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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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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