12 April 1968: “The country has lost not just Dr King but the King”

Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated forty-five years ago today. Here, Alan Brien reports from a grief-stricken New York.

The only cheerful faces I have seen here since the assassination of Martin Luther King last Thursday have been those of the Negro looters on television. Colour is a great romanticiser of electronic images, painting tragedy as melodrama, tinting actuality with the pastel shades of Hollywood farce. Vietnam has almost vanished from the screens these last few days with its ketchup blood and dry-ice smoke, recalling inappropriate images of John Wayne wading novocaine-faced through the swamps of Iwo Jima. Now the long-distance camera eyes sprout on stalks in the riot areas of America's own cities, and many sequences we watch might almost be from some innocent, whimsical, indulgent, black-face musical of the Forties like Cabin in the Sky. The impulse-shoppers of the slums, celebrating an impromptu, out-of-season Christmas, could be observed queueing in an orderly fashion, like wartime civilians in Britain, outside broken-open shops. The fantasies of the commercials, where goodies rain down from Heaven and gadgets magically furnish empty rooms, were being acted out for real. The kind of easily portable wealth that professional criminals would search out - cash, jewellery, watches, etc - seemed often ignored. One woman staggered under the weight of a monster carton of Kleenex. A man almost danced down the street pushing a cumbrous dressing table with a huge mirror - and waved to the watching millions at home as he went. Another sat among the splintered glass, sparkling like tinsel in the TV spotlights, sensibly trying on a liberated pair of banana-yellow boots for comfort and style.

At first, the police stood by in most places, simply directing the traffic in flood-lit robbery as the exploited expropriated a little of the surplus profit of the exploiters - only to be gently rebuked by the New York Times next day for such un-American priority for people over things. Later, sniping and fire-bombing broke out and the law reasserted its traditional role. In Manhattan, rumour was full of tongues, pandering to that guilty thrill in anticipating the apocalypse which is one of the deep excitements of modern metropolitans. Reports of besieged suburbs, hijacked buses, mutinying schools and marching mobs leapt from lip to lip. The true facts, available instantly on such radio stations as WINS, which broadcast an uninterrupted flow of news around the clock, were barely more credible as the astonishing weekend began.

The curfew in the nation's capital retreated to 4pm on Saturday - earlier than that in Saigon. More regular troops were deployed to protect Washington than Khe Sanh. New York is the only American city I know at all well. I have spent an annual working holiday here every year since 1961. Each time I arrive I feel an intensifying weight of violence in the air which presses down on the visitor like the atmosphere of Venus on an exploring astronaut. The electric crackle of static which arcs from the hand to the doorknob or the lift buzzer - and makes many an unwary tourist imagine his coronary has caught up with him at last - seems to symbolise the bottled aggression stored in these human batteries. In the past, my friends here have vied with each other, whether expatriates or natives, in telling tales of life in the asphalt jungle - mad taxi-drivers who kidnapped passengers to tell them the story of their lives, sadistic vandals terrorising an entire subway carriage for an hour's journey, six-year-old children threatened by knife-carrying nine-year-olds on the fringes of the Park, lessons invaded by drug-addicts, alcoholics and sex perverts. My reaction has been shock and fear and a desire not to believe. Their's has been a rather callous bravado - like sixth-formers putting the wind up a cissy new boy.

Now, this week, I am the one who has always expected this hell to break loose. Looking from the outside across the Atlantic, like many Britons, I have seen the storm cones hoisted for a hurricane. Since the killing of President Kennedy and Malcolm X, it seemed inevitable that more sacrificial victims would follow in time. It is the residents who cannot believe their eyes and ears and implore you to tell them that what is happening is impossible. For once, the old liberal cliché about everybody being guilty for the crime of one psychopath seems, if not true, at least universally believed to be true. There is a widespread desire to canonise Martin Luther King, a great and good man fit to stand alongside Gandhi or Danilo Dolci, into a saint and martyr unrivalled in history. Each man loves the thing he kills and the civil rights leader is rapidly becoming an immortal. His reputation escalates from hour to hour. A Negro leader described him as the noblest human of our century. A rabbi called him the Black Moses. The Pope's comparison of him to Christ crucified seems to almost nobody even a trifle hyperbolic.

It is an awe-inspiring and rather unnerving sight to see the mass media of American opinion-making (what one British journalist unkindly calls “The Bullshit Machine”) firing on all cylinders to a single theme. Dr King's picture is in every shop window, in every paper and magazine, punctuating almost every programme on TV. The US flag, and this is a nation of flag-fliers, is everywhere at half-mast, sometimes upside down (the sign of a nation in distress). Public events which might seem tactlessly light-hearted, such as the Oscar awards, are postponed or cancelled. Radio announcers assure you that you will hear nothing frivolous all day on their channel. The country has lost not just Dr King but the King. These words and images have done more to damp down riot than all the police and troops. Any Negro anywhere is treated by whites as if he were personally a close relative of the murdered man. How long this spontaneous unity in mourning will last, no can tell. But it is an America I have never seen before.

Martin Luther King Jr calls after encountering a white mob in Alabama. Photo: Getty.

Alan Brien (1925 – 2008) was a critic, foreign correspondent and author of “Lenin: a novel”.

Show Hide image

My quest for an elusive can of juicy Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie ends with a Dolmio pasta sauce

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet.

The last time I addressed you from my bully-beef pulpit I was going to write about my all-consuming yen for a Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pie, but as there wasn’t one to hand to mouth, I related the electronic cigarette incident at Pizza Express instead. This week, I can report that I have attempted to secure one of the meatylicious treats – and once again failed.

Mr Vairavar, who keeps the convenience store immediately beneath my flat, did have a Fray Bentos minced beef and onion pie on his shelves (and very attractively priced it was, too, at £1.99) but I knew that it wouldn’t hit the suety spot. I had already undertaken a smallish tour of supermarkets in the environs, and although I hadn’t secured the elusive pudding I still found plenty of food for thought.

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet. All convenience foods rely not on a specific ingredient, but rather on its absence: time has been left out, usually in favour of some artificial flavouring. I think of paella as a dish to be
prepared over hours, possibly an entire day. Cooked in the warm south, beneath the canopy of a leafy bower and before an azure sea – coaxed into full and piquant fruition by some adipose and moustachioed duenna, while almond-eyed kiddies dangle from her skirts and the menfolk sit around drinking harsh Rioja, smoking black tobacco and spitting.

Mind you, human ingenuity has been diminishing the temporal component of our cuisine for a long time now: in the Middle Ages salt was the preferred preservative, but by the 1900s tinned meat was being despatched from Fray Bentos in Uruguay and making the long voyage to dock in the British duodenum.

Also on Tesco’s shelves was an extensive selection of pasta sauces. All the usual suspects were there, including Loyd Grossman’s and several variations on the Dolmio theme. It had been a bad week for the Dolmio brand, what with Mars Food, which owns it, feeling it was incumbent on it to place a label on these sauces (and its other products) warning punters that they aren’t “everyday” foods but should be eaten only “occasionally” – say, once a week.

I stood in the aisle, my dreams macerated at my feet. Not eat a Dolmio pasta sauce every day of the week (and even twice daily)? What kind of freshly preserved, heavily sugared and salted hell was this? I have clung on for years to a vision of the good life, summed up for me by Dolmio pasta sauce adverts of the early 1990s, in which a tumultuously happy extended Neapolitan family chows down at a long table laid out under the spreading boughs of an olive tree: old crones and rosy-cheeked bambini, voluptuous girls and their blushing beaus, the entire assembly benignly surveyed by a greying paterfamilias, a role I reserved (don’t laugh) for myself.

True, I can actually count the number of times that I have eaten Dolmio pasta sauces on the fingers of one leprous hand, but as with most commodity fetishism – contra Marx – it’s the thought that counts. So, I bought a jar of Dolmio sauce and bore it home as a sort of edible time capsule; if it isn’t an “everyday” food, I reasoned, I could wait for the Apocalypse to crack off the lid.

I considered buying a jar of Loyd Grossman sauce as well. I’ve no idea if it’s any good but I met Grossman once, in his capacity as chairman of English Heritage’s blue plaque committee. He’d invited me to unveil the plaque for the short story writer H H Munro (whose nom de plume was Saki), which was to be sited on a property on Mortimer Street, London, now tenanted by a firm of accountants.

A scaffold had been put up outside so that the plaque could be mounted, but Loyd and I still had to crawl over one of the partners’ desks in order to reach it. I found him to be a warm and genuine man with no side at all – only a bottom, with which I was nose-to-tail during the desk-clambering. So, that’s the problem I have with his pasta sauces: instead of associating them with joyful consanguinity, I think of systematic pederasty. (Not, I hasten to add, because of Loyd Grossman’s bottom but because Saki had these proclivities and, according to his biographer, whom I met the same day, the writer kept a scrupulous menu of his conquests, including details of their, um, portion size.)

The next stop was Lidl – always a bizarre experience. The last branch of Lidl I’d visited was situated exactly on the death strip of the old Berlin Wall and surrounded by silver birches that looked to be precisely 25 years old. It was sheer foolishness to expect this outlet to have one of the elusive Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney puddings – its stock is discounted stuff that it has picked up cheap.

Fun fact: founded in 1930, Lidl was originally called Schwarz Foods but being referred to as “Schwarzmarkt” would have been a bit of a liability, especially once war was declared, and so the name was changed. There were no black-market puddings here but almost an entire aisle stacked with serrano hams! I would have bought one of these time-infused meats . . . but I had my Dolmio end-of-the-world to look forward to.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism