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Tender is the sight of beige-clad greenies eating ethically

Will Self's "Real Meal" column.

It’s worth recalling the infamous “black dinner” from J-K Huysmanns’s Á Rebours, the so-called immoral book that the prosecution counsel insisted on reading lengthy passages from during Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency. Ostensibly the cataloguing of the decadent aristo Des Esseintes’s weltschmerz, far from being particularly shocking what will probably strike the modern reader most is how funny the book is – that and how extensively Wilde stole from it for his The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Anyway, here’s the dinner thrown to celebrate “the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities”: the host’s impotence:

The dining-room was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden, the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers flared.

While a concealed orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing shoes and stockings of cloth of silver besprinkled with tears.

The viands were served on black-bordered plates, – turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries. The wines were drunk from darktinted glasses, – wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout.

Personally, I had no idea a mule steak was – or is – black, but then what do I know? Standing on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and looking at the crowns of the palms tossing against the inky dusk mounting over the Pacific, I said to Mac Guffin (aka the Happy Detective), “I’ve acquired all sorts of savage food intolerances – basically all I can eat is a bit of meat or fish, some salad leaves and potatoes for carb.” Mac chewed on his organic moustache – a genial soul from the backwoods of Minnesota, he was a staffer on the LA Times before Sam Zell took the title and ploughed it into the ground; now he works as a consulting shamus known the length of LA for his upbeat attitude to homicide. The fact that whenever he turns up people get dead never seems to faze him: “I guess it was their karma,” he’ll say, poking at a corpse with the toe of his Belvius Vintage canvas lace-ups.

To me he said, “I know just the right joint for us – it’s right up the street.” I hadn’t doubted he would. Santa Monica is the kind of place where you can throw a Vintage Belvius canvas lace-up and hit a wholesome restaurant: Planet Raw, the Kreation Kafe – they’re all here. We strolled to Tender Greens, which was just that: a long glassy frontage revealed a submissive decor of teal tables, olive chairs and hessian walls. The beige-clad clientele sat around under lamps with ecru shades and the most aggressive coloration was the turquoise light over the counter where young people, wrapped in eau-de-Nil linen dished up unbelievably healthy food.

Bare minimum

“What do you think these guys earn?” I asked Mac as we picked up salt-and-pepper grilled chicken, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and “a small simple salad”. “Oh, they’re on minimum wage, I guess,” he replied. So, I thought to myself, even at $8 an hour it’d still take you an hour and a half to get dinner. Still, this was blackhearted quibbling: the truth of the matter is that Tender Greens dishes up ethically sourced food relatively cheaply at eight outlets in LA and southern California. The basic format – fish, red meat, chicken, rice, bread and salad stuff – so exactly conforms to the profile of my modish intolerances that the establishment could’ve been conceived by some anti-Huysmanns in order to cater to dicky tummy.

Mac and I fatalistically forked our herbage – all around was the muted burble of environmentally friendly conversation: people drumming up support for tree-hugging jaunts, mass vasectomies, or cetacean de-strandings. It felt as if we were sitting in a biome that had been doctored to resemble a standard retail outlet. Mac dabbed his moustache with his hempen napkin while I told him about the Des Esseintes dinner. “Oh man,” he sighed, “that’s, like, unreal.” But later, strolling back to the Shangri-La Hotel where I was staying I wondered, was it actually any less veridical than Tender Greens?

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 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.