The only crisp that matters: Quentin Crisp photographed in 1981. Photo: Getty
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Is there anything – and I mean anything – more useless and destructive than an artisan crisp?

Cardamom and fenugreek, garlic and chilli, black pepper and sea salt: just some of the grotesque additives with which these Shropshire smallholders coat their death discs.

If, as Nietzsche assures us, wit is the epitaph of an emotion, what then is the crisp if not the apotheosis of hunger? The crisp promises so much – yet delivers nothing at all. Vladimir Putin disdains the alcohol that transmogrifies his countrymen and women into slobbering, soulful wretches but I’d wager he forgoes crisps as well. When I consider the amount of time I’ve wasted eating crisps – let alone the money I’ve spent on these fried and friable folderols – it occurs to me that, sans crunch, I might easily have gained control of the Russian Federation and turned it into my own personal fiefdom.

With almost any snack food, no matter how grimly artificial, there is still meaningful discrimination to be made. You can look back to a better sausage roll – conceivably even a finer cheese football or Twiglet – but when it comes to the crisp, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” is not a question worth posing. The paradox is this: each and every crisp leaves bag or bowl with a sort of nimbus of individuality surrounding it. “I,” it rustles to you, “am the one and only crisp, the crisp you’ve waited for all your life. Only I can satisfy you and I can do it because of my unique characteristics: I am the most flavoursome! I am the very epitome of crispiness itself!” And despite having been taken in a hundred thousand times or more by such salty nothings, we still bite down expecting things to be different, only for our true love, within a couple of spasms, to become subsumed to the goo constituting its predecessors.

Yes, yes, I know. You protest that you remember the bags of Smith’s or Golden Wonder that, as a child, you were handed through the back door of the pub with great affection. But that’s just it: note the plural. These were bags that you enjoyed, probably bags and bags and bags; for, even more than chewing gum, the crisp is the food that brings us closest to the ruminants and you wouldn’t expect a cow to discourse too meaningfully on the greatest mouthful of grass she ever chewed. I, too, enjoyed those bags of crisps but I recognise now that these were only the flimsy gateways I shouldered my way through into a lifetime of addiction.

Yes, addiction. I don’t use the word lightly in its traditional sense – we’re not addicted to crisps in the way a minor cleric in the Church of England might be addicted to reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. I’m talking about full-blown, vein-clogging, pavement-scouring, down-and-outing pathological addiction – the kind usually associated with crack cocaine or the novels of George R R Martin. The only reason we don’t acknowledge our addiction to crisps to be such is that we have ordered things so our supply can never be interrupted and warped our social conventions so their use (note I don’t say “consumption”) is almost always acceptable. Even in circumstances where to munch would be completely beyond the pale – for example, listening to András Schiff play the Goldberg Variations at Wigmore Hall – you’re still allowed (nay, encouraged) to rush out in the interval and crunch up a storm.

And bite down on this: crisps are incredibly unhealthy. Full of salt and sugar and seemingly designed to inflict dental caries, since the spatula-like forms they assume during their pitifully short half-lives thrust all that salt and sugar up between root and gum. Don’t take my word for it. Ask any cardiologist or dentist: crisps are the enemy. But if everything I’ve said so far isn’t enough to convince you, then here’s the clencher: the artisan crisp. Just as evil drug barons employ chemists to synthesise new and more addictive narcotics to enslave our vulnerable youth, so small potato growers in Shropshire band together, sousing crisps in cider vinegar and sprinkling them with rosemary in order to do the same to our feckless bourgeoisie.

Is there anything – and I mean anything – more useless and destructive than an artisan crisp? At least your common-or-garden crisp is, no matter how pernicious, an established feature in our culinary landscape. But the artisan variety? Cardamom and fenugreek, garlic and chilli, black pepper and sea salt: these are just some of thegrotesque additives these “artisans” coat their death discs with! It almost makes me yearn for the landlocked prawn cocktail flavourings of yore.

Then there are crinkle-cut and skin-on crisps, thick-cut and Kettle – all of which exhibit the same homicidal inclinations, stabbing at cheek and tongue with their tooth-tooled daggers. Last summer, my son and I walked almost the length of England and nearly every pub we came to was serving up some new take on this beastliness. After about a week of it, his poor little mouth almost cut to ribbons by these “snacks”, he was begging me for relief. “No more artisan crisps, Dad,” he moaned. “Please.”

But, poor child, he was ignorant of the psychological horror of crisp addiction, of how it takes only a few minutes for the memory of both crisp hit and devilish crisp comedown to be washed away by God-given saliva. Come the next pub, he would be clamouring for more of the wretched things. I identify: I mean, I am writing an entire column on the subject but once I’ve finished I’m heading straight to the corner shop. I’m feeling a little peckish and there’s a bag of crisps there with my name written on it.

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 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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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