Illustration by Jackson Rees
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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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood