‘Alexanders the Great’, by Meg Rosoff

Posted on 27/04/2020

How We Live Now is a series of pieces about these uncertain times, in the spirit of what the Guardian recently called ‘thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of life under altered circumstances’. Lucy Mangan was referring to Meg Rosoff’s classic novel How I Live Now, the inspiration for our title.

‘Alexanders the Great’, by Meg Rosoff

We are fighting a common enemy, flattening the curve. We are practicing annihilation. Hours pass and we toil as one. In pursuit we are tireless, exhaustive, dedicated, indomitable, discouraged, yes, but tomorrow we shall rise again against the common foe.

The enemy is all around. It is tall and green and grows like a weed.

In our lockdown village by the sea, Alexanders, alias Horse Parsley, alias Smyrnium Olusatrum, has taken root.

At first, I was unimpressed.

‘You’ll never get rid of it,’ I said, pointing to miles and miles of the stuff, verges thick with it, whole fields dense with the two-meter-high thug. ‘It’s here and it’s here to stay.’

My fellow citizens looked abashed, and murmured, ‘Everyone must pull together….’

And returned to hauling out roots the size of a man’s arm.

Not I, thought I. I am no fool. On no fool’s errand.

And yet.

How can I describe the erotic craic of cutting through those enormous hollow stems? Crunchy and wet and succulent, suck-you-lent.

There is no word in the English language for the sound, like the snapping of celery played through a football PA, like munching on rhubarb with volume turned to twelve.

Occasionally you can tug and tug and the entire plant lifts free of the ground with the glorious slow-motion ripping sound of Velcro.

Chopping it to the ground makes not the slightest difference. Within hours it has grown again, flowering happily, relentlessly. The dogs wonder why I’m lagging behind (‘just another few to cut,’ I call, and they look at me as if I’m mad).

I am mad.

I saw a man pulling over to the verge in his 4×4 to pass a futile hour with a scythe. I badly wanted to join him.

Obsession comes in many forms. In this village (the one in which someone spray painted ‘foreigners out’ on road signs the day after the Brexit vote) we are united against the interloper, the non-native, the enemy. No one dares ask to be reminded why we are so determined; most of us have already forgotten why we hate it. Something about it taking over.

We are fighting a terrible invasion. And besides, it’s good exercise.

‘It’s pretty,’ claims my husband and I wonder how he came to be so wrong.

I explain to the man from Natural England what a good job we’re doing. He looks at me and sighs.

‘Alexanders has been here since the Romans introduced it for food,’ he tells me. ‘Two thousand years ago, give or take. Every part of it is delicious. The new shoots can be picked through spring, steamed or baked they taste light and spicy, like asparagus or myrrh. The flowers and buds can be cooked like broccoli or in a light batter. The seeds can be dried and ground like black pepper. The leaves can be collected any time of year and used in salads. The roots can be scrubbed, peeled, sliced and roasted like parsnip.’

He pauses and waits for this to register.

I think about supply chains, the whole field of cauliflowers nearby that no one’s bothered to pick. What does lockdown mean for food?

Should we be eating Alexanders?

He drives away.

The next day I wake up thinking about Alexanders. Here is what I think:

  1. A good enemy is a rare gift. It engages the mind like nothing else.
  2. Someday we’ll all be dead and the Alexanders will continue to thrive.
  3. And as we’re eradicating foreigners, perhaps I’d better go too.

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Meg Rosoff is a multi-award winning author. Her new novel, The Great Godden, is out in July and available for pre-order now.

You can read others in our response-to-crisis series – from novelists to historians, from pictures to poetry – at the How We Live Now main page.

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