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

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution