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

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.