The forward mulch of Labour

Even people who know absolutely nothing about British politics of the past two decades still know that Peter Mandelson once mistakenly referred to mushy peas as guacamole in a Hartlepool fish-and-chip shop. So widespread is the awareness of this epochal solecism that when I was on an
eco-holiday last year, deep in the Congolese rainforest, I was accosted by a group of Ituri pygmies who suggestively poked my groin with their spears while chanting: "Mishy-mushy, mishy-mushy, mushy-pea-Pe-ter!"

I took this all in good part; I certainly didn't try to persuade them that - as some assert - the tale was apocryphal, and put about by Neil Kinnock as a slur upon the hated spinmeister. Didn't try, because even if the guacamole faux pas hadn't happened, it really should have, so perfect an image is this for the rise of New Labour. Mushy peas as an accompaniment to the traditional British fast food of fish and chips encapsulate everything northern, heavy-industrial and emphatically Old Labour; superficially an unattractive green mulch, they are actually tasty and full of protein, and are also a further metaphor for the old-fashioned virtue of collectivism: individual peas pressed into the commonality of the Styrofoam pot.

By mistaking this wholesome staple for a faddish dip - the sort of thing that the quintessential arriviste Abigail would have served at her ghastly party - Mandelson incontinently exposed himself as the effete, southern bourgeois that so many socialists (remember them?) believed him to be. Years on, as we career towards an election that will be decided entirely on least-preference votes - for the candidates electors least despise - what is left of the once-groaning Labour board? The bag-Byerses and rat-Hoons have scuttled away with the crumbs; cheesy Blair has faded until only his cosmetically whitened grin remains. Yet there sits that behemoth "Lord" Mandelson, dipping his silver spoon into the guacamole of the Prime Minister's ever-envious brain.

Everlasting peas

If Mandelson's mushy pea moment was the apotheosis of the British labour movement - you can't be what you don't eat - the beginning of that whimpering end lay years earlier, when an EU directive terminated the ancient eco-ritual of wrapping battered cod (or haddock) in sheets of newsprint.

Soon enough, not only will the notion of wrapping takeaway food in newsprint seem hopelessly outdated, but newspapers themselves will have gone the way of all flesh. Who'd have thunk it, as the Guardian might say, that of this triumvirate - mushy peas, Mandy and an influential regional
press - only the former will still remain?

No plaice to go

Yet since time out of mind the noble chippie has stood proud on the British high street, a zinc-and-white-tiled shrine to unsaturated fats, wreathed in the mephitic yet queerly wholesome odour of fryers as deep as the Mariana Trench. Why, just the other evening I repaired to my local chippie and ordered some plaice and chips (to be told there was only cod - or haddock - available), and was served a repast that oozed conservatism. The fish went straight from the freezer into the batter, then the fryer; the chips were fat and tasteless; I stood waiting, staring abstractedly at a Pukka Pies advert that had never seen better days, but, best of all, my mushy peas came in a tiny Styrofoam pot, of a size suitable for a dip - guacamole, say - rather than a serious vegetable.

The quest for the perfect fish-and-chips meal can remain endless. Such is the diversity of chippies that there is always another greasy mountain to slither over. I have sought this deep-fried unicorn horn the length and breadth of Britain, motoring through Lanarkshire to the town of Biggar, which boasts "the finest fish-and-chip shop in Scotland" (it wasn't too bad; the chips were a bit soggy), standing in line outside the famous Sea Shell of Lisson Grove (plaice available!), and even crunching batter behind the fishing sheds of Hastings Old Town.

This last experience was depressing, for while Hastings boasts the only inshore fleet still to land on the south coast, the fish wasn't fresh at all. It's an irony that Mandelson would no doubt appreciate, that while it was deep-sea trawling that first made fried fish a viable, cheap food for the working class of Victorian Britain, it's the same industrial fishing that will ensure it ends up as a scarce delicacy. As for avocados . . .

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 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice