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Real Meals: Will Self eats at Pizza Express

To sit in Pizza Express is to partake in a mystic communion with the cosmopolitanisation of the British bourgeois. 

I'd like to be able to say that I've no idea how many Pizza Express pizzas I've eaten - but that would be a lie. Unlike all those burgers, kebabs, chicken drumsticks, chips and sandwiches, which, when I try to focus on them as individual taste experiences, are subsumed to the great undifferentiated mass of comestibles, the Pizza Express pizza has an eerie precision about it. This could be due to geometry alone: even a mathematical ignoramus such as me can calculate the area of a 12-inch pizza to be 3.14159 (6 x 6) = 113.09724 square inches. And while that seems a preposterous size for a disc of unleavened bread topped with melted cheese and tomato purée, the very fact that no matter which one of the chain's 370 branches you sit down in, you can guarantee being served with substantially the same 113.09724 square inches, tends my mind ineluctably towards further quantifications.

Every fortnight between 1997 and 2007, I would take my younger children to have supper with my older children at the Pizza Express in Shepherd's Bush. But those 250 pizzas are only the baseline around which the rest of my statistical analysis proceeds. I can assert that at least another 250 pizzas were consumed during that period at extempore family meals out and even gatherings when nominally "adult" friends said, "Why don't we just have a pizza?" in response to the bewildering array of foodstuff choice.

Then there's the outliers. I began eating at Pizza Express with some regularity in the mid-1980s and still eat there to this day - that's another 14 years during which an estimate of a pizza a month is conservative. So, 668 pizzas consumed by me alone, but if I add in the pizzas I've bought for my four children during the core period (1,000); the pizzas I bought for the older children between 1994 (when my son was four and my daughter two) and 1997 (150); then the pizzas since the regular Shepherd's Bush visitations ceased (approximately 75), we have a total of 1,893.

However, let not calculation cease there! Let the chain's former chairman, Luke Johnson, and his fellow board members - who have masterminded the expansion of Pizza Express until there is hardly a clone high street in the land without its tasteful outlet tootling jazz - dance with joy! For four Pizza Express margherita pizzas have been delivered to this house - at least! - every week of the 13 years we have been in residence, making a staggering further 2,600 nutrition discs and a running total of 4,493, or 42,345 square feet of pizza.

Indeed, for my kids, Pizza Express pizza is the staple food in the way that sorghum is for subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, or taro for those in New Guinea and Polynesia. Of course, it's a very expensive staple food - but then we are all the children of our times. Peter Boizot may have founded the chain back in 1965, when jazz was still a cutting-edge musical form and the British were coating themselves with blue paint rather than painting sub-Matisse murals with it, but almost a half-century on the entire bloated mid-section of our social hierarchy has a sense of entitlement that can be summed up as: Our Right to Pizza.

To sit in Pizza Express eating a pizza is to partake in a mystic communion with the cosmopolitanisation of the British bourgeois in a way that no other chain restaurant experience quite achieves. For me, the absolute proof of this is that, during the heady years immediately before the crash, I began to feel that with my Oxbridge education and my well-remunerated career, to carry on calling myself "middle class" was absurd and so - partly to épater, I concede - whenever I was asked the C-question I began saying that I was, in fact, upper middle class.

Needless to say, in Blairite Britain, where middle class was the new proletarian, this was deemed outrageous. Even I felt a little uncomfortable or, more specifically, I began to feel uncomfortable in Pizza Express and began flirting with other pizza experiences such as Strada or Zizzi. On some occasions, I went slumming in Pizza Hut with my upper-middle-class pals. So, on balance, I can only say that the recession - from the pizza point of view - has been something of a relief. My circumstances may be reduced and the chain may have tried to zip up the menu with all sorts of new dishes but those 113.09724 square inches remain a perfect circle.

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 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power