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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

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation