At the dead centre of this book’s snaking path down the friable face of human history stands Aby Warburg, a scion of the well-known banking family and a dilettante scholar at a time – and in a place – when to be so was still intellectually respectable. When Patrick Marnham writes that Warburg “mocked the keepers of academic purity as ‘border police’”, I suspect a strong sense of identification is at work. Michael P Steinberg, the translator of Warburg’s discipline-transgressing monographs on the snake dances of the Hopi, characterised his voice as one of “spiralling and endless mediation, between peoples, between pasts and presents, between the self that is known and the self that is secret”. I suspect that this, too, could be a description of Marnham’s own efforts in this book to which he would assent.
“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles,” or so the opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero would have it. For myself, I’ve never seen the least evidence for this, any more than I have that happy families are all alike. Everywhere I’ve ever driven in LA, its inhabitants have cheerfully braided me into their steely weave until I too have merged with their all-consuming automotive abandon.
“A few years ago, I decided to walk on the foreshore of the Thames from Battersea Park as far to the east as I could. I had observed over the years that, at especially low tides, quite large areas of hardened mud were exposed; these were either studded with pebbles and flints, or gave way to chunks of concrete slipway, or elided into true shingle. Naturally, being the sort of man I am, I hadn’t made a comprehensive survey of either the littoral or the tide table, so I soon found myself wading thigh-high in the obscuring mocha of the waters, and feeling the thick silt ooze between my sandals and my soles. Impulsiveness has at least this virtue: it impels you.
Listen to Will Self’s latest A Point of View, on the malign influence of the older generation on the young, on the BBC Radio 4 website here.
In largeheartedboy.com’s Book Notes series, Will Self has created – and discusses – a music playlist that relates to his most recently published book, Umbrella, from the Kinks’ “Ape Man” to ”Don’t Let it Die” by Hurricane Smith.
Itsu is a Japanese-inspired chain of some 40 takeaways and a brace of proper restaurants that are scattered across London’s financial district with a few outliers, including one in Oxford. Itsu – which is a Japanese prefix meaning “when” – was founded by Julian Metcalfe, who is also responsible for Pret A Manger, so you get the semantic synonymy.
I ate in a branch of Itsu near St Paul’s a couple of weeks ago, and for some perverse reason I so enjoyed the experience that I returned to see whether I had been suffering from a hallucination: the decor had seemed so pleasing, the service so light-touch and the food so deliquescent.
Will Self’s review of Mark Kermode’s Hatchet Job, from tomorrow’s Guardian Review.