Illustration: Jackson Rees
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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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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue