Arch enemy: the railway arches of Vauxhall Cross. Photo: Banalities/Flickr
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Will Self: Eating “dirty food” in Vauxhall is just a little bit too authentic

I can understand the logic of opening a branch of Dirty Burger in Shoreditch – but Vauxhall? Although the spirit of gentrification is taking up residence here, the fact remains the place is still what is scientifically termed a shithole. 

It’s pretty weird round my way at the moment: a sirocco of flight capital is blowing through, conjuring vast “luxury apartment” developments into being the way djinns are embodied by Arabian dust storms. The youngest and I went out for a little wander the other day and we were both intimidated by the tower cranes building themselves overhead. Each new parametrically designed and glassy moneymaker comes complete with an inbuilt restaurant – Riverlight, where a studio flat will cost you a modest £800,000, features a Korean joint, while St George Wharf, hard by Vauxhall Bridge, boasts the delightfully named Steax and the City. We eschewed this, rather than chewing on a steax (whatever that may be), but the problem of where to have lunch remained until the boy recalled that there was a branch of Dirty Burger on the far side of the railway viaduct.

I hadn’t heard of Dirty Burger before – hardly surprising, as there are only five of them: four in London and one outlier in Chicago (or perhaps it’s the other way round). When I got home I was informed by my spouse – who is rather more sophis­ticated than I am – that its name derives from so-called “dirty food”; a newish culinary concept that valorises grease, sugar, carbohydrates and all things bad for you. I suppose there was an inevitability about this particular détournement; such is the fecundity of late capitalism, which is ever seeking out shiny new things to turn into dirty old money.

I can understand the logic of opening a branch of Dirty Burger in Shoreditch, Whitechapel, even Kentish Town – but Vauxhall? Although the world spirit of gentrification is busily taking up residence here the fact remains that, as of now, the place is still what is scientifically termed a shithole. Vauxhall Cross isn’t just dirty – it’s positively filthy; the railway viaduct is encrusted in centuries of soot and grime, the bus interchange looms greyish in a permanently hovering cloud of exhaust fumes; on the ledges of the grotty old buildings alongside it, the anti-pigeon barbs are so encrusted with pigeon shit that they resemble stalactites and stalagmites. At any hour of the day or night you can happen upon street drinkers tumbling out of or into the homeless hostel, their beards and hair matted with vomit and White Lightning, while towards dawn sadomasochistic revellers reeking of amyl nitrate debouch from the Hoist, a nightclub of legendary unsavouriness.

Dirty Burger’s interior decoration shtick looked positively bizarre in such a context: sited underneath the arches adjacent to the Hoist, its grubby little nook is panelled with corrugated iron sheets, while the floor, the tables and counters appear to have been built with old railway sleepers. On Rodeo Drive or the rue Saint-Honoré, such postmodern referencing of the lives of the immiserated and securely absent might be amusing, but when you’re sitting in a little “terrace area”, contrived out of the spit-stained paving and assailed by the diesel flatulence of passing lorries, that joke – to quote the balladeer who brought us Vauxhall and I – isn’t funny any more. The men doing the flipping at Dirty Burger seemed lacking in the appropriate ironic detachment – they were just trying to make a living in the soiled old city like millions of others.

The boy had the Dirty Bacon Cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake; I had a tea, and watched him inhale about a week’s worth of calories in a handful of seconds. I asked him how his burger had been and he said the curious thing was, it wasn’t only the meat and cheese that were greasy, so was the bun. I meditated on this as grit pinged from the roadway into my smarting eyes.

I imagined a planning meeting at Dirty Burger’s HQ: clean-cut young women and men sat round an immaculate conference table, eyeing me suspiciously as I strode back and forth in my crinkle-cut suit. I jabbed a button on a laptop and the PowerPoint displayed an image of an indistinct, massy object. “Now pay attention,” I said. “This is a pseudobezoar, a solid bolus of food that’s been engendered in the gastrointestinal tract of an ordinary London office worker by feeding her a detritus of old coffee stirrers, lint and deep-fat-fryer waste.” I jabbed the button again and the image was replaced by a second one; now the massy object was in a greasy bun. “I give you the pseudobezoar­burger,” I announced, “the first commercially produced comestible to incorporate regurgitation into the cooking process.” A lean young man sat forward: “When you say ‘give you’ do you mean that literally?”

I laughed shortly, “Of course not – the pseudobezoarburger will retail at £7 . . .” The vision faded, and I was back at Vauxhall Cross looking at a bill for £15.75; it was a lot of filthy lucre for a dirty burger, especially given that – according to the garish decal pasted on the grubby phone box nearby – I could get a perfectly clean one at Burger King for £3.79, and for £1.99 I could re-up to a full meal deal. But then I suppose that’s the sort of cheapskate bum I am: always on the lookout for a cheap, safe bun. 

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 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

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