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Whack down the alpaca poo

The radio column.

The Garden Party
BBC Radio Norfolk

“I’m firmly against peacocks. They don’t like glass, they get stroppy with their reflections, and they don’t like being cornered. AND they leave a vile-smelling dropping. I hate peacocks.
Vile, vile, vile.”

“Well, if I was a bird I’d crap on you.”

Another week, another compelling exchange on the horticultural show The Garden Party (Saturdays, midday) on Radio Norfolk, hosted by Thordis Fridriksson, with the usual panel of guests who sound as if they come directly from Danny, the Champion of the World: Alan from the old vicarage, Ben from Blacksmith’s Cottage, and Boris and Bets, “who do butterfly things” and who just spied a rare white admiral “swooping down in a circle grabbing nectar”.

By far the show’s greatest achievement is that, unlike all other gardening programmes, it can go on for up to three hours at a time and yet nobody gets lazy and starts pushing fake bonhomie into every other sentence. Also, everybody refers alluringly to people we don’t know. “Margaret’s friend Annie likes those birds, too, but then Holly said they look like little gentlemen who’ve had their arms stolen.” Far from coming over as cliquey or even confusing, this merely gives the show epic scale, suggesting a whole hinterland of contributors and their friends, and friends of friends, or just anyone really, calling up or stopping by to offer advice, mouth clamped down on a pipe.

Under discussion today: the Plant Society of Kent. “And the ladies turned up,” marvels someone from a local allotment, “didn’t want a wee or a coffee but just wanted to look immediately at the plants. I’ve never seen so many elderly people move so fast.”

Things continually get said on The Garden Party that one might never otherwise hear. For instance: “Last night I had some people round and we caught some house sparrows”; “Don’t for God’s sake try to rot alpaca poo – just whack it straight down”; and “Indian runners are frisky. They’ll sexually assault the dog.”

Seldom has the neurotic turmoil of gardening obsessions and romance been so transfixingly rendered. Time between episodes is time wasted. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser