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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit