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Broth with Bruno

My seminal noodle experience was just after a walk through London's sewers.

In keeping with the convergence of downtown Los Angeles – as depicted in Blade Runner (1982) – and Britain’s metropolitan regions, there is an increasing number of noodle bars throughout the realm. I speak here of London, because that’s where I live – but I’ve noodled about in cities as diverse as Sheffield, Bristol and Cardiff. The basic noodle bar format is refreshingly bare bones: strip lighting, melamine-topped tables, wipe-dirty floor and a clientele with its faces over bowls of broth.

I love a noodle bar and often dive over the Euston Road from King’s Cross as soon as I arrive back in town so as to suck up stringiness in the Chop Chop Noodle Bar. Mmm, I exhale, as a mixed seafood noodle soup is set before me, it’s great to be back in the City of Angels – albeit ones with dirty faces and wonky teeth. It could just be me but there’s something very primal about the broth served in these establishments – left long enough, it might generate a new life form. It also has a certain detergent note and a residual flavour verging on the excretory. As I say: this could just be me, because the most significant meal I’ve ever had in a noodle bar came after an adventurous man called Bruno took me down the London sewers.

Bowels of the city

Arguably a description of a walk through the sewers doesn’t belong in a restaurant column – it’s difficult to picture A A Gill or John Lanchester wading through streams of sewage, although fun to try. But I take the hard-line view that anyone who’s preoccupied by what goes in one end should be prepared to take a serious look at what comes out the other. I met Bruno at the junction of Brixton Water Lane and Dulwich Road and without any ado he produced a pair of wellingtons and some rubber gloves and took out a heavy steel key, with which he opened a manhole cover. Down we went, under the incurious eyes of a shopkeeper.
Steel ladders wreathed in an ancient coralline encrustation of toilet paper were pinioned to the glistening black walls and rushing along the bottom of the culvert was a thick cascade of speedy broth. Still, I could detect no actual turds bumping against my wellingtons, nor could I hear any rodentine cheeping, and as we sloshed our way Bruno pointed out that the concentration of excreta was probably fairly low: after all, the greatest part of what goes down our plugholes consists of water mixed with soap: the waste of all that furious laving, of dishes, of bodies, of clothes. However, the detergent edge to the mephitic atmosphere made it seem more rather than less disgusting and, as we waded on, I gagged and for the first time in my life pitied Harry Lime.

Tunnel vision

We walked for about two kilometres. Bruno, an anthropologist by training who plied a cycle rickshaw for cash-in-hand, was the perfect Virgil for this harrowing of the urban Hades – he seemed to find his way unerringly through the colonic irrigation and when we came upon a canyon into which our tunnel’s contents debouched with a roar, I was tempted to suggest that we simply went on over the shitty rapids, latter-day versions of the unnamed narrator in Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle”. Instead, Bruno led me back up and unscrewed a manhole cover and we emerged blinking into a perfectly workaday early evening in Clapham North, at the junction of Timber Mill Way and Gauden Road.
This being the city, no one paid us any attention as we slopped across the Clapham Road, past the crowds of happy noshers outside the Bierodrome. I wanted to point out to them the secret world that rushed beneath their feet – but instead I walked down to Brixton with Bruno and we went for some supper at Speedy Noodle.
Speedy Noodle, as its name would suggest, is not somewhere you linger: the staff is uninterested, the ambience strained, the lighting on the vomitous side of bright. I love it. Over our soup, I told Bruno about the New Statesman’s investigative reporter Duncan Campbell, who, in the early 1980s, by accident gained entrance to the network of government tunnels underneath London and spent a long night down there, cycling about on a folding bicycle he’d taken down with him. How times have changed. I observed to Bruno: in those days, there probably weren’t any noodle bars in London, while at bottom security was unbelievably lax. The only constant, it seems, is the sewers.

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 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide