Alex Massie

George Orwell’s lesson for Jamie Oliver

George Orwell's lesson for Jamie Oliver
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Jamie Oliver, eh, what a card? Why can't Britain's revolting poor eat better food? If they can afford televisions they can afford mussels and rocket too, don't ya know? Something like that anyway. But instead they loaf in front of the goggle-box stuffing their fat faces with lardy ready-meals and fast food. What is to be done with them? And why can't they be more like the Spanish or the Italians?

Never mind that Italian children are more likely to be obese than British children. Never mind, too, that kids in impoverished southern Italy are more likely to be overweight than children in the wealthier north. Instead just fantasise about a future in which poor British families will dine on fresh vegetables and the finest seafood. Failing that, they can make do with something "slow-cooked" or the "amazing texture" of a meal fashioned from "leftover stale bread".

Of course it is true that "peasant food" in other countries can be good for you and relatively simple to prepare. But, hark at this, when peasants become wealthier they often leave these time-consuming meals behind. They want something reasonably nourishing and tasty that can be prepared quickly. They made a virtue of want; they'd also like to leave want behind.

Oliver doubtless means well. But his comments are not so far removed from the kind of nasty authoritarianism that wants to deny fat people treatment on the NHS or thinks the unemployed should be banned from purchasing tobacco or alcohol. The poor lead difficult, sometimes miserable, lives so let's make their lives still more miserable and difficult. Punish them for their sins! Or rather, for the sin of appalling their wealthier compatriots. Slap a minimum price on alcohol that will hurt the schemies. What finer way to express our disgust for them and their ugly little lives? We, after all, will always have claret. And single malt Scotch.

As so often, we have been here before. Consider this passage from The Road to Wigan Pier:

The miner's family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes - an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. […] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pen north of chips Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

That was true then - when British people were dwarfish and thin rather than, as now, taller and fatter - and it remains true now. Being poor is no fun at all. No wonder the poor crave sensation - salt, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, drugsin any form they can get it. Perhaps they would be better off if they had a better diet and I don't doubt Oliver's sincerity in trying to help people cook better - but still cheap - food but, often, people don't eat poorly because they're stupid or lazy but because that's the food available to them and, actually, because they want something a little more "tasty" than stale bread.

Oh, and one more thing: you should read this typically-fine Chris Dillow post.

[Thanks to Padraig Reidy for bringing the Orwell passage to my attention.]