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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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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