To the Cereal Killer Café on Brick Lane in Shoreditch – at the very epicentre of London’s hipsterville. Yes, yes, I know, I probably should have hied me hither a few weeks ago, immediately after the establishment had been subjected to an all-out attack by two hundred anarchist rioters wearing pig masks and carrying flaming brands, who threw paint and, err . . . cereal at the whacky eatery. I hung fire because I suspected the cereal riot might be the beginning of a widespread revolt against foodie absurdity, and why waste ink and pixels on such a sideshow when Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay would soon be flambéed at the stake in Trafalgar Square?
True, there was a subsequent riot on Hallowe’en closer to my own home; but these ravers were fighting for their right to party rather than against hipsters’ right to chow down on bowls of cereal at four quid a pop. Still, I think we can confidently assert that both civil disturbances are the beginning of a tendency long since identified – in numerous of his novels and stories – by the late J G Ballard; namely, a hunger for civil disorder not as a function of state oppression, or economic disadvantage, but simply in order to get out of the house and avoid the next series of The Great British Bake Off.
Of course, I don’t mean to deny the pernicious effects of hipsterfication on the old East End: there’s no doubt that the bearded poltroons are acting as the kulturkampf wing of the class cleansing directed by Gauleiter Osborne et al, yet I, too, question whether razing Rice Krispie eaters really is the way forward. After all, I’ve probably written more about cereal than any other kind of food in this column, and, as regular readers can’t help but be aware, I’m the proud owner of a Kellogg’s cereal spoon, personalised with the teasing ascription “Butt Munch”. On these grounds alone, it behove me to check out the purveyor of Chex. (This is a particularly grim breakfast comestible, notable only for its graticular form.)
A gloomy and moist Saturday afternoon in November seemed perfect for off-piste crunching, so I shouted to my youngest, “Go east, young man!” and we set off. Now I had a 14-year-old as an alibi . . . but everyone else in the Cereal Killer queue was at least biologically mature. (You read me right: the word “queue” is in the preceding sentence – but I must stress: the queue was from the door to the counter; if it had been outside the game would have been over before the milk was poured. I’ve been on assignment in the bandit country of South Armagh and the mean streets of South Central LA; I’ve stood on the “road of death” beside Chernobyl and I’ve weathered a force-ten storm in the North Atlantic, but I would never – I stress, never – queue up to eat at a cereal café, even if it meant reneging on my commitment to fearless reportage.)
The walls of the Cereal Killer Café were plastered with cereal posters, a kite depicting the Honey Monster, two pictures of notorious serial killers, created using myriad Cheerios, shelves bearing many boxes of cereal, displays of fridge magnets in the shape of little cereal boxes, and a pegboard menu advertising all the different cereals, milks – almond, soy, utterly vomitous – and fruitily gloopy toppings. My alibi went down to check out the basement seating area and came back with the intelligence that it featured the same worn floorboards, mismatched chairs, wonky Formica-topped tables and old kitchen units, plus a video monitor showing reruns of 1980s and 1990s cartoons.
We stayed upstairs, our brimming bowls propped on a ledge in front of the misted-up window. The boy tucked in to his Cap’n Crunch – a venerable American cereal developed in the early 1960s by a “flavourist” called Pamela Low. Low’s aim was to re-create a snack her grandmother had concocted out of rice, brown sugar and butter, thereby effecting what she termed “want-more-ishness”. According to my son, the signal feature of these particular gobbets was their texture – “Like cheesy Wotsits,” he said through a mouthful – and I wondered: “Could there be any higher praise?” My own cereal, Fruity Pebbles, was advertised as “rocking your whole mouth”, and the box featured Fred Flintstone making free with handfuls of “pebbles” (really fruit-flavoured “crisp rice cereal bits”).
Fruity Pebbles are almost as venerable as Cap’n Crunch, dating from the early 1970s. They were also the first breakfast cereal to have their own “spokestoon” (a coinage that, were it not to exist, really wouldn’t need to be invented). I found them suitably sickly, tasting as they did like Starburst chews rendered mysteriously crunchy.
And it was while munching on this metamorphic food that the full truth about the Cereal Killer Café dawned on me: with its grotty decor and its febrile, hyperglycaemic ambience, it was exactly like the squats where I used to hang out in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In those days I often had only crap cereal to eat until the next Giro cheque or parental handout. But then, as the Cereal Killer Café rioters undoubtedly know (assiduous students of Marx that they are), history all too often repeats itself; the first time it’s a tragedy, the second a frosted farce.
Next week: On Location
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror