This demi-paradise

Martin Plimmer finds food in the fast lane is not to his taste

It's one of the ironies of our age that movers and shakers, with such hectic schedules that they have no spare time, spend two hours over lunch at The Ivy, while the unemployed, who have all the time in the world, eat fast food.

Fast food is exactly what the name implies. One second it's there: the next it's in the toilet. Usually you don't notice it going through. It's quite possible, if the attention is momentarily distracted by an interesting breadfruit plant, to eat part of the polystyrene container by mistake. You can taste the food, if you wilfully restrain it with the teeth, though this is not recommended.

After a meal, it's often hard to remember whether you've eaten or not. One reason chains like McDonald's make so much money is that people order a second meal to make sure. It's a triumph of marketing over matter. In theory, you could cut out the middle-man. McDonald's might prefer the efficiency savings of having no customers, which anyway compromise its standards of cleanliness. The food could simply be wrapped up and put straight in the bin.

There are McDonald's everywhere. There's one near you, and there's one being built right now even nearer to you. Soon, if McDonald's goes on expanding at its present rate, there will be one in your house. You could find Ronald McDonald's boots under your bed. And maybe his red wig, too.

All McDonald's are the same. This is strange considering they are the product of a culture which honours individualism above all. The only spark of individual expression I have ever seen in a McDonald's was a hand-written "NO ROLLER SKATES" notice taped to the door of one, which was itself an attempt to curb the individualism of others. I have never seen a sign, by the way, which so made me want to roller skate in a restaurant.

The odd thing about McDonald's is that though we all hate them, we know them intimately: the smell of warm cardboard, the wipeable aesthetic of the decor, all those people with buckets and bins doing things while you eat.

"Why can't we all relax a bit?" you think. "It's my lunch hour." But relaxation isn't the point. Getting the Hell out of there is the point. The interior colours have been chosen carefully with this end in mind. From the scarlet and yellow of the logo to the maroon of the uniform: everything clashes. It's designed to stop people feeling so comfortable they might want to stay.

Kids tolerate Ronald McDonald, even though he looks like a serial killer from a cheap movie. They're only interested in one thing: the toy. The toy is McDonald's greatest triumph. If you could just go in and buy the toy you would, but you can't. You have to buy food in order to get the toy. This is McDonald's very clever trick. It means every parent in the country is forced to eat there at least once a month.

People who oppose McDonald's often say: "Britain has a good tradition of bad food; why should we put up with bad American food?" Ask them this: when was the last time they got a free articulated duck with their pie and chips?

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