Show Hide image

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

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
Show Hide image

How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture