Wild palates: the Mitchell Cotts family in The Kitchen
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Eat, pray, love: Britain’s seriously loopy eating habits

Do people really do this stuff? Apparently, they do. 

The Kitchen
BBC2

The Kitchen is Gogglebox with added turmeric. Here are people, from all sorts of places and backgrounds, in their homes, cooking and eating. I read somewhere that hidden cameras had been used in its making, and thought fearfully of all the spoons I was about to see being clandestinely licked. In truth, it’s far worse than this. The cameras, it appears, are very much on view, with the result that its participants comprise all the usual show-offs and eccentrics (you might say borderline weirdos). Only this time around they come with George Foreman-style grills, “anti-cellulite” shakes, pheasant curries, “chorizio” (sic) and freezers that were last defrosted in 1973. If you’re thinking of tuning in, you will certainly want to order in the Pepto-Bismol first.

Naturally, the series works hard to reinforce our prejudices when it comes to dinner (or tea, a little reinforcing of my own). The well-off middle classes tend to cook – they may even, dammit, gut the fish they caught earlier – and the poor raid their freezers in search of breadcrumb-based foodstuffs. So far, so predictable. Beyond this, though, The Kitchen serves up some seriously loopy eating habits. Do people really do this stuff? Apparently, they do.

In Birmingham, for instance, the Evans family eats a huge cooked breakfast – burgers, sausages, potato waffles, eggs, beans – three times a week, a feast they bless with grace: “Dear God, thank you for this amazing variety.” Aware that this isn’t the healthiest way to live, they compensate – or the womenfolk do – in two ways. First, they concentrate very hard indeed on the sight of the fat pouring over the sides of their electric grill and into a tray below – a greasy evacuation they have invested with an almost quasi-religious significance, like tears leaking from the Madonna’s eyes. Second, lunch consists of a diet shake. The household’s arteries may well be furred but bottoms are holding steady at a regular size.

Odder still are the Bradshaws, a couple with Lancashire vowels who have retired to Devon. Mrs Bradshaw’s repertoire consists solely of pies and pasties, which she bakes in quantity and then dutifully feeds to her husband, the only concession to his heart condition being that she now serves them with mash rather than chips. The couple like mostly off-white food – even their mushy peas looked grey – and take their own meals away on holiday, so as not to be any “trouble” to anyone. We meet them on the way to Aberystwyth, a seaside town that presumably has a ready supply of mince-inspired goodies. But once bitten, twice shy: in a previous life, they made the mistake of visiting Italy, where “it was all pasta and pizza”. Only the bread rolls saved them from certain starvation! Their suitcase was the size of a small ranch.

For badly behaved children, we moved up the social ladder to Cheltenham, where a girl called Daphne was feeding her trout with tarragon to her ferrets, in order to avoid its reappearance on her plate the next day. Luckily, Mummy and Daddy, well oiled with Chardonnay, tend to see the funny side. Also, to Suffolk, where we were introduced to the Mitchell Cotts children, who are named after plants (Valerian and Campion among them) but behave like wild animals. Daddy has a baronet for a brother, but the household food budget is limited enough to need to be supplemented with road kill and onions (according to him, they fall from the local lorries like conkers from the trees). I think he was boasting about the road kill; perhaps he has seen one too many programmes starring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Flattened bunny or no flattened bunny, at least he wasn’t about to serve bottled pasta sauce or turkey mince, both of which appeared elsewhere and sit high on my list of Things I Don’t Understand (And Am Vaguely Disgusted By). It is thanks to opinions like this that – nausea aside – I am an ideal viewer of this series. Like Gogglebox, The Kitchen slyly invites its audience to put aside its flashy liberal views and thence to feel free, just for an hour or so, to make all sorts of mean-minded judgements. You have mine. Now do enjoy coming up with your own. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era