Illustration by Jackson Rees.
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In which I suspend belief in Branson while contemplating the Virgin snack box

In this week's Real Meals, Will Self resists the parliamentarian-endorsed temptations of a mainline skeuomorph.

Sometimes I ask myself in all sincerity – is Richard Branson real? Please note, the question is not “Is Richard Branson for real?” (the sort of locution he himself might have used back in the days when he edited Student), but rather: “Does he exist in any meaningful sense at all?”

I continue to ask myself this question even though I have actually met Branson and shaken him by the hand. Seeing wasn’t believing – nor, it appears, was touching; Branson will have to work much harder than Jesus Christ, for instance, if he wants me to lend him any credence, let alone have faith in his heavenly transport. True, he does have important similarities to the Christ: both are depicted as bearded and long-haired; both are fair-skinned; both have a message for all of mankind. But in Branson’s favour: although I have only hearsay to go on when it comes to Christ’s catering, I have feasted on Virginal loaves and fishes many times.

All of this flashed through my mind the other day when a steward plonked a complementary Virgin snack box down on the Virgin table in front of me, and then strode on along the carriage of the 12.35 Virgin Trains service from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. “Wow,” I said to Barry Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, who’d come looking for the steward and found me instead, “that’s a hell of a snack box.”

And indeed it was: a foursquare little thing, its flimsy cardboard manifold cleverly printed with trompe l’oeil wickerwork, leather luggage labels and handle so that it resembled a miniature picnic hamper. I knew that as far as Barry was concerned fakery was the order of the day, because when he’d clapped eyes on me he said: “You’re an actor, aren’t you?” I had to spend some time disabusing him – after which we both had to spend a lot more time chatting, because Barry was taught by my dad at the London School of Economics, back in the days when there went out from Caesar Augustus a decree that all the world should be taxed.

To me the pseudo picnic box was yet more evidence of Branson’s unreality, and yet Barry believed the Virgin Richard’s corporeality was evidenced by a simple fact: “You realise he’s won the East Coast Line franchise, don’t you?” I did indeed know that, but I was still worshipping the iconic snack box, and although I tried to explain its significance, eventually Barry grew bored and wandered back to his own seat. I remained staring at the snack box – it wasn’t the most bizarre foodie-industrial skeuomorph I’d seen that week, but it was up there. As regular consumers of this column will know, a skeuomorph is a once-functional design element repurposed to be purely decorative. In the case of the snack box this was its printed wickerwork’s evocation of lazy afternoons on the river at Henley, with Montmorency performing tricks, and with the hamper’s lightweight yet sturdy construction keeping sandwiches and bottled light ale gently aerated.

Illustration by Jackson Rees.

However, my youngest son had spotted a weirder bit of trompe l’oeil earlier in the week: a Chicago Town Stuffed Crust Four Cheese Melt pizza box that had, printed along its edge, the fake edge of a cardboard box (two-ply cardboard, with a wavy cardboard line in between). We both examined this packaging mutation, marvelling at a world in which a product designer would choose to camouflage a cardboard box as a cardboard box. Mind you, the Chicago Town pizza itself was only masquerading as a pizza – yet this didn’t help much when it came to accepting the reality of the Virgin snack box and, by extension, the existence of Richard Branson. Abandoned by Barry Sheerman, whose ministerial experience might have shed some light on the problem, I fell balefully to examining the snack box. It inspired me to an act of epoché or “bracketing”, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Husserl: I suspended all judgements about the existence or otherwise of the external world, and therefore my own capacity (or Richard Branson’s) to act within it.

Thankfully this scepticism worked, and the reality or otherwise of box and Branson ceased to trouble me. Then I tried rebooting by examining the phenomena that were given to me immediately in consciousness – and the trouble instantly recurred, because the phenomena I perceived were: first, an idea of an egregious bearded entrepreneur; and second, a snack box printed so as to resemble a miniature picnic hamper. It was a devilish conundrum, one such as might have been devised by Descartes’s malignant deceiver. As to breaking the spell by, say, opening the snack box and eating its contents, such an action was anathema to me. What if it contained a Branson homunculus, one that tried to sell me Virgin Money?

I resolved instead to take the snack box home with me and keep it for ever, for ever sealed. It is sitting on my desk as I type this, and although it has the innocent appearance of a mass-market catering pack, I know that it is really a veritable Pandora’s box, from which all the world’s ills might erupt, should I be foolish enough to fancy a light bite.

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 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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The High Court is right to rule the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with small children

The idea this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work has been exposed as a myth. 

Thursday’s High Court decision that the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with children under the age of two is another blow to the Tories failing austerity agenda. It is failing on its own terms, it's failing our communities, and it’s failing the most vulnerable in our country – including the victims of domestic violence and those facing homelessness.

The judgment handed down by Mr Justice Collins was damning. Upon considering the impact of the benefit cap, he concluded that “real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

The government’s claims that this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work have been exposed as a myth. Seven out of eight households hit by the cap have very young children, are too ill to work or have a work-limiting disability. The spiralling cost of childcare has left many unable to find or afford good quality childcare in order to allow them to work. In some cases, families lose up to £115 a week, pushing them into deeper into poverty.

Labour warned the government of the impact this policy would have on lone parents with very young children during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act. We tabled amendments to exempt lone parents with young children. They refused to listen and thousands of families have been pushed into poverty as a result, including survivors of domestic violence.

Many parents are perpetually stuck in insecure, poorly paid work on a zero hours contract, with the majority of their earnings spent on childcare. Alternatively they are unable to find work which fits around their childcare responsibilities and are then subjected to the benefit cap resulting in families struggling to make ends meet. Just under 320,000 children now live in households likely to be affected by the new lower cap, which was introduced last November. This is at a time when one in four of our children are growing up in poverty.

Despite these obvious barriers facing families with young children, particularly lone parents, it has taken a brave group of campaigners to challenge a government which lacked the foresight to see the real damage they are inflicting with another one of their disastrous austerity cuts. The Government’s own evaluations show that only 16 per cent of families impacted by the benefit cap move into paid work compared to 11 per cent who would have moved into work anyway.

For too long, this government has pushed our children into a lifetime of poverty, as punishment for parental circumstances, whilst continuing to give hand-outs to the privileged few.

What a difference a year makes. Only last July, the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street pledged to “fight the burning injustices” facing our society. Not only has she failed spectacularly, her government continue to pursue policies that are further entrenching these injustices.

It is clear that the benefit cap hits the poorest in our society the hardest. This judgment is a further blow to Theresa May’s unstable minority government and I implore the Prime Minister to accept the High Court's judgement and end this discriminatory policy against lone parent families.

This is the latest in a series of judgments found against the government in relation to their austerity programme. After rulings on the bedroom tax, Personal Independence Payments and now the benefit cap, the government should now accept the ruling instead of spending yet more taxpayers’ money on an appeal. 

Labour has proudly stood against the benefit cap, its discrimination against parents with young children and the government’s cruel austerity programme which has caused too many people real misery.

A Labour government would immediately implement the High Court ruling and only a future Labour government will transform the social security system so that, like the NHS, it is there for the many in our time of need.

 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.

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