Boyd Tonkin: Why does it take a celebrity cook to put living standards on the menu?
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 30 August 2013
Most publishers, to misquote TS Eliot (who was a very savvy one himself), cannot bear very much reality. While the agonies and ordeals of the past spread butter on their bread (witness the imminent big push with First World War volumes), the everyday life of modern readers remains a firmly closed book. Until, that is, a mega-selling celebrity author – those contemporary tribunes, carrying the voice of the people into the corridors of power – compels them to acknowledge it. So it is that, this autumn, a multi-millionaire will put on the bestseller agenda the kind of subject that smart agents-and-executives-who-lunch would otherwise turn down flat with a "worthy but dull" sneer.
Jamie Oliver, whose cookbooks have earned almost £150 million, has this week released Save with Jamie. Subtitled "shop smart, cook clever, waste less", the Essex lad's latest blockbuster – and its associated C4 series – "was born", as he reports, "out of public demand". For "as everyone comes under bigger and bigger financial pressure, they want help to cook tasty, nutritious food on a budget".
At last! Ed Miliband can harp on about the "squeezed middle" until the Sun (which is serialising Jamie) shouts "Vote Labour!" But it seems to take this kind of celebrity affirmation before the upper echelons of publishing will notice the living-standards crisis of Britain today. True, in the wake of the 2008 banking crash, we did see a brief vogue for "thrift" books. They pretended to teach a newly impoverished nation the forgotten virtues of austerity.
Pure baloney. That play-acting parsimony had all the authenticity of a vintage floral frock from a Portobello stall or the jitterbug night at a trendy Shoreditch club. Besides, those Marie Antoinette-style guides to make-believe poverty sprang in large part from the keyboards of comfortably-off journalists whose mortgage payments had just been shrunk to a dinkily modest size by a – still unchallenged – post-crisis policy of near-zero interest rates. That, for many people with secure jobs, proved a phoney recession, reflected in the cult of fake frugality.
Now we have a phoney recovery, concocted for electoral gain with the aid of yet another housing bubble. Meanwhile, bills balloon and pay stagnates. Normally, posh publishers would consider these banal worries as dreary matters of no concern to their catalogues. Over the coming weeks, however, Oliver will earn Penguin many more millions by addressing in his own way the cares at the heart of every kitchen-table conversation in the land. For once, reality will bite.
As for the mixed-up opinions of the plutocratic populist, they resemble an under-cooked dog's breakfast. No matter: we don't need a manifesto from him; just a wholesome, affordable menu.
All the same, food and diet – and, beyond them, an urban society's connection to (or disconnection from) the land – have had a strong political dimension in Britain ever since our twinned industrial and agricultural revolutions. Back in 1872, the great Victorian countryside writer Richard Jefferies regretted that the farm labourers of his native Wiltshire – no longer a stout yeomanry, but a rural proletariat – lacked the skill to make "those savoury and inviting messes and vegetable soups at which the French peasantry are so clever". In 1874, he further lamented that, although nourishing food might come into the labourer's cottage, "a more wretched cookery probably does not exist on the face of the earth".
So, 140 years ago, Jamie's agenda lay squarely on the table. Through boom and bust, it stubbornly persists. Beyond the current - and future - spike in food prices and the historic shortcomings of the British diet lurks the Land Question (now a global rather just than a domestic concern): that sleeping giant of politics. Celebrity cookbooks won't address it, but other authors could and should. After all, we can never expect a morsel of honesty on such issues from politicians who would rather slander a sovereign than dare to cross a supermarket boss.
Coming out to beat bullies (but no footballers...)
Here's an eclectic line-up for a charity anthology: crime writer (Val McDermid); BBC presenter (Evan Davis); prize-winning baker (Edd Kimber); rugby international (Gareth Thomas); entrepreneur-politician (Waheed Ali); Paralympic volleyball captain (Claire Harvey) - and Sue Perkins too. All will offer "coming out stories" in It's OK to be Gay (Accent Press), due in October to support Diversity Role Models, which fights homophobic bullying. Let's hope that the phrase "Premier League footballer" may soon join such a list.
Autumn pile-up of vintage vehicles
To anyone who values originality in fiction, the autumn projects of Britain's classier chart-toppers present a truly dismal spectacle. In a long parade of vintage vehicles, William Boyd tries his hand at a James Bond novel (Solo); Sebastian Faulks mimics PG Wodehouse (Jeeves and the Wedding Bells), and Joanna Trollope revisits the godmother of her art with an updated Sense and Sensibility, the first in a series of reimagined Austens. All three might find themselves outsold by Helen Fielding's return to her own classic confection in the third Bridget Jones novel, Mad about the Boy. Legions of readers will enjoy these no doubt well-crafted books; I will probably be among them. In a harsher light, such retro stunts send a chilling message about safe options, low horizons, and a mainstream culture running scared of the present. Prove me wrong, somebody, please.
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