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Will Self on the trouble with restaurant critics

Even restaurant critics learn eventually that eating is a bodily function like any other.

I haven’t eaten a real meal in the past ten days – if by “real” is implied a repast the consumption of which lies on the scale between “automatic” and “hearty”. Instead, each masticatory act has been chewed over in turn. Why? Because since that Saturday evening when I returned from Scotland on a Virgin train, I’ve had a grinding, stabbing, rumbling, bloating stomach ache. I’m not about to libel Richard Branson by suggesting that his on-board snacks are to blame – even though I doubt more overpriced or nauseating fare is served in the ninth circle of Hell – and as yet, I have no idea what’s wrong with me. I did go to the doctor last Friday but I was feeling a little better and he was demob happy – off to a holiday in Croatia – so after a cursory laying of hands on tender abdomen, he said that it wasn’t likely to be an ulcer since the pain associated with this malady was usually higher up.

Hunger games

Needless to say, within 24 hours, the pain had returned and, as if to avenge the NHS, it had relocated to my breastbone. It hasn’t let up since, so as things stand I’m not in a position to write about eating with any dispassion at all. But is this so unreal? I’ve had cause to note in this column before the situational woes of the restaurant critic – last year, I had something called a “dry socket” after a tooth extraction that put me right off my fodder for a month. I think it’s a truth that should be shoved down people’s throats more often that hunger is the best seasoning – most reviewers, by definition, are spoilt for choice and expense-account-funded; their general unwillingness to be pleased by anything that isn’t either novel or top notch is reflected in the pickiness of their plump readers. But deprive the lot of ’em of eats for 24 hours and they’d fall on half a KFC corncob from a bin in Salford Quays and devour it with . . . gusto.

By the same token, you never read a column by Fay Maschler, Adrian Gill or John Lanchester in which they contextualise the restaurant experience within their own internal biotic environment. “I would’ve enjoyed Les Trois Garçons in Kettering,” such a piece might begin, “were it not for the fact that I was farting like a dray horse; great, sulphurous bottom burps that radiated out from my table causing dismay and ultimately rebellion among my fellow diners.” Or: “The decor at the Obese Hamster in Witney is a teasing amalgam of the kitsch and the Bauhaus; in the ladies, they had a Cath Kidston basket for the toilet paper and – in my stall – a copy of Le Corbusier’s La Ville radieuse. I know this, because I spent a lot of time in there reading about how the city of the future was viewed in the past, due to a bout of diarrhoea.”

Or even: “I’d like to commend the waiter at Merchant’s in Norwich, who, with a certain spirited legerdemain, reacted swiftly to my vomiting into my empty dish before he could serve up the moules marinière by saying, ‘If sir doesn’t feel like the black truffle risotto after all, I’ll return it to kitchen,’ and whisking away the offending portion of last night’s rather rich dinner . . .”

No, these are not things that you ever read – any more than you see Gordon Ramsay on television, effing and blinding while he scrabbles to open a packet of Rennie – but why not? Wouldn’t this be a better world, with a healthier attitude towards food, if we all acknowledged that the act of eating is a bodily function just like any other? Instead, such is the lack of a bodily context for our daily bread that a dispassionate observer – a Martian, say – could be forgiven if it were to see us as ethereal spirits, floating on white clouds, strumming harps and somehow still managing to sup the ambrosia with our long-handled silver spoons.

Light in the head

Back in the days when I compulsively consumed science-fiction stories – and Smash instant mashed potato was advertised on the TV by crap, animated robot puppets – I remember reading one in which, in the future, if you had anything terminally wrong with your body, your head was simply detached and housed in a life-support system. If I remember rightly, the tale began in this sclerotic vein, with one of these heads saying: “This morning I had eight dozen oysters and six bottles of Chablis for breakfast – and then they emptied the bucket.” Disgusting, possibly – but from the angle I’m currently in (doubled over the keyboard with stomach cramps), emptying the bucket seems like a bloody good idea.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.