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On the road with the Joads, we can almost taste the gravy and hard biscuits

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

In John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, forced off their farm by the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, head west to the promised land of California. Impoverished and immiserated, three generations of them pile on top of a chimerical vehicle they’ve welded together out of a wrecked truck bed and a jalopy. Unsurprisingly, in a novel that concerns itself with the material realities of life, Steinbeck places appropriate emphasis on the cooking and sharing of food –his account begins with an al-fresco meal: a jack rabbit served up to Tom Joad, the eldest son, shortly after he arrives back at the farmstead having been in jail, to discover the land desiccated and the family gone.

Meagre meals

Throughout The Grapes of Wrath there are precise descriptions of meagre meals: gravy and hard biscuits, bread baked with scratchings of cornflour and a long riff centring on the behaviour and attitudes of a couple working at a roadside lunch counter, who all day long deal with the endless caravan of penniless refugees. Steinbeck interspersed his tale with these interludes, which examine the consciousness of people variously located in the economic order: car salesmen, bankers, cops and other officials. He does this unashamedly and didactically, as a way of educating his readers regarding the human consequences of a downswing in the cycle of laissez-faire capitalism. The book was a cause célèbre when it was published in 1939 and Steinbeck was accused of being every shade of a red, from puce liberal to incarnadined commie.

Eighty years after the events the novel depicts we found ourselves driving through the American south-west: a couple of well-padded leftists ensconced in their hired Hyundai, together with a brace of want-for-nothing kids; and, by way of echoing Steinbeck’s didacticism – albeit in a minor key – we downloaded the Grapes audio book so we could play it as we bucketed along through California, across Nevada and a corner of Utah, before looping back towards Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert.

Then a strange thing happened: in the continuously present fictional inscape of Steinbeck’s novel, the Joads were trundling across the California state line and along Highway 40. Meanwhile the Selfs were headed out of Las Vegas south-west along Highway 15; all things being supernaturally equal, the two families would coincide at Barstow. To give this weirdness a swerve, I took a left on to the Kelbaker Road and headed across the undulating plain studded with Dr Seuss Joshua trees towards Kelso.

In his paean to the south-west, Scenes in America Deserta, the architectural critic Reyner Banham wrote: “in 1980 no historical or other explanation can make the station at Kelso look any less improbable than it does at first sighting – the grove, the lawns, the brick paving, the Hispanic building bearing, in fine ‘Railway Ionic’ lettering, the blunt name of a rainswept township in the Scottish border country”. It was 32 years later and 108 degrees in the shade when we pulled into the parking lot at Kelso and switched off the Joads, and yes the immaculate station building with its arched colonnade looked just as improbable. There were still freight cars halted on the tracks, still the green shock of palm fronds and the viridian of well-watered lawns, but once inside it became clear that the station was no longer the same at all.

Taco swell

“The lunchroom and any other facilities,” Banham had written, “exist only to serve the Union Pacific. It’s an oasis of civilisation and style in the middle of nothing, but it’s someone else’s private oasis – not ours.” Banham had felt the presence of Taco Bell wrappers in the Kelso Station rubbish bins surpassing strange. But that was then; now, we wouldn’t be surprised if a Mars probe beamed back images of Taco Bell wrappers crumpled on its canal sides.

Then the station was theirs – now it was ours, and by ours I mean us tourists who descend on a landscape once fertile with possible meanings and reduce it to a fine dust of digitised certainties. The cream-painted and darkwood- floored rooms that once housed a telegraph office, luggage depot and dormitories now housed replicas of these. It was all beautifully done. A plump, pink couple with two plump, pink children came in and sat at the counter at right angles to us. We ordered hotdogs, garden salads, coffees and cokes – so did they, employing the same resolutely English accents. Steinbeck, I felt certain, would’ve had something to say about this: we hadn’t avoided the Joads at all – they were out there in the noonday swelter, skulking from window to window, pressing their emaciated faces to the panes and looking in on this unreality.

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 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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