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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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