Are we presently witnessing the birth of a new sub-species of mankind?
Astonishing though it may seem, top scientific chaps seem to think that this is exactly what is happening. Evolutionary adaptations usually take millions of years before they become apparent, but many leading anthropologists now believe that we are currently seeing the emergence of new classification of human being that is better adapted to eating chips.
An ordinary family
Several years ago, a colleague of mine spent some time studying an ordinary family living on a council estate in the Midlands. During this period he paid meticulous attention to the family's social activities, recorded their eating habits, measured blood sugar levels, probed their eldest daughter and dissected the family dog.
His results, although not conclusive, seemed to suggest the emergence of a new strain of human being - like us in so many ways, and yet, ultimately, not like us at all. My friend may have been on the way to the discovery of a lifetime, but he was sadly killed in a freak windsurfing accident while out shopping, and his groundbreaking research was never completed.
And so it was, almost ten years later, that I journeyed to that same council estate to witness this emergent lifeform for myself.
The Adidas Estate is, without doubt, one of the harshest and most hostile environments on the planet. It's a wonder that life can survive here at all, and yet somehow, miraculously, it thrives.
The streets are littered with burnt-out cars, abandoned shopping trolleys, overflowing skips and the rotting carcasses of various sundry domestic animals. As I drive steadily down the centre of the road, taking the occasional deviation to avoid chunks of fallen masonry, gangs of young boys take time out from torturing birds, pet cats and each other to eye up my car.
Strangers are not common around here, and are regarded with suspicion. It's unnerving to have to suffer those beady, red-rimmed eyes staring out of grimy faces, the incoherent grunting and jeering, and the occasional bangs and pings of stones ricocheting from the bodywork of my car. Turning a corner I am presented with a graphic reminder of just how vicious these people can be. The carcass of a bus is lying on its side in the road, shattered glass spilling out across the tarmac. Twisted and mangled seats spill from the gaping windows, foam padding billowing from the slashed upholstery. What happened to the passengers is unclear, but there is conspicuous evidence that some of them have been eaten.
Dark, sullen, slightly retarded
My destination, a quiet cul-de-sac, seems to have escaped most of the ravages that have overtaken the rest of the estate. There is no one about, save for a youth of about fifteen perched on railings, playfully threatening a boy half his age with a large kitchen knife. As I get out of my car he fixes me with that dark, sullen, slightly retarded look that seems common to most of his kind, but otherwise seems to take very little interest in me.
The family I have come to see, the Fosters, live at number seven. None of the houses are numbered, so I make an educated guess and approach the most likely dwelling. It is, like all the other buildings, a squat, grey, pebbledashed bunker, with peeling paintwork and a rusty basketball hoop drooping indolently on the side wall.
A ragged assortment of tall, thick stemmed weeds protrude from the dusty scattering of gypsum that passes for a front garden, partially hiding a selection of broken breeze blocks, old car batteries and a dismantled motorbike. I step over a rotten, rolled up carpet, skirt the mortal remains of a dead dog, half concealed by an upturned wheelbarrow, and make towards the door - which has been removed from its hinges, and is now propped up against the wall, beside the open doorway.
"Hello!" I shout inside. "Anyone home?"
A sudden movement makes me start. I hadn't noticed before, but all this time there has been a man standing beside a broken drainpipe, pissing up the side of the house. He finishes what he's doing, looks at me and with a nod and a guarded mumble of 'awight', zips himself up and leaves. I never saw him again.
"Hello!" I shout once more, louder this time. There is no reply, but I can hear noises coming from within, so I step inside. It is dark and oppressive within the dwelling, and I take a moment to acclimatise myself to the gloom. I am in a short, cluttered hallway. To my right is a large stack of boxes, some containing irons, some toasters, others with kettles, DVD players and various other appliances.
Foraging for electrical items is common practice in this neighbourhood, and the goods are often used for the purposes of barter. This family appear to have amassed quite a haul, possibly from a badly secured warehouse or a broken down lorry, and as a result they are probably occupying a position of high standing within the community.
To my left, on a peeling Formica shelf above the radiator, there are further symbols of status: dozens of little plastic toys that have been given away with McDonalds Happy Meals. Such items are highly prized, and the way they are carefully arranged by the front door is intended to fill visitors with a sense of wonder and reverence.
A piquant fusion of stale sweat
Noises are coming from an open doorway, just up on the left. I move forward, picking my way cautiously over the abandoned shoes and discarded junk mail strewn liberally over the floor, until a powerful and heady aroma almost stops me in my tracks. It's a piquant fusion of stale sweat, cooking fat and rising damp, with just the merest suggestion of urine. It's enough to bring tears to the eyes of the hardiest of men, but in the interests of science I press on, breathing through my mouth as much as possible and trying not to cry.
Upon reaching the main living area the smell is even stronger, turning the very air into a fuggy haze through which it is barely possible to see. The walls are yellow with nicotine. The carpet is sticky underfoot. Discarded plates and takeaway boxes litter the floor, the crusty remains of ancient dinners crawling with mould and bugs.
Damp and dirty clothing is draped over every surface. And there, at the focal point of the room sits the matriarch, Mrs Foster, in a huge brown armchair, which after many years of nesting is now perfectly shaped to her ample behind. Actually, 'ample' doesn't really do it justice. Many, many years of tireless devotion to pies and pasties have turned her arse into a mighty edifice. Gloriously upholstered in yellow Lycra, stretched so tight that through it you can read the washing instructions on her knickers, her backside presents a challenge to tempt the most resolute of mountaineers. Indeed, many a bold adventurer may well have perished in that crevasse.
Portrait of elegance
To complete this portrait of elegance, she wears a skimpy, sleeveless top, rolled over countless folds of blubber, exposing fat and stubby pink arms, each one as thick as a normal man's thigh. When she reaches up it is possible to observe great loops of skin hanging from beneath them. This is a common feature amongst her kind.
It has been suggested that these may be rudimentary wings, capable of carrying her short distances - for example, to the off licence and back - but it's hard to imagine her ever getting airborne, no matter how hard she flaps.
Beside her, sprawled on a sofa, is her daughter, Britney. She's smaller than Mrs Foster - but it's really only a matter of time. She's wearing baggy jeans and a white t-shirt, on which she is proudly exhibiting the remnants of some of the meals she has eaten in recent weeks.
Worryingly, Britney seems to be entirely dependent on a smart phone, as one is permanently clamped to her ear. Currently she is talking to someone called 'Trisha', although whether Trisha is managing to say anything in reply is a matter for conjecture, since it would appear that Miss Foster is conducting the conversation single handed, remaining reluctant to leave a gap large enough for anyone else to get a word in edgewise.
I notice that she doesn't even pause to inhale, which suggests that she may have developed some sort of blowhole for breathing purposes.
These are not the only two in the room. Britney has offspring of her own, and these are scattered about the abode in buggies, baskets and blankets, belching and shitting themselves at leisure. I lose count of how many there are, but there is an impressive variety of ages, sizes and colours, suggesting that Miss Foster is popular with much of the local male population. The latest addition to her brood is a small pig-like creature that is currently nuzzled up beside her on the sofa, feeding on gravy from its mother's breast.
Bigoted opinions and salacious gossip
As is traditional at this hour of the morning, mother and daughter are seated before a TV set, watching a talk show in which people much like themselves air their grievances, shout at the audience and attempt to murder each other whilst being egged on by the host.
It's an opportunity for Mrs Foster and her daughter to bond, sharing life experiences, bigoted opinions and salacious gossip, and I am reluctant to interrupt. Nevertheless, I feel it is only polite that I announce my presence. After some time spent trying to catch Mrs Foster's eye, a commercial break momentarily breaks the television's iron grip on her attention and I am able to introduce myself.
Of course, I didn't want to burden them with the real reason for my visit - that would have created far too much confusion, and invited suspicion. Instead, I had chosen a cover story. I had telephoned the previous day to explain that I was their long lost Uncle Frederick, that I was currently being hassled by a firm of debt collectors, and that I would be staying with them for a few days until the heat was off. I wasn't sure exactly how this had gone down, for Mrs Foster's replies had been guttural and indistinct, and I strongly suspected that she'd been holding the phone the wrong way round.
A tense momen
Our first meeting turns out to be a tense moment. As I stand there in her living room she glares at me with an expression of irritation bordering on hostility. For a full thirty seconds we lock eyes as she sizes me up. I can feel myself breaking out into a cold sweat. Then suddenly she nods and asks me if I have any 'fags'. This is good news! It means that I have been accepted into the family unit and am, for the time being at least, one of them. I hand over a pack of 200 Benson and Hedges, then sit down in an armchair beside her.
It isn't long before a third member of the family unit enters. This is Darren, Mrs Foster's eldest son, and immediately I can see that he his markedly different from the others. Whereas the two females are rather squat, heavy-framed individuals, the male is tall, gawky and slight of build, looking as if he is descended from a line of rats. His bum-fluff moustache, close cropped hair and pimpled, scabby jaw line exacerbate his frail appearance, and his inability to form simple sentences and reliance on expressions like 'innit', 'safe' and 'wot' do little to dispel the impression that he is mentally subnormal.
I notice that his front teeth are curiously arranged, jutting out in all directions, apparently at random. At first I take this as a sign that he has been hit in the face quite a lot - a reasonable assumption to make. After all, he clearly has one of those faces you just want to punch. Even I have to struggle to maintain my scientific detachment and prevent myself from slapping him, and I've only just met him.
But as I look more carefully I realise, much to my delight, that his bizarre dentition is a natural modification, providing him with specialised teeth to prise apart pork pies, scoop the last dregs from a carton of mushy peas or open bottles of lager.
At present I am witnessing Darren in a highly agitated state. He has just come back from a local shopping centre, where his attempts to obtain a refund for a DVD he bought several weeks ago have proved to be unsuccessful. I gather that there's nothing wrong with the item - he just thought it was crap, and believes this entitles him to his money back.
Mrs Foster immediately takes charge of the situation. She phones the shop and swears at them for several minutes, during which time I note with some satisfaction that she is holding the receiver the wrong way round. She then declares that she is going to go down there in person, to assault the staff and inflict criminal damage on the premises. This is a wonderful development - an opportunity to see these people in action, doing what they do best, and I eagerly accept the invitation accompany them.
A trip into town isn't as straightforward as it might seem, for when Mrs Foster travels, the rest of the tribe must go with her. We spend about twenty minutes gathering up bags, purses, shoes, coats and children before we emerge from the house and stream down to the bus stop.
Our procession weaves through the streets like a Burberry caterpillar and by the time we board the bus we seem to have collected even more kids. Britney is unable to tell me exactly how large her brood is as many of her mutant offspring have turned feral and now roam the streets, causing consternation, panic and frequently getting clogged up in the brushes of street cleaning apparatus.
Those that she has managed to gather together for this trip now endear themselves to our fellow passengers by running up and down the length of the vehicle, shouting, ringing the bell and insulting people at random.
An elderly, neatly dressed, frail old man politely asks Britney to keep the children under control, but she quickly responds by telling him to shut the fuck up. The poor man spends the rest of the journey in an embittered silence with various snot-stained, shit-streaked children tugging on his ears and knocking his hat off.
It's interesting to note that the Fosters haven't paid a penny for the privilege of riding this bus, and free access to public transport is not the only entitlement they enjoy. Thanks to a night course she took at the local college, Britney has an NVQ in Screwing Money Out of the Local Authority, and as a result the family now gets a weekly pie allowance, video game vouchers, handouts for leggings and shellsuits, plus the usual mobile phone assistance, lager subsidy and money for bingo and cigarettes.
However this may all soon come under threat, since the DWP have threatened to stop Miss Foster's dole money and force her to take a job. Understandably, Britney is outraged. Working for a living would leave her with no time for watching TV and going to the pub. She believes it is totally unreasonable of the authorities to expect her to support herself, and ultimately blames asylum seekers who are, as she puts it, 'coming over here and taking our benefits'.
The bus is a write-off
By the time we reach the city centre the bus is a write-off and many of our fellow passengers are in tears. It's a pattern that continues as we progress through the streets, moving from one pie shop to another, leaving a trail of devastation and crumbs in our wake.
Crowds scatter before us. Security staff hastily gabble into radios, warning each other of our approach. For a moment it seems like we are being contained, but then the family decides to split up and all is lost. Darren goes off to do some shoplifting, while Britney decides to hang around outside a chip shop, shouting at her children and occasionally slapping some of the smaller ones. Meanwhile, I stick close by Mrs Foster as she sets out to secure a refund for her son's DVD.
It is, without doubt, a magnificent performance. She demands to see the manager. She demands to see the owner. She doesn't allow anyone to get a word in edgeways. Every denial is met with a raise in pitch and volume. Every argument is met by the steadfast reaffirmation that she knows her rights, she wants her money back, and she's going to bloody well stand there until she gets it, and if she doesn't she's going to complain to their head office, or to Trading Standards, or she's going to tell her husband, and he'll come down and sort them out in person, and then they'll be sorry, oh yes.
She gets what she wants
Inevitably, she gets what she wants, and smugly marches out of the shop, scattering a few choice insults in her wake. It's of no great surprise that they gave in to her, she confides in me afterwards. She used to work in a shop once (two weeks on a supermarket checkout in 1982) so she knows that the law was on her side.
I have my doubts. I suspect that it was her constant whining voice and the unpleasant smell rather than her sharp legal mind and dazzling oratory that finally forced the shop manager to capitulate. It was, nonetheless, an impressive spectacle all the same.
And so, with this excitement over, we meet up with the rest of the family. Darren has scored a fine selection of small, easily pocketable electrical items to add to the family's haul, and Miss Foster has gained a few more children. We accumulate some additional pies, pasties and sausage rolls, then head back home - where I finally get to meet the head of the household.
A bulbous outcrop of solidified lava
It's obvious, from the moment we step through the front door, that 'something' is waiting for us within. There's a new smell in the air. It's a meaty smell. A beery smell. And there's a sound too, the rasping, wheezing, snorting noise of some huge creature struggling to breathe.
As we approach the door to the living room, I have a sudden urge to turn back but I know I must force myself to go on. And then I see it! It's slumped in an armchair, its great bald head lolling to one side, apparently asleep. It is wearing a dirty red tracksuit and muddy brown shoes, and its grotesque belly hangs out over the waistband like a bulbous outcrop of solidified lava.
One of its thick, gorilla-like paws grips a beer can at an angle, the contents slopping out onto the carpet. The creature stirs, twitches, then lifts up one cheek of its monstrous backside and farts. The thick green cloud envelops him for a while, as if unwilling to leave its creator, before slowly dissipating into the already saturated air. This creature - this behemoth - is Mr Foster, and he's just got back from the pub.
Mrs Foster jabs him repeatedly in the back of his head, and slowly he begins to wake up. Somehow he has developed the ability to completely ignore her, and happily tucks into some cold, congealed chips which he finds in the folds of his belly. However, as soon as he sees me, his attitude begins to change. A dark, thunderous look passes over his face, as if he is struggling to prise some unpleasant thought from some long forgotten fold of his lard-addled brain. Suddenly he realises what it is that's annoying him: there is a stranger in his house. He doesn't like strangers. He wants this stranger to go away.
"Who's this cunt?" he grumbles.
At this point we are all pretty much agreed that it would be better if I left. I'm certainly in no doubt that this is the best course of action, and I hightail it from the premises as fast as I possibly can.
As I emerge, blinking into the sunshine, I wonder if these people, and others of their kind, will ever be able to integrate into normal society?
It is to be hoped that they won't. They descend upon an area like a plague of locusts, devouring everything in their path and leaving a residue of drinks cans and car parts. They soil everything they touch, and destroy everything they can't steal - so it comes as no surprise to me to find that my car is now missing and all that remains is a single wheel trim propped up against the kerb, standing like a monument to the unknown automobile.
I'm not too upset. It's a nice day, and I'm far too overjoyed at being away from that all-pervading stench that accompanies the Fosters and their freakish progeny to let anything get me down. The ability to breathe again without worrying about the prospect of my lungs dissolving far outweighs the loss of the odd motor.
I pick up the wheel trim and stick it under my arm - a keepsake. And then, whistling a happy tune to myself, I set off on my long walk back to civilisation.