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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear