The only crisp that matters: Quentin Crisp photographed in 1981. Photo: Getty
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Is there anything – and I mean anything – more useless and destructive than an artisan crisp?

Cardamom and fenugreek, garlic and chilli, black pepper and sea salt: just some of the grotesque additives with which these Shropshire smallholders coat their death discs.

If, as Nietzsche assures us, wit is the epitaph of an emotion, what then is the crisp if not the apotheosis of hunger? The crisp promises so much – yet delivers nothing at all. Vladimir Putin disdains the alcohol that transmogrifies his countrymen and women into slobbering, soulful wretches but I’d wager he forgoes crisps as well. When I consider the amount of time I’ve wasted eating crisps – let alone the money I’ve spent on these fried and friable folderols – it occurs to me that, sans crunch, I might easily have gained control of the Russian Federation and turned it into my own personal fiefdom.

With almost any snack food, no matter how grimly artificial, there is still meaningful discrimination to be made. You can look back to a better sausage roll – conceivably even a finer cheese football or Twiglet – but when it comes to the crisp, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” is not a question worth posing. The paradox is this: each and every crisp leaves bag or bowl with a sort of nimbus of individuality surrounding it. “I,” it rustles to you, “am the one and only crisp, the crisp you’ve waited for all your life. Only I can satisfy you and I can do it because of my unique characteristics: I am the most flavoursome! I am the very epitome of crispiness itself!” And despite having been taken in a hundred thousand times or more by such salty nothings, we still bite down expecting things to be different, only for our true love, within a couple of spasms, to become subsumed to the goo constituting its predecessors.

Yes, yes, I know. You protest that you remember the bags of Smith’s or Golden Wonder that, as a child, you were handed through the back door of the pub with great affection. But that’s just it: note the plural. These were bags that you enjoyed, probably bags and bags and bags; for, even more than chewing gum, the crisp is the food that brings us closest to the ruminants and you wouldn’t expect a cow to discourse too meaningfully on the greatest mouthful of grass she ever chewed. I, too, enjoyed those bags of crisps but I recognise now that these were only the flimsy gateways I shouldered my way through into a lifetime of addiction.

Yes, addiction. I don’t use the word lightly in its traditional sense – we’re not addicted to crisps in the way a minor cleric in the Church of England might be addicted to reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. I’m talking about full-blown, vein-clogging, pavement-scouring, down-and-outing pathological addiction – the kind usually associated with crack cocaine or the novels of George R R Martin. The only reason we don’t acknowledge our addiction to crisps to be such is that we have ordered things so our supply can never be interrupted and warped our social conventions so their use (note I don’t say “consumption”) is almost always acceptable. Even in circumstances where to munch would be completely beyond the pale – for example, listening to András Schiff play the Goldberg Variations at Wigmore Hall – you’re still allowed (nay, encouraged) to rush out in the interval and crunch up a storm.

And bite down on this: crisps are incredibly unhealthy. Full of salt and sugar and seemingly designed to inflict dental caries, since the spatula-like forms they assume during their pitifully short half-lives thrust all that salt and sugar up between root and gum. Don’t take my word for it. Ask any cardiologist or dentist: crisps are the enemy. But if everything I’ve said so far isn’t enough to convince you, then here’s the clencher: the artisan crisp. Just as evil drug barons employ chemists to synthesise new and more addictive narcotics to enslave our vulnerable youth, so small potato growers in Shropshire band together, sousing crisps in cider vinegar and sprinkling them with rosemary in order to do the same to our feckless bourgeoisie.

Is there anything – and I mean anything – more useless and destructive than an artisan crisp? At least your common-or-garden crisp is, no matter how pernicious, an established feature in our culinary landscape. But the artisan variety? Cardamom and fenugreek, garlic and chilli, black pepper and sea salt: these are just some of thegrotesque additives these “artisans” coat their death discs with! It almost makes me yearn for the landlocked prawn cocktail flavourings of yore.

Then there are crinkle-cut and skin-on crisps, thick-cut and Kettle – all of which exhibit the same homicidal inclinations, stabbing at cheek and tongue with their tooth-tooled daggers. Last summer, my son and I walked almost the length of England and nearly every pub we came to was serving up some new take on this beastliness. After about a week of it, his poor little mouth almost cut to ribbons by these “snacks”, he was begging me for relief. “No more artisan crisps, Dad,” he moaned. “Please.”

But, poor child, he was ignorant of the psychological horror of crisp addiction, of how it takes only a few minutes for the memory of both crisp hit and devilish crisp comedown to be washed away by God-given saliva. Come the next pub, he would be clamouring for more of the wretched things. I identify: I mean, I am writing an entire column on the subject but once I’ve finished I’m heading straight to the corner shop. I’m feeling a little peckish and there’s a bag of crisps there with my name written on it.

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 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

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