When the duck starts taking off, you know it was a really bad idea to drop acid in the Chinese

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

I’ve shifted my business back to Wong Kei. As regular readers of this column will be aware, the realest restaurant meal I eat – in terms of both its Heideggerian thrownness and my own helpless habituation – is a plate of barbequed pork and crispy pork rice, with a dish of Chinese vegetables in oyster sauce, washed down with a pot of green tea. I’ve been eating this meal week in, week out for over 30 years in a series of restaurants around Soho in London.

I began in Man Lee Hong on Lisle Street in the late 1970s. When that establishment closed in the early 1980s, I shifted to Wong Kei – then in the mid-1980s I upped sticks to China China on the corner of Gerard Street, where I remained for almost two decades until it changed ownership and became one of those hateful all-you-can-eat buffets. Forced out in the early Noughties, I scurried down Newport Place to the Canton, where I was perfectly happy until a couple of years ago the gaff was sold from under me and the quality of its hog dropped precipitately. Homeless for a while, I wandered the streets disconsolately, toying with esoteric Chinese medical practices – cupping, candles stuck in my ears, twisted roots to resurrect my own . . . twisted root – until a few months ago, on impulse, I returned to Wong Kei.

I’d been gone so long the entire establishment – all four storeys – had upped sticks and moved. True, it has only shifted a few yards into Wardour Street but in many ways the new Wong Kei is worlds apart from the old. I remember my late lamented mate Smiler telling me about a grim episode in the old Wong Kei. He’d gone in to eat a nourishing congee in the throes of a serious heroin withdrawal, and on impulse thought he’d ask the waiter if he knew of a good acupuncturist who could alleviate his suffering. Some things in Wong Kei – such as the vertiginous language barrier – don’t change, so Smiler mimed the insertion of needles; perhaps a little too vigorously, because the waiter began nodding his head, then led Smiler through a back exit into an adjacent basement where a rather fearsome Tong-ish type offered him an ounce of smack at a knockdown price.

My own drug experience in the old Wong Kei was equally bizarre. I’d been with a friend at the Notting Hill Carnival, where, oppressed by the crowds, we had retreated to the top of one of the structures in the Meanwhile Gardens adventure playground. Up there it seemed like a good idea to drop some acid. My friend – who was and remains an impatient fellow – couldn’t wait for the major hallucinogen to come on, and so suggested that we hightail it into town and have a Chinese meal. Ensconced on the top floor of Wong Kei – with time decelerating to the ever-so-’umble leg rubbing of a fly that skulked beside a stray grain of rice wearing the face of Uriah Heep – my foolish pal ordered dish after dish. Then, as they began to arrive, each one more phantasmagorical than the last – glacéed giblets, chickens feet in birds’ nests, three flattened flying ducks – he got the fear and fled, leaving me to settle my own rebelliously fluttery stomach and the bill, before clawing my way out into a London full of ghosts of the civil dead.

But as I say: that was then – and this is now. Wong Kei’s new premises have none of the outright seediness of the old. This is a handsome building in the art nouveau style – Sara Bernhardt laid the foundation stone, Henry Irving the coping stone, and according to an English Heritage blue plaque on the facade, it was for many years the premises of one Willy Clarkson, wigmaker and theatrical costumier. I once unveiled a blue plaque for H H Munro (Saki), the prose laureate of the unheimlich. It was in Mortimer Street and the chairman of the relevant committee, Loyd Grossman, came along to conduct me on to the scaffolding outside the inventor of Sredni Vashtar’s former rooms. I had no idea what to expect from the own-label presenter of Masterchef, but Grossman was charming – never more so than when the two of us had to clamber across a desk at which its occupant continued to work (the flat is now an accountants’ office). How apt, we both remarked.

Perhaps if everyone in government had eaten at Wong Kei, there’d have been no need for them to suspend the putting up of these helpful identity pucks – my bill came to £10 including a tip. Then I did something bizarre, and asked the guy at the till what Wong Kei meant – a piece of information I’d failed to solicit since Thatcher’s first term. “Famous,” he said. And there we have it.

Crispy duck in the window of a China town restaurant. 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.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era