Pigs' heads: the closest Will Self has come to cannibalism. Photo: Getty
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More and more people are turning to cannibalism. I blame the loathsome foodies

Real Meals by Will Self. 

Is picking your nose and eating the dividend a form of cannibalism? How about sucking blood or chewing scabs? Do nail clippings count, or the occasional piece of dead skin? I only ask because there’s a strong case for arguing that eating yourself is the realest form of meal there can possibly be – after all, is not the body constantly consuming itself through apoptosis? Cannibalism, I concede, generally gets a bad press; although, that being noted, my first exposure to this universal but taboo mode of dining was through the Observer Magazine and I thought it sounded rather piquant.

Back in the 1970s the Observer serialised Piers Paul Read’s Alive, an account of a plane crash in the Andes. The Uruguayan national rugby team, their friends and family were on the plane – 45 people in all – and only 16 survived. When after a few days rescuers didn’t arrive, the survivors realised they would have to eat their dead companions if they, too, weren’t to perish. This they duly did, and as I recall, Read’s account of their cuisine was generally sympathetic: the rugger-buggers began at the buttocks, finding them the least “human” portion, and described the taste and texture (as has become commonplace in such stories) as being something like pork.

“Long pork” is apparently how certain anthropophagi describe their favourite food; I should have thought “pulled pork” would be more apt, as this is one dish that requires vigour to bring it to the cooking pot. There’s a lot of pulling in Robinson Crusoe, which some savants think is the first English novel. It may be that the emphasis placed on cannibalism is non-accidental: our noble castaway saves the indigene he dubs Friday from those who might eat him, but the civilisation he joins is predicated on slavery, a form of human consumption pulled on by an insatiable, imperialist sweet tooth. I’ve never eaten human flesh, apart from a few calluses nibbled in provincial station waiting rooms late at night when the buffet’s shut, but I’m not sure I object to it quite as strenuously as I probably should. In recent years there have been a number of cases of cannibalism in which the internet has played a conspicuous role: would-be anthropophagi advertise on the web for their dinner, and the dinner duly appears at their studio flat in Dortmund or Dorking and obligingly lays its head in the oven.

What the virtual dimension adds to the horror is beyond me – would it be any better if cannibals put cards up in newsagents’ windows, as presumably they were previously compelled to do? Somehow I doubt it. My hunch is we wouldn’t have all this people-eating if it weren’t for the rest of our loathsome foodie culture; once gourmets have sampled fugu fish, or live frogs, or locusts in honey, their jaded palate starts crying out for even more outrageous fare. Snacking on the hairy calf of someone you’ve entrapped online is only the next logical step. The way things are going there will be a dedicated website soon enough – I’d call it “Just Eat People!” assuming the domain name hasn’t been snaffled up already.

The Monty Python team was ahead of the game back in the Alive decade. There was a ditty in the book they published that went: “Much to his mum and dad’s dismay/Horace ate himself one day . . .” and then ana­tomised this consumption of anatomy, until the predictable ending: “And there he lay: a boy no more,/Just a stomach on the floor . . .” I don’t want to stuff this stanza with too much by way of semantics, but it does occur to me that if we keep on the way we are going with our colossal greed, all that will be left of human civilisation is a planetary stomach on the floor of the cosmos.

The closest I’ve got, in experiential terms, to eating someone was when my friend Michael and I ordered the pig’s head at St John, the restaurant helmed by Fergus Henderson that advertises itself as the home of “nose-to-tail eating”. Michael was brought up in a kosher household so you might have thought he’d forswear shortish swine on that basis alone. As for me, I had no principled objection to eating something with a face, but I’d never considered chowing down on the face itself. The pig’s head arrived and it had the glistening, lifelike appearance and crisped eyes you associate with government ministers being interviewed on the television news.

Rather like the poor rugby players marooned in the Andes, we began with the cheeks, reasoning that these were the least pig-like feature; but the meat was so beautifully cooked that soon enough we were hacking away at the head with gusto. The Rubicon was crossed when I found myself chewing on a corner of the snout that included a nostril. Eating really doesn’t get much more corporeal than that.

Among traditional peoples there are all sorts of beliefs about what happens when you ingest human meat: you possess the strength of the opponent you have just vanquished in battle (or, more troublingly, his weakness). Well, ever since I ate the pig of restricted height I’ve been more of a swine than ever – for real. 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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