At the Chocolate Factory: negotiating cocoa illusion in fact and fiction this Easter
Monday, 20 May 2024 15:42

At the Chocolate Factory: negotiating cocoa illusion in fact and fiction this Easter

Published in Eating & Drinking

Indelibly racist Roald Dahl was called upon by Hollywood profit-brokers again last year for yet another adaptation of his 1964 children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Timothée Chalamet starred as the film’s eponymous Wonka, next in cocoa-boss line to 2005’s Johnny Depp after 1971’s Gene Wilder. In January 2024, the Commodore cinema on Bath Street in Aberystwyth, its purpose-built bricks themselves looking quite chocolate-y, touted a belated single matinée showing.

Picture1

I did not see Wonka, personally, but in February it was my birthday again and I was experiencing an uncomfortable calling to visit Cadbury World, a chocolate theme park in Birmingham. Having been previously more intensely involved with various socio-economic and climate justice movements, and exercising a fairly extreme level of personal consumer restriction, I’d been experimenting with reintroducing occasional ‘bad’ products in attempt to soothe daily anxiety. Buying Cadbury Freddos became a joke between friends and family, and developed into a mock obsession. Performing wishes for Freddos, the real chocolate frogs at just 25p as opposed to the £8.95 ones sold by Warner Bros Harry Potter Wizarding World™, was a phatic expression of coping with the gutting-ness of a grossly-structured global economy, instead of being totally freaked by it. Pilgrimaging to Cadbury World, visiting Freddos at their nascent abode, seemed a perverse necessity. It had to be done, and now – thank God – it is.

The trip to Cadbury World happened during Holy Week this March. Easter ~ coco holiday ~ seemed a pertinent moment to psychogeographically investigate this particular site. I’m still trying to complete a PhD in literary psychogeographies, so am interested in how space is socially and culturally constructed and how that affects our subjective experience. Marxist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini released his neo-realist monochrome epic The Gospel According to St. Matthew the very same year as Dahl’s insipid Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published. We’d view the Cadbury phenomenon through the lens of redeemed aspects of Christian spirituality.

‘En route’ in the car with my Mom and Dad to Cadbury World on our way to the Isle of Wight for spring-break rest, we reminded ourselves of the modern confection industry’s nature. Google-searches for ‘Marx on chocolate’ gave us sweet FA, so we fast-forwarded to a Guardian article from 2023 titled ‘“Brands to avoid”: Mars and Cadbury among chocolate firms criticised in ethics report’. Yep: few living wages, rife child labour, suspect tax habits, persisting palm oil, deforestation, and plastic problems. Ethical Consumer says ‘The chocolate industry is incredibly unequal, with many cocoa farmers living in poverty while international chocolate companies are raking in billions of pounds’, amounting to no less than modern slavery. As well as in other-able lands such as Ghana, Cameroon, or Ivory Coast, it’s not good for the UK-based part of the production line either, including tourist and amusement spin-offs that have created whole new realms of inadequate employment. A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in 2022 urged audiences to mass-boycott Mondelēz who now owns Cadbury.

How has chocolate-related injustice been mediated through the arts? Zooming down the A44, A470, A489, A483, A458, A5, M54, M6, and A38, Mom found ‘A Literary History of Chocolate’ series at a blog called ‘Nico and Amy’s Literary Kitchen’. ‘LITKIT88’ quote Alexander Pope from his 1712 poem The Rape of the Lock, describing a decadent upper-class choc-y milieu that’s haunted, feat. beautiful-doomed Belinda for whom ‘nymphs prepared […] Chocolate’ on waking until she’s eventually punished. I used to eat a Freddo each morning for breakfast and felt a sharp Karmic pang.

Charles Dickens’s 1856 novel A Tale of Two Cities is said to satirise the French aristocracy associating choco with a selfish and corrupt nobility. James Joyce’s 1922 mega-tome Ulysses is noted for a scene, imbued with British Empire exploitation vibes, in which Leopold Bloom shares a chocolate bar with whores in a Dublin brothel. Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice, lecturing at Birmingham University in the 1930s, tackles Cadbury World directly – ‘Tonight is so coarse with chocolate / The wind blowing from Bournville’ – and begs for release.

We arrived at Cadbury World around 2pm. At a service station in Telford, my Dad had Googled ‘best age to go to Cadbury World’ and it is 7-11. We are 31, 60, and 61. But we were on a mission to understand chocolate and its cultural configuration in the UK right now.

 Picture2

We entered, and everything was immediately confusing and busy and felt grotty-bereft. Cadbury World was purchased by the entertainment company Merlin who run Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, various SEA LIFEs, Madame Tussauds, LEGOLAND® Windsor, and more, just last year. Queuing for the full Cadbury circuit, you can buy either a £1 or £2 goodie bag. We exchanged for a £1 one between three of us into which understandably gormless staff dumped several Twirls, Whispers, and Cadbury Caramel bars.

I am not adequately equipped to discuss the ‘Aztec’ models on display that ensued, dusty-toned like in gall-ish 1970s Harrods windows. Pools of stagnant water were littered with lucky coins at the Mexican natives’ feet. Corralled through c16/17th colonisers’ cocoa-discovery tales told via chequerboard-floored and wood-panelled miniature holographic Shakespearean stages, we emerged into Victoriana’s progress from fake streets into a pokey civic square where, a sign tells us, ‘The dwell time in the area is up to 7 minutes’.

Shopfronts full of cocoa merch, lil tins and trinkets from an optimistic c19th. We then sat in Theatre A, watching talking heads recount the Cadbury story, then Theatre B, enduring a ‘4D’ screening where attendees became conveyer-belt beans jigged about on simulatory benches. Upstairs, a ride like ‘It’s A Small World’ at Disneyland delivered us through bizarre topographies of anthropomorophised cocoa-beings in different guises and occupations. TVs presented surface-level histories, choc-making was demo’d in a booth, then we got some melted Dairy Milk in paper cups prepared by select employees enacting factory-esque procedures behind glass. Outside we saw a play area called ‘African Adventure’. Exiting fast through the giftshop, we bought nothing, ignoring that which would’ve once delighted us. We’d seen too much.

Back at the university in Aberystwyth, where I work, Freddos float equivocally in the Film and Theatre Studies Department vending machines…

Picture3 

Is there any way to have cocoa fun without moral comeuppance? Jack Kerouac dramatised the conundrum in The Dharma Bums in 1958: ‘“Japhy there’s one thing I would like right now more than anything in the world – more than anything I’ve ever wanted all my life […]”’ and it is ~ ‘“What?”’ ~ ‘“A nice big Hershey bar or even a little one. For some reason or other, a Hershey bar would save my soul right now […]”’. How can we negotiate compromised desires in a rancid late-Capitalist age?

Last year, Colin Herd and Maria Sledmere published Cocoa and Nothing with SPAM Press, and do a decent job of teasing such questions out. A small book designed like a Ritter Sport block contains eighty-or-so poems ‘named after genuine and hoax flavours of Ritter Sport Chocolate’. Tasting reviews by Andrew Durbin, Sean Wai Keung, and Rebecca May Johnson are blurb-packet adverts. Cocoa and Nothing’s first epigraph is Bernadette Mayer’s ‘poetry is as good as chocolate / chocolate is as good as poetry’; chocolate is GOOD – let’s not deny it. Lines include ‘have a great Chocolate / Chocolate, Chocolate Chocolate, Chocolate / Chocolate Chocolate!’, ‘boom-and-bust cycle’, ‘septic plot’, ‘speak ugly / for the survival of art’, ‘gut sentences’, ‘decadent as French confectionary / laced with incendiary comments’, ‘poem melting’, ‘depression / […] without chocolate / or sans cocoa / I think it’s mad / to not want / daily sprinkles / of something sweet’, ‘memory of / when Bella ate masses of Cadbury Dream / bar and vomited’, ‘faulty relation to dopamine’, ‘Augustus Gloop has a twitter, apparently / official, his bio is “I like chocolate. that’s it / really”’, ‘to write from 100% heart melt and / embrace that cocoa surfeit’.

I’d met Maria in Glaschu and asked her if I could raise Cocoa and Nothing here, explaining my thoughts. Among other things, Maria replied ‘I love this message so much x […] especially in the context of recent Glasgow-based chocolate dramas […] would be delighted for any readings of cocoa and nothing or anything I can contribute on the cultural matters of chocolate’. See another Guardian article, ‘Glasgow Willy Wonka experience called a “farce” as tickets refunded’, if you’re not already familiar with this choc-less tragedy.

Maria wrote about psychogeography back in 2016 at her blog ‘Mariology’. She says: ‘We might take urban space for granted as something that’s just there […]. Space, however, is always ideological, entangled in contested debates about politics, identity, belonging’. Amen, baby. Chocolate at Easter, and all months, is part of that conversation. Let’s dream a better chocolate cosmos; I notice my copy of Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography happens to be Cadbury-purple – is this the message he seeks to convey? You can buy a copy here.

Iain Sinclair is another psychogeographer who foregrounds chocolate in his zeitgeist analyses. Slow Chocolate Autopsy, with David McKean illustrations, was published as a short-story collection in 1997. What is the significance of this title? More Google search reveals autopsy means two things:

1. an examination of a body after death to determine the cause of death or the character and extent of changes produced by disease; and,

2. a critical examination, evaluation, or assessment of someone or something past.

Sinclair is always making autopsies of our ruined earthly Elysium. Is he saying that chocolate is at the core of civilisation’s prolonged demise? Reading Slow Chocolate Autopsy, I’m struck by connections to Cadbury World. Are ‘Purple tongues’ caused by toxic Cadbury products, eventually taking over humans entirely, as suggested by a foreboding sentence: ‘Purple chocolate, he was’? Should ‘choc-dust flourish in Frith Street cappuccino’ be avoided or celebrated? Is ‘Kinder Street’ coded with warnings against Kinder eggs? ‘Star blossom’ like ‘Bird-spit’ echoes blackthorn flowers clotted in trees on our way into Bournville, Cadbury’s ex-utopian workers’ village where its factory nestles. ‘Broken-down people’s palaces’, ‘Tarted up leisure and entertainment facilities’. Uncanny.

Psychogeographical inquiry itself is also comparable to choc, whereby ‘free associating meltdown’ from an overstimulated ‘crippling sense of psychogeography’ is suffered. The psychogeographer has:

The freedom to come and go amongst the confused dead. A visionary technician. A person skilled in the unfolding of post-human possibilities. A slow autopsy turning the frozen air to chocolate. The chalk line to a muddy brown. To a river.

For Sinclair, Willy Wonka’s chocolate river is a symbol of our sickly past, present, future that serves very few. Slow Chocolate Autopsy’s semi-autobiographical protagonist hopes to save himself from it, focusing more resolutely on his artistic projects, and deciding ‘No choc bar zits’ anymore.

Picture4 

We are so pleased to leave the Chocolate Factory. Did our £23-each tickets teach us valuable lessons? We spend the entirety of Easter in pious reflection.