Pizza the action: Ellen ordered takeout for the Oscars but no one wants to hear someone munching through 12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Getty)
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Punters will always want to eat when at the cinema. It’s time for the film-tailored menu

Cinemas warn you to put your mobile phones on silent but say nothing about the clash of jaws or the gargling of gullets.

Harvey Woolfe, a regular consumer of Real Meals, writes to suggest that I tackle the vexed question of cinema food. He observes that whereas there are tintinnabulating warnings in advance of every screening that patrons should put their mobile phones on silent, there is nothing done about the clash of their jaws, the gargling of their gullets, or – my favourite, this – that peculiarly gravelly noise the last few CLs of a fizzy beverage makes as it is sucked up a straw from a waxed paper cup. Indeed, the policy of film-house management is positively to encourage comestibles (the noisier the better) by flogging them in the foyer. Harvey speculates that it’s all about profit, Statesmanlike socialist that he presumably is, but the horror show that is screen snacking is actually rather zeitgeisty. I heard a DJ on the radio the other day saying that he’s set up a pressure group to campaign for better viewing behaviour, following an incident in which his subtitled enjoyment was compromised by other patrons both munching and chewing the fat on their dog-and-bones.

Well, good luck to them all but I’m afraid I can’t lend my shoulder to this particular wheel of processed cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as incensed by inconsiderate eating as the next intolerant middle-aged cinemagoer; in fact, probably a great deal more so. I’ve been known to offer to meet these swine in the lobby and serve them a knuckle sandwich if they don’t desist, but on balance I accept it as part of the rough and tumble of popular entertainment. The thing is that films and food are a gestalt that’s been fully formed since the Keystone Kops were slinging custard pies; to go to the cinema and not shell out £3.50 for a bag of chocolate-coated peanuts that you could – with even infinitesimal foresight – have got around the corner at a fraction of the price would be a paradoxically impoverishing experience.

The same goes for those evilly glowing hot dogs that birl on their metal rollers; and for great, glistening heaps of buttery popcorn; and not to top off such a rotten repast with a demijohn of carbonated corn syrup would be a solecism on a par with loudly demanding ketchup at a state banquet. Besides, the artier cinemas usually offer quieter food – flapjacks, ham croissants, chai lattes – and the artier films attract thinner spectators. You’re unlikely to find yourself at a late-night screening of, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal with someone behind you lustily squelching wine gums. True, there is the occasional nightmarish crossover situation when what should be a famished cinematic road gets hopelessly jammed. My own enjoyment (if that is the appropriate term) of 12 Years a Slave was rather undercut by being surrounded by wage slaves who happily troughed their way through every excoriation.

Still, it made me see the film in a different light – by the end I was interrogating Chiwetel Ejiofor with my eyes, and thinking: “Hmm, you’re looking a little porky for a man in bondage . . .”

Ignoble thoughts, certainly, but it makes me suspect that instead of a blanket ban on cinema eating, we require appropriate dishes. After all, what was it that the Italian futurist Marinetti demanded for his fascist banquet: raw meat torn by trumpet blasts. So, for 12 Years, punters should be offered hominy grits, rice and beans; for Shame, Steve McQueen’s superb anatomising of sex addiction, they should be given flavoured condoms to lick, Viagra to snack on and pubic hairs to thread between their teeth; and for his debut feature as a director, Hunger, there should indeed be not so much as a melt-melded bag of Revels on sale.

All of which reminds me of a photograph I was emailed a few years ago which showed the seat occupied by a Very Big Movie Producer during a screening of an epic tale of starving polar explorers. This producer is both fiscally big and morbidly obese, and he had munched his way through the film in the most egregious fashion. There, forming a sort of blast pattern on the carpet, was the evidence of his insane appetite: half-chewed candy bars and hot dogs had been cast aside, litres of soda spurted skyward, and the finger-fumbled popcorn lay as thick and white as pack ice.

This is the dietary nightmare that underpins the whipped cream of the dream factory, and it is – as the mogul would no doubt concur – non-negotiable: snacking belongs to passive forms of entertainment as Pearl does to Dean.

I went to the theatre this week to see Francesca Annis in Peter Gill’s new play, Versailles. It’s an oxymoronically modern period piece, set in a late-Edwardian country house during the Paris peace conference of 1919, that gratifies playgoers with the unearned but amusing right of hindsight. At one point a character says of the lower middle class: “They have a capacity for single-mindedness that could lead them anywhere,” at which everyone laughed knowingly. In the interval I chatted amiably with Melvyn Bragg, another reader of this column. We both had ice creams – mine was Belgian chocolate, his stem ginger flavour. Both cost a reassuring £4.50.

I say to Harvey Woolfe, what’s good enough for His Lordship is good enough for everyone; surely that’s what men died for at Ypres and Passchendaele?

Next week: On Location

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge