Obama's cliché security. Image: Getty
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Will Self: state cops, FBI letter jackets and celebrity sandwiches

"In Boston, I deliberate between the Fiscal Cliff with blue cheese and the Mark Zuckerburger."

On the dockside in Boston I spotted Fia’s Seafood – they were offering “twin lobsters” for $28.95; I ventured in and asked if the lobsters were identical or non-identical twins. “Why d’you wanna know?” the maître d’ snarled. “Because,” I replied, “I can only perform unnatural psychological experiments on them if they’re zygotic.”

The president was in town for a speech and the area around the State House was fraught with security: state cops on cliché Harleys, FBI agents in cliché letter jackets, and most intimidating of all those excessively polite men in pale yellow raincoats with pig’s tail antennae dangling from their ears. I gave them all a swerve and took the Red Line into Cambridge.

Sometimes it seems to me that the relationship between American society and its fast food is as close as that of ... well, identical twins. Foreigners writing on US gustatory habits have always understood the cafeteria and the lunch counter as the extension of the production line into the stomach. If you haven’t already, take a look at Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s ecstatically enraged depiction of American fast food in his 1933 novel, Journey to the End of the Night.

Emerging into the darkness of Harvard Square, I also gave the raggedy man standing by the subway exit a swerve. (His sign read “Looking for a Little Human Kindness” – how corny can you get?) The street folk were thronging about Starbucks, homing in like zombies on its smell-a-round of deceit – the odours of bread, pastry and roasted coffee that as one enters are dissipated by the cold winds of commercial calculation. In the lift down to the basement I sighed as I tapped my receipt code into the console. “They gotta do it,” an academic-looking type said, “else the homeless people trash the restrooms – they smear shit on the walls – I guess they’re really aggrieved.” I gave him an admiring glance and said, “Nice use of ‘aggrieved’.”

Back on the surface I passed by the Bridge Over Troubled Water trailer – “Reaching Out a Helping Hand to 16-24-Year-Olds” – before coming upon Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Boston landmark – or so its sign asserted – since 1960. Inside, the tables were covered with wood-grain laminate and the chairs were of the green plastic, lawn variety. A waiter with a T-shirt that read – wholly in innocence – “We Beat the Meat”, showed me to a table. Looking around me I saw that this was an establishment dominated by what Walter Benjamin characterised as the “vertical type” of modern consumerism: hokey old advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes; triangular road signs that showed stick figures crawling on their knees towards beer glasses, and which were captioned “STUDENTS CROSSING”; over several tables there were small signs that said “Johnny Cash Ate Here”, or “Robert Plant Ate Here” – claims I didn’t doubt for the thousandths of a second necessary for a computerised trading system to make a ruinous interest-swap.

Mr Bartley’s menu was equally diverting; the standard seven-ounce burger came in a plethora of guises. The Obamacare was glossed thus: “Nobody knows what’s in it ... ask the liberal sitting next to you”, and costed at: “$ Trillions”; while the Fiscal Cliff – “it’s here!” – was rather more optimistically priced at $13.85, for which you got crumbled bacon, blue cheese, red onion, balsamic vinegar and additional onion rings. I wish I could tell you I ordered a Mark Zuckerberg (“America’s richest geek, Boursin cheese and bacon with sweet potato fries”), which was a snip at 13 bucks – but, strange to relate, my sense of humour seemed to have deserted me. While I sipped my coke and chewed on my standard Mr Bartley’s cheeseburger (the only novelty being that I opted for provelone) I stared about me at my fellow preppies, who, to a man and a woman seemed to be channelling Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in those early scenes of Love Story – before the crab bites.

Lucky us. Out there in the streets the chill winds blew along Massachusetts Avenue and our brothers and sisters were dunking in the trash cans for discarded donuts. As I say, I often feel that American society and American fast food are twins separated at birth; and while one has been fed on 100 per cent ground beef and French fries cooked to a golden perfection, the other has been starved, beaten and otherwise degraded. It’s an unnatural psychological experiment – nonetheless I’m sure you’ll agree that it has to be done.

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 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

The Jump/Channel 4
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The most dangerous show on TV: is The Jump becoming a celebrity Hunger Games?

Will it take a life-threatening injury, or worse, before the madness ends?!

First they came for former EastEnders actor Louis Lytton. Then, they came for former EastEnders actor Sid Owen. Then, they came for former Holby City actor Tina Hobley. But now, the third season of Channel 4’s The Jump has moved on from retired soap stars to claim a new set of victims: Britain’s top athletes, including Rebecca Adlington, Beth Tweddle and Linford Christie.

The winter sports reality show The Jump takes your average collection of D-list celebrities, with a few sports personalities mixed in for good measure, and asks them to compete in a series of alpine challenges – skeleton, bobsleigh, snowboarding and, of course, ski jumping – while Davina McCall says things like, “Look at that jump. Just look at it. Are you nervous?”

It sounds fairly mild, but Sir Steve Redgrave, Ola Jordan, Sally Bercow and Melinda Messenger have all withdrawn from the programme after injuries in the past.

Riskier than I’m a Celebrity, Splash! and Dancing on Ice mixed together, the third season of The Jump is fast turning into a dystopian celebrity harm spectacle, a relentless conveyor belt of head injuries and fractured bones.

So far, seven out of the competition’s 12 contestants have sustained injuries. First, Lytton tore a ligament in her thumb, before being rushed to hospital after a training incident at the end of last month. Then, Owen fell on his leg during the first episode having previously complained of “a bad crash during training” for the skeleton.

Adlington (who openly wept with fear when she first gazed upon the titular ski jump, described as being the “height of three double decker buses”) was hospitalised and withdrew from the show after a televised fall left her with a dislocated shoulder: she said the pain was “worse than childbirth”. Hobley soon followed with a dislocated elbow.

Tweddle suffered a particularly bad accident during rehearsals, and now remains in hospital after having her spine fused together, which involved having a piece of bone taken from her hip. On Monday, Christie became the fourth contestant to be hospitalised in the space of two weeks, pulling his hamstring. As of today, Made in Chelsea cast member Mark Francis is the fourth contestant to withdraw, after fracturing his ankle.

In response to criticisms, Channel 4 reminded viewers that 46 of their celebrity participants have so far emerged unscathed across the three series, which seems like a remarkably low bar to set for a major reality TV series: “no one’s been seriously hurt so far” is not much of a safety procedure.

Judge Eddie the Eagle implied that contestents were injuring themselves through their own laziness and coffee obsessions. He wrote in the Daily Mail:

“Those competitors should be up and down the steps relentlessly – jump and go back, jump and go back. Instead too many will have a couple of goes before going off for a coffee and forgetting to return because they're feeling tired.”

But as the celebrity casualty list approaches double figures and more than 12 viewers have officially complained, the channel has begun an urgent safety review of the show, after one insider reportedly labelled it “the most dangerous show on television”.

It all seemed like fun and games when we were watching reality TV stars rolling around in the snow in embarrassing lurid lyrca suits. But will it take a life-threatening injury, or worse, before the madness ends?! Pray for Brian McFadden. Pray for Sarah Harding. Pray for Tamara Beckwith. Pray for the end of The Jump.

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