"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

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder