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?
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?”
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.
“Quoting his subject’s words at the head of the chapter on the design and development of Apple’s iPhone, Leander Kahney makes Jony Ive sound oracular: “When we are at these early stages in design … often we’ll talk about the story for the product — we’re talking about perception. We’re talking about how you feel about the product, not in a physical sense, but in a perceptual sense.” Throughout his biography of Apple’s design magus for nigh on the past two decades, Kahney comes at Ive’s notion of the “narrative” of a product time and again, but it’s this formulation that most closely approaches the metaphysical, seemingly suggesting that all those iMacs, PowerBooks, iPods and iPads that Ive has been responsible for mind-birthing should be considered not as mere phenomena, but actual noumena; for, what else can he mean by “perceptual” — as distinct from “physical” — if not some apprehension of how the iPhone is in itself, freed from the capacitive touch of our fingers?
There’s a 4,000 word essay that Will Self has written about Patrick Keiller and his new book, The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, at the London Review of Books website here. Will is going to be talking about Guy Debord with Patrick at the LRB bookshop in London tomorrow and there should be a podcast available soon after to listen to.
No, I only put on my judgemental hat for a crowd of one nutter: Prince Harry. He set off for the South Pole in early December, accompanied by the obligatory entourage of limbless ex-servicemen (and women), the aim being to show that limbless ex-servicemen (and women), and lame unemployed princes, are all capable of inspirational levels of achievement. It’s difficult to know where to begin when it comes to unpicking this giant bezoar – or should I say pseudo-bezoar – that’s stuck in the British gastrointestinal tract.
“The time comes in any upright British male’s life when he needs to have made his peace with all of the following: his homosexuality, his dress sense, and Germany. The first two of these I got out of the way decades ago (true, I still occasionally wake up in the morning and flirt with becoming a dandy for the few short seconds before the stiff denim of consciousness descends on me), but Germany has proved more problematic.
Will Self has written a long introduction to Notting Hill Editions’ small and beautifully formed new hardback publication of Guy Debord’s Situationist masterpiece The Society of the Spectacle, originally published in 1967.
“Never before has Debord’s work seemed quite as relevant as it does now, in the permanent present that he so accurately foretold. Open it, read it, be amazed, pour yourself a glass of supermarket wine – as he would wish – and then forget all about it, which is what the Spectacle wants.”
You can buy a copy for £10 from the Notting Hill Edition website here.