A burden that all vocal Tory women like Andrea Leadsom must carry is that they possess the sort of poise and demeanour which makes uttering even sensible things potentially inflammatory. Leadsom wondering this week if British young people might benefit from engaging “in countryside matters” is like Baroness Anne Jenkin making the connection between not being able to cook and not being able to feed oneself, or Kirstie Allsopp saying it might be spiritually nourishing to pick up litter, or Ann Widdecombe making a TV show arguing that selling your vagina at £10 a pop, 15 times a day, sounds like a bit of a rum do.
Any of these views uttered down the pub by someone not possessing a shoulder-padded Bolero jacket, voluminous hair and Tory party membership card would be considered boringly reasonable. Leadsom, on the other hand, wondering if some of the estimated 67,000 seasonal workers who keep British shops stocked with British produce might eventually be well, British, was explosive. It was, in fact, the sort of shocking, disgusting, triggering, out-of-touch outburst which leads compassionate lefties to see no option but to hork up phlegm from the lower recess of their lungs and gob it into the faces of “Tory scum”. Leadsom, for what it’s worth, did take into account how low agricultural wages tend to be, but nevertheless within hours was being pelted with metaphorical rotting tomatoes on social media.
Although I am not Leadsom’s strongest fan, as a food critic, I find the nation’s attitude to our home-grown fruit and vegetables incoherent. Because on one level, the image of the honest Brit working on the land is gloriously cool. We rhapsodise in adverts and marketing campaigns over our ability to grow good local produce. Every hip, modern and ambitious British chef is never a short breath away from a dewy diatribe on field-to-fork dining or good, honest sustainable local produce or – spare me – learning to cook home-grown spuds at their mother’s knee. Our TV ad breaks are stuffed with amiable farmers bragging about their commitment to supplying supermarket apples that don’t travel far to your fruit bowl. On restaurant menus, the heritage and home postcode of the carrots is stuffed down our throats as a selling point. Eating British, we agree, is completely brilliant!
But do we want to pick these vegetables? No. On the contrary, we find the assumption we should sickening, cruel, inhumane and culturally backwards. To be caught wondering if younger people might benefit from seasonal outdoors work is at its best glib Baden Powell chunterings and at worst the sinister ranting of an Orwellian despot.
The modern Brit cannot and will not be asked to pick fruit because aside from the low wages, the fruit, quite impudently, insists on growing outdoors which means the work might sometimes be hot and sometimes very cold and sometimes bloody rainy. We’ll be required to pick against the clock, be told what to do, be judged on our output and possibly told off for slacking. The farmer may possibly want the fruit picked early so as to fit in with supermarket schedules and that means beginning work in the very early hours. Apples do not grow abundantly in urban areas, so the apple-picker will probably be situated far from their mum, dad, boyfriend and family pet and sleeping somewhere without home comforts, and this level of sacrifice to many Brits is unacceptable.
Fruit-picking, regardless of how lovely it might look on the Magners advert, is in actual effect an enormous pain in the arse. But if all of these things are beyond humanity to the British sensibility, why are we comfortable for it all to be happening each and every day to Bulgarians? Are these people not humans too? Why should we be so proud of our agricultural output, but completely unprepared to set a hand on it? Leadsom is right: fruit-picking is a dirty job, but maybe we need to re-learn how to do it.
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