Jamie Oliver’s pukka poverty

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Preston, the Lancashire city with some of the highest rates of unemployment in England. Looking for food on low- and fixed-incomes in Preston is not easy, and the results are less salubrious fare than “25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence” as Jamie Oliver says he wants to “teleport” a poor family to see.

Besides Preston’s covered markets, in which you can buy from a wide selection of fruits, vegetables, South Asian and East Asian ingredients, Caribbean and East African foods, tripe, black pudding, fish and pigs trotters, stands the city centre branch of Iceland. The city center branch is rarely empty, and when I potter round for my usuals, it’s pretty much packed from the checkouts all the way back to the vacuum packed value bacon. Outside the entrance is a circular seating area based around an “inspirational” mosaic which has been hacked, scuffed and ignored from the day it was installed. Chain-smokers and women eating Greggs from the packet sit around watching other Prestonians go about their business. From the seating area outside a pub, men of a certain age consider the world through their pint glasses.

Inside Iceland the world of Jamie Oliver is far from peoples’ minds. A mother and her exuberant bundle of hyperactivity stop-start along the aisles, picking up or putting down the various in-house prepared meals Iceland proudly advertise as being a step above the kind of value meal cost-cutters which were involved in the horse-meat scandal. There are other mother-with-children grouplets all over the store, bagging multi-pack crisps, cartons of £1 orange juice and yoghurts. Everything the man in front of me puts out onto the checkout are in cardboard boxes: a Sunday roast, a pasta-bake type affair with sausages, Yorkshire pudding filled with beef slices. I stock up on pasta meals too, and a pork pie, and Yazoo milkshakes.

Oliver has skirted around the realities of poverty and poor living in Britain, though only with a camera crew or researchers around him. His most often quoted remark this week – concerning the couple eating cheesy chips in front of a “massive fucking television” – is typical of his comfortable ignorance. The poor are predominately proud as a rule, who want to show a brave face and nothing of the feet flicking madly underneath the water. Suggesting the aspirational route – eat pasta! make your own pasta! rustle up some ricotta fritters with tomato sauce! – is only throwing the map down from a very tall height, and that map probably doesn’t show the best route to travel. In the middle are jobs which can’t be found, money which is almost impossible to save, demands from banks and utility services that cannot be ignored, and food which has to be affordable, often for anybody but the person buying it. The low- and fixed- income families who want to show their children that they, like any other family, can sit down in front of a television aren’t trying to put TV over nutrition; it’s wanting to carry on as normal with as little negative judgement from strangers as possible.

Eating pasta with mussles in front of a moderately sized television may well be an option for some on low- and fixed-incomes, Jamie, but not from where I’m looking.

Affordable food is not necessarily healthy food. It can be, and indeed really should be if supermarkets had any morals about them. There are options but they’re shrinking. The price of chicken, once a fairly safe option for cheap stand-by meals, has gone through the roof. Most other meats have seen similar price rises. Fresh fruit and veg, so often packed into bags of 6- or more, cannot always be stored away for long amount of times, and they’re not as cheap as they used to be either. Faced with mounting living costs or the need to visit a foodbank, the low- and fixed income poor can’t count as an option the dozen or so ingredients required to make the “cheap” foods so many middle class TV chefs assume just lie waiting in the pantries and fridges of the nation. I wonder if Oliver knows this, deep down, and refuses to accept it.

There are moments of sense and reason in the Oliver interview, given to promote another of his social-conscience television shows. He is right to point to local markets and more sensible purchases, but has gone about it in the completely wrong way. The little dictator attitude is that of most typical Tories and small-c conservatives, who have provided a generation-and-then-some-long soundtrack of tuts and moans from the sidelines on most subjects under the sun. Education? Not as good as it was for the poor or those Northerners, don’t you know. Jobs? They’ve got no grit, those poor and unemployed folks, that’s the problem, need to bring National Service back, I say!

Let’s not demonise the low- and fixed-income poor. There’s ingenuity with that pride and sense too. It makes good copy to draw attention to cheesy chips and expensive unhealthy options, but that distracts from the real economic hardships facing millions across the country.  Maybe the best recipe for Jamie Oliver is not to brag about 101 solutions to national poverty whilst preparing yourself for another lucrative television programme. Come to Iceland or B&M Bargains without a camera or researcher to watch the reality of those people who can’t just be marched into a market for a swift transformation into people who could pick up dozens of fresh ingredients and all the necessary herbs and spices without denting their weekly budget.  It’s not “poverty” as our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known it, but whatever we’ve got cannot be fixed with theatrical gasps at the sight of a Greggs pastie or Bird’s Eye fish-finger. If you want people to see the Sicilian fishermen with their mussels and pasta, Jamie, you’re going to have to pay….

Platform alterations…

I don’t need to tell you that I’m a fan of the railways, having walked an abandoned line from Southport to Preston, and joined blogger Michael Holdsworth on a similar walk into Preston from Grimsargh. That’s just scraping the surface; I grew up fascinated by trains, travelling on them, with them, and with an almost autistic attachment to the stations along each route. No need to wait for a muffled announcement about the train now approaching, as I can rattle off the poetry of station calls on my own; Leyland, Wigan North Western, Bryn, Garswood, St Helens Central…

My love of the railways extends to defending (to a point) the ramshackle approach towards infrastructure and spending in this country. We don’t do it particularly well, and never have. As romantic a view as I’ve always had about them good old days, it doesn’t take long to find contemporary reports from passengers in the 1950s and 1960s that remind us today that British rail has always been crowded, under-funded and bloated with management. The Government department in charge of looking after the whole thing has not been a champion of rail for generations, preferring roads and cars and the motor industry millions that goes with it. Rail has suffered not just because of our love of the car, but because it’s simply far sexier for an MP to sign off another motorway junction than it is a train station.

Which is where we find ourselves with the “HS2” scheme to build a new railway line – “the biggest amount of rail infrastructure spending since the Victorians” – from a new hub outside Heathrow into Birmingham, thence to Manchester in the West and Leeds/Sheffield in the East. A highly controversial and contentious piece of infrastructure spending, and exactly the kind of “pay now, yield the results later” long-term planning for which the DfT has a reputation of shunning in normal circumstances. In its hope to poke economic growth with a stick, the DfT has become the main cheerleader for “HS2” and connected purposes, claiming that the line is vital to bring economic growth to the country, bring northern England new employment opportunities and to free up capacity on the creaking, over-capacity WCML.

And I’m against “HS2”.  Used to be quite neutral, then moved towards being broadly in favour, and now against. Typical LibDem, right?

But the case for “HS2” was always quite flimsy and liquid. I just can’t say that it’s looking particularly strong enough now to justify the strength with which so many fingers are crossed.

One of the best economic cases against “HS2” comes, oddly enough, from tech-site The Register, which blasts the cost-benefit analysis by using its own level headed approach towards the assumption that the commuters of 20-years hence will be the same as those today. The numbers from the Government side don’t add up very well.

The Government assumes that high-speed, long distance travel has to be needed in the 2020s and 2030s because jobs will always be in offices down south, and workers will always be in commuter homes in Solihull and Hazel Grove and Normanton. Link the north with the south, they say, and jobs will be “secured” and growth will be “encouraged”. But what jobs and what growth? There’s always commuters willing to travel, only not from one end of the country to another, and if the percentage of people who require a flight from Manchester to London City Airport is X today, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be “X+” in 2030. As The Register points out, the business traveller who is used to justify the cost is already spending days working from home and hours working en route; what cost analysis exists to prove they’d be happier scrapping all that for a traditional 9-5 in 30 years time?

No such case exists.

A screenplay for “There Will Be Billions” is being drafted. Work at London Euston alone is estimated today to be somewhere around £1.2 billion and will only go higher. The total spend across the network can only be considerably higher than £2 billion. Public expenditure on the project could be in the area of £900 million by the time of the general election, and there’s almost no chance of Parliamentary Scrutiny outside painfully awkward appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee. The existing proposed route from London into Birmingham and then beyond has already been altered – at cost – due to the “they’ve used a flat map!” approach to deciding on the route. New stations have had to be proposed to placate complaints, much in the same way as unnecessary junctions were added to the M25 to stop people complaining about their back-gardens being ruined in the 1980s.

As you might have heard, the M25 still gets congested quite a lot, despite the amount of extra junctions and numerous extensions.  “HS2” is exactly the same – lots of new stations (slowing down a supposed High Speed line in the process) without improving the existing network.

At the time of writing, the cost/benefit analysis of “HS2” has plummeted to 90p in the pound (source ), and that’s not likely to get any better. Three times as many journeys are into London, not from it, sucking money away from the very outer regions towards the very conurbation Ministers claim needs no further help. Building a new “HS2” station in central Manchester will require existing track to be re-routed, creating a shambles of delay and construction chaos which can only be repeated twenty-fold across every part of its proposed — and as yet unconfirmed — route.

We already have some of the highest fares anywhere in Europe, and those can only grow higher and higher. My love of the railways means there’s only one way to save the network from itself. Scrap “HS2” now to focus on specific regional issues. Force franchise holders to update rolling stock, build new stations, and work on expanding the existing lines such as the WCML. Hard love is admitting that the best way to save the thing you love is not to do the obvious. “HS2” is too obvious, and too clearly flawed. To save the railways, it needs abandoning.

Ireland at Eurovision

Right, let’s get this first thing over and done with at the start.

“All good things come to an end” is a lie.

The truth is, “all good things come to a slow, disappointing wet fart”, as fans of “Heroes” or Madonna will tell you. And so it goes with Ireland at the grand prix du cheesy pop, a contest broadcaster RTÉ momentarily considered an annex to its tourist board. Whilst Ireland’s entries at Eurovision these days seem underwhelming, the underlying message is “we genuinely like taking part, but can’t afford to keep this up much longer.”  Perhaps it’s the greatest achievement that Irish continue to avoid novelty songs (okay, there’s the turkey. And no, I’m not linking to it.)

It took Ireland five attempts to win Eurovision, which should have given the powers that be some hint of what was about to happen. The earliest entries are very staid and safe, even for the style at the time, such as 1967 heart-wrenching “If I Could Have Choose” (up against “Puppet On A String”, so it’s not like you could get a wider contrast in the middle of the swinging 60s.)

Win number one came a few years later with “All Kinds of Everything”. Now in hindsight, it’s not particularly terrible a song, but I know it winds up a lot of people so instead here’s Sinead O’Connor covering it for Channel 4.

Now an interlude, subtitled “How ‘Orish’ can Ireland get?”  There was one a song I understand is forced down the throats of every Irish schoolchild against their will. It took an entire generation or more for an out-and-out onslaught of Celtic cliche to be broken out, and that went on to win.

(And by Jeezus, did they break out the cliches again for the complete opposite result a few years later. I think this song is now called “Please Stop The Music”)

There have been moments when the good folk at RTÉ have clearly aimed for the Daniel O’Donnell route (overwrought trite which manages to out-satire Father Ted, I present to you “Millennium of Love” which genuinely asked people to imagine harvests of footprints for the children or some such dirge; and a few years later a hymn of such heavy moral expectation I expect vomit to spew from my laptop speakers. Either that or holy water.)

Ireland has enjoyed three main periods in their Eurovision life – winning all the time, having well regarded songs which didn’t quite make it, and every year since 1998.  Let’s sidestep the winners for now, because there’s only so many external links WordPress permits before I get flagged for potential malware, and let’s avoid the “silver period” for now, because that would mean giving more coverage to Colm Wilkinson than is really necessary, and I would have to justify my love for their 1989 cheesefest

So let’s pick over the 21st century bones, when all good things (seven wins, numerous second places, hosting the contest in a “converted” equestrian centre) came to a crashing end (the turkey, Jedward, etc.)

The depths of Ireland’s Eurovision history recently was their one night in Copenhagen, a contest infamous for being amongst the worst by any measure, which should give everyone hope for next year. On a massive stage, in front of a largely drunk audience, a sub-sub-sub-par Michael Bolton ballad bombed and the country was barred from taking part the following year. It could have spurred them on to try writing melodies again, but a combination of lethargy and economic collapse conspired against them. The song “We’ve Got The World” was chosen by a rather cumbersome “PopStars”/”Fame Academy” selection process, as was the style at the time, and whilst the end result was okay, the song copies the 2000 Danish winner with such little subtlety or shame I’m surprised they didn’t just go for the cover version.

Okay, like the red patch on your thighs which might be spreading but you don’t know yet, let us deal with Jedward. Plucked from the X-Factor like some kind of payback for all the problems the United Kingdom ever enacted, the Irish knew their audience well when putting the twins up against hopeless starlets in two selection processes. It said “We don’t want to win, but look, it’s like we’re taking this seriously, so it balances out”  Of the two songs – both single title, I think to help the lads remember the words – “Lipstick” remains the strongest of the two, although that is a “toilet paper verses rice paper” strength comparison. When “Waterline” turned up in Baku, the joke had worn off a bit, and the song needed an on-stage fountain to distract attention from the sorta-kinda-Avril Lavigne punk-pop thing going on.

Perhaps the choice to go all out this year – shirtless men! traditional instruments! three different melodies in one song! the kind of beat you only hear in gay clubs at 2 in the morning! – was a rush of blood to the head. Whatever it was, the producers of the Final chose “Only Love Survives” to end the whole show, and with unfortunate synchronicity, they finished rock bottom last. I remind you that better songs this year, according to the voting and who argues against that, include an operatic Romanian and the very drunk Bonnie Tyler.

Okay I’ll link to one of the winners, “Rock n Roll Kids” from 1994, with the additional bonus video footage of the now late Gerry Ryan presenting whilst (it’s now almost certain) topped up on some extra-curriculum medication of some kind or other. *Sniffs*

I want to end with a bit of Father Ted turned real. Having won three times in a row, Ireland could not afford to win (by any measure). So what do you do when faced with bankruptcy? Choose a complete turkey. Keep dreaming, Ireland…

“Aura/Burqa” – good/gaga

New Lady Gaga single “Aura” (or possibly “Burqa”, and I can already tell you that subtlety ends there) has been leaked to numerous sites. I won’t host it here but it’s over on Soundcloud and the Idolator site.

If Gaga wanted her forthcoming “ARTPOP” album to cause a stir then an electro-clash headache of a song about oppression of women and freedom of expression certainly does that. Especially if her army of Twitter fans happen to follow the #twitttersilence campaign, they could tie it all together. Of course “Aura” isn’t particularly good a song on first listen. It’s very heavy handed, not so much lifting the veil as covering it in rainbow colours and running down the street yelling “FREE YOURSELVES GIRLS!”. This is sexuality as done by the “Sex and the City” actresses, to be frank.

All I can hear is a messy mash-up of four or five different songs in a very weak impression of Madonna-via-Peaches-via-Jan Moir. Heavy handed and cluttered, overly contrived and very confused. I get the impression “ARTPOP” is going to be an attempt at ART and almost no POP.  Here’s to the inevitable ballad as a follow up “accidental leak”…..

Trolling away…

Is this sort of behaviour from Nadine Dorries (MP for Mid-Bedfordshire) an example of trolling?

What about this tweet from Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan?

I ask because in Ye Olde Days ‘to troll’ meant to post provocative content, often repeatedly, to fish for reactions. What Dorries and Hannan are doing above matches my understanding of “troll” in the early days of messageboards and chat-rooms. Neither example fits into what I understand to be the “new” definition, which could be leading us into trouble.

I appreciate language moves on and develops on-line and off, which is why we say “apps” and “ghost town” rather than “programmes” and “Google +”. But how has troll been adapted and adopted so much that it appears to have become the go-to buzzword for any kind of negative behaviour? Or for that matter any kind of perceived bad behaviour? I don’t remember the day when the definition flipped from ‘mild irritant’ to ‘anybody swearing on the Internet’, and I don’t believe it’s particularly helpful for debate to have the new definition continue unchecked.

As with David Cameron’s attempt to tackle on-line porn with a belief that everything from a thirty-second wanking video to a full three-hour HD clusterfruitcake is the same thing (and therefore MUST BE BANNED *pitchfork*), I fear some people are confusing and conflating all manner of different Internet character traits into one big blob of negativity for the sake of advancing a cause they don’t fully understand. Indeed there’s a danger that those shouting “TROLL” are guilty of trolling themselves, refusing to countenance debate and blocking anybody who questions their logic. It’s a very difficult task to balance defiance with diligence and often those who refuse to enter conversations can be those who shout loudest about fairness, freedom of expression, and the right to free speech.

Let’s be honest about the level of debate on-line, particularly Twitter. It’s not great. This is not quite how the Greeks would have imagined democratic discourse. People get very angry behind keyboards for all manner of reasons – they think the laptop screen is a defense shield, they think the keyboard gives them special powers, they think the Internet is a “leveller”, making celebs, MPs and the like fair game for talking to like anybody else. It’s another “fine line” argument; to what extent to we allow people to swear, insult and flail about and what is the acceptable cut-off point between acceptable responses and unacceptable content?

Calling David Cameron a “cock”, a “cunt”, and a “ham-faced wanker” each and every time he posts a tweet has swiftly become a national hobby. It’s rude and crude and all the rest of it, but it’s generally harmless. It’s not trolling to automatically reach for the f-word, in my opinion, even if it’s right to call it rather childish and unproductive. If you want to discuss the rights and wrongs of D-Cam there are other places to do so on-line, and often with the space to fully express your opinions. The race to be first in an Internet argument has created an unfortunate situation whereby detailed responses are becoming increasingly rare, reducing many discussions into “bad verses good”, “yes verses no”, “right verses wrong” slanging matches. It’s little wonder that the insult “troll” has become just as easy to reach for as “wanker” in places such as Twitter where every letter counts.

But shutting down a conversation/debate/argument with “Whatever, you’re just a troll, bye” is insolence and childishness. The conflation and confusion in the changing definition of “troll” means that it’s all too easy for those idiots who threaten sexual abuse to innocent women to become associated with harmless people who just want an proper debate. It’s much harder to access politicians and celebrities if they use ‘troll’ to mean anybody who dares question their opinion. The Internet would not last long as a place to share ideas and opinions if the high-ups conclude that anyone who tries to debate is piss-taker or potential abuser.

It can mean the act of willingly taking the mickey for fun, just being silly, or poking the hornet’s nest. This is why we have to be careful about using it to justify policing the net.

What Caroline Criado-Perez has gone through just because she lobbied the Bank of England to accept Jane Austen on a banknote is the worst example of abuse. To be threatened with rape because of her campaign is basement level idiocy, grotesque and gruesome. Nobody should have to suffer such an onslaught of knuckle-dragging cuckoo-bananas lunacy. I have no doubt that many of her critics are idiots and trouble-makers without a genuine point to make if they had 1,000 days to think of one. Idiots of the highest order are acting like keyboard warriors, sending bomb threats to journalists for a cheap laugh, much in the same child-like manner that people make prank calls to the police. It’s not a “cheap laugh” at all for the people who have to suffer the constant flow of sludge into their inboxes.

All this said this is where my default position kicks in. I have always felt uneasy whenever I hear about added regulations against free speech. There’s a very serious argument to be had about the future policing of the Internet, whether or not it ends up led by a highly committed group of female rights campaigners with Parliamentary support. I cherish the freedom of speech and right to reply which the Internet allows, just as I cherish the need to fight back against abusive behaviour. This debate may redefine the Internet in the UK forever, which is why I hope we can agree on what exactly “trolling” is before everybody gets the Internet they wished for…