It doesn’t Costa lot to taste this mediocre – and luckily you can find one on every British street

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

How to describe it? How to articulate the effect provoked in me by these artfully aligned and textured surfaces? The task is worthy of Henry James or Wallace Stevens – some master of the intersection between social velleities and individual desires; but alas, there’s only me, and as usual I’m off my tit-shaped head on caffeine, and so barely equal to the task.

Still, here goes: there is herringbone-patterned woodblock, yes, and it’s on the floor, uh-huh. Then there’s some aluminium trim and after this what looks like slate tiling; the walls are whitewashed brick on two sides; on the third, the brick is bare. And the fourth wall? Well, no Brecht or Beckett could be as creative with a fourth wall, oh no. It appears to have been assembled out of at least four different kinds of wood, chopped up and assembled into a colossal Jenga-style barrier. I am awed by this fourth wall – awed. If it weren’t for the cod-Matisse images, I might altogether forget that I’m in a branch of Britain’s largest chain coffee shop.

There were 1,375 of these outlets as of 2011 – and given their viral rate of increase, it seems likely there are at least 1,500 by now. Somehow, beating Starbucks to become market leader seems to have given the Whitbread-owned chain a huge central nervous system stimulus; one you can witness spreading in neuronal sparks to its extremities as you carom down any urban artery throughout the British Isles: leapfrogging over one another to take this corner, or that intersection, are branches of Tesco Express and Costa. Yes, Costa is our subject – and it doesn’t get realer than this. So ubiquitous has Costa become that I feel enchained – my wrists manacled by its ridged paper cups, I hobble along the pavement, while anxiety over potential mocha-spillage fetters my ankles. And what do I see if I look up from this, the halting hobble of late capitalism? Why, the brown gaze of another minatory Costa, its slit-bean-for-an-eye staring at me with a steeliness that would gladden any panopticon-building Benthamite.

Actually, there’s a certain grotesque symmetry to the Costa surge: the first retail Costa was opened a mere 35 years ago in Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from my house (and hard by the site of the Millbank prison, a panopticon, natch). Now it hardly matters how far I roam, I’m sure to find a Costa there waiting for me. At the university where I teach, on the outskirts of London, there’s a Costa franchise café; it’s not a Costa proper, but instead there’s a sign behind the counter that announces “Proud to Serve Costa Coffee”. A curious pride, I always think – after all, it’s not as if I couldn’t pick up a Costa coffee nearby; there’s a Costa Express vending outlet in the garage halfway between the station and the campus. And at this rate of market-penetration I’ll probably soon be encountering ambulatory Costa sellers – like water-sellers in the Sahel – who will offer to dispense a cup for me from the heated tank on their backs, and then stamp my loyalty card.

I often have lunch in the Costa clone at the university. I munch the Caesar salad with its risible “chicken”, followed by a gluten-free chocolate brownie (have I mentioned that I’m fashionably wheat-intolerant?) washed down with a triple-shot soy mocha. Are they any good, these comestibles? Does it matter? It seems to me that the Costa phenomenon is of a piece with the Googlisation of all contemporary culture: to drink a Costa coffee is to subject oneself to an algorithm of taste, rather to exercise discrimination in any meaningful way. The sponsorship of a literary prize is of a piece with this: palmed off on the chain by Daddy Whitbread, the Costa Prize jury functions in exactly the same way as a search engine: picking out the books that other prize juries have already picked out, so that the bland end up promoting the blander.

This is why the Costa branch described at the capital of this column seemed so delusory to me in its ornament; sited on Brixton High Street, it’s easily the spivviest one I’ve ever supped in. And what’s that about? Brixton is undergoing a phase of retail gentrification, with trestle tables piled high with ackee and pigs’ feet ceding ground to young lifestyle peddlers with asymmetric haircuts. You don’t need to be paranoid to see the invasion of this body-snatching coffee shop as the advance guard of a surgical strike on the area’s authentic personality – a lukewarmotomy, if you will. I make not apology for this execrable pun – after all, that’s the Costa of living nowadays.


Photograph: Getty Images

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 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis