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

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.