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A restaurant that caters for adult children like me? You’re having a giraffe

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Numbers of giraffes (Girrafa camelopardalis) in the African wild have more or less halved over the past decade, while the numbers of Giraffes (Restaurant pseudoglobalis) in the urban areas of Britain have more than doubled. I wonder if there may be some axiom at work here and that the inverse correlation is a fixed law. It would follow that anyone could start any old chain of crap restaurants, calling them – for example – Platypus; and so long as the namesake species was rapidly exterminated, success would be guaranteed. I realise this is a troubling business plan – but we live in troubling times.

Who’s necks?

I first became aware of Giraffe, the restaurant, in the early 2000s. But I don’t recall chowing down in one until 2008, when, tucked up in some lofty nook of the newly opened Heathrow Terminal 5, we indulged our hideous picky-eater children in buttock-soft burgers and stiff little fries, knowing full well that they’d refuse the free airline food waiting for them beyond the departure gate. It could’ve been the pre-flight tension or it could’ve been the terminal itself but the only memory I have of that meal are the giraffe-shaped swizzle sticks the youngest insisted on clutching in his sweaty palms all the way to New York.

Four years on, and with 43 Giraffes now wavering across our stony-hearted Serengeti, all the way from Aberdeen to Portsmouth, the time seemed right to give it another go. All critics should beware of prejudice: the irritating fungal complaint that makes the most painterly surface appear . . . flaky. This being noted, surely a man can be forgiven for approaching a chain restaurant in a crappy mood – especially one that announces on its website that “It’s about exploring the wonderful foods from around the globe and opening our ears to music from around the world. Giraffes are so tall they see a different view of the world.” Curiously, the two locations the Giraffe people pick as their diners’ imaginative loci are: “‘anywhere from Sydney to Israel – somewhere sunny and full of smiles”.

Hmm – when I was last there, Sydney was a pretty tough town, and as for Israel, don’t get me started. Still, I wasn’t eating the Giraffe website. I and my now 11-year-old were being shown to a grim little circular table hard beside a big concrete pillar, while all around us roiled an international migrant workforce serving food to tourists. I could see there were lots of better tables that were vacant, so I snagged a servitor and complained. She plonked us back down on vinyl poufs in the reception area, cleared one of these better tables and then reseated us.
Was I mollified? Was I fuck. I scanned the menu: chicken potstickers, oregano halloumi skewers, falafel “deluxe” burger – blah, blah, blah . . . world, world, world. The waitress reappeared and took our drinks order. When she came back with apple juice for the young master and the ten-millionth sparkling mineral water of my effervescent life, she took our food order. Mine was simple: grilled salmon, mashed potato, a green salad. I couldn’t have the cherry tomato, fire-roasted corn and jalapeño salsa for reasons of gastric rather than psychic intolerance. As for the boy, he gave his burger order complete with a series of negative stipulations: no tomato, no mayonnaise and no lettuce – just bun, cheese, meat. I’m used to this bollocks, so paid it no mind until the patty appeared and he lifted its top lid and began to moan plaintively because there was something healthy in there.

Hated mayo

Next, I did the bad thing. Was it because of the swizzle sticks – or because I am congenitally illhumoured, or perhaps I simply wanted to challenge the fundamental taboos that surround eating in our benighted culture? I don’t know – and I don’t care. I picked up the offending burger and squeezed it in my fist until the hated mayonnaise squirted from between my clenched knuckles and spattered across the tabletop; then I dropped the macerated lump back on his plate, rose and went to the bathroom to wash. When I came back, expecting uproar, I found nothing but smiley calm: the waitress had cleared everything up and told me she was bringing a new burger without the offending gloop. Chastened, I ate my salmon, mash and salad – hardly world food but exactly the sort of thing I eat at home, and just as tasty.

Worse was to come, because they didn’t even charge me for my intemperance – and how god-dam smiley is that? By the time we left I was beginning to think that this really was a family-oriented establishment, so perfectly did they cater to adult children.

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.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide