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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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