Fans at the London Super Comic Convention. Photograph: Getty Images
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If only arms dealers could merge with the friendly ranks of nerdy comics fanatics

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

At Canning Town Station, on the Docklands Light Railway platform, the crowd is building up. It’s not yet so dense that I have that disturbing mental image of a human version of the penny cascade in an amusement arcade: all the little bodies clunking down on to the tracks, the game of life playing out in bloody and mangled change . . . Still, the crowd is sufficiently numerous and I can’t forbear from considering whether there are more anti-pigeon barbs in sight, or people? Moreover, if those people were to be miniaturised, would the barbs be sufficiently rigid and acuminate for me to impale them on these, as if they were sentient canapés?

The train comes and it’s crowded in the carriage – but what sort of people are these? Certainly not the type I expected to be heading to the ExCeL Centre on a cold Sunday in February for the London Super Comic Convention. I know the comic crowd; I see them all the time on my trips to the Forbidden Planet shop in the West End. They have hoodies and piercings, acne or facial hair (if they’re old and male enough), garish T-shirts and leather overcoats/waistcoats/bucklers; they wear glasses and bobble hats and a disproportionate number of them have idiosyncratic body forms. They’re too frumpy to be serious music fans, and too pallid and unconventional to be sports nuts. If they looked a little more studious they’d be science geeks. What they are, indisputably, are nerds.

Yes, black, brown and white nerds; girl and boy and intersex nerds; gay nerds and straight nerds; old and young nerds – and I love them all. One of the most heartening phenomena in today’s Britain is the great diversity of the modern nerd – the nerd is out and proud, and while she may love Buffy the Vampire Slayer merchandise more than is strictly warranted, she is in every way to be cherished as an exemplar of cosmopolitanism and tolerance.

My membership of this happy band is distal – it’s my 11-year-old who most loves comics – but I’m looking forward to the Super Comic Convention as much as the next 51-year-old who has a sneaking urge to reverse the dressing order of his pants and his tights. However, the passengers in the train carriage have the caramelised skin tones of sunbed worshippers and foundation-slappers; their clothes are oppressively colour-coded and they all have that painful air of people who, though not inherently attractive, are fiercely dedicated to making the best of what they’ve got. They give me the heeb. Still, the journey is short and soon enough we’re all tramping along the walkways into the gigantic exhibition centre, where all is revealed: the travellers on the DLR are amateur uglies heading for Professional Beauty 2013.

Still, let them flog unguents for all I care – I’m delighted finally to have made it to the ExCeL, that great entrepôt of consumerist desire that now squats beside the docks where once its objects were unloaded. The closest I’ve got in the past is a road bridge half a mile off, where, together with other arms trade protesters, I was kettled by police protecting the right of Her Majesty’s Government to flog death metal to the Saudi regime at the annual DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International).

Wandering along the central concourse, I am thrilled by the great profusion of eateries. It’s like a mash-up of the two columns I write for this magazine: a mad crowd – if you will – of real meals. Here and there are little groups of Batmen and Wonder Women who strike poses for happy snappers. After about 200 yards of this we reach the right hall and, picking up our programme and plasticised badge, we start to tour the stalls. The atmosphere is ecumenical: spiky-haired manga fans and mutant-survivalist Judge Dredd acolytes mingle in the queues to meet their favourite artists.

There’s only one problem with the manifestly sane crowd assembled for the London Super Comic Convention: it’s rather on the sparse side. Indeed, the huge and echoic exhibition hall (easily high-ceilinged enough to hold a knock-off Polaris missile) feels distinctly empty. If only, I muse . . . if only the arms fair and the comic convention could somehow be amalgamated into one event. Initially the arms dealers might bridle, but they’d be absorbed into the nerdy mass soon enough, I think, and end up trading brightly coloured pictures of weapons, rather than the hurtfully real thing.

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 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.