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Pot Noodle: Nietzsche’s snack of choice and the food of both man and superman

I know the concept of this column is that I eat the sort of stuff that we all eat and comment on it, but there are limits.

“To get up in the morning, in the fullness of youth, and eat a Pot Noodle – now that’s what I call vicious.” So Nietzsche wrote in 1889, shortly before his complete mental breakdown. Some scholars have attributed the collapse to the philosopher’s aggressive consumption of this instant snack food. He had already condemned the German people – in Ecce Homo, his crazed “memoir” – as bovine consumers of beer and sausages from whom no refinement of thought or feeling could be expected, and his move to Italy had been driven by a love as much of pasta as Palestrina. Still other scholars have pointed out this glaring anachronism: 19th-century gentlemen of Nietzsche’s class would have regarded it as an unforgivable solecism actually to get up in the morning themselves – that’s what you had a manservant for.

Oh, and there’s the Pot Noodle thing – Golden Wonder didn’t actually launch the brand for another 88 years, which means that I for one would still favour the syphilis explanation. However, I agree it is hard to reconcile this with the many references to Pot Noodles throughout Nietzsche’s work, including four stanzas of Thus Spake Zarathustra wholly concerned with pouring the boiling water into the pot. No less an authority than Walter Kaufmann has hypothesised that these references were a “time capsule”, sent by the philosopher to his future readers, so that when the brand was launched in 1977, they’d realise he was right all along about eternal recurrence and the circularity of history.

With Pot Noodle, it’s certainly the case that what goes around, comes around. I mean to say, it has long been regarded as the Millwall FC of comestibles (“No one likes us! No one likes us! No one likes us AND WE DON’T CARE!”), a status confirmed by a 2004 survey, which identified it as the most loathed brand in Britain. Advertising that played ironically to this negative perception, such as the “slag of all snacks” campaign of 2002, hardly achieved what the marketers probably wished for: a fast food so pestilential and bad that it became sort of good and hip. Nevertheless, Thatcher is dead, Tony Blair’s gone grey, and yet Pot Noodle not only remains but 155 million of the pots are manufactured every year in Caerphilly. Walking into my local sub-post office this morning (we 21st-century gentlemen are up with the lark), I saw a file of them standing to my attention on a fusty shelf and in a moment of pure Nietzschean will-to-power I snatched up a Beef & Tomato flavour one, stalked to the till and handed over my £1.09.

“You better watch it,” said the man I choose to regard as my postmaster: “some people say that stuff can lead to fascism.” “What?” I was incredulous: “You mean Pot Noodle?” “No,” he wearied back at me, “Nietzsche’s philosophy.” Back at home I scrutinised the writing on the pot. The slogan on the foil lid read “NO Artificial Colours OR Preservatives” – I started to sweat with anxiety and pathetic ressentiment, but then I saw all my old favourites still listed in the ingredients and sighed with relief; after all, what would a Pot Noodle be without lashings of monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate? After that it was all plain sailing as I followed the instructions to the letter; “IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE,” read another cheery slogan on the pot, and indeed it wasn’t. Nevertheless, concocting a Pot Noodle snack is so very simple that as I tore off the foil lid, removed the sachet of tomato sauce and then poured in the boiling water my head began to spin with fervid possibilities. Why not customise my Pot Noodle? I could add porcini and truffle oil – I might fricassee some lamb sweetmeats and chuck them into the mix; I could do just about anything, in short, to further water down this dish, which sat on my desktop looking so very sickeningly real.

It’s still sitting there as I type this – albeit looking a little clotted and malevolent, like the surface of some alien planet. I know the concept behind this column is that I eat the sort of stuff that we all eat and then comment on it, but there are limits – I haven’t actually supped a Pot Noodle since the late 1970s, when they were a key element of my student diet. So key, in fact, that due to overzealous Pot Noodle consumption, contracted while poring over Nietzsche, I developed an allergy to monosodium glutamate which stayed with me for over a decade. It’s gone now, but like the good Nietzschean I am, I believe in the eternal and Grecian verities, such as don’t tempt fate.

In 2005, Unilever (which had acquired the brand from Golden Wonder) launched a new ad campaign for Pot Noodle with the slogan: “Have you got the Pot Noodle horn?” Many complained about this crass association between sexual arousal and instant noodles. In one of its more enlightened judgements the Advertising Standards Authority rejected these complaints on the grounds that because Pot Noodle was so closely associated with Nietzsche, and it was well known the philosopher had in fact died of syphilis, there could be no snack food more likely to lead to detumescence.

I’m not so sure, because wasn’t this the same Nietzsche who presciently aphorised: “Love and hatred are not blind but sickened by the Pot Noodle they bear with them”? Answers on a pot, please.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.