Will Self visits the Slug & Lettuce

A mollusc, a salad leaf and an unstoppable trail of mish-mash, bish-bosh nosh.

Heading very slowly across town to the Slug & Lettuce in the Borough, I kept looking behind me to check that I was leaving a man-sized slime trail on the pavement. I was feeling pretty low on this, my 23rd Father’s Day. Not, you appreciate, that a fearless gastropod like me has any need for such marketing-led pseudo-festivals – although it did occur to me that not one of my little slime had bothered to mark the event with so much as a tweak of my antennae.

Ah well, I could rely on the Slug & Lettuce to make good the emotional deficit financially; because – so long as the staff didn’t scatter salt on me the second I oozed through the door – I had some astonishing Father’s Day offers to look forward to. The one pellet (an ironic pet name we molluscs bestow on our offspring) I’d hung on to would eat for only a pound, while I’d receive absolutely free a patriarchal pint of beer. True, I don’t actually drink alcohol any more but I was looking forward to pouring my free pint down the Slug & Lettuce urinals as a sort of libation for all those fathers whose alcoholism had deprived them of access to their own children on Father’s Day. I’m not joking.

Anyway, the smear cheered me up: the sun came out and the pellet kept scooting ahead at speeds in excess of 0.0001 miles an hour. Ah, the energy of the young! But as we reached the establishment – housed, like many others of this 80-strong chain, in a former bank – the trouble started: despite the Slug & Lettuce being, on the face of it, a pub, the dog wasn’t allowed inside. (Don’t ask me to explain why a slug has a pet dog, just run with me on this thing.) We were exiled to a grim seating area at the prow end of the old, boat-shaped building, where we could look upon a First World War memorial that featured a Tommy petrified in mid-sprint. Was he advancing or retreating – who could say?

I didn’t mind not getting to sit in the restaurant – the decor was a puke-inducing: gallimaufry of padded vinyl, beige tile, “decorative” mirroring and dark wood. Random sections of wall had been abused with sub-Bridget Riley wavy wallpaper, while a weird mushrooming column dominated the main area, with – get this! – a series of fake chandeliers dangling from its white plaster cap.

Besides, sitting on the patio I was able to Google the Slug & Lettuce and not only read up on it but also discover that I’d namechecked the chain when I reviewed All Bar One in this weird, mushrooming column a couple of years ago. I wasn’t complimentary, but described S&L, erroneously, as if it were the gateway drug for all such other narcotised faux-pubs. It wasn’t . . . but then, quite frankly, who cares?

Who cares what was on the menu, either? I mean, if you’ve reached this stage in life: a New Statesman reader still against all the odds cleaving to a progressive socialist ideal in the centennial year of this publication, do you really want to know about this mishmash, bish-bosh nosh? Suffice to say the menu was full of those process descriptions that first came into vogue in the late 1980s – some dishes were “lightly coated”, others “lightly dusted”; others still were “served on a bed” (something I assumed only happens to the Duchess of Cambridge with a turkey baster), and also “finished with coconut cream”. The pellet had a burger, I had a Caesar salad with “shredded” chicken. Ach! all this shredding – the Yiddish word for nonkosher food is “trayf”, which means torn or shredded; I wondered if the S&L powers-that-be were trying to tell me something.

The waiter – who was eastern European, of course – had three things to tell me: when I went in to ask for the bill he informed me that because there wasn’t “table service” outside I should’ve given her my credit card to begin with so he could open a tab. The idea of it! A tab at the Slug & Lettuce! The second thing he told me was that the pellet wouldn’t eat for a quid because he hadn’t ordered off the kids menu, and the third was that I wouldn’t be receiving my free Father’s Day pint because I hadn’t had a burger.

“So, that’s Father’s Day at the Slug & Lettuce!” I said to the waiter and he grimaced sympathetically. “Still,” I continued, “I expect they’re fucking you over too.” He grimaced differently, but conceded: “Since the recession, things have got . . . worse.” I said, “I’m sorry about that . . . I can afford to be philosophic, after all since I’m a slug – and hence a hermaphrodite – I’m always fucking myself over anyway.”

A slug. Photograph: WikiCommons

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 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See www.bl.uk

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror