Who owns your story?: Toast by Nigel Slater

Title: Toast
Author: Nigel Slater
Year published: 2003
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Autobiography
Should you read this? Maybe…

Toast is Nigel Slater’s autobiography, but not in the traditional sense. Dates are omitted, and instead we are offered episodic chunks Nigel’s life up to his mid-teenage years, often (though, annoyingly, not always) connected with a specific food, ingredient or dish.

I have conflicting feelings about Toast; I enjoyed it, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you why, given that most of the comments I have about it are negative. Over the next 500 words, however, I’m not going to talk about the book’s content so much as the questions it raised; if nothing else, Toast really got me thinking.

My biggest conundrum is ownership of a story. In her book Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” On one hand, I agree; in your autobiography, surely you are entitled to write about your experience in any way you choose. The problem with Lamott’s quote, though, and with Toast, is that it puts all the onus on other people. What if you’re a little shit, as it seems Nigel was? In the book, he does not write kindly of – well, anyone, really – but especially not of his father and stepmother; the BBC adaptation of the book brought criticism from Nigel’s stepsisters, one commenting that “I really cannot believe that I pay my licence fee only to have them portray my dear mother as a tart.”

Should Nigel have written caveats into his story, footnoting that ‘memories can be flawed and unreliable’ or ‘I wasn’t exactly sweetness and light myself’ or ‘I could have perhaps misinterpreted their tone/motivation’, or do those footnotes go without saying, given that we are reading an autobiography and therefore a book one-sided by its very nature? What obliges Nigel to be balanced?

Nothing, I would argue, except perhaps the fact that he has a voice and none of the other characters do, even though they are (or were) just as much real people as Nigel. Throw into the mix that his father and stepmother are dead – does that make the issue more or less clear? They aren’t around to see what was written about them, so surely it doesn’t matter – then again, they aren’t able to respond and so will be remembered by readers of the book as Nigel represents them; as arseholes. Then again, if they were still alive, it’s doubtful that they would have anything like the platform, readership or followers that Nigel does, so it’s very unlikely that their sides of the story would be heard in the same way.

Then again, isn’t that the nature of fame? Not everyone can be famous. We can’t keep up with everyone’s lives, read everyone’s autobiography and a slew of retaliation articles. We only want to read Nigel’s book because he is a person of note – and his dad and stepmum aren’t; even if they somehow had written their own versions that were as successful as Toast – would I care? Would I want to read the book or watch the play? Probably not.

I can’t decide where I stand on this issue exactly, and would love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, here is a photo of some Toast-themed snacks that I made/bought for book club this week, à la my mum in the 90s.

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Yes that is a cheese and pineapple hedgehog, don’t get too jealous.
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