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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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.