Can you fit into an itsu-bitsy bikini? Image: Getty
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Will Self: Itsu is the perfect food for keyboard rifflers terrified they're turning into sludge

That food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience.

Itsu is a Japanese-inspired chain of some 40 takeaways and a brace of proper restaurants that are scattered across London’s financial district with a few outliers, including one in Oxford. Itsu – which is a Japanese prefix meaning “when” – was founded by Julian Metcalfe, who is also responsible for Pret A Manger, so you get the semantic synonymy.

I ate in a branch of Itsu near St Paul’s a couple of weeks agoD and for some perverse reason I so enjoyed the experience that I returned to see whether I had been suffering from a hallucination: the decor had seemed so pleasing, the service so light-touch and the food so deliquescent.

I had been hallucinating – on second pass, Itsu was just another fast-food joint with a shtick devised to part office porkers from their readies.

I suppose it is interesting to ruminate on this strange fact along with one’s Itsu salad box: that over the past 15 years or so, simulacrums of Japanese eateries have come increasingly to dominate British high streets, much as replicants of human beings will doubtless vault the boulevards of Los Angeles come the end of this decade. In City of Quartz, his fine work on the psychogeography of LA, Mike Davis hypothesises that the Asiatic hordes teeming through Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner were a sublimation of the anxiety felt by Hollywood during the early 1980s as more and more prime downtown real estate was snaffled up by the Japanese. Fair enough, yet this doesn’t really explain why British quants and financial traders are now so enamoured of rice noodle soup and sushi selections – unless, that is, they believe that by eating Japanese they will magically ward off the deflation that has bitten down on the once-tiger economy for the past 25 years.

The Itsu philosophy (if we can sully the word) is to respond to “years of listening and reacting to customer feedback” by “creating a low-calorie menu for the upbeat and the active”. But am I alone in detecting a contradiction here? The last thing the active and upbeat require is “butterfly-light, low-fat, nutritsu food”; I mean, if you’re properly active you can get away with more or less limitless stodge. As for the grim coinage “nutritsu”, this is of a piece with other bits of babyish signage stuck up in Itsu – ask not for a noodle pot but a “noodle potsu”, and (most yucky this) you might like to sluice it down with an “itea”. Combine with the life-size sepia shots of etiolated Japanese maidens in itsu-bitsy bikinis that adorn the walls and you get the picture: Itsu is aimed not so much at the high, male end of the City feeding chain but at female secretaries and keyboard rifflers whose sedentary drudging is – they quite reasonably worry – turning them to sludge.

On beige-vinyl-covered stools held aloft by mirror-shiny aluminium poles, with one’s Hello Kitty handbag shackled to the underside of the table by a purpose-designed strap (handy, that), you can squirt soy sauce from one of those dear little individual plastic bottles into one of those dear little individual plastic trays, then mix in the wasabi with the tip of your chopstick. Mm, it’s all so . . . diminutive. On reflection, I think it is this aspect of Japanese culture that most appeals to us at an unconscious level: the saccharine infantilising of the bitter pill of machine ordered conformity. We may have to work all the hours Mammon sends, but at least we can have our lunch break in cute surroundings, our fair cheeks brushed by the wings of the Itsu butterfly logo.

In fact, the food at Itsu is perfectly all right. Even close to closing time on a gloomy October evening the salad still had some bounce in it and the sushi some bite. As for the miso soup – which Metcalfe has insinuated on to the shelves at Sainsbury’s – it was a wholesome mixture and looked, as good miso soup should, like the beginnings of an attempt to see if life can be synthesised in a laboratory.

In a way, I find this most disturbing of all: that food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience. Every time I find myself savouring under such circumstances, I double-take, remembering Winston Smith looking up from the table at the Chestnut Tree Café to see the implacable face of Julian Metcalfe – sorry, I mean “Big Brother” – staring down at him, and returning that dictatorial gaze with . . . love.

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 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear