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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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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