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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 art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.


TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.


The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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