Life in the Freezer Cabinet: The strange tale of Iceland food

The cheap food store doesn't care for PR, and prides itself on transforming communities, one Bubble Bobble Prawn at a time.

Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet

I’m a little obsessed with Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet (Tuesdays, 9pm). For a start there’s its title, which is moderately weird, given that there is no life at all in a freezer cabinet – such places being home only to frozen peas, fish fingers and, in the case of Iceland, a selection of slightly bizarre finger foods (to which I’ll return, with some gusto, shortly).

Of course, when they say “life”, what they really mean is the company’s management. To be more specific, they mean Malcolm Walker, its grinning, gurning and goofylooking boss. Some commentators have likened Walker, a plain-speaking fellow who could not cross an open field without stepping in at least one cowpat, to Gerald “total crap” Ratner. This is unfair. Walker has a galumphing charm and a manic kindness one sees only rarely in the rich and successful. He also still seems to grasp how most British people live, despite his own wealth. If I were a politican, Labour or Tory, I would have him on speed dial, and run every policy past him as a matter of course.

Walker started Iceland in 1970 in Shropshire, with a couple of freezers and £30. Today, it has some 790 stores and annual sales of £2.6bn. However, it’s quite an odd business. Its cheapness I don’t disdain, given the economic circumstances in which many families, if not most, now find themselves. Nor do I turn my nose up at its employment practices: the company has a reputation for being a happy place to work and Walker, an inordinately benign boss, regularly treats his staff to various morale-boosting shindigs.

Some of its products, though, are strikingly strange, at least to me. It has this thing for combining dishes and flavours. The Chicken Tikka Lasagne. The Italian Stonebaked Breakfast Pizza. Party Fish, Chip and Mushy Pea Stacks. Baked Bean Baguettes. And – drum roll please and do pour the Asti – Bubble Bobble King Prawns. This, by the way, is basically a prawn that has been rolled in Rice Krispies and then deep-fried. Bit of tongue-twister to say but they are allegedly really fabulous with a chilli dipping sauce.

Such products are trialled at Iceland HQ in Deeside, Flintshire, where there is a test kitchen, complete with resident home economists, and a fully kitted out Iceland store. Walker buzzes happily between the two, taking a hearty bite of Bubble Bobble King Prawns in the kitchen before heading to the shop to try out his latest wheeze: a one-sizefits- all label for wine (it will read either “Good Red Wine” or “Good White Wine”).

Walker is the only person in Britain who feels nostalgic for the days when Kerry Katona was the face of Iceland, and is wary of the metropolitan ad agencies who would like to be ironic about Iceland. “They’re always the same,” he opines, “in their sharp suits, and then one in a denim shirt and maybe a ponytail, who’s the art director.” And fair enough, he’s hardly wrong. It was embarrassing watching an agency called Karmarama make their pathetic pitch, which was nine parts bullshit to one part sneer. Publicity doesn’t interest him either, which is just as well, given that his head of PR is a 59-year-old cynic with a sign that reads “Public Relations Centre of Mediocrity” on his office door.

The only acronym Malcolm ever uses is JFDI, which stands for “Just Fucking Do It”. The only upmarket ranges his store carries – we’re talking frozen risotto – come with the moniker “Posh Grub”, which seems a lot more honest to me than Tesco’s “Finest” and Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” ranges.

I found all these details fascinating and funny. But beyond the comedy, this series has blazed with real pathos and insight. A new store in Treorchy in the Welsh valleys brought valuable jobs to the town, and it was heartbreaking both to see how woefully illequipped for work some applicants were – and how desperate.

A hard-up local couple took advantage of Iceland’s arrival by using it to cater for their wedding, the bride merrily lining up rockhard chicken drumsticks in rows on an oven tray, her nails long and gleaming, her hair already in an up-do. This “totally lush” buffet cost them just £1.75 a head and it went down a storm with their guests, their smiles and sticky fingers revealing more of 21st-century Britain than any number of earnest and slyly knowing Newsnight reports.

Frozen Britain: an Iceland lorry on the road. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Dead cats and Ikea cabinets: Peter Wilby on Dan Hodges's One Minute to Ten

It is done. All done. The book. Written by him. Dan Hodges. Here is the review.

It is done. All done. The book. Written by him. Dan Hodges. About the 2015 election. Published by an established firm, founded in 1935. As an imprint of Gollancz. A left-wing publisher. Which is good. Or is it? He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB union, Ken Livingstone. The left is in his genes, his blood; it was in his mother’s breast milk. Glenda Jackson – or “Mum”, as he calls her – denounced Margaret Thatcher in the Commons the week she died. Thatcher, that is. She’s dead. Not his mum, the brickie’s daughter from Birkenhead who became an award-winning actress and Labour MP. She’s alive. But now he writes for the Telegraph and Spectator. He voted for Boris Johnson in 2012. And for the Lib Dems in 2014. He left Labour in 2013. He rejoined it in July 2015. He doesn’t know if he’s Labour or not. But he loves Tony Blair. Not Ed Miliband and certainly not Jeremy Corbyn.

The publisher? It is now owned by Penguin and publishes good books. It has published his book. So the book must be good. The book written by him. The son of a brickie’s daughter. But, of course, he knows that isn’t true. A book isn’t good just because the publisher is good. There have to be other things good about it.

Books have been written about elections before, usually with dreary titles such as The British General Election of 2010. They tell of what happened. Why people voted the way they did. When the party leaders became MPs. They are old-fashioned books, with facts, events in chronological order, sourced quotations. They have indexes, footnotes, un-split infinitives, sentences containing verbs. Fusty, backward-looking things.

Hodges’s is a modern, radical, cutting-edge book. Written the 21st-century way. Just. Like. This. He doesn’t tell people what the party leaders said or did. He gets inside their heads. Says what they feel. Reveals their innermost hopes and fears. Reports intimate conversations with their loved ones. Even though he can’t know what happens inside their heads. Or hear them talking to their mothers, wives, brothers.

He has some good stories, though, some really funny. Which he got from Those People Who Spoke to Him, some of whom were in the Salon That Was No Longer a Salon, which those fusty old books would call Ed Miliband’s advisers. Or they were in the League of Extraordinary Advisers, which the fusty ones would boringly call David Cameron’s advisers.

The sources are unnamed but the stories are good. How Cameron, who vowed to keep his family out of the limelight, sort of agrees to a ten-page Mail on Sunday magazine interview with Samantha. Then sort of persuades Samantha to sort of agree. And how Nick Clegg helps Cameron assemble an Ikea cabinet for his (Cameron’s) daughter’s bedroom. And how Labour’s five pledges become 3,250 pledges. And how Nick Clegg comes to be photographed stroking a hedgehog.

And how Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ Australian spin doctor, plans that Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, will commit a “gaffe”, accusing Ed Miliband of stabbing the UK in the back as he stabbed his brother in the back. The “gaffe” diverts attention from Labour’s popular proposal to strip non-doms of tax exemptions. Get people talking about something else, that’s the idea. It’s a dead cat, as in: “Look, everybody! There’s a dead cat!” And when they see a dead cat, people won’t talk about anything else. He can explain all that over ten pages because dead cats are funny. Better still, Lynton’s funny because he’s a Big Dog.

He has psychological insights, too. About how political leadership strips away a man’s personality until he doesn’t know who he is any more. How Ed stabbed David in the back because they grew up in such a political household and stabbing everybody in the back is what politics is about. How Marion, their mum, understands that.

And he has a clock. A clock that ticks on at the end of each chapter. To the election exit poll. He, the Labour man who may not be Labour any more, the son of a brickie’s daughter, can make readers laugh, tug at their heartstrings, ramp up the tension, tell the time. He knows about politics and can expose its cogs and wheels. As the dust jacket says, it’s the inside story. He’s done it. He looks back and asks: “Was it worth it?” And the readers, if they get through more than 380 pages of this, must answer.

Dan Hodges will be discussing “The Personality of Power” with Anthony Seldon and Owen Bennett at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November. Visit:

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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