I'll take the Oburger - the president at Five Guys in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cosying up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse is bad for your health – just ask Obama

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Five Guys is a US fast-food chain that’s been high-profile there for some years now. This is for two reasons: way back in 2009, President Oburger – sorry, I mean Obama – made a televised visit to one of its burger joints in Washington, DC and since then he’s been subject to holding press conferences there whenever it’s too rainy for the Rose Garden. So politically influential has Five Guys become that when the Washington Examiner was scrabbling for objectors to the president’s new health insurance scheme – not, as you realise, a difficult task – it alighted on a franchisee owner of eight Five Guys outlets, who did indeed oblige by saying that he’d have to jack up his prices in order to pay the mandatory employers’ levy.

The second reason is that, sprouting out from its modest Virginian roots in the late 1980s, Five Guys has now spread – like the culinary equivalent of kudzu weed – to ensnare most of North America in its flocculent convolvulus. There are more than 1,000 branches operating in the United States and Canada and another opens every four days or so. One of the newest branches is in London, which means – as against our leaders’ tedious perseveration that ours is a global financial capital – that in terms of the Englishchomping world the city is, in effect, twinned with Bumfuck, Saskatchewan.

Given this column’s commitment to prying apart the buns of the political class, I rounded up three guys of my own and set out for this new outpost of the American last century. (The original “guys” were the founder’s children – that’s so wholesome it makes me want to barf and then eat my own barf . . . ) With its red-and-white checkerboard tiles, brown-paper sacks of potatoes “stored” in plain view, its counter service and redshirted hand patty cake-makers, Five Guys clearly is trying to go for retro. “This,” everything seems to proclaim, “is what burger joints were like when you were a kid back in Bumfuck and the Fonz was getting the jukebox to play by parking his denim ass on it.”

My eldest guy had warned of tremendous queues, so we went mid-afternoon and the place wasn’t too manic. Just as well, as I don’t think I could’ve borne the humiliation of seeing hip Londoners stand in line for fast food that, according to Men’s Health magazine, is waaay over the recommended daily calorie intake. Sod the poor employees – the diners need health insurance to eat there. It singled out the fries in particular as the gustatory equivalent of fracking – releasing great reserves of energy into the unsuspecting gastric economy – and remarked also on the woeful practice of adding egg to the bun dough, which makes for a particularly sweet and sickly encasement. But all of this sugaring the meaty pill pales in comparison with the soda dispensers, which offer no fewer than nine flavours of Coke and Fanta – oh, and unlimited refills. My guys pretty much majored in hyperglycaemia but even they gave up after a single Styrofoam water butt-full.

As for the artisanal burger, the guys were on the whole negative – but what do they know? I rather liked mine. Mushy-sweetie-bun? Check. Salty-crispy-fry? Check. Wilty-crunchy-lettuce? Check. Crunchy-friablebacon? Check. Processed-plasticky-cheese? Check. As I nyum-nyummed my way through this perfect encapsulation of the American way, the cymbals clashed, the drums boomed, the triangles tinged and drum majorettes’ knees agitated the hems of their pleated skirts prettily. Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, a bunch of hairy protesters screamed, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids didja kill today?”

If Oburger had any meat between his buns, he’d release Chelsea Manning on executive order before he leaves office – but we all know he doesn’t and that his presidency, while in no wise as egregiously bad as the one that preceded it, still hasn’t stopped the flop of once-upstanding American civil liberties.

In his drive to avoid being perceived by his fickle and easily fed electorate as a halal chicken-eater, Obama cosies up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse in a truly nauseating fashion. He’s also gone for his own gender reassignment, as a red-blooded, red-meateating male; but it’s a mystery to me how he can stomach a bacon cheeseburger after the amount of shit he’s eaten since taking office. Still, as my old granny would say: better out than in; and he does consistently redress the balance – by talking shit as well. Yes, he can.

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 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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