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All this garlic has turned us into a vast army of urbanely middle-class undead

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Nick Lezard, whom I met at Prezzo for one of our twice-per-lustrum inter-columnar suppers, told me that prezzo means “price” in Italian. Nick is good at languages but he couldn’t be certain whether this restaurant chain was named after the common nounal form of the word, or the verbal one “priced”, which prezzo can also mean. Does it matter? Surely not, after all it can be safely asserted that once you’ve named so many eateries in such a way you clearly understand the value of nothing.

What Nick didn’t know – but I did, having laboriously scrolled through their listings – was quite how many Prezzos there are in Britain: 188. A scattering of this multitude are located in big city centres but on the whole Prezzos loiter in the smaller towns, the Basingstokes and Nuneatons, where they wait to pounce on unsuspecting punters and feed them trattoria fare – pasta, pizza, scallopini – continuing that strange inversion plague of vampirism, whereby in the past 20 years quantities of garlic have transmogrified the provisional petite-bourgeoisie into a vast army of urbanely middle-class undead.

Blah factor

I had toyed with the idea of reviewing Prezzo and Zizzi (126 outlets) in a single day, on the grounds that they’re both chains that manifest the blah factor in spades; but a wiser organ than my stomach prevailed and I resolved there was only so much dark-wood laminate I could bear to look upon. So much dark-wood laminate and so many artfully arranged wine bottles (in Prezzo these are fanned out in a rack shaped like the arched window on Play School, begging the question: what’s through it today? To which the answer can only be: rehab). Nick – absurd Brief Encounter-inflected anachronism that he is – ordered a glass of Chianti from the black-aproned Euroserf, but she snapped that they only had Shiraz (£5.60 x2, “soft and dry with a good concentration of blackcurrant fruit and spicy overtones”). The Euroserf growled whether I wanted a large or a small mineral water, and when I asked for specificity she testily conceded that “large” was a litre.

A litre! What kind of a weirdo goes into a chain restaurant on a Wednesday evening and drinks enough mineral water to leach the amino acids from his brain? Well, quite a lot of them actually – the joint was packed, and on almost every table there several bottles of the pricey fizz (£3.95). We ordered crab cakes (£5.65 x2), Nick said he would “try” the lasagne (£9.75), and I risked the Pollo Siciliana (£12.50), which was glossed on the menu as “Chargrilled chicken breast, prosciutto ham and plum tomato slices baked with our own blend of cheese”. In the event, both dishes looked like blobs of cheesy gloop – mine had the consistency and warmth of flip-flops left out in English summer sun, Nick’s was cold in the middle. “Has it been microwaved?” I asked him and he grimly replied, “I suspect not even that.”

Did we complain? No – because life’s too short and I operate on my own form of Pascal’s Wager, reasoning that in the unlikely event that at the moment of my death I discover that the deity is a 22-year-old Slovakian girl in a tomatosauce- flecked black apron, I’ll be pleased that I didn’t. Anyway, Nick and I had become too embroiled in a mild contretemps about salad to bother with anything as prosaic as the food. Nick claimed that he only ever ordered salad in France – “a nice frisée with lardons” was the phrase he had the snobbery to use – while when he was in Blighty he preferred to get down with the herbage in the privacy of his own hovel.

Rocket man

I had ordered a rocket and Grana Padano salad (£3.50), on the grounds that I simply wasn’t fulfilling my daily lactose quota, but in the event my Sicilian gloop came with an adequate salad garnish. Nick, while helping himself to forkfuls of my rocket, said he’d once seen a flyon- the-wall documentary in which British sous-chefs sat around with their sweaty feet in boxes of salad. Why he imagines their Gallic counterparts could never be guilty of such bestial behaviour is beyond me – but unlike most of Prezzo’s clientele, Nick fancies himself, despite all appearances to the contrary, as some sort of Proustian character, who turns down the Duchesse de Guermantes’s invitations in order to slum it with his friends.

We finished off with a single espresso each (£1.90 x2), and I paid the bill. Nick offered to divvy up – he even had his wallet out – but I find myself constitutionally incapable of going Dutch with anyone quite as Francophile as him, especially in a chain Italian restaurant run by Englishmen based in Essex.


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 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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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