocket money, to comfort themselves with a pennyworth of chips from the nearest provider.

There, joining the mainly working-class clientele, although middle-class customers were often apparent, we stood among cloth-capped males, furtively smoking Wills Wild Woodbines, young housewives and bonneted, beshawled beldames, all eager to get at the stuff that made Britain chipper and was as spinach to wilting Popeye.

We would see the hardworking Italian owner, probably helped by his wife and maybe a young chip off the old bloke, frying their wares for the ever-open maw of Scotland with the strength and alacrity of stokers shovelling coal into the vast boilers of old transatlantic liners. The debt that Scotland - no, all Britain - owes to chip shop-owning and ice-cream-café Italians and their descendants in producing a much-needed feel-good factor in society is incalculable.

Now, Scotland’s chip shop story - a sizzling, saucy and, when it comes to the crunch, vinegar-astringent tale of success, from humble haddock and chips, wrapped in yesterday’s front-page news to many-tabled fried food emporiums - is being written by none other than Trainspotting author, Irvine Welsh, well-known for dishing-up hard-boiled, four-letter adjectival offerings. In a newspaper report, he says of the chippies: "There are so many that have shut down or changed into upmarket restaurants, but they are still very much a part of our cultural life ..."

Welsh, who appeared recently at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is writing the book as a joint project with David McInytre, a Scottish photographer.

In this increasingly adiposal and cholesterol-rich nation, Scotland tops the unhealthiest-diet list; nevertheless, I suspect that Mr Welsh’s book will go down a treat.

Fish and chips and their ancillaries may not, in excess, do the arteries any good, but they are part of the gustatory gaiety of life: long may they sell.

I hope, one day, to see a monument commemorating the first chip shop to be opened - in Oldham in 1866 - and a pipe tune, composed to keep the old flag frying, entitled The Mist-covered Chip Shops of Home.


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