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Will Self: Why I hate ramekins

I may be late to the party, but I am tough on ramekin – and on the causes of ramekin.

Ramekin disaster. Illustration: Jackson Rees

Ensorcelled as I was by my old friend Amanda Coe’s elegant dissection of the dead meat of English bourgeois mores, I nonetheless reared back from her novel Getting Colder when I read this passage:

Little England, he’d probably call them, as he did most things enjoyed by other people. Holidays, parties and TV were all Little England. Also caravans, pets, gardens, paying to see gardens and many kinds of food, particularly food doled out in pots or saucers into individual portions. The word “portion” . . . was itself very Little England, according to Patrick. A portion in a ramekin, served by anyone prepared to use the word “ramekin”, would probably make his head blow off.

The Patrick in question is a cantankerous playwright whose sole hit, Bloody Empire, became a cause célèbre when it was hijacked by those protesting against the Falklands war. Yet, separated as we are by age, literary form and (at least putatively) reality, I feel that he is my soulmate. It was this intense sympathy that had me rearing back – that, and our mutual detestation of both the signifier “ramekin” and what it signifies.

But there was a fourth factor impelling my rear; for me, both “ramekin” and the small individual-portion pot it denotes were utter novelties as of early 2015, yet the scene in Amanda’s novel in which Patrick’s detestation is manifested takes place circa 1982. A fanatic for period detail, I couldn’t believe I’d been living in a world in which “ramekin” had been au courant that long. To me, it smacked of the nouvelle British cuisine of the very late Eighties and early Nineties, so strongly that I carried on rearing back until the wall stopped me.

That and certain other germane facts: Amanda, a Bafta Award-winning screenwriter (for her television adaptation of Room at the Top), was not the sort to get her period detail wrong. I went downstairs to my wife’s study and, because she was the person who’d brought the damn ramekins into the house, I charged her: “How long have people been saying ‘ramekin’?” To which the reply came: “Oh, for ever, I s’pose – but certainly since the Eighties.” I took this correction in good part, although, like Patrick (in the event of hearing the word uttered), I still felt my head was about to blow off. I went back upstairs and consulted the OED, wherein I discovered that the earliest textual use of ramequinen français, naturally – was 1706, but that the term was thought to derive either from the Flemish rameken (toasted bread) or possibly the Middle Dutch ramken, a diminutive form of, um, cream.

Well, whatever the etymology of this abomination, I loathe it and all the little cheesy, creamy, crummy eatables that sail in it. The ramekins began appearing in the house a few months ago, arriving as containers for some supermarket titbit or other. I paid them no mind, stacking them in the cupboard with the normally sized bowls and trusting that in due course they’d go away. Without even knowing what they were called, I connected them with other ephemeral culinary fripperies such as the amuse-bouche served in a shot glass, or the superfluous finger bowl with a single rose petal floating in it. You might have thought that I, a committed anti-gastronome who longs for a time when he can live on Marmite-infused air, would see the virtue in these diminutions on the themes of crockery (and Welsh rarebit), but I’m afraid that when it comes to foodie-ism, increasingly I eschew harm-minimisation in favour of zero tolerance. I’m tough on ramekins – and I’m tough on the causes of ramekins.

It’s like this: Jo Malone, the founder of a world-girdling chain of smelly-water emporia, was the guest on Desert Island Discs a couple of weeks ago. The anodyne Kirsty Young, whose interviewing style is about as robust as a newborn baby’s, put this question to her: “Isn’t it the case that the packaging for your products is just as important as the products themselves?” To which Ms Malone vigorously assented: “You want your customers to feel proud to be seen with one of your bags on their arm.” Setting to one side the matter of just how empty-headed and vacuous you would need to be to feel pride at carrying a paper bag with “Jo Malone” written on it, what I think this exchange tells us is that in our culture the victory of style over substance is now complete, and we have, without a backward glance, exchanged the one, the indivisible, and the eternal, for the many, the fissiparous and the provisional.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .” Mere ramekins have been unleashed upon the world, and we are compelled to live out our days rattling our sporks against their irritating little grooves in a widening gyre. Where will it all end? I’ll tell you: with mindless creatures sitting gibbering in the wreckage of a civilisation. Then one of them will reach out, pull a roughly circular piece of roof tiling from the wreckage, smear rancid fat on it and lick it off – and so the whole ramekin-go-round will begin again.

Pass the sickbag, Patrick.

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 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.