Italian American food, or American Italian? Image: Getty
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Will Self on how to rescue our lives from marketers and margherita pizzas

To examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism. But let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

A mannish-looking woman in a white blouse buttoned to the collar and a straight black skirt kneels in the foreground of an undistinguished tract house, clutching a three-year-old girl about the waist so that her rigid crinoline skirt tips up on one side. They both look pained and the shot isn’t particularly well composed – a telegraph pole rises up out of the woman’s head.

Some years ago Nicholson Baker wrote a fine essay for the New Yorker on the books used as props in the Ralph Lauren mail order catalogue. Baker’s point – in analysing the disjunction between these bought-by-theyard volumes and the off-the-peg shmatte draped around them – was that the book had become a symbol of a form of leisured cultivation aspired to by the sort of people content to be accessories to the brand; in short, these were books that did even less than furnish a room – they furnished the idea of a room that one might have, were one to stop spending all one’s money on tacky designer clothing.

The same could be said of the photographs framed and stuck up on the walls of the Little Frankie’s that we ate in the other evening. These are emphatically not meant to be looked at, let alone analysed – these are images that should be merely glanced at, and so subliminally assimilated to the desired commercial gestalt.

In a way, to examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention – with sympathy and reverence, even – would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism; as someone might pick up small pieces of smoothed bottle glass from the beach, take them home, put them in jars filled with water and, placing these on the windowsill, observe how the sunlight transforms such undistinguished lumps into glowing jewels. But, hell, everyone’s life is too short, eh? So let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

Little Frankie’s is the cadet arm of the mighty Frankie & Benny’s chain, which has over 200 outlets in the UK. The only thing that distinguishes them is their piccolo size, otherwise they offer up the same shtick: a cod version of the cultural miscegenation that on their website is styled variously “New York Italian” or “Italian American”, but which at the branch where we found ourselves was detailed – as one of my sharp-eyed sons pointed out – “American Italian”.

I’d like to think that this was because someone high up in The Restaurant Group (the plc that owns the chain, along with Garfunkel’s and Chiquito) had come to the conclusion either that: a) such now is the degree of assimilation that it should be reflected in their terminology, or b) they need to dissociate themselves from all the usual Italian- American clichés – DiMaggio, Sinatra, The Sopranos, blah, blah, yech.

But the reality is almost certainly that a middle-ranking marketer had focus-grouped the reversed couplet and found out it played better with punters, such – as I believe I’ve already pointed out – is life. In Little Frankie’s, the bubblegum Fifties pop played nonstop and I wondered what our waitress – who admitted to me she came from Pisa – made of it all. The marketing department long ago (1995, when the first branch opened in Leicester) concocted a backstory: the eponymous Frankie, aged ten, moved from Sicily to Little Italy in New York in 1924 and a year later his parents opened a restaurant . . . blah, blah, yech. I can’t believe anyone devotes any more headspace to this than they do to the flash-bulbed revenants they see on their way down to the chequerboard-tiled toilets. There may be dark wood floors and bentwood chairs and “granite-effect” tabletops at Little Frankie’s, but so far as I could see, the only evidence of a sense the clientele were involved with was taste.

The same sharp-eyed boy said his margherita pizza “thinks it’s better than it is”; a strange remark that I think was occasioned by it being covered with slices of actual tomato rather than just the purée he favours. The other son said that his burger was shit and his onion rings were shit, and the extra hot dog we ordered was also shit, but that he’d eaten them all because he was so hungry. For myself, I didn’t mind my tough little steak – and when I complained about the cold chips, the waitress obligingly brought me a dish of chips so hot that, had we been in an Italian-American restaurant, I’d have suspected the chef of trying to whack me. Bravissimo!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos
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Why defeating Islamic State means taking on the digital caliphate

A new book by Liam Byrne explains that the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism.

The terrorist group Islamic State caught the world by surprise in June 2014 when it declared a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Within a few months, like an avenging fire, it had scorched across Syria and much of Iraq, carving out an empire stretching more than 400 miles from Aleppo to the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek, which lies just 60 miles from the Iranian border.

IS, or Isis, or Da’esh, seemed unstoppable but it has now been pushed back, possibly decisively. Since 2014, it has lost an estimated 45,000 jihadists, as well as control of key towns and resources. Its enemies – Kurds, Iraqi troops and Shia militias – are in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and are advancing on the group’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. But, as the Labour MP Liam Byrne points out in this timely book, the fight against Isis and its brutal ideology has many fronts. Isis is obsessed with controlling territory and creating a global caliphate. But it existed for many years without territory. With its war on the world going badly, its digital caliphate is becoming ever more important.

In his wide-ranging and discursive study, Byrne concentrates on what is perhaps the most significant fight of all: the “battle of ideas”. His journey has taken him to northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He makes his most interesting discoveries, however, in his own constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill, where Muslims boast the highest share of the population (52 per cent) of any area in the UK.

Byrne concludes that Isis and other jihadi groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are fundamentally heretical by nature. Essentially they are death cults, with as much relevance to most Muslims as David Koresh and Jim Jones had to “mainstream” Christians. Ironically, Isis claims to espouse the purest form of Islam, pursued in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, it believes that it has the power to excommunicate apostates, an act known as takfir, and the right to exterminate them. This has metastasised into genocide, as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and, above all, Muslims in the Middle East can attest.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group, which then called itself alQaeda, morphed with Saddam Hussein’s avowedly secular Ba’ath Party. In effect, this was the merger of a terrorist group and an embittered terror apparatus. The objective of Isis was to trigger conflict between Iraq’s Shia majority, which came to power after the invasion, and the Sunni minority, which had hitherto ruled the roost. The group’s global aim was to foment division between Muslims and everyone else.

Byrne believes the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism. It has bought in to a “clash of civilisations” doctrine that makes Islam the problem. In the UK, counter-extremism programmes such as Prevent are based on a “conveyor belt” theory that identifies religious conservatism as the trigger for radicalisation. But Byrne, citing security and academic sources, argues that anger and resentment, often engendered by a sense of marginalisation, are more powerful factors: “. . . the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion”. Jihadists have often created their own version of Islam after conducting rudimentary research online; two Birmingham men convicted of fighting in Syria ordered copies of Islam for Dummies on Amazon before leaving for the front line.

We should – at the very least – recognise the true nature of the extremist threat we face. The US president-elect’s declared solutions to dealing with Isis include bombing “the shit out of ’em” and barring all Muslims from entering his country. Reason and rationality may seem in short supply these days, but they have a habit of returning once people tire of the dispiriting alternatives. In the meantime, we could do worse than reach for Byrne’s excellent, revealing and clear-sighted book.

Andrew Hosken is a BBC reporter and the author of “Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State” (Oneworld)

Black Flag Down: Counter-Extremism, Defeating Isis and Winning the Battle of Ideas by Liam Byrne is published by Biteback (258pp, £12.99​)

Liam Byrne and Michael Gove will discuss Isis, Islamist terror and the “battle of ideas” with the NS contributing writer Shiraz Maher on 12 December in London. To book tickets visit newstatesman.co.uk/events or call 020 3096 5789​

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage