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I am home, I sigh, with the great, lumpy British bourgeoisie

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

The “spatialisation of culture under the pressure of organised capitalism” is how the veteran critical theorist Fredric Jameson described the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. This behemoth of a hostelry comprises a curious agglomeration of four giant squeezy bottles coated with mirrored glass grouped around a six-storey high atrium, up the sides of which shoot glass lifts. The Westin – which has a stand-still part in the epochal video-game series Grand Theft Auto – was, with its colour-coded zones and its restaurant-cluttered levels, an early spatialiser of late capitalism but, three decades on from Jameson’s appraisal of it, Zizzi, a chain of some 120-plus, vaguely Italian restaurants, is surfing the zeitgeist when it comes to such figurations.

Into the void

This is what I thought as I clop-slopped in from the rain to an empty shopping mall. Up above, a thousand little dag-tails of fairy lights dangled from a bridge of white-painted girders, atop which hunkered an office block, lit up and void – a ghost ship sailing through the urban night. It was a scene that demanded zombies; instead I found Zizzi. In turn, dramatic logic dictated that Zizzi should be deserted: a pure cultural space through which the crumpled menu cards blew like tumbleweeds, but instead the glassy hull projecting into the mall’s atrium was loaded with folk eating, drinking and talking 9.857857 recurring to the dozen.

The waiter – who resembled a stevedore – dumped me at a table by the glassy bulwark. At the next table, three flushed men in their thirties were getting performative over their second bottle of wine as they ate crispy bread strips served in a furl of greased-paper pseudonewsprint stuffed inside a miniature bucket. I could’ve sworn one of them said – loosening the knot of his puce tie – “Yeah, I’m poisoning him with Tipp-Ex!”

I cast about me at the pillars papered with a pattern of leafless silver birches, at the dangling 1960s-style lampshades that hung in bollock couplets, at the zinc-topped counter piled with wooden platters. I took it all in and sighed: I was home, where I belonged, with my Volk: the great, lumpy British bourgeoisie, who spend all day industriously servicing one another and all evening being serviced in turn.

As to food, let one menu description act as a synecdoche: “Agro dolce – one half mushrooms, thyme, mascarpone and mozzarella all drizzled with truffle oil. The other half speck ham, pumpkin and mascarpone with a sprinkling of crumbled amaretti biscuit. It really shouldn’t work but it does.” Basically, Zizzi is a high-end pizza joint with spicy pretensions. I ordered a risotto and a green salad, which were brought by the stevedore at a decent clip and were fine. I was fine, too, if that’s taken to be an acronym for Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. The men at the next table were talking about moving offices; the Tipp-Ex poisoning victim would have to be run through the shredder before they finally departed.

The Zizzi chain proclaims the usual charitable inclinations on its menu – in this case, it’s something to do with the Prince’s Trust. It had never occurred to me before why Charlie Windsor should’ve chosen this name for his institutionalised noblesse oblige but, when you think about it, by ceaselessly bringing before his putative subjects the words “prince” and “trust”, the subliminal message “Trust the Prince” is being implanted in all of us. Zizzi’s involvement with the trust seemed to have some bearing on its work with young graduate artists, whose work is displayed in the restaurants. In the case of this particular outlet, the work was by one Amy Murray, who’d done a series of illustrations that were riveted up in the corridor that led to the toilets. This sequence “attempts to capture elements of the Orient Express’s history while also creating intimate snapshots of its passengers at the peak of its popularity during the 1920s and 1930s”. The elements in question are, of course, “exoticism, intrigue and romance”.

Taste of the Orient

I was a bit confused by all this: was it Murray’s illustrations alone that were meant to evoke the Orient Express or were the toilet stalls and the corridor intentional components of this fantastical mise en scène? I’ve never travelled on the Orient Express but I wager that even among all that exoticism, intrigue and romance, there’s still the occasional, pee-soaked bit of toilet paper flotched on the floor.

Anyway, there I was, urinating inside an evocation of a historic trans-European train, inside an Italian-themed restaurant, inside a British shopping mall . . . Fredric Jameson would, I felt certain, heartily approve.

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 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

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