A man (not Will Self) surveys an array of spoons. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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The changing fortunes of my family can be measured in our use of the humble spoon

When it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do.

For the past fortnight or so, I have been much exercised by the handsome “personalised spoon offer” that Kellogg’s has had blazoned on its Rice Krispies boxes. My youngest and I decided we very much wanted a spoon with our own slogan engraved on it and he began working on the words while I set about eating enough of the desiccated little blebs to justify buying the two further boxes we needed to obtain the “secret code numbers” required to unlock the spoon trove. On the back of these boxes are winsome pictures of happy new spoon-owners – but we were dismayed at their lack of ­imagination. All their spoons were simply personalised with their names (Carol, Keisha, Tarquin, et al) and the Kellogg’s cartoon brand mascots, whereas we were thinking of something surreal and subversive, such as: “Which orifice? Your choice.”

Actually, when I saw quite how innocent the other spoon-personalisers had been – how untainted by corrosive irony – I wondered at the depths of my psyche. What is it about cutlery that spoons up from my unconscious such anatomically perverse thoughts? I meditated on my childhood. Our American mother often used to remind us of her childhood in the Great Depression and used this early experience of privation to justify her habit of nicking cutlery from hotels, restaurants and even transatlantic liners: for years, we stirred our hot chocolate with some particularly chunky Queen Mary-monogrammed teaspoons.

My father brought different cutlery to the table (what a pleasure it is for once to use this expression both metaphorically and literally). An epigone, he entered the marriage with several canteens of old family silver. As a child, I was fascinated by these polished, hardwood boxes, with their green-velvet-lined interiors in which lay odd-shaped fish knives, pinioned in rows, and spoons personalised with family crests. But he – and therefore we – were on the social down escalator, so there were few occasions that merited the deployment of the entire shiny complement: knives, forks and spoons arranged in descending order of size so as to parenthesise the placemats. In truth, such was the queered problematic of my mother’s snobbery that she regarded certain forms of tableware as hopelessly non-U, reserving the full weight of her contempt for those petit-bourgeois families that cinched their serviettes (“napkins” is the acceptable term) with personalised rings.

Hmm, personalised rings . . . I feel rather like the young Freud – the Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life who discovered such rich seams of suppressed psychic content hidden beneath quotidian tongue-slips and semantic glitches. It would be a simple enough spoonoanalysis were I to have grown up intent on repairing the fortunes of the House of Self so that once more, as in days of yore, a quince spoon was required at every meal – but I didn’t. True, I am a reader of Private Eye’s Me and My Spoon column and I also have a fascination with sporks, the liminal status of which is a constant reproof to our collective obsession with cookie-cutter categorisation, but as regular readers of this column will be only too aware, the last thing I want is an amuse-bouche served in a china spoon.

What I do like is the thought that the ancestral cutlery will continue to tinkle and clank down through generations of Selfs and that, at some point in the distant future, one of my descendants will peer wonderingly at the faint letters incised in the handle of a spoon they’ve known since birth but never properly examined; and with the assistance, perhaps, of some late-21st-century optical technology of which we can have no ken, painstakingly decipher: “Which orifice? Your choice.” I would further like it if my hypothetical descendant was then visited with a similar epiphany to Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land”, so apprehending the folly of not just personalised spoons but all human endeavour.

It is a factoid oft retold that the flimsy fork is a comparatively late addition to the solid British table. Right up until the early-modern era, even the highest in the land were perfectly happy to eat with knife, spoon and fingers-in-lieu-of-tines. Were William Burroughs to have written Naked Lunch during this period, he would presumably have chosen a different title for it, given that this one was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s insight that a naked lunch is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. Forks are evil instruments, stabbing weapons comprised of four or five épées welded together. Knives are often the subject of amnesties but a spoon amnesty would be whimsical. As for fingers, there’s no telling what they might get up to.

No, when it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do. Only the spoon is rounded and smooth and often brimming with milk like a lactating breast. Only a spoon will nurture you and care for you and love you unconditionally. So there’s nothing in the least surreal or subversive about our personalising slogan, because that’s the thing about a spoon: it doesn’t judge you, it accepts you for who you are unreservedly and equally it accepts whatever it is you want to do with it. Which is just as well, because I for one take a dim view of extra-cutlery relationships. Running off with a dish . . . ? Hey diddle-diddle, Spoony, what are you like . . .?

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 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser