"If you want flavour, stop at home": Will Self eats fish and chips at Harry Ramsdens

There’s not a sole in this plaice who could prove old Harry made cod claims.

It’s a strong claim: “The best fish and chips in the world”; as is another bon – but ungrammatical – mot, attributed to the Master Fryer himself: “There is no chip ever cut by man which cannot be cooked to perfection in three minutes.” Taken together, these propositions suggest a sort of fried-food cosmology – or possibly a gnosis, because, if you want to acquaint yourself with Harry Ramsden’s second law of chipodynamics you’ll have to pitch up at one of his 30-odd restaurants, which are scattered throughout the British isles much as . . . well, much as the crushed, dead chips were scattered on the tiled floor of the food court when I swung by the other day to test empirically the validity of his first law.
Of course, Ramsden himself is long gone. An interwar figure, he appears in sepia tones, grinning out from the chippy’s wall and, with his wing-collar and natty hat, closely resembling a cross between Wilfrid Brambell and Neville Chamberlain. He started the business in a hut in Guiseley, Leeds, in the late 1920s, but it’s grown and grown over the years, being snaffled up by corporate after corporate then regurgitated through mergers. The hut grew into a 250-seat restaurant – apparently the biggest fish-and-chip eatery in the world – but now this has gone the way of all chip fat: down the drain. After losing money for some years the parent company flogged it to an outfit called Wetherby Whaler.
I’ve eaten in various Ramsdens over the years, hanging on pathetically to the notion that buried in their red-and-white Formica frames there must remain beating a distinctively northern heart. But then, what’s in a white rose? A Harry Ramsden’s by any other name would probably taste remarkably similar. What I’m driving at here is that the food has not been great – contra Harry’s law, I’ve found soggy chips, pulpy fish in grotty batter, and mushy peas with the flavour and consistency of plumber’s mastic. I gave up on the chain for years after finding myself sitting over one too many inedible carbo-fests and ruefully contemplating boshing something up out of these building materials masquerading as nutrition.
Still, everyone deserves a second chance (except for me; I deserve at least 50), so I headed for that little beachhead of the north in the south, Euston Station, to see whether anything had improved. To begin with, the signs were not auspicious – there was the previously mentioned detritus on the floor, while on the counter sat a styrofoam tray in which reposed all of the lately fried elements tending towards gelid entropy. I shuddered, and thought: I don’t have to do this . . . I could pick up some sushi at M&S, or a burger from the King, or some noodles from Nam-Po! – hell, I could even buy a baguette from Delice de France and another from Upper Crust and have a sword fight with myself, scampering this way and that across the concourse until I was arrested by the British Transport Police. (And surely, there can be no richer and more satisfying humiliation than that.) 
Still, when the going gets tough, the tough get eating. The man behind the counter was the sole of courtesy as I havered between cod, plaice and haddock; a wholly otiose decision, since, as we all know, there should be a moratorium on the fishing – and by extension the eating – of all four. But before long I had my own styrofoam tray and was ready to assay Ramsden’s second law.
Well, I can report that the chips weren’t too bad at all: their outer layer pleasingly browned and crispy, their insides firm and yet melting. The batter on my cod was also of the right ductility, while the fish within flaked to perfection. As for the mushy peas – on the basis of their texture alone I would’ve sworn I was eating guacamole. True, I make no mention of the flavours of any of this food, but why would I? If you want flavour, stop at home – fast food aspires to the condition of being photographed, not consumed.
I ate about half my chips and all my battered cod and mushy peas. I drank my crap coffee, I listened to the train announcements and wished I were about to head north out of this cesspit of gourmandising towards a more earthy realm where nowt folk were queer and nowt needed frying for more than three minutes – including bruschetta. For all I know, Harry Ramsden’s may well serve the best fish and chips in the world, or the appearance of this slogan on their walls may be entirely accidental. The truth of both propositions is by no means inconsistent.
Fish and chips. Photo: Getty

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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide