It’s pretty weird round my way at the moment: a sirocco of flight capital is blowing through, conjuring vast “luxury apartment” developments into being the way djinns are embodied by Arabian dust storms. The youngest and I went out for a little wander the other day and we were both intimidated by the tower cranes building themselves overhead. Each new parametrically designed and glassy moneymaker comes complete with an inbuilt restaurant – Riverlight, where a studio flat will cost you a modest £800,000, features a Korean joint, while St George Wharf, hard by Vauxhall Bridge, boasts the delightfully named Steax and the City. We eschewed this, rather than chewing on a steax (whatever that may be), but the problem of where to have lunch remained until the boy recalled that there was a branch of Dirty Burger on the far side of the railway viaduct.
I hadn’t heard of Dirty Burger before – hardly surprising, as there are only five of them: four in London and one outlier in Chicago (or perhaps it’s the other way round). When I got home I was informed by my spouse – who is rather more sophisticated than I am – that its name derives from so-called “dirty food”; a newish culinary concept that valorises grease, sugar, carbohydrates and all things bad for you. I suppose there was an inevitability about this particular détournement; such is the fecundity of late capitalism, which is ever seeking out shiny new things to turn into dirty old money.
I can understand the logic of opening a branch of Dirty Burger in Shoreditch, Whitechapel, even Kentish Town – but Vauxhall? Although the world spirit of gentrification is busily taking up residence here the fact remains that, as of now, the place is still what is scientifically termed a shithole. Vauxhall Cross isn’t just dirty – it’s positively filthy; the railway viaduct is encrusted in centuries of soot and grime, the bus interchange looms greyish in a permanently hovering cloud of exhaust fumes; on the ledges of the grotty old buildings alongside it, the anti-pigeon barbs are so encrusted with pigeon shit that they resemble stalactites and stalagmites. At any hour of the day or night you can happen upon street drinkers tumbling out of or into the homeless hostel, their beards and hair matted with vomit and White Lightning, while towards dawn sadomasochistic revellers reeking of amyl nitrate debouch from the Hoist, a nightclub of legendary unsavouriness.
Dirty Burger’s interior decoration shtick looked positively bizarre in such a context: sited underneath the arches adjacent to the Hoist, its grubby little nook is panelled with corrugated iron sheets, while the floor, the tables and counters appear to have been built with old railway sleepers. On Rodeo Drive or the rue Saint-Honoré, such postmodern referencing of the lives of the immiserated and securely absent might be amusing, but when you’re sitting in a little “terrace area”, contrived out of the spit-stained paving and assailed by the diesel flatulence of passing lorries, that joke – to quote the balladeer who brought us Vauxhall and I – isn’t funny any more. The men doing the flipping at Dirty Burger seemed lacking in the appropriate ironic detachment – they were just trying to make a living in the soiled old city like millions of others.
The boy had the Dirty Bacon Cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake; I had a tea, and watched him inhale about a week’s worth of calories in a handful of seconds. I asked him how his burger had been and he said the curious thing was, it wasn’t only the meat and cheese that were greasy, so was the bun. I meditated on this as grit pinged from the roadway into my smarting eyes.
I imagined a planning meeting at Dirty Burger’s HQ: clean-cut young women and men sat round an immaculate conference table, eyeing me suspiciously as I strode back and forth in my crinkle-cut suit. I jabbed a button on a laptop and the PowerPoint displayed an image of an indistinct, massy object. “Now pay attention,” I said. “This is a pseudobezoar, a solid bolus of food that’s been engendered in the gastrointestinal tract of an ordinary London office worker by feeding her a detritus of old coffee stirrers, lint and deep-fat-fryer waste.” I jabbed the button again and the image was replaced by a second one; now the massy object was in a greasy bun. “I give you the pseudobezoarburger,” I announced, “the first commercially produced comestible to incorporate regurgitation into the cooking process.” A lean young man sat forward: “When you say ‘give you’ do you mean that literally?”
I laughed shortly, “Of course not – the pseudobezoarburger will retail at £7 …” The vision faded, and I was back at Vauxhall Cross looking at a bill for £15.75; it was a lot of filthy lucre for a dirty burger, especially given that – according to the garish decal pasted on the grubby phone box nearby – I could get a perfectly clean one at Burger King for £3.79, and for £1.99 I could re-up to a full meal deal. But then I suppose that’s the sort of cheapskate bum I am: always on the lookout for a cheap, safe bun.