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

MICHEL DETAY
Show Hide image

Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad