A visit to the cereal café

by Sam Kriss

There are three things glaringly wrong with the Cereal Killer Café on Brick Lane in East London. Firstly, the menu consistently renders the word ‘raisins’ as ‘raisans’, which is incorrect. Secondly, it’s owned and managed by Gary and Alan Keery, a uniquely ghastly pair of identical twins. These two ghouls sport identical location-standard bushy beards, identical obnoxious slicked-back haircuts, identical smarmy expressions. Twins who do this kind of thing into adulthood are always hiding something hideous and perverse: when faced with such uncanny mirror-perfect duplication I can’t help but posit the necessary existence of a grotesque, hidden, third brother. Something scrabbling in the cellars, a cringing Smerdyakov figure onto whose memory all the suppressed differences between the superterranean Keerys has been displaced. A mad and vicious creature, whose pathological love for breakfast cereal turned him into something more beast than boy. His musty dungeon full of pencil-toppers and Rubik’s cubes, bobblehead dolls from the bottom of promotional packs, all nodding in unison with serene smiling faces as the idiot rubs cornflake dust into the stinking pits of his body. He slurps milk between sugar-stained pegs, he howls the advertising slogans between mouthfuls. His laugh rises from a constricted phlegmy giggle to the full manic convulsions of someone who sees the death of all reason perfectly reflected in the scrying-stone that is his morning bowl of Frosties. They had to kill him, of course, the twins, and they buried his heavy bones – glossy as enamel from all the fortifying calcium in his diet – below the foundations of what would become the UK’s first speciality breakfast cereal café. To seal the pact, they vowed to take on the same form, to be more than brothers, to be the same person, knowing what happened to the third twin, knowing that they might not be strong enough to face the darkness alone, that cruel gibbering malignancy always lurking beneath their quirky love for breakfast cereal. And so the madness of the murdered brother leeched into every brick of the place, until it became his empire.

The third thing wrong with the Cereal Killer Café is the décor. In keeping with the name there are, along with the expected 80s and 90s memorabilia, several portraits of famous murderers, rendered in cereal on canvas. Hannibal Lecter stares out from a mask of Cheerios and Coco Pops. Next to him, a Cookie Crisp Myra Hindley, cold eyes expertly rendered in fragments of the limited-edition white chocolate chip version that was briefly sold in early 2009. H H Holmes, looking puffy and garish in a pointillist mélange of Lucky Charms and Froot Loops. Finally, the man himself, a tiny icon tucked away behind the bar, floating above the stacked boxes of cereals from around the world like the figure of God in a medieval panel. Hunched, sagging, shambling; a ruined city sketched out behind him in crumbs of muesli: pecans and brazil nuts for the larger chunks of broken concrete, fragments of sunflower seed for the dunes of rubble, freeze-dried strawberry for the red splats where looters were shot. Adolf Hitler is turning his face to you, the face of industrial human slaughter described in sweetened corn and oat shapes with all the complex carbohydrates you need to start your day feeling great.

I went to the cereal café on a chilly and brittle December afternoon. The place has drawn some criticism for selling a bowl of cereal for £3.50 despite being situated in Tower Hamlets, the most deprived borough in London, a place where most people have been reduced to eating their own flaking skin – but of course it isn’t really in Tower Hamlets. It’s in Shoreditch, and Shoreditch isn’t even part of London, being instead a sovereign joint extraterritoriality of EuroDisneyland and the third circle of Hell. I walked up from Liverpool Street, where the low winter sun and the hrímþursar-skyscrapers conspire to carve long deep shadows over the lower foothills of finance, my shoulders drawn up against the cold. As I trekked north along Bishopsgate strange things started to manifest themselves. Hashtags appeared over shopfronts, as if to signal that by pressing my face against the sign for #GAP I would achieve a sudden transcendental vision of the entrance to every Gap store on the planet. The pigeons had a paranoid glint in their eyes, and when they opened their mouths they never cooed but shrieked. Meanwhile the graffiti grew ever more incoherent and malicious. First, on Great Eastern Street, the dark, formless command, Let’s Adore And Endure Each Other. Then, as I turned onto Bethnal Green Road, a mural of a hedgehog, dancing on two feet with rows of taut glistening human breasts, along with the slogan Ulster Volunteer Force Red Hand Commando – All Hipsters Must Be Accompanied By A Responsible Adult. Over an entire two-storey wall at the corner of Brick Lane someone had spraypainted, in an elegant, aristocratic hand, a long diatribe against a specific person that I realised with a heart-quickening shock could only be me, including a punchy and viscerally erudite rubbishing of my self-involved writing style and an itemised list of my various sexual dysfunctions. I had enemies in this place. All I wanted was to get my cereal and get out.

It soon became clear that this would not be possible. The queue for the Cereal Killer Café stretched all the way down Brick Lane to the underpass by Grimsby Street, where it crossed the road and continued up the other side. I joined the end, stamped my feet, lit a cigarette, tried to look inconspicuous. At the point where the line was blocking off the street, a taxi driver had given up honking his horn and was now reduced to openly weeping out the window. Occasionally people passing by would ask someone what was going on. Sometimes they even asked me – perhaps because, despite looking like a normal person who’s been stretched on a medieval torture implement, or the result of a disastrous attempt to crossbreed a human with a beansprout, I was still the most conventional-looking individual out of a group of grown men and women willing to wait for hours in the cold to eat breakfast cereal. “It just opened,” I explained. “It’s a cereal café.” Cereal café?  “Yes. They serve one hundred and twenty different types of breakfast cereal from around the world, with twenty toppings, and twelve milks, and I’m here because I want to write about it.” At this my questioner would nod their head, as if to say well, that makes perfect sense, and carry on. And it did make sense, more sense than anyone would have liked to admit. There were still a few curry houses open on Brick Lane, the street signs were still in English and Bengali, there were still the two beigel bakeries, relics of a time when this had been the Jewish East End, when my own grandfather had grown up sharing a single room in Shoreditch with a dozen or so siblings – but now we were at the end of history, and all that was dead. A few doors down from the cereal café stood a boutique unicycle store, in which various arbortectural techniques were used to force saplings to grow into living, functioning one-wheeled contraptions. Across the road, not far from where I stood, a pop-up restaurant offered gourmet masonry from four continents, mud-bricks from Morocco, Yorkshire dry stone, chunks from demolished Chinese temples, along with various delicate files for turning these slabs into a broadly ingestible powder. And on my way to this endless line, I had passed a man lovingly, tenderly fucking his iPad in its headphone jack. An establishment selling only breakfast cereal? Why not? We’re free now. We eat pine cones. Nothing matters.

People entered the Cereal Killer Café, but I never saw anyone leaving – but after the first hour or so of slow shuffling towards its doors I cared more about just making it inside than the question of whether or not I would be killed. As I waited I had a chance to see some of daily life in the post-gentrification ruins of East London. I watched a gang of bailiffs dragging the owner of a newsagent out by his hair, before a crane swooped silently overhead and, with a shattering bang, precision-dropped a shipping container onto the building, splintering it into fragments of brickwork. The iron doors swung open; a functioning terrarium outlet was already inside; six were trampled to death in the rush. I saw a street gang shake down a couple of cops for the proceeds from their racketeering business. By the time whatever sunlight there had been was fading and the sickly yellow glow of streetlamps glooped over the tarmac, the militiamen of the Islamic State of Rochdale And East London were making their shari’a enforcement patrols. They all seemed frail and nervous, hoisting their rocket launchers backwards over their shoulders and looking as if they might collapse under the weight of so much gleaming metal. Their leader, a slight, studious man, unarmed, wearing pince-nez and an absurd puffer jacket over his shalwar kameez, was the first to jump out his convoy of pick-up trucks, while the machine-gunners in the flatbeds all pointed their muzzles at the viscous purple sky for American helicopters. First he accosted a group of drunk girls bounding arm-in-arm down the street in tiny dresses and long tan coats. He pointed out various edifying passages from his pocket Qur’an, and explained that they should behave with decency in a Muslim area. They told him to naff off and get a life. The gunmen were furious, and wanted to shoot the girls there and then, but the imam waved them on. Tiny sad tears were welling in his eyes, tears of holy frustration, as he moved on to educate a musclebound haircut in a deep v-neck tactically chundering behind some bins. I wondered why he persisted in doing this to himself. Clearly it wasn’t making him happy.

Before long the Islamic State were joined by a mob from Crusaders United to Neutralise Terrorist Scum, sixty or so hulking thugs. Their chants mostly sounded like indecipherable simian hooting, but this might have had something to do with the complex motet system they employed. The line of skinheads at the front would chuck beer bottles, pipe bombs, and chunks of bacon at the Islamic State convoy, then retreat backwards and sing one verse while the new frontline continued its assault, and the line behind sang an imitative counterpoint. As a result most of the actual words were lost in the swirling, delicate polyphony (not to mention the explosions and percussive spasms of retaliatory gunfire). Even so, I could pick out a few phrases from the cantus firmus. We’re not racists, they sang, it’s just common sense. Then, as the tenors took up a new theme, This violence is a sad product of the Labour party’s abandonment of white working-class voters. The bloodshed only really began once the Crusaders United wheeled out a harpsichord to perform an accompaniment. The mujahideen, shrieking that musical instruments were haraam, drew back behind their vehicles, and the mounted AA-gunners decimated the choir with a few shuddering bursts. I didn’t worry about catching a stray bullet. I knew my enemies here had more subtle means; a stilletto in the dark, not the blinding light of gunfire. It was sad, really: both sides were fighting a losing battle. Most of the evening revellers paid little attention to the slaughter, or, assuming it was all some kind of seasonal theatre piece, chucked a few pennies in their direction. Hard to not feel sorry for CUNTS and ISRAEL, especially the latter – they, at least, were trying to build a new and better society, even though all that was impossible now. In any case, by the time the skinheads had kicked away the still-twanging fragments of harpsichord and replaced it with a L118 field howitzer, I was finally at the front of the queue and ready to enter the Cereal Killer Café.

It was a café selling breakfast cereal. I briefly toyed with the idea that the most aesthetically and ideologically correct choice after waiting for several hours would be to order a bowl of plain cornflakes with semi-skimmed milk, but ended up going for a ‘cereal cocktail’, something with a stupid name that ended up coming in at just under £4. My order was taken by a girl with an iPad hovering over the line as it snaked up to the front: I gave her my money, and she then repeated what I’d told her to the cereal mixologists over the counter. They didn’t even pour the milk for me. With so many waiting customers in the ground floor, all the actual eating took place in the windowless basement, a strangely drab and dismal room, all exposed brick and flickering TVs showing silent clips from Hey Arnold! and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I ate my cereal. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful either. It was breakfast cereal. Food for children, vaguely miserable, invented in 1894 by a man who thought bland and boring food would prevent people from masturbating. Everyone knows that a real breakfast consists of sausages, bacon, black pudding, eggs, fried tomato and mushrooms, hash browns, tea, and toast (or string hoppers, coconut sambal and kiri hodi, or croissants and cigarettes, or huevos rancheros, or whatever). Breakfast cereal is toasted, granulated defeat, sprinkled with sugar, riboflavin, and iron filings. It’s all already there for you, and you just pour milk on top. Breakfast cereal is enjoyed by children because children are too passive and stupid to make a real breakfast for themselves.

I sat in a gloomy basement and ate a bowl of breakfast cereal, and wondered if it had really come to this, if we’d dropped the A-bomb for this. All around me grown adults were eating their cereal in a state of stunned silence. In fact this room, with its chipped brickwork, its flaking plaster, its once-beloved toys, its fusebox with visible looping wires, its low lighting and its silent screens, didn’t look too different from a nuclear shelter. I had a sudden sense that when (or if) I emerged, I’d find that what remains of the world had ended. The cereal café would be the only thing to survive our civilisation, in the same way that the Catholic Church had survived the Roman Empire. The cereal café would be there to instruct the bubo-ridden survivors in the ways of the world that had existed before. At prayers they would chant the names of all 151 original Pokémon, Mew and Mewtwo mouthed silently, with eyes clenched shut in fervour. Out of the rubble they would build a vast statue of Dora the Explorer to be their god. Five thousand years of history would only be remembered for the fact that once, it had given us breakfast cereal.

In the end I did make it out alive, and the world had not ended. On the street, the warring armies were retreating. An old man stood by the door, a tray around his neck, selling glow sticks and overpriced cigarettes. But on the way out I saw something, and now I know that it is Satan, and not God, who has power over this world. By the door of the Cereal Killer Café there’s a display of novelty and promotional cereal boxes, tie-ins with films and TV shows, sporting brands, and so on. And there, between the C-3PO’s and the Pac-Man Puffs, plonked in front of a bowl of cereal, spoon to its wide grinning mouth, trapped forever in a prison of shiny cardboard, was my own face. I won’t go back to the cereal café. But maybe all this is a lie. Maybe I’m still there, trapped in that image; maybe I never truly left.