The myth of lazy Brits, brand NHS and the rainbow cricket team

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts column.

When I was a child, I was taught that the British were particularly energetic because of our bracingly cold climate. In contrast, the soporific heat of the Mediterranean caused Spaniards and Greeks to spend all day ingesting white wine and olives, while the lushness of Africa allowed the natives to wait for ripe fruit to drop from the trees.

Even Tory MPs don’t think that now and, instead, they echo Orwell, who described the English as “actually the laziest people in Europe”. Five Tories say we are “among the worst idlers in the world” and prefer “a lie-in to hard work”. They demand “graft, risk and effort”, qualities they doubtless demonstrated in their pre-parliamentary careers in, respectively, accountancy, business law, PR, financial analysis and advising Michael Gove.

Orwell adduced no evidence for his claims (the man was a journalist, for heaven’s sake, why would he?) and nor do the MPs. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor,” they state. If we compare ourselves to Singapore, which seems to be the Tories’ template, I suppose that may be correct. But within Europe, our full-time employees work longer weekly hours than anybody except Austrians and (much good it has done them) Greeks. Our labour force as a whole (including part-timers) works an hour less than the EU average but the average Briton still toils 42 minutes a week more than the Germans and nearly six hours more than the Dutch. We retire, on average, a year later than other Europeans and three years later than the French. Compared to our northern neighbours, we lag on productivity – surely the result of inadequate company investment rather than workers’ sloth – but still above the EU average.

I advise the MPs to curtail their lie-ins and apply more graft to their homework when writing future studies of British failings.

No bananas


I have no information on Ecuadorean productivity but I know Ecuador ranks above the Tories’ favourite, Singapore, on political rights and civil liberties. My source is Freedom House, which gets most of its money from the US government and may therefore be assumed not overly sympathetic to what the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips calls “a tyrannical banana republic” that is “puffing out its braided and bemedalled chest” in support of Julian Assange.

Does Ecuador deserve quite so much abuse? Its president, Rafael Correa, is an economist and I doubt he has ever worn medals or braid. He is certainly not a model democrat or civil libertarian, having recently acquired powers to control judges and journalists, which, I fancy, our own ministers would take, given half a chance. At least he put them to a referendum that observers found free from significant fraud. True, he used public resources to persuade people to vote the right way. But the enormous deployment of corporate resources to influence US elections reminds us that, when it comes to democracy, nobody’s perfect.

Wealth service

Funny how the Tories, who normally tell us the NHS is an inefficient, rickety old thing in urgent need of a makeover, now say its “brand” is so admired around the world that it should set up profit-making branches overseas. I guess they’re just desperate for money but somebody should tell them that the NHS is admired precisely because it isn’t a “brand”, like Virgin or Pepsi. It is (or was) a public service, focused on making people healthier. Once it loses that focus and falls into the hands of PRs, image consultants and marketing specialists, it changes. Encourage the NHS to look for profit-making opportunities and there will be no end to it. NHS leisure centres, “energy drinks” and cosmetics, anybody?

Where the Sun doesn’t shine


In this digital age, we need more details about the BBC and the Guardian. A Freedom of In - formation request reveals, to the predictable fury of the right-wing press, that, over an 11- month period, the corporation bought 58,829 Guardians (177 a day) against only 42,905 (129 a day) copies of the Sun. But what of online access? How disgraceful and un-British if BBC executives are clicking on Guardian investigations of tax avoidance instead of keeping abreast (as it were) of celebrity adultery and the assets of page-three lovelies.

Rainbow nation

Much as one mourns an England defeat, South Africa’s ascent to the top of the world Test cricket rankings is cause for celebration. Of the winning team (leaving aside an itinerant Pakistani), all but one were born between 1980 and 1985. They are truly Mandela’s children, with few significant memories of the apartheid era. Four are non-white South Africans, with blacks, Asians and “coloureds” (people of mixed race) all represented. In the final Test, one nonwhite made the only century (after a triple century earlier in the series); another took five England second-innings wickets. When such players started their careers, it was widely alleged that they benefited from a quota system and hadn’t earned their places on merit.

South African cricket isn’t perfect: whites are still greatly over-represented. But it is the only multiracial team in international cricket, a sharp contrast to England and Australia, which, apart from one appearance by a Pakistan-born batsman for the latter, contested the latest Ashes series with all-white teams.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis