Interview: Peter Hobbs

The author of The Short Day Dying, who unexpectedly became a writer during a long illness,

Peter Hobbs is a writer who understands how life can suddenly swerve off course. Fresh out of Oxford - a politics graduate with no literary ambitions - he was recruited by the Foreign Office and sent to Pakistan as a junior diplomat. But shortly after arriving he was taken seriously ill - a freak affliction he describes as "some kind of dysentery" complicated by a reaction to the anti-malarial drugs he'd been on.

For the next two years he was confined to his bed, and five years later he was still convalescing. His career, health and social life in freefall, he went through what he refers to as "a bleak period". To make it more bearable, he began writing stories.

Now a critically acclaimed novelist in his mid-thirties, he’s living life as he never intended. "I’ve been very fortunate, being able to find another thing I can do," he says, apparently now reconciled to the premature termination of his diplomatic career.

But his prolonged illness has, unsurprisingly, had an indelible mark on his writing which seems to have a unifying theme of suffering.

The narrator of The Short Day Dying (Hobbs’s Whitbread-shortlisted debut) is Charles Wenmoth, a Methodist lay preacher in 19th century Cornwall, who’s plagued by loneliness, grief, the uncertainties of faith and the inexorable passing of time.

It’s an echoing, hypnotic, brutally unsentimental narrative written, without commas, in language of stark elemental beauty.

Hobbs sidesteps praise for this book by talking about its ambivalent reception: "A couple of reviewers criticized the lack of irony, saying it needed an extra level of perspective, a slight change of genre - and at that point I felt I’d done something right; that if people thought a novel had to be written ironically, then it was very good to go against them. The idea that irony is necessary makes no sense to me at all."

But, he says, looking so directly at Wenmoth’s unhappiness did make the writing process fairly debilitating. "It’s a very claustrophobic mental world Wenmoth inhabits. The only way of writing the novel was to have him looking in a very straightforward, almost obsessional way at these questions about personal freedom and the passing of time. It took me three years to write, and I don’t think there was a single day when I felt confident about what I was doing. I was just very lucky that the novel was partly about doubt, so all my worries about the artistic endeavor could actually feed into it."

Hobbs tells me that one of his goals was "to show faith as seen from the inside" - reflecting, perhaps, the several generations of his family that have included preachers. He says he was determined not to write a novel about loss of faith.

But surely Wenmoth’s desire to ‘keep things from eternity’ is recognizably agnostic. Hobbs takes my interpretation seriously, but gently dissents: "I think it’s entirely within human nature to have contradictory fears and beliefs - and I think it’s very natural to fear mortality, whatever else you believe."

Hobbs becomes uncharacteristically vague when quizzed about his own religious beliefs. "I find it very difficult to talk about," he falters. And then, less hesitantly: "I certainly don’t think religion’s at all foolish."

We begin talking about his short story collection, I Could Ride All Day In My Cool Blue Train - out this month in a new paperback edition. The title comes from a story called Deep Blue Sea, which was anthologised in New Writing 13, and was the first thing I ever read by Hobbs.

A labyrinthine, self-reflexive story, its ailing narrator inhabits a futuristic, flooded world - ‘a town full of rain, a liquid city’ - in which he survives as a professional storyteller. It is, Hobbs says, ‘a very autobiographical story’, with its themes of physical degeneration and storytelling-as-redemption.

It also feels as though he is teasing his audience for wanting a happy ending.

"I think you need to be very cautious about sentimentality," he says. "It can be deeply manipulated… Storytellers need to be honest about human motivation and the consequences of events. It’s far too easy to lie, to offer false hope."

And perhaps that is what sets Hobbs apart. He writes the kind of fiction which reminds us that suffering cannot always be alleviated - sometimes it must be endured and ultimately can make us stronger.

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.