"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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser