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Not my most elegant title, I think you’ll agree. But today I don’t feel elegant. I feel angry. Very, very angry. So much so that a couple of hours ago I found myself starting an argument with a complete stranger whilst doing the Good Friday shop in my local town of Shipston-on-Stour. I had been stopped by a lovely elderly lady with a placard around her neck who informed me that on the site of the old Norgren plant at the top of the hill a mile or so out of town, the council were planning to let a supermarket chain build a store. She was asking people to write to the council to lodge objections, and yet she could not tell me which supermarket chain it would be. In fact, when I later asked some of the local shopkeepers, none of them seemed to know either. Not only were these fundamental details unclear, but the council’s deadline for objections was 8th April, six days from today. And there was one, just one elderly lady standing outside the shops in the drizzle. Even the local Christians had a better turnout for their jolly crucifixion singalong in the main square. A local priest hugged a giant wooden cross, a group of thirty or so people warbled a hymn, and one woman was trying to muster enough support to prevent the town of Shipston from being eviscerated.

So when I saw her on my way back to the car and she was talking to a female punter she had stopped, I found myself wanting to offer some more support. I joined in. But the punter, it quickly became clear, was ignoring every single very good piece of evidence put to her about what will happen to Shipston if the development goes ahead. I gave the punter the statistics: that it only takes a shop to lose 15% of its business for that shop to go bust; that this is precisely the amount of profit a new supermarket will generally take from a small shop; that this has happened in town after town across the UK, and that I have seen it happen to my home town of Horwich.

When I was a kid, Horwich had a thriving high street with six butchers’ shops, three or more greengrocers’, a record shop run by a woman called Doreen who could order you just about anything, a quality wine merchant, a fine hardware shop, a card shop called ‘Fancy That,’ ‘The China Shop,’ ‘Casey’s Original Pie Shop’ and a good many more that I have now forgotten. Now, in 2010, there are just two butchers and one greengrocer left. All the others have gone or change hands every year or so. There are many ‘For Sale’ signs, empty shops, charity shops that used to sell food. No sign of the redoubtable Doreen: her wonderful emporium vanished long since. But within a mile or two there is a Lidl, and a little further away a gigantic Tesco’s. And Horwich itself looks tatty, bedraggled, defeated.

This is what will happen to Shipston. Give it five years and I predict we will lose at least one of the two butchers (both of which are excellent) and quite possibly the greengrocer’s, the deli. There are already four or five charity shops (some damage has been done by the small supermarkets already in Shipston itself). I await the arrival of a good few more.

I’m also waiting for someone to convince me that I live in a democracy, that there hasn’t already been what George Monbiot calls a ‘corporate takeover of Britain.’ OK, so we can change our government at the upcoming election, but we seemingly can’t use our local government to fight corporate power on our behalf. Local government is increasingly the agent of the supermarkets: they can’t afford to take on the might of these retail giants. A lengthy legal battle with Tesco’s could bankrupt any local authority that objected to a proposed store, as Monbiot outlines in his article on Tesco and Machynlleth (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/).

So I will write my objections to the proposed store in time for the deadline of April 8th. I will argue with anyone and everyone on the streets of Shipston who says something stupid like ‘let’s give the supermarket a go.’ I will write angry and inelegant blogs on the subject for anyone who cares enough about Shipston, their own town or the state of our democracy. But I am left feeling as Monbiot does about Machynlleth: ‘ it’s only now, when I’m caught in the middle of it, that the full force of this injustice hits me. Like everyone else here I feel powerless, unstrung as I watch disaster unfold in slow motion.’ And make no mistake, this is a disaster, one that is no less important for being local and apparently small-scale.

To the Memory of Keith Floyd, d. 14th September 2009

‘All they can do is assemble gastronomic lego.’ Keith Floyd talking to Keith Allen about the culinary abilities of the British public.

Ever since his death, just over a month ago, my thoughts have often turned to Keith Floyd. I watched Keith Allen’s documentary about him a day or so after Floyd died, and on the programme heard Marco Pierre White recommend Floyd’s early books ( Floyd on France especially) and decided to invest in a few. I bought a cheap secondhand copies of Floyd on France, Floyd on Britain and Ireland, Floyd on Italy and Far Flung Floyd. I watched clips of his cooking sketches on youtube and began to cook his recipes, the first of which was the outstanding ‘beef in red wine’ (I include a link below).

Why the obsession? By the early nineties, when Floyd’s TV career was on the wane, he had become a joke in the public imagination: a stunt-chef, a drunken dandy who cooked puffin on North Sea trawlers. Rory Bremner had satirised his drinking in a sketch where his ‘Floyd’ downed hideous cocktails including lighter fuel and didn’t cook food at all. But, as the Allen documentary began to demonstrate, Keith Floyd’s cooking was no joke. Far from being a bow-tied buffoon, he was a serious chef, a gastronome of the highest order. The man had taste. Not only that, he loved food.

On Professional Masterchef recently, much was made by the contestants of their ‘passion’ for cooking. Yet somehow, when they used this word, or said how they ‘loved’ working with food, these emotive words  fell curiously flat. But when Floyd enthused about a dish he was making, you believed him. He didn’t have to tell you he loved food and cooking and drinking. His joy was obvious. For all the sophistication of his culinary skill, his pleasure in food was wonderfully childlike. There is a moment during the documentary that makes clear how much food and drink meant to him. Floyd was a serious epicurean, and someone whose psyche is marked by a very profoud loneliness, as his comments on the importance of ‘the table’ make clear:

‘I think, outside of the marital bed, the dining table, the kitchen table, is where everything takes place…If I can produce a glass of wine for you or some food for you, we are able to communicate. From my understanding, nowadays a lot of homes don’t have tables. Kids who haven’t been to school all day come back from not having been to school all day and open up a fridge of inedible stuff…’

At the root of his desire to eat and drink is the desire to communicate, be intimate and express love. He might have a difficult personality (he calls other TV chefs ‘cunts’ for example) but like a sea urchin, his sometimes spiny manner conceals a fine inner delicacy. And this is why he is an important figure: he is someone who, sometimes grouchily but always passionately, reminds us that hospitality is a mark of humanity and that joie de vivre is a serious business– a human duty, even. Although rather right wing, he is instinctively the enemy of supermarket Britain with its TV food porn. He doesn’t analyse why supermarkets exert an increasingly pernicious influence on the way we shop, eat and, ultimately, socialise, but as the youtube clip I link to shows us, he is deeply offended by the way in which supermarkets are destroying what remains of British food culture.

That supermarkets are doing this is in evidence in almost every current TV cookery show. Economy Gastronomy and Jamie’s Ministry of Food are two good recent examples.  Jamie Oliver’s programme was designed to get people who can’t cook to learn at least one recipe and then pass that recipe on to a handful of friends: a noble aspiration reflecting a miserable reality. How awful that there are millions of folk out there who can’t or won’t cook even one simple dish for themselves or people they care about. The premise behind Economy Gastronomy was equally depressing. It was another learn-to-cook show designed especially for cash-strapped families hit by the recession. But what emerged very quickly from the show was that every family involved wasted hideous amounts of money and time at the supermarket buying so-called convenience food which they often didn’t eat and threw away. One man featured was even ‘in love’ with his waste disposal unit down which he stuffed all the food his family didn’t eat. Eventually, his darling gadget broke down under the pressure of being force-fed misery chicken and assorted out-of-date vegetables, but not before he had made himself into a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the key social aspects of modern British life.

Members of the public who are invited to appear on such cookery shows are supposedly representative of a large proportion of the UK population, and judging from the the Economy Gastronomy series, that population is, without the help of experts, incapable of planning ahead, unimaginative, wasteful, politically ignorant, deskilled, unsociable and lonely. Nice enough, but useless. Yet no TV show I have yet come across dares to place the blame where it truly lies: at the feet of the supermarkets.

Politicians in interviews are frequently subjected to tough and even hostile questioning, and it is right that they should be. Without such rigorous journalism we wouldn’t be able to claim that we live in any sort of democracy at all. But is it right that the bosses of multinational corporations, including millionaire bankers and the bosses of polluting budget airlines should be given different treatment when they are interviewed? Why should CEOs, and especially supermarket CEOs be able to make radio, TV and newspaper interviews into corporate promos? Yet they do, even in the midst of the current recession. Terry Leahy of Tesco is allowed to make comments about the supposed inadequacy of British schools and teachers on the BBC website, but isn’t cross-questioned about the pay, conditions and unskilled or deskilled nature of the jobs that his company offers(1). I also remember an interview with Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer some time ago, conducted by the venerable Jim Naughtie, in which Rose was able to promote M&S’s supposed eco-credentials for a good ten minutes to a key M&S client base (your middle-class, Radio 4 Today listener) without so much as a hint of a sceptical rejoinder from Naughtie.

Whilst we are meant to look on in horror at the ineptitude of the punters who appear on Economy Gastronomy and to applaud them when they quickly become competent cooks, one thing this show in particular fails to do is to even hint at the causes of this widespread British culinary incompetence. Like Naughtie on the Today programme, they don’t dare to criticise  supermarkets and their fundamental role in the decay of family life.  It seems to be fine to blame career women, single mothers, immigrants, or even dead gay popstars, but no-one seems prepared to admit the role of supermarkets in all this.

Supermarkets aren’t working alone here, admittedly. There are three or four factors acting together in unholy combination: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl etc, are extraordinarily powerful but so too are the media (TV and the internet especially) and the motor car; also important is the weakness of our CBI-dictated employment law which means that we have some of the longest working hours in Europe.

So how do these factors combine? It isn’t difficult to imagine. After our long, and often boring, frustrating days at work, we are exhausted. When human beings become exhausted, our powers of reasoning tend to shut down, especially after that monotonous drive back from work. In this state, we then find ourselves hungry. Unable to face trying to park our cars in town-centre carparks, we sleep-drive to the supermarket, with its acre or three of free parking spaces. Barely awake, we then stumble into the supermarket itself, propping ourselves up on that zimmer frame for the able-bodied, the shopping trolley. We might not need a trolley full of stuff, but we take a trolley because we know that a basket, when full of bottles of milk or wine or cola, gets too heavy and our arms go numb. Having opted for the vast maw of the trolley, we then proceed to fill it with crap that we don’t really need. Shopping expands to fill the trolley-space available.

Most likely, we haven’t brought a list, we haven’t got a budget, and we’ve even forgotten to bring in plastic bags, despite having a mountain of them at home that we keep meaning to re-use. Seduced by the £2 chickens and the BOGOF deals on strawberries and bags of salad, we also pile up the little plastic trays of ready-made lasagne, packets of choc-chip biscuits and giant-sized bags of crisps, ready for a night slouched in front of the telly.

Leaving the supermarket, we may hardly have registered the amount we have spent, and we may only have a vague idea what we have spent the money on. In other words, we have become the supermarkets’ dream customers. The BOGOFs and special offers have soothed us into thinking that the large bill is in fact ‘value for money’ –there is a recession on, you know–and in searching for Crunch-busting deals we haven’t paid too much attention to where that £2 chicken came from; or thought about the working conditions of those who put our ‘healthy’ salad into nitrogen-filled plastic packaging; much less considered how farmers in Spain fertilise and irrigate the soil where all those ‘luxury’ vine-ripened tomatoes grow. We don’t care. We think we can’t afford to.

Keith Floyd did care about what he ate and where it came from, and it’s in his memory that I urge anyone reading this to buy his books (especially the early ones) and use them to learn to cook. Not all of his recipes are ‘cheffy’ or extravagant. Many are simple. All of them are a delight to cook– far more entertaining than an hour spent in front of the telly watching food porn–and they’re a delight to eat. Try some fabulous, cheap and easy British nosh, such as ‘pork chops in beer sauce’ or ‘Ipswich almond pudding’ (Floyd on Britain and Ireland) or taste the astonishing difference some orange peel and a pig’s trotter makes to a beef stew in ‘beef in red wine’ (heaven…). Then get more adventurous with something like a trout soufflé (Floyd on France). Get round a table to eat and drink and talk and think. And read, because if mainstream TV doesn’t criticise the supermarkets effectively, there are journalists out there in print and on the internet who do.

But why should you? Because if you don’t, the remaining (and utterly wonderful) small shops in towns like George Monbiot’s Machynlleth and my beloved Shipston-on-Stour will die, and we will no longer have any alternative to the Tescos and Asdas of this world. You don’t just owe it to your digestive system to take an interest in what you eat, how you prepare it and where it came from. The environment, local communities and families all benefit from a commitment to Floydian eating. The revolution may well begin with your tastebuds, and activism, like charity, needs to begin at home in a sociable, thrifty and inventive kitchen.

Notes:

Read Floyd if you haven’t already for both entertainment and edification (although note that the early classics I have mentioned are currently out of print) and then have a go at some food politics. Joanna Blythman’s book Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets is essential reading, as is George Monbiot’s Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain and anything by Felicity Lawrence. If you want to get cracking immediately, follow the links below and read George Monbiot’s recent article on Tesco and Blythman’s introduction to her work in her interview with The Idler (2). And have a go at cooking that ‘beef in red wine,’ not forgetting to include the trig’s potter and orange peel. Cheers, fellow gastronauts!

 1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8306013.stm

2) http://idler.co.uk/conversations/conversations-joanna-blythman/

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/

Pop music is all froth and bubbles. It lightly comes and goes–and stays. For days, now two songs have been somewhere close to the surface in my mind. They have stayed awhile but when I think about them, I don’t exactly know why. Neither song lays any claim to greatness, either as a commercial success or as a piece of High Art, but I wouldn’t be without either. Listen to Mazzy Star sing Arthur Lee’s song ‘Five String Serenade’ and catch Crowded House with ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are’ now, before I take you any further. You’ll see:

 

 

Mazzy Star were a band that nineties’ ‘Indie Kids’ such as myself tended to regard with hazy affection. They were the kind of band whose records you put on at the end of a drunken evening. The stoned shoegazer could count on them for a lullaby. You have just listened to ‘Five String Serenade,’ but ‘Fade into You’ and the rest of their 1993 album ‘So That Tonight I May See’ lulled my generation into a slightly bleary 2am post-coital sadness. ‘Ahhhh’, the songs sigh. They are about fading and falling and breathing out. They use tambourines and cellos quite a lot, in a good way.

If ‘Five String’ is a bit of light late-night relief, the Crowded House song, ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’ has even fewer claims to seriousness. The Kiwi Crowdies were and are an unashamed ‘sing-along-a’ pop band. A Crowded House gig was like Grandstand Karaoke: the audience knew the words twenty times better than the band did, and singing along was a blast:

‘Do you climb into spa–aaa–ace

To the world where you li—i—ve?’

Crowded House songs soar, more often than not, and they are jolly good fun to sing. Instantly memorable lyrics with the odd lyrical moment and addictively sweet, crafted melodies, often with a sour or sharp undertone (think Lemon Sherbets and you’ll have the right idea) all add up perfectly in your typical Crowdies song. Lemon-Sherbet, Candy Floss songs, they are sugar-laden hits, filled with empty calories–you would have thought.

Not entirely. Neil Finn, Crowded House’s singer and lyricist, should not be underestimated. His words aren’t poems in any real sense, but he has poetic phrases here and there. Take ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are.’ What a line. The tone is right: it could be gentle advice, possibly reassurance. Or maybe it’s the opposite, a case of saying ‘you were somebody and now you aren’t.’   Something has been taken away from you, girl, but ever so gently. ‘He won’t deceive you or tell you the truth’ is another great little moment, partly because of the pause or caesura in the melody after ‘deceive you.’ You drift into a certainty and…out of it again, thanks to the dreamy waltz-time of the song. Clever. Old-fashioned with that un-pop 3/3 time, ‘Not the Girl’ suggests long, slow disappointment. OK, so the song never gets to the duende, the deep song it never gets beyond the slightly wistful–but it daydreams beautifully.

Mazzy Star’s ‘Five String Serenade’ meanders more sadly, repeating its brief message over and over, but we can’t help but listen to Hope Sandoval’s sweetly bombed rendition, even if the lyrics are a little rickety on account of their prepositions:

This is my five string serenade;

Beneath the water it played.

And while I’m playing for you,

It might be raining there too.

 

And on my easel I drew

While I was thinking of you.

And on the roof of my head,

in came my five string serenade.

 ‘Five String’ sings a sweet nothing several times, but the nothing is important. One idea is varied in the manner of a musical theme: ‘ I am thinking about you:’ Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse meets Arthur Lee. OK, so you don’t draw on an easel, you draw at it; and it would be nice to know how the serenade got from being on Lee’s head to in it, but the other ideas, if slight, are utterly lovely: singer Hope Sandoval’s rain connecting with the rain falling on her lover somewhere else; a tune arriving in the singer’s head, no matter how. It is a frail construction, made of straw, almost; but as an idle dream it works very well. Bubbles, straw and smoke: it’s perfect pop. Pop should burst on the tongue like this and take you nowhere for a minute or two. Duende ? Oh let the dark sounds come alright, but let them come later.

[Arthur Lee’s version of his song is included below]

3, 2, 1…and in the room. It would appear I’m back, although I’m not entirely sure. And before you ask, I’ve not been at those lovely mushrooms in the field below the barn…No, it’s simply the after-effects of listening to The Smoke Fairies. I should warn you; it’s potent stuff. I came across them at the recommendation of that ‘perfect electrometer’ Richard Hawley only yesterday (1). Before I knew it I was on myspace and diving into ‘Living with Ghosts.’ I quickly realised that this music is all about doubles. Two (extraordinary looking) women, two guitars, two voices. Although Jessica and Katherine don’t look alike, it sounds as if their voices are from the same wellspring and their two guitars (one of them slide) like one guitar. It’s as though they’re a split tree, cut almost to the root, and the tree is singing and breathing with two uncannily matched voices. We’re definitely in the realm of the spirits here: dryads, perhaps… although despite the tree analogy I’ve been at pains to set up, there’s also something of a ‘deep deep well’ or a forest pool about their sound (are they naiads or dryads or some kind of sophisticated hybrid?). Man, they’re dangerous: they could lead you underwater and drown you and you wouldn’t care. You’d hardly feel anything but a kind of bliss– a melancholy bliss, but a kind of ecstasy nonetheless.  ‘In my mind we still live there,’ they sigh on ‘Living with Ghosts, ‘ and you know that this is a band that wants to tug you away from outer realities and into inner space. Let them boldly go, and for a long time too, and far. I’ll be there for the ride. Any chance of playing Stratford or Oxford, ladies?

(1) Hawley had glowing praise for them on his forum recently.

http://www.smokefairies.com/

href=’https://nicholadeane.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/normal_bw_38.jpg’>complete with nimbus

 ‘Built from nothing but high hopes and thin air’: the line from the song ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’ sums ups the way that at least one fan seems to have felt about Nick Cave’s new album of the same name. Tim Russell argued on Facebook that Cave had made a flimsy album, the worst of his career, and that Cave should ‘dump the wife, give Blixa a call, move back to Berlin & buy a big bag of smack’ (Feb 28, 2008 at 4:59 PM). The album stinks, Russell has it, because the Bad Seeds have produced some unsingable melodies and have been ’emasculated’ (he accuses them of weedy instrumentation without the benefit of Blixa Bargeld). Russell also contends that Cave’s lyrics have gone all unfunny and banal (he quotes the line ‘We’re gonna have a real good time’ as an example). Russell’s piece is passionate enough but wrong on a number of counts.

Wrong, first of all, is the idea that this is somehow an upbeat album. It’s not sorrowful like No More Shall We Part or The Boatman’s Call but it is grimy, deliciously sordid, full of terrible jokes (my personal favourite is ‘I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker’), crazed, desperate. ‘Shiny Happy People’ it ain’t. Russell claims it’s not fucked up enough. Not fucked up?

This is an album that has as its beating heart the ghost of John Berryman (1914-71), the US poet who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge and missing the water (1). Berryman’s subject-matter is all the kinds of things Cave revels in on Lazarus. This is from the first of Berryman’s Dream Songs:

What he has to now to say is a long

wonder the world can bear & be.

Once in a sycamore I was glad

all at the top, and I sang.

Hard on the land wears the strong sea

and empty grows every bed.

Berryman’s alter ego, Henry, is lascivious, drunk, violent…in other words, a bit like Lazarus in Cave’s song (‘Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene’).  In the lyric booklet which Cave publishes with the album, Cave’s words have the same manic intensity as Berryman’s, and reveal a similar penchant for the ampersand. Berryman uses the ‘&’ to abbreviate, to suggest speed of thought, jokiness, nervous exhaustion (incomplete ideas, jumpy intensities). If anything Cave’s ampersands are even more manic. Take this sample from ‘Moonland’ where

in moonl&

under the stars

 

under the snow

I followed this car

 

& I followed that car

through the s&

Berryman ‘s poetry and his biography are attractive to Cave for a number of reasons. There is the suicide (2):

                            Berryman was best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

he wrote like wet papier mache/went the Hemming-way/weirdly

on wings & with MAXIMUM PAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!

But what’s also attractive to Cave is Berryman’s descent into madness and alcoholic indignities, and the lens which this creates, a lens through which Berryman sees America: ‘Seedy Henry rose up shy in de world/& shaved & swung his barbells, duded Henry up,’ writes Berryman in Dream Song 77. Macho, hopelessly pathetic, with a ‘ruin-prone proud national mind,’ Berryman’s antihero journeys restlessly through dirty America, ‘making ready to move on.’

But there are more layers yet to Cave’s album. If Berryman is its beating heart, the roadmap of Dig, Lazarus, Dig is Homer’s epic poem The OdysseyThe last track on the record,  ‘More News from Nowhere’, tells the story of Homer’s epic in miniature. In it appear Cave’s versions of  Circe, the Cyclops and the Sirens. In fact, it seems that Cave’s former lover PJ Harvey is the Siren he has in mind when he sings ‘I saw Miss Polly!!!singing with some girls/I cried,–strap me to the mast!!!!’. Other songs take on aspects of The Odyssey. The song ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’ fishhooks an episode in book nine of Homer’s poem into a howl of junked up political frustration at our ‘catastrophic leaders.'(3) ‘Midnight Man’ retells the story of what happens to Odysseus’s wife when Odysseus is on his travels -Penelope’s suitors are forever ‘comin’ round’ to Odysseus and Penelope’s ‘place’, vying for the chance to be her ‘midnight man’.

If I’ve made Lazarus sound like a poem rather than a record, so much the better. Cave surely intends this to be a poem, a poem not set to music, but married to it. But to neglect the melodies here would be to do Lazarus a grave injustice. Heavenly murk characterises the sound of this badass Bad Seed musical journey through the land of the dead. Tim Russell asserts this isn’t singable record. Yet I find myself utterly possessed by snatches of melody–oh strap me to the mast Mr Cave, if you would. ‘Lotus Eaters,’ for example, has a very trippy sound, in keeping with the narcotic undertow of the lyrics; Warren Ellis on ‘mandocaster’ and ‘loops’ appears to be responsible for part of the effect here, but the vocal, too, is a siren-song on Cave’s part. Yes, we might miss Blixa on this or on any Bad Seeds production. But hell’s bells, Ellis is extraordinary. He and his merry chums conjure up a whole legion of exotic instruments, even the names of which sound like they’re capable of summoning up a few spectres: ‘mandocaster,’ ‘cuica’, ‘loops,’ ‘vibra slap.’ The viola on ‘We Call Upon the Author’ sounds like it’s been ectoplasmically rearranged; the flute on ‘Jesus of the Moon’ levitates, man.

I could go on. But I won’t, at least until I’ve seen the live show in May. Suffice it to say that this is a record with ‘eat me’ written on it. Be sure, however, to take repeated doses. Overdose if at all possible. If you do, I guarantee you’ll find much more Homeric (and other) dark matter in Lazarus‘s beguiling murk. Get out your Homer and your headphones and dig.

 

(1) go to this page for a biog/bibliography: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/berryman/life.htm

(2) The reference to ‘went the Hemming-way’ refers to the fact that the novelist Ernest Hemingway killed himself at the point where he felt he could no longer write. See http://www.ernest.hemingway.com/marywelsh.htm for more details.

(3)For the poetry anoraks amongst us, go to this blog which supports Barack Obama, and look at the use the blogger makes of Lowell’s poem ‘For the Union Dead’ which takes the idea of  the US state as an aquarium and compare with Cave’s lyric ‘they fishbowled me and toured me round the old aquariums’. Has Cave been reading Lowell too? –Lowell and Berryman were contemporaries and friends.  http://progressiveerupts.blogspot.com/2008/03/for-union-dead-robert-lowell.html

Tim Lott is an unhappy man. According to a recent Telegraph article, he feels that the women-only Orange Prize for Fiction is ‘sexist and should be scrapped.’ The Telegraph goes on to detail the reasons for his ire at the ‘discriminatory, sexist and perverse’ award.

His main claim is that women are no longer a ‘mistreated minority’ in the literary world. On the contrary, he argues, women dominate the literary industry as writers, publishers, agents and readers. In fact, he goes on to argue, it is men who are now discriminated against. But it is not merely the case that women oppress men in the literary marketplace: according to Lott, ‘Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.'(1)

What Lott appears to be suggesting is that there is some kind of female conspiracy going on, a conspiracy against male writers. It begins, he seems to suggest, with those seditious individuals, female English teachers (of which I am one) who foist–shock horror–books by women on poor downtrodden boys, thus alienating them from the pleasures of reading, and by extension, discouraging them from becoming authors. Then an army of female writers, publishers and readers finish the job, stifling male creativity, drowning out male voices.

Hang on a minute.  Lott’s myopic, poisonous outburst deserves a little more scrutiny. Let’s deal with those seditious teachers first. It is true that the majority of English teachers are women (this is certainly the case in my department). It is also true that the majority of graduates studying English are women. There is evidence, too, that boys’ literacy lags behind that of girls. English teachers up and down the land can hardly fail to be aware of this: OFSTED inspect the way schools try to raise literacy levels in boys; in interviews, headteachers ask prospective English teachers how they intend to address the issue in the classroom; and any English department worth its salt plans into its lessons ways to raise boys’ levels of achievement in reading and writing.

In fact, what this often means in practice is that we English teachers habitually teach topics that are designed to appeal to boys and read stories/plays/poems that are predominantly about boys and are written by men. Take Tulip Touch as an example. Here’s a novel for teenagers that is by a women (Anne Fine) and has female protagonists. Our department bought a class set of this novel, but had to abandon teaching it in year 8 in favour of Holes, which is by a man (Louis Sachar) and is predominantly about a bunch of criminal, alienated boys. Tulip Touch was deadly in the classroom. Not because there is anything wrong with the book, but because boys often switch off or feel insulted if they have to sit through anything that is about or seen through the eyes of women. Girls, however, do not revolt or cause riots if they have to read about the lives of men or look at the world from their perspective. They accept all this submissively, without a murmur. They are still trained to do this sort of thing– even now, even in 2008.

Other authors I teach to years 7-11 are David Almond, William Nicholson, William Shakespeare, Willy Russell, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Tatumkhulu Afrika, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Grace Nichols, Nissim Ezekiel, Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Ben Jonson, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway. I may have left out 2 0r 3, but the ones I have omitted are men. Men outnumber women on this list by quite a long way. And this is not my choice of authors, by and large: many on this list are in the prescribed AQA A GCSE syllabus anthology. For the most part, I teach what I am told. I try to teach equality, non-sexism, those sorts of things. I would be ashamed of myself if I did not. But I do not predominantly teach female authors and I spend my working life trying to help the young men I teach gain a good education despite the sense of alienation many of them feel. But more than that, I try to treat them as human beings who matter to me. I am by no means the only female English teacher in the UK who takes this attitude to the teenage boys she teaches.

If Lott’s rather sloppy spenetic assertions about the teaching of English are without foundation, his other arguments about the power of women in the literary marketplace appear to stand up to a little more scrutiny.  It is true that many writers are women, but, interestingly, Lott doesn’t cite any statistics on the incomes of female versus male writers, so it isn’t clear whether male writers are paid more than female writers or vice versa. But let’s assume that women writers are the dominant force in writing and publishing. Let’s assume too that women writers are even, on occasion, given generous advances, receive (mixed gender) prizes, command the bestseller lists. If all this is genuinely the case, there is still no reason to ditch the women-only Orange Prize.

Why? You only need to take a look at the soon-to-be launched ‘Sexism in the City’ report, compiled by the Fawcett Society for some overwhelming reasons. Despite forty years of equal pay legislation, women are still chronically underpaid, discriminated against and harrassed in most spheres of work, whether they work as cleaners, call-centre workers or city brokers (I urge everyone to follow my link to the Fawcett Society’s report to assess the details). So if women are fairly represented in the literary industry, this fairness is an anomaly–an extremely important one.

Writing allows women a voice, an identity. It’s a tool that makes the invisible visible, the silent vocal. And this is why the Prize should remain. It should remain as a symbol that celebrates women’s identities and talents.  But the Prize should also act as a thorny reminder that women’s ‘lott’ is often, at best, to be ghettoized, patronised, and controlled and at worst to be impoverished, beaten, even raped and murdered.  It’s important, too, that the Prize should be something that women writers sometimes spurn, because when women novelists refuse to have their work considered for The Orange they remind us that to win it is to be branded a woman writer (always a perjorative label). A.S. Byatt doesn’t want her books to be considered for the award because she doesn’t want to be considered A Woman Writer. That fact in itself bespeaks an injustice, one that we should all be angry about: woman is still subsidiary, expendable, secondary. To be a woman is still felt by many women to be a handicap, a limitation. ‘Civil Orange’ or ‘Rotten Orange’? The jury’s split, for good reason.

1) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/18/norange118.xml

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/55063-more-criticism-of-orange-prize-.html

2) The Fawcett Society sets out its case at: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/Make%20Some%20Noise%20-%20short.pdf

However, here are a couple of ‘bites’ from the report:

  • Only 11% of FTSE 100 company directors are women
  • 30,000 women lose their jobs every year in the UK simply for being pregnant
  • Two thirds of low paid workers are women
  • Women working full-time are paid on average 17% less than men
  • 18% of sex discrimination compensation awards are for sexual harassment

(the above statistics are from: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=621)

I write this piece with a little trepidation: I am about to utter remarks that might be deemed highly critical of a national institution. Delia Smith is part of the dictionary, part of the annual TV schedules and, if a brief trawl of internet book chatrooms is anything to go by, someone whose fanbase is pathologically loyal. And yet, no-one who really cares about food rates her, although chefs and food writers who should know better seem prepared to endorse her (Nigel Slater, of all people, made a guest appearance on a recent ‘How to Cheat’ show and even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, prepared as he is to take on the might of the supermarkets and the poultry industry, looked rather scared when Richard Madeley recently attempted to goad him into criticising Smith on live TV).

In one sense, I can understand Whittingstall’s reluctance. Delia is terrifying. Not only are her fans rather militant, but her recipes are often, especially these days, highly alarming (Aunt Bessie’s potatoes in your chocolate muffin anyone?). Her style of delivery is famously leaden, her TV manner so very Shaun of the Dead. But why, given the hostile reviews she generates (see The Guardian & The Telegraph for recent examples) does she end up dominating the bestseller lists?

Is it precisely because she has nothing passionate, creative or inspiring to say about food? With Delia we can forget all about air freight, food miles, the exploitation of farm labourers in this country and elsewhere. We can forget about misery meat and battery farming. We can forget about the skill and perseverence, enjoyment and experimentation involved in learning to cook. On Planet Delia, we do not let our consciences (or indeed our intellectual faculties, or even our tastebuds) bother us at all. Instead, as she outlines in the introduction to her book, we simply follow her commandments (she calls her prescriptions ‘a way forward’ (p.7)).

‘To begin with you have to rid yourself of prejudices which sometimes are… myths… or a form of snobbery’ (‘Life from the Freezer’). ‘Have to?’ Apparently what those who don’t cook for lack of time or due to lack of confidence simply need to get over is their desire to eat fresh food, in favour of a diet of ‘measured portions’ of frozen basmati rice, ‘frozen, ready-cooked chickpeas,’ and ‘ready-diced [frozen] onions’. This will mean, apparently, that we need only do ‘some smart shopping–probably once a month.’ Am I alone in finding this Delian Brave New World terrifying? Don’t bother with the remaining small-scale local greengrocers and butchers who struggle on in the face of Tescodification–let them rot and close down whilst the supermarkets take care of your every whim. And remember to shop around folks; don’t just stick to Sainsbury’s–try Tesco AND Asda AND M&S as well (the recipes in How to Cheat generally involve buying a brand from a named supermarket).

Of course, you could argue that it’s better to visit the supermarkets less, and that this will help cut greenhouse gas emissions as shoppers stop using their cars as often. However, any gains of this kind must surely be offset by the fact that Delia proposes we spend our cash on expensive ‘value-added’ products that are produced using God knows how much energy (what does the ‘blast-freezing’ process she mentions entail, exactly?) and made from products flown from Thailand, Kenya or elsewhere: ‘Now ingredients grown in Thailand are available deep-frozen in the UK’ (see? not the slightest tremor of conscience in that last sentence, was there?). These are also products which swell the coffers of the supermarkets. As Joanna Blythman points out in her excellent Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets, supermarkets don’t want to sell us fresh fruit and veg (low profit margins). Instead they are ever more greedy for us to buy ‘value added’ goods: ready meals, as we know, and, as Delia is currently to promoting with some zeal, as many other types of processed food as they possibly can. Tins (tinned lamb, Delia?), bottles (expensive passatas, pestos etc) and frozen chopped veg. Of course, not only are these value-added items better for supermarket profit-margins, these products also perpetuate their own popularity. The more people use them, the fewer people will learn to use a knife to chop onions, or will think about animal welfare (it’s easier not to worry about the beef in your spag bol if it comes in a tin), or will learn any kind of culinary independence. Therefore, the more people will need to buy these things. The upshot being that, instead of Delia fostering the desire in her audience to eat fresh food, grow their own and not use Tescos and their ilk, she simply reassures us that it’s OK to sleepwalk into a future of absolute dependence on supermarkets.

But of course, this should not surprise us. How to Cheat crowns the career of someone whose first book, in 1971, was called…How to Cheat at Cooking. If Delia is in so many ways a happy food colonialist*, and, as such, the enemy of the eco-warrior, she is at least adept at a certain amount of judicious recycling.

 *Part of the introduction to her latest book is entitled ‘Hidden Servants’, in which she tells us ‘there are a million and one servants around the world beavering away, preparing quality foods designed to help us around the home.’ I can’t be alone in finding this statement staggeringly offensive.

N.B. All references are to How to Cheat, 2008.

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