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Will Self's Real Meals: Petrol station chicken at Pain Quotidien

The shtick at LPQ is a cod-rustic vibe cultivated with cold-hearted commercialism.

‘‘Which,” I asked the nice young man in Le Pain Quotidien, “is the most daily of your breads – by which I mean the most popular?” To his credit he wasn’t fazed: “The baguette,” he replied, “absolutely – we sell many more of the baguette than any of the others.” This seemed a shame to me, because the other loaves had a pleasingly rustic air about them – great cartwheels of golden pain ancien, reposing on equally golden wooden shelves, the whole reminding me not so much of a boulangerie in La France profonde, as of a BBC television adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol novel.

Because that’s the shtick with LPQ: a cod-rustic vibe cultivated with cold-hearted commercialism. There are 175 of these fakeries in 17 countries – and 22 in London. If you’re reading this out in the sticks and thinking: Well, that’s just the sort of bollocks those dumb metropolitan pseuds fall for. . . then I concur. But should a branch of LPQ open up on your clone high street, it’s high time to slather a heel of stale Hovis with dripping and head up t’cobbled hill or down t’decommissioned pit.

I lacked such foresight and so found myself being ushered into the woody interior. I eschewed la table communale and sat next to a couple of ad man types. Once the waiter had taken my order for a smoked chicken salad (which came, he assured me, with compli mentary bread), and a fresh lime and mint drink – I had plenty of time to examine the decor. Walter Benjamin said of art nouveau that it “represented the last attempt at a sortie on the part of art imprisoned by technical advance within her ivory tower”. For the late, great Frankfurter, such a sortie “mobilised all the reserve forces of interiority”, forces that “found their expression in the mediumistic language of line, in the flower as the symbol of the naked, vegetable Nature that confronted the technologically armed environment”.

Frankly, if Benjamin could’ve seen the branch of LPQ I was sitting in, he would have found it more terrifying than the Gestapo: up on the ceiling duff track lighting was boxed in by rag-rolled boards, while above this frottage squatted metal ventilation ducts. Meanwhile, nailed to the lemonscumbled wall was a collection of Arts & Crafts windows – frames and all – their flowery stained-glass motifs winking complicity at the bourgeois diners.

My salad had some leaves, a few tomatoes, quite a lot of pinkish strips of what appeared to be meat and some croutons. Is there anything more useless than a crouton? I sometimes wake up in the small hours with a start and realise that what’s roused me is an overpowering urge to visit violence on its originator. I often buy ready-made Caesar salads from supermarkets, because they come with the croutons in a separate little bag and I can then experience the delight of throwing them straight in the bin. What was worse was that complithese LPQ croutons were extra-large – an ordinary sized crouton is merely a crunchy impediment but a big crouton is a piece of stalefucking- bread. If I wanted bread I had plenty to hand – and it was complimentary! I turned my attention to the smoked chicken: it had the plastic texture and slightly tangy, chemical sweetness of smoked ham bought in an all-night petrol station.

I was so appalled that I turned to the ad man on my right and asked him to try a piece. He obliged and I tried not to prejudice my tiny focus group by grimacing as he chewed. “It’s not very nice,” he said, after a short length, “it rather reminds me of the sort of ham you get in petrol stations.” I almost kissed him. The waiter reappeared: “Is your food all right?” he asked. “Um, well,” I chose my words judiciously, “no – it’s not really, I mean this food is quite . . . unpleasant.” The waiter was suitably nonplussed, so I expanded: “This chicken is . . . grim – where do you get your chickens from? I mean, is this organic . . . ? Free range?” The ad man chipped in: “It doesn’t taste organic.”

Perhaps fearing that the Bastille was about to be stormed, the waiter hurriedly offered to replace the dish or refund me – but I wasn’t having any of it: I didn’t want the social conditions obtaining in Le Pain Quotidien to be smoothed over, I lusted for the antagonism that leads to revolution! £15.81 was way too much of my daily bread to pay for this daily bread – there will be blood!

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 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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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