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Will Self: Slurping bubble tea is like performing a sex act on an android

Will Self’s Real Meals. 

You’ll find it a little weird to begin with,” said the man in the bubble tea kiosk, “but you’ll soon get used to it.” This turned out to be a grotesque understatement, coupled with a patent untruth, the instant my first slurp of bubble tea shot up the special wide-bore straw and filled my mouth with globules. The kiosk man had already told me these were made out of tapioca flour, which was just as well, because without this pappy foreknowledge I would have spat them straight out. Drinking bubble tea didn’t feel “a little weird”. It felt as I’d imagine performing cunnilingus on an android equipped with latex genitals might feel like: the tiny clitorises slipped between my lips and oozed between the gaps in my teeth while my tongue swam in sweetly mucosal gloop.

I’ve been seeing these bubble tea joints opening up around London over the past couple of years – then I spotted one in Manchester. I daresay Little Muckling-in-the-Marsh will have an outlet before long and Nigel Farage will stop by when he’s campaigning in next year’s election and make a rousing speech saying that bubble tea entrepreneurs have nothing to fear from a Ukip government. If only they did.

Actually, bubble tea and Farage have several things in common. They’re both strange mutations of quintessentially English institutions; respectively, a nice cup of tea and a saloon bar bore. Yes, yes, I know that bubble tea originates in Taiwan, that “bubble” is derived from boba, which means “large” in Chinese, but the fact of the matter is that my gloop of non-dairy creamer, Assam tea and sugar did taste like a particularly sickly cup of tea, although admittedly one full of latex clitorises. As for Farage, do you really need me to elaborate?

The bubble tea kiosk also offered a range of other beverages made with things such as coconut water and açaí berries; indeed, the whole phenomenon seems part and parcel of a general thirst for macerated and churned-up beverages – slushies, slurpies and slurries (all right, I made the last one up) – that has afflicted our nation. The bubble tea shops are usually brightly coloured, their windows tangled with coils of plastic tubing through which garish fluids pulse; the overall impression is of an alternative future imagined circa 1985, which makes sense because bubble tea did indeed originate during that decade of inspired innovation, Duran Duran and pie-crust collar blouses. Really, then, bubble tea isn’t a steaming drink but a steam punk one.

I walked towards the station taking gentle pulls on the wide-bore straw but it didn’t matter how gentle they were: up came the beastly boba tapioca balls. I didn’t know what to do with the things – suck, chew or swallow them straight down – and it was this indecisiveness that upset me most of all. The last thing you want from a cup of tea is to pause for thought. Or, rather, let me qualify that: the last thing you want from a cup of tea is to have cause to think about it. A cup of tea should be replete with itself alone, it should be a single and undifferentiated quale of “cup-of-tea-ness” entirely divorced from any of its component parts. When I have a cup of tea, I don’t want to think about tea bags, or milk, or sugar. I just want to sip the thing judiciously and ponder why it is that perfectly decent English people can imagine for one second that it would be a good idea to elect a man who looks like a large, shiny ball of tapioca flour (or possibly a large, shiny clitoris) to parliament.

This brings me, logically enough, to the vexed issue of the tea bag being left in. You know what I’m talking about: back in the day, if you bought a cup of tea to take away, the bag was put in first, the boiling water was poured on to it, the bag was removed after a while and milk and sugar was then added to taste (“’Ow many sugars, love?”). Some time in that innovative decade, or possibly during the still more creative one that followed, this sacred order of things was irrevocably altered. Writing The Zürau Aphorisms, Kafka foreshadowed this development, as he did other great disasters for humankind: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers . . . Finally it can be calculated in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.”

The new tea-making ceremony involves the bag going in first, followed by the milk; next the hot water is added; then the server offers you the choice that’s no real choice at all: “Shall I leave the bag in, love?” At this point, his world torn to shreds before his very eyes, the tea drinker splutters: “B-but you put the m-milk in first. Don’t you appreciate that tea is an infusion and it’s necessary for the water to be just off the boil when it meets the leaves? If you put the milk in first, it lowers the temperature so the tea can never brew properly. It doesn’t matter if you leave the bag in after that. It won’t make any appreciable difference!” Whereupon the server, being of the Cockney persuasion, says, “You ’aving a bubble, mate?” 

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 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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