Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Placeby Will Self, Ralph Steadman (Illustrator)
For those interested in the connection between people and place, the best of the decade long collaboration between literary brat packer Will Self and gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman.
Opening with a dazzling new 20,000-word essay on walking from London to New York, Psychogeography is a collection of 50 short pieces written over the last four years,/i>/b>
For those interested in the connection between people and place, the best of the decade long collaboration between literary brat packer Will Self and gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman.
Opening with a dazzling new 20,000-word essay on walking from London to New York, Psychogeography is a collection of 50 short pieces written over the last four years, together with 50 four-color illustrations by Ralph Steadman. In Psychogeography Self and Steadman explore the relationship between psyche and place in the contemporary world. Self thinks most people have a "wind-screen-based virtuality" on long- and short-distance travel. We drive, take buses and trains, fly. To combat this compromised reality, Will Self walks, relating intimately to place, as pedestrians do. Ranging in subject from swimming the Ganges to motorcycling across the Australian outback, shopping in an Iowa mall to surfing a tsunami, Psychogeography is at once a map of our world and the psychoanalysis of the way we inhabit it. The pieces are serious, humorous, facetious, and rambunctious. Psychogeography, the study of the effects of geographical environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals, has captivated other writers including W. G. Sebald and Peter Ackroyd, but Self and Steadman have their own unique spin on how place shapes people and vice versa.
This artful and entertaining collection of essays by novelist Self (The Book of Dave) will delight anyone who enjoys his weekly column of the same name in the Independentor his last collection of essays, Feeding Frenzy. Here Self shifts from gonzo journalism to the study of psychogeography, the study of how geographical environments affect emotions and behavior. Setting off on a quest for the "intrinsic character" of various places as well as "the manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place," Self casts a dismissive eye on most of the world. Singapore strikes him "as Basingstoke force-fed with pituitary gland"; Sao Paolo's lack of a street plan makes it "an unholy miscegenation between London and Los Angeles." But Steadman's beautifully harsh illustrations (worthy of their own book) and "Walking to New York," a previously unpublished semi-autobiographical meditation on life and death, reveal a surprising depth to Self's cynical insights. (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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PsychogeographyDisentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place
By Will Self
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2007 Will Self
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSouth Downs Way
I've taken to long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography. So this isn't walking for leisure - that would be merely frivolous, or even for exercise - which would be tedious. No, to underscore the seriousness of my project I like a walk which takes me to a meeting or an assignment; that way I can drag other people into my eotechnical world view. 'How was your journey?' they say. 'Not bad,' I reply. 'Take long?' they enquire. 'About ten hours,' I admit. 'I walked here.' My interlocutor goggles at me; if he took ten hours to get here, they're undoubtedly thinking, will the meeting have to go on for twenty? As Emile Durkheim so sagely observed, a society's space-time perceptions are a function of its social rhythm and its territory. So, by walking to the business meeting I have disrupted it just as surely as if I'd appeared stark naked with a peacock's tail fanning out from my buttocks while mouthing Symbolist poetry.
My publishers were holding a sales conference in Eastbourne and I agreed to go along and address the bourgeforce. I decided to entrain from Victoria to Lewes and then walk the South Downs Way the final twenty-two miles. This would be a nostalgic walk, putting myself securely back in my father's world of pipe-smoking, voluminous grey flannel trousers, chalk downland, Harvey's Bitter, Bertie Russell, nudism, the Peace Pledge Union ... Gah! Christ! I can't breathe in this interwar period ... I'd better come up for air. Even though I was nominally born in 1961, my father made sure that I too was raised in the interwar period, and we roamed the South Downs a great deal together during my childhood. 'It seemed perfectly natural,' said the minicab driver who took me from Lewes Station to the start of the walk, speaking of his own ambulatory upbringing ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Having consulted maps and timetables I was faced with a dilemma. Should I wait for the branch line train from Lewes to Southease, where I could join the South Downs Way, or should I gain a half-hour by taking a cab there? I dislike cars more than trains - they con their autopilots with the illusion of freedom - but half an hour is significant when you're pushed for walking time. I thought about the options for two long days then called Talking Pages.
Talking Pages had been absorbed into the great telephone-answering gulag known only as '118', so doubtless my call was answered by a Mongolian former yak herder deep in the Altai Mountains. I pictured the call centre wedged like a corrugated spacecraft in some dusty gully. Inside, bandy-legged men in traditional dress slouched about on leather-covered cushions, watching antediluvian videotapes of Police Five with Shaw Taylor in order to assimilate the social mores of telephone banking customers in the Potteries. A once-proud nomad doing a passable imitation of a Staffs accent gave me a choice of three minicab companies which served the Lewes area.
Naturally the first two I called turned out to be located in Brighton, despite their Lewes exchange numbers. And, no, they couldn't answer my distinctly local enquiry about the time it takes to drive to Southease. The third company was different. They were located right inside Lewes Station, and, yes, they knew the area intimately. The controller spoke as if every one of his drivers had - like some humanoid nematode - filtered the very earth of Sussex through their bodies. The controller assured me the drive would take mere minutes, so I booked the cab.
The next morning was bright and clear. Sunlight flashed off the braces of orthodontically challenged teenagers who boarded the train at Plumpton on their way to school in Lewes. After detraining, I was so high with anticipation that it wasn't until the cab had gone about two hundred yards in the wrong direction out of Lewes that I pointed it out to the driver: 'I want to be on the east side of the Ouse, at Southease Station.' 'No problem,' he breezed, 'I'll drop you down a track on this side and you can cross the river on the swing bridge.' Then he went on about his childhood, engendering such a warm feeling of mateyness in me that I overtipped the sly fellow.
In fact he'd dropped me outside Rodmell, more than two miles from where I wanted to be. As I puffed along the track, my pipe sending up great clouds of smoke from the Presbyterian tobacco stuffed in it (a blend introduced to Stanley Baldwin in 1923 by the future Moderator of the Church of Scotland), I saw in the mid-distance the little two-carriage train stopping at Southease Station. Now, no matter how hard I walked for the rest of the long day, I would still be lagging behind. The sinuous downs, the soaring Seven Sisters, majestic Beachey Head, all of them suddenly concertinaed into the space between two low-firing synapses in the lazy minicab driver's mind. Machine Matrix 1, Psychogeographers 0. I could hear Durkheim's low and evil laughter in my inner ear. Not a pretty sound.
Chapter TwoOn Péages
It's worth considering that the first theoreticians of the railway saw rails and locomotives as essentially component parts of a single machine. The patents lodged in the early years of the nineteenth century were for rails with projecting 'teeth' which meshed with cog-wheeled engines. Initially it was thought that smooth steel wheels on smooth steel rails simply wouldn't provide the necessary traction, but even when this was proved wrong the French coinage 'chemin de fer' still caused problems for Gallic late adopters: 'Ils yen croient que ces routes sont pavées avec des plaques de fer,' wrote one bemused commentator in 1820, 'mais ce n'est pas cela du tout ...'
Others first saw the revolutionary transport system as an evolution of existing roadways. In 1802 Richard Lovell Edgeworth published the first proposal to construct railways for public transport. He envisaged rails implanted in the highways with heaviest traffic, which would be supplied with cradles on to which existing carriages could be lifted. These would then be drawn on by horsepower, a principle advantage of the system being the reduction in friction. But in a visionary anticipation of the shape of things to come Edgeworth wrote: 'The chief convenience of this project arises from the mode of receiving and transporting on the rail-ways every carriage now in use without any change in their structure, so that the traveller may quit and resume the common road at pleasure.'
Well, delete the word 'pleasure', elide the Frenchman and Edgeworth, and it seems to me we have a pretty accurate description of the péage autoroutes which a century later snake across France like blue veins through Roquefort. I know, I know, some will cavil that the highway and the vehicle moving on it don't truly constitute a machine ensemble, because the car is capable of independent motion, but try telling that to a strung-out paterfamilias piloting a people carrier full of enfants terribles from the Dordogne to Calais. Work time, holiday time, both are strictly delimited in the modern era, and all too often the interface between the two is the high-speed motorway drive.
It may be theoretically possible to leave the péage and meander off into the vineyards, there perhaps to seduce a numinous 'thou' with a flask of wine; but in practice embankments, cuttings and tunnels eradicate the soft contours of the landscape, while the cogs of the car tyres mesh with tarmac teeth to make 140 kmph forward motion as ineluctable as a funicular. Entrée ... Mussidan, Sortie ... Arveyres, PRIX ... 5.70 euros. The little paper tongue licks the lobe of your ear with its patent insincerity: have you not just been winched over an ancient and venerable monoculture of great sophistication in a steel cask of unspeakable crudity? Are not you and your offspring merely a portion of that great human vendage, whereby the British bourgeoisie are squeezed out in the heart of France in the dying days of August?
St Emilion, Monbazillac, Saussignac ... the great grapes are trampled by the whirling rubber of wrath and stress. Ferchrissakes! We just steamed past St Michelde-Montaigne without so much as a sideways glance! What would the venerable essayist have made of this? His take on the world was compendious to the point of being encyclopaedic, but the closest he came to penning 'On péages' is his fragment 'On riding "in post"'. According to Montaigne, 'The Wallachians ... make the fastest speeds of all ... because they wear a tight broad band around their waists to stop them from tiring, as quite a few others do. I have found no relief in this method.' Nor me, nor me; even a conventional seatbelt is irksome after five hundred kilometres and a pit stop to peck on a reconstituted prong of pureed pig meat with a 6 euros prix fixe.
Still, at least the kids are holding up well as we whack up the A l0 past Angoulême, Poitiers and Tours. Not for them the insistent jibing of this road to unfreedom. My mind drifts back to my own childhood, and family voyages in the Austin to Wales, embarked upon before the construction of the British motorway system. I recall it took days, as my father appeared to have been taught to drive at a purely theoretical level by Jean-Paul Sartre, and so regarded each depression of the accelerator as an existential leap into being. There was snow too, great drifts of it, out of which lorries lumbered looking like woolly mammoths.
My reverie is stirred up and then finally dispersed by the great dark lodestone of Paris. We leave the machine ensemble of the péage, only to be locked into another one: tens of thousands of cars inching forward in near-gridlock. It isn't until we've been stuttering along for over an hour that my thirteen-year-old vouchsafes that this is the day of the European athletics championship. It would be ironic, this joyless driving for hundreds of kilometres only to be held up by people fun-running, were it not that the true psychogeographer never experiences irony. 'See that,' says the lad, indicating the fragment of a map Michelin have put on the cover of their France 2003 Tourist and Motoring Atlas, 'd'you think they've put Brest on the front so that they'll sell more copies?' My heart swells with paternal affection: a psychogeographer in the making, n'est-ce pas?
Chapter ThreeApples or Pears?
A frozen moment at US Immigration, JFK Airport, New York. My British passport is scanned, the official scrutinises the computer screen with a worried expression and then politely asks me to go into the back room. I join what look like a hundred Koreans and a miscellany of other potential personae non grata. A Frenchman is being noisily grilled by an immigration officer at a high desk. The officer looks like an ugly, acne-scarred version of Jim Carrey, the Frenchman looks preposterous: fur-trimmed jeans, a leather patchwork shoulder bag, collar-length hair. Frankly, I wouldn't try to get in to Legoland looking like that-let alone post-9/11 America.
'You say you're a philosophy teacher,' the officer insinuates, 'in Grenoble, but you seem to spend an awful amount of time here.'
'Yez, like I say, I 'ave ze girlfriend.'
'Yeah, yeah, I know that, in Manhattan, and you're in and out of here like a yoyo. There are stamps here,' he riffles the French passport, 'for every month of the last goddamn year.'
The Frenchman shrugs: 'She is my girlfriend.'
'Hey, whatever,' the officer is suddenly bored. He stamps the passport and beckons me up. 'Now, Mister Self, are there some little things you maybe aren't telling us about yourself?'
'Well,' my voice drawls from deep in clubland, 'there are perhaps one or two trifling drug offences, ancient history really.'
'We're going to have to deport you; you cannot come in on a visa waiver form with prior narcotics convictions. You'll have to go back to London and apply for a visa there.' My heart sinks then steadies.
'Look, officer,' I say, 'would it make any difference if I told you that I was an American citizen?'
The Jim Carreyalike scrutinises me intently. 'What makes you think that?'
I tell him that my mother was a citizen, born in 1922 in Columbus, Ohio, and that she registered me at the US Embassy in London when I was born. Carrey says he will check this information out, and shoos me back to the bolted-down seats.
Over the next two hours all the Koreans and some Africans with impressive cicatrisation scars are admitted to the Land of the Free. The only people left are me and a silently weeping German family, comprising late-middle-aged parents and a grown-up daughter. Apparently the paterfamilias failed to get an exit stamp in his passport when he departed in 1987. Jim Carrey and I have struck up an acquaintanceship; we suck mints together and listen to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue played on the CD-Rom drive of his computer terminal. Finally, he beckons for me to follow him and leads me back through a warren of offices. 'I'm taking you back here,' he confides, 'because we've decided to admit you, but we're going to deport the Germans and ...' he pauses significantly, 'I don't want to upset them any more than necessary.'
In the back office sits an older, heavier-set man with a strict moustache and iron-filing hair. The Stars and Stripes limps on the flagpole by his desk. He looks up from studying my passport when Jim and I enter.
'So, Mister Self,' he asks without preamble, 'what exactly do you think you are?'
'Um, well, a dual citizen, I suppose.'
He breathes heavily. 'Mister Self, I have been an immigration officer for thirty-five years and let me tell you something: you are either an apple or a pear.' He pauses, allowing this fructuous moment to dangle between us. 'I don't care if you choose to live in London, I don't even mind if you travel on a British passport when you're abroad, but let me tell you this,' his voice begins to quaver with emotion, 'when you come here to the United States of America you are an American citizen!'
I snap to attention. 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' swells in my inner ear as I deftly circle my covered wagon in front of the Lincoln Memorial, leap out and march forward to receive the Pulitzer. 'Sir, yes sir!' I bark. On the way out Jim Carrey passes me my British passport.
'I don't even want to hold this,' his voice is also choked with patriotism, 'because it offends me to see you travelling on such a document.'
Now, a few months later, I am the proud possessor of an American passport, and to begin with I felt pretty strange about it. To tell the truth I've never felt my nationality defined me any more than my shoe size (actually, since my shoe size is 12, a good deal less), but since actualising my Americanness I've given a good deal of thought to whether I feel American, or British, or European-or anything. Am I in fact a citizen of a vast Oceania which stretches from Brest-Litovsk to Honolulu? But on consideration, weighing up all the geopolitical, historical and cultural factors, it's dawned on me that the possession of two passports means one thing and one thing alone: shorter queues on embarkation either side of the Atlantic. I'm not an apple or a pear, I'm a banana skin, glissading through immigration.
Chapter FourHigh on Merseyside
Sitting in a soft-stripped flat on the twenty-first floor of a semi-abandoned tower block in the Kensington district of Liverpool I am temporarily the highest resident on Merseyside. I can see the sunlight dapple the flanks of Snowdon nigh on seventy miles to the south. I can see the Wirral like a spatulate tongue licking the Irish Sea. I can see the Mersey itself, coursing through its trough of defunct docks. Towards Bootie the gargantuan sails of wind turbines look like propellers powering the upside-down burgh through the steely grey sky. Ranged across the mid-ground are the signature buildings of the city: the Liver Buildings with their sentinel herons; the mucoid concrete of the hospital; the dirty white stalk of the radio station with its restaurant revolving like a conjuror's plate; and the two cathedrals, one the outhouse of the morally relativist gods, the other a split yoghurt pot oozing spiritual culture.
Excerpted from Psychogeography by Will Self Copyright © 2007 by Will Self . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Will Self is the acclaimed author of such books as The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Great Apes, How the Dead Live, and The Book of Dave. He won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was short listed for the Whitbread. He lives in London. Ralph Steadman is an award-winning cartoonist and illustrator. Renowned as a political and social satirist, he has collaborated with Hunter S. Thompson, illustrated classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and Animal Farm, and published his own books, including Doodaaa and the memoir, The Joke's Over. They both live in London.
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