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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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.