Frontier town: Quito, Ecuador, seen shortly after a small earthquake, August 2014. Photo: Getty
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Alone in the border town, I got a bit too nifty with the Spanish phrasebook

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

Border towns are often dodgy places. Anyone sensible would not arrive at one in the middle of night with nowhere to stay. But I was never anyone sensible.

What had possessed me to “do” South America in 1981 is hard to say. I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blokes I knew were going out to Nicaragua to aid the Sandinistas in their revolutionary struggle.

Somehow I thought this was mere fashion and that Central America was not the real deal.

I bought a one-way flight from Miami to Quito, Ecuador, on my Barclaycard and then persuaded a Dutch guy and his Israeli sidekick to get a driveaway car from New York where I was living.

It is hard to say how unprepared I was for an entire continent. For a start, I had assumed Latin America was hot so I had nothing more than what could only be called a summer wardrobe. Somehow the Andes had not figured in my scheme of things.

Ruth was tall and skinny and hyper and gave me tips. I met her in the first week in Quito. When men hissed and clicked at her she would hiss back, “Fuck off and die.”

At first I thought this excessive. By the end of my trip I would have happily macheted many of them myself.

The sexual harassment was so extreme that stuff like going to the loo meant two men blocking your way and groping you. Maybe it’s better now? In 1981 a woman travelling alone was asking for it.

But I was a quick learner. I learned where to sit and where to avoid. I learned sometimes it was just easier not to go out at night at all. I learned the art of bribery. And the code of giving presents to officials which meant that borders could be crossed, papers would always be in order.

But this town, a collection of run-down brothels and bars, was a very bad place. My main aim was not to be murdered.

There were no hostels and no transport out. Old men with bottles of hooch sent me down alleyways looking for a room, hawking up phlegm as they laughed at my predicament. Staying in a flophouse was better surely than staying out all night with these characters.

“How much? ” I asked a toothless man in what would be called “Reception” only in a godforsaken shack.

The price was extortionate.

I began bargaining: “El noventa? Eso es ridículo!

I got the price right down.

Cincuenta soles.”

He leered at me. My Spanish was coming on in leaps and bounds even though this was a shithole.

He took me up to the room. There were dirty clothes everywhere and a poster of Clint Eastwood on the wall. He locked the door and came towards me. “Gringita . . .”

This was his room.

The price that I had so successfully haggled down? That was my price. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

Via Getty

“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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