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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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage