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Over in No 11, the Chancellor continues to slim down – with the help of those little macaroons

Who knows, if things keep on this way, Britain may well become the sort of country where the outcome of a televised baking competition becomes a matter of high social and political importance.

Whither the macaroon? I concede that, for those of you condemned to the provinces, this may not seem a pressing concern – unlike being forced to accept elected mayors with spurious powers so that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can burnish his credentials as a devolutionist. However, in this metropolis and many other cities besides, the worst has already happened in terms of local governance, while the bourgeoisie are ascending in a giddy, spiralling fugue-state of hyperglycaemia caused by overindulgence in small, almond-flavoured sweetmeats.

Time was when a macaroon was a perfectly sensible thing, roughly the size and shape of a large, home-baked biscuit; the consistency was a little chewy, there was a suggestion of almonds in the dough, with perhaps a sliver of one such nut pressed into its upper surface, and a disc of rice paper adhered to its underside. I cast the preceding sentence in the simple past rather than the present, because that is what we associate the macaroon with: an innocent era, when bat-eared boys rolled their hoops down the back alleys where bat-eared girls were being done to death by illegal abortionists. And everyone loved a nice Eccles cake, or a Bakewell tart, or a macaroon with a cup of tea so strong that if you were to draw 5ccs off with a hypodermic syringe and then inject them into Roger Bannister he’d run the mile in well under three minutes.

But these modern macaroons are quite a different matter, a ghastly Gallic import redolent of decadence, absolutism and maximum frou-frou. They’ve arrived in London piggybacking in the tote bags of French wanker-bankers come to luxuriate in our low-tax regime. Paul (which as we know is the French equivalent of Greggs) began stocking them first, and so ignorant was I that I thought they were miniature and brightly coloured hamburgers. Because that’s what they look like, although the “buns” are egg white mixed with sugar, and the “meat” is a dollop of some still sweeter goo, or “ganache” (which is what I believe goo is called nowadays).

I asked a French friend what he thought the origin of this macaroon madness was – because if it’s bad in London it’s way worse in Paris, where a new macaroon shop opens about every three minutes. (I envision Roger Bannister sprinting from one to the next.) My informant didn’t hesitate: “It started after Sofia Coppola made that movie about Marie Antoinette. All the courtiers were eating macarons, and the Parisian bobos thought it looked cool.” Of course, there’s a long and illustrious tradition of eating macaroons in France; they get a mention from Rabelais in the early 1500s, and by the time Marie Antoinette’s head was being severed they were far more popular than cake among the bon ton.

Indeed, some culinary scholars believe the reason the throwaway line “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche . . .” became so very notorious is that the peasants already suffered very badly from irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease because of the vast amounts of cake they were eating; whereas the Versailles court dined exclusively on macarons, which are made without flour and hence are entirely gluten-free. I’ve no idea if this is true, but what I do know is that nowadays if you aren’t fashionably wheat-intolerant you have no business in public life on either side of the Channel.

George Osborne clearly has issues in this area; I’ve been observing him, and over the past few months he’s been losing weight steadily, while his features (never exactly generous to begin with) have puckered up and puckered up still more, until they resemble nothing so much as that portion of his anatomy which I suspect bothers him the most.

Poor George! His relentless drive for personal preferment and status . . . Sorry, I mean: his selfless labour on behalf of the commonweal . . . condemns him to factory tour after company visit, and at each and every canteen he’s obliged to choke down another greasy bacon sarnie stuffed with gluten, so becoming ever more bloated and flatulent. How he longs to get home to No 11 and the fragrant Frances, whose magnificent books – memoirs, novels, cookbooks – all contain plenty of macaroons. I like to imagine the entire Osborne family – George, Frances, Luke and little Liberty – tucking in to a supper of Pierre Hermé’s finest, which Harrods have just delivered. “Ooh, Daddy,” Liberty cries, “can I have the last white truffle and hazelnut one?” And George, ever the Solomon-like paterfamilias, gently teases apart the two toothsome hemispheres, hands one to each of the children, then sits back with a faintly constipated smile as they smear ganache on their downy cheeks.

I have often had cause to remark in these pages that there’s only one word for a culture which is as obsessed with what it puts in its mouth as this one, and that word is “infantile”. The macaroon is only the latest nursery nourriture to grab our febrile imaginations. Who knows, if things keep on this way, Britain may well become the sort of country where the outcome of a televised baking competition becomes a matter of high social and political importance. But then that could never happen; any more than Gideon Oliver Osborne becoming prime minister.

Next week: On Location

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 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear