Sons and daughters of Albion rally ’round the Union Jack — just in time for the European Union’s collapse.
Men, who pay for what they eat, will insist on gratifying their palates, however nice and whimsical these may prove; and, if every thing is not agreeable to their taste, will challenge a right to censure, to abuse, and to d–n their dinner without control. — Henry Fielding
Sometimes, when I’m feeling lonely, I go to Fresh and Easy. I like to walk its too bright aisles and look at the rows upon rows of pale pink beef patties wrapped in cellophane and Brancusi-esque cartons of creamer and sky-blue tubs of margarine, all of which strike me as somehow not quite “American,” despite coming from American farms and consisting of American cows, chickens and soybeans. The labels are too well-designed; sleek and minimalistic, they defy interpretation. And the food seems a more perfect version of itself : emerald green bunches of rocket lettuce sealed neatly into plastic packaging; perfectly round, waxen apples entombed in plastic clam shells.
I can’t decide if the food at Fresh and Easy is the food of the future, or the food of a very recent past. Certainly there are no employees that I could ask. Fresh and Easy has done away with all such manflesh, which can prove demanding, difficult and thus inconvenient to the bottom line. No, biota which can’t be wrapped in cellophane and sold by the pound enjoys but the most transient presence in Fresh and Easy; customers use self-checkout counters to purchase their foodstuffs, and shelves are stocked during the smallest of the small hours. There’s from time to time a man or woman in the back of the store who hands out samples with all the verve of a Mechanical Turk. When you grab for the small waxed cup of krab salad or pretzel thins, all you see is a darting pair of hands gloved in white latex.
Fresh and Easy — which is owned by Tesco, a British supermarket chain — perfectly embodies those two abiding English passions: polite avoidance, and food which tastes better than it looks. It might very well be that all the streaky back bacon and 72-percent-lean ground beef and mealy tomatoes were what danced through a South London bachelor’s head thirty years ago as he drifted off to sleep in a two-bedroom flat after another day on the dole.
Fresh and Easy — which owned by Tesco, a British supermarket chain — perfectly embodies those two abiding English passions: polite avoidance, and food which tastes better than it looks.
But I really wouldn’t know what Fresh and Easy’s appeal is to the average English subject. I’ve never been to England. The closest I came was two hours in Heathrow, where I was scolded (albeit politely, in true English manner) by Customs for having in Vienna stuffed too many bottles of Grüner Veltliner in my valise. The English have always made me squirm a bit. Whenever I encountered one of the Queen’s subjects, I imagined he or she could somehow sniff out my Austrian heritage, their disdainful gaze surveying my soul, seeing it as nothing but a plate of parsley-flecked potatoes and sour cabbage.
My most recent trip to Fresh and Easy, however, has set me thinking about how there’s likely more to vassal and serf than is contained in my philosophy. It seems as though the Brits are really feeling their oats lately, or so the popular media would have us believe. A resurgent British nationalism is showing up in the oddest places — or so it appears from my seat across the pond. The Financial Times blames it all on a dying euro, which threatens to sink Europe and its island companions into the watery abyss.
But I can’t help but think there’s more than just EU funny money at work.
Consider, for instance, the new Rimmel Cosmetics ad campaign. Rimmel touts itself as offering “value for money products to all our customers, these days with a dash of London glamour.” Though started by an expat French perfumer in 1820, Rimmel promotes itself “uniquely British.” One could argue that cheap cosmetics are not the place to look for simmering nationalistic sentiment, but given the prominence of the Union Jack on my tube of “Strawberry Shimmer,” it’s hard not to question the motivation behind Rimmel’s emblazoning this symbol of the Empire on all their products. And though their new cover girl Zooey Deschanel is a mumblecore maven and hipster sweetheart of unabashed American vintage, her soft-as-steamed-pudding features and curious (yet curiously blank) grey eyes bespeak of a distinctly Cool-Britannia-era brand of beauty á la Jean Shrimpton. Yet, lest Deschanel’s foreign provenance cast the Rimmel’s nationalist bona fides into question, a Union Jack painted behind her head assures the viewer that the blush she is about to purchase is assuredly of an English-rose shade of red.
And then there’s offal — British offal, that is. Restaurants across London have been pushing curries and samosas aside for the likes of beef and kidney pie and braised beef heart. While I’m sure such fodder is quite tasty, I can’t help but notice the vehemence with which Londoners have decided once again to embrace organ meats at the dinner table. The Telegraph reported a while back that UK households are clamoring for more “traditional dishes, such a liver and onions.” Some brave housewives (and husbands) are even experimenting with such complex dinnertime delights as haggis and jugged hare. The recent downturn in Britain’s economic fortunes might be to blame for this new taste for old-timey provender, but it seems of a piece with the general English-style risorgimento currently going on.
It seems more likely that certain contingents of the English population want to protect cultural memories and thereby retain a sense of community through this act of embalming the memory of collective culture — kinda like attending a funeral and taking pride in the fact every attendee mourns the same person.
Recent news reports support this observance, confirming that this resurgence of nationalistic sentiment has gone beyond cheap mascara and kidneys done rare. The English are singing loud and proud Morrissey’s defiant refrain from “The National Front Disco”: “England for the English.” And with their island stronghold growing more crowded with each passing day, the talk is of raising the drawbridge. The Daily Mail reports that “Britain’s population will rise to 92.5 million over the next century [...] where almost all of the growth in numbers will come in England, where the strong economy in the South and the East is expected to continue to pull in immigrants.” The article goes on to report that “England has become the most crowded country in Europe in recent years, almost entirely because of the growth brought about by high net migration.” Another recent news report tell us that the English Defense League is gearing up to barrel down the streets of Leicester this Saturday in protest of Islamic fundamentalism. And while some of the more astute comments from these articles point to the irony of colonizers complaining of being colonized, the vast majority talk of how “England is now wot flies are to poo.”
I like English culture. I wear Doc Martens. I’ve read (almost) all of Dickens’ novels. I sat through two years of English history courses as an undergraduate. I’ve mastered the art of making a perfect Sunday roast. Each evening I climb a small mountain here in the midst of my desert city to watch British Airways Flight 289 glide in from London. I once considered getting a tattoo on my ankle that said “The Smiths.”
But the latest burst of English nationalism seems a bit, well, stupid. In the age of the Internet, how can one even talk of shared culture, where even the quaint Derbyshire shepherd is constantly checking his Blackberry on a heath dotted with cell towers? And what shared culture are these individuals referring to anyway? I can’t recall one brilliant cultural thing that’s come out of England, or any country for that matter, during the last fifteen years. Perhaps Susan Boyle? But then she’s Scottish. It seems more likely that certain contingents of the English population want to protect cultural memories and thereby retain a sense of community through this act of embalming the memory of collective culture — kinda like attending a funeral and taking pride in the fact every attendee mourns the same person. And the English aren’t alone in this; Germans too are stirring in the worse possible way. The German daily The Local reports that “xenophobic views are taking a greater hold among the German people than previously.” (Previous to what, one wonders.)
This is all very sad, as well as drearily predictable; because, if anything, this anger most likely derives from feelings of powerlessness caused by rampant joblessness and a lowered standard of living. If only the mistakes of the past could be avoided and all the rage of these nations quaking under the stress of the global economic meltdown be directed at that top one percent of the population that is actually causing all this economic and cultural devastation instead of the bottom 40 percent who are fleeing their countries of origin as a result of this devastation. Perhaps then everyone would forget all this nonsense about Union Jack lip gloss and sweetbreads stewed with sage and instead settle down together to a nice dinner of Victory-pink beef and apples fresh from polyethylene containers.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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