Show Hide image

Broth with Bruno

My seminal noodle experience was just after a walk through London's sewers.

In keeping with the convergence of downtown Los Angeles – as depicted in Blade Runner (1982) – and Britain’s metropolitan regions, there is an increasing number of noodle bars throughout the realm. I speak here of London, because that’s where I live – but I’ve noodled about in cities as diverse as Sheffield, Bristol and Cardiff. The basic noodle bar format is refreshingly bare bones: strip lighting, melamine-topped tables, wipe-dirty floor and a clientele with its faces over bowls of broth.

I love a noodle bar and often dive over the Euston Road from King’s Cross as soon as I arrive back in town so as to suck up stringiness in the Chop Chop Noodle Bar. Mmm, I exhale, as a mixed seafood noodle soup is set before me, it’s great to be back in the City of Angels – albeit ones with dirty faces and wonky teeth. It could just be me but there’s something very primal about the broth served in these establishments – left long enough, it might generate a new life form. It also has a certain detergent note and a residual flavour verging on the excretory. As I say: this could just be me, because the most significant meal I’ve ever had in a noodle bar came after an adventurous man called Bruno took me down the London sewers.

Bowels of the city

Arguably a description of a walk through the sewers doesn’t belong in a restaurant column – it’s difficult to picture A A Gill or John Lanchester wading through streams of sewage, although fun to try. But I take the hard-line view that anyone who’s preoccupied by what goes in one end should be prepared to take a serious look at what comes out the other. I met Bruno at the junction of Brixton Water Lane and Dulwich Road and without any ado he produced a pair of wellingtons and some rubber gloves and took out a heavy steel key, with which he opened a manhole cover. Down we went, under the incurious eyes of a shopkeeper.
Steel ladders wreathed in an ancient coralline encrustation of toilet paper were pinioned to the glistening black walls and rushing along the bottom of the culvert was a thick cascade of speedy broth. Still, I could detect no actual turds bumping against my wellingtons, nor could I hear any rodentine cheeping, and as we sloshed our way Bruno pointed out that the concentration of excreta was probably fairly low: after all, the greatest part of what goes down our plugholes consists of water mixed with soap: the waste of all that furious laving, of dishes, of bodies, of clothes. However, the detergent edge to the mephitic atmosphere made it seem more rather than less disgusting and, as we waded on, I gagged and for the first time in my life pitied Harry Lime.

Tunnel vision

We walked for about two kilometres. Bruno, an anthropologist by training who plied a cycle rickshaw for cash-in-hand, was the perfect Virgil for this harrowing of the urban Hades – he seemed to find his way unerringly through the colonic irrigation and when we came upon a canyon into which our tunnel’s contents debouched with a roar, I was tempted to suggest that we simply went on over the shitty rapids, latter-day versions of the unnamed narrator in Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle”. Instead, Bruno led me back up and unscrewed a manhole cover and we emerged blinking into a perfectly workaday early evening in Clapham North, at the junction of Timber Mill Way and Gauden Road.
This being the city, no one paid us any attention as we slopped across the Clapham Road, past the crowds of happy noshers outside the Bierodrome. I wanted to point out to them the secret world that rushed beneath their feet – but instead I walked down to Brixton with Bruno and we went for some supper at Speedy Noodle.
Speedy Noodle, as its name would suggest, is not somewhere you linger: the staff is uninterested, the ambience strained, the lighting on the vomitous side of bright. I love it. Over our soup, I told Bruno about the New Statesman’s investigative reporter Duncan Campbell, who, in the early 1980s, by accident gained entrance to the network of government tunnels underneath London and spent a long night down there, cycling about on a folding bicycle he’d taken down with him. How times have changed. I observed to Bruno: in those days, there probably weren’t any noodle bars in London, while at bottom security was unbelievably lax. The only constant, it seems, is the sewers.

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 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial