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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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Labour trying to outdo Ukip on border control is the sure path to defeat

Only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for free movement. 

There is no point trying to deny it. Paul Nuttall’s election as Ukip leader is dangerous for Labour. Yes, Nuttall may not be a credible voice for working-class people – he ran as a Tory councillor in 2002 and has said that “the very existence of the NHS stifles competition”. Yes, he may be leader of a party which has (for now) haemorrhaged donors and supporters. But what Nuttall’s election represents is the coming of age for a form of right-wing populism which is pointed directly at Labour’s base. Along with the likes of Ukip's major donor Arron Banks, Nuttall will open up a second front against Labour – focused on blaming migrants for falling wages and crumbling services.

In the face of this danger, and the burning need to create a narrative of its own about the neglect of the communities it represents, Labour’s main response has been confusion. Barely a week has gone by without a major Labour figure repeating the touchstone myths on which Ukip has built its working class roots. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Emily Thornberry openly backed the idea that migration has dragged down wages. “Do I think that at the moment too many people come into this country? Yes I do”, she said.

Another response has been to look for policies that transcend the debate altogether, while giving a nod to the perceived “concerns” that voters harbour about immigration. When Clive Lewis spoke to the Guardian some weeks ago, he also repeated the idea that free movement “hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut” and coupled this with compulsory trade union membership for those coming to Britain to work – a closed shop for migrant workers.

It is unsurprising that MPs on the right of the party – many of whom had much to say about the benefits of migration during the EU referendum – have retreated into support for immigration controls. This kind of triangulation and retreat – the opposite of the insurgent leftwing populism that Labour needs to win elections – is the hallmark of Labour’s establishment politics. Those who want to stand and fight on the issue should be concerned that, for now, only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for continued free movement.

At the moment, Labour is chasing the narrative on immigration – and that has to stop. The process that is shifting the debate on migration is Brexit, the British franchise of a global nationalist resurgence that is sweeping the far right to power across the western world. Attempt to negotiate a compromise on migration in the face of that wave, or try to claim it as an “opportunity”, and there is simply no limit to how far Labour will be pushed. What is needed is an ideological counter-attack, which tells a different story about why living standards have deteriorated and offers real solutions.

The reason why wages have stagnated and in recent decades is not immigration. Among the very few studies which find that migration has caused a fall in wages, most conclude that the fall is marginal. The Bank of England’s study, cited by Boris Johnson in the heat of the EU referendum campaign, put the average figure at 0.3 per cent for every ten percentage point rise in migrants in a given sector of work. That rises to 1.8 per cent in some areas.

Median earnings fell by 10.4 per cent between 2007 and 2015, and by 2021 are forecast to be lower in real terms than they were in 2008. For many communities, that fall in wages comes on top of the destruction of industry; the defeat of the trade union movement; the fire sale of Britain’s social housing stock; and years of gruelling Tory austerity. Nuttall’s Ukip will argue that economic and social insecurity are the result of uncontrolled immigration. To give an inch to that claim is to abandon reality.

Labour cannot win against Ukip by playing around with new and innovative border controls – it has to put forward a vision for a radically different kind of society. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is closer than it ever has been to the kind of radical social and economic platform that it will need to regain power - £500bn of investment, building a million new homes a year, raising minimum wage and reinstating proper collective bargaining and trade union rights. What it needs now is clarity – a message about who to blame and what to do, which can cut through the dust kicked up by the Brexit vote.