Green bananas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
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Jack Monroe on Ed's two kitchens, leaving Labour – and why it's time to go bananas

Labour’s last straw was the “immigrants and benefits” scaremongering in one of its national leaflets. That’s not the party I joined. But it’s the party I left.

It’s banana season! It’s technically always banana season around here but according to my desktop seasonality calendar, which I check with alarming regularity these days, March is banana season proper – and that’s fine by me. At the Fairtrade Fortnight conference last year, we were told that there were hundreds of varieties of bananas being grown in the world but only one kind was sold in supermarkets. I wistfully remember Asda flirting with some fat, red-skinned bananas in my youth but they were short-lived. These days, living in Hammersmith, I can get socking great plantains cheaper than bananas. I recently had mole-drenched short ribs at a branch of the Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca, with a silky-sweet plantain purée to offset the sauce’s oral assault of heat and bitterness, and immediately bought some plantains afterwards as a reminder to make my own. They ended up as chips for the kids but the intention was there.

The most important thing about bananas is to buy Fairtrade ones. Some of the major supermarkets have Fairtrade bananas in their value ranges now, so there’s no excuse not to buy a banana from producers that pay a fair wage. Why would you want an unfair banana glowering at you from your fruit bowl? It just feels unfriendly. I feel as I type this that it may be one of those things I’m disproportionately passionate about. Congrats if you’ve read this far. I’ll move on.


It’s not me, it’s you

Speaking of bananas, there’s certainly some rubbish that passes for insightful commentary these days, generally of the 140-characters-at-a-time variety. “Reactionaries [are] relentlessly obsessing in the white noise of the internet,” as I put it in my Guardian column, explaining a few of my reasons for stepping down as “Miliband’s poster girl” (’s accolade, not mine) and hugging the Green Party instead. In 2013, I met Ed at a party conference and asked him what he was going to do about food banks and zero-hours contracts and the correlation between the two. His reply started with: “If we get into government . . .” I shouted at him: full-on, temper-lost shouting. It’s a disgrace that families have to go hungry for a day in the sixth-richest economy in the world; advocating the idea that they have to hang around for 20 months and hope that Labour gets elected before anything changes was unbelievable. A bit of me died that afternoon. The relationship started to crack, like a chip in a favourite teacup you carry on using anyway, knowing that one day it will shatter in your hands and scald you.

At Glasto’s Left Field later in the year, I described my loyalty to the party as akin to my relationship with my four-year-old son: they can be a little shit sometimes but you love them so you stick by them. My son listens and modifies his behaviour when he’s in the wrong, which is fortuitous as, unlike the red-for-Green exchange, I can’t just cancel my direct debit and get a new, slightly better-behaved one. Labour’s last straw was the “immigrants and benefits” scaremongering in one of its national leaflets. That’s not the party I joined. But it’s the party I left.


Dancing queens

On to lighter matters. A friend called to say that she had tickets for Nile Rodgers and Chic at the Roundhouse in Camden and to ask me if I wanted to come disco dancing. Being 27, I wasn’t the intended audience, but instead of asking, “Who?” I had a listen online in the days before. The wonders of modern technology: no more hovering around the radio all afternoon, waiting for a song to come on so we could push down the play and record button simultaneously and impress it on to a cracked old cassette . . . It’s just a quick search away now, which is more efficient but somehow less thrilling.

We went along in our band of four, in luminous shirts and flat, sensible shoes, quite unlike the ones I went dancing in during my heyday as a shots dolly at a local nightclub (there are photos somewhere, but thankfully I don’t have any and nobody would believe it was me anyway). It was a hoot: a happy-go-lucky, shuffling, disco hoot. We managed to be out by 11pm, too – it really wasn’t like that in my day.


Ministers in flight

Kitchengate – Sarah Vine v Ed Miliband – is rumbling on, with a brilliantly clear photo of a Private Eye column doing the rounds on Twitter. In this way, a good barney can rumble on for weeks as it drifts back again and again into the consciousness of the chattering classes. I was heartened to see the rambunctious Jay Rayner getting involved, querying the brass neck of Mr and Mrs Gove reportedly having the taxpayer fund a £750 Loire table and £66,000 of home decor and calmly facing down Vine’s bleating about being “trolled” (loosely interpreted to mean “publicly asked awkward questions about where the taxpayers’ money went”).

Mind you, Michael Gove is a man who gets a £110,000 limo service to take him from Downing Street to Westminster, a distance so pithy that I could probably hammer-throw him from A to B myself. I imagine I wouldn’t be the only one volunteering for this new, green, low-cost mode of transport: MP-hurling, better for congestion, the purse strings and the environment. I’ll put it in the Greens’ suggestion box.


This charming man

Finally, I was deeply unimpressed to open the Guardian one morning to see Kelvin MacKenzie gurning out of it with a byline. I still feel a little grubby from the time he sat next to me at dinner before BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? last year. His charming opening gambit was something along the lines of: “I’m sorry I don’t know who you are . . . but then I’m not very interested in girls who look like you.” This came with a disdainful hand gesture at my lumberjack-shirt-and-vest combination and the sleeves shoved up to show off two arms full of tattoos. I chalked that one up as a barometer of decency. Given what I know of Kelvin’s interests, I’m relieved not to be one of them.

Jack Monroe is the author of “A Year in 120 Recipes” (Michael Joseph)

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

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