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Gruel and truffles

29 May 2015

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HOT on the heels of all the angry words and accusations during the election on the subject of poverty and benefits, we had the last of a short series, 24 Hours in the Past (BBC1, Tuesday of last week). A group of "celebrities" have been attempting to represent what it might have been like to live at various moments of history - not as leaders, landlords, or generals, but as ordinary people. It's 24 hours, reduced to 60 minutes, of playing at time machines.

The last episode took us into the harsh world of the workhouse, the Victorian remedy for the poor and penniless: Benefits Street in breeches and mob caps. The workhouse system was the ultimate application of the Puritan work ethic. As usual, St Paul gets the blame: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3.10). Yes, there was gruel (blame Oliver Twist) and even dumplings with boiled onions, but only if the celebrity paupers completed their labours.

This they signally failed to do. Breaking meat bones, shattering stones, washing bedlinen without a Hotpoint, the assorted athletes and actors and a former Tory cabinet minister ended up with sore backs, bruised and battered fingers, aching arms - and the work unfinished. An attempted left-wing coup led by Ann Widdecombe, no less, failed miserably in the face of an unrelenting system. The Daily Mail would have loved it.

The menu in the workhouse was definitely at the other end of the culinary scale from that revealed in The World's Most Expensive Food (C4, Wednesday of last week). The programme investigated with commendable restraint a world where people pay £1000 for a single truffle or £4000 for a bottle of wine. It didn't concentrate on the chefs who prepare such food, but on the people who supply what you have to get for people who have already got everything.

Why should they want it? "Bragging rights at parties," explained one bon viveur. Or being able to say, as another quoted, "I can afford it; you can't." This was, a young woman truffle-dealer explained, a "niche business" aimed at a handful of ludicrously rich people "obsessed with food" who lived in Mayfair, Belgravia, Kensington, and Notting Hill.

It's certainly not dumplings and hot onions, though I think I would prefer that to the special caviar that one entrepreneur was hoping to market, "infused with frogs' spawn". It was a relief to know that the experiment was postponed.

You could switch straight from the end of that programme to Benefits Britain (C5) and the shock-horror revelation of a woman with ten children by five different fathers, living in an unkempt four-bedroom house and claiming enough in benefits to buy, well, quite a few truffles. Truly, we live in a bizarre society.

And, where bizarre is concerned, one might also include Mysteries of the Bible (C5, last Friday), in which Margaret Starbird daringly revealed a re-hash of a very old story. Mary of Magdala was the girlfriend of Jesus, or perhaps his wife and the mother of his children. If you listened closely, there were odd phrases such as "no real evidence" and "impossible to know for sure", but it never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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