Show Hide image

Will Self: Forget the Fat Duck, here’s the place for tourists’ hottest forking action

Will Self explores the places people actually eat.

When, back in the mid-1990s, I was asked to write restaurant reviews for the Observer, I told my then editor that I wanted to broaden out the chomping field and give due weight to the sort of places where people actually ate. This premature stab at the idea of Real Meals was greeted with some scepticism – Britain was about to be submerged beneath a cresting wave of extra-virgin olive oil and the consensus on the edible was that thi-ings can only get bett-er! But before the axe fell on the pancetta and I was compelled to spend evening after evening having jus drizzled over me, I managed to fire off a couple of despatches from the front line of chain restaurants.

Scorpion king

One of these was about Garfunkel’s, which was – and thankfully still is – the sort of joint where a callow teenage boy might take his first date. With its brassy, banquette-laden interior, photos of generic celebrities and all-you-can-graze salad bar, Garfunkel’s speaks to the condition of the tourist family, weighed down with fractious children. The first Garfunkel’s opened in 1979; by the time I reviewed the chain in 1995 there were a few branches in London and southern England and, 20 years later, there are only a few more – with an outlier in Edinburgh.

Still, in the glorious year of our twin saviours, Elizabeth and Olympia, it seemed worthwhile to go back. After all, the majority of visitors to our shores are unlikely to give a flying fuck about the Fat Duck: Garfunkel’s and its ilk are where the forking action is. So I dragged the 14-year-old from what he terms his “man cave” and hauled him into town. In the 1990s, I’d had a vision of Garfunkel the man as a wannabe southern Californian dude with a Magnum PI ’tache in a cheesecloth shirt and bell bottoms, frolicking by a poolside with a bevy of pneumatic lovelies, but my teenager went one up. “Garfunkel,” he said, scanning the menu, “sounds either like a grinning, gap-toothed child molester or a performing monkey.”

Then – with some trepidation – he kicked off the meal by ordering a Coke float, while riffing about a mate of his who will “eat anything: like, he’s eaten almost all animals there are, except for reptiles. In Thailand, he ate some, like, scorpions – but he said they put him off bugs for ever.” Sadly, there are no bugs of any sort on the Garfunkel’s menu, which is weighted towards old-fashioned Brit and chips, with lots of meaty feasts. A charming young man from Szczecin took our order. My son went for the London Tower Burger, a £13.95 masonry pile comprising two beefburgers, dill pickle, Monterey Jack cheese, crispy bacon and onion rings. He seemed to feel this was the epitome of gastronomic adventure: “I didn’t use to like onion rings,” he said, “but now I love them.”

Still, I couldn’t talk: after receiving assurance that Garfunkel’s chicken was free-range (presumably it hangs out at the poolside with Mr G), I selected a quarter of fowl from the rotisserie, which came – bizarrely – with a Caesar salad and pasta. Because of my fashionable wheat intolerance (a legacy of all that focaccia during the Blair regime), I swapped the pasta for chips. All around us sat balding, middle-aged men in shorts accompanied by harassed wives and children tethered to helium balloons. I was pleased to see that the Garfunkel’s salad bar was still at the epicentre of the establishment, although its echt 1990s matte-black livery had been changed for what looked like a variation on the theme of giant Aga stove. Weird.

Big mouth strikes again

Weirder still was the decorative scheme, which consists of pen-and-ink-style drawings of jumbled London landmarks, juxtaposed with ludicrously inappropriate flower-power slogans: “Tune in, turn on, drop out”, “Make love, not war” – you get the miserable picture. The Tower Burger, another landmark, loomed into sight and the Boy Wonder mused as to how he was going to fit it into his mouth. This I found a bit rich, because in the family he is known preeminently for having a huge (albeit fetching) gob. When he was about two, his mother and I caught him standing sucking on a doorknob. The entire knob was inside his mouth.

True to type, he demolished the Tower; and I made quick work of my chicken, which must have been very free-ranging indeed, because it was a skinny little thing. Not content with his Tower, my companion then had a great mound of pancakes with maple syrup and ice cream – while I had ice cream and an espresso. The bill, I thought, was, especially for a vaguely 1960sthemed restaurant, pretty uncool: £56, including tip. Still, if you’re a tourist, you pays your money and takes your lack of choice.

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 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

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