Miles Cole for New Statesman.
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The pugilist: Sadiq Khan’s quest to become mayor of London

Can the Tooting MP complete the journey from council home to City Hall? 

One recent morning, Sadiq Khan entered the ring at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club in Wandsworth, south London. He ­began sparring with one of the regulars: ducking, weaving, throwing jabs. Khan learned to box as a boy, partly for self-defence; two of his brothers are coaches at the volunteer-run academy near Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005. Among those pictured on the wall is Frank Bruno, the club’s most famous son.

Khan had invited me to join him, and soon after I arrive at 10am, Pop, the youngest of his seven siblings, inducts me in the ring and we begin 90 minutes of training. “Boxing isn’t fighting,” Khan told me when I interviewed him two days earlier. “It’s a classic mistake people make – boxing is a sport. The skills you learn are life skills: being magnanimous, what to eat, how to keep fit, how to look out for each other. The first thing you learn in boxing is defence – you’ve got to defend yourself . . . We all boxed [in my family] and that gives you confidence if you get into bother on the street.”

The only one of his brothers not to compete at amateur level, Khan preferred football and cricket (he had trials for Surrey). But he moves with an agility seldom associated with MPs – many of whom are more likely to be found in the Palace of Westminster’s bars than its gym. As a devout Muslim, Khan does not drink, and in 2014 he ran the London Marathon.

During our warm-down we pass a road on which his father drove the number 44 bus. A few minutes away is the council estate where Khan grew up. He doubts that bus drivers today could afford to live in the area, and speaks with sadness at how gentrification has frayed the bonds of community. It was the fear that working-class Londoners were being denied the opportunities ­afforded to his family that partly inspired his candidacy for mayor of London.

***

In eight weeks, on 5 May, Sadiq Khan will compete in the UK’s biggest bout of all. With the exception of the French president, no European politician has a larger personal mandate than the mayor of London. The city's leader controls a £16bn budget and housing, planning and transport policy. If the government lives up to its devolutionary rhetoric, the next incumbent will acquire still greater powers.

For the past eight years, London has been led by Boris Johnson, who twice defeated his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. But Khan is predicted to win back City Hall for Labour. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, whose billionaire father founded the Eurosceptic Referendum Party, was the candidate that many in Labour feared: telegenic, green (he edited the Ecologist magazine) and socially liberal. The Tories’ hope was that, like Johnson, Goldsmith would attract non-Conservative voters. Yet in a city that leans ever more towards Labour – the party won 45 of its 73 seats in last year’s general election – few believe he can emulate his predecessor. Fellow Tories have criticised his campaign as “low-energy”. The most recent poll, published by Opinium on 8 March, gave Khan a 10-point lead in the final round.

“I’m the least complacent person you’ll find but I’m quietly confident,” he told me.

Khan, colleagues often say, is “a winner”. At the 2010 general election, he defended his Tooting seat from an aggressive and well-funded Conservative challenge. In the same year, he managed Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, masterminding the defeat of Miliband’s elder brother, David. In the 2014 local elections, after Miliband rewarded him with the post of shadow minister for London, Khan achieved Labour’s best result in the capital since 1971. At last year’s general election, on an otherwise morose night, the party gained seven seats in London, its strongest performance since 2001.

When Khan announced in May last year that he would stand to be Labour’s mayoral candidate, many expected him to be defeated by Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister. It was not an assessment that Khan ever shared. As David Lammy, who finished fourth in the selection contest, told me: “I remember Sadiq sitting in his office – it would have been six months before the campaign got going. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, I am going to do this.’ He was steely about it and very clear in his own mind.”

Khan’s team emphasised an ­elementary but overlooked truth: it was Labour Party members and supporters who would choose the candidate. The party’s leftwards trajectory gave him the advantage. Unlike Jowell, an unashamed Blairite, Khan opposed the Iraq War, a totemic issue for activists. He worked hard to win the endorsements of Ken Livingstone, the Unite, GMB and CWU trade unions and his fellow London MPs. Khan’s nomination – if not support – of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership and his opposition to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill gave him further credibility among the party’s selectorate. His policies included a London Living Rent (based on a third of average local income) and a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares.

While Jowell and other candidates attempted to appeal to existing party members, Khan recruited new ones. Over the four-month campaign, he made more than 200 visits to workplaces, community centres, churches, temples, mosques and shopping malls. “The thing that should never be underestimated with Sadiq is his ability to campaign,” Lammy told me. “He’s a bit like a terrier; when he gets his teeth into something he’s not going to let it go.” Jowell simply told me that Khan was a “formidable campaigner” and that “all the signs are that he’s going to win”.

When the selection result was announced on 11 September 2015, with Khan beating Jowell 59-41 in the final round of voting, many were stunned by his landslide victory. But not him. “I never thought it was going to be a close race,” he told me just after the result was announced at the Royal Festival Hall. “I always knew – irrespective of what respectable London newspapers may write and who they’re going to endorse – when it comes to voters seeing what the candidates stand for and what their vision is, I’d win.”

No one I spoke to doubted Khan’s political skill, but some questioned his integrity. “He has got a tendency to want it so much that he slightly overeggs it,” a senior Labour MP told me. “Some of that mud will get thrown at him: that he changes his position, that he is politically expedient – and that then goes to trust. What does he really stand for?”

Having nominated Corbyn for the leadership, Khan was derided for sharply rebuking the new Labour leader in a Mail on Sunday interview on 20 September. He warned that Corbyn’s meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah reinforced Labour’s “anti-Jewish” image, criticised him for failing to sing the national anthem (“He was very unwise. You are trying to be the British prime minister”) and vowed to “work closely with a Tory government if it is in London’s interest”.

Such comments, opponents suggested, would never have been made during the selection contest for the mayoral candidacy – when he needed the Corbynites. But he insists there was no inconsistency. “I was quite clear when I nominated Jeremy that I wasn’t going to vote for him [Khan endorsed Andy Burnham]. Look on my Twitter timeline. And, George, in the selection process I was asked whether I would serve in his shadow cabinet, if I wasn’t successful, and I said no – because we come from different parts of the party. We believe in different things.”

Without the help of Khan and other non-supporters, Corbyn would not have made the ballot. Khan insisted that he had no regrets. “Jeremy Corbyn, to give him some credit, won among Labour Party members, among Labour Party supporters and among trade union supporters . . . You can have an analysis of why the other candidates failed to inspire, enthuse and engage with the membership, whereas Jeremy did, and that’s a conversation for them to have.”

He rejected the suggestion that his victory was a by-product of Corbynism. Were that the case, he said, one would have expected Diane Abbott or Christian Wolmar (both of whom voted for the eventual leader) to win. “The reason why that didn’t happen was because in my campaign I managed to enthuse, inspire and engage the selectorate. My mandate is similar to Jeremy’s, almost 60 per cent ... We were fizzing with energy, we had ideas and we won.”

His attempts to distance himself from the Labour leader have led the Tories to label him “Corbyn’s man”. At a Goldsmith rally on 26 January, David Cameron warned voters that they would be “lab rats in the first Corbyn economic experiment in public life” if Khan won.

However, in tacit acknowledgement of the risk posed by Corbyn’s unpopularity, Khan does not plan to appear in public with him in the lead-up to May (to the consternation of Corbyn’s allies). The leader’s role will be limited to voter mobilisation: leafleting, fundraising and phone banking. Yet Corbyn has more cause than most to hope that Khan is successful. Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1982 to lose council seats in a non-general-election year; retaking the mayoralty would provide crucial consolation.

Khan is also avoiding campaign appearances with Livingstone and has ruled out giving him a job if he wins. “If you’re running for mayor, your job is to represent London – you’ve got to stand up for London,” Livingstone said of Khan. “You often have to disagree with a Labour government, as I had to. It’s a campaign between Zac and Sadiq; it’s not a rerun of me and Boris. We should keep out of it.”

***

The day after Corbyn made the Labour leadership ballot on 15 June last year, Khan was again accused of expediency when he announced that he opposed a third runway at  Heathrow Airport in favour of Gatwick. “Sadiq was for Heathrow expansion in 2008; he was for it when he was transport minister in 2009. Zac Goldsmith has announced he is running [the Tory candidate is a long-standing opponent], and suddenly he’s against it,” Lammy told a mayoral hustings. But Khan denied that his stance was born of opportunism. “It was born out of the facts. Unlike Zac Goldsmith, I accept the case for an increase in flight capacity in this part of the country. I think the case has been made for jobs and growth.

“But in the last full year for which there’s data almost 10,000 Londoners died because of air pollution. There are children in parts of London whose lungs are underdeveloped. The UK Supreme Court last April held that the air-quality directive had been breached. So air is a killer – it makes you sick and it’s illegal. In those circumstances, you can’t say yes to a new runway at Heathrow.”

At Gatwick, he added, far fewer people were affected by air and noise pollution.

The Tories have recently levelled a far graver charge than that of Corbynism or opportunism: that Khan is a friend of Islamist extremists. On 7 February the Sunday Times reported that Khan had attended four meetings of the group Stop Political Terror (while campaigning against the US-UK extradition treaty), which had the support of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda cleric. On 12 February, across two pages, the London Evening Standard noted that Khan’s former brother-in-law, Makbool Javaid, had attended events organised by the extremist group al-Muhajiroun in the 1990s (the pair have not spoken for a decade). Four days later, MailOnline reported that Khan had given a speech at the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival while the “black flag of jihad” was flying.

Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told me: “Khan wants to be the mayor for millions of Londoners at a time when the terror threat is very real. An attack could happen at any time and he would have to respond and unite the city in those circumstances – he will be responsible for policing and community relations. He’s campaigned against the role of the police and allowed himself to share platforms with people who very definitely have the wrong kind of views. It’s not very good judgement if he wants to be the mayor of a city like London.”

Such comments frustrate Khan. “People who understand politics understand what happens at these things,” he said. “What happened was very simple.

“Many MPs from all parties, including Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith himself, had objections to the US-UK extradition treaty . . . Now, often when there are meetings happening about a cause, what happens is you’re very busy; the meeting may have been taking place for two, three, four hours; you’re doing other stuff. You go along, you take the stage, you do your spiel, you speak and more often than not just leave to do your next event.

“Often you’ve got no idea who was speaking before you, who’s speaking after you. Nobody could honestly, hand on heart, think I agree with the sort of views spouted by other people who spoke at the same meetings: that’s not the way it worked.

“I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to extremism and radicalisation. I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to people who claim to follow the same faith as me but have views that are abhorrent.”

He added: “So, what are you implying by your nudge-nudge and your wink-wink? What are you saying either about me or about the one million Londoners of Islamic faith? I get people approaching me all the time who are Muslim who say, ‘If they’re doing this to you, what chance have I got?’ or, ‘You’re encouraging us to get ­involved in mainstream politics yet this is how you’re treated’ or, ‘If they’re digging around, as they’ve been for months, about your extended family – about who used to be related to you, or whatever – what chance have we got?’”

He spoke of his dismay that Goldsmith, who some believed would shun such tactics, had pursued this path. “Those advising Zac to do this sort of stuff, it’s foolish advice. I thought Zac was bigger than this.”

Khan has received death threats from extremists for his involvement in democratic politics and, more recently, for supporting equal marriage. Friends say that despite the political and physical risks posed by taking this stance, he never hesitated. As a former human rights lawyer and champion of civil liberties (he chaired Liberty for three years), it was an automatic choice.

In a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in November, a week after the Paris terror attacks, Khan spoke of how “successive governments had tolerated segregation in British society” and had allowed “the conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”.

He warned: “We’ve protected people’s right to live their cultural life at the expense of creating a common life. Too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background, without understanding or empathising with the lives and beliefs of others.”

None of this has prevented his rivals making the claim that he is a friend of extremists and, by implication, one himself. But unlike Livingstone, who responded vociferously to accusations of anti-Semitism, Khan has maintained his composure.

“I’ve watched him go through this extremism row two or three times quite closely,” an MP told me. “He’s extraordinarily calm under that level of pressure. He draws on a well of inner stability that is really impressive. Tony Blair could obviously do it in spades but there are not that many senior politicians who can do it.”

***

Sadiq Aman Khan was born on 8 October 1970 at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. His grandparents emigrated from India to Pakistan following Partition; his parents emigrated from Pakistan to London shortly before his birth. Khan was the fifth of eight children (he has six brothers and one sister). His late father, Amanullah, was a bus driver for more than 25 years; his mother, Sehrun, was a seamstress.

Khan attributes his work ethic to his upbringing. “My dad worked all the hours that God sent as a bus driver. If he got overtime he’d take it. My mum not only raised eight children but was sewing clothes in the house while raising us, while cooking.

“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. I got a paper round, a Saturday job – some summers I laboured on a building site.”

He was taught to support those in need. “My mum and dad would send money to their relatives back in Pakistan. My mum still does, because we’re blessed being in this  country.”

The family grew up on the Henry Prince council estate in Earlsfield, where Khan and his seven siblings squeezed into a three-bedroom home. He did not travel abroad until he was 23 and slept in a bunkbed until he was 24. He attended the Ernest Bevin comprehensive school (named after the former Labour foreign secretary), which Independent editor Amol Rajan described as “the dreaded second choice ... the staple of local news reports about drugs, gangs and local hoodlums.” I asked Khan if this Tarantino-esque description was accurate.

“Listen, I’m very careful of speaking about certain things because it gives the impression ... Look, it’s still a school and children still go there, you don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the school. It was a great school, it fulfilled my potential. I’m not one of these people who moans that I could have been this if I’d gone to this school. It was a great school, the teachers worked their socks off.” He added: “It was a tough school, though, you had to be streetwise, you had to look after yourself.”

Racism was a feature of the family’s life. Bus passengers referred to his bearded father as “Paki Santa” and assaulted him. Such insults sometimes prompted Khan to use his boxing skills. “We went down on the floor hitting each other,” he told the Mail on Sunday of one fight. “He didn’t call me the ‘P-word’ again.”

Khan and his brothers also encountered racism on the football terraces. “I experienced Wimbledon, my brothers experienced Chelsea,” he told me. “At Stamford Bridge there’s a place called ‘the shed’. The NF [National Front] would sell newspapers and wear boots and the green bomber jackets and chase people like my brothers away, call them names.

“I didn’t support Chelsea because I didn’t want to support a club that had racist fans. Plough Lane was down the road ... I remember going to watch Wimbledon vs Spurs, it was an FA Cup game. Although I was a Wimbledon fan, at the Wimbledon end, after the game I was racially abused by fans using the Y-word and the P-word.

"I didn’t go back to Plough Lane.”

He then spoke movingly of the extent to which London had progressed. “My daughters [Anisah and Ammarah] are 16 and 14 and they’ve basically grown up in the same area that I grew up in and my wife grew up in. They’ve never been called the P-word – they’ve never been the victim of overt racial abuse. That shows the progress we’ve made.”

At school, a teacher told Khan, who studied biology, chemistry and maths at A-level, “You’re always arguing. Why don’t you be a lawyer, rather than a dentist?” It was this, as well as LA Law on television, that inspired him to join the Bar. He studied at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan), where he became a visiting lecturer, and took his finals at the Guildford College of Law. Having joined Labour at the age of 15, he was elected as a councillor in Wandsworth in 1994. That same year, he married Saadiya Ahmed, a fellow solicitor.

Khan told me he made a conscious decision to specialise in human rights law (“acting for the underdog”), rather than corporate law. “It wasn’t work for the sake of becoming a millionaire. It was working hard and giving something back.”

He became a trainee solicitor in 1994 at Christian Fisher under the renowned human rights lawyer Louise Christian. Three years later, he was made a partner – a precocious achievement for someone of his age and background. In 2004 he left the company, which had been renamed Christian Khan, to become the Labour candidate for Tooting. Khan and his former partner, who was aggrieved by his sudden departure, have not spoken since.

As a human rights lawyer, he acted for what he recently described as “unsavoury individuals”, such as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Babar ­Ahmad, who pleaded guilty in the US in 2013 to “providing material support to terrorism”. Ahmad, whose extradition was opposed by Khan and other MPs (including Goldsmith), was a childhood friend. Khan’s opponents have sought to exploit this.

“We never went to each other’s houses. We weren’t close friends but we knew each other growing up – we’d see each other at mosques,” Khan told me. “When you see people at the mosque you don’t discuss politics and stuff. It’s, ‘How you doing? How’s things?’ You may play cricket together, as most kids do at the park and stuff. I can’t remember having an argument about his views in detail. What I do know is that when he was arrested it was a big deal because he was the victim of police misconduct. He brought a claim and won damages in relation to how he was treated – he suffered serious injuries.” Khan has seen Ahmad twice since he was released from prison in the US: at a funeral at Balham Mosque and on the Tube with his lawyer.

In 2005, Khan was elected as the MP for Tooting, his lifelong home. He was praised by former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who represents neighbouring Streatham, as a constituency champion. "In spite of the fact that he's had a national role he was never seen to have taken his eye off the ball of the local situation," he told me. 

Six months after entering parliament, Khan rebelled over Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention for terror suspects, the first of several clashes with the then prime minister. In 2006 he signed an open letter warning that the government’s foreign policy provided “ammunition to extremists”. On the tenth anniversary of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, he spoke of how Blair had “called the four MPs of Islamic faith in to No 10 and sat us round a table and said – to Mohammad Sarwar, Khalid Mahmood, Shahid Malik and myself – it was our responsibility.

“I said: ‘No it’s not. Why have you called us in? I don’t blame you for the Ku Klux Klan. Why are you blaming me for the four bombers on 7/7?’” (This account is contested by Mahmood and Malik, who accused Khan of “self-serving revisionism”.)

“They’re allowed to recollect things how they like,” he told me. “I’m quite clear in my recollection . . . It reinforces my view that we’ve got to defeat radicalisation and extremism by all of us working on this – this isn’t a uniquely Muslim problem. There’s a great saying, which is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Similarly, it will take a village to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

In Gordon Brown’s 2008 reshuffle, Khan was appointed communities minister, becoming the second Muslim to serve in government. The following year he was made transport minister: the first Muslim to attend cabinet and become a privy counsellor. “The palace called me and said, ‘What type of Bible do you want to swear on?’ When I said the Quran, they said, ‘We haven’t got one.’ So I took one with me.”

Of his faith, he told me: “It’s part of who I am – that’s the best way of describing it, because I’ve been asked this a lot. We all have multiple identities: I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m Fabian and I’m Muslim.”

I asked him how he felt when an LBC/YouGov poll was published showing that 31 per cent of Londoners would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim mayor. “That was during the selection campaign. When I saw it I was thoroughly depressed.

“When you’re the candidate in a campaign, you’ve got to be strong; you’re the leader. I went to the campaign – we’ve got lots of volunteers – three of my volunteers of Islamic faith were devastated. Two of them were crying. They just didn’t want to carry on because they were devastated that the impression was given that three out of ten Londoners are somehow Islamophobes.

“That’s not what the survey was about. With surveys, with polls, it’s how you ask the question. If I ask you the question, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the mayor of London was of Islamic faith?’, what sort of message would that send? It elicits a very different answer to, ‘How comfortable are you with the mayor of London being a Muslim?’ And so I’ve spoken to people at LBC who on reflection realised that the question maybe shouldn’t have been asked, or at least asked in a different way.

“You can slice and dice it whichever way you want, this is a great, great city. There is no other city I’d rather raise my daughters in. I’ve got cousins in Pakistan, ethnic majority and religious majority, and they say to me they couldn’t achieve in Pakistan what I’ve achieved here.

***

For some politicians, campaigning is mere business; for Khan it is a pleasure. I joined him in east London as he visited start-ups hosted by the Bootstrap Company in Dalston: a film-maker, a bakery, a dressmaker. “Are you making a profit yet?” he asked. At a time when his party is increasingly perceived as “anti-business”, Khan takes every opportunity to present himself as a friend of enterprise. He has been aided by Goldsmith’s decision to support Brexit.

“We’re a city where literally more than 500,000 jobs are directly dependent on us being a member of the EU,” he said. “We’re a city where 60 per cent of the world’s companies choose their headquarters. Forty-three per cent of London’s exports go to the European Union. In those circumstances, if you want to be a good mayor, how can you be in favour of leaving?”

Goldsmith has argued that a Conservative mayor will invariably get a better deal from the government, a notion that Khan dismisses. “To give the current government their due, they do business with a Scottish Parliament, which is not Tory . . . they do deals with the Welsh Assembly, which is not Tory. They’ve given greater devolution to Greater Manchester, which is not Tory and probably never will be.

“I actually get on with George Osborne and other members of the government. Many of them sponsored me when I did the marathon. I think I’m friends with some of them.” Osborne, a fellow Londoner, personally congratulated Khan when he won the mayoral nomination.

Khan’s name is often mentioned alongside that of Sajid Javid, the business secretary and fellow bus driver’s son (“I’m the son of a bus driver. I used to love that line ... then Sajid fucking Javid came along,” Khan quipped during his press gallery appearance). “I saw him the other night, actually,” he said. “I think one of the great things about politics now is if you’re an ethnic minority the sole party for you to choose isn’t the Labour Party. That’s fantastic, I think, it’s really encouraging that both mainstream parties have embraced the importance of reflecting society.”

During his time in the shadow cabinet, Khan was one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and a tribune of the soft left. But he told me that he no longer supports signature policies such as a 50 per cent income-tax rate or a “mansion tax”.

“It’s really important to understand that we had a manifesto, which we fought the 2015 election on, and we lost – we lost badly for the second time in a row.

“In the Eighties when we were losing elections, members of my party had a phrase, which I think was wrong, which is ‘no compromise with the electorate’. The electorate are always right.”

In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin Barber writes that “a preference for pragmatism and problem-solving over ideology” is a feature of successful city leaders. It is a model that Khan – like Ken Livingstone before him, a socialist who forged an alliance with big business – has embraced.

If Sadiq Khan wins the race to lead London, he will capture a prize that increasingly eludes Labour outside the city: elected office. The election of a British Muslim mayor would be an event of international significance, and a symbol of London’s cosmopolitanism. “I’m fed up of losing. I don’t believe in heroic failure,” he told me. “I’ve got the policies, I’ve got the principle. We need the power to improve London.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

Clockwise from top left: Moonlight, Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water
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The hand that feeds: how food scenes became the home of intimacy, sex and power in film

While food in general has been a big part of film over the past two years, it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

When was the last time somebody fed you? Not the last time your friend invited you round for dinner, or your partner cooked something delicious and romantic that you ate together. Not the last time you went to a nice restaurant and your date scooped a forkful of their meal into your mouth. When was the last time someone lived to serve your appetite, and your appetite alone?

Being fed is something that happens to people in an infantilised state. It suggests vulnerability. In this way, it is deeply, sometimes overly, intimate. When one person is eating and another isn’t – particularly in a sit-down, food-focused setting – traditional social dynamics become imbalanced, like being stark naked next to someone fully clothed, or a singer performing for an audience of one. As such, being fed can sit on a knife-edge of power dynamics: sometimes maternally nourishing, sometimes romantically intimate, sometimes exposing and uncomfortable. As a visual expression of the complexities of relationships, and with our need for food so often functioning as a metaphor for emotional needs and sexual desire, feeding scenes are particularly cinematic.

In fact, they are some of cinema’s most memorable: from Snow White accepting the evil witch’s apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the much-parodied food-as-foreplay sequence in 9 Weeks. I think of the sandwiches eaten early on in Psycho. When Marion arrives at the Bates Hotel, Norman Bates asks her, “Will you have supper here?” relaxing her by insisting “I was just about to, myself…” But once the sandwiches are prepared, Bates doesn’t eat. “It’s all for you. I’m not hungry. Please go ahead,” he insists. Marion, forced to eat alone, nibbles uncomfortably, and Bates watches closely. “You eat like a bird”, he says, comparing her to the stuffed birds dotted all around the room. It’s our first hint – along with his off-screen mother’s disembodied ranting about Mary “appeasing her ugly appetite with my food – and my son!” – that something is deeply wrong, as the proper dynamics of a meal are disturbed, and food openly discussed as a sexual metaphor.

While food in general has been a big part of film and film discussions over the past couple of years – from teenage girls snacking on un-consecrated wafers in Lady Bird to Get Out’s fruit loops and milk eaten (crucially, psychopathically) separately – it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

Perhaps no recent film privileges the role of food in relationships as highly as Moonlight (2016), which follows the coming-of-age of a gay black boy in Miami, Florida. “When it comes to food and film, its Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight that paints food, and feeding, the most vibrantly,” Ruby Tandoh writes in her book Eat Up, in a section on the ways in which food functions as a language of caring. “The food is rich and exquisite and larger than life, but it’s not really the contents of the plate that counts. What matters, in each of these scenes, is that the meal sits there on the table between Chiron and the people who love him – a symbol of the most nurturing kind of love.” Moonlight explores the growing up of Chiron, in three acts (child, teenager and adult), and each of these acts contains at least one key scene in which Chiron is fed.

In an early scene, young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is sat in a plasticy diner in front of Juan, a stranger who has taken it upon himself to look after neglected Chiron. Juan sits casually, a milkshake in hand, but with no food for himself, while Chiron eats his fries with a fork, quickly and silently.

“You not gonna tell me what your name is?” Juan says. When Chiron makes no attempt to reply, Juan pulls the tray out of his reach. Chrion looks down and shuffles back into his seat, still sulkily silent. Juan laughs. “Oh, man, you know I wouldn’t do you like that. Anyway, I apologize, alright? I’m just trying to get you to say something.”

After a short car ride, we are at home with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa. Juan and Teresa have no plates before them, but are both watching Chiron silently make his way through a plate of chicken. “You don’t talk much but you damn sure can eat,” Juan laughs. “That’s alright, baby. You ain’t got to talk till you get good and ready,” says Teresa. Finally, he speaks. “My name’s Chiron.” Even at this early stage in the film, the relationship between emotional and physical nourishment is clear, as food seen as a gateway to trust and familiarity.

When Chiron is older, he still relies on Teresa for this nourishment. In the film’s second act, Theresa tries to joke with a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as he eats (again, she herself does not), but Chiron, anxious and sullen, doesn’t bite, instead looking down at his plate. Theresa gently, lovingly insists he sit up and speak. “Stop putting your head down in my house. You know my rule, it’s all love and all pride in this house. You feel me? I can’t hear you. Do you feel me?”

These dynamics reappear in Chiron’s romantic relationship as a grown man. Now muscular and masculine but still shy and reserved, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) meets up with Kevin (André Holland), the object of his childhood affections, in the diner he runs. This diner scene, for many the iconic image of the film, is stretched out until it twitches with sexual tension, full of long silences and extended eye contact, running at an almost painfully long fifteen minutes. “You ain’t changed one damn bit,” Kevin observes. “You still can’t say more than three words at a time, huh?” Without missing a beat, Chiron speaks. “You said you was gonna cook for me. I know how to say that.”

We watch Kevin prepare the chef’s special with skill and care. Kevin brings it over to Chiron in a window booth, insists they share a bottle of wine, and attentively watches him eat his meal. When Chiron drops a bit on the table, and eats it with his fingers, popping it in his mouth, Kevin laughs. “I saw that, I saw that!” When Chiron is reluctant to share more personal details of his life, Kevin refuses to let it slide. “I’ve been back there in that kitchen, man, and cooked for your ass and everything. Hey, these grandma’s rules, man. You know the deal: your ass eat, your ass speak.”

Kevin’s joking about “grandma’s rules” points towards the larger significance of Moonlight’s meals: food is the tool that allows Kevin, Theresa, and Juan to enter Chiron’s life intimately, in both parental and romantic roles. For someone like Chiron – lonely, neglected, whose appetites and needs don’t take centre stage in his own childhood home – meals like this become the times where he is most vulnerable, and most open to love.

Parallels have been drawn between Moonlight and Sean Baker’s exploration of impoverished childhood The Florida Project (2017), even by Barry Jenkins himself. Moonee, The Florida Project’s central character, is, like Chiron, the child of a single mother in desperate circumstances (they live in a $38 a night motel called The Magic Castle, near Florida’s Disney World). But Moonee’s mother Halley is more caring, and present, and is at her most nurturing when feeding her child.

In one scene, we watch from Halley’s perspective as Moonee eats her weight in food at an all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast buffet Halley has sneaked them into. Moonee wolfs down bacon and fruit and pastries, and drinks a huge glass of orange juice in a single gulp. She is thrilled: “I wish I had a bigger stomach – like I was pregnant! I could fit food in there... We’ve gotta come here again. This is the life man! Better than a cruise!” The whole scene is a performance: Halley pretends to be a normal hotel guest on holiday with her child, Moonee in turn plays up her enjoyment for her mother. But it’s a performance that allows Halley and Moonee to have a loving, normal mother-daughter relationship, even if it’s short-lived. Halley simply watches her overexcited daughter quietly, smiling beatifically. As her daughter is at her most effusive and childlike, delighting in life’s simple pleasures, Halley is at her most maternal.

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016) can also be compared to Moonlight: here is a colder imagining of queer love in a diner. Lonely, isolated Montanan ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls for a young lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart) when she accidentally walks into her law class. After class, Jamie offers to take Beth to a diner. Over three scenes in that diner, Reichardt explores Jamie’s unreciprocated interest in Beth: in each, Beth eats while Jamie watches eagerly, ordering no food for herself.

In the first, Beth eats a sad-looking burger and complains about the long journey ahead of her. In the second, she eats a bowl of soup, while Jamie, again, only watches. Beth asks Jamie, businesslike, “Do you happen to know anyone in town who could teach my class?” Jamie chuckles sheepishly and says, “I don’t know anyone at all.” It’s overly intimate – Jamie wants Beth to ask about her loneliness. Her soft smile is the one of someone being examined by a new lover. Beth looks at her soup and asks Jamie vaguely about her job working with horses. Jamie responds with childhood anecdotes about her and her brothers sneaking out at night to ride wild horses, smiling that same embarrassed smile.

The third and final time the two arrive at the diner, it’s on horseback. Emboldened by the mere mention of her horses in their last conversation, when Beth agrees to share a ride to the diner, Jamie surprises her by bringing out her horse. The two ride the horse in silence. In the diner, biting into a grilled cheese, Beth offers Jamie some of her fries. Jamie, as ever, declines to eat, but stares unbreakingly at Beth, asking her a question that picks up on the last throwaway comment Beth made the last time they were at the diner: clearly, she’s been running that conversation over in her mind, thinking of something to ask her. It’s painful to watch such undivided, unreciprocated attentions, and Jamie’s misreading of the scene leads to an awkward declaration of feeling later in the film.

7,000 miles away, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) too explores queer desire in an isolated, rural setting. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a closeted Yorkshire farm worker with a drinking problem, used to denying himself life’s pleasures. The arrival of stunningly handsome Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) catches Johnny off-guard.

The first time they eat together, Johnny tears into a pot of instant noodles without putting a flavour packet in; Gheorghe empties his packet into his noodles quietly and slowly. They are silent and avoid eye contact. The second time, it’s early, the morning after their first sexual encounter. Gheorghe watches silently as Johnny forks noodles into his mouth. “What?” he asks, uncomfortable. “I’m starving, me.” The third time, after watching Gheorghe begin to pour his flavour packet into his noodles, Johnny holds his own cup towards him. Gheorghe shares his packet. Again, Gheorghe watches Johnny eat. Eventually Johnny is too uncomfortable under his gaze, and finishes his noodles inside, alone. But later, as their relationship develops, we see Gheorghe cook for Johnny, even tasting it and salting his food for him, and they begin to actually enjoy food together.

Shared pleasure in food as a form of romance pops up again In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), set in rural Italy in 1983. Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) fall in love around the breakfast table, amongst fragrant peach trees. During their first breakfast together, Oliver begins by helping himself to an egg. He taps it with his teaspoon so violently he smashes the whole egg into a runny mess of yolk and bits of shell. The maid takes it away, he takes a second, and breaks into it with a little more restraint. Elio is eating a peach, chewing on it as his parents and Oliver chat about the fruit trees. Oliver begins hurriedly eating his egg, making appreciative noises, dripping liquid yolk all over the table, and is soon offered another. “No, no, no I know myself too well – if I have a second I’m just gonna have a third, and then a fourth, and you’re just gonna have to roll me out of here. Delicious.” Elio pauses from his chewing to watch, intently.

The next time we see Oliver eat an egg, it’s in close-up, with ridiculous squelching noises. Though Guadagnino has insisted there is nothing sexual about this moment, only Epicurean, (even insisting in his defence “We didn’t do a close-up of that”, but I beg to differ – see above), the dialogue during the scene at least links Oliver’s egg eating to sex. “We almost had sex last night,” Elio says to his father, while Oliver eats. Then adds, “Marcia and me.” Of course, it is peaches that are the film’s most sexualised food. And, as Dan Q Dao writes in Munchies, the original novel contains an even more explicit version of the scene, as Oliver eats a peach Elio has had sex with, while Elio watches.

Call Me By Your Name is not the only film this year offering audiences a sexy egg. Eggs are more deliberately sexualised in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), set in Baltimore in 1962. Every morning, cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) masturbates in the bath in the time it takes her to boil two eggs to take to work. Later, when she first meets the fish-man creature the laboratory she cleans is experimenting on, she feeds him the very same eggs – which he devours with visible pleasure. Is this human feeding animal, mother feeding child, or lover feeding lover? Eggs bond them – “egg” is the first word she teaches him in sign language, and the eggs she brings him every day soon become tokens of love, as Elisa lines them up on the edge of his tank, making eyes at him.

In the film’s most unambiguous exploration of Elisa’s feelings for the amphibian man, the two sit at opposite ends of a long table, while the creature eats an entire plate of boiled eggs. As Elisa watches him eat, she sings along with the song on the radio, and the scene melts into an old Hollywood fantasy, where Elisa swirls around a stage with the creature in her arms. We cut back to the dinner table: the creature is studiously peeling his eggs, oblivious. When Elisa feeds the amphibian man, it both brings them closer together, and serves to emphasise the gulf between them in their experiences of the world.

In all these films, the relationship between food and sex is romantic, pleasant, or at least fairly safe. But in Julia Ducournau’s French film Raw (2016), food and sex are dangerously, violently linked. During an initiation ceremony at her second day of veterinary school, vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is forced to eat raw rabbit’s kidneys.

It brings her out in a bright red rash – and sees her develop an insatiable craving for raw meat, sex, and even human flesh. Slowly but surely, Justine starts eating other people. As the film goes on, her primal, cannibalistic desire becomes indistinguishable from lust.

Food is dangerous, too, in Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled .When wounded soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) ends up at all-female boarding school in Civil War-era Virginia, his presence is an unwanted, but nevertheless thrilling. Three dinner scenes between teachers Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) with their five pupils explore the tensions he brings into the home. In the first, the women mediate on the lessons his arrival could teach them. In the second, they are joined by the Corporal himself, each of the girls taking their moment to try and impress him. They take the odd bite of their meal, but their attentions are focused on McBurney, who is forced into a performative tummy-rubbing appreciation: “This is the finest meal I can remember”.

The third comes after McBurney has threatened, at gunpoint, to murder the women. They decide to protect themselves and dispose of him by feeding him a poison version of his favourite mushroom dish. “Corporal, we’d like to let you know that we harbor no ill feelings, and made this meal in commemoration of your journey ahead,” Miss Martha insists. As the mushrooms are passed to the Corporal, none of the girls help themselves. As he piles his plate high, the girls stare on and neglect their own plates. Coppola’s stage directions repeatedly emphasise how the women keep their gazes fixed on McBurney: “All eyes are on him”; Jane, Emily and Amy “stare”; “They all watch as McBurney eats up the mushrooms”; “The girls watch him”; “The united women calmly watch”. Of course, unbeknownst to McBurney, the intensity of their undivided attention and their own refusal to eat the mushrooms is a sign that something deeply suspicious is happening.

Ultimately, any intimate act is so because it holds a level of risk, and requires an element of trust. Here, the vague danger that comes with accepting food from another person is taken to its logical conclusion. Within a few seconds of eating, McBurney lies dead on the floor.

Strangely, The Beguiled is not the only film of 2017 featuring a woman feeding a threatening man poison mushrooms to regain control. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the dining table at 1950s London dressmakers the House of Woodcock is as fraught as that of a Civil War boarding school. Phantom Thread explores the complexities of hunger and sexual desire perhaps more explicitly than any other film this year: at the New Yorker, Helen Rosner calls in “one of the great food movies in recent memory”. Difficult, self-mythologizing 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock has a complex relationship with his work, alternating between discipline and spontaneity, self-denial and self-expression. His relationship with food oscillates, too: sometimes it is one of control and deprivation, other times an ecstatic binge. When he is happy, inspired, or aroused, Woodcock eats with relish.

When he first meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), she is a waitress in a seaside café – from her, Reynolds orders an endless breakfast: “A Welsh rarebit. With a poached egg on top – not too runny. Bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam – not strawberry. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea. And some sausages.” She delivers it to him, along with a note: “To the hungry boy.” Food remains the sire of their flirtation and their battleground.

As Reynolds’ relationship with Alma develops, her relaxed approach to food enrages him. She butters her toast too loudly, slurps her cereal obscenely. She violates the sanctity of his breakfast by eating enthusiastically. “If breakfast isn’t right,” Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) explains, “it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” When Alma brings him tea in the afternoon, he balks. “No, Alma, what are you doing? Don’t put the tray on the table, please. Just take it off. I didn’t ask for tea.” When she replies that the tea is going out, he snaps, “The interruption is staying right here with me.” When Alma rejects the conventions of the household to prepare a surprise dinner for Reynolds, he makes no attempt to conceal his disdain: “As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you’ve prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.” Perhaps their worst argument ensues.

In these moments, Alma is a nuisance, or worse, a threat to the stability and order or the House of Woodcock, forever interrupting Reynolds with inconvenient reminders of troublesome human desires: food, sex, emotional intimacy. But when Woodcock is invigorated, inspired, and happy to give in to his wants, both Alma and food become much more enticing prospects. ”Do we have porridge?” he says brightly to his cook one morning. “Do we have cream? Thick cream? That’s what I’d like. Oh, Alma, would you like some porridge?”

Ultimately, Reynolds fluctuates between desiring power and control, and desiring its opposite. Understanding this, Alma is able to slowly, carefully, become the dominant party. Of course, it’s food – and feeding – that enables her to do this. The film’s final scenes shows Alma preparing a poisoned mushroom omelette for Reynolds: that will force him back into a vulnerable, infantilised, pathetic state, and put her in the position of controlling caregiver. “I want you flat on your back,” Alma whispers, “helpless, tender, open, with only me to help.” Reynolds smiles. It’s a state he desires sexually, emotionally and physically as the film’s insistent final words make unavoidably clear. “I’m getting hungry,” Reynolds says. We cut to black.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho