Those of you with long memories, and the stamina to endure my dreadful blog for such a long period of time, will remember that I’ve had a dig at Mr Self before, by the means of an unflattering précis of a diary column he wrote for the London Review of Books. To be fair, I ought to mention that I have not hated everything he’s done in the interim.
He wrote another diary column for the LRB (paywall), an account of a walk he took from London to the countryside, which I really enjoyed. It was simple, and moving, and he exhibited a genuine interest in the people he encountered. He didn’t treat them, as he usually does, as passive subjects introduced only that he might pour forth his laconic loquacity and witless witticisms, secure in the knowledge that the pseudo-intelligentsia who make up his audience will mistake such coruscating dross for wisdom and insight. (Sorry, sorry: parodying Self-ian prose is a habit it’s hard to break.) He also wrote in The Guardian about the rare blood illness from which he suffers – polycythaemia vera. I didn’t enjoy that essay quite so much overall, but in places it was outstandingly good – it made me cry, and smile, and my flesh creep with sympathetic horror. It was enough, in any case, to remind me that he actually can write – really write, as opposed to just regurgitate a thesaurus – when he wants to. This is, of course, the reason I find him frustrating, and it’s why I end up saying things that make me sound like an exasperated headmaster: if only he’d make the effort, he could be something genuinely interesting, rather than what he has allowed himself to remain – a degraded simulacrum of the public intellectual, ideally suited to the Starbucks age.
To me, there’s always been something of the under-matured, the precocious about Will Self. Something to do with his delight in using ‘clever’ language, perhaps, or the plump self-confidence that rests on insecure footings. He reminds me a little of the guy in my history class I never could stand, the one who thought that (mis)quoting the words ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ would stand in for any deeper understanding of Napoleonic Europe.
There’s plenty of evidence of this sensibility in an essay Self has written for the BBC. He’s decrying the ‘modern’ obsession with food, and elaborating on his belief that it’s supplanted all other forms of culture, and social identity. And how does he make this point? Well, at one stage – giving them a paragraph to themselves, so proud he is of the wit – he includes the words:
Once the working classes were in chains, now they’re in chain restaurants.
This is, I think you’ll agree, precisely the kind of wit that seems clever when you’re just learning about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for the first time, but which a Professor of Contemporary Thought (whatever that means) ought to find rather less delightful. This isn’t an isolated example. Here, for example, is Self commenting on the supposed cultural impoverishment of the middle classes:
As for the traditional middle classes, they jettisoned the troublesome business of acquiring culture by any other means than orally. Under the new dispensation, it was no longer necessary to read Boccaccio, only munch on focaccia, just as you needn’t trouble yourself with listening to Saint Saens when it was so much easier to drink Cote de Beaune.
Set aside, for now, the content of the argument, the fact that reading Boccaccio always was a minority pursuit, and that the newspaper column inches now given over to food were not previously filled with articles about French composers. Observe instead that this is another of those leaden, wannabe-clever attempts at word play – and that, even in these terms, it falls short. I mean, how much ‘wittier’ would the second sentence have been – how much more easily would it have flowed – if ‘Cote de Beaune’ had been replaced with another French wine, ‘Sancerre’?
Under the new dispensation, it was no longer necessary to read Boccaccio, only munch on focaccia, just as you needn’t trouble yourself with listening to Saint Saens when it was so much easier to drink Sancerre.
Just at the level of language, that’s so much more satisfying – especially when you consider that this essay was written to be read aloud, which would make the almost-mirror-image sound of the two names even more obvious.
I don’t mean, by the way, to suggest that there is anything interesting or clever about my coming up with a neater alternative to Will Self’s wine of choice. Quite the contrary – I mean to make the point that this kind of stuff really isn’t difficult to do. For example, if I wanted to reduce my critique of Mr Self’s essay to a similarly facile aphorism, I’d say:
If you’re going to read Will Self’s essay on food culture, get hold of some scones and strawberry jam first – they’ll make his clotted prose easier to swallow.
That’s the point: these lumpen attempts at wit all but write themselves, and the fact he fell short of even so low a bar indicates how little effort he put into his essay.
The lack of effort is demonstrated by the content of the essay as well as it’s form. The assertion that ‘food culture’ is a phenomenon of the last few years is historically illiterate, since there have been food crazes ever since there have been people with enough money to treat food as entertainment rather than sustenance. An elaborate Elizabethan banquet, the 19th Century mania for service à la russe, the obsession with the prawn cocktail and the avocado in the 1960s and 70s, the contemporary focus on molecular gastronomy: these are all examples of food crazes. Amazingly enough, in the midst of his essay Self even mentions a man who was at the heart of another British food craze – the Heston Blumenthal of his age, Auguste Escoffier – apparently without realising that this undermines his own argument.
Then, too, there’s the fact that one of the other things he decries – that we are allowing ourselves to be defined by the food we eat – is another idea with a very long pedigree. After all, the French have been calling the English les rosbifs for centuries, and at least some Englishmen became so proud of the association that a love for beef was adopted into the ‘hinterland’ (as people say these days) of the one-time national figure, John Bull. A beef-heavy diet went on to stand for the inadequacies of the English (or British) national character in the work of writers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche and EM Forster, to name just two that occur to me off the top of my head – I’m sure the meme spread much wider than that. (EM Forster also anticipated by almost a century Self’s argument in this essay that the nation has become dominated by its middle classes.) It seems that, for some people at least, the English have always consumed their culture orally, and been identified by the food they consume. Of course, this doesn’t make the English in any way unique – whether one is mocking the French as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’, or naming an entire ethnic group for their cuisine, as with the Cajuns, the presumption that diet is central to social and cultural identity remains the same.
The sad thing is that, so far as I was concerned, Will Self was shooting at an open goal with this essay, but still managed to miss. I share his dismay at the ubiquity of food culture – every time I come across something telling me I can’t possibly enjoy a carrot without it being crushed, glazed, caramelised or otherwise mucked around with I cling ever tighter to the refusenik mantra ‘food is fuel’. I agree with him that the plethora of food shows on TV sits uneasily in a nation where increasing numbers of people are dependent on food banks for even basic staples. It’s just a shame that he can’t bring to say what he means, simply and unaffectedly.
Instead, he hedges it round with such heavy-handed attempts at ‘fine writing’ (‘fine writing’ being misunderstood to mean orotund phrase-making), and misfiring attempts at wit, that the resulting essay is virtually guaranteed to alienate. It seems reasonably clear that Self imagines this to be a political essay – although that political purpose doesn’t gel especially well with his obvious disdain for working class people who dare to eat beyond the ‘chippie, Chinese and Indian’ that are their natural territory – but his affected style so blunts his political thrust as to make it almost entirely ineffective. He seems to be trying to emulate two other famous broadcast essayists – Clive James, but without a tenth of the wit: Jonathan Meades, but without a tenth of the poetry – and ends up falling desperately far short of either.
Here, in essence, is what I find so frustrating: there’s the ghost of a good essay in there, and Will Self is more than capable of drawing it out and bringing it into being. It’s just that, in order to do that, he’d have to stop self-consciously being Will Self all the time, and just write the damn thing. But since Will Self makes it incessantly clear that Being Will Self – rather than writing interesting books, essays and journalism – is his true life’s work, it would be foolish to hold one’s breath for that.