If you want proof that we are what we eat, take a look at Lord Heseltine. Thankfully, he makes few public appearances these days, but on the occasions when his face pops up on our screens it is clear that his once famous mane of hair increasingly resembles the crest of a cockerel. Is he turning into a chicken?
If so, it would not be surprising, since it is well known that during his long and ill-fated bid to oust Mrs Thatcher from the Tory leadership he attended hundreds, possibly thousands, of Conservative constituency party dinners where the food was invariably chicken. Not any old chicken, but a particular variety, the nastiness and cheapness of which led to its being described as plastic chicken. It is possible, therefore, that as Lord Heseltine whiles away his sunset years, pottering in his arboretum and mulling over what might have been, he is becoming not just a chicken, but a synthetic one.
My aim this week, however, is not to rake over the ashes to which all of human vanity is eventually reduced, but to ponder the necessity of serving plastic chicken, or any one of its many culinary equivalents, at corporate dinners and the like. Space prevents me from a discussion of the need for these wretched events to take place at all; so for the purpose of argument let us take it as read that the impulse to put on a black tie, thrust oneself into the company of countless strangers and bores, and watch them shovel inferior food down their gullets, is another example of the unutterable sadness of the human condition.
But why plastic chicken? Because it is cheap and relatively easy to prepare in the obscenity-infested hell that is a mass- catering kitchen. But that begs the question, why must the food be cheap and nasty? The reason is simple: because most of the budget allocated for these miserable occasions is swallowed up in the fees paid to after-dinner speakers.
For it is one of the most remarkable phenomena of our time that after-dinner speaking is a huge and burgeoning business. Bad enough, you might think, to eat muck in the company of one’s fellow man, without enduring the postprandial vapourings of some telly celebrity, but, contrary to reason and sense, it happens all over the country every night. Yes, in some blighted, three-star hotel on a slip road near you, diners will be sipping warm Chardonnay, gamely swallowing lumps of gristle stroganoff, and enduring it all in the eager anticipation of hearing a few words from Charlie Dimmock, Ian McCaskill, Valerie Singleton, Judy Finnigan, Nick Leeson, or Tony Robinson, to name just a few of the cast of hundreds on what is known as the “lucrative after-dinner speaking circuit”.
Lucrative is perhaps the only true word associated with this grisly trade. (You can, for example, discount “best-loved”, “national institution”, and “national treasure”, all used to describe people who regularly push themselves into the public eye.) According to one report, Michael Portillo and Edwina Currie charge £6,000 for an after-dinner speech; Ian Hislop and Angus Deayton £10,000; Anthea Turner, Chris Tarrant and Dale Winton £12,000; and Alan Whicker and Chris Evans an eye-watering £20,000.
When you pay £20,000 Jimmy O’ Goblins to hear Chris Evans it is no wonder you have little left to spend on food. I am plainly missing something, for I would not part with fourpence to be in the same room as most of the has-beens and show-offs on the after-dinner speaking circuit, and I cannot understand why anyone should tear themselves away from their house, garden, pub or open prison to get through a horrible meal crowned by an address from David Mellor, Kirsty Wark, Jennie Bond or Uri Geller.
The term “celebrity worship”, though probably coined in a thoughtless and off-hand way, describes a horrible and pervasive truth. Just as in the Middle Ages it was unthinkable to be without religious faith, today anyone who professes himself to be untouched by the numinous appeal of celebrity must be deemed either a liar or a suspicious deviant.
Celebrity worship is undoubtedly a product of television. Some day it may be understood why, in this most cynical and scientific of ages, we still adhere to the belief that television has a mysterious power to confer upon ordinary mortals a mystical aura of a kind that used to be associated with sainthood. In all the agonising over the funding of the BBC no one has pointed out that a huge alternative source of revenue would be to charge a fee for being on the box. Such is the immense, unsatisfied demand to be seen on television that many millions of pounds could be derived simply from charging people to appear in endless “reality” shows.
The same principle, I am sure, could be extended to those big names who already parade before the cameras. I am willing to bet that Charlie Dimmock, Esther Rantzen, Tony Robinson, Anne Robinson and many others have become so addicted that they would rather pay to appear than be deprived of their fix.
Who knows, in future years, best-loved national treasures such as Ken Livingstone and Vanessa Feltz will pay the Sisal & Jute Federation for the privilege of speaking at its annual dinner. The money could go towards buying real chicken.