“Eat! Recipes from a Model Chef”, The Times magazine tells us. The pages of colour supplements and newspapers’ weekend magazines are dotted with sections, pull-outs and articles about food. The photographs are exquisite still lifes, the food cleverly arranged, too perfect to be true. You can stare in wonder at Harissa Chicken legs with Quinoa and Avocado or Sesame Beef, Kimchi and Cabbage Salad. A certain sort of restaurant – and not just in London - tries to have at least one word in each item on the menu you’ve never heard of before. I do know what Kimchi is as I suffered from culture shock in South Korea after being served raw octopus and kimchi, fermented greenery, while eating sitting on the floor in mild discomfort. It may not be long before Harissa and Quinoa become children’s names.
The first time I ever marshalled an analytical thought about food, rather than just feeling hungry, was in Malawi in the late 1960s. We were eating institutional cooking. Every day much the same: nsima, maize porridge, with ndiwo, some vegetables and some meat added if you were lucky. It was a nutritious but monotonous diet. With our pampered European tastes we lost weight. For the vast majority of the population of Malawi food was what you needed - and often did not have so you went hungry. In rural areas the idea of being vegetarian was greeted with laughter or irritation. Meat was a huge treat. A child who liked meat too much was a naughty child. I’ve never seen beautiful photographs of nsima and ndiwo, though you never know. Nsima, maize, chimanga, milled and cooked, and Ndiwo are fresh food locally grown. But I don’t think anyone is going to photograph them for a colour magazine.
Our own food world, the celebration of food as a perfect object, is a staggering contrast to those of most people alive today. Media-led, it is an indicator of class differences and status, as well as a feature of the profound divisions in our own society. As we gaze at luscious pictures of food we stand as successors to the people who gazed in awe at the vast, staged banquets of the Tudor court and aristocracy. And even the context is comparable: hunger, or as we prefer, ‘food insecurity’ for the over a million people in Britain who now need to visit food banks.
The celebrity chefs on television seem a long way from the reality of messy kitchens, washing up waiting to be done, and tired women coming home to “what’s for tea?” from hungry children. Yes, celebrity chefs purport to be all about helping people to cook good food and eat a balanced diet. Some, like Delia, do just that. But the problem is that most of the ingredients in food featured in newspapers cost more than junk food. And, like betting shops you are much more likely to find a McDonalds in a poor area of town than a rich one.
We really do need to absorb the scale of hunger in Britain. The Trussel Trust, which in the UK is the main provider of free food, runs 1,200 food banks and has 40,000 volunteers. Between April and September 2018 they gave out 658,000 emergency food parcels. A third of this went to feeding children. This was a 13% increase on the previous year. Tins of soup, baked beans and packets of cereal aren’t very photogenic however neatly you arrange them. Nor do you find Tory MPs wanting to be photographed visiting food banks.
We also need to absorb the fact that Trussel Trust’s clients are the working poor; they have jobs. Insecure jobs which don’t pay a living wage. And we need to correct the idea that anyone can apply. To be eligible people must receive food bank vouchers from social services, teachers and doctors. Add to these figures the other organisations, religious and secular, that regularly provide free cooked meals to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Universal Credit has now been universally credited with causing much of this assault on human dignity. It took years of voluntary action and evidence before anyone in the Conservative Party seemed to recognise that the problems created by Universal Credit, the proximate cause of much of the domestic distress, must be addressed. Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, at last seems to recognise this inconvenient fact.
As with the plight of asylum seekers, and the Windrush generation, callous indifference prevailed. Government not volunteers should be making sure citizens get enough to eat. Meanwhile, perhaps the Great Celebrity Bake-Off on forthcoming Tuesday evenings should promote the Trussel Trust’s End Hunger Campaign.
People with food bank vouchers will not be eating the recipes of a ‘model chef’. Nor will they be choosing what they eat as a ‘life-style choice’. And if and when they catch a glimpse of professional food photography in the colour supplements, they must wonder what kind of society they are living in.
See https://www.thearticle.com/glossy-photos-of-quinoa-strike-the-wrong-note-thousands-in-britain-are-going-hungry 24/03/2019
Almost three years after the Referendum there is no mystery about the Prime Minister’s goals. First she aims to keep her Party together, and second she aims to achieve a satisfactory exit from the European Union honouring the 2016 Referendum result. The second aim is impossible because of the first.
Drawing clear red lines at the beginning of the negotiations and sticking to them was Theresa May’s way of keeping the European Research Group (ERG) and other Brexiteers on board. This early decision and subsequent intransigence vitiated any possibility of a satisfactory agreement which a majority in Parliament might approve. She had no intention of allowing a meaningful vote until recently. And it was forced on her. After her abysmal performance in the June 2017 General Election that she had called, the Prime Minister was reduced to dependence on the DUP, and became trapped by the Irish issue and the ‘backstop’, an impediment of her own making. The way forward was blocked.
Theresa May has now been caught between the EU’s principled positions, and, latterly, their practical and legal difficulties over the May EU elections, on one hand, and the DUP + ERG + other Brexiteer lobby on the other. And she has repeatedly been forced to eat her own words, going back on entrenched positions. As a result her authority has declined to vanishing point. The Prime Minister’s early statement that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ has come back to haunt her, and us. Her negotiating partners, the EU Commission and the 26 EU states, reacting to this abject performance, have been reduced to incredulity. Britain has lost its reputation for sound governance. It has become, at best, an object of pity around the world, at worst a laughing stock.
The Brexiteers endlessly repeat that they are merely carrying out the democratic will of the British people, and this is echoed by a captive Prime Minister. It is a simple powerful argument. Though the claim to know exactly what Leave voters want, and wanted, is more than implausible. At an emotional level Leave for many may have meant a protest against the state of the nation.
The counter argument is not so simple: the referendum was deeply flawed by lies, fake-news and manipulation of social media and, possibly, secret foreign involvement. BREXIT was not the will of 48% of the British people who voted, and they have been ignored for three years. The argument essentially pits democracy and social stability against the probability of severe economic damage, and other grave negative impacts.
We now have much more knowledge of what is at stake in following different options. The Brexiteers’ emphasis on democracy makes the government refusal to countenance a people’s vote, which affords the democratic recognition that the British people have the right to choose from the different options now available, all the more telling. For it is obvious that those trying to block this democratic choice – and Theresa May is still trying to do so through her short extension request which aims to make it impossible – are fearful that a majority of the British public have understandably changed their mind.
Democracy is on the side of the Remainers. It is not too late to ask for a long extension, notify the Electoral Commission, and to demonstrate that democracy is not about one vote, one time, based on misinformation. The Prime Minister has three weeks in which to reverse her priorities and act in the genuine national interest. She inherited an intractable situation from her predecessor and should be accorded some sympathy. But if she is psychologically incapable of rising to the occasion and charting a new course she should go and give way to someone who can.
The People’s Vote march on Saturday 23 March will provide some indication of how the public is thinking. It also provides Theresa May with the opportunity for a change of heart and a belated act of bold leadership. She should take it.
No-one can complain that the Britain of the Brexiteers is oppressed by the “tyranny of facts”. When it comes to convincing people, Brexiteer emotion wins every time. And when it comes to emotion there is none more insidious than nostalgia for a world that never existed. Back to the imagined past has worked a charm both here and in the USA. You would think we were re-fighting the Second World War not negotiating with fellow Europeans sympathetic to our plight and bemused by a respected nation reduced to ridiculousness.
I have to confess that, as a Londoner, I am much attracted to an imagined bygone world: the sight of cricket on the village green, Anglican ladies cycling to church, noble oaks dotting the landscape, acorns and shiny conkers on the ground. I’ll pass on the warm beer. I have always believed that this world is to be discovered somewhere in between South London’s ever expanding suburbia and the coastal area around the South Downs before the Channel. It all flies by too quickly on Eurostar. Not so when you travel by car to visit West Sussex and Hampshire.
I was with two Wodehouse lovers on a Wodehouse heritage hunt last weekend. If anyone conjures up a delightful world that never was it is P.G. Wodehouse. He gave us Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, the Drones’ Club, Blandings, the Earl of Emswoth, Galahad Threepwood, Gussie Fink-Nottle, together making British ineptitude and fecklessness, mainly of the upper class, something to laugh at, enjoy and relish. David Croft and Jimmy Perry who scripted Dad’s Army also created an imaginary world that we recognize as comforting and distinctly British. The comedy may be more historically situated and with a sharper edge; as Captain Mainwaring likes to say: “There’s a war on you know”. But no-one dies, no homes are destroyed, and the platoon survives for next week’s fun. An imaginary Britain at imaginary war muddling through.
Inventive and imaginative as he was, Wodehouse didn’t go far for some of the names of his characters. Emsworth is a pretty little town just into Hampshire on the edge of one of three fingers that the sea pushes inland along this part of the coast. On another finger of the sea lies Bosham which lent its name to Viscount Bosham, the Earl of Emsworth’s heir. Wodehouse in his twenties lived in one of Emsworth’s prettier suburban roads in a house called Threepwood Cottage. We peered at the frontage with its small, faded blue plaque. The reality was a long way, and a lot different, from the Earl of Emsworth’s literary abode, Blandings Castle, set in Shropshire.
Wodehouse moved to France in 1934 and seems to have been startled out of his imaginary world by the arrival of the Nazis in 1940 who promptly detained him for a year. Whilst in detention he stupidly did some jolly broadcasts for the Nazis. On his release he went into permanent exile in the USA. So any posthumous pride in Emsworth at their great comic writer was diminished. And, of course, following Wodehouse in 1940, the coming reality of the post-BREXIT world will startle many Brexiteers out of their imaginary world and much diminish the influence of its political leadership.
But other opportunities open up for Brexiteer MPs. They could, though, audition for roles in the next televised Wodehouse stories – Jacob Rees-Mogg should try out Jeeves, he’s smooth and confident enough with a solution to every problem -Theresa May might make a scary Aunt Agatha. Forlorn-and-Failing Grayling brings a natural ineptitude to the small screen so perhaps Gussie Fink-Nottle though his relationship to newts is unknown.
Boris Johnson ought not to be given the chance, as he’s already a self-made fiction. To a large section of the public he plays the role of insouciant posh-boy whose antics and scrapes we laugh at, and wonder how on earth he managed to become our Foreign Secretary. Whoops, he’s succeeded in increasing the sentence on an innocent British subject in jail in Iran. And he’s survived it. How does he manage it? It’s the rake’s progress. The fact is the rakes progress quite fast if they can open the door to a comforting imagined world. Boris Johnson’s shambling chauvinism particularly appeals to the Tory grassroots and so he presents a nasty threat. Bertie was always afraid of Spode, the leader of the Black Shorts, and quite right too. Don’t ring us, we’ll ring you.
But back to actual Wodehouseland. I wondered if in the 1920s there were so many pleasant cafes in these, Wodehouse’s, stomping grounds? A cold, howling wind was coming in off the sea and we were grateful to find a warm and snug eating place. The conversation drifted to BREXIT despite our best intentions; like the Earl of Emsworth drawn to his pig you might say.
Britain seems now to be divided into those who think facts are real and that policies should be evidence-based, and those who shoe-horn reality into an emotional dream world based on a fanciful past. They inhabit a world in which BREXIT will return us to an era as imaginary as the one crafted by Wodehouse. As Orwell wrote: “he who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past”.
We asked the friendly waitress if she knew anything about P.G. Wodehouse. “No”, she said. “He doesn’t come in here”.
We may be in the middle of a sea-change in politics but how can you tell? We could be just at the beginning. Or the turbulence could subside and business as usual resume. But this time round it is hard to believe that our two major Parties will emerge from their current divisions unchanged. BREXIT now seems set to drivel on for months and continue to prove a powerful stimulus to division, disarray and permanent change.
So should we declare with China’s first Premier, Zhou En Lai, when asked what he thought about the consequences of the French Revolution - or maybe it was the French student uprising of 1968: “it is too early to say”? Should we just shrug and switch off Channel Four news? That is very tempting but it would be a mistake. Beginning, middle or end of a political epoch, the changes now happening are full both of danger and new possibilities. The appearance of a small Independent breakaway group of MPs has potential. The Independent Group (TIG) is already scoring higher than the Lib-Dems in opinion polls, but it is too early to say if these opinions would convert into actual votes.
TIG as now constituted does not, though, provide a new look by replacing the top down Parties and London-based, middle-class politicians. The appointment of Chuka Ummuna as its spokesman (male, independent fee-paying school, solicitor, Streatham constituency), was probably inevitable given the preponderance of eight former Labour MPs. But it gives a sense of déjà vu, maybe heralding a return to the deadlocked policy clashes that got us into the present impasse. How is such a group to reach consensus on policy?
The Labour Party originated as a bottom-up, working class challenge to a two-Party status quo. TIG’s title “Independent” has echoes of another historical group breakaway, the Independent Labour Party. Founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie, it was a breakaway from the Liberal Party attracting those who saw the Liberals failing to champion the cause of the working class. It flew the Marxist flag.
Here comparisons with Umunna become unfair. Hardie was an exceptional and extraordinary man. The illegitimate son of a farm worker in Lanarkshire with a drunk stepfather, he went down the pit aged eleven for ten cruel years, educated himself through night-school, worked for the Evangelical Union, became a trades unionist, and first entered Parliament in 1892. Joining with Ramsay Macdonald in the mixed Labour Representation Committee, Hardie was a key player in the birth of the Labour Party in 1906. The dynamics and direction of the new Independent Group this year could scarcely have been more different. Perhaps it was the obvious class conflict shaping political life in Edwardian Britain that created heroic figures such as Hardie. They knew what they stood for, where they had come from and what they wanted to achieve and had the integrity and commitment to persevere. The past truly is another country.
Austerity, imposed after banks and financial services nearly bankrupted Britain in 2008, polarized today’s politics - not full-frontal class conflict. Under economic pressures, the two major Parties each gave grew their own distinctive extremist Parties within a Party. The extreme Left of the Labour Party took control of the leadership and major intra-Party infrastructure which dominate both political preferment and policy. The majority of Labour members, Corbyn’s famous grassroots, support REMAIN, and a People’s Vote supported by Conference. But this is not Corbyn’s policy. Labour Members of Parliament have problems with their Leave constituents over BREXIT. The extreme Right in the Tory Party hold the Prime Minister and Cabinet to ransom, threatening to vote against them on BREXIT. UKIP entryism keeps more moderate Tories in line on BREXIT and immigration.
The irony of BREXIT is that, on the whole, the highest percentages voting Leave came from constituencies that would be most damaged economically by no deal or Prime Minister May’s fudge-deal. Their Labour representatives in Parliament are therefore in the uncomfortable position of facing hostile local Party members and constituents if they point out the disastrous consequences for them of approving the forms of BREXIT on offer. Their political careers are on the line. Some MPs from Leave constituencies may genuinely think Leave will lead to pastures green and all will be well, all manner of things shall be well. Others don’t, but wish to hold onto their seats. And some, for example Anna Turley, (Redcar in the North East with 66% Leave, 33% Remain) have the integrity and courage to tell it how it is and risk their political futures.
Both Tory and Labour centrists are fond of asserting that their Party is a ‘Broad Church’, a comforting comparison with the Church of England. They are probably unaware of the time in the early Church when bishops trampled each other underfoot, willing to kill and be killed for their version of doctrine. Better for both Parties to think again about proportional representation and let the two extremes form their own Parties and, unprotected, feel the harsh winds of a traditionally conservative British public opinion. We got our main revolution out of our system in the 17th century, and fought against ideological tyrannies in the 20th. We can surely handle extremists better in their own minority Parties. Other European countries are learning how to.
But first, our politicians need to weather today’s divisions, turbulence and change. What should guide them? Firstly, a firm and unwavering commitment to Justice, creating a just – fair - society as the main purpose for engaging in political life. Secondly prudence, knowing which virtue to deploy in dealing with a complex and painful set of decisions. Thirdly, fortitude, remaining faithful to their values despite the obstacles along the way, and overcoming fear for their own futures. These happen to be the first three Cardinal Virtues. But you don’t need to be a Catholic to think they will be at a premium in the coming weeks.