Jamie Oliver: the personification of contemporary Britain? Image: Getty
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Will Self: Why I hate Jamie Oliver

What this society needs is a culture that values its eternal soul above its lemon sole and a form of social justice that doesn’t depend on the tit-beating self-righteousness of charity.

Jamie Oliver – like the poor he so adores – seems always to be with us; to be with us and to have been with us always as well, although it’s only 14 years since he first thrust his meat and two veg at us in the television series The Naked Chef. Since then, not a year has passed without some new Oliver production: cookery books, more TV, many Sainsbury’s advertising campaigns, restaurants, delicatessens, food product ranges and latterly a number of campaigns aimed at improving the eating habits of the nation, specifically its children.

Not content simply to gnaw the mound of bread he’s accumulated by giving supermarket endorsements, Oliver has committed himself to spreading the wholesome word: his Fifteen chain of restaurants aims to give a break to young folk who’re broken, by delinquency, addiction and poverty, by inserting them into the food industry as sous-chefs and so vastly improving their life chances.

It’s this combination of shameless avariciousness and a belief in the drizzle-down of oily emolument from the top to the bottom that makes Oliver the personification of contemporary Britain. If Terence Conran plummily taught the middle classes how to be a proper European bourgeoisie in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Oliver is his worthy estuarine successor, taking the permanent foodie revolution on to that portion of the former working class who bought up the public housing stock. Now they can borrow against their equity to buy bruschetta, while the poor saps who didn’t get their plutocratic act together poke Turkey Twizzlers through the school gates to feed their morbidly obese cuckoo kids.

Needless to say, Oliver sticks in my craw and I’d walk a cunty mile to avoid him and all his works. What this society needs is a culture that values its eternal soul above its lemon sole and a form of social justice that doesn’t depend on the tit-beating self-righteousness of charity – with all the patronising bullshit that goes along with this. Still, I don’t expect Oliver to have a Damascene conversion on these matters, not while he’s doing such a lovely jubbly.

Between the liverish columns of the brutalist former bank building at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue in London, a new outpost of Oliver’s army has been established: Jamie Oliver’s Diner. Unlike his delis and his Italian (sic) restaurants, the “pop-up” diner does indeed have a surrealistic, throwntogether feel, like the chance meeting between a hand-held card reader and a PR wonk on a conference-room table.

“I know,” some bright spark must’ve said, “let’s make it a themed western dinosaur burger joint!” And verily, it was so, complete with a triceratops meat chart on the wall and weird glyphs on the ceilings that show cowboys and dinosaurs peacefully cohabiting in the sagebrush. There are hortatory slogans painted along the architrave: “Gorgeous food cooked with love and care”; “No porkies, just free-range meat”; and – most heartening, this – “If it’s not eaten, it’s composted.”

My two velociraptors had standard sevenounce burgers with various bits and pieces, Mrs Tyrannosaurus (who doesn’t usually attend these reviewing meals) went for a chicken burger and I had the Caesar salad. The food was nothing special: Mrs T said her burger tasted “bitter”; the bit of grilled chicken on my salad was just that – a bit about two by three inches and as wafer-thin as Mr Creosote’s mints. The boys were pissed off by the cardboard straws in their Cokes, which were weirdly absorptive. The fries, naturally, came in those dumb little zinc buckets. With “home-made” lemonade for me, a Bacardi and Coke for Mrs T and a tenner tip, the whole schmozzle cost 20 quid more than the weekly Jobseeker’s Allowance.

On the back of the paper menu, together with recipes for cocktails called Cucumber Number and Dark’n’Stormy, there’s a chirpy little missive from Jamie himself, wherein he witters on about “great food values and ethics” and “sustainable and local ingredients”, all of which leads inexorably to “yummy healthy dishes”.

There’s also a sidebar entitled “A word about nutrition”, in which the usual guff about calories and saturated fats takes on the air of a pious homily. Jamie says: “The beauty of being a pop-up is it gives us loads of flexibility to listen to what you guys want, so please let us know.” To which I can only respond: do please pukka off with your millions to Necker Island with Branson and leave us in peace, matey.

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 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood