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Driven to distraction: the gravitational draw of the urban

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Will Self recalls the search for urban excitement after the suburban tedium of childhood

My poor mother: at several and different times in her life she suffered from phobias that either made her feel hopelessly confined, or horrifically exposed. I was close to her as she stood – metaphorically speaking – havering on the doorstep, poised between agoraphobia and claustrophobia. And I’ve remained close to her, in this respect at least – even though she died 30 years ago. My intense relationship with her has been mediated, in part, by the novel I wrote, How the Dead Live (2000), in which a fictional character, based on her, experiences a prosaic Western death from cancer, only to find herself in a late capitalist version of the Tibetan Buddhist bardo; the between-lives state wherein the disincorporated ego experiences its own disintegration into component, appetitive parts. Intense, eh. 

The novel was an enlargement of an earlier short story The North London Book of the Dead, in which the narrator bumps into his recently deceased mother living out her days in the north London suburb of Crouch End. He challenges her regarding this solecism – when she was alive she said it was unutterably dull – she counters that she’s changed her mind: Crouch End is conveniently located, with good amenities and transport – while she’s already made friends with her dead neighbours. Looking back to the early 1990s, when the story was written, it’s easy to see this as a perennial satire on perennial gentrification – and I think that was knocking around somewhere in the deep-dug basement of my thinking. Yet, when I got to the novel version, and created a gamut of terminally boring London suburbs – from Dulston in the north-east to Dulham Common in the south-west – I was really hammering away at the same bone, hoping it was still a funny one: whatever London’s global pretensions, its faubourgs and banlieues remained unutterably and specifically tedious. 

‘At a collective level, only physical destruction can seriously rupture the rippling synthetic skin of the hyperreal city’

It was perhaps because I rubbed up against my mother’s unease that I became quite so statically charged; which in turn has meant that for me, being in places and spaces has never been an anodyne affair. Perhaps my mother sought solace in an environment where the exterior was rendered interior by reason of being a simulacrum? I doubt it. We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb – at least in part – because my father was an academic interested in urban and regional planning; a one-time disciple of FJ Osborne, the ideologue of the postwar New Town movement. Dad, I suspect, loved the privet-lined passageways and Kate-Greenaway cottages of the suburb; but far from inducing in me a sense of happy Arts and Crafts social organicism – let alone a bucolical awareness of the urbe in rus clothing – instead, the place slowly drove me mad with boredom. Indeed, my childhood was entirely characterised by this mounting sense of ennui; one which was coextensive with the built environment itself, and which rose in my teens to a suicidal climax: if I didn’t get out of this pantiled, mullioned, mansarded hell, I’d gobble down rowan berries until my soul dribbled from my pestilent pores – only to haunt the environs for decades to come, slow-moving as the tarmac glaciers the suburbanites took for thoroughfares, terminal as the York stone moraines they used as cul-de-sac turning circles.

Anxb9n

Anxb9n

Source: South West Images Scotland / Alamy

A paradox, then: driven into an intense relationship with place and space by transgenerational phobias, and equally heritable obsessions, I’ve ended up both making my work out of suburbia’s bricky essence and ingesting its leafiness – via senses and imaginings – as if it were some sort of intoxicant. Wandering the old rookeries around Nash’s grand new sweep of Regent Street in the early 1800s, Thomas De Quincey’s opiated consciousness apprehended this singularity: in the emergent, anonymous city of modernity, all are equally lost, whether in the improved guttering or among the artificial stars. Long before Einstein, the English Romantics grasped that the intensity of the emergent city lay as much in its negative capabilities, as its increasing velocity. Relativists, they were – who saw that whereas in the past, the individual cockney might have felt a mere shadow, cast by the spire of St Paul’s, now the built environment was becoming so evanescent, it would be a mere shadow, cast by the individual cockney. Just as Mother havered on that doorstep, twixt condensation and evaporation, so the doorstep havered on Mother; while do not all urbanites today haver on the doorstep we perforce call, the zeitgeist?  

That the confluence of virtualised worldwide web and actualised internet creates a hyperreal urbanity is a truth universally acknowledged by parametric waveform buildings tossed in zephyrs of space-time – by these and the rigid visualisations of never-to-be-completed luxury apartment developments, lining the boulevard of broken rentier dreams. This permanent Now was, however, presaged for me by the stasis horrors of childhood: the suburb as a gendered zone – a seraglio of rockery-adhering females of childbearing age, left behind all day, until their commuting menfolk return with the rising tide, so much impregnating … milt. The suburb as a uchronic zone: an evocation of a Merrie, half-timbered England, when fair ladies were swathed in net-curtaining, and knights were bold enough to mow the lawn on a Saturday afternoon. To be fair to William Blake – he had no need of narcotics, but lived out his days, naturally high, experiencing the tight gyring of urban time as a tightening noose; his imagined and transcendent Albion (a cut-and-shut satrapy, out of Judaea via the Jago) auto-asphyxiating him with its great purpose.

I once drove from London to Oxford in 26 minutes. It was 1985 and I was the proud owner of a VW Scirocco, a fuel-injected and turbo-charged sports coupé with a top speed of 135mph. A wealthy friend gave me the car – after a few months, and a few such hyper-drives, I sold it on for an ounce of cocaine. I remember little of the 26-minute transit but this: the Western Avenue’s Leadville segued seamlessly after a few four-lane chicanes with the grassy median strips wavering towards Headington – there were no services on the M40 in the mid-1980s, and indeed the motorway only went as far as Oxford. One minute I was noting, yet again, that ‘George Davis is innocent’ – the next that ‘Planck is God’, an enigmatic piece of physics-inspired graffiti adorning the brick caissons of a demolished bridge that spanned the road just short of … Wheatley. 

‘I’ve ended up both making my work out of suburbia’s bricky essence and ingesting its leafiness’

Motorway driving – and driving, in general – delivered the intense havering I required: the claustrophobia of the car’s interior juxtaposed with its great exterior velocity; my own extroception, upon merging with the car’s engine and braking system, became massively enhanced, so that I was at once hunched up cosily and bestriding the Chilterns, a giant wearing 40-league-an-hour boots. Yes, of course I’ve looked to architecture itself to provide me with a sense of intensity: my brother, the architectural historian Nicholas Adams, has written extensively on the work of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – and through his connections, we ascended the new Freedom Tower of the World Trade Center before the topping out ceremony. Could there be anything much more intense than this? On a frigid November morning, being winched on an open platform lift, a thousand feet into the air, up the facade of this epochal edifice? When we reached the top, I asked my brother (really to try and palliate my own intense vertigo), whether he felt nervous; and he replied that he did, ‘Now – because it feels like it might happen again’.

Looking north at Manhattan Island, spreading out like some flat foot of urbanity, I knew what he meant: although the odds were surpassing minute. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 queered the theoretical basis of any intensity to be found in the built environment – making a mockery of sentinel towers and the bold, panoptic vistas they afford. But really, this laughter has always echoed in the oxymoronic light wells, deep dug in our cities’ stony cores. Architecture’s frozen musical notes have more often been those of a military march than a transcendent Wagnerian overture – and this is ever more so, as those marches are composed on computers, creating environments built from muzak. The architectural visionaries of the 1960s, sensing this involution of the anthropic – and recoiling from the pharaonic fantasies of their predecessors – sought intensity either in the up-sticks mobile cities imagineered by the likes of Archigram, or else took the weedy road less travelled that I did, and looked for intensity in precisely those mundane environments my poor mother once havered over.

‘If I didn’t get out of this pantiled, mullioned, mansarded hell, I’d gobble down rowan berries until my soul dribbled from my pestilent pores’

Peter Ackroyd, in his London: The Biography, sees the city as a persona ever coming into being by a collective act of being witnessed. For him, the infamous London mob is analogous to a theatrical audience, either applauding or cat-calling its own part in the enactment of History. Under conditions of late capitalism – the neoliberal variety in particular – the dull suburbs of my childhood have been entirely monetised: privet-lined pelf. Nowadays, any collective experience of intensity in the urban environment is mediated by marshals wearing high-vis tabards – which is why that heady moment, when the scaffolding poles are seized and the march becomes a riot, remains so exciting. It’s not a question of a political direction – but an architectural one: at a collective level, only physical destruction can seriously rupture the rippling synthetic skin of the hyperreal city. But an individual level we can all go on havering. 

For my own part, I like to walk right out of the city at least once a year – to pit my own body against its surly gravity. The first time I walked all the way from central London to the green fields beyond, I thought the feat might prove impossible – because I knew no one else who’d ever actually done it. I thought I might be thrown back by a force field in the region of Enfield. But I wasn’t. The practice of the psychogeographic dérive places the pedestrian – if you’ll forgive the pun – in the driving seat: aimless wandering, by disturbing the relentless metric of time-and-money that determines mass experience of the built environment, returns us to radical subjectivity – one in which a few inches in either direction can precipitate us into the most intense feelings imaginable. And what could be better than that? 

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy