The introduction, 'Journey Through Britain' is a new extended essay by Self, accompanied by Steadman's inimitable images. It tells of how Self journeyed to Dubai, that Götterdammerung of the contemporary built environment, in order to walk the length of the artificial Britain-shaped island, in the offshore luxury housing development known as 'The World'.
Ranging from Istanbul to Los Angeles and from the crumbling coastline of East Yorkshire to the adamantine heads of Easter Island, Will Self's engaging and disturbing vision is once again perfectly counter-pointed by Ralph Steadman's edgy and dazzling artwork.
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About the Author
Ralph Steadman is the author of many illustrated books, including Sigmund Freud, I Leonardo, The Big I Am and The Scar-Strangled Banner. He is also the author of the novel Doodaaa and the memoir The Joke's Over: Memories of Hunter S. Thompson, and the illustrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Alice, Animal Farm, The Devil's Dictionary and Psychogeography. He lives in Kent.
Will Self is the author of The Quantity Theory of Insanity, winner of the 1993 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Grey Area, Cock&Bull, My Idea of Fun, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, Great Apes, Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, Dorian, How the Dead Live, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2002, and The Book of Dave. He lives in London.
RALPH STEADMAN was born in 1936. He began his career as a cartoonist, and through the years has diversified into many creative fields. Ralph collaborated with Dr Hunter S. Thompson in the birth of 'gonzo' journalism, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; he has illustrated classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and Animal Farm, and written and illustrated his own books, which include Sigmund Freud, I Leonardo and The Big I Am. Steadman is also a printmaker, and has travelled the world's vineyards, culminating in his books The Grapes of Ralph, Untrodden Grapes and Still Life with Bottle. Steadman's recent books for Bloomsbury include his epic collection of bird illustrations, Extinct Boids.
Read an Excerpt
By Will Self
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2009 Will Self
All right reserved.
IntroductionWalking to The World
I decided to walk to The World from J. G. Ballard's house in Shepperton. Jim had been in hospital over Christmas - the chemical refinery of the Hammersmith, which faces out over the veldt-in-urb of Wormwood Scrubs - and the experience had nearly done for him. 'They were suggesting he move to a single room at the end of the ward,' said Claire, his girlfriend, 'and you know what that means.' Of course I did: 90 per cent of the spending on healthcare in any given English individual's life takes place in the last six weeks of life, up until then welfare provision may have been patchy, but a citizen's final demise is invariably on full-board and en suite - assuming, that is, express checkout.
Claire extracted Jim from the hospital and took him back to her flat in Shepherd's Bush. I could picture the rhythms of this phase of their lives together, the coming and going of the district nurse, the pitter-patter of tiny pills. When I spoke to Claire on the phone she remained simply delighted to have wrested him from the clutches of hospital medicine - with its all too often pointless heroism - and to have restored him to a domestic context. Ballard, the most outlandish of fictional imaginers, had always dug out his wellspring by the hearth, and remained theperfect exemplar of Flaubert's dictum: a bourgeois in his life, a revolutionary in his dreams.
Claire worked at her computer during the days, a baby alarm next to her mouse mat so she could hear if he needed anything, then, when it was time to go to bed she took it with her. 'When I take it upstairs,' she wrote to me, 'it's as if I'm carrying his breathing self in the little plastic machine. I hold it very carefully in my hand, like a precious living thing ... (I haven't told him).' I found this quite unbearably affecting; indeed, I had become involved in all of this in a way I found both difficult to understand - and painfully obvious.
I had propped up a copy of Jim's memoir Miracles of Life on the bookcase in the kitchen, so that each morning, on coming downstairs, I was met by the image of the child Ballard, riding his tricycle in Shanghai. I felt myself opening out to the numinous in my communion with the dying writer, an intimation of alternate realities, including, perhaps, some in which we had been as close emotionally - and physically - as we had been imaginatively; for, to pretend to an intimate relationship with Jim would've been presumptuous - we had met at most five or six times.
The first had been in 1994, when Ballard was publishing Rushing to Paradise, his warped eco-parable version of The Tempest, wherein Greenpeace activists and South Seas sybarites run amok on an atoll used for nuclear weapons testing. Like so many before me, I had made the pilgrimage to the Surrey dormitory town of Shepperton to interview its sage for a newspaper. All was as has been described in scores of articles: the neat little semi along the somnolent suburban street, the mutant yucca straining against the curved mullions of the front window, the Ford Granada humped in the driveway. Inside, the small rooms were dominated by the reproductions of lost Paul Delvaux nudes that Jim had commissioned himself; other than this oddity the decor was an exercise in unconcern - and not a studied one.
'Would you like a drink?' he asked, vigorous in an open-necked white shirt. 'I've got everything.'
I had had, of course, a fantasy of quaffing Scotch with Ballard - I knew of his legendary and unashamed consumption: the first tumbler poured in the morning when he returned from the school run, the leisurely topping-up throughout the writing day, two-fingers-per-hour, clackety-clack, as his fingers gouged their way into inner space. However, like a lot of alcoholics I couldn't risk taking a drink in the afternoon - especially if I was working - the comedown was instant, I would have to have more - and more; no leisurely sousing but a sudden spirituous downpour, so I asked, 'Can I have a cup of tea?'
Jim grimaced: 'Too much trouble, boiling water and things ...' he gestured vaguely.
I settled for water. We sat down in the back sitting room, looking out through French windows to a sunlit garden. Jim chortled, 'So, you've managed to extricate yourself from that cocaine-smuggling business have you?'
He was referring to a recent bust I'd had for possessing hashish in the Orkney Islands, where I'd been living up until a couple of months previously - the case had recently been heard at the Sheriff Court in Kirkwall, and made a few column inches down south. I explained the situation - but he seemed utterly uninterested in the detail: possession/supply, hash/coke - it was, his manner suggested, all one to him. I found myself strangely bothered by how dégagé Ballard was, as if it was his responsibility to either condemn or condone my actions. It was absurd; true, he was thirty-one years my senior - but I was a grown man, besides, he wasn't my father; or, at least, not biologically.
For that was the problem, as well as the abiding infantilism of my own malaise - the need to blame everyone else for my own derelictions, my ethical pratfalls and emotional incontinence - I also believed I was Ballard's mind-child, that my hypertrophied creative impulse had burst from his domed forehead, slathering his remaining greyish hair with amniotic fluid. It's a sensitive business, this one of literary patrimony - although I'd never had any anxiety about my influences. There were those writers whose work spoke to me, those whose mannerisms, tropes, accidents of style were - in Auden's memorable acronym - GETS, 'Good Enough to Steal' - and then there were a very select few who had carved out the conceptual space within which I sought to stake my own claim. Of these, Ballard was the pre-eminent.
The great wind from nowhere of October 1987: I awoke in a sepia dawn to a cacophony of tortured metal; through the Venetian blind slats I could see that six by three-foot panels of corrugated iron were being torn from the scaffolding on the old LCC block opposite. The zephyr was strong enough to be holding some upright and push them along the road surface, striking sparks. Nature, kept away from the city by its mighty radiation - repelled by roofs, walls and fences - had broken through. Except that in this mundane urban context the wind - no matter how strong - could not possibly be from nowhere, only a little further north, say Camden Town.
I associate my Ballardian apprenticeship with this period, in my middle twenties, when, recently sprung from four months in rehab, I shared a flat on the Barnsbury Road in Islington with an elfin would-be mime artist. We painted the floors red and listened to southern soul on an antiquated valve record player; occasionally my flatmate did a handspring - a manoeuvre he had used to evade the bulls in Pamplona.
I was nervy and racked by caffeine and nicotine - one morning I even overdosed on coffee, no mean achievement. I had a writerly girlfriend who was more advanced than me - she'd actually completed a novel, and in due course it was published. I found it difficult to get at her: after sweaty midnights, then throughout those cold dawns I struggled to prise apart her thin and resistant white limbs. I recall the feel of hand-me-down parental linen - and sinking into the trough of a broken-backed bed dragged back from the furniture warehouse on the Liverpool Road. She turned away from my carefully crafted caresses and I saw peculiar spiral markings on her bare back and stubby neck. Ring worm. We both had it - the vermiculation of our short-let accommodation had bored through the plaster and into our flesh.
For a vermifuge we read Crash, and savoured its opening lines: 'Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident.' This said it all; the intersection between the performative and the desperate - the gargantuan alienation of the modern machine/man matrix trumped by a studied act of self-violence. When we were out, driving in her Renault 5 van, she would grab hold of my arm, yanking the steering wheel. 'Crash!' she'd exhale in my ear. 'Crash!' I'd breathe back - and this was the best consummation we ever managed, except for one cold afternoon coupling in the back of the van.
We had driven out from London to the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary. Since an epiphany experienced the previous summer on a sunlit street in Mayfair I had spent more and more time cruising the periphery of London: how was it that I had never visited - nor even envisaged - the mouth of the river that ran through my natal city? And so I was drawn to those desolate places where redundant heavy industry was sinking into the mire between retail barns and business parks: Erith Marsh, Thamesmead, Tilbury - and eventually the Ultima Thule of Grain itself, where the cracked pavements were sutured with weeds and the rust-streaked pipelines of the oil refinery snaked through the marsh grasses. The necrotic flesh of plastic bags flapped on barbed-wire fences, crows descended on the corpse of a muddy field, seagulls followed the plough, pylons engaged in a tug of war with high-tension cables, and the cloud piled up over Sheppey, black upon grey. In the dully humbling cul-de-sacs of the last council estate in southern England a child's bicycle lay unclaimed on an un-mown verge; beyond the concrete baffler of the seawall the Maunsell Towers strode towards the horizon, like Wells's Martian tripods.
On these forays into the interzones I took photographs, and made cryptic notes that no one - not even me - would ever read again. I felt myself to be engaged in some crucial project: the discovery of an essential reality that remained inviolate, incapable of being assimilated to the marketable portions of locale and territory into which the land was being subdivided. This was no village England, or rural idyll, nor could it be incorporated into the smoothly-functioning machinery of the conurbation, where built environment, transportation and humanity all played their part in the Taylorisation of space.
On the muddy foreshore below the village of Grain there were cracked dragon's teeth, and an old stone causeway, greasy-green with seaweed, that led out to Grain Tower, a Second World War gun emplacement. I piloted the Renault along the rough track beneath an embankment protecting the power station from the Medway. Freighters came drifting in on the tide, their superstructures as high and white and rectangular as blocks of flats. I stopped the car and - terribly aroused - made my slinky moves.
That brisk March day the sex was probably no great shakes - only the usual soft rasp and toothy snag; but the ridged metal of the van's floor, the awkward positions we had to assume in order to fit - one into the other, both into the abbreviated compartment - these were thrillingly hard correlates of the interzone that lay beyond the Renault's double doors: we were fucking the furnaces and cooling towers, the generators and coal hoppers. Our breathy spasms and cramped ejaculations reverberated against the chilled earth and the aching sky. On the way back to London we bought a cheese and pickle sandwich at a petrol station and as we shared it the yellow-white gratings dropped into our laps like the shredded skin of H-bomb victims. I had her stained underwear stuffed in the pocket of my jacket.
The relationship staggered on for another nine months; then, at the beginning of 1988, my mother arrived punctually at the terminal stages of cancer. Each day I went to her flat in Kentish Town to give her sublingual morphine sulphate and other, more cack-handed ministration. Perhaps, facing this enormity, I was too needy - or maybe my girlfriend's neediness was now insupportable; one or the other, it was no longer enough for her to yank my arm and implore me to 'Crash!' I was crashing. We had read Ballard together, there had been the sex on the Isle of Grain - and that was enough: The Atrocity Exhibition, Vermillion Sands, Hello America - books I had initially consumed in my early teens, when I used to guzzle up the quintuple-decker sandwiches of science fiction I carried back from East Finchley library (rubber-soled sneakers squeaking on the polished floors, the deferential hush now long since sacrificed to espresso machines and computer terminals; up on the wall an old photograph of Dame Henrietta Barnett herding sheep across the fields where the Hampstead Garden Suburb now stood, but which had once been an Edwardian interzone).
Then, I had paid no particular attention to Ballard, regarding his works as of a piece with all the other dystopias I hung out in. Possibly I had noticed a certain harder edge, a smoother dovetailing between the commonplace and the fantastic; maybe the wanting seed had been planted. Whatever. But when I reread Ballard the seed germinated with nightmarish speed, sending shoots into every portion of my brain. I had been struggling - as every wannabe writer should - with what it was that I could conceivably write. My experience was both threadbare and mundane: the conveyor-belt smoothness of tarmac paths between green privet curtains; dysfunctional family neuroses as regularly patterned as Sanderson's wallpaper; painful experimentation with drugs - teaching myself to shoot up, puncturing my skinny forearms with needles while outside the steel-framed windows pigeons coo-burbled. 'The human organism is an atrocity exhibition at which he is an unwilling spectator.'* All this, I knew, was nothing, my mind was a tabula rasa sullied with the smears of licked fingertips picking up granules of cocaine and amphetamine sulphate.
Before I'd gone into rehab I'd essayed a few things: a post-apocalyptic novella called 'The Caring Ones', in which the ton of diamorphine that was allegedly kept in the Mass Disaster Room of the Royal Free Hospital became the cynosure of all power struggles between the pain-ravaged survivors of the bomb. I still have the MS somewhere - but that says more about my obsessive need to accumulate paper than anything else, for it was crap. Utter crap. There were also a handful of comic vignettes, and reams of self-indulgent diarising of the kind that no self-respecting crafter of fiction should ever permit. I had ideas, certainly, but no authenticity with which to anchor them.
Ballard showed the way: the fiction of the twenty-first century, the fiction that would matter, was there on the Isle of Grain, there in the interzones, there in the psyches of all of us who appreciated the three-mile sinuous chicane of the Westway flyover, there in our numbed responses to those superfluities of space and time, that, together with our own narcissistic subjectivity, constituted the very essence of what Marc Augé has termed, 'supermodernity'. That Ballard had got there first - and got there farthest - was only testimony to his genius. He was one of that small coterie of artists who, unafraid of the consequences, had been prepared to turn their minds over to the dæmons of creation to make of them what they would. Acutely conscious that in the post-lapsarian world that followed the Holocaust and Hiroshima, no value would escape re-evaluation, Ballard had turned his back on the cosy sentimentalities of so-called naturalistic fiction, its immersion in the hesaid, she-said, we-watched of inter-personality. No longer, he averred, could the novelist - like an origami deity - fix fate by folding the page.
Six years later, in Shepperton, I was a published writer - and what was far better, Ballard had read my stuff and approved. I switched on the tape recorder and we talked for a couple of hours,* talked easily, ranging freely across the fictional terrain where our estates marched. There were anecdotes that Jim told, the matter of which was not unexpected: the genuine paranoia of William Burroughs, whom he had known fairly well in the 1970s; the continuing capacity of his cloistered life to confound visitors; the whisky ... but overall it was a conversation about writing, and the worlds that writing actualised, and a conversation about the world, and the writings that it provoked.
The shadows crept across the pocket-handkerchief lawn; if, at the outset, I had been thinking of Jim as a putative parent, when it was time for me to go I was having difficulty not regarding him as a friend. I was heading back to town, to Soho, to meet up with Damien Hirst and his coterie. ('He's a really a novelist,' Jim had said. 'Who writes very short books.') There would be a lot of drinking, a lot of cocaine, a headlong fall into a dark night of shebeens and spielers. Did he ...? I ventured to Jim ... ever go out much? Would it be possible for us to meet up again?
Excerpted from Psycho Too by Will Self Copyright © 2009 by Will Self . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Walking to The World....................11
The Jeremiah Tree....................77
Plenty of Room in the Asylum....................80
The Carpet Moves....................89
No Country for Wise Men....................93
The Crayfish Quadrille....................103
Small is Beautiful....................111
The Eden Reject....................118
The Green Zone....................125
The Inertia of Middle Age....................128
Burning an Illusion....................138
From a Dope to a Burqa....................141
My Second Life....................144
The Sordid Act of Union....................147
Chile con Carne....................154
On Black Mountain....................162
So Long Toulouse....................166
Epitaph for a Small Loser....................169
Doggerland de Nos Jours....................172
Bring Me the Villa of Alfredo Garcia....................179
Thirteen Million Candle Power....................183
Dum-Dum Want Gum Gum....................186
Whistlin' in Sausalito....................192
Top 5 Winter Walks....................198
Before the Law....................209
Heart of Lightness....................217
The Great Vomit Wave of [??]08....................221
I Rendezvoused with Thanet....................224
Down and Out in Beverly Hills....................235
Mad Masterchefs' Tea Party....................238
The Erosion of Truth....................248
Against the Dying of the Light....................252