Howard Jacobson: Criticism in action - that's Gordon Ramsay tearing strips off his incompetent subjects

We love to see people who know what they're talking about taking apart people who don't
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The Independent Online

You can't please all of the people all of the time. Just as I'm starting to get the hang of Gordon Ramsay - it's the puritanism I now think I like - the silly fucker falls foul of the vegetarians. Even before the first programme in his new series of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was broadcast last week, the word was out that if we watched we would see him feeding meat to a vegetarian. If he had fed a vegetarian to a shark the horror in anticipation could not have been as great.

Just so that we all know what we are talking about, the vegetarian in question is picked up off the street and invited to try a few slices of pizza. When he prefers the mozzarella and tomato, he is told that it contained Parma ham - an ingredient inadvertently slid under the tomatoes by a Polish kitchen assistant so fucking sullen you want to take a cleaver to her.

Now there are a few things to say about this. In the first place, what is a person doing agreeing to walk in off the street and eat whatever is put before him? The golden rule of survival in these prankish times is never do what a stranger asks you to do. I would go further and say never put yourself in a position where a stranger can ask you to do anything. Stay away from Graham Norton. Stay away from hypnotists. If you go to watch a stand-up comedian he will make a tit of you wherever you are sitting. If you go out with the girls to watch male strippers you will end up with a penis in your face, vegetarian or no vegetarian. Know whereof you might be asked to partake.

Secondly, how come a vegetarian can't taste a slice of Parma ham? If you think Parma ham and tomatoes are interchangeable, do you really have any business being a vegetarian at all? In fact he was sweet, this vegetarian, as vegetarians go. "That was mean of you," he said, which I reckon ranks with Ophelia's "I was the more deceived" for dignity in distress. By comparison, Ramsay's response, something along the lines of "Good luck with the Vegemite, you stupid twat", was signally wanting in the dignity department.

Tina Fox, chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, rose in ire. "I am amazed," she said, "that Gordon Ramsay can find the discomfort of a fellow human being so amusing." To which my answer is that I am amazed she doesn't know that few things in life are more amusing than the discomfort of a fellow human being. She should read Freud on comedy, Bergson on comedy, me on comedy, or even Mel Brooks who once delivered what might well be the final word on the subject: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." I leave it to vegetarians to decide whether eating Parma ham is of a comparable seriousness to falling into a sewer and dying.

I don't make light of either fate myself. Comedy is not a light matter.

But that Gordon Ramsay is as much a comedian as he is a chef I do not for a moment doubt. Unlike Jamie Oliver, for example, who swears as a matter of cheeky authenticity, so that we shouldn't think he has ideas above his station, Ramsay swears de haut en bas, with the timing of a comedian allied to the austerity of a moralist. I'm not sure I buy the sergeant major stuff, headbutting ineffectual maître d's into submission with the somewhat paradoxical intention of getting them to show more balls. But otherwise you cannot fault the morality. He hates dirt; he hates inefficiency; he hates laziness; he hates ineptitude; he hates flashiness - his deepest scorn in the feeding meat to a vegetarian episode being reserved for the would-be chef who spends 70 grand on a car with a ludicrous number plate before he's learnt the difference between fresh pasta and a Pot Noodle.

Criticism, you see. Criticism in action. It's why we watch. We love to see people who know what they're talking about taking apart people who don't. That's one of the reasons Pop Idol is so popular. Or Judge Judy.

Criticism. We love discernment in practice. We love discrimination.

Why in that case we don't like it when it comes to art and literature I cannot understand. Knock a Dan Brown out of your friend's hand and all hell breaks loose. How dare you tell me I'm reading bullshit! Who the fuck do you think you are? "Your friend," is how I like to answer. "Someone who thinks you should know the difference between fresh pasta and a Pot Noodle." Explain it to me - we aspire to tell a good wine from a bad, a fresh pizza from a frozen, a tomato from a slice of Parma ham, but when it comes to what we read we accept no such distinctions. The worse the better, except that we do not allow there is a worse.

When F R Leavis attacked C P Snow in a famous lecture delivered in Cambridge in 1962, it was as though the world had fallen in on English letters. Every writer in the country rose up in rage. How dared he! Had Leavis been a restaurant critic showing up the failings of a ludicrously overpraised chef - which in a sense Snow was - we would have cheered him to the rafters. But this was literature, the stuff we read, and alone of what we do, reading is sacrosanct.

"The judgement I have to come out with," Leavis said, "is that not only is he [Snow] not a genius; he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be." I was there. I watched the dignitaries rise and leave.

The scandal of it! Leavis's own fault. Had he only said "If Snow thinks he's the dog's bollocks then I'm a fucking Scotsman," they'd have given him his own series.

Leavis's Literary Nightmares.

All in the presentation, you see.