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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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood