Decor at US drive-in Sonic is reminiscent of the retro-futurist style of The Jetsons. Photo: Getty
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Come to “America’s Drive-In”, y’all – for tater tots and Jetsons decor

At Sonic, the shtick is meant to be that the food arrives “at the speed of sound”; and the novelty in the late 1950s was that punters ordered their burgers and via speakers they could drive right up to.

De gustibus non est disputandum, so I don’t want any wise-ass backchat from you lot when I tell you that the meal I had at the Sonic drive-in on the Murfreesboro Pike on the outskirts of Nashville was probably the best one I’ve ever eaten. I don’t, by this, mean that the food was the best I have ever eaten – far from it – nor that the ambience was particularly good (I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy SUV), but the sky overhead was beautiful, the company highly amusing and most importantly: I was on holiday . . . sort of.

We’d driven in to Nashville from Atlanta the previous evening, checked in to our motel – the Fiddler’s Inn – and, taking the receptionist’s recommendation, adjourned to the Caney Fork River Valley Grille, which was right across the parking lot. In fact, every building on Music Valley Drive seemed to be across the car park, because in this place of dead roads the asphalt stretched clear to the horizon. The Grille was a faux-clapboard hutch from the outside but the inside walls were clad in corrugated iron. Weird. Weirder still were the stuffed animal heads mounted on those walls and weirdest of all was the life-size manikin that bore a disturbing resemblance to Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2. We ate deep-fried catfish and deep-fried alligator washed down with deep-fried Coca-Cola but, interesting as the meal was, unfortunately the Grille was a one-off so it didn’t qualify for this column.

Sonic, on the other hand, as of 2011 had 3,561 outlets trading in 43 states and glories in the sobriquet “America’s Drive-In”. In common with all the other US mega-chains that lash our guts to our garters, Sonic began life as a lemonade stall, or possibly a hot dog stand – at any rate, somewhere down-home in Hicksville – but has biggered and biggered ever since. The shtick is meant to be that the food arrives “at the speed of sound” (hence “Sonic”); and the novelty in the late 1950s was that punters ordered their burgers and tater tots via speakers they could drive right up to. Roller-skating carhops then scooted the trays over. Nowadays the World Spirit of junk food has skated somewhere else and with their stylised signs, extended porte cochères and “carnival food” menus, Sonic drive-ins have an air at once cartoonish and dated that made me think of the 1960s “space age” TV show The Jetsons.

Still, what did that matter? On a summer’s evening in Tennessee, with hardly anyone else about, my youngest son and I were free to indulge our fantasy of driving the Chevy forward to the past. True, it was difficult to make myself understood through the intercom and my credit card didn’t work in the stanchion-mounted reader, so eventually the poor girl had to come out and take our order in person; but although she wasn’t roller-skating she made up for it by being friendly and saying “y’all” a lot. Saying “y’all” is pretty integral to Southern identity – even the signs on the freeway read, “Buckle up y’all.” We basked in these inclusive y’alls, while also noting that the clientele at this super-cheap, corn-syrup-pumping drive-in was largely African American.

And if you think I’m taking a cheap shot at Sonic, just consider the phenomenon of slushes with Nerds®. Yes, you heard me: virulently coloured slushy sweet drinks topped off with liberal scatterings of candy. Sonic is the home of the Blue Raspberry Slush with Nerds® and isn’t afraid to shout about it. Nor does it mind broadcasting that it sells the Reese’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups® Sonic Blast. If there’s one thing I can assert with certainty, it’s that after consuming a Reese’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups® Sonic Blast, you’d better buckle up, y’all, because that’s one heck of a lot of go-go juice, even for a Jetson.

We didn’t go anywhere near these things – at least on foot. We sat in our Chevy and I sipped my coffee-style drink and judiciously chewed my cheeseburger. The youngest chomped his hot dog; other customers came and went but they didn’t linger under the porte cochère listening to the dedications being broadcast on Sonic Live Radio. I asked the boy how his dog was and he said: “It’s like, meh, but good,” which struck me as the sort of thing a pubescent God might say when contemplating the world he’s just created. I eased down in my seat, feeling slightly nauseous when I contemplated the “Summer of Shakes” that the wall menu informed me was imminent. The jalapeño chocolate shake struck me as an especially cruel and unusual punishment.

The drive-in has great symbolic weight in the American psyche. It’s of a piece with the automobile, forming a material assemblage that implies perpetual, purposive, expansive movement – even munching tater tots at a Sonic can be an expression of manifest destiny. But as I sat there on the Murfreesboro Pike, shifting uneasily and flatulently in my car seat, it occurred to me that my real affinity wasn’t with the restless psychic pioneers who stream along America’s freeways but with Stinky Pete: like him, I was smelly, stuck in a box and ready to become a museum piece, but then de gustibus non est disputandum and all that jazz. 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon