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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Down with fakes!

"We did what we had to do and that's why we didn't survive, only the fakes survive." -John Lydon on The Sex Pistols.

It is all too easy for David Cameron at the moment. He says that he is reforming the Conservative Party in a modernising way, although he keeps quiet about what that means in policy terms. There are mumblings from the Munster Family wing of the Cons and their cheerleaders in the press, but if DC is really to persuade the liberal middle classes that the Cons are the lot for them at the next General Election he will have to take on his internal opponents, in the same way that Neil Kinnock did with Derek Hatton, Arthur Scargill et al in 1985. As that was two years into Kinnock's leadership, expect fireworks at next year's Tory Conference. The trouble Cameron also has is that most Con Party members are 110% sure that they only have to keep saying the things they have been saying since Mrs. Thatcher became leader over 30 years back to win the next General Election. Any party which had seen two crushing General Election defeats and then elected a complete no-hoper like Iain Duncan Smith, simply because he was anti-EU (nothing wrong with being anti-EU, I hasten to add) is still in a state of denial. Even now Cameron and his cronies use the most abused phrase in British politics "we have learnt lessons" (without spelling out what they are), which suggests that it is not only the rank-and-file which is in denial about the Cons' political future.

I was reading the Guardian's G2 section on Friday gone when I came across two articles, which seemed to have very little in common, apart from being good, and being condemnations of the sort of fakery in modern Britain which gets me worked up no end. The first is about the great man Dave Cameron and his ilk by a thinking Tory (not a "thinking Thatcherite", I hasten to add- that's an oxymoron for morons), George Walden. I hope he isn't right about the English being naturally deferential- we might as all give up now if that is true- but Walden is right about how the media encourages all this fakery wrapped in the warm odour of "sincerity".

I'm a fake, vote for me
Our present prime minister is a posh man pretending to be common. Our next prime minister may well be a posh man pretending to be common. Why do we love being patronised?
George Walden, The Guardian, Friday September 22, 2006

Britain is governed by an oligarchy of professional egalitarians, many of them from privileged backgrounds, whose power and wealth increasingly depend on the more or less cynical exploitation of populism in politics, the media and the arts. While in power, the Conservative party - lamenting low educational standards and intoning sombrely about family values - had been happy to endorse the increased commercialisation of television. The profits would go largely to friends of the party, while, for reasons too obvious to recite, their own children would be spared much of the cultural squalor that crudely populist television programmes would encourage.

Even so, who would have predicted that an Etonian of three years' parliamentary standing (whose experience of life had been predominantly as a PR executive for a TV company notorious for its low standards) would be elected leader of the Conservative party? That person would, until recently, have been denounced as a cynic. And if they had, furthermore, suggested that one of the first things a future contender for the Tory leadership would do would be to share with us the contents of his iPod and enthuse about his favourite single, they would have been laughed off as a hopeless pessimist.

Reality has, in fact, turned out to be a caricature. For the first time in our history, both major political parties are now led by what are inverted elites: well-born, privately educated men who vie with one another in affecting populist attitudes. Being from a superior social caste to Blair, it is in the logic of the new elites that Cameron should stoop lower, and so he does. A trivial example is their choice of records on Desert Island Discs: whereas Blair included three classical recordings in his choices, Cameron trumped him by having none at all.

Cameron is, to some extent, the political expression of the Princess Diana phenomenon. Diana was the patron saint of these new elites, and Cameron has clearly learned a lot from her. They not only look a little alike (it seems to me) but, it has been written, may be distantly related. She spooned with the masses and so does he. Both are upper-class figures who nevertheless contrive to lay claim to victim status: Diana exploited her difficulties with the royal family to gain public sympathy, and Cameron, somewhat distastefully, makes political play with his disabled son.

The politics of sentiment increasingly dominate public discussion, and sentimentality tinged with cynicism was what Diana was about. The same is true of Cameron's social politics. The cant of the new elites emerges with numbing shamelessness in his public declarations. Recently the one-time PR man for ruthlessly profitable trash TV made a heartfelt speech in which he said that money wasn't everything, and that the quality of our culture mattered. In his more mawkish mode it is possible to discern in the Tory leader's political pitch a faint echo of Diana's Christ-like affectations. With her, it was a scrupulously choreographed contact with people sick with Aids. With Cameron, it is an ostentatious tolerance of the lower orders: suffer the hoodies and the hoodlums to come unto me.

Socially and politically, the consequence (and, subconsciously perhaps, the intention) of this de haut en bas smarminess towards the masses is the maintenance of the old order in modern guise. Naturally, Cameron would deny this, insisting that he is sincere in everything he says and does. But then so does Blair and so would Diana. All three strike me as instances of a contemporary phenomenon by which a person's feelings about him or herself become more important than their relationship with reality. To that extent, as a sagacious Princeton professor, Harry G Frankfurt, has recently pointed out, "sincerity itself is bullshit".

The Blair-Cameron continuum does not surprise me. Populism in Britain is systemic, involving a tacit complicity between left and right. By this I mean that the consequences of egalitarianism and the free market could, in practice, be remarkably similar, and that the main victims in both cases are likely to be at the lower end of society. For all their protestations to the contrary, neither right nor left really believe in meritocracy. At heart the left retains a gut opposition to selection in any form, while the right is in favour of competition everywhere except where it impinges on the educational and social privileges of the right itself, its sons and its daughters. But a situation in which talent finds no way forward while an elite of populist mediocrities holds power in field after field will, in the long term, prove damaging to the country.

Recently, the London School of Economics produced an international study showing that Britain is not only the least meritocratic country in the western world, but that in the past 30 years we have actually gone backwards. Another study, this time by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, has confirmed that, while our independent schools are of the highest standards, in no other country is there such a gulf in achievement between state and private schools. The bigger the gap, the greater the need to pretend it is not there. Hence the English art of condescension in its contemporary form. Blair's posturing helped set the tone for the new elites and, as we have seen, the style is catching.

Our increasingly populist media - which, like Cameron, insists that class is a thing of the past - is itself increasingly run by journalists whose backgrounds can be traced to the middle or upper-middle classes and to independent schools. The facts are there, in a recent study by the Sutton Trust, showing that more than half of the most senior journalists in the land came from independent schools, which account for 7% of the country's pupils. This, too, represents a deterioration of the position a few decades ago. It is in the logic of what I call an ultra-democracy in thrall to the new elites that the more privileged the power-holders in the media, the greater the quotient of populist ingratiation and we are certainly seeing plenty of that.

Five years ago, immigration was not yet the vastly important subject it has since become. From every point of view, the new elites have reason to welcome what has happened. Whatever its consequences for the country, for them, mass immigration is an unqualified boon. It is not just the low wages and household help that benefit well-to-do people such as themselves. Here are millions of new clients for their condescension, in the true meaning of the term: lowering yourself to the level of people you see as inferior, the better to ingratiate yourself with them. The purpose is to sell them your populist politics or dud culture, while burnishing your humanitarian image. We must look forward to the time when able and independent-minded immigrants at all levels of society react against the patronage of the new elites who, morally, culturally and intellectually, are so frequently beneath them.

One of the more predictable habits of the new elites is to dismiss all criticism of the country in which they and their children flourish as doom-mongering or unpatriotic. Such a riposte is of little consequence: elites have always sought to jolly the populace along, dissuading them from untoward reflection and analysis, and have always played the patriotic card. For some time I thought I discerned a diminishing tendency, even among politicians, to take the populist whip and that it was only a matter of time before the posturings of our new elites were laughed to scorn. There must be a limit to the amount of patronising a free people can take from its leaders, assuming it wants to be truly free.

Watching a Tory leader pedalling to the House of Commons followed by a chauffeur-driven Lexus carrying a clean shirt and shoes, like some bicycling Bertie Wooster with his Jeeves in motorised attendance, I am not so sure. Something in the English mind makes it possible for the farce to be accepted. And when in his populist arrogance our would-be prime minister exposes himself to a television interview in which he is asked whether as a teenager he had masturbated over an image of Margaret Thatcher, an observer might have thought that he would be seen as having gone beyond the bounds of the acceptable in the eyes of his colleagues, many of them former devotees of Saint Margaret.

But our observer would be wrong. What matters for the new elites is not loyalty, principle or the crumbs of decency, but personal success, even if it involves the debasement of everything the Conservative party is supposed to stand for. In Tory eyes only two things mattered about the incident and their strategists will not have missed them: Jonathan Ross earns £8m a year because he is a smart fellow and the public love him, and when he succumbed to the temptation to twit Cameron with a pitifully witless joke, a mere handful of people rang the BBC to complain.

To me it seems clear beyond doubt that Cameron will become prime minister after the next election, even in a hung parliament. If so, it would be the biggest triumph of our new elites since the apotheosis of Diana. Such a result would also confirm one of our least admirable national characteristics: the irresistible English urge to deference, in this case deference towards the privileged and well-to-do masquerading as themselves.

© 2006 George Walden. Extracted from New Elites: A Career in the Masses, published by Gibson Square on September 29. To order a copy for £9.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875.

You can see Dave Cameron in a gastropub, can't you? You can see him launching the Cons next General Election campaign in one, trying to make bonhomie conversation with some miserable old bloke, while quaffing a glass of beer he normally wouldn't touch with the proverbial bargepole. As I've ranted previously, I have no objection to serving food in pubs- anything tasty and filling which soaks up the booze should be encouraged. However, gastropubs should be avoided if at all possible, as most are as fake as Mr DC himself.

Hunks of this, rumps of that ...
Seared scallops with thyme butter and parsnip chips? Pistachios washed down by Staropramen? Laura Barton is tired of gastropubs - and yearns for a shabby old boozer where dining means crisps
The Guardian, Friday September 22, 2006

Gastropub. Three syllables that instill an oily dread into my heart. It is not the word itself, of course, more the fact that, were there such a thing as a linguistic gastropub menu, it would probably find itself described as a duo of pub and gastronomy served on a bed of wild roquette with a plum confit and red wine reduction.

"Gastropub" was coined (not fricasseed or flash-fried or muddled) in 1991 by David Eyre and Mike Belben, proprietors of the Eagle, in Clerkenwell, London, which was among the first public houses to seize upon the remarkable notion of serving food alongside its ale that extended beyond a listless bag of pork scratchings or a pickled egg. Fifteen years on, it is hard to believe that before 1991, the pinnacle of pub fayre was a pre-cooked chicken and mushroom pie with a mountain of oven chips and an iceberg garnish consumed at a Harvester or a Beefeater while the children amused themselves outside in the kiddies' playground. So when the Eagle opened its doors, in a flurry of caldo verde and sea bream, it was indeed a glorious day for Britain.

But now they are everywhere. Everywhere! They are breeding. This month saw the launch of the Michelin Eating Out In Pubs 2007 guide, and among its 559 entries, there were 48 gastropubs in London alone. (It is the gastropub's cutting-edge cuisine that separates it from, say, genuine, ye olde food-serving taverns.) "The gastropub phenomenon is showing no signs of slowing down," says Derek Bulmer, the guide's editor. "We excluded more than 500 pubs from the guide this year."
Gordon Ramsay, meanwhile, has announced his intention to enter the gastropub trade with the Narrow Street Kitchen in Limehouse. More gastropubs? This seems to me a bleak, bleak future, for as the years have rolled by I have rather had my fill of herbed polenta and parmesan shavings, and after considerable rumination I have reached this conclusion: I loathe gastropubs and all who sail in them.

As the Eagle is adjacent to Guardian HQ, I would do well not to criticise it lest they pelt me with pane rustica as I stroll to the bus stop. And to be honest, I do, hand on heart, like the Eagle, as indeed I like an array of other gastropubs the length and breadth of the British Isles. It is, after all, hard to object to nice food and an agreeable selection of ales. And I eat in them often enough, of course; just last night, purely in the interests of investigative journalism, I found myself in a Hackney gastropub sampling seared scallops with thyme butter and parsnip chips (reader, I felt besmirched), but increasingly I find they instill in me the same lacklustre despondency as dining at a Little Chef, only without those amusingly slurpy milkshakes or the promise of a lollipop at the end.

I believe the reason is this: so popular have the original gastropubs been that the new batch now upon us seems to have been created by following some fail-safe gastropub blueprint downloaded off the internet. There is something achingly wearisome about walking through a hostelry door and finding one's eyes skating over the same brown leather sofas (low, sprawling, slightly scuffed) the same rustic tables (one leg charmingly stabilised with a folded-up napkin) the same beer selection (Staropramen, Staropramen, Staropramen). In their soulless rehashing of the same old decor and accoutrements they seem little different to those brewery chain boozers with their fake beams and bulk-bought horse brasses and tankards.

Except, of course, they are a darned sight more expensive. From your premium ales to your lamb tagine via your gourmet crisps and your bowl of lightly salted pistachios, gastropubbing is a pricey business. Even Michelin's Bulmer cautions that the expensive menus now found in many pubs means they are "basically restaurants with a bar". Not that there's anything wrong with restaurants with a bar, but frequently, the fare on offer in these repro gastropubs does not really warrant the price-tag - on reflection, I am not wholly certain last night's scallops were genuinely worth £13.50, for example.

Meanwhile the menus, inevitably scrawled across blackboards, are written in a curious small-town-brasserie-meets-Jamie Oliver vernacular: all crushed foie gras potatoes, hunks of this, rumps of that, mash, hash, splash, and hand-cut things made for dunking. The roll-call of skate wings and goat's cheese and Toulouse sausages seem to have been shipped in with the sofas and the Staropramen.

Yes, it is brilliant that Britain has hauled itself up from its culinary slump, that we now live in a land where manchego and quince paste is offered up in a bar entirely without apology or explanation and that we have repatriated rhubarb crumble and devilled kidneys. But sometimes it strikes me that the ubiquitous gastropub menu, with its pork belly and polenta and cod and tapenade and wilted greens and chips-with-aioli (always bloody chips-with-aioli - what the hell happened to malt vinegar?) is really no different to the chiming predictability of the chicken in a basket and scampi and chips we were served in the 80s.

The ambience is different now, of course. There is no longer the piped music or jukeboxes offering Venus in Blue Jeans and the hits of Slade - instead gastropubs hire DJs to "spin" (not fricassee or flash-fry or muddle) a breed of what one must describe as blah blah blah music, the aural equivalent of one of those extremely pointless yet exceedingly large coffee table books. Indeed it is most probable you are resting your pint of Staropramen on one of the DJ's flyers rather than a beermat. Twenty years ago, the notion of having a DJ in a pub, except for a very special occasion when he might have been expected to play at least one Black Lace record, would have seemed preposterous. But the times, and the drinkers, have changed.

Today, gastropubs are where affluent young couples come to chill out, together, en masse, with their toddlers. They are chrome-loving, loft-style living, dinner party drug-users with expensive haircuts and a steady line in casual chic, and the gastropubs they frequent are the flagpoles of the relentless urban gentrification occurring across the country. Yes, arguably my objection to them is because they embody what I myself fear becoming, with my poncy media job and my extensive knowledge of balsamic vinegar, but mostly I am simply unsettled by what gastropubs represent: this kind of blond-wooded Britain that brunches and boozes and barristas, and is ever so pleased with itself for doing so; because in the gastropub world, everything is swimming in olive oil and smugness.

What I miss is those shabby pubs that smell of dirt and tobacco and stout, where you're as likely to get into a brawl as you are to find a packet of ready-salted Seabrooks crisps. Where old men hunch over a pint of mild and the only soundtrack is the put-put-put of a game of pool in the back room. No DJs, no Heal's sofas, no blackened salmon or pilaff or cous-cous. No gastronomy, just pub.



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