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Will Self: Authentic, schmauthentic at Mishkin’s

The odour when I walked in the door was insufficiently schmaltzy and old-mannish – and the decor was way too studied in its dishabille.

Happy birthday to the hegemon! I’m sitting with Tony Lacey, my long-time publisher at Penguin – who was responsible for ushering a collection of these columns into electronic print – in Mishkin’s on the east side of . . . Covent Garden. It’s the Fourth of July and it was Tony’s idea that we celebrate my American heritage. Mishkin’s advertises itself as “a kind of Jewish deli with cocktails”, so presumably it isn’t named after the Christlike protagonist of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The plate-glass window at the front is stencilled with “gin” and “meatloaf”, which is about as implausible a culinary coupling as it’s possible to imagine.

The rest of the room is bare brickwork with old boards nailed up against it; some large booth seats surrounded by vinyl-covered banquettes and some smaller wooden ones. A zinc-topped bar is overseen by anglepoise lamps. Tony is drinking what looks like real lemonade out of a jam jar. “Whassat?” I ask him and he laughs, “It’s called a Will Skidelsky but why they’d want to name a lemonade drink after the literary editor of the Observer is beyond me . . .” Darrell the waiter supplies the answer, but first, scanning the menu – salt beef, schmaltz herring, chicken liver, all that sorta mishegas – I ask him: “This is like a Jewish American deli experience, yeah?” He concedes that it is; “So,” I press on, “you’re telling me that my food is going to be touched and handled by actual Jews?”

City of gins

To give Darrell credit, he doesn’t bat an eyelid, despite being only around five: “Um, no,” he says, “in fact I don’t think there’s a single Jewish person in the kitchen.” As for the lemonade drink, it turns out – natch – that bookman Skidelsky is a mucker of Mishkin’s owner, one Russell Norman, who also helms a number of other trendy eateries in central London, all of which – in their several ways – are deliciously, pungently, piquantly fake. Obviously I knew Mishkin’s was a put-up job the second I saw “gin” – my mother always used to maintain that there was no such thing as a Jewish alcoholic but while that may be an overstatement, the only liquor I can remember in Jewish restaurants was grotesquely sweet Israeli wine.

There was this and there was the odour when I walked in the door – insufficiently schmaltzy and old-mannish – and the decor, which was way too studied in its dishabille. Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard in LA – which has to be, by reason of longevity alone, the quintessential example of the type Mishkin’s is aiming at – is a synthetic symphony of muted and smooth surfaces. Boho it is not. Then there’s the clientele, which should include a couple of tables surrounded by Walter Matthau/ George Burns, Sunshine Boys types, a-kvetching and a-picking of their teeth.

Bowelled out

While Darrell goes off to fetch me a Skidelsky, Tony and I recount our ailments. I have exciting news: the stomach ache I chronicled in Real Meals got worse until I ended up howling in bed with my colon in spasm. The croaker prescribed anti-spasmodic medication but after a long dark night of the soul on the web, I had to concede that I had a malaise with the disgusting appellation “irritable bowel syndrome”. I’d always assumed IBS was one of those catch-alls that malingerers battened on to as an excuse for their laziness and neurasthenia but now I had the damn thing myself, I was utterly convinced of its veracity.

So convinced, that that very morning I’d had an appointment with a dapper Scots dietician who instructed me in the virtuous properties of a low-Fodmap diet, which aims to reduce the intake of short-chain carbohydrates that irritate the bowel. It was love at first sight – as Joseph Heller would say – the first time I saw the low-Fodmap diet, I fell in love with it. It was so random: onions are out, vinegar is in; honey is bad, refined sugar is good – that I could see it would provide me with inexhaustible opportunities for being a fussy eater and so return me to the psychic arms of my long-dead but formerly doting Jewish mother.

So it turns out Mishkin’s is the perfect place for a Dependence Day lunch, and Darrell doesn’t mind as it takes me half an hour to order, flicking between the menu and my diet book. What a mensch (not, thankfully, of the Louise variety). As for the food, it’s fine but then that doesn’t matter much, it’s the authenticity of the experience that I crave.

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 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis