Will Self: I went out for posh nosh in Berlin, but found myself sniggering at the menu

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

I ran into the crime writer Philip Kerr at Gatwick – he and his family were happily on their way to Corfu, while I was gloomily en route to Berlin to do some work with my German translator. Kerr was ebullient and ridiculously fitlooking – full head of dark and luxuriant hair, tanned and solid. I was wraithlike and skulking about in the duty-free shop, wondering if I could slit my wrists with a Swarovski crystal gewgaw. When I told him my destination, a faint shadow seemed to cross his handsome features and I thought: fair enough. After all, Kerr has been writing his Bernie Gunther thrillers, which are set in Berlin, for decades – and he probably thinks of the city as belonging to him in a perverse way. That’s what writers are like.

“You should go to swim out at Wannsee,” he said. “There’s a beach on the lake and you can sit in a deckchair and watch the Germans in all their Naturheilkunde glory eating footlong wurst.” I said, “Hmm, I’m not sure I want to go to Wannsee – it always makes me think about the Nazis doing their worst.” Kerr was undeterred: “Fair enough – but if you’re in town, make sure you eat at Borchardt. It’s the place for an echt Berlin meal.” Regular readers of this column know that a truly echt Berlin meal is a currywurst gulped down in an Alexanderplatz chain outlet but I didn’t want to be pissy, so I told Philip I’d give the idea some serious thought.

That evening, after a long day combing through text with Teutonic efficiency, I thought to myself, sod it, enough with the low-rent nosh, I’m going to splash out for once – if Borchardt is as echt as Philip says, then it’ll count as a real meal on that basis alone. I found the place lurking on the ground floor of a big, gloomy, mid-19th-century building a block behind the Unter den Linden. Inside, the dining room was big, square and uncompromisingly plain –white napery, leather banquettes, white ceilings held up by huge, marble Corinthian columns. A maître d’ with film-star looks passed me over to a waiter wrapped so tightly in his spotless apron that I thought: were I to have surgery, I’d like this man to perform it.

The medic seated me at a table in the equally four-square courtyard that the dining room opened on to and gave me the menu. I used to have a girlfriend who collected the mistakes in the English translations on foreign menus when she was on holiday. For her, “plume piddling” offered in Kathmandu or “streak and chops” proposed in Positano was the very soul of wit. At the time, I thought it all pretty feeble but then that was when I still thought there was a soul of wit – not just a labouring and sclerotic heart. Seeing that “shit take mushrooms” were offered on the Borchardt menu caused me great pleasure. The supposed German preoccupation with excreta here elided seamlessly with my own avocation, for was I not there to take the piss?

Then, when I saw that “young veal” was also proposed, my cup of sparkling mineral water ranneth over. I mean to say, just how young can veal be, given that it’s pretty juvenescent to begin with? After all, most veal is killed at some time between 20 weeks and a year, although there is the delicious titbit known as “bob veal”, which comes from calves slaughtered when they’re at most a month old – and often only a few days old. Here at Borchardt, there was “young veal”, which was presumably very young indeed or they wouldn’t have made a big deal about it. Perhaps that’s why the waiters were so surgically precise: before the long evening at the dining tables began, they were assisting at operating ones, where cow foetuses were delivered prematurely, then butchered for their ineffably tender meat.

Such Burroughsian musings (The Naked Lunch exhibits an unhealthy preoccupation with “slunks”, or aborted cow foetuses) stopped me from staring too much at my fellow diners – always a problem for the solitary. True, there were two young men at an adjacent table who were drinking cocktails of such pinkish luminescence that I couldn’t forbear from asking the waiter what they were. “Aperol and prosecco,” he told me, setting down the half-dozen fines de claire I’d ordered in front of me.

As I went on staring at the Italian cocktail and slurped down the first of my French oysters, it occurred to me that while Philip may well have been right about Borchardt, I’d managed to lose an authentic German experience completely . . . in translation.

Food in Germany always brings out the wurst in people. 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 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage