One happy side-effect of yer basic glerbleconmicmeldow is the sharp and unflattering relief into which it has thrown some sections of the media – perhaps the whole purpose of media itself. It’s not just that some people persist in not getting what the credit crunch was all about (pay close attention: it wasn’t ree-al mon-ey – it hasn’t “gone” anywhere). It’s that the frequent commentators’ habit of attaching emotive reaction and playground moralspeak to everything they report serves them spectacularly badly when the main substance of the news is economic.

The innate demand of the media engine is that “bad” news be trumped in some final and definitive way by “good” news. Or vice versa. They are, to give them credit, entirely unfussed about whether or not we “win” the glerbleconmicmeldow. But they do demand that someone “wins”. Or Panorama will know the reason why. It’s all totally subjective, of course. The current narrative is that Gordon Brown has won and is “back in control” on the basis that he’s taken some action in an economic emergency. You think he wasn’t taking various less exciting actions three weeks ago? You think there weren’t pictures of him smiling available for press use three weeks ago? Of course you don’t think that, you’re a bright spark who knows how to read newspapers critically, but you get my drift.

The trouble is that applying this simple goodies and baddies logic – irritating at the best of times – to an economic crisis makes the media look utterly bananas. At its height, the mad rodent school of news-making generated several successive days of headlines like this: “FTSE plunges to 21-year low as confidence wanes on world markets”, “Shares surge 7% as bank bail-out restores confidence”, “Markets no longer quite so confident three days after bank bail-out, fall again, this time to worst levels for five years”, “Market recovers slightly in totally nonsensical manner; we reckon this time it’s serious; Brown’s political comeback is complete”, “Market is slightly down again – we ask why?”

And so on. Honestly, guys, are you going to do this on the front page every single day from now on? Because, that’s kind of how markets work all the time. Actually, they’ve finally broken ranks today with David Cameron, Afghanistan and some child porn (not in the same story) but for a whole fortnight it’s been pretty much wall-to-wall angels-on-pinhead-speak. They might as well have spent their time dousing to ascertain the feelings of the wider cosmos and the Great Being. And they wonder why their circulations continue to plummet? This stuff makes no bloody coherent sense.

The other feature of commentariat behaviour that has been disastrously pinned to the wall is the demand for consistency, no matter what is happening to the economy, the world or Peter Mandelson’s hair. Makes perfect sense if the subject under discussion whether you’re for or against ID cards, makes no sense whatsoever if it’s whether you think interest rates should go up or down. Andy Hinton points to a quote from BBC headless rodent Andrew Neil, for example, who is worried – squeak, squeak! – that Vince has gone off the boil because he’s now calling for suspension of the independence of the Bank of England, having said at Lib Dem autumn conference that this would be the wrong thing to do.

Now, I (calling on my in-depth knowledge of, er, middle Anglo-Saxon burial practices) am by no means convinced of the wisdom of suspending the independence of the Bank of England. And Vince’s say-so should be questioned as much as anyone else’s. But even in my dark age ignorance I am tolerably sure that one or two things have, er, changed since the Lib Dem party conference? You know, shifting goalposts? Or pitches, in fact?

The epithet “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” was never more relevant than now, but the media insistence that everything look and sound the same from one day to the next, even from one month to the next (except when it’s Tory environmental policy under discussion, obviously), makes their reportage of a rapidly unfolding economic crisis a nonsense.

Danny Finkelstein displayed a similarly infantile grasp of political morality a week or so ago, tsking over the sad decline of Vince Cable-as-seer (I’m pretty sure he’s doctored his original post, by the way, which I remember as more damning than this; but I’m prepared to be corrected):

Three weeks ago he told the Liberal Democrat conference that:

“The Government must not compromise the independence of the Bank of England by telling it to slash interest rates and generate another dangerous inflationary ‘bubble’.”

In the same speech he contrasted Tory emptiness with the Lib Dem’s: [sic]

“more deeply rooted, more principled, alternative, a clearer analysis of why Britain faces a growing crisis; and a more honest statement of what the Government can and cannot do.”

Then on Sunday this principled, deeply rooted, more clearly analytical man said this:

“What is required is for the chancellor to write to the governor saying that on a temporary emergency basis the committee should assume a central role in countering the crisis with a large cut in interest rate.”

At least when Tony Blair did u-turns he generally moved from the wrong position to the right one. Cable’s new position does not have this merit.

And a lot of boringly clever-sounding people with – damn them – actual knowledge of the subject under discussion came along in the comments to make Fink climb down from the mast to which he had nailed his trousers:

Three weeks ago the FTSE was at 5200. Three weks ago RBS’s market capitalisation was double what it is now. Three weeks ago Ireland and Germany hadn’t unilaterally made moves to guarantee saver’s deposits. Three weeks ago Iceland hadn’t enacted legislation to prevent the country from going bankrupt. Three weeks ago HBOS hadn’t announced merger talks with Lloyds. Three weeks ago … well Danny you get my point… He made the statements at the time of the conference based on the situation at that time. Events change on a daily basis and at the present moment liquidity is the problem. Lowering interest rates, even if temporarily, could encourage LIBOR to fall and banks to lend to each other.

Tcoh. Don’t you just hate these well-informed spods with their bloody longer-than-two-minute attention spans turning up just when you’re trying to fudge together an emotionally-based partisan narrative about the economic crisis from the bits that weren’t good enough to make your main column last week? It shouldn’t happen to a highly-paid opinion former.

Between them, these two stories mark something the party needs to watch out for. Somehow, be it by osmosis or masonic meeting, the media have decided that Vince has had his day in the sun (which, make no mistake, was bestowed upon him initially because they thought it might ruffle Nick Clegg), for no better reason than that it’s in their disturbingly  primitive collective nature to build up idols and then pull them down again.

Expect more groundless finger-pointing and portentous “ummmmmm” noises to follow, and gradually form itself into delicate layers of insinuation like puff pastry, until no-one can remember how the air-filled pile of specious slop that forms the Case Against Vince Cable started, but they’re pretty sure there’s no smoke without fire, and anyway it’s on the deputy editor’s mood board this week so let’s run a story about it. Quickly though, I have to call my crystal healer about moving my car insurance.

Like Jo A, I must stress that I only have access to a copy of Delia’s new How to Cheat at Cooking through A Friend. Nowt to do wiv us, guv. Here are some of the handy hints from the introduction:

For instance, why not cut out grating cheese altogether when you’re busy? There are now some good-quality ready-grated (or sliced) cheeses available.

There are ready prepared and chopped vegetables, too, and a whole variety of prepared salads and fruits.

So many wonderful ingredients are just waiting to make your life easier: ready-made ciabatta breadcrumbs, tins of fried Spanish onions, ginger already grated, pastry cases already cooked.

Thanks to frozen diced onions, for instance, you’re not forced to peel and chop an onion if you don’t want to.

At the risk of sounding like Mrs Beeton hitting the crème de menthe, don’t being such a fricking precious wuss-ass. Now, I’m as guilty of chucking a bag of salad into the basket as the next lazy twenty-something (bizarre but true fact: if there’s only one of you, it’s actually cheaper and less wasteful to buy salad in this form, unless you want to devote at least four hours a day to chomping through Hearts of Romaine like a herbivorous slave). And my mother is possibly the only woman left in England who still makes her own pastry and isn’t a frothing Tory. But I mean, “Thanks to frozen diced onions”, for all love? As long as I live, Random Forces of the Universe, may I never have to thank frozen diced onions for anything!

So far, as you will have spotted, this is just a self-fancying cook’s rant. I like chopping onions. It’s soothing, satisfying, aesthetically pleasing. Poems have been written about peeling onions. Who was it who said of the red onion that you peel away the outer layer and what’s underneath is so perfect that you have to peel away the next layer as well to see if it gets even better? And it does! You end up with a glowing ruby jewel of a vegetable about half the size of the one you bought. And much less dinner.

But this is about to become a somewhat more serious rant, because Delia’s polypropylene-sheathed paean to rampant consumerism comes to my notice hard on the heels of this CiF article about the rising costs of food. In the spirit of mean-hearted dark treacly bitterness, I find it hard to much have time for Rosie Boycott, Lib Dem feminist or no. Only baby-boomers whose mamas sent them to Cheltenham Ladies College can afford to live simple ethical lives breeding simple organic pigs in simple organic Somerset. But, accidents of birth aside, she is discussing a theme of increasing potency for our times here:

Almost all the food we eat – 95% – is oil-dependent, so as oil prices rise, the cost of food does too. Oil is central to fertilisers, mechanised production, transportation and packaging. However, between 1950 – when mechanisation and fertilisers transformed farming into agribusiness – and 1984, world grain production increased by 250%. The consequent cheapness of food kept inflation down and allowed for the postwar consumer boom.

For years experts have been asking what will we eat when the crises of climate change and oil depletion converge, with the possible end of our globalised food supply. Our tea and coffee and spices might still come from abroad, but what about salad vegetables, beef and fresh orange juice? Cheap oil has let the west regard the whole world as its farmyard, always seeking the cheapest place to produce and process.

I notice that some commenters – the CiF commenter is a hardy, intelligent breed I increasingly admire; like Gloucester Old Spots, really – take issue with Rosie’s figures. And she does end up reducing the problem down to the oddly narrow and somewhat self-defeating notion that we eat too much meat (“So, umm, you will be stopping your pig production, won’t you? Mustn’t make the problem worse now, must we?” cheeks Tim Worstall) but in essentials she’s right so far as I understand it. Food has gone through a period of artificial plenty in the first world over the last forty years, and barring a sophisticated politico-technological response of which the world does not, currently, look capable, those days are now over. With the supply of oil increasingly dependent on good old-fashioned land wars and the whim of Russia, we’re on the brink of rediscovering the fluctuating prices and scarcities familiar to our ancestors.

I wonder that Rosie and Delia can be living on the same planet. Which they do, not just literally, but in the narrow sense of professional writers with a strong interest in food. If the food crisis is really coming – is really here for much of the developing world, and I feel the impact of the price of milk on my own little margin - how can it be right that the Glossy Cookbook market is complicit in the pretence that ordinary people can not only afford all this food and its cost in oil, but can afford to have other people chop it, dice it, wash it, dress it and tie a great big organic straw ribbon round it and the cost of all that in oil?

Well, it’s not right of course. But it’s interesting. A little bit fin de siècle, a bit “excesses of the court of the Sun King”. Marie Antoinette, at the very brink of disaster for the ancien régime, would have approved of Delia’s principle, even if she abhorred the absence of gold-leaf-dipped brioche from the store-cupboard essentials section. Marie Antoinette played at farming herself, of course. But the difference, in this classless society, is that we’re all rich now. There must be something in the bottled water on CiF at the moment, because Polly Toynbee was also making an unusual amount of sense last week:

…the median earners on £22,000 and below are 50% of the voters – but that’s a bit less than MPs get as expenses for running their second homes. So much gold dust is kicked in the nation’s eyes by scores of TV programmes selling property beyond most people’s imagining, or celebrity handbags costing thousands, that the delusion that most people are affluent has entered Labour’s lexicon and even its soul.

We live in strange and disturbing times when, on the apparent eve of a global food crisis, chopping an onion is considered by rich people to be hard work that an ordinary person shouldn’t feel they have to do. I wonder what How to Cheat at Cooking will symbolise when the socio-economic history of the early twenty-first century comes to be written? 

Benefits fall into two categories. There are the benefits that are the stuff of Daily Mailesque nightmares, and then there is the chichi San Franciscan make-up brand. I aspire to the latter but must, it seems, make do with the former.

I sat down one long winter evening recently to play with my accounts. I rather fancied I might be due an NIC repayment, you see. I was shocked, and I mean that sincerely. It would appear that since I quit full-time work last April I have earned a grand total of a little under seven thousand pounds. How the hell have I stayed alive? There have been handouts from Mummy and Daddy Mortimer, to be sure, but generally on the scale of “Have a £70 Sainsbury’s shop before you starve to death” rather than anything more substantial. It’s amazing what you can get from Sainsburys for seventy quid, obviously.

Bugger this for a lark! thinks I, I have a Republic to run! So off to Wood Green I went with a sheaf full of paper documenting my financial fecklessness, filled in a surprisingly clear and straightforward Housing and Council Tax benefits form (admittedly it helped that I wasn’t blind, disabled, council-housed, Welsh, seeking asylum, a parent, a criminal, an offshore oil-rig worker or a previous claimant) and let the nice man take photocopies of everything. As an economic liberal I am opposed to Housing Benefit because it effectively channels state money into the pockets of buy-to-let private landlords. As a person without any dinner, I really couldn’t give a toss.

And this morning, three weeks to the day, a fat Haringey Council envelope plops onto my doormat, and a fat Haringey Council Benefits officer’s letter abjures me, fatly, as follows:

We need some more information to work out your benefit…

Uh-oh.

The payslips you provided for Reed Employment are not in a weekly consecutive order. Please provide your consecutive payslips for the last five weeks.

No, like you, dear reader, I don’t know what the fuck that means. They’re not in order you say? Could you not, um, shuffle the bits of paper round, or should I come and do it for you? I gave them three months’ worth of payslips, and a printed summary of the same directly from the Reed Employment website, but because in the nature of temping you don’t work every week, there weren’t five consecutive weekly dates on the five most recent payslips.

Please confirm how many hours per week do you work for Reed Employment

Oh you are fricking joking me now, right? Ever heard of “temporary work”?

So on to the phone I go, steaming from both ears and ready to take on the “computer says naaaaaaaah” culture so ably lampooned by the Cleggster in his conference finale speech and…

…Adam from Haringey Council Benefits Office is immediately sympathetic, understanding, helpful and even has a little laugh with me about the stupidity of a system which alleges to help those in unstable financial situations and yet doesn’t officially acknowledge the existence of any non-standard employment pattern. He says I should just state in writing what I’ve told him and everything will be fine.

Hmph, I bet you’re disappointed now. I know I was.

* I too am on benefits.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers