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Take a pinch of salt with your fish and chips

And make sure it’s all soaked in pea wet.

I haven’t felt that I’ve done the great British institution of fish and chips full justice. I’ve only written about chippies once before in this column – and that was the effete southern version found on the south coast at Hastings (I thought the piece unexceptionable, although it earned me the lasting enmity of the burghers). Finding myself in Wigan, I decided to remedy this deficiency – it is the pie capital of the world and host to the annual World Pie-Eating Championship. Surely in this rugged and forthright northern town I would find the sincerest of cuisines?

Miner detail

My guides to the mysteries of Wigan’s fast-food culture were three natives, Sam, Graham and Patrick, mutual friends of mine and the composer Robert Lockhart, who died in January after a heart attack brought on by choking on a steak sandwich. Robert used to rail against the insipid social mores of his adoptive southland, but I still think dying outside a gastropub on the Uxbridge Road was an unjust fate.

As a tribute to their d’Artagnan, I asked my Lancastrian musketeers to fire me in the direction of the most authentic chippie they knew and as one they chorused, “Well, if you’re reet clempt that’d have t’be Maureen’s in Springfield. She’s got the best jackbit in town.” Meaning: “If you’re hungry, Maureen’s serves the best food.”

The derivation of “jackbit” is from the expression for a miner’s snack lunch (also called “snap”, a reference to the sound the tin box it was kept in made opening and closing), and so ingrained in Wigan dialect is the now-vanished mining industry that my guides also laid claim to the expression “eat humble pie”, citing a strike in the 1900s during which the Wigan miners went back to work, while those in nearby Leigh stayed out. The Wiganers’ revenge has been to brand the Leigh folk as “lobbygobblers”, which is to say consumers of sliced, baked potatoes mixed with mince. Yuck.

This I took with a pinch of salt – but Maureen’s thick-cut chips came with a generous shaking and a gush of vinegar. Sam told me that the absolutely echt approach to Maureen’s was to pitch up with your own Pyrex dish and ask for: “A babbiesyed – leave t’elmet on – chips an’ pea wet.” Here’s the received pronunciation of this puzzling vernacular request: “A baby’s head [meat pudding], with the tinfoil on it and chips with the juice from the mushy peas [“pea wet”] poured over them.”

Other distinctively Wigan chip-shop eatables are smacks and scraps. You might think, upon entering Maureen’s austere premises (no sign above the door, plate-glass window with nets, a glassed-in heating cabinet) and discovering a pegboard with “Smack 30p” on it, that you had stumbled on some hellishly flagrant circle of post-industrial deprivation, but in fact smacks are slices of potato battered and fried – a cheaper alternative to Maureen’s chips, which come in huge £1.20 portions, mounded on bilious styrofoam trays and then parcelled in sheets of newspaper. Scraps, by contrast, are the freely given twists and curlicues of fallen batter – the toenail clippings of the great fried food god.

Thus you can have a barm (a bread roll), a chip barm – or, if you’re going for the full trinity of carbohydrate foodstuffs, a smack barm (with pea wet, naturally), for the bargain price of 55p.

Another northern phenomenon is a ladle of gravy on your chips – indeed, there seems to be a local preoccupation with moistness, as if it were necessary for your styrofoam tray to become a sort of homologue of the surrounding town, which encompassed us with its oblong buildings and dank thoroughfares. I had gravy and also a meat pie, but Patrick had mushy peas on his chips – a great green avalanche, lumpy with leguminous boulders. How it was ever remotely possible for Peter Mandelson to mistake mushy peas for guacamole is beyond me. He must have pea wet on the brain.

Life of pie

Through the door at the back of the shop I could see a fire merrily blazing in its blackened grate; on the wall were a number of jolly signs with gags on them (“If arseholes could fly this place would be an airport”), but there was little floor space, so we repaired outside to Gidlow Lane, where we stood around a concrete tub full of flowers and ate our lunch. We chatted about Robert Lockhart’s father, John, who was a sales manager for Greenhalgh’s, a local bakery and pie-maker. My own meat pie, once I had forked open its pastry, was a tightly coiled nubbin of greyish meat – but isn’t that the very essence of contemporary Britain? Are our minds not trapped in claggy inanition, while our jaws go on senselessly opening and closing? Then every so often one of us chokes – and dies.

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 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.