I don’t blame Hillary Clinton for not wanting to shake hands with her rival for the US presidency at the beginning of their second televised debate on 9 October. After all, Donald Trump is a very weird-looking man, and his strangely synthetic, orangey hair and deep-fried complexion – combined with his bulgy, bulky, locker-room-bantering build – remind me of nothing so much as a . . . fatberg.
Yup, a fatberg. If you don’t know what a fatberg is, it’s time you were not enlightened but benighted – because the fatberg is a phenomenon that swims towards us out of a chthonic realm where our collective unconscious merges with our bodily realities. A fatberg is a gigantic lump of cooking fat and other waste effluent, bound together into a solid mucilage by discarded toilet paper, and especially wet wipes.
That’s right, wet wipes: the sort used to clean babies’ bottoms when changing a nappy. The thing about these moist and often synthetic rags is that most kinds aren’t biodegradable, and they shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet. Nor were they, much, until a few years ago, when, in a clever move to increase their market share, manufacturers began pushing the idea – in advertisements and marketing campaigns – that adults should use them as well.
Back in the early 1950s, when the terms of British political debate were defined by the so-called activators, who sought to rebuild the nation in one ideological image or another, the term “admass” was coined to describe that proportion of the population judged susceptible to the siren song of advertising. It is the members of this admass who have created the fatberg: a faecal-spatial analogue of their credulousness.
No one past babyhood need wipe themselves with a Wet One, or Ones. Even toilet paper was only commercially introduced in the late 1850s, and those of us over 50 remember the cheap varieties found in public and institutional lavatories in our youth, which were so far from being absorbent that they were shiny. But while the bergs may be reinforced by wipes, their bulk consists of solidifying cooking oil. There’s a perfect, if foul, symmetry here. The huge increase in eating out that British cities have hosted over the past thirty years has created a fabulous marketing opportunity for the purveyors of pre-moistened rags. The noshers and wipers are all part of the same admass.
But then it’s also worth reflecting how far the fatberg is an instantiation of this indubitable truth: you are what you eat and, by extension, what you excrete. All of those mid-price chain restaurants on clone high streets are, in their own way, tangible, smellable and tasteable evidence of our rising inequality. Looked at in this way, the ten-tonne fatberg that almost completely blocked the sewer in Chelsea, west London, last year was a true representation of the British underclass: out of sight is out of mind, until it bungs up the entire political process and the constitutional drains start to back up.
Nigel Farage is a fatberg politician. His physical manifestation may be a mucilage of sanitised patriotism and fatty Brit bigotry, but what has put him centre stage is a wave of shitty resentment. Jeremy Corbyn, although on the slim side for a convincing fatberg, has nonetheless benefited enormously from all of us who have simply wiped our arses when it comes to the rising brown tide of poverty.
Fatbergs are a huge problem for those tasked with maintaining public sanitation. In British cities, old main drains are often surrounded by all sorts of other ducts, pipes and tunnels – so, in order to get rid of a fatberg that threatens to burst its bounds, workers have to go down to break it up manually and cart off the crappy debris. Again, the fatberg displays its disturbingly analogical properties – in this case, by recapitulating the entire history of British municipal socialism in the manner of its own dissolution. Just as the provision of clean running water and sewage removal (and the linkage of the costs involved to a progressive local tax) was integral to the increasingly egalitarian society of the late 19th and 20th centuries, so the breaking up of huge lumps of shit, fat and rags by workers on what are probably zero-hours contracts is integral to our increasingly inegalitarian one.
The US being the bold, young nation that it is, its fatbergs are much, much bigger than ours. The American admass is also bigger, while the decline in the US manufacturing sector is still more precipitate. Then there’s the country’s long and foul-smelling history of racism: institutionalised at first as slavery, and now as the vast carceral latifundia in which more than a million African-American men labour on behalf of Wall Street investors.
Recall, too, that recent immigration to the US is far higher than what Britain has experienced, and it all adds up to a terrifying – if not critical – mass. We saw it onstage in St Louis at the second presidential debate, glistening evilly under the lights: an agglomeration of misogyny, racism and all else that is hateful. Hillary Clinton did her best to hack away at the monstrous fatberg that is Trump – and in the days since, senior Republicans have joined the clean-up crew – but for the sewer under Capitol Hill to be properly unblocked, the entire US electorate needs not only to equip itself with picks and shovels, but also to stop behaving like a febrile and easily influenced admass.
It is often said of the Titanic that it was the world’s biggest metaphor. The Titanic set sail from Southampton, its intended destination New York. The fatberg that is called Donald Trump is a very big metaphor indeed – and though by no means unsinkable, it is sailing in the opposite direction at a rate of knots and is scheduled for arrival on 9 November. Holding our noses will avail us naught.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge