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

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State