Coren and the convenient silence
Giles Coren keeps getting away with it in an industry overflowing with cowards.
This edition was originally yet another dissection of Giles Coren’s history. But then I realised it could be summed up in a single line:
He has published rancid and racist columns over and over again; his employers don’t care and his colleagues pretend not to notice.
I’m not surprised. James Hansen, Associate Editor at Eater London, summed it up in a roundup of London’s biggest restaurant surprises of 2021:
… the Times restaurant critic Giles Coren still being employed after revelling in the death of young journalist Dawn Foster. Wait: this is surprises, sorry.
When his first restaurant review of 2022 (The Maine, London, January 5 2022), was largely dedicated to a leering depiction of a burlesque dancer at the venue, it was no surprise. He began:
Look, there was a stripper. There is no getting away from that. I can’t leave her until the end and build up slowly to the fact of her nakedness in the way that, say, a stripper does, because to do so would be to suggest that this restaurant is all about the stripper. Which, of course, it isn’t.
And I can’t very well drop her in the middle of the review, between the fish tacos and the sprouts, because that would be to treat her, quite literally, like a piece of meat. Which, of course, she isn’t.
So I decided it was best to put this lovely lady, with her glistening amber skin, big bare boobs and smooth round bottom, right at the top of this piece, and get her out of the way now. Because otherwise she would be very much the elephant in the room. Although an elephant, in a smart restaurant in central London in 2022, would be considerably easier to ignore than a stripper.
The second paragraph’s clumsy attempt at arse-covering, an assurance that he doesn’t see the woman “as a piece of meat” goes out the fucking fenêtre in the very next sentence as Coren, tongue unrolled and eyes out on stalks like a cartoon wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon, labours over descriptions of “glistening amber skin and big bare boobs.”
After managing to turn his attention to the restaurant’s decor and food for a few paragraphs, he returns to the woman’s body again:
… there they were. Big round expensive boobs, attached to her impressive, gym-hardened dancer’s body, with tassels on the end that she swirled around and around as I chowed into my taco and spilt battered fish in my lap.
The whole exercise was in service of Coren reaching this conclusion…
… it was all just as 2022 as food and jazz can be.
Apart from the breasts. The breasts aren’t very 2022. Or maybe they are. Maybe it’s me that isn’t. I don’t know. I don’t know anything any more.
… a cack-handed attempt by a man clearly deeply fascinated by “the norks” to pretend that he’s embarrassed by breasts.
The burlesque dancer whose performance he witnessed, Jolie Papillon, replied — her comments preserved only in the ugly amber of MailOnline — chiding Coren for “not knowing the difference between a stripper and a burlesque dancer” and telling him:
I can see my ‘impressive, gym-hardened dancer’s body’ made you feel quite intimidated.
After descending into the dank basement of the comment section, I found that Coren did, in fact, know the difference between strippers and burlesque…
Well, to be fair, she calls herself “a burlesque dancer”. So there are nipple tassles and a very brief thong. No actual genitalia on show. It is considered an art, by some, so I probably shouldn’t have presented it as something prurient. But it’s a fine line.
… but was merely lax with his language because it suited him. Anyone who has read his famously petulant letter to Times subs decrying the removal of a single word of his precious prose will no doubt be shocked…
axaxaxas lmaö @demarionunnsir,,,this is literally a wendy’s https://t.co/Qw8pV8imkf
But that review was a mere hors d’oeuvre. In his latest, Coren returns to one of his favourite dishes: Racism served raw with a drizzle of self-serving denials.
After taking his children — both unfortunate subjects of previous controversy-baiting Coren columns — to the UK’s first branch of Popeyes, he wrote:
… fried chicken is a marginally more interesting dish than hamburgers, carrying with it, as it does, the lively political backstory of a recipe derived from the marrying of West African culinary traditions with indigenous North American and colonial ones during the slavery era, followed by the appropriation of an essentially black dish by white cooks and recipe writers, the century-long racist mockery of African-Americans as primitive hungerers after a single foodstuff, and the wholesale profiteering on the dish by Colonel Sanders and what activists now call his “plantation imagery”.
But I tend to think, yes, sure, white exploiters stole fried chicken from the black people they disenfranchised and impoverished, but look at what the theft has brought to white communities in terms of obesity, sloth, waste, high street degradation, dismal culinary monoculture, low pay, animal welfare atrocities… Isn’t fried chicken, in a weird way, a form of race revenge? The thrusting young economies of West Africa now must surely look at a KFC bargain bucket and high-five themselves that their ancestors had the forethought, all those years ago, to provide the means by which white culture would one day poison itself to death.
There are more dog whistles in those two paragraphs than during training day at Battersea Dogs Home. It’s January 2022 and Giles Coren’s idle speculation that fried chicken is a kind of race revenge on ‘white communities’ and ‘white culture’ drifts through several layers of editing without question.
Responding to criticism of the column, Coren told MyLondon:
I am so sad and baffled that a piece I wrote about the historical racist appropriation of black food culture by profiteering white-owned corporations has been interpreted in this way.
I abhor and despise racism and racists, which is why I wanted to acknowledge and criticise the complex history of fried chicken as it is represented today on our high streets.
There is no 'association of black culture with sloth, waste and degradation' in the article, only of the way in which those things have been visited upon the world by the massive corporate fast food boom that industrialised existing food traditions.
In the work I have done around child obesity and food poverty with the charity Bite Back 2030 I have listened to young people from all parts of London describing the “food desert” some of them live in because fast food outlets selling burgers, fried chicken, cheap pizza and the like have driven all other options from our high streets, and how that corporate exploitation must be challenged. And that is what I tried to do in my review of Popeyes.
Hard to believe that’s the same man who wrote a column in January 2021 that sneered about “pudding-faced kids in tower blocks who live on fried chicken and Red Bull”, isn’t it?
Or who opened a 2018 review of a Chinese restaurant with a parody of Mandarin (“TAKA TAKA TAKA BOKKA TAKKA TAKKA!” he said.”) Or wrote in a 2014 review: “I’m not afraid to say that the total absence of Englishness from Camden Town today makes it feel to me bogus and pointless and wrong.”
There are so many examples that I could fill several newsletters with them. There’s a (relatively) full accounting of all the vile things that Coren has done in print and beyond in a previous edition on him.
Even a brief summary includes writing a racist screed against the Polish, creating a sock puppet to abuse people who criticised him, fantasising about murdering, killing and then fucking a neighbour’s child for playing the drums, baselessly accusing another journalist of being a paedophile and threatening to stab them, writing an article about going on holiday with his three-year-old daughter in which he called it “the sexiest holiday [he’d] ever had”, writing another about his four-year-old son berating him as “a fat little bastard” and a “chubby fucker”, and, of course, gloating over Dawn’s death.
Coren’s schtick is to play the bully then act the victim, littering his copy with provocations and cruelties, and gaslighting anyone who points them out. The Times considers him a star and rewards him for getting attention like a toddler plied with sweets after pissing on the supermarket floor. The BBC follows suit.
Meanwhile, fellow critics and columnists keep quiet and look at their shoes, mutter that they “don’t agree with everything Giles says” or argue that he’s a “nice guy in real life”, the traditional argument of people who’ve never had to serve a powerful prick or work as their subordinate.
The only consistent criticism of Coren comes from independent journalists, food writers of colour, and people on social media who simply see what he’s doing and are willing to point it out1.
The ‘big stars’ of comment journalism and food writing are happy to share green rooms with him, banter chummily on his unlistenable radio show — which he presents with all the charm of a 90s Groucho Club coke fiend — appear alongside him on TV shows and pretend that after all “he’s just joking”.
That silence is the cowardice of convenience. It’s the silence of people who want an easy life at parties and launches, in conversations with commissioning editors and friends of friends. It’s a silence that makes a mockery of anti-racist pronouncements and claims to abhor bullies and bastards.
It’s a convenient silence. And we hear it.