Lunchbox politics

January 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education, NHS | 2 Comments

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The process of producing a good lunchbox is one of trial and error; claim & counter-claim; constant negotiation between producer and customer. My brother and I weren’t easy customers to please. For a few years we were quite happy with Dairylea in our sandwiches, until we discovered that Dairylea was cheese, and ‘Mum, we don’t like cheese!‘ We went our separate ways after that: Jon took a shine to ham & tomato ketchup; I developed a thing for Bernard Matthews turkey slices, which she sprinkled with salt and sprayed with barbeque sauce.

But as soon as she’d solved the filling problem, then came an issue with the bread. Those thin slices of soft white bread which worked so well with Dairylea weren’t compatible with our various sauces, which leaked all over our fingers and (worse still) our clean white shirts. So she replaced it with those spongy, tasteless Warburton teacakes. Result.

But it was always the deserts which caused the most angst. Did we want Wagon Wheels or Chocolate Rolls? Jam Tarts or Fondant Fancies? Yoghurt or fromage frais? How do you keep yoghurt cool without resorting to an ice pack which’ll make your sandwich soggy? Had we been good enough to deserve a Tunnocks Marshmallow Teacake? And even if she did pack one, how could she make it so that the ruff n’ tumble of a rucksack didn’t get it squashed? Was there even any point putting a piece of fruit in there?

Were it not for love, my mother wouldn’t have bothered. Each tacky little Tupperware box we carried to school was an expression of devotion, and that she constantly evolved the menu to serve our fickle tastes was a sign that she wanted to send us to school with something from her to us.

Those who’re interested in reforming the British diet often make the mistake of talking about food as nothing but a clump of calories & carbohydrates, sodiums and saturates. Using the vast breadth of information about how our bodies work and what’s in the food we eat, they’ll explain the benefits of eating A, or why B should only be eaten only in moderation. From this information, they expect us to make well informed, healthy, rational choices.

Except that few of us look at food in such narrowly functional terms. Food can also be deeply personal – teeming with memory and emotion. I knew that black forest gateau was my favourite desert the moment I found out that it was grandad’s favourite desert. It’s also a fiercely stubborn habit: 15 years later, I still eat the crusts off my turkey sandwich first; Jon’s still making himself ham & ketchup; we still spoil ourselves with a nice, gooey marshmallow teacake.

My worry about the healthy eating lobby is that when they see that we’re not making the same self-evidently healthy, rational choices as they recommend, they feel the need to try a little harder, maybe see if a bit of state coercion will do the trick. That’s probably the surest way of getting people’s backs up and encouraging them to switch off entirely.

Some are going to reject all this nutritional advice in its entirety. Others will follow it obsessively. But I’m reasonably confident that most of us try, where possible, to incorporate it into our lives, so long as we possess the cultural & financial capital to do so, and it doesn’t detract from the pleasure of eating. But it seems to me that all these people can do without eliciting angry, defiant responses, is just put the information out there and let the rest of us decide what to do with it. Parents, in particular, have quite enough on their plates.

Picture by amanky (Creative Commons)

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Food for thought

October 7, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Celebrity, NHS, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
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I haven’t found the time to sit down and watch Ministry of Food yet, so I have no idea whether I’d be repulsed by Jamie Oliver’s supposed ‘patronising’ of the working classes or impressed by his idealism. I do agree with this comment that for all the cynicism about a wealthy celeb ‘slumming it with the chavs’, his intentions seem good and his approach – however meddlesome, intrusive & embarrassing it might be for the show’s subjects – seems considerably more effective than the hand-wringing warnings of health ministers. On the question of whether it’s freak-show TV, I think it’s wise to consider someone’s past record, and on that basis I think Oliver deserves a pass: his Fifteen restaurant chain, which sprang from a show where he hired 15 kids from deprived backgrounds and taught them how to work in hospitality, was an impressive achievement. Very few people in his industries have made a fortune for themselves whilst trying to persue some measure of positive social change, and for that he deserves credit.

I’m writing solely from favourable reviews here, but the show’s concept appears to be as much of a social documentary as ‘Breadline Britain’ ever was, and by occasionally panning away from the core focus on unhealthy diets, you’re made aware of the kinds of connected issues about education & deprivation that simply don’t get the kind of serious discussion they deserve. Going even further, it also raises more esoteric issues about the role of the state in tackling obesity, the future of the NHS, and whether the progressive left has the answers for any of the above.

Continue Reading Food for thought…

In praise of foreign medicine

June 18, 2008 at 3:19 pm | Posted in British Politics, NHS | 4 Comments

As it strides into its 60th year, Patrick Butler reminds us that the history of the NHS is also a history of post-war Britain, and that most of the myriad changes which have occurred in British society are reflected in our health service’s practices and practitioners. This is especially true when we consider the history of economic migration, and how recruiting doctors and nurses from overseas (Ireland in the 1940’s, the Caribbean in the 50’s, India & Pakistan in the 60’s) has sustained successive governments’ obligation to provide free healthcare for its citizens.

But we should also remember that these émigrés have historically provided healthcare for our poorest citizens, and were encouraged to come here to fill gaps in provision that effected working class towns and cities. A particularly enlightening stat from Butler’s piece is that in the Rhonnda Valley – an area that once boasted 20 collieries but is now blighted by poverty, crime and poor health – over 70% of the GPs are of south Asian origin.

Of course, they haven’t always been appreciated by their patients, nor are they universally appreciated now. All too often I’ve overheard stories about visiting a doctor in which his/her race or ethnicity is prioritised over their name or even the diagnosis they offered, and the NHS is forced to be constantly vigilant against racist attacks.

There are two types of racism at play here. One is the most obvious, non-negotiable, naked racism that makes bigots suffer a bilious reaction at the mere thought of interacting with someone who isn’t white. The other is a milder but arguably more widespread type of racism that views the skills, expertise and diagnoses of foreign doctors to be deficient to those of white, British doctors. Like steel that’s made from China rather than Sheffield, or receiving advice from a call centre in New Delhi rather than Dagenham, there’s a tendency to view with suspicion all those goods and services which don’t originate from this country, and this leads to viewing the advice of foreign healthcare workers with everything from suspicion to outright hostility. How ironic that for all this nation grumble’s about the state of the NHS, we still have a mindset that views all other countries’ healthcare systems as inferior!

If it weren’t for the Indian GP, the Phillipino midwife and the Jamaican nurse, many of the poorest members in our society would find an even greater struggle to receive the healthcare they need; as the NHS looks forward its next 60 years, we should remember that with gratitude.

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