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
BBC2

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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times