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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge