Will Self: A lesson for George Osborne in buying austerity burgers

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Standing in the sub-post-officecum- convenience-store on the Wandsworth Road, I stared down into the Stygian depths of one of its freezer cabinets. Down there might be, for all I knew, the cryogenically-preserved remains of Walt Disney – it looked capacious enough. What there were on the upper layers of the ice cap were ready meals of bamboozling cheapness: a “steaklet meal”, comprising meat, chips, beans and onion gravy for £1.69; a Birds Eye chicken burger for 32p (£1.28 for a pack of four). What to choose?

I was minded, this week, to celebrate cheapness, given the recent furore concerning the Chancellor’s pricy gourmet burger. Let me apply a refreshingly hot and lemonscented hand towel to your forgetful forehead: Boy George – for it was he – invited Fleet Street’s finest snappers in to portray him chowing down on a blokeish burger as a prelude to delivering his swingeing budgetary cuts. You can readily grasp the (un)reasoning: when the proles see me eating their kind of food, they won’t feel quite so bad about having to visit those perfectly nice food banks. Unfortunately for Boyo, other sleuths of the Fourth Estate soon tracked down the origin of the burger: a branch of Byron some miles off (see Real Meals passim for a dissection of this bling ring of a chain), and compared its hefty price tag with the way more economical – geddit – patties closer to hand.

So it was that my gaze alighted on the “2 Flame Grilled Cheese Burgers” produced under the Yankee branding by Glendale Foods of Salford. These burgers weighed in at £1.49 for the pair – comparatively pricy, when you can get a hamburger at McDonald’s for £1.10. Still, nobody but an Old Pauline would sneer at a 74.5p burger, so I tossed the dosh and headed home to the microwave.

Food and solecisms go hand in oven glove when it comes to British politicians; one recalls Peter Mandelson’s guacamole-formushy peas incident, and the “plot” hatched by Blair and Brown over polenta at Granita in Islington – a divvying up of the bill that resulted, over the subsequent decade-and-ahalf in an expansion of the fuck-you-mine’sa- focaccia class, and closely correlated rise in obesity among social class four. With Labour politicians the gaffes usually consist in their turning out to be just as echt bourgeois as those they face across the fruit and veg aisle of the Commons; while for Tories the problems usually come when they try and put on proletarian airs – remember Billy Hague’s disastrous baseball cap/theme-park outing? No amount of vapid pronouncing on international affairs will ever rid him of its peaked shadow on his shiny pate.

At home I assembled a top panel of burger tasters (my two younger sons), and set about irradiating the Yankees – and it was only then that I realised it was the Fourth of July! How suitable, I thought, to be eating a confection of beef; beef fat; water; rusk; seasoning – comprising: barley flour, salt, dextrose, diphosphates, preservative, sodium metabisulphite, flavouring and pepper extract; soya protein isolate, onions and more salt (there’s a whopping 1.9g per portion), on this, the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence. But these were only the ingredients of the beef burger! If I were to itemise all the care and chemicals that went into the bun, cheese and relish we’d still be here come the 238th anniversary – unless one or both of us had been taken out by a Predator drone in the meantime.

Anyway, I warmed to the micro-waved cheese burger, but my boys recoiled violently. The older one cried out, No! when I placed one before him, then fled the kitchen. The younger tarried, gawping, then took to his heels as well. It was left to me to bite down on the Yankee with all my republican fervour. True, the bun, cheese and relish were grim – but no grimmer than most burgers. It was with the meat that the Yankee distinguished itself. The box warned of possible remaining fragments of bone – if only! Anything to give this drek some texture would’ve been a blessing – as it was, the “beef” had the consistency of . . . well . . . the consistency I imagine George Osborne’s cheeks would have; if you were to slice them from his self-satisfied face – or arse – and prepare them in the same way.

Which brings me, fairly neatly, to the moral of this week’s column: so long as you aren’t vaguely bovine and wandering around in fields linked to the Glendale Foods supply chain, you can save your face, or your arse – but never both, George, never both.

Digging for gold: a mother and child choose meat from a supermarket freezer in 1950. Photograph: Getty Images/Hulton Archive.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage