In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, the unnamed narrator chances upon a strange old man in a London tavern. Following him through the streets after closing time and then throughout the night, the narrator realises, with mounting horror, that his quarry is compelled to seek out his fellow men – the waifs and strays of the urban night – simply so he may continue to be part of the generality rather than a singular individual. The poor fellow cannot otherwise exist: he is the man of the crowd.
As this is a special technology issue of the New Statesman, I thought I’d use the opportunity to write about the new generation of hi-tech wristbands that is coming on-stream. These stylish, lightweight devices enable you to keep track of a range of bodily functions – heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and so on – while continually monitoring your physical activity so as to present you with optimal targets, updates on these and pings of various kinds when you’re lagging. Linked up to smartphone technologies, these wristbands will allow you to listen to music and know when you have an incoming email or text message – or indeed any other web-initiated alert – even as you complete the Three Peaks Challenge, or man-haul to the South Pole for Frostbitten Nose Day.
If, as Nietzsche assures us, wit is the epitaph of an emotion, what then is the crisp if not the apotheosis of hunger? The crisp promises so much – yet delivers nothing at all. Vladimir Putin disdains the alcohol that transmogrifies his countrymen and women into slobbering, soulful wretches but I’d wager he forgoes crisps as well. When I consider the amount of time I’ve wasted eating crisps – let alone the money I’ve spent on these fried and friable folderols – it occurs to me that, sans crunch, I might easily have gained control of the Russian Federation and turned it into my own personal fiefdom.
I was hungover and jittery in St Louis, and there was a blizzard raging across the Midwest. As I looked at the departures board in the airport it riffled into DELAYED, DELAYED, DELAYED . . . the only exception being the New York flight: my own. Cursing this glitch that was sending me to my doom, I tramped down the companionway, reflecting ruefully on how my last moments on earth were to be spent noting, yet again, the bizarre habit air transport infrastructure designers have of fitting odd vertical surfaces with carpet.
It’s a blustery grey day on top of the short-stay car park at Heathrow Central. Down below us the new Terminal 2 building is taking shape in a series of steely whale ribs and arabesques. It doesn’t look like it will turn out to be anything much, but then nothing in the built environment nowadays looks like anything much; or, rather, it all looks like too much – too much airy embellishment, too many wave-form roofs, too many great expanses of curved glass parametrically wrapped around hideous atria. At least Heathrow has this solid virtue: it’s an almost historic airport that has been subjected to over half a century of chopping, changing and concrete-pouring, so that its ugly hugger-mugger of buildings replicates the very disorder of the unplanned metropolis it was never properly designed to serve.
Harvey Woolfe, a regular consumer of Real Meals, writes to suggest that I tackle the vexed question of cinema food. He observes that whereas there are tintinnabulating warnings in advance of every screening that patrons should put their mobile phones on silent, there is nothing done about the clash of their jaws, the gargling of their gullets, or – my favourite, this – that peculiarly gravelly noise the last few centilitres of a fizzy beverage makes as it is sucked up a straw from a waxed paper cup. Indeed, the policy of film-house management is positively to encourage comestibles (the noisier the better) by flogging them in the foyer. Harvey speculates that it’s all about profit, Statesmanlike socialist that he presumably is, but the horror show that is screen snacking is actually rather zeitgeisty. I heard a DJ on the radio the other day saying that he’s set up a pressure group to campaign for better viewing behaviour, following an incident in which his subtitled enjoyment was compromised by other patrons munching and chewing the fat on their dog-and-bones.
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.