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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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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