“This is the extraordinary beach at Mapplethorpe on the Holderness coast of east Yorkshire. I walked the length of the coast from Flamborough Head to Spurn Head in the summer of 2007 as part of the research for my misery memoir Walking to Hollywood. The Holderness coast is the fastest eroding coastline in Europe, losing six feet of its friable loess cliffs every year to the chomping of the waves. My idea was to walk the entire 35-odd miles within six feet of the cliff edge or bottom, thereby taking a route that could never be replicated. All went oddly from the start: I left my maps at Flamborough Head; my boots turned into flesh-eating monsters; and the weather was a weird compounding of bright sun and ghostly sea fret blowing in off the sea.”
Arriving at London City Airport a month ago, I was the first off the plane – and there’s always some satisfaction to be gained from that. For a start, you avoid the awkward game of Twister that ensues as cramped people lever themselves from their seats, un-gum underwear from clefts and pits, scrape carry-on bags they’re unable to carry from the overhead lockers and then hover leadenly in the aisle. If you’re at the very front you get to hear the gangway being cranked into position, then witness the strange moment as the cabin door is opened and the steward greets the ground crew with a bog-ordinary salutation that wipes away any remaining wonderment you may have felt contemplating the marvel of international jet travel.
25 July: Urban Psychosis, An evening with Will Self, Manchester.
12 August: Edinburgh Book Festival, 8pm, Charlotte Square Gardens, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, EH2 4DR.
10 September: Topping and Company Booksellers, The Paragon, Bath, Somerset BA1 5LS.
11 September: LRB bookshop, 7pm.
16 September: Desert Island Flicks, Arnolfini, Bristol.
17-19 September: Annual Conference and Social Housing Exhibition, ICC, Birmingham.
23 September: Wakefield Lit Fest, 7.30pm, Unity Hall, Wakefield.
2 October: Words in Walden Festival, 7.30pm, Friends’ School Hall, Mount Pleasant Road, Saffron Walden, CB11 3EB.
Standing on a patch of induced greenery, I stared first at the vast and glassy curvilinear buttocks of Dublin Airport’s newish Terminal Two, then at the shiny cars being shat out from between them along the approach road. I turned and saw the entire sweep of Dublin Bay open out before me: I could see the Wicklow Mountains to the south; the city centre with its hugger-mugger of recent building; the Brobdingnagian bodkin spearing up from O’Connell Street and the triangular roofs of the assemblage of office blocks that Dubliners – with typically irritating self-deprecation – have named “Canary Dwarf”. To the north was the massy brow of Howth Head and before it the long promenade of Dollymount Strand. Out in the bay, the Bull breakwater lanced through the waves. All was in order, all was legible: I had achieved my objective … or had I? I stubbed out my cigarette, turned on my heel and headed for the terminal. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and here was I, lapsing yet again into the troubling reverie of international air travel.
A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.
Watch Will Self and John Banville in conversation with Carlo Gébler dissecting the ins and outs of James Joyce’s Dubliners.
It was one of those incomparable early June days you get in the far north: bright sunlight drenched the heathery Orcadian hillsides and the choppy blue waters of the Wide Firth. Driving at speed along the road from Kirkwall to Finstown, I kept taking sidelong glances at the island of Gairsay to the north. Twenty years ago when I lived in Orkney I was friendly with a local builder, Simon, who told me that a single family occupied the old farmhouse on Gairsay: a paterfamilias, a matriarch, and their hardy brood of six or seven offspring. Simon said that the Gairsay islander was so tough that when one of his children fell ill he’d rowed them across five miles of the firth to the doctor’s surgery in Finstown – and this in midwinter. But Orkney is for most of the time a bleak place, where men are men, while skate – on account of the supposed resemblance between theirs and human female genitals – are terrified.
Waiting for the District Line Tube out to Becontree, I gazed at the poster curving up the sooty wall. “Wake up to the Wild”, a slogan daubed on a stylised piece of driftwood read, and beneath it, hovering over an illustration of a rocky, sandy beach, was this come-hither: “With one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, Guernsey’s coastline offers a new experience each visit.”