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The NS Interview: Alex James

“Keeping a pig is great but Monster Munch are nice as well”

You've written that everyone can afford good food. Is that really true?
It's the cheapest form of luxury you'll ever get. The thing that stops people eating well is lack of knowledge, not money.

Have we forgotten how to cook?
Yeah, I think rationing had a lot to do with it. In the early pictures of the Beatles, George Harrison looks malnourished. My dad tells me stories of going out to look for birds' eggs. Now­adays, food is so cheap. Even if you're on the dole, you can eat like a king - but you need the knowledge. After doing music for so long and thinking that it's a universal language, I found getting involved with food made me realise that music is a tribal language. It excludes as many people as it invites.

Who does your music appeal to?
I suppose it has broad appeal, but if I were to take a Blur record to a mud hut in Burkina Faso, it probably wouldn't have quite the same impact as a piece of my cheese would. Food truly is a universal, shared experience. In France, bishops and postmen are likely to eat the same thing for dinner. Here, food is a class thing and it shouldn't be. It's a fucking shame. Eighty per cent of the population is probably still eating bumper-pack Turkey Twizzlers.

Do you shop at supermarkets?
I've got five children. I shop at the cash and carry. It all comes on pallets. Living on a farm and having a pig is great, but Monster Munch is nice as well.

Will you send your kids to private school?
As soon as you become a father, you get the phone book out and say: "Get me Eton." You want your kids to have the best education.

You make "technologically advanced" cheese. What does that mean?
People distrust technology when it's applied to food because it's used routinely to make food cheaper - cheaper and shit. But technology is something that food needs to embrace. There's no reason why you couldn't have a shed in a field where cows walk in one end and the best cheese in the world pops out of the other. All you need is a bit of investment, and every process - the milking of the cows, the stirring, the turning of the cheese - can be done by machines better than a human being can do it.

You're involved with the Ambition AXA Awards for talented 11-to-18-year-olds. Are you, or were you, very ambitious?
Playing bass - that's a kind of passenger seat. But you get a lovely view.

Why did you get involved with the awards?
Basically, boredom. It's selfish. W H Auden once said that there were four basic human needs: to love, to be loved, to be a teacher and to be a pupil. There's a worrying statistic that only 40 per cent of kids think that they can do what they want. You can do whatever you fucking want. I have no musical training, but I wanted to be in a band. I shudder to think what would happen to me if I were 19 now.When Blur got signed, four grand was our advance. None of us had any money at all; we had nothing. Graham [Coxon]'s mum used to send him £20 a week and he lived off that. We were living in a burned-out, condemned squat. It was horrible. Music wasn't a career choice. It was a sort of denial. It was a rebellion.

You seem to have enjoyed being in a band.
Yeah, it was my job. I think there probably aren't as many jobs going for rock stars. Are there any rock stars these days? I think the world has changed a lot since then. Those were the last days of rock stars having aeroplanes and riding bicycles down the stairs of the Groucho. Famous people today don't have as much fun. It's much more scrutinised. Then, the world was drunker, more genteel, more ridiculous.

What was it like to work on the Beagle 2 mission to Mars with the scientist Colin Pillinger?
Colin was trying to do something incredible. He was a very driven, motivated person. As Damien Hirst said many years ago, picking what you want to do is the hardest thing you ever have to do. Once you know what you want, getting it is just administration.

Are the sciences taught well in schools?
They're always trying to spice it up and do it with a grin and a cool haircut, but I quite like my science served cold.

Do you vote?
I went to have a look, yeah.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
There's lots of things I'd like to remember.

Is there a plan for your career?
More, as I get older. Empire-building isn't the only sort of success. I suppose that's part of mentoring - trying to encourage people to see that even rebellion can be managed more effectively.

Are we all doomed?
No, I think we're gonna be just fine.

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Boscombe, Bournemouth
1988 Meets Graham Coxon, Damon Albarn and the artist Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths College, London, while studying French
1995 Blur's "Country House" battles "Roll With It" by Oasis in the charts. Blur wins
2003 Marries Claire Neate and moves to a farm in the Cotswolds
2004 His first child, Geronimo, is born. Galileo, Artemis, Beatrix and Sable follow
2011 Backs the Ambition AXA Awards

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue