Thursday, 28 February 2013

'First make friends with your butcher'

Sausages. Real ones. 

“First make friends with your butcher.” It may have been said by Isabella Beeton and if so, almost a century and a half ago, but it could hardly be more apt today.

A good sausage is a thing of great joy, but the latest revelation, hot on the hoofs of the horsemeat scandal, is that some great British bangers may be full of stuff that’s far from great – and of downright borderline legality.

Desinewed meat (DSM) was introduced into the UK in the 1990s accompanied by claims that it is a higher form of recovered meat, retrieved from animal bones using low-pressure water.

Apparently, it looks a little like a fine mince, and closer to meat than the more liquid MSM ‘slurry’.

MSM – mechanically separated meat – is a paste-like meat product that is made by forcing beef, pork, turkey or chicken through a sieve with the aid of high pressure, thus separating the bone from the edible meat tissue. It’s sometimes known as ‘white slime’.

Now the EU (and we all know what a dreadful, anti-British body that is) declared that DSM could still be used in UK meat products – but could not be considered part of the meat content. So in other words, you have to label it as a different ingredient than meat.

This is just like the horsemeat scandal: the crap is packing for cheap products, which are sold (predominantly) to the poor as ‘value’ or ‘economy’ – or just plain cheap – ranges, but still have to turn a profit for the producer and the transporter and the retailer etc etc ad nauseum.

According to the BBC, one EU-based meat supplier pointed out that 500g of sausages was selling in one supermarket for less than a euro (86p).

And he went on to say that it was impossible to produce meat at that price without cutting corners.

None of this should be a surprise. When the EU announced that assorted derivatives could not be listed simply as ‘meat’ on a packet of sausages, it provoked consternation from producers. And after all, it suddenly became easier to see how much – or rather, how little – real meat was in a sausage.

But now it seems that some British producers have been using something like ‘slurry’ – but classing it as ‘meat’ for the sake of the ingredients list.

So, we’re pretty much back to where we were yesterday – poor food for poor people; profiteering, paternalism and just one hell of a big old mess,

It all emphasises, yet again, the need to find a real butcher (if you have that chance) and then make friends with him (or her!).

On a more personal note, for some strange reason or other, sausages were one of the mass-produced products I carried on buying until only a few short years ago.

Perhaps realising the value of a top-class banger is one of the marks of a mature foodie?

Yorkie pudding.
Yet entirely coincidentally, tonight was set aside for sausages – bought from Downland last weekend and frozen until last night, when they were brought into the main fridge.

Buy quality and, as a general rule, freeze what you want for later in the week and then give things at least 24 hours in the meat part of the fridge to thaw gently.

You don’t actually need to try to change our schopping culture from once a week.

Anyway, tonight’s dinner was a bit of a sausagey experiment.

One of my biggest problems in the kitchen is timing different parts of a meal.

And with Yorkshire pudding, for instance, I tend to overcook it – partly because I do it rarely and don’t, therefore, learn.

And partly because I miss-time things.

So, what to do?

First up, take your sausages and add to a pan, with water halfway up the sausage. Bring to a simmer and leave, lidded, for 10 minutes.

Remove and dry on kitchen paper.

When your Yorkies have cooked gently for about 20 minutes, heat some lard or dripping in a pan and then brown the sausages.

For gravy, dice one large onion and sweat in butter for 10 minutes or so.

Add decent stock and simmer for 10 minutes, then blitz and reduce further until as desired. You can pre-cook this, let it cool and reheat.

This is largely a Bill King recipe – cut short. His version includes two thinly-sliced cloves of smoked garlic with the onion to start with, and continues after the blitzing bit by slicing a further onion and sweating in butter until translucent, then turning up the heat to brown a little of the onion.

Add the blitzed mixture, bring to the boil, simmer for 10 minutes and check the seasoning.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any smoked garlic, and I don't have a processor, so my blitzing was necessarily limited. 

And so to the Yorkie – which was pure Delia.

Take 75g plain flour, sifted with a pinch of salt and pepper.

To which, beat in one medium egg, 75ml milk and 55ml water.

Melt a tablespoon or two of dripping or lard in an oven that’s been heated to 180˚C (fan).

Whip the dish out, pour the batter in and pop straight back in the oven. And now, you want to leave for around 25-30 minutes.

The advantage of all this, which might sound complicated, is actually that it, in effect, unbundles the process. You don’t have to worry as much about times, because you can pre-prep parts of the final dish, and concentrate on the one that it is arguably most sensitive.

In the interests of accuracy, I served carrot and peas with this: carrot sliced and cooked for 10 minutes in boiling, salted water, with frozen peas added after five.

So, the lessons here?

Read the labels – and by god, DO make a friend of your butcher!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Keep them hungry, keep them compliant

At least some people will have felt a warm glow today, as British Gas announced that its profits had been boosted by the colder weather.

But while the Centrica-owned company was busy patting itself on the back and promising nice rewards for shareholders, Anne Robinson, director of consumer policy at the price comparison website Uswitch, had a different take on the matter.

“Seven out of 10 of us actually went without heating at some point during this winter,” she commented. “Over a third of us have reported that we feel it’s actually affected the quality of our life and also our health.”

Rising energy costs is just one of the factors meaning that an increasing number of people in the UK go hungry, because they find themselves having to choose between heating and eating.

In 2011-12, foodbanks fed 128,687 people nationwide. In 2012-13, the Trussell Trust, one of the major charities behind foodbanks, anticipates that number will rise to over 230,000.

The trust itself says that rising costs of food and fuel, combined with static income, high unemployment and changes to benefits are causing more and more people to come to foodbanks for help.

“With over 250 foodbanks currently launched,” says the trust, “our goal is for every town to have one.

The first Tressell foodbank opened in 2000, while the UK Foodbank Network came into being in 2004.

According to the trust, many of the people who are seeking help are in work.

So even setting aside the vexed issue of What To Do with the feckless, idle unwashed – for which there is far less evidence than David Cameron would have you believe with his ‘three generations who’ve never worked’ routine, itself thoroughly debunked last autumn by research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which could find no such family – we are left with the issue of many families with members in work but who work, but cannot afford the cost of living even at a basic level.

There’s plenty of other evidence for this: debt counsellors for the welfare arm of the trade union UNISON, for instance, are seeing an increase in calls and referrals.

As one of the counsellors explained to me recently, this is not people who are living it up and spending massively on luxuries.

Many are simply struggling to pay the mortgage – and then falling into the trap of taking out loans with pay-day loan sharks.

Let’s face it, the national minimum wage for an adult over the age of 21 is £6.19 an hour. If you’re lucky enough to be in full-time work, that’s £216.65 a week, gross.

Just to give you an idea of what that means, according to’s residential price index today, there is no one-bed accommodation for rent in Hackney for under £270 per week (studio flats start at £230 per week).

If you were lucky enough to be getting the Living Wage, (£7.45 in the UK, £8.55 in London) and be on 35 hours, that would mean £299.25 gross in London – so still little to actually feed and clothe yourself, never mind pay for heat, light and water or, heaven forfend, anything like a TV or a phone, after you’ve paid for a roof over your head.

So it’s hardly a shock when, with rising fuel bills (British Gas raised their costs by 6% last autumn, remember) increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in serious difficulty.

Yet the idea has lovingly been nurtured by substantial elements of the UK media that even the working poor are somehow ‘undeserving’ – or at least guilty of nicking the hard-earned money of the better-off via benefits paid for by the tax.

It’s classic divide and rule, and a return to the Victorian belief that the poor are in that state because they somehow deserve it.

Oh, we might have grown past the idea that sin was the reason anyone was in poverty in the first place, but little else seems to have changed.

Now since this started with British Gas and increased profits, let’s, for the sake of clarity, stress that I am not opposed to profits.

But the search for ever-increasing profit, and the need to appease the City on growth (and arguably the agencies who decide whether you’re getting an AAA battery or just an AA one) is also the reason for the horsemeat scandal that continues to rumble on and on, encompassing ever more of Europe.

Lengthened supply chains increase the number of companies that are involved and need to make a profit.

Unless the retailer at the end of that chain then hikes the price to the customer, someone is either going to have to see their profits reduced – or find other ways of maintaining profit margins.

Here’s a non-food example. London’s Victorian sewers are currently being replaced. One of the main contractors is Murphy, a major civil engineering company. But look at the vans if you see one: ‘working in partnership with Optimise for Thames Water’.

So, whereas in the bad old days of nationalised utilities, it would gave been one company doing the job, now it’s three. With three lots of staff and three lots of shareholders to pay.

And this is efficient?

It really isn’t rocket science to see that, when you cut through the crap, this is at the root of what has happened with all those burgers and meatballs and cottage pies.

It’s like the dodgy tobacco from China that’s full of the sweepings of the floor, and probably some even less pleasant things. Or the ripped-off vodka.

It’s all about selling something cheap – and still making a profit.

There’s a slight difference in that the horsemeat in various products may not be harmful – although there are questions about the presence of veterinary drug ‘bute’, which may have illegally entered the food chain.

But one aspect of this that is particularly distasteful, though, is that the entire business highlights the exploitation of the working poor. It’s no coincidence that the scandal has centred on ‘economy’ and ‘value’ ranges.

If the CEO of Centrica, for instance, eats horse, then it’s likely to be a piece of prime meat and with knowledge.

It all raises questions about the food chain, about sustainability and about localism – even if secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson was trying to use a speech at the National Farmers’ Union conference today to push the case for GM, despite it’s own inglorious record.

Still, that might help secure him a job with Monsanto if his political career ever ends, and help keep him from the doors of a foodbank.

In Germany, development minister Dirk Niebel has suggested that horsemeat that has been mislabelled as beef should be distributed to the poor.

Which raises an interesting point. It’s pretty dire reading of all these products being withdrawn and, presumably, destroyed. This is, for the most part – on the basis of what we know – safe to eat.

Now a policy of ‘giving it to the poor’ is just downright patronising and paternalistic, but why not sell it at a substantial knockdown, relabeled as containing (or possibly containing) horsemeat, and let customers decide for themselves?

It avoids vast amounts of wasted meat – something that is surely close to criminal – gives people the option of buying a very low-priced product and even means that the retailers get something back on the product instead of nothing.

But the hysteria around the issue – talk of products being ‘contaminated’ is but one illustration – is a block to coherent thinking like this. Although it does help to cloud the real issues.

And in the meantime, it's very 'Big Society' that organisations such as the Trussell Trust are (thankfully) helping to keep people going.

However, it's worth noting that this is yet one more illustration of the hypocrisy of a government that has sought to claim that 'we are all in this together'.

Let's be clear. We are not 'remotely 'all in this together'. Because unfortunately, the likes of David Cameron and Nick Clegg and George Osborne are not remotely likely to need a foodbank any time soon.

But crucially, if we have arrived at a point where, even in one of the richest countries in the world, working people cannot afford to live without charity, then we need a massive rethink.

And we need to start seriously considering a way of organising society differently.

We don’t need to abandon profit. But we do need to remember that life must come first. And we do need to think about that life in a sustainable and people – and planet – friendly way.

And perhaps the start would be combating the notion that having people in the UK, in the 21st century, seeking help from foodbanks is even remotely acceptable.

Monday, 25 February 2013

A cardinal sin?

Cardinal Keith O'Brien: emerging from the closet?
Back in March 2012, in an article for Catholic flagwaver the Telegraph, and having described the idea of marriage equality as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”, Cardinal Keith O’Brien went on to opine that same-sex relationships were “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”.

It now seems that, if the allegations by three priests and one former priest against him of ‘inappropriate acts’ are true, he has a bit of personal experience of this.

Resigning yesterday, just a few weeks before the election of a new pope and his own retirement, O’Brien’s stance on homosexuality seems to have altered the higher he rose in the Catholic church.

He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Two years later, when a bishop had said that homosexuals shouldn’t be able to teach in Catholic schools, O’Brien commented: “I don’t have a problem with the personal life of a person as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality”.

But by May 2005, though, he was telling members of the Scottish Parliament that homosexuals were “captives of sexual aberrations”, and comparing them to prisoners in an Edinburgh prison.

At the start of 2006, he criticised Westminster MPs over the introduction of civil partnerships in the UK, and Holyrood members over the liberalisation of divorce laws in Scotland.

Later that same year, the good cardinal opposed proposals to change the la that would require all adoption agencies – including Catholic ones – to treat potential adopters alike, be they homo or heterosexual.

His considered view on legislation that prevents some religious people behaving in a bigoted manner was that it was “aggressive secularism”.

At the end of 2011, O’Brien said that the Catholic Church was still opposed to civil partnerships and went on to claim: “The empirical evidence is clear: same-sex relationships are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved.

“No compassionate society should ever enact legislation to facilitate or promote such relationships. We have failed those who struggle with same-sex attraction and wider society by our actions.”

And by early 2012, he was claiming that the mere concept of equal marriage would shame the UK.

Remarkably, when Stonewall named O’Brien Bigot of the Year at its 2012 annual awards, there was much whinging from people saying it was a bit unfair.

It seems that bigotry and intolerance are acceptable if they come garbed in the robes of religion.

Not that O’Brien’s proclamations have been limited to homosexuality.

In 2007, he attempted to blackmail MPs who happened to be Catholic, saying that, if they supported the “social evil” of abortion, they could not expect to remain full members of the church. Sod a politician’s duty to serve their electorate.

It was Christopher Hitchens who noted: “Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch.

“Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite”.

Well, perhaps not that far in this case – although after all, cardinals already wear frocks themselves – but the allegations suggest that O’Brien himself is either gay or bi.

If they’re untrue, then there’s a certain irony to such an increasingly anti-gay voice being forced into retirement in this way.

But if the allegations are true, then hypocrisy enters the arena. Also, I suggest, does something else.

Hitchens’s comment is a succinct summary of that entire idea that homophobia is so often the phobia of one’s own self.

And here, while condemning O’Brien’s hypocrisy, there is room too for pity.

Imagine going through life believing that one’s inherent self is sinful; so sinful as to be rejected by one’s god.

Imagine that.

Imagine the guilt. Imagine the pain: the agony of struggling against your own nature.

Many clergy – and not just of the Catholic flavour or the Christian one – have stated that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’; that the only form of ‘natural’ sexuality is heterosexuality.

But more than a passing glance at nature shows this to be untrue.

Many species display homosexual/bisexual behaviour – penguins, dolphins and apes are just a few – when we look beyond the issue of how other species reproduce to the wider issue of sexual behaviour.

When that happens, it is quite clear that homosexual/bisexual behaviour can be observed in many species and are, therefore, of nature.

As a society, we often seem to misunderstand the words ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. With ‘normal’, for instance, there is a misconception that this means that something that is not the majority situation is not ‘natural’ – so to speak.

And the ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ are ones that many religious groups – and the Catholic Church is high amongst them – are keen to push.

It would be nice to believe that the next pope would address this, but I don’t hold out much hope.

However, let’s go back to O’Brien.

For all his hypocrisy – if the allegations are true – there is also that space for pity.

What a blighted life: a life lived under the tyranny of guilt. And this is not ‘guilt’ over shoplifting a Toblerone, but guilt about something over which all the evidence says we have no control; guilt over something as intrinsic and individual to each and every one of us as our sexuality.

And in O’Brien’s case, if the allegations are true, it suggests someone for whom that guilt grew as the years passed.

Imagine the self-loathing. The mortification. The agony.

For a believer, this also inevitably involves the dreadful question of sexuality being something that was itself created by the god in which they believe; for Catholics at least, to believe that any other being has the capacity for creation is heretical.

So there you are: tortured by the very god you seek to serve.

There is a part of me that wants to jeer at the passing from public life, in apparent disgrace, of someone who, increasingly as the years have passed, has made vile, bigoted statements about LGBT people.

And I am delighted that he will no longer be doing that.

But equally it is not incompatible to say that there is also a part of me that would like to give him a hug and say: ‘if that’s who you are, be yourself. It is nothing at all to be ashamed of’.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Comfort essential as winter returns

After the joyous hints of spring last weekend, the days since have descended further and further into grey chilliness, and the weekend dawned not only with a numbingly cold wind, but with a trickle of snow that, while it was never going to stick, seemed set on reminding us that winter is not gone yet.

Broadway Market was no warmer and by the time I turned the key in the door, four bags bursting with food, my hands were frozen, in spite of the gloves.

It was a day for comfort food – and what could be more comforting than belly pork?

It’s not a cut I’ve cooked often, and to be honest, I couldn’t think in what book on the shelf I’d find a recipe, so after deciding that this would be perfect, I hit the internet.

To be specific, I searched for the following words: ‘Belly pork Nigel Slater’, because such a search will frequently throw up quality results.

Indeed, one of the first things that came up was an Observer column by Slater with five different recipes for my desired cut.

And there, indeed, was the one that sounded perfect.

This is precisely why I spend time writing out menus and planning a shopping list instead of simply ‘going to market’. In this case, it meant that I could ask Matthew to bone me around a kilo of pork belly, and score the skin.

That done, it was relatively easy to stuff it with a mixture of sausage meat, chopped apple (a Cox for sharpness) and some small sage leaves – Slater says leaving them whole infuses the stuffing without taking it over.

My tying up is far from perfect, but sticking with four shorter pieces of sting instead of attempting to mimic the pros with one lengthy one ensured that it held together for the cooking. Which is, after all, the main point.

Once the skin has been seasoned, you’re ready to go.

The oven was heated to 180˚C (fan) and a little lard melted in the roasting tin.

The pork then got 20 minutes before the temperature was reduced to 170˚C (fan) and it was left for a further 40-50 minutes – you can check that the juices are clear.

In the event, my fan oven never being predictable but often seeming slow, it had five minutes or so beyond that latter point.

Surprisingly, it had produced relatively little fat – Slater says to expect quite a lot. But this isn’t a problem. There was no shortage of meaty goodness left once the meat itself had been moved to a warm place to rest.

On the hob, it was given a good glug of cider and the bits were scraped off the tin and reduced to provide a tasty gravy.

Served with small pillows of mash and rather larger heaps of cavolo nero, this was very tasty and very comforting indeed.

Now I’m not much on desserts, but somehow the weather was demanding afters, so I’d decided to try something that I’d only attempted once before, and that with inedible results: a rice pudding.

By way of explanation, that attempt had been from a Michel Roux recipe, whereby the individual puddings – cardamom-scented – were baked in the oven.

Rice pudding is not high on the menu of my childhood memories: certainly not at home, anyway.

It was one of those school dinner desserts of folkloric magnitude, along with sago and semolina, all of which came served with a dollop of red jam, which was most definitely not to be swirled in too much lest the observing teachers tick you off.

In Slater’s Real Fast Puddings, there is a recipe for a 20-minute version. It looked easy and ideal.

I had pudding rice in from last year’s ill-starred effort, plus vanilla essence, and simply made sure I bought quality milk and cream.

The milk, cream, vanilla, rice and a little water all go into a heavy-based pan and are brought to the boil.

The heat is turned down so that the mix is, as Slater describes it, bubbling gently, just as you’d do with a risotto.

After 20 minutes or so, when the rice is cooked but still has some texture, add a small amount of butter and then some caster sugar.

Once the sugar has melted, you’re ready to go.

It was, in this case, served with a small dollop of raspberry jam – the French sort, with no added sugar and plenty of real fruity taste and and a touch of tartness.

And after all these years, I could finally see what the fuss is about.

It's also worth adding that the whole meal was a testament to the qualities of traditional British food – to forget that quality is our loss.

In the preceding days, as the temperature had dropped, I’d ‘discovered’ the Slater pudding book while looking for crumble recipes.

If ever you wanted a quick illustration of just how variable much in the culinary world can be, then crumble is it.

In her Complete Cookery Course, St Delia of Norwich, on whom I swear for basics, sets down a crumble topping thus: for four portions, 225g flour, 75g butter and 75-110g sugar, depending on taste.

And this is what I have used for some years (with the minimum sugar), on the rare occasions I make a crumble.

Yet the venerable Mr Slater gives it as 175g flour, 175g butter and 100g caster sugar (also for four).

And a spot of internet research produces further variations on the proportions of these core ingredients – without getting into the addition of oats or ground almonds or whatever.

We stay as straightforward as possible here – I have an Other Half to feed. But Delia’s version seems a tad floury to my mind, which was why I was looking elsewhere.

I decided to try Slater’s version. Well, until I’d tried to be clever by measuring flour and sugar into the scales at the same time, only to realise that I’d tipped in equal proportions of both.

It didn’t seem like a good idea to consider trying to separate the two – and I’m loathe to waste perfectly good ingredients – so after a facepalm moment, I shrugged, decided that it wasn’t going to make a staggering amount of difference, and weighed out the same amount of butter.

For just the two of us, it would be a ridiculously small amount to mix, but it keeps perfectly well, in a cling film-covered bowl in the fridge, so you can use it over a few days.

First time out, I used rhubarb with some thinly-sliced stem ginger, an experiment that didn’t entirely work. The taste combination is fine, but good ground ginger would be better.

And with rhubarb in particular, you really do only need a very small amount of water to start the process.

That’s less the case with apple – which featured the following day. A nicely-sized Bramley cooked with a little brown sugar, water and ground ginger until caramelisation was nearing.

It was still good a chunky when decanted into the small dishes I use to make individual crumbles, but perfectly cooked by the time it was served, with a dollop of clotted cream.

For the actual cooking, Slater’s suggested 170˚C (fan), rising to 180˚C over half an hour, works well and aids crunchiness and the pleasure of having the fruit bubble to the surface, volcano-like, by the time it’s ready to serve.

And so to the topping. Well, in the event, it worked just fine: indeed, it avoided the flouriness that I wasn’t entirely happy with in Delia’s version.

I will try Slater’s proportions, but the entire episode was a perfect illustration of how an absence of basic knowledge can lead us to treat recipes as having a godlike status that brooks no alteration or adjustment, when that’s precisely (so to speak) the sort of freedom that time in the kitchen should involve.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The problem with stupidity

Malcolm Walker – clever or very stupid?
Some years ago, great amusement was caused when Gerald Ratner, the boss of high street jewellery store Ratners, declared that his family firm sold tat.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors in 1991, he observed: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95.

“People say: ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say: ‘because it’s total crap’.”

Customers stayed away, shares plummeted, Ratner resigned and the group had to change its name.

And thus ‘doing a Ratner’ entered the lexicon.

If you believed that bosses would learn, you would be wrong.

For Malcolm Walker, the boss of the Iceland frozen food chain, has now just had his own ‘doing a Ratner’ moment.

As the horsemeat story continues to show that it has legs, he decided to weigh in, objecting to how the entire debacle was being linked to cheap, processed, supermarket food.

‘Neigh, neigh!’ he said (in effect). ‘It wasn’t us wot did it – it was those nasty councils. And the NHS. And, err, anyone else that I can blame!’

The premise appears to that these services are demanding that food be cheaper, so that is damaging the retail market.

Even assuming that the first part of this was true, it’s hard to imagine how that would somehow change the retail sector.

Supermarkets struggle to outdo each other in being seen as cheap.

When Asda, for instance, launches a TV advertising campaign saying it will undercut its rivals, it’s not because a hospital somewhere has demanded its suppliers give it a better deal on food, but because that is the core ethos of Asda’s owner, Wal-Mart.

And Tesco follows the Wal-Mart model absolutely.

It can hardly be considered a result of public service demands if Iceland – one of the country’s champions of cheap convenience food since it was founded in 1970 – has sold prawn rings and lasagne bites for a quid a piece.

This is a company that was obviously being so hammered by the same dreadful public sector that it could, in 1989, buy rival Bejam, having already spent the intervening years expanding massively.

Oh no – the public sector created the situation where Iceland sell shite at low prices – and where Aldi and Lidl could move into the very same market, and where every supermarket chain has some version or other of the ‘value’ produce.

There are a large number of factors at play in and behind this entire issue – which is largely why most news agencies opt for one simple approach – but the idea that councils and the NHS are to blame is utterly risible.

And anyone with an ounce of logic will be understand this too.

But, but …

While it’s nice to believe that this is Walker’s own Ratner moment, it could also be a somewhat cleverer ploy that will gain some traction with the easily persuaded. Or maybe the public discourse is so poor these days that nothing such a person says matters.

Let’s face it, there are plenty of people out there who still believe that the spending of the last Labour government was a) at record levels and b) the cause of the financial crisis and subsequent recessions.

And as the row over Hilary Mantel’s London Review of Books lecture on royal bodies past and present revealed, there is a swathe of the British populace that is very easily manipulated and doesn’t bother to look beyond what sensationalised headlines and selective reports tell them.

And then, in a state of high dudgeon, they decide that they can wage war on the likes of Mantel, defending the apparently wronged Duchess of Cambridge – in some cases by using social media to attack Mantel, including on the basis of her physical appearance.

On the Huffington Post UK, one reader, in a particularly stupid post, demanded to know whether Mantel – of whom she had not heard – was trying to get her “15 minutes of fame”.

You don’t have to like Mantel’s work – or even to have read it. You don’t have to agree with all the points in the lecture – but do at least try to read it before drawing conclusions. But Mantel is a double Booker winner and best-selling author. Just what “15 minutes of fame” could anyone really ‘think’ she seeks?

This is a bang-head-on-the-table moment that perfectly illustrates not only the dismal state of public discourse in the UK, but why it’s so bad in the first place.

The bulk of the media has dumbed down – at least a little – in order to appeal to the largest number of readers or viewers possible.

And the likes of the Daily Mail – which is now one of the world’s biggest online success stories – is a past master at whipping the unintelligent and unchallenging into a frenzy with its skilful misrepresentations of all manner of things.

In this case, it contorted Mantel’s lecture to suggest not that the writer was criticising the centuries-long, unflinching stare of the public on the monarchy, or the media that feeds that and profits from it, but that it was bitching about the Duchess herself.

Let’s not forget: when Diana and Dodi died in a speeding car in a Paris underpass, they were fleeing paparazzi that wanted to flog the pictures to papers and magazines and websites for that ravenous public to consume, pixel by pixel.

Mantel’s comparison of the attitude toward modern royals and that toward older ones is a salient reminder that, in this particular chicken-and-egg conundrum, the public demand for information (and gossip) preceded the commoditisation of that demand by (first) the print media.

On the other issues, however, we are left with the question of the relativism of pretending that all views are equal.

It’s entirely one thing to say that everyone has a right to air their views, but how should we react to those people who cannot be bothered to educate themselves beyond a tabloid headline, let alone those who, on that same basis, then launch into vile abuse?

The internet – and social media – does enable a democratisation of the public discourse, but it also facilitates the uninformed and the abusive, not just but not least by permitting anonymity.

However, setting the abuse aside, that doesn’t tackle the question of how society should include – or otherwise – those who cannot be trusted to make reasoned judgments that go beyond a headline that’s effectively attached directly to their knee.

Bringing things bang up to date, earlier today, the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce for perverting the course of justice was dismissed by the judge after he expressed dismay at “a deficit in understanding” of some jurors.

And when you consider that the 10 questions posed by the jury to the judge included: ‘Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or defence?’ it’s difficult not to think that Mr Justice Sweeney was being overy polite.

There will now be a retrial. Hopefully, for the sake of both justice and the public purse, the 12 good men and true will be a tad more intelligent.

You cannot blame people for not being particularly bright – although willful ignorance is another matter – but how do you build a society that does not exclude those people, but doesn’t leave the rest of society at their mercy?

Do what we in the West routinely understand as ‘democracy’ mean an inevitable dumbing down, à la HL Mencken’s pithy 1920 analysis of US political life:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.

“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

It was a quote that gained rather more srecent attention when George ‘Dubya’ Bush was US president, but looking at the likes of Sarah Palin and Todd Akin and many, many more, it’s difficult not to worry – at least a little – that Mencken was not merely overly cynical but disturbingly prescient.

And, it’s equally difficult not to believe that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale could actually happen.

So how do we ensure that democracy does not become dominated by the intellectually-challenged?

That’s a question that leads, inexorably it would seem, to one of how we avoid government of the elite by the elite for the elite. Because that is the reality of what happens when governments are both fearful of the bulk of the media, and spend their time throwing out soundbites that seek to play to the populist view.

Thus both prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband had comments to make yesterday about Mantel’s lecture. And both revealed, in those comments, that they had either not read it or not understood it or – worst of all – deliberately ignored the reality of that lecture to simply kow tow to the populist outrage whipped up by the Mail, the Sun and, even more shamefully, some of the broadsheets.

Perhaps Malcolm Walker is somewhat cleverer than it would be nice to believe on the basis of his idiotic statements – or perhaps he isn’t.

But increasingly it appears that we have a media that is not a fair and open one; that is determined not to present fair and transparent discussion and debate, but to promote agendas based on false representations of the facts.

And that the least intelligent members of our society are the ones whose views are afforded greatest credence by our politicians – a situation created (largely) or at least bolstered by our mainstream media – can hardly be seen as a good one.