Confusion reigns

Life is confusing.

It’s confusing from a philosophical point of view (what is our purpose in life?) but it’s also pretty confusing from an everyday point of view (what’s the difference between all these coloured nespresso capsules, and how does one operate the machine anyway?)

Many people manage to avoid this confusion by choosing the simple life, and by this I don’t mean heading off into the wilderness a la ‘into the wild’, or tagging along with Paris Hilton through the hick backwaters of the US. I mean the simple life from yesteryear, where all that mattered was having a menial job which enabled one to put food on the table, and raising a couple of kids who stayed on the straight and narrow. One can add to this the watching of X factor and the occasional KFC bucket and some lottery tickets, but for many, this is life as it should be lived in little Britain. This mass of people are required to keep the country going. They are the gammas and below of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and they represent the glue that binds society together.

There are others that ponder the big questions; the questions that are concerned with the advancement and future of mankind. Crucially, they also end up in a position to be able to do something about it. These are the betas and upwards of BNW, the thinkers and do-ers in Douglas Adams’ ‘The Restaurant at the end of the Universe’. In a demoncracy, these are the people (and those around them) that we rely on to get the big decisions right in order the safeguard the future of nations.

In ‘The Restaurant at the end of the Universe’, the residents of a planet whose future was known to be doomed, decided to leave the planet via spaceship to colonise another. They left the ‘useless third’ of the population behind, having taken the ‘thinkers’ and ‘do-ers’ away with them.
So can we isolate the useless third of our planet, those that are left when all the thinkers and do-ers are taken out of the equation? Not quite that simple, but with the world population having just hit 7 billion, we can’t afford too many passengers on this over-crowded planet.

I’m more concerned with the state of ‘protesting’ in general. There’s a lot of protestors out there at the moment; granted that there’s certainly plenty to protest about. However, whereas you can do a menial job very well without too much thinking, to protest without thinking can be quite a dangerous thing.

If you’re in any doubt what I mean, have a look at these chaps in this clip:

They’re from the ‘Occupy London’ protest. Their names are confused person 1 and confused person 2 (not really, but that’s how I like to know them). They are protesting against corporate greed, which is generally taken to mean bankers. Fine. But if you listen to their ramble, they’re also protesting about lack of political intervention and control, Murdoch’s control of the media and the ‘rule’ of the aristocracy (as if they have any actual power?). Is this precisely what all the people outside St Paul’s are protesting against? I very much doubt it. At least the second chap is articulate, albeit in a rather stereotyped student way; the first guy seems to have no idea what he’s protesting about, except to say that there’s a lot of anger on the streets (well there is if you live in a tent on the streets around St Paul’s); he seems to have been dragged along in this current of anger. He’s a rebel without a clue.

More confusion: I heard a group of protestors at Aberdeen airport speaking on the radio recently. They had chained themselves to one of the runways (not sure how this is done…), and were protesting at the emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels in aircraft leading to global warming and its associated environmental problems. They had attached themselves to the runway to stop the planes from landing. That’s right, landing. Not taking-off, but landing. Their protest ensured that the planes either had to stay in the air, burning more fuel, until another runway becamse available, or they had to be diverted to another airport entirely, with similar consequences. The group seemed rather crestfallen when this was pointed out by the interviewer.

Yet more confustion, from abroad this time: I was in Vienna this week, where their version of the ‘slutwalk’ was taking place. For the uninitiated, this involves a group of women (and men) marching the streets in protest against the remarks made by a Toronto policeman at a safety lecture earlier this year. He suggested that women should avoid ‘dressing like sluts’ to minimise the risk of attack from men. He has since apologised for this incredibly crass statement. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that rape is good (hence this is akin to a protest against murdering people), and I’m also unsure that one idiotic statement from one policeman should be taken to mean that every nation in which the protests have taken place gives out the message ‘don’t get raped’ as opposed to ‘don’t rape’, but what was more interesting was the level of confusion displayed by the participants of the protest. Some clearly seemed to have understood, and were scantily clad in ‘slut-wear’, which is the point of the walk, namely that individuals should be free to wear what they like without fear of being judged, or fear of assault. Others held banners of ‘support feminism’, which I guess is related, though I’m not sure it’s a key feminist principle. Others held ‘smash capitalism’ banners. Surely these people are confused? Does a capitalist society promote rape? Or were they just keen to piggy-back one protest for another?

Confusion brought about by a lack of thinking. Dangerous stuff.

You’re the one for me, fatty

It’s been a week of grim news, and as I keenly scanned the BBC website for an uplifting tale, instead I can across this depressing headline: ‘calorie counts on menus prompt healthy choices’.

This research comes from across the pond, where calorific information has been displayed on New York menus since 2008. The results of this survey do seem patchy, with the headline being just one conclusion from a scattered set of data points. Subway, for example, showed an increase in calorific intake by customers once the calorie information was displayed on menus. This is likely to be due to the fact that people have decided to eat twice the portion of a ‘healthy’ option that contains only 75% of the calories. The Yanks have few faults, but maths is clearly one of them, at least amongst Subway customers. UK restaurants have now begun to ape this trend of putting calorific information alongside food options, from the lowly (KFC and McDonald’s) to the Michelin starred emporium of Alexis Gaultier in Soho. We ignore much of what is best about the US (cheap fuel, good service) and yet copy some of the worst (American gladiators); this is another fad that we would have done well to leave alone.

I am all for education regarding diet and healthy living, but this should come from parents and in Schools. It is important that children are made aware of what is meant by a healthy diet (to my mind there are no such things as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food items, seeing as no one food can supply all the nutrition that we need); it is important that we are aware of portion control (something which the Americans have lost sight of); it is important that we are aware of seasonality and its impact on lowering food miles; it is important that children are encouraged to eat a varied diet; it is important that they are able to cook.

Placing calorie information on menus seems to ignore the education side of food (as above), and instead looks to the strategy of trying to catch the horse’s tail in the stable door. Healthy eating is not all about calories anyway; avocados are very calorific, and yet most people would say they are a ‘healthy’ option. Iceberg lettuce has virtually no calories, and yet it has no nutritional value either, and therefore can hardly be defined as being healthy. Education via calories might teach people how to become thin, but that’s not the same thing as a good diet. Also, whatever Kate Moss thinks, some food really does taste far better than skinny feels (I’m looking at you, foie gras).

I don’t think that calorie information works at either end of the gastronomic spectrum. Take Gaultier Soho, a fine dining restaurant (tasting menu £68 pp). How often are you likely to go to this restaurant, or any restaurant like it? Once a month, if that? This is an occasion restaurant for a partner’s birthday, or a significant anniversary. This restaurant represents the opportunity to be decadent and hedonistic, to start a meal with champage and finish with a cognac over coffee. It’s certainly not your everyday meal. Surely the last thing you want to do is to make meal choices based on calorie content? If anything, let’s live like it’s the last days of Rome, be perverse and have the most calorific choices on the menu. Part of the pleasure of fine dining is that it’s totally out of the ordinary, a one-off treat, and one about which you shouldn’t feel guilty. On another note, if you’re eating at a place like this and you can’t tell that the grilled fish is less likely to clog those arteries than the foie gras on brioche, you probably wasting your money as you’re someone who eats only to live.

At the other end of the spectrum we have KFC and McDonalds. I’m sure that some people think the food here is great, but these people are mostly 12 or under, and as we’ve already discussed, it really is the parent’s responsibility to educate children about food. For most of the rest of us, the output of McDonald’s or KFC are pre-football food, hangover food, bored at the airport food; some don’t touch them out of principle, but fast food provides an important option when needs must. I don’t think anyone would argue that a standard meal of fried chicken/burger and chips is not brilliantly healthy, and it’s not good to eat them too often; I hope I’m not overestimating the intelligence of the average Brit, but I think this should be a given. Placing the calorie information next to a Big Mac, informing us that it’s got a lot of calories, shouldn’t be a surprise, and neither should it put us off buying one. The introduction of the McGrapes and McCarrotsticks about ten years ago was truly bizarre; surely people go to McDonald’s for only one thing: some greasy cheap food. If you wanted some grapes, just go and buy some from the nearest supermarket, though maybe I’m underestimating how ubiquitous McDonald’s really is.

Food shouldn’t really be complicated; people need only a few clear guidlines, and they can make their own choices from these. The ‘5 a day’ for fruit and vegetables has passed into common parlance, though there’s no real reason why it should have been 5, and not 4 or 6. If kids are given a varied and balanced diet, and taught how to cook a few simple dishes, people should be fine to make their own decisions. I’m glad that the research (despite the headline) showed no distinct pattern, and certainly didn’t seem to support the need to expance the calorie information to all sorts of other menus. As with many things, it’s the education, the pro-active strategy that tends to work, and as soon as one adopts the reactionary approach, we run the risk of having to deal with a nation of fatties, rather than ensuring that we don’t produce these big units in the first place.

A nation obsessed

Great Britain really is a great place. It’s difficult to think that, from a tourist perspective, it wouldn’t be at the very top of places you were keen to visit. Maybe we are a little London-focussed, but we’ve got it all. Culture, History, architecture, food and drink, the Olympics, diversity, rural beauty and even a warm welcome. Just don’t stand on the left on the tube.

We love to stereotype others. Italians are chaotic lovers (mutually exclusive terms you understand), the French are arrogant culinary maestros, the Germans are efficient automatons and the Irish are pasty canal-building tayto-eaters. We’re keen to stereotype ourselves too, though the two most prevalent versions are pretty much total opposites, with the replica footbll shirt wearing yob being placed alongside the stiff-upper lipped bowler-hatted gent. Do these exist in a greater quantity that any other Britisher? Probably not, but it’s clearly fun to pretend that they do.

We have great national obsessions, such as the weather and organised queuing. The weather isn’t so surprising, bearing in mind how variable it can be in Britain, and when one considers how overcrowded London is, it’s pretty important to have developed a heightened sense of the queuing system. It’s all about politeness too, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We are a polite bunch after all; where else would a pub confrontation be accompanied by the phrase ‘f*ck off,mate’? The addition of the word ‘mate’ changes a very offensive line into something with at least a degree of politeness. The addition of ‘pal’ does very much the same job.

Many of our national obsessions can be rationalised, and even the quaint ones provide us with a sense of community. The one that it’s difficult to find any positives from is our continual revisiting of the notion of ‘class’. It’s difficult to watch TV, listen to the radio or read the papers without some mention of it, and it doesn’t seem to do much good for anyone. It’s often the privately-educated upper-middle classes that come in for the majority of criticism (I’ve left the true upper-classes out of this, as there really aren’t very many of them, and like badgers, most people never come across one in real life).

One of the two things that grated with me recently was Zadie Smith’s labour party policital on radio 4 last week, where she accused the coalition of wanting to shut down libraries simply because they had been to posh school, and therefore couldn’t understand why poorer people needed access to books for free. The second was Katy Guest’s ‘rant’ in the Independent yesterday, where she claimed that only people who went to ‘posh £28,000-a-year boarding Schools seemed unable to determine what class they were’, as if it was vital that we should all be aware of what socio-economic class we should be sub-divided into.

The Zadie Smith piece has received enough negative press in the last week, but her argument is so basic as to demand instant dismissal. He idea that you have lost all ability to empathise because you have been exposed to the rarified atmosphere of the English public School system is just a lazy class stereotype, used in such a sense as to avoid criticism by coming across as the voice of the underpriviliged masses. Such stereotyping the other way around would be rightly criticised, but this kind of classism is generally accepted, which is disappointing.

Katy Guest’s argument was even more bizarre, but I’m pleased that she’s such a happy person that this was the most irksome thing she could find to rant about. Her point was that only the moneyed posh are unaware of this class system that still exists, and their place within this system. Why are Guest and Smith so keen to keep this notion of class at the top of the agenda? What purpose is served by knowing what class you belong to? Why must we label everyone as members of one particular class in society?

The American Dream may be a slightly cheesy concept, but it’s tricky to argue with the sentiment that anyone, irrespective of background, can achieve greatness. The current President is conclusive proof that it’s possible. Our obsession with class acts as a ball and chain for ambition and social mobility. If you believe Smith and Guest then it’s possible to pigeonhole everyone from birth; our path through life is pre-determined by our social class. This argument runs as follows:

1. You are born working class, that is what you shall remain. The chances are that you will live in the North. Your interests shall remain those of the proletariat, such as greyhound racing and football. You will marry young, and have a large family. Your diet will be poor. You will watch X factor and documentaries involving Peter and Katie. You will eat takaway from KFC’s ‘Mum’s night-off bucket’ range. You will go on holiday to Spain (Benidorm). You will call your male friends ‘geezers’. You will claim to be happy to be working class, but will always resent those of the classes that lie above you.

2. You are born as part of the educated middle classes, and that it what you shall remian. You will go to university, and will join a drinking society, but only in an ironic sense. You will like rugby, and when you live in Fulham you will attend England matches in the pub and will claim that some of the players were at uni with you. You will shout ‘quick ball’ a lot. You like football, but only on TV. You will marry later, and have just one or two children. You will watch David Attenborough programmes. You will eat takeaway from Basilico, and have truffle oil on your pizza. You will go on holiday to Spain (Barcelona). You will call your male friends ‘mates or lads’, and will have ‘banter’. You are happy to be the class you are, and will pity those of the working class, whilst having no understanding of how they exist.

Do you think these are lazy stereotypes? Do you think that to hamstring people by continutally making them consider their class is wrong? Let’s just forget class shall we?

Truffle oil for all I say.

Man of the People

I’ll start with a ‘snob disclaimer’, in that the following musings are not intended to appear snobbish or judgemental, although I guarantee that they will.

I’ve just been staring, dumbstruck, at an X-factor medley of ‘Shut Up’ by Pink (I presume the irony was lost on the show’s producers). It was worse than bad. The desperation in the performers faces bordered on the insane, as Simon Cowell smiled smugly like some modern day Pontius Pilate. There was a jovial black chap, a few pre-pubescent teens, a couple of pin-up boy-banders, some old fat woman and a mahogany-tinted man who looked as though he had been doused in cuprinol. This, I have since found out, is Wagner, which explains a lot of recent tweeting. When did TV stoop so low? Even the ‘light channel’, ITV, which has always pandered to the lowest common denominator looks to have hit rock-bottom. It’s ostensibly an old-fashioned talent show, a la New Faces, except minus the talent. There’s nothing original, bearing in mind that all the songs are covers, and the performers looks like a mixture of earnest School revue jazz-handers and working man’s club lags. I remember Take That getting a whole load of stick in the early 90s because they played on their looks and were seriously stylised, but at least they wrote and performed their own music; they are now hailed as demi-Gods for doing so.

We seem to have lost all interest in the product (ie the music) somewhere along the way, and have become more interested in the process of making someone a star; this contrived manufacturing of an individual merely to sell records is exactly what used to be seen as a kind of cheating. The ‘journey’ of the wannabe star, the tough family background, the ‘I’ve wanted this, like, forever’ tearful speech. This is what we pay to see, because once we’ve got the star, we tend to forget about them (McManus, Sneddon, Parks, Gates, Leon something, anyone?, anyone?). It’s a music show, but with little focus on the music. Get the song out of the way, and then let’s boo or cheer the judges, depending on whether they chastise or praise. ‘That’s your best performance’ (cheer), ‘I didn’t really feel that performance’ (boo).

So no interest in music, and no interest in finding real talent. But let’s examine the alternative. Let’s say that we are after real talent, and we take the most original, exciting, dynamic musicians out there, and judge them against each other for a record contract on a saturday night. I’d hate it. Why? Because it would make ITV (or ITV1, now) credible, and I wouldn’t have anything to rant about. I also don’t want to see genuine musical talent being mentored, going up in front of judges and being told about image and choice of song. I’m interested in the music, not in the process that gets the music to the people. Real talent should come to the attention of people through the quality of the music, not through the over-blown production and stories of troubled childhoods.

There’s also always something pleasing about knowing the masses are wasting their time with such tosh as X-Factor, whilst I’m watching something about British Art on channel 4. Orwell was fascinated by the working classes, and even noted a certain nobility in them. But even he said that ‘the problem with the working classes, is that they smell’, so man of the people he certainly wasn’t. I loved chatting to a nice old couple in the pub last saturday, just before the Palace-Swansea game, but that was enough of a dip into working class life for me thanks, and I’d prefer to leave them to their X-Factor and KFC mum’s night off bucket saturday night treat. If everyone gained some taste, and stopped watching Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing, I wouldn’t be able to feel superior in my niche intellectual interests. If everyone started listening to Nick Drake or The Smiths, I wouldn’t be able to bemoan the lack of interest in proper music; I’m not sure we need a music show for people who don’t like music, but if it keeps them happy on a cold winter night, who am I to criticise.

It’s still better than watching Dean Gaffney eating a dessicated Kangaroo penis.