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Will Self on the trouble with restaurant critics

Even restaurant critics learn eventually that eating is a bodily function like any other.

I haven’t eaten a real meal in the past ten days – if by “real” is implied a repast the consumption of which lies on the scale between “automatic” and “hearty”. Instead, each masticatory act has been chewed over in turn. Why? Because since that Saturday evening when I returned from Scotland on a Virgin train, I’ve had a grinding, stabbing, rumbling, bloating stomach ache. I’m not about to libel Richard Branson by suggesting that his on-board snacks are to blame – even though I doubt more overpriced or nauseating fare is served in the ninth circle of Hell – and as yet, I have no idea what’s wrong with me. I did go to the doctor last Friday but I was feeling a little better and he was demob happy – off to a holiday in Croatia – so after a cursory laying of hands on tender abdomen, he said that it wasn’t likely to be an ulcer since the pain associated with this malady was usually higher up.

Hunger games

Needless to say, within 24 hours, the pain had returned and, as if to avenge the NHS, it had relocated to my breastbone. It hasn’t let up since, so as things stand I’m not in a position to write about eating with any dispassion at all. But is this so unreal? I’ve had cause to note in this column before the situational woes of the restaurant critic – last year, I had something called a “dry socket” after a tooth extraction that put me right off my fodder for a month. I think it’s a truth that should be shoved down people’s throats more often that hunger is the best seasoning – most reviewers, by definition, are spoilt for choice and expense-account-funded; their general unwillingness to be pleased by anything that isn’t either novel or top notch is reflected in the pickiness of their plump readers. But deprive the lot of ’em of eats for 24 hours and they’d fall on half a KFC corncob from a bin in Salford Quays and devour it with . . . gusto.

By the same token, you never read a column by Fay Maschler, Adrian Gill or John Lanchester in which they contextualise the restaurant experience within their own internal biotic environment. “I would’ve enjoyed Les Trois Garçons in Kettering,” such a piece might begin, “were it not for the fact that I was farting like a dray horse; great, sulphurous bottom burps that radiated out from my table causing dismay and ultimately rebellion among my fellow diners.” Or: “The decor at the Obese Hamster in Witney is a teasing amalgam of the kitsch and the Bauhaus; in the ladies, they had a Cath Kidston basket for the toilet paper and – in my stall – a copy of Le Corbusier’s La Ville radieuse. I know this, because I spent a lot of time in there reading about how the city of the future was viewed in the past, due to a bout of diarrhoea.”

Or even: “I’d like to commend the waiter at Merchant’s in Norwich, who, with a certain spirited legerdemain, reacted swiftly to my vomiting into my empty dish before he could serve up the moules marinière by saying, ‘If sir doesn’t feel like the black truffle risotto after all, I’ll return it to kitchen,’ and whisking away the offending portion of last night’s rather rich dinner . . .”

No, these are not things that you ever read – any more than you see Gordon Ramsay on television, effing and blinding while he scrabbles to open a packet of Rennie – but why not? Wouldn’t this be a better world, with a healthier attitude towards food, if we all acknowledged that the act of eating is a bodily function just like any other? Instead, such is the lack of a bodily context for our daily bread that a dispassionate observer – a Martian, say – could be forgiven if it were to see us as ethereal spirits, floating on white clouds, strumming harps and somehow still managing to sup the ambrosia with our long-handled silver spoons.

Light in the head

Back in the days when I compulsively consumed science-fiction stories – and Smash instant mashed potato was advertised on the TV by crap, animated robot puppets – I remember reading one in which, in the future, if you had anything terminally wrong with your body, your head was simply detached and housed in a life-support system. If I remember rightly, the tale began in this sclerotic vein, with one of these heads saying: “This morning I had eight dozen oysters and six bottles of Chablis for breakfast – and then they emptied the bucket.” Disgusting, possibly – but from the angle I’m currently in (doubled over the keyboard with stomach cramps), emptying the bucket seems like a bloody good idea.

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 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr