Will Self’s latest Real Meals column from the New Statesman:
I remember about half a decade ago being on a metro in Barcelona, rattling out through the suburbs towards some beachfront resort, and a young man getting on with a life-size puppet of Madonna that he proceeded to dance with – her stuffed legs were tied to his live ones, her insensate hands clasped in his feeling ones. I can’t recall which Madonna record was playing on his beatbox but it was big that year. I thought the performance exquisite and witty but then I was in touristic mode while the other passengers were commuters. I dobbed up a two-euro coin – they sat there stony-faced.
This came back to me over lunch the other day: I sat there stonily facing a strip of perforated steel sheeting wrapped around a pillar while on a flat-screen monitor Madonna cavorted in a leotard. She did the splits, she gyrated, she smarmed but mostly she thrashed on the floor simulating the spasms of sexual ecstasy. About me in the university canteen there were many modular table-and-chair units fully occupied by young women in hijabs but none of them paid any attention to this carry-on; it occurred to me that it was me – and me alone – who was the proverbial picture in the attic, sicklied o’er with the malaise of prudery and age.
I could see the future: me, lashed into a tartan rug in some underfunded care home of the 2040s, a bowl of soylent green cooling by my paralysed elbow, and as my palsied eyelids drooped for the last time, flickering 3D TV images of Madonna’s perfect ass tormenting me unto death . . . The dying Oscar had said of the garish wallpaper in his Rive Gauche hotel room: “Sooner or later one of us will have to go.” But it’s always the wallpapers and Madonnas of the world that stay the course. It was enough to put a man off his stir-fried chickpeas and vegetables with plum sauce, and would’ve done so were it not that the food was so damn tasty.
I’d approached the canteen with some trepidation on my first full day at work in over 20 years, as a professor at a London university – but having been given an office, a security pass and a computer log-in there seemed no alternative to going for the full institutional experience. I had vague memories of eating lunch in hall when I was at university: we paid for the food using a bizarre Oxonian currency of little pink tickets called – I think – battels, and sat at long oak tables under oil paintings of long-dead dons, while a few moribund ones occupied a dais at the far end. It was a pompous environment within which to eat the same sort of food that was dished up in the café round the corner: chips, axe-shaped bits of fried fish in breadcrumbs that you could’ve performed seppuku with, and baked beans.
As soon as I’d oriented myself with the local fast-food joints, I decamped – and didn’t sup at my college again until a few years ago when I ate at high table as the guest of the rector. The food was the same ancient slop but after dinner we got offered a silver box of snuff along with the port doing the rounds. I horned up a generous spoonful that thankfully obliterated the taste of the food, as well as getting me as high as an oriel window. Ah, well . . . but at my new university the menu – like the student body – is decidedly more polyglot. Roast pork, stuffing and apple sauce for £4.50; a salad “meal deal” with Glacéau mineral water for four quid – pizza and pasta options; baked potatoes piping hot from the Bakemaster Victorian bakery oven; potato, leek and watercress soup with a fat wedge of granary bread for two shitters . . . and then there were the stir-fries, which are wokked right in front of you by chefs that seemed happy enough in their work: when I failed to take the additional portion of vegetables to which I was entitled, they called me back.
As regular readers will know, lunch isn’t really my thing, but now I’ve embarked on a revved-up life of the mind I feel the need of it – what I’m not so sure I feel the need of is
Madonna and Timber Just-in-lake, but I suppose I’ll get used to them. Anything has to be better than “sconcing”, a tradition at my old college whereby anyone caught talking “shop” in hall had to drink three pints of beer in a single draft from a sconce – or giant cup. But then, come to think of it sconcing – like so much else in our coalition-led society – has become democratised. Now any student can chug-a-lug beer until she pukes, which is only fair. But a noodle bar has to be better for your noddle.