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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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