Jay Rayner on dealing with death and smoking dope

The food critic looks back on his teenage years, including the 'absolutely shocking' death of his best friend and what being caught smoking dope taught him

Food writer Jay Rayner was just 16 when his closet friend was killed — but what happened in the aftermath has stayed with him for life.

Now 53, the star described how the accidental death of his friend David was “a terrible loss” as he spoke to The Big Issue for our weekly Letter to my Younger Self feature.

Recalling the sad day in the Eighties, Rayner told Jane Graham: “They went on a mountaineering trip to Snowdonia and I was woken on the Saturday morning by my mum knocking on the door saying there’s been an accident involving kids from David’s school.

“She went to call the emergency number, and they told her David had been killed, and she told me. I burst into tears. It was absolutely shocking.”

The Observer columnist went on to reveal how his friend’s Jewish funeral – and the subsequent grieving process — had impacts for the rest of his life.

“Many religions have a tradition of picking up a handful of earth and throwing it on the coffin,” he said. “But the Jewish tradition is that the men pick up the shovel and they bury the coffin themselves. It’s proper work.

“I’d never done it before and I found myself being pushed to the front to do it. And it was shocking, helping to bury my friend.”

He adds that “one very positive thing” happened afterwards.

“David was Jewish and there’s a thing called Shiva [a week-long mourning period following a death] when [family and close friends] gather for prayers. I went every night and I came to understand the importance of it.

“A bunch of his friends from school came to me and said, we know who you are, we know you were a very close friend, and you’re our friend now. I’m actually getting emotional just thinking about it. It was just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

He continued: “They immediately started phoning me and inviting me to parties. They just looked after me. And some of those boys and girls became my oldest friends.”

Meanwhile, Rayner also reflected on how being thrown out of school for smoking dope taught him a valuable life lesson.

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“I started smoking dope when I was about 13 or 14 – I was an early starter,” he confessed.

“I was invited to an all-night party after a school play and a group of us got stoned. The next day somebody grassed us all up to the school, and a massive inquest started.”

He continued: “I attempted to fib my way out of it but eventually I crumbled under interrogation. And because the rest of them had ’fessed up very quickly but I’d held out for a couple of weeks, I was thrown out of school from early May and told they would decide later whether I would ever return. I felt very hard done by.”

Reflecting on what the experience taught him, Rayner mused: “One piece of advice I would give my younger self now would be, don’t crumble. Hold out. They could never have proved it.”

In the interview, Rayner also discusses his changing weight, family life with his famous mum, journalist and TV agony aunt Claire Rayner, and how food “feeds into every element of life” — from emotion and memory to sex and politics.

You can read the full interview in this week’s edition of The Big Issue, available as a digital download in our app or from The Big Issue Shop.

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