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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.