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

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Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad