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Will Self: In defence of jam, that gooey ambrosia

Jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news.

“Jam,” my late mother was fond of saying, “is not a food.” This is just one example of what we, as children, viewed as her risible sen­tentiousness; another of her equally weighty pronouncements – and this was in the 1970s – was: “Don’t waste water.” While in the case of the latter Mum has been proved prophetic, not pathetic, when it comes to jam she was, is and forever shall be wrong. Of course jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news. We may be lashed by wind and rain, but so long as the distribution chain remains unbroken and the supermarkets’ relentless price-cutting drive to the bottom of im­miserated Britons’ pockets continues, there seems no reason why we shouldn’t have jam today and jam tomorrow and even retrospectively dollop days gone by with the gooey ambrosia.

I usually start my day with a couple of pieces of toast smeared with jam. I say smeared, but trowelled would be closer to the truth; indeed, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d keep a plasterer’s hawk and trowel to hand in the cutlery drawer so I could apply the stuff more effectively, my aim being to create a sort of table mountain of confiture. Why, I hear you ask (all that sugar can get a man pretty high), don’t you simply dispense with the toast altogether? Well, sometimes I do. Creeping into the kitchen late at night, I’ll go for it armed only with a spoon – but this is shameless and decadent behaviour. Jam is certainly a food in its own right but it’s one of those – like caviar or foie gras – that requires another comestible pretext.

The analogy with these cruel and unsustainable snacks is not lightly made; for is not the widespread access we have to jam as much of a social safety net as the NHS or unemployment benefit? You may think it offensive and patronising, but let me tell you: when I offer the beggars round my way a jar of Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade rather than a couple of quid towards their next can of extra-strength lager, they often weep hot tears of gratitude.

There is in jam such implicit largesse – such natural beneficence – that I find it simply astonishing that anyone should want to keep it to themselves. And yet they do: once upon a time, children, you could go to a tea shop, or plonk yourself down at the breakfast table of a B&B, and presently a small aluminium dish of jam would be plonked down in front of you. Those days are long gone and we’re condemned to live out the balance of our days in a purgatorial scraping of jammy bits from the curved corners of plastic containers.

But I say: what sort of individual could possibly survive on such short commons? Not me – not you, not anyone. Even the dear little upmarket jam pots punted by the likes of Tiptree are still woefully inadequate and I often find myself creeping from table to table in quite august establishments collecting up enough jam to make a glistening fist of it.

Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms by Bono for filching several teensy pots of apricot conserve from the tables occupied by representatives from sub-Saharan African countries. “How,” he inveighed, “can we expect to end world poverty while you’re behaving in this hateful, selfish fashion!”

I gave as good as he did: “Stick to dog food, Bonio,” I told him as I feverishly delved and smeared. “Anyway, what can you possibly know of hardship? It’s probably in your concert riders that you be permanently supplied with a dedicated conserve chef.” He looked a little uncomfortable at this – so I could tell I’d hit the mark.

Still, I wouldn’t leave the toast lying face-down on the floor of the debating chamber and kept on: “Besides, these chaps are all Wabenzi who’re probably skimming the collective jam pot for their own pockets. If you want to do some real good in this world, instead of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful you should load your private jet with Robertson’s finest and deliver it straight to the refugee camps.” They were strong words, but utter nonsense, of course. Food aid is a terrible blight and a corrupting influence and so – as my mother would doubtless have pointed out – is jam aid.

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 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump