Rod Liddle

Would you trust the public with a knife and fork?

Don’t you dare see what other customers think... you must consult an expert on chewing and eating

Would you trust the public with a knife and fork?
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I went to a restaurant in Middlesbrough back in the spring. It’s called the Brasserie Hudson Quay and occupies a rather beautiful and defiantly urban space between the football ground and the river Tees, with views over the various mystifying riparian sculptures you southerners have kindly paid for out of your taxes, I would guess, to cheer up the locals. We were off to see the Boro play a midweek night game, so the location of the restaurant was very handy.

But that was not the main reason we went. Me and the missus had been on TripAdvisor to choose a meal for the evening and settled on the Brasserie Hudson Quay because of the response of someone called ‘Pete’, presumably the duty manager of the place, to every negative review. One diner who called the place a ‘disgrace’ received a tirade which started: ‘Quite agree with you. You were an absolute disgrace and I’m sure your family have told you. You must have ruined the day for everyone.’ Another was deemed ‘patronising’ and ‘poorly informed’, and someone who suggested the menu was a bit limited was asked: ‘Well how extensive a menu do you want?’

I very much wanted to meet Pete, because he sounded borderline psychotic. Or if not meet him, then maybe to post a negative review myself and have him lay into me. Trouble is, the meal and venue were superb, so I couldn’t in all conscience slag the place off. The food was easily as good as most I’ve had in horrible London, even though it was match day and the brasserie felt compelled, as a consequence, to bung on the menu the Teessider’s favourite dish (since about 1986) — chicken parmo, which only a madman or a drunk would eat. Anyway, I’d give the place five stars.

You may have noticed on TripAdvisor, and sites like it, that everyone gives either five stars — ‘best place I’ve ever eaten!’ — or one star — ‘a stinking disgrace staffed by vile, importuning sex-crime scumbags’. There is little in between. This is the way we are now, in all things; kind of bipolar, perpetually swinging between exultation and rage. There are no grey areas. In a way Wikipedia is very similar, because each entry is written either by an admirer or an enemy. It is also true that TripAdvisor is sometimes hijacked by the venues themselves — but these posts can usually be identified.

Despite these caveats it is a hugely useful site, if you take the time to read between the lines. Browse about 25 reviews and you’ll get the measure of a place well enough to make an informed judgment. It’s certainly more useful than reading 1,500 words by some revered food critic, whose head rarely emerges from his or her sphincter muscle for long enough to consider what the dining experience might be like for ordinary mortals. And whose reviews are almost entirely confined to the south-east of England and especially London. (I don’t mean our Tanya, by the way. In this, as in so many things, Tanya Gold is the exception which proves the rule.)

TripAdvisor got a good old slagging off over about 2,000 words by one broadsheet food critic, Marina O’Loughlin. Her contention was that it was ‘shit’ — thank me for my brevity in encapsulating her article. The crux seems to be that many posters on TripAdvisor disagree with Marina’s ‘yep, sorry, expert opinion’, as she puts it. She’s an expert. An expert at swallowing. And chewing. An expert at eating some food and either liking it or not liking it. Well done, Marina. The emperor’s new clothes are looking especially fine and dandy today, aren’t they?

You will not be surprised to find that Marina works for the Guardian. Not surprised, because when you think about it, this is the publication which has positioned itself in the front line against all forms of populism. Indeed, in the first paragraph of her article O’Loughlin makes this link herself — comparing TripAdvisor to supposedly ‘populist’ politicians, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. And this is the point. While the liberal left at first championed the internet as being an ‘empowering’ facility, enabling ‘ordinary people’ to have their say, they have now very much taken agin it. The Guardian bans ‘ordinary people’ from commenting on articles in the newspaper if they are deemed — by the great and the good who run the hideous rag — ‘controversial’. They do not like having their opinions gainsaid and will not tolerate dissent. The Guardian’s writers moaned long and hard that people sometimes said really horrid stuff when they’d written something incomparably stupid (i.e., every day, without fail). And now this intolerance has extended to ordinary people having views with which its food critic disagrees.

This liberal loathing of the hoi polloi, of the ghastly unwashed masses, is the theme of our times — you could, if you were writing for the Guardian, use the word zeitgeist. It is there in Jean-Claude Juncker’s unashamed disparagement of all ‘populist’ political parties across Europe — i.e., parties which are very rapidly becoming popular with the masses because they oppose the sclerotic and failing neoliberal mindset of the European Union’s boss class. It is there among the Labour party activists, in their epic disregard for what Labour voters think about stuff like immigration and the welfare state. And of course it’s there in the plaintive bleating from the dispossessed Remain campaigners, the vitriol sprayed at those who voted Leave, who are denounced as thick and racist. Have the vote again and make sure these awful people are told they got it wrong last time. All along, these authoritarian liberals believed the world was with them. And Brexit, TripAdvisor, Syriza, Donald Trump, Pergida and so much more demonstrate that while they rule us, they do not have hegemony. The people disagree.

If you’re going to the Brasserie Hudson Quay, I’d have the cod with garlic potatoes, sea vegetables and mussel and celeriac broth. But what the hell do I know? Have the parmo, if you want.