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The Sounds of the Apocalypse
Did any of you go outside yesterday? I don’t know about you but for me it was one of the single most exhilarating things that I’ve done this year; the first rays of spring, deserted streets, empty buses, the main roads hijacked by delivery cycles, the feeling of sudden unlimited space, London as Berlin. Having felt like a chicken cooped up in a cage, I took just one walk, incorporating my exercise and shopping into the same run. It was a clear day so you could see straight into the clump of skyscrapers that grow out of Leadenhall and Spitalfields’ soil, all empty. Central London has been scooped out like a passionfruit. It was a strange exhilaration, balanced by a dull sense of dread. If it wasn’t for the signs of some normality: the scent of smoke coming from JB’s Soul Food, being able to buy some longanisa at Kim Luen, the fact that someone clearly considers both Morley’s and fake Morley’s being open ‘essential’, then you could have mistaken it for the opening scene of an post-apocalyptic film.
There’s been lots of talk of apocalypse lately. I think you can measure one by how far back you need to press the rewind button on humanity: we’re currently at around the 40-50 year stage, when the average British person ate out at restaurants approximately 0.8 times per year. If rationing comes in, then that’s about 80 years. Will we all be growing and making all our own food next? Will we have to construct ‘Modern British’ from scratch again? Parts of the food world have already been looking forwards by looking backwards, trying to bring in elements of a remote past to secure a future away from the corporatisation of farming and food, away from a homogenisation of agriculture that has real potential for catastrophe, especially with the climate change threat imminent. Of course coronavirus is not really the apocalypse, but climate change potentially is. Will this minor villain we have to overcome before the big baddie be the impetus for us to actually change our ways? Clearly George Reynolds has been thinking about this too, all the while listening to some decent music.
I don’t think I need to introduce George to anyone, except to say that he is a great writer who I have admired since well before I actually met him. He is also, in an extremely direct way, the reason I’m a food writer. In this small essay, he looks at two different visions of the apocalypse through two pieces of music, and how they might force us to look at food after this in a different light. If you have nothing to do, put on some headphones right now and let Basinski’s Disintegration Loops wash over you - after all, the sound of the apocalypse is not the sudden blast of a horseman’s trumpet, but a quiet, hypnotic loop as it slowly lulls you to sleep.
The first track from Canadian post-rock icons Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s inscrutably titled album F♯ A♯ ∞ is called ‘The Dead Flag Blues’. A lengthy monologue, delivered in a haunting baritone, begins with the chilling opening line “The car is on fire, and there's no driver at the wheel” and goes on to catalogue all manner of end-of-days horrors. You will of course have your own playlist to ride out the next few months but even if you’re leaning more Cary Rae Jepsen than Joy Division I’d argue it’s worth listening to in full here, not least because it’s astonishingly beautiful in its bleakness.
‘The Dead Flag Blues’ is interesting to me because I think it’s how most people visualise the apocalypse and the food that comes with it: carnage, chaos, desolation, hopelessness. We don’t imagine how the change occurs, we just know it happens: we think of a before, and then an after – a car suddenly on fire, no driver at the wheel – and imagine our appetite going through much the same step-change.
When the beloved, now deceased, food ‘zine Lucky Peach released its own Apocalypse issue in 2013, it mirrored this thinking in its very structure – a section about the stuff you could do to get ready for the end times (typical doomsday prepper stuff, really), and then a clear divide, in the form of three illustrated double-page spreads detailing the end of the world, and then a flash-forward to 2034, and the gross stuff we’ll perforce be putting into our mouths.
We love to think about this gross stuff. It’s fun, because it reinforces how secure our current food ecosystem is, which gives us a nice serotonin boost anyway – but it’s also fun because (as any kid who enjoys getting messy and/or the works of Rabelais will tell you) grossness is in itself fascinating. It’s hard to one-up the spit-roasted baby in Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, perhaps – but that’s not to say people haven’t tried, from the smooshed cockroach paste fed to the lower orders in Boon Jong Ho’s other masterful class satire, Snowpiercer, after they had resorted to eating each other; to the creepy secret of the titular foodstuff in the 1973 dystopian thriller Soylent Green (it’s people).
Cannibalism, it seems, is always where our brains end up when we think of the end times – that, or in the stomach of creepy external forces (vampires in The Passage, zombies in every zombie movie ever made) that take us as their sustenance. I am no psychologist, but it’s a fascinating anxiety to prod at from my armchair – does it suggest that what we fear, most of all, is that the food chain will be inverted?
Anyway. I recently started writing a long piece on food and the apocalypse, and I had another album, William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops playing in my headphones for a lot of the process: it’s great writing music, because it’s the sort of pleasingly ambient background noise that blocks out external interruptions without proving any form of distraction. Yet the story behind the music is extraordinary, and weirdly apocalyptic in its own right – Basinski, while trying to digitise his loop archives to preserve them, inadvertently set in motion their decay as the magnetised metal peeled off the tapes. The result is the sound of songs falling in on themselves, disappearing, in some cases, into literal silence by the track’s end. That the completion of the project in New York in 2001 collided with the backdrop of the September 11th attacks and the cataclysmic spectacle of a skyline subsiding to nothingness has imbued the project with a special significance.
The long piece was – and still is going to be, if we still have print media on the other side of this thing – about something Alicia Kennedy recently surfaced in an article: namely, how we talk about food and act about food in two entirely different ways, as though the ‘food’ in those two cases was not actually the very same thing. It is fascinating to me that anyone with an iota of sense is aware that we are suffering through an unprecedented climate emergency – and yet we still (largely) eat a diet high in cheap animal protein, for example.
This isn’t about the climate emergency. But I had a strange epiphany while I was sketching out the outline for the piece about it, which was that the ‘Dead Flag Blues’ / Before and After model of apocalyptic food writing was potentially stupid, and certainly unhelpful. Food – and food writing – in the apocalypse is actually much more akin to what is happening in The Disintegration Loops, which is to say The Disintegration Loops and food writing in the apocalypse are about one and the same thing: an organism erasing itself from existence in real time.
We are a long way off the ‘After’ stage of our species’ endgame – but as the past week or so has shown, we’re definitely more in the ‘During’ bit than we previously thought. Think about how your cooking will evolve in the next few weeks, especially if you are forced to self-quarantine – think of the things you will leave on supermarket shelves, or the things you will not find when you go looking for them. Think of the delicious ingredients you will not be able to enjoy, even on special occasions, because no one near you sells them and no restaurants are open to cook them for you (for me, around this time of year, it is morels and sweetbreads). Now imagine that these privations are not temporary (as we must hope that these privations are), but permanent. Already, bluefin tuna is something that my son will probably only be able to explain to his children; already, to put it in more pragmatic and less crushingly middle class terms, of late we have certainly seen scary evidence of how irrationally we behave when our daily bread is not instantly available.
It feels odd to cast about for positives during something as appalling as the current COVID-19 crisis, especially when so many friends and family fear for their livelihoods and lives. But if one good thing can come out of it, I hope it is that we realise how precarious all of this is, and how unthinkingly we have already slipped closer to our own version of the scene depicted in ‘The Dead Flag Blues’ – in terms of food security, and the damage we have done to the planet, and the damage the planet can do to us. Writers of dystopian fiction don’t focus on the ‘during’ bit in their books or screenplays because it would be tedious – as tedious as the next few months will surely be – to linger on lives as they subtly degrade. Far better to focus on the cinematic moments: the dramatic irony of pig-headed leaders ignoring all the signs; the Children of Menopening oner that details everything fully gone to shit; all those buildings, in all those Michael Bay movies, falling in on themselves and into dust. But Eliot was right about how the world ends – and it’s a thought worth holding onto not just during COVID-19, but as we try to make a better world after it.
George Reynolds is a food writer who is published at Eater London, Noble Rot and The Sunday Times, as well as his own blog http://www.egoscriptor.space/ . He kindly donated this article to Vittles.
Illustration by Reena Makwana https://reenamakwana.com/
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