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Call me a jerk, but I can’t get enough of biltong (and all the other stiff meat that’s been hung out to dry)

I happened to walk into a shop near Richmond Park and found scores if not hundreds of withered and skinny dicks dangling from the ceiling.

It’s time to talk jerky! For too long now this column has pussyfooted around the issues and refused to give it to you, the reader, straight. The buck stops here. From now on we’ll call a spade like this: “Hey! Spade!” And when it comes we’ll use it to beat every cliché in the vicinity to death.

Yes, yes – I know we haven’t exactly shied away from discussing the sexual aspects of food, yet there’s always been a metaphoric cast to it. Some foods might be aphrodisiacs, just as others (if you squint at them or sniff them in a certain way), might seem like genitals. I was listening to Jay Rayner’s Kitchen Cabinet on the radio the other day when he observed – apropos of caviar – that there are hardly any foods that aren’t held to be either detumescent or arousing. With the possible exception of Shreddies.

I once asked the almond-eyed heiress of the Caviar House chain what was the best way to eat caviar and she obliged by digging a silver spoon into the glistening anthracite cylinder of a kilo of Beluga she’d just de-tinned; then, neatly depositing a fifty-quid dollop on the perfume-testing (or razor-slashing) portion of her wrist, she invited me to suck it up, while purring: “It must be eaten off nothing but bare skin.” Setting aside the grotesque idea there “has” to be a way of eating the entire ovarian production of a creature belonging to a species on the verge of extinction, this was mos’ def’ an aphrodisiac.

But if there’s one food that incites me to impure thoughts more than any other, it has to be dried or cured meat. If you cast your mind back to the Falklands war, not the least of our anxieties during those late spring months of 1982 was the absence of a prêt-à-porter meat snack in British corner shops and petrol stations. That deficiency ended shortly after our forces achieved victory, when a shipment of the comestibles was mistakenly rerouted from Germany and Peperami arrived on our shores. The pork sausage may be marketed with a portmanteau of “salami” and “pepperoni”, but it bears scant likeness to either of these foods, resembling instead a particularly long, thin and stiff . . . penis. OK, OK, I realise this is pretty crass (after all, what sausage isn’t phallic?), but there’s a distinction, surely, between encountering a phallic object where you expect to – at a butcher’s, say, or in your trousers – and coming across one dangling next to the Twixes and Mars Bars.

The penile aspect of Peperami is only enhanced by its packaging: not just the one thin, polythene condom, but also an outer prophylaxis of gaudily foiled cellophane. Nor does the snack’s long-running advertising slogan (“It’s a Bit of an Animal”) detract from its sexualised aura.

Looking back, it seems strange that Peperami ever caught on – after all, the late Eighties were typified by a Thatcherite return to Victorian values, so table legs were presumably being covered up even as we unsheathed our skinny pork swords. Now, of course, you can barely move in the average newsagent without running up against one meaty treat or another: packets of beef jerky rustle next to Slim Jims, Mattessons Reduced Fat Smoked Pork Sausage (yum-yum!) and Bundu Biltong.

On the subject of biltong – which often comes, Peperami-like, as a long, thin sausage – I was barely aware of this Southern African meaty snack, until five years ago when I happened to walk into a shop near Richmond Park, looking for a bottle of water, and found instead a sort of enchanted biltong forest, with scores if not hundreds of withered and skinny dicks dangling from the ceiling.

Biltong St Marcus – as it’s called – is still open for business, so if you fancy a beefy bite flavoured with anything from chilli and cumin to crack cocaine (OK, I made the last one up) then hie thee thither. Not that you’ll necessarily have to go that far; biltong is now available from a stall in London Bridge Station, and I dare say there are plenty of other outlets offering trail food to commuters. Because that’s what all these snacks have in common: they are designed to preserve protein for long periods so it can be easily consumed by travellers. It is said that back in the day a cowboy would cure beef by cutting a steak from a newly slain steer and slipping it under his saddle – but I have my doubts about that.

So why should foods designed for trans­humant pastoralists and hunter-gatherers come to occupy such a capacious niche in the diet of sedentary ­information-processors? I suppose the explanation Unilever (the current owner of the Peperami brand) might offer is that these are convenience foods – but surely, the convenience they embody is that of globalised supply lines: easy to pack and ship, while requiring less refrigeration both en route and on display, dried and cured meat snacks extend the range of products that corner shops can stock. At the same time, they further blur the distinction between sit-down meals and grazing on the hoof (if you’ll forgive the interspecific and cannibalistic metaphor). There’s that, but there is also the phallic argument: flaccid and impotent, the British office worker seeks to put some lead in his own pencil by sucking on one of these hunger-erasers. Poor fool! You are what you eat, after all, and anyone who eats a Peperami is, by definition, a sad little prick. At any rate, that’s how I feel every time I do so.

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 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue