Jamie Oliver: the “god of class mobility”? Chris Jackson/Getty
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If you hate Jamie Oliver, you might just be a snob

Do you dislike Jamie Oliver because you’re ideologically opposed to his pasta dishes, or is it because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life pisses you off?

I love Jamie Oliver. I love his watchability, his food, his brand. The coffee they sell in the Recipease up the road from me is delightful. I had a very nice pastry from there once. Sometimes, I wish my life could be tinted to a high-contrast colour scheme to resemble a 30 Minute Meals episode.

As if my deep affection towards the icon of Jamie was causing me to see him everywhere, he recently popped up in a Grayson Perry exhibition I attended called “The Vanity of Small Differences”. Among the vivid, detailed and intelligent social portraits exploring the fine lines between the different classes and their tastes, I clocked one image that stayed with me. In the top left of a tapestry was Jamie Oliver, the “god of class mobility”.

It stuck in my mind because I found it hilarious. I laughed. Knowingly. Isn’t that funny har har Jamie Oliver the god of class mobility har. Those foolish people who thought they could transport themselves into the throes of middle class stardom, just because they had a Jamie Oliver pepper grinder! How silly.

I continued around the exhibition, unaware of my own sneering snobbery. I just felt smug that I had understood what Grayson Perry was getting at. Surrounded by art that drew attention to the performance of class distinctions, all I could muster in terms of self-awareness was a sense of growing hunger and thoughts about whether I could get a Perry postcard after the exhibition.

Perry’s depiction of Oliver as the face of social mobility is emblematic of the snobbery people harbour for the chef. The humour of this is lies in that Jamie is far too earnest for the educated middle class – his emotional investment in getting rid of childhood obesity, and the way he honestly believes that people can cook healthy and filling meals in 15 minutes, both lack that telling self-deprecating self-awareness that the “educated” middle classes have. To put it bluntly, he’s too stupid, in middle class terms, to be middle class. This is why it’s funny to those who deride and mock Jamie for being an aspiration to the lower middle class – because really, he’s not middle class enough.

That’s not to say that all middle class people dislike Jamie Oliver; he exudes a rustic farmers’ market aesthetic that is coveted by the bourgeois classes. Indeed, doing a bit of research on Jamie reveals a line that epitomises his comfortable fit into a middle class lifestyle. “It might sound a bit mad,” Oliver has said, “but a solid bit of driftwood makes for a perfect chopping board, the kind you’d pay a small fortune for in a department store.” Amazing.

Deconstructing middle class signifiers is a struggle. Often it’s because they’re intangible. There aren’t rigid rules. And that’s sort of the point. The harder it is to define a middle class culture, the harder it is to enter it. Of course, Jamie Oliver could easily afford the department store Driftwood Chopping Board, but that would be far too obvious. Instead, he must individually select uniquely decayed bits of wood to garnish his home with. The proud middle classes would find it difficult to tell you what middle class culture actually was. This only compounds their advantage: the harder it is to define, the harder it is for those people you don’t want being part of it, to be part if it.

Middle class taste is self-righteously obsessed with a myth of effortless bourgeois consumerism – as if to give off the impression one has simply stumbled upon one’s £150 Le Creuset pot down the road, instead of ordering it off the John Lewis website. Condescension towards Jamie Oliver is couched in that focus on the intangible – a hatred stemming from the idea that the working classes think they capture this fleeting and ethereal middle class-ness, just because they’ve bought a Jamie Oliver™ Pestle and Mortar. In the 18th century, it was all about scoffing at the French for creating gardens that looked too perfect; now we just scoff at the working class for having middle class aspirations about their oil dispenser, and houses that are a little too clean.

Next time you feel yourself hating on Oliver, step back and take another look. Do you dislike him because you’re ideologically opposed to pasta dishes, or is it just because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life – and is selling them on – pisses you off? Sure, it’s utterly consumerist, but Jamie Oliver capitalises on something that most of us struggle to define: transforming a desire to better yourself morally and culturally into a cast-iron griddle pan. That, I think, is at least something to admire.

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist