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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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