Jamie Oliver: the “god of class mobility”? Chris Jackson/Getty
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If you hate Jamie Oliver, you might just be a snob

Do you dislike Jamie Oliver because you’re ideologically opposed to his pasta dishes, or is it because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life pisses you off?

I love Jamie Oliver. I love his watchability, his food, his brand. The coffee they sell in the Recipease up the road from me is delightful. I had a very nice pastry from there once. Sometimes, I wish my life could be tinted to a high-contrast colour scheme to resemble a 30 Minute Meals episode.

As if my deep affection towards the icon of Jamie was causing me to see him everywhere, he recently popped up in a Grayson Perry exhibition I attended called “The Vanity of Small Differences”. Among the vivid, detailed and intelligent social portraits exploring the fine lines between the different classes and their tastes, I clocked one image that stayed with me. In the top left of a tapestry was Jamie Oliver, the “god of class mobility”.

It stuck in my mind because I found it hilarious. I laughed. Knowingly. Isn’t that funny har har Jamie Oliver the god of class mobility har. Those foolish people who thought they could transport themselves into the throes of middle class stardom, just because they had a Jamie Oliver pepper grinder! How silly.

I continued around the exhibition, unaware of my own sneering snobbery. I just felt smug that I had understood what Grayson Perry was getting at. Surrounded by art that drew attention to the performance of class distinctions, all I could muster in terms of self-awareness was a sense of growing hunger and thoughts about whether I could get a Perry postcard after the exhibition.

Perry’s depiction of Oliver as the face of social mobility is emblematic of the snobbery people harbour for the chef. The humour of this is lies in that Jamie is far too earnest for the educated middle class – his emotional investment in getting rid of childhood obesity, and the way he honestly believes that people can cook healthy and filling meals in 15 minutes, both lack that telling self-deprecating self-awareness that the “educated” middle classes have. To put it bluntly, he’s too stupid, in middle class terms, to be middle class. This is why it’s funny to those who deride and mock Jamie for being an aspiration to the lower middle class – because really, he’s not middle class enough.

That’s not to say that all middle class people dislike Jamie Oliver; he exudes a rustic farmers’ market aesthetic that is coveted by the bourgeois classes. Indeed, doing a bit of research on Jamie reveals a line that epitomises his comfortable fit into a middle class lifestyle. “It might sound a bit mad,” Oliver has said, “but a solid bit of driftwood makes for a perfect chopping board, the kind you’d pay a small fortune for in a department store.” Amazing.

Deconstructing middle class signifiers is a struggle. Often it’s because they’re intangible. There aren’t rigid rules. And that’s sort of the point. The harder it is to define a middle class culture, the harder it is to enter it. Of course, Jamie Oliver could easily afford the department store Driftwood Chopping Board, but that would be far too obvious. Instead, he must individually select uniquely decayed bits of wood to garnish his home with. The proud middle classes would find it difficult to tell you what middle class culture actually was. This only compounds their advantage: the harder it is to define, the harder it is for those people you don’t want being part of it, to be part if it.

Middle class taste is self-righteously obsessed with a myth of effortless bourgeois consumerism – as if to give off the impression one has simply stumbled upon one’s £150 Le Creuset pot down the road, instead of ordering it off the John Lewis website. Condescension towards Jamie Oliver is couched in that focus on the intangible – a hatred stemming from the idea that the working classes think they capture this fleeting and ethereal middle class-ness, just because they’ve bought a Jamie Oliver™ Pestle and Mortar. In the 18th century, it was all about scoffing at the French for creating gardens that looked too perfect; now we just scoff at the working class for having middle class aspirations about their oil dispenser, and houses that are a little too clean.

Next time you feel yourself hating on Oliver, step back and take another look. Do you dislike him because you’re ideologically opposed to pasta dishes, or is it just because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life – and is selling them on – pisses you off? Sure, it’s utterly consumerist, but Jamie Oliver capitalises on something that most of us struggle to define: transforming a desire to better yourself morally and culturally into a cast-iron griddle pan. That, I think, is at least something to admire.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon