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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In an age where history is neatly divided, two new books take a longer view

The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley and Human Race by Ian Mortimer have, to put it gently, an abundance of ambition.

Historians often take evasive action when confronted by well-meaning members of the public who believe that if you call yourself a historian you must know about the bit of the past they are interested in – if not all of it, at least some of it. But most academic history is now sliced and diced in ways that limit the scope of what can be reasonably researched, taught and learned. So you can, if you choose, leave most universities as a history student without having any idea at all about the medieval world or what happened, ever, on most continents.

Here, however, we have two studies of the past (and present and future, too) setting inhibition aside and aiming rather wider, with grandiloquent titles that suggest, to put it gently, an abundance of ambition.

Matt Ridley, the Times columnist and author of bestselling books on science, ranges across the planet, and from the beginning of time, throwing off ideas about every
conceivable discipline: biology and genetics as you would expect, but also morality, economics, philosophy, culture, technology and more. Ian Mortimer is almost timid by comparison. His focus is on the West and for a mere thousand years. Whereas Ridley sets out to explain everything, Mortimer’s task is only to judge which century out of the past ten brought the most change.

Ridley’s book is much the more readable, provocative and infuriating. He wants us to understand that Darwin’s theory of natural selection applies to all human activity. The world, in every particular, changes because of endless trial and error and innumerable small steps: it is self-organising. Nobody is in charge and nobody is responsible – certainly not God (there isn’t one), nor kings, popes,
politicians and officials. He deplores our need for “skyhooks” (a phrase he attributes to the philosopher Daniel Dennett): the notion that somebody or something is responsible for designing and planning outcomes. For instance, nobody is in charge of English or invented it, but it has rules that make sense, and can develop without a management structure ordaining changes.

Obviously, Ridley knows that many other writers have attacked the notion that individuals have a significant role in changing the course of the world. And he is not the first to suggest we are too keen to dramatise change – rather than giving credit to “cumulative complexity” or the recombination of existing ideas: the multiple and widely dispersed actions that lead to, say, the invention of a pencil. He draws a number of challenging conclusions. We should be sceptical about awarding Nobel Prizes or patents; no single person should claim intellectual property rights for what are collective, “bottom-up” achievements.

Ridley’s relegation of individual agency in history does not stop him from telling us about his heroes, some predictable – Darwin, Mendel, Hume, Locke – and some not. His favourite is Lucretius, the 1st-century BC Roman philosopher and poet whom he loves for his eclecticism, hatred of superstition, love of pleasure and view of nature, “ceaselessly experimenting”.

When Ridley is on his central territory (physics, animal behaviour, Darwin’s science, genomes and the like) he is very interesting. Here he considers the relationship between genes and culture: “It is wrong to assume that complex cognition is what makes human beings uniquely capable of cumulative cultural evolution. Rather it is the other way around. Cultural evolution drove the changes in cognition that are embedded in our genes.” The relationship between culture and biology is contested but he argues his corner – that biology can and does respond to culture – with much erudition. Yet in his pursuit of an overarching evolutionary theory for every activity there are arguments and whole chapters that lurch out of control. Ridley the clever scientist becomes Ridley the political champion of a very much smaller state, Ridley the cheery optimist  about anthropogenic global warming, Ridley the libertarian. He makes a point, takes out an ideological hammer and smashes his own argument to pieces.

So, summarising Steven Pinker’s theories in The Better Angels of Our Nature about the long-term decline of violence, he asks us to see capitalism as the crucial beneficial cause of tranquillity. Ridley asserts that the ten most prosperous countries in the world are all firmly capitalist and the ten least clearly not. This is a glib assertion of cause and effect and somehow overlooks the United States, the most obvious emblem for capitalism, with its extraordinary gun culture and homicide rate. The US does not feature in either list but he does not appear to notice.

He dislikes state provision of most things, and chooses to contrast the fall in the price of clothes and food over the past fifty years with the big rise in state expenditure on health and education – which leads to a hopelessly airy summary of the state’s performance: “The quality of both [health and education] is the subject of frequent lament and complaint. Costs keep going up, quality not so much, and innovation is sluggish.” We read nothing here about, say, the rise in life expectancy; but by this point Ridley is in full-on polemical mode. He notes North Korea’s dismal productivity, frequent shortages, scandalous lapses in quality, rationing by queue and by privilege, and continues: “These are exactly the features that have
dominated Britain’s health-care debate over the past few years.” This is no longer interestingly mischievous, but silly and shrill.

Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock in 2007 when it went belly-up. The only problem, apparently, was too much pressure from the US government to lend to inappropriate borrowers. He is not the first to assert that; yet the passage reeks of complacency and self-interest. He is a fan of Bitcoin, or at least of breaking the state’s monopoly of printing money. The iconoclasm, though fun at times, becomes exhausting.

Mortimer’s approach is largely more conservative. He goes through each of his ten centuries and gives compressed accounts of the main events: the 14th-century Black Death (“by far the most traumatic event that humanity has ever experienced”), the 16th-century Scientific Revolution, the 17th-century wars of religion, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and much else. He also explores some rich themes, particularly the importance of population growth, climate change, transport, food production and literacy. He makes a spirited attempt at the end of each chapter to choose someone he labels “the principal agent of change”, an approach that Ridley would deplore. Winners of this accolade are two popes, an English monarch, three philosophers, a religious revolutionary, a scientist, an explorer and Hitler. It’s harmless fun.

After a largely conventional, chronological account, he ends up using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to decide which century brought the biggest transformation of human experience in the West. The question is more a parlour game than an academic historical conundrum.

Both Ridley and Mortimer end with “the future”. They point in different directions; Ridley is sunnily optimistic (everything not only evolves but in a vaguely progressive way, too) and Mortimer gloomy, worrying about our fuel reserves and a consequent decline of individual freedom. Like most futurology, though, there is not much rigour in these books, so don’t take it seriously.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror