Michael Palin on Acid
By Glenn Fisher.
Will Self, Psychogeography, Bloomsbury, 2007
I remember the last time I saw Will Self he was a guest on the Daily Politics Show. He had recorded a short ‘VT’ in which he voiced his concerns in regard to the staging of the Olympics in London in 2012. I hadn’t seen anything of him on television for a while and, since his captaincy of Team A, he’d let out his hair, grown gaunter and his delivery had become even gloomier. But then, in the studio, he admitted that even for him, the video had seen him particularly ‘lugubrious’. And it’s this self-awareness (excuse the pun) coupled with a genuine love for words that so endears me toward him and I think affords him the ability to get away with a writing style that some detractors might consider a little verbose.
In Psychogeography, his latest book of collected journalism, Self, as ever, wields a massive vocabulary that often requires the reader to keep a dictionary at hand to stave off his intimidating verbiage. In these new writings he applies his usual satirical wit and keen observational eye to travelling. Most often – as is his hobby – it is walking: be it around the England, or farther a field, from Sidcup to Singapore, Thamesmead to Turkey. Indeed, the introductory piece, published here for the first time, is an extended account of a walk he took from his home in South London to his Mother’s old house in New York. His retelling of the journey succeeds not only as an interesting view of the two cities and their relationship, but also as a revealing autobiography. Self explores his parental relationships and his split nationality: English and American. Finally, the piece has a third layer: providing his own frank and lucid interpretations he soberly considers the events of 9/11 and 7/7 and the fallout from the ‘war on terror’.
Having spent most of the morning amongst the pages of Psychogeography, I interrupted my reading to make dinner and ready myself for the afternoon’s activities. I planned to kill two birds with one stone, meeting a friend for coffee on Portabello Road and then popping into the Notting Hill Arts Centre where an old friend from ‘up north’ was playing a matinee show. But then I thought: why not take my ornithological homicide to a new level and kill three. So it was, in the spirit of psycho-geography, I resolved to walk from my flat in South Kensington to Notting Hill and thus equip myself firsthand with a feel for Self’s foot-hardening hobby. A paltry distance, I admit, particularly in comparison to the mileage clocked up by Self in his trans-Atlantic hikes. But, new to the metropolis and sans A-Z, I thought it challenge enough for my maiden trek.
Beyond the introductory piece, the book is a collection of the best of Self’s ‘Psychogeography’ column published in The Independent. As in the paper, each article is accompanied by a raucous visual realisation by artist Ralph Steadman. Like me, you may only be familiar with Steadman’s work through the inky bat-splurges and distorted forms of Hunter S and his ‘lawyer’ from the pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, the illustrations that accompany Self’s words allow those who are ignorant to Steadman’s other work an opportunity to see just how good an artist he really is. His art seems somewhat schizophrenic: at once thoughtful and whimsical, terrifying and ticklish. His undeniably warped and absurd images offer perfect accompaniment to Self’s own mental imaginings and together give the overall sensation of reading Michael Palin whilst on acid.
And so, caffeine on hand, off I went: up the Gloucester road and across Kensington High Street. Meandering through Kensington Gardens along the Broad Walk, I took a moment to enjoy the autumnal cliché around me. I let myself believe for a moment I was in a Richard Curtis romcom. However, lacking a romantic interest and the homely good looks of a male lead, this soon passed and I cleared the set, scuttling out onto the Bayswater road. Here my internal navigation betrayed me and I made a fundamental error. Instead of turning left and finding myself within steps of Notting Hill Gate, I carried across the road and headed up Queensway. On I went under the firm but incorrect assumption that I had not yet gone far enough North. When I found myself under the Westway, I sensed I had made a mistake, but, unfamiliar with my surroundings, I carried on regardless.
Psychogeography as a concept is nothing new. The psychological influence of habitat and locale is one that has been explored by writers for many years. The writer as walker is a similarly well-trodden path; whenever I think of Rimbaud he is forever on the move, wearing away shoe leather on an open country road. Self is a pleasing addition to the tradition. My problem with the genre – if it has yet gathered its own classification – is the often overly lyrical nature of the prose its authors produce. Self’s prose, however, has an almost abrasive quality – not the stony rasping of Beckett, nor the brash coarseness of a Bukowski – rather it is being trapped in a turnstile, rounded prongs of iron jabbing liver and lung. It is also satisfying that there is no kitsch in Self, all of the landscape is considered: hulking factory grotesque and bucolic park are of the same import, and equal charm is derived from both. This, with his taut style and uncompromising vocabulary provides welcome refreshment from too many daffodils.
Past a dying flower stall, I headed east on the Harrow road in the hope that a traffic sign might clue me in to my whereabouts. After a short time, I spied, hidden behind the houses and the various shops, a canal. Bugger directions; I’m ‘aving that. So, I cut through between a butcher and bookie and started walking canal-side. This was more like it. And then it hit me. Suddenly obscured from the bustle and shove of the city, ambling by the calm flow of water (what I later found out to be the Grand Union canal), I could have been back in Grimsby, walking behind the town’s main shopping centre, just off the road, alongside the River Freshney. Success I thought, my first psychogeographic experience. However, a canal barge then floated past me, its captain pleasantly doffing his cap to me as though apologising for breaking my reverie. I stumbled back out of my psyche, severing the temporary spatial bond I had created between London and Grimsby, and crashed out onto Ladbroke Grove. The city, insistent to smother me, produced a riled cyclist at odds with a car and the hiss-pop of a bus looking to mow me down. I faintly recalled a shop front and then a street sign, and then a house, and quickly I was back on my way, soon finding myself being hustled down through the mad market bustle of Portabello road.
Psychogeography works. At least, it works for me, both in literature and life. As well, whether its intention or not, the collection – and indeed the concept – rises beyond simple reportage; the observations of the external reflect back understanding of the internal, be it Self himself, or a more expansive societal psyche. Underpinned by the same characteristic as Steadman’s double-edged artwork, the book as a whole, the product of this single S&S amalgam, is one of schizophrenia: wit and whimsy next to solemn politik. Or more succinctly: Palin on pills.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Glenn Fisher was born in Grimsby, in a county that no longer exists, in 1981. He is 3:AM‘s Film Editor and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 1st, 2007.