Making heavy weather of airline food

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all airline food aspires to the condition of potato dauphinoise - or, possibly, Irish stew. Any given dish may start out its life in the great catering kampongs of Gate Gourmet, being fluffed, beaten and otherwise teased into a variety of shapes, but, by the time it's been wadded into foil trays, covered, stacked, chilled, loaded and lifted off into the tame, grey yonder, it will have been compressed into layers of a slightly undercooked, whitish, root-vegetable consistency, interspersed with a reassuring, beige juice.

I say reassuring because airline food is all about comfort and nothing else. Unlike other meals, its taste is solely a product of the diner's anxiety. The nervy flyer, wedged between John Grisham fans and contemplating a death that, for sheer, quotidian pathos - "Died in that air crash, you say? On her way to a city break in Tallinn? Blimey, what a pointless way to go!" - is equalled only by slipping in the shower stall on a cake of Imperial Leather, will reach joyfully for the proffered tray because, after all, if you're eating, you must be alive, no?

Fowl play

All of this flickered through my mind as the British Airways Airbus 320 grumble-bumped over the tarmac of Boryspil Airport near Kiev. Visibility was meagre, rain was lashing the plane window and the wind speed was probably some ghastly rate of knots - it was Polish-president-killing weather and I was in pole position to experience it. I'd had a hefty dinner the night before in a themed "Soviet-era" restaurant, where I was served - get this! - a chicken Kiev by a waitress in a knee-length, flared, black skirt and a white, lace apron. My Ukrainian hosts, whom I'd asked to order for me, couldn't understand why I roared with laughter when the butter-stuffed fowl was plonked in front of me - and I had to go into a long, halting explanation that took in the 1970s, Abigail's Party, the winter of discontent, blah, blah, blah.

Then, bleak dawn found me in the restaurant of my upscale hotel, woefully contemplating a buffet of Romanov extravagance: everything from sushi to custom-made omelette and back again was on offer, when all I wanted was a slice of toast and a glass of orange juice. However, it was a flat fee of 320 hryvnia - and, at those prices, I wasn't about to be short-changed.

So, as the plane strained aloft, there was I, caffeinated to the gills and with an unpleasantly distended belly. I was also still stuck in my 1970s reverie, and mulling over the awful truth that if the plane was diverted, then crashed on to a mountain range, mine would be the buttocks the other passengers would make a beeline for, plying their 50mm-long nail clippers. This was why, when the BA trolley dolly came back after take-off and offered me hors d'oeuvres, I naturally said, "Yes." Yes to scary roundels of white bread, topped with scary roundels of cream cheese, scattered with a few limp chives; yes to the cutlery wrapped in its linen winding sheet; and yes to the main course of pork, which turned out to be greyish nodules, accompanied by peas, carrots and . . . yes! Potato dauphinoise.

Flight of fancy

Mmm, yummy, I thought as I chowed down. People are so snotty about airline food, but this stuff was great. On I munched, reflecting on how there was something existentially lovely about the two Ritz Crackers wrapped in cling film that accompanied wedges of Cheddar and Cheshire cheese. I ate it all - every last crumb, even the scary-looking dessert: a spongy cake, sitting in a pool of cream, which looked as if it had lost control of its bowels. I ate it all - and ate it with relish - and then I finished off with one, two, three more cups of the superfine British Airways coffee. I also fell in love with the steward. I pictured our civil partnership ceremony at the Camden register office on Judd Street and his Ealing flat that I'd move into. On his layovers, he would bring me airline meals he'd filched and I would grow morbidly obese on the oh-so-comforting potato dauphinoise.

This was better than the cannibalism daymare I'd had during take-off, but we were now dallying down over London and it was time for me to face the facts: I was alive, I had survived, I'd eaten three huge meals in the space of 12 hours and I now had suitably punitive indigestion.

An army may well march on its stomach - but for a civilian to fly on his has to be a strategic mistake.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.