“I wonder what Monsieur Vigneron, a commissaire général de la Société des Artistes Français no less, makes of it all, assuming that the comings and goings have rendered his shade unquiet. After all, in 1903, when he was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, at the reasonable, if not advanced, age of 57, the notorious sodomite was yet to pitch up. M Vigneron’s tasteful tomb – a petrified catafalque, replete with rigid canvases and stony brushes – stood proud among the crumbling graves. Doubtless the Second Republic arts bureaucrat had some hopes of a few respectful mourners coming to lay fast-fading violets atop his remains, but a scant eight years later, down dropped this monstrous chunk of schizoid-modernism, designed by Jacob Epstein, which is half engine block, half pharaonic sphinx. Then things began to get weirder.”
“I suppose I was looking for an archetype that no longer exists. A fusty realm of red flock wallpaper and piped sitar music. I was in search of that unreal establishment, the Indian restaurant – unreal because the vast majority are in fact run by Bangladeshis; but unreal also because, just as second- and third-generation British Asians no longer see any need to kowtow to ethnic indiscrimination (and so style their establishments ‘Bengali’, or as offering ‘Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine’), so they have also hearkened to the foodyism of the past decade, vamped up their decor and even begun flirting with the unsafe sex of gastronomy: fusion.”
“I vividly remember my first experience of hands-free mobile phones. It must have been around 1998 in Stockholm. I arrived by night, in the teeth of a blizzard, and distinctly shaken up by having flown from London sitting between the pilots of the SAS flight. I was, shamefully, on a press junket, and this was the only seat available. I wandered the concourses of Stockholm airport waiting for my onward connection and absolutely freaked by the numbers of soberly dressed businessmen who strode about the place gesticulating and talking aloud, even though there was no one there.
“Chicken, chicken! Every place I go there is chicken, every step I take, wishbones and drumsticks crunch beneath my soles, while the blisters in battered old chicken skin crepitate eerily. If, as I do, you live in a large city, you’re never more than a few feet away from some disjointed portion of a poultry carcass. If, as I am, you’re the owner of a dog, you’re never more than a few seconds away from having to shove your hand down its throat to try to retrieve a splintery bone.
“This column takes its title from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay’s seminal work on folly, first published in 1841, and subsequently much revised to account for the mechanisation of 19th-century hysteria. Mackay treats of many psychic states, ranging from the innocuously barmy to the downright deranged, but to my mind one of his most interesting sections concerns the way in which a nonce word, or phrase, will grip the masses, until you cannot listen to an exchange between two people without hearing it used. D’you know what I mean?
“When, in 1996, I hung up my bib as the restaurant critic of the Observer, I went out with a grande bouffe by eating at McDonald’s and La Tante Claire in a single lunchtime. It seemed to me that yoking a Michelin three-star temple of cuisine to a fast-food joint where the keener staff wore three plastic stars perfectly expressed the taste of the nation. If only I could have foreseen what was to come. This culinary de bas en haut was soon to become the very Kulturkampf of New Labour’s Britain.
“A mania for wood detailing has gripped British architects in its tongue-and-groove. Ouch! It doesn’t matter how dark or twisted the urban alley you wander down is, at the end of it you’re bound to find a spanking new block of ‘luxury’ flats, its façade a chequerboard of plate glass and outsize Venetian blind slats. More often than not, this gallimaufry will be dubbed with some spurious-sounding pseudo-place-name, such as ‘Viking Wharf’ or ‘Visigoth Quay’.”
To read the rest of Will Self’s New Statesman column, visit their website.
The New Statesman has announced that, as part of its redesign, Will Self will be writing Madness of Crowds, a wry look at strange social phenomena and group behaviour. This will alternate with Real Meals, for which he will visit “ordinary” high street food outlets such as McDonald’s and Starbucks.
Will Self reads a life of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious dope dealer of modern times, and recalls his own adventures in the land of addiction
“I’ve got cocaine running around my brain!” So chanted Dillinger, the reggae toaster, in a mid-1970s paean to the white stuff that was an instant hit with those of us adolescent delinquents intent on an instant hit. Dillinger wasn’t the first or the last reggae star to take his moniker from a famous outlaw, but his cheerful little ditty was a curtain-raiser on a quarter-century during which the only criminal act in the global village worth talking about has been the production, export and sale of drugs.