Unlike the evil scumbag tabloids that make up the bulk of Britain’s press, Blood and Porridge doesn’t usually go in for celebrity tittle-tattle. However, with everybody and their pet dog talking at the moment about the allegations of cocaine-use facing curvy and lustrous TV chef Nigella Lawson – allegations that’d originated in an email sent by her ex-husband, the millionaire advertising executive and art collector Charles Saatchi, who half-a-year ago in a London restaurant was photographed in the ungentlemanly pose of gripping his then-wife by the throat – I thought for once I would immerse myself in the tabloid / celebrity sewage and offer my thoughts on the affair.
Because during the past decade I’d mainly worked abroad, I hadn’t even heard of Nigella Lawson until recently. I think the moment I discovered who she was came one evening when I tuned into Graham Norton’s TV chat show – I wanted to see him interview black-clad, weird-eyed American shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, a musician I’d once held in some regard, and Nigella happened to be one of Norton’s other guests. Needless to say, that evening, I didn’t learn much about the genesis of Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough album Antichrist Superstar, or about his sometimes-difficult relationship with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, or about whether or not he would ever work with guitarist Twiggy Ramirez again. Norton’s inane questions didn’t go anywhere near the topic of his music, and anyway, Marilyn Manson seemed more interested in clowning around with the buxom Nigella, who was sitting in an interviewee’s seat next to him. Yes, even the self-proclaimed God of F**k (or as his mum calls him, ‘Brian’) had succumbed to the charms of the Domestic Goddess.
Meanwhile, I thought to myself: Nigella Lawson… Hold on, that name sounds familiar… Could she be…? Surely not… But yes… She is! Nigella, I realised, was the daughter of Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1980s. Her dad had been one of those sentient blobs that I’d seen in newspaper and television pictures lurking in close proximity to Margaret Thatcher, rather like those gormless ogre-henchmen who’d huddled around Evil, played by David Warner, in The Time Bandits. It made sense. Only a former Tory minister called ‘Nigel’, desperate to have his memory live on through his children, would be horrid enough to give his daughter a name like ‘Nigella’.
Before I go on, I should say a few things in the lady’s defence. Firstly, I like the fact that in a media landscape whose female population consists almost wholly of anorexic supermodel-style stick insects, she seems to have found success because of rather than despite her ripe, full figure. Indeed, she positively seems to flaunt her curves over those saucepans and wooden stirring spoons. Secondly, I like the fact that by the standards of most media starlets she’s getting on a bit – she’s 53 years old – but nobody seems to care. And I appreciate the fact that by her early forties she’d been through an exceptionally rough period, losing her mother, brother and first husband (journalist and columnist John Diamond), yet she got on with things and built a huge new career for herself.
But now for the downside of Nigella. Firstly, I doubt very much if her success hasn’t been at least in part due to who her father is – one of the key architects of Britain in its modern, post-1979, über-capitalist incarnation – and who her second husband is. Yes, I know that her books How to Eat and How to be a Domestic Goddess were published before she married Charles Saatchi in 2003, but Saatchi obviously had a big influence on shaping Nigella’s money-spinning image as a household deity. And of course, through his involvement in advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi, Charles Saatchi helped run the campaign for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, including Lawson Senior, which got them into power in 1979. So the major figures in the Nigella Lawson story are all connected. And unfortunately, in contemporary Britain, being connected is how you have to be if you want to succeed.
Secondly, there’s the materialistic element of the Nigella phenomenon. She’s made her money peddling a concept of domesticity that needs money. The majestic kitchen she inhabits, the pristine cooking utensils she handles, the sumptuous ingredients she works with – it’s about affluence, something that most modern Britons don’t have, or at least not in the quantities that they’d like to have. It reflects the aspirational but unrealistic society that’s been fashioned by Conservative and New Labour governments over the past three decades. (Incidentally, a survey by the financial firm Aviva a few days ago found that half of the British population are living beyond their means and a tenth are deliberately spending more money than they have for the sake of appearances.)
Of course, Nigella isn’t the only one guilty of this. All the modern British TV chefs propagate a costly, and for most people unobtainable, dream of culinary bliss that symbolises the hollow materialism of modern Britain. (The ingratiating, overly-chummy Jamie Oliver has always struck me as a version of Tony Blair in a chef’s apron.) And those chefs are just one facet of a wider tendency towards this in British popular culture – see also the dreadful romantic-comedy films written by Richard Curtis or the Bridget Jones phenomenon – where the message is that ordinary decent people ought to be living in huge studio apartments in central London and spending their evenings quaffing wine with their cronies in expensive clubs and bistros. If you aren’t doing this, you’re not worthy of existence.
Thirdly, there’s the gender thing. Ladies, Nigella seems to tell her female followers, you are goddesses, but you have to be domestic goddesses – so get out in those luxury kitchens and rattle those luxury pots and pans. Her success carries an undercurrent about a woman’s place that again seems to reflect the mentality of her father’s political party. Like a lot of Tories, Margaret Thatcher would bang on about the 19th century’s social mores – her beloved ‘Victorian values’ – even though those mores would likely have kept her, as a woman, well out of public view.
So Project Nigella can be broken down to this simple equation: nepotism + materialism + gender stereotyping = success.
Mind you, that equation will now have to withstand the addition of another element, also emblematic of modern British society – the celebrity-crazed and scandal-hungry tabloid press, which will be subjecting her and her ex-husband to intense and no doubt prurient scrutiny.
At the end of the day, there seems to be a horrible, fundamental truth in this saga. Behind the political establishment that spawned Nigella and her husband, behind the aspirational fantasies that they sold to the public, behind the domestic cosiness of Nigella’s image, there are huge quantities of strife, bitterness and vindictiveness; and if Saatchi’s allegations are true, there’s a mountain of cocaine as well. An apt metaphor for life in Britain today.
In closing, I should say that I have nothing against TV chefs being out of their faces, on drugs, alcohol or anything else. One admirable TV chef, at least, made a career from being out of his face as much as he made it from the excellence of his cooking. Which gives me an excuse to show this youtube clip of Keith Floyd, attempting to cook an ostrich egg in a field full of ostriches.