I sty: a model with pig nose on the Vivienne Westwood S/S 2015 catwalk. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: I’m doing my best to ignore pulled pork

The very alliterative character of pulled pork suggested to me something bogus and contrived; after all, what do you do when you’re sold a pig in a poke if not disgustedly pull the cat meat out?

It was one of those incomparable early June days you get in the far north: bright sunlight drenched the heathery Orcadian hillsides and the choppy blue waters of the Wide Firth. Driving at speed along the road from Kirkwall to Finstown, I kept taking sidelong glances at the island of Gairsay to the north. Twenty years ago when I lived in Orkney I was friendly with a local builder, Simon, who told me that a single family occupied the old farmhouse on Gairsay: a paterfamilias, a matriarch, and their hardy brood of six or seven offspring. Simon said that the Gairsay islander was so tough that when one of his children fell ill he’d rowed them across five miles of the firth to the doctor’s surgery in Finstown – and this in midwinter. But Orkney is for most of the time a bleak place, where men are men, while skate – on account of the supposed resemblance between theirs and human female genitals – are terrified.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this when I saw the mobile snack bar by the roadside, blazoned across its battered panels the slogan: “Pulled Beef Rolls”. Blimey! I thought to myself – the beef bit is fair enough; after all Orkney is prime Aberdeen Angus farmland, but the pulled part . . . I had not thought to see this particular culinary modifier this far north so soon. Why, if pulling is going to become de rigueur in the northern isles, it can’t be long before we see “pulled skate” advertised – a frightening prospect indeed. One thing you’re unlikely to see on an Orcadian menu is lobster – because this incomparable legacy is crated up and flown to Paris as soon as it’s pulled from the creels.

Besides, when the whole “pulled pork” shtick got going I decided wilfully to ignore it. I’ve chomped my way through the 1980s and ’90s, I’ve had my food marinated and drizzled upon, seared and transmogrified into foam; I just don’t need another bog-ordinary dish gussied up by being subjected to some process at once occult and prosaic. The very alliterative character of pulled pork suggested to me something bogus and contrived; after all, what do you do when you’re sold a pig in a poke if not disgustedly pull the cat meat out?

Pulled pork sounded to me like an idiom rather than an actual dish. Yet there it was, spreading like trichinosis; initially pulled pork was advertised on the hand-chalked blackboards in gastropubs, but soon enough it was being yanked down the social scale: pulled pork became available in cafés and from stalls – other meats started to be similarly dragged about; the Orkney pulled beef was only an inevitable consequence of the whole rending, tearing, drawn-out epidemic.

It wasn’t until I was in Manchester a few days later that I finally gave up and tried to find out what this “pulling” actually consisted in. I was with my 16-year-old, eating at an upmarket pizza joint called Dough (Doh!) in the Northern Quarter. He ordered a pulled pork pizza and I asked the waiter what this stuff actually was. The answer came back that it’s a slow-cooking method that allows the meat to become so tender it can be pulled apart. This was all right as far as it went – but it made me worry about the participle. Surely, given it’s in the simple past, the “pulled” in “pulled pork” implies that the action of pulling has already occurred – and indeed this was the case: the pork on the boy’s pizza did seem entirely macerated. But it prompts the question: what is pulled pork to be called before it’s been pulled? Pre-pulled? Pullable?

With barbecued crispy duck – the dish pulled pork most obviously resembles – the shredding of the meat isn’t included in the name of the dish, and this strikes me as far sounder, because the involvement of a participle cannot help but make us think of the gustatory act as a process. So, if there’s to be pulled pork, there must inevitably also be regurgitated pork, excreted pork and putrescing pork.

Back in the Smoke, I continued my researches. The consensus soon emerged that “pulling” was really a bit of a con. The method gained its ascription in the south-eastern United States – down there in the swamps and bayous where men are men, and often have to pull alligators off their pork before they can pull it in turn; tougher cuts of pork such as the shoulder have to be cooked. The slow-roasting or barbecuing method thus evolved as a function of economic constraints.

In this respect, “pulled pork” bears close affinities with both Spudulike and young men wearing their trousers down round their hips so their underwear balloons above their waistbands. Spudulike because this is another example of how a staple food is spuriously valorised in order to increase its mark-up; and visible knickers because pulled pork is also . . . a load of pants hiding in plain view.

Apparently eateries are now passing off any old bony scrapings or pan-sizzled gunk as being “pulled”. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; in our febrile food culture the race to the bottom of the trough is almost always the crazed rout of Gadarene swine. No, despite the arrival of such swill in Orkney, the fact remains that you’re more likely to survive such fads in the farther-flung portions of the world, places where pulling on them is what you do to oars rather than meats.

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 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition