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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit