On the cover of the Daily Mail the other day, there was an aerial photograph of the Thameside town of Shepperton, its achingly dull semis and prosaic garage forecourts submerged in the muddy brown effluvium. The editor of the New Statesman emailed me: “Your pal Jim wouldn’t have been surprised.” This reference to the late JG Ballard, for many years Shepperton’s most notorious resident, got me thinking about the strange conceptual flotsam that the current deluges are dumping on the floodplain of our collective psyche.
If motorway service centres with their sweaty agglomerations of Burger King, KFC and Costa are the brothels of fast food, then garages are its knocking shops: the places where stressed-out people commit unspeakable and degrading acts with Peperami. No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth. Why, when the combination of foods that are necessarily high in salt and preservatives with the tension of driving almost always results in flatulence, heartburn, or – a meal deal – both?
Will Self is one of the contributors to the Radio 4 programme, Tony Law’s Surreal Guide to Surreal Comedy, available to listen to for three days.
Will Self writes about the drowned world of JG Ballard’s Shepperton in the first column of his new psychogeography series, On location, in the New Statesman, available online soon. This replaces his Real Meals column.
Will Self is one of the contributors to the Radio 4 programme Burroughs at 100, presented by Iggy Pop and available for five days to listen again to.
I hope some of you, after you finish reading this column, will go straight to urbaneat.co.uk, where you can find out all about such “real food” as the “hand-crafted” red Thai chicken wrap I saw advertised in my local Costa clone yesterday. (Costa clones are coffee shops so lacking in self-esteem that they’re “proud to serve Costa coffee”.) This particular wrap was pictured apparently lying in the roadway of Benefits Street – or at any rate, somewhere gritty and urban – with a disproportionately small sign by it that had been amended to read “a tasty DIVERSION”. The wrap got me to wondering: is it only me who’s noticed the way that wraps have stealthily and relentlessly infiltrated our fast-food culture? I asked my wife when she was first aware of wraps and she said, “Oh, the early 1990s, I suppose – I mean, they came in with Pret a Manger, didn’t they?”
Watch Will Self on Newsnight talking about addiction, after the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It must have been in the late spring of 1982. I went down to London from Oxford, where I was at university, to buy a bag of marijuana from a friend of a friend who had a room in a squat immediately behind Brixton police station. “It’s a great gaff to deal out of,” the bespectacled little fellow said. “I mean, this is the last place they’d come looking – right by their back door.” Maybe he was right; after all, it was only a year since Brixton had been up in flames, the railway bridge was still black with soot and the premises to either side of the squat were boarded up. It seemed reasonable to think that the police might have had more serious things on their mind.
Listen to Will Self in discussion with Patrick Keiller and Matthew Beaumont at the LRB bookshop recently.
Watch Will Self debating the motion “We’ve Never Had it so Good” with Rod Liddle, Rachel Johnson and Jesse Norman, in this recent Intelligence Squared debate.