As the US/UK “coalition” moved towards the invasion of Iraq in late 2002, and anti-Americanism in the British left wing went into overdrive, the author felt conflicted. He, too, was moved to protest our maddening misadventure in the desert, but he also felt his recessive American genes defensively assert themselves as the Stars and Stripes burned in Whitehall.
To ease this inner friction, Self turned to psychogeography, a practice exploring the interaction of place, memory and identity developed by French philosopher Guy Debord in 1955. Specifically, he decided to walk from his home in London to his mother’s city, New York. So it’s a walk from Stockwell to Heathrow, and from JFK to Manhattan. By reconnecting these hinterland airplexes with the urban core, Self is making a conscious effort to overcome the hyperdeflation of distance that motorised travel and mass flight has caused. His long essay, “Walking to New York”, forms the intellectual ballast of Psychogeography; the rest of it is a collection of Self’s columns for the Independent. If there is a theme, it is this effort to master the disorientating effect of modern mobility, an interconnectedness in our society that has had the paradoxical affect of alienating us.
His superlative writing makes much of the book a treat to read, with the added delight of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, but the quality of the shorter articles varies widely. Some amount to “What I did on my holidays”, which Self can make entertaining, but it’s still weekend-newspaper fluff. Those low points aside, we get some fascinating musings on the built environment. Psychogeography can only really operate where humans have shaped and warped natural landscape – wildernesses are no good – but shuns over-built environments, manicured corporate spaces and overexposed tourist areas. Ideally, it wants to explore the boundary areas near these choreographed places, non-places that are glimpsed from car or train windows if noticed at all.
“I love these interzones where country and city do battle for the soul of a place,” says Self. Often, these are places not normally traversed on foot, which gives psychogeography a slightly reactionary edge, a plodding but human yah-boo to the hard shoulder of modernity. In his fiction, Self has pedestrianised Britain through catastrophe at least twice, flooding it in The Book of Dave and imagining the M40 during a second Iron Age in the short story Scale. Here, he proclaims walking as a corrective to those who wish catastrophe on our civilisation: al Qaeda-inspired terrorism has mostly targeted our transport systems, crashing planes and blowing up trains. Walking is a way to thwart them, circumventing the vulnerable logistical networks we have come to rely on. Besides, it’s good for you.
Another slightly reactionary thread to psychogeography is its disdain for big-A Architecture, big-name Architects and the dread Developers who, in the minds of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd et al, want to sweep away all that is dingy and interesting. Self indulges in this thread a little, congratulating himself on shaking off “the so-called ‘lines of desire’ with which urban planners lash us to workplace, retail outlet and real estate”, but he evades two of the more irritating traits of his cornplastered colleagues, as defined in James Heartfield’s 2004 essay “Londonostalgia”: blinkered retrospection and sniffy scorn towards suburbs. Ballardian reservations aside, Self is very much engaged with the here and now, and he’s a fan of the suburbs. He proves himself to be a fresh and constantly interesting travel and architecture writer, albeit one limited by the thought-stunting word limits of Sunday supplements.
Psychogeography, by Will Self, with illustrations by Ralph Steadman, Bloomsbury, £17
illustrations Ralph Steadman