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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism