Norman Foster comes to me: “I’m sorry,” he moans pitifully, shaking the cuffs of his shirt as if he was Marley’s ghost and they were silken chains. “Sorry…?” I gag on mucous sleep. “What the hell for?”
“Stansted,” the architect wails. “I never should’ve designed it that way. True, it looked good on the back of the envelope — and elegant once my team had put it on the Cad system, but I now realise that it’s a monstrous wedge of a building, a static plane crash of a structure, forever ramming a humungous divot out of the living, beating heart of old England! Aaaargh! Euurgh! Oh woe is little me!”
“For Christ’s sake, man, get a grip on yourself!” I grab him by the padded lapels of his tunic-style jacket and several of his propelling pencils pierce my skin. “It’s just a bloody airport.”
He throws me back on to the pillows: “Nothing is just a bloody airport!” he cries. “And if I’d never built it, you wouldn’t find yourself in this dreadful situation, with … with … them … out there.” He gestures wildly to the window.
Pushing the Baron of Thames Bank aside, I rise and stalk across the room. Drawing up the blinds I see them: hundreds upon thousands of avocets, distinctive, black-and-white wading birds with long curved beaks. Except that they aren’t wading on the muddy foreshore of Essex, they’re roosting on the concrete walkways of the flats opposite my house, row upon row of them, burbling with a sinister intent.
“They’ve come for you,” Foster bleats, his snowy manicured hand on my bare arm. “They’ve come for you, because of what you said on the Today programme …”
And then I wake to find that it was all a dream — the birds, that is Lordling Norm’ is lying, bollock-naked across the bed, clearly replete after a night of feverish lovemaking. I tell him about the disturbing in-take to my filmic life, The Birds.
“Yes, well,” he says sympathetically, propping himself up one elbow. “You have to admit it was a mistake to say on national radio that the third London airport should’ve been sited in the Thames estuary because there were only a load of birds out there.”
And, of course, it was, but then it was 6.50am on a Saturday, and I was sitting in the weird confines of a BBC sound van outside my house, having just listened to Chris Mole, the MP for Ipswich, burble on (although the only bird he bears a resemblance to is the dodo) about an expanded Stansted airport being “a driver of economic activity”, enabling “hi-tech businesses to compete globally”. In such circumstances I could, perhaps, be forgiven — although probably not by an avocet.
It had turned into a weirder day still. I pedalled the fold-away bike across and over the river. London Bridge was closed for the Mayoral Thames Festival, and, weaving across three lanes in blinding sunlight, it seemed as if the neutron bomb had dropped, leaving only the gleaming buildings. There were people at Liverpool Street station, but they were only bronze statues of children fleeing Nazi persecution.
On the train I shared a carriage with the new Kindertransport: young Poles on their way back to Krakow after a hard week doing house conversions in West Ealing. At Stansted, I unfolded the bike and pedalled up ramps of Babylonian massivity and into the terminal, where I squatted in a little hut and did a shit. There’s nothing more calculated to diminish the pretensions of High Modernism than taking a train to an international air hub, crapping there, then cycling away.
Of course, I was nearly killed on the approach roads, but I made it the three miles to Hatfield Forest, where I spent a happy couple of hours in the company of the honest burghers of the Stop Stansted Expansion Campaign, on their annual beating of the threatened bounds of this millennium-old managed woodland. Deer flashed through the covets, there was coppicing and pollarding aplenty, and the occasional easyJet burbling overhead seemed as inoffensive — if not as monochromatic — as an avocet.
At the end of the morning, I found myself in conversation with Ade, the National Trust’s man on the spot. He told me that during the last big foot and mouth crisis, the forest was closed and the resident deer herd massively proliferated: “There were so many, and they grew so bold, that you’d see hundreds sunning themselves in clearings.” It was with this image of a pandemic-induced, Chernobyl-style singularity that I pedalled away across country. As ever, mistaking my Ordnance Survey map for the territory, I failed to factor-in the ghastly new four-lane A120, and ended up lugging the bike up its autogeddon berm.
Back at Stansted, Norman was waiting for me. He was still sorry — but what good are regrets?
It matters where you are born. Not only the country or the city, the burg or the hamlet – but the precise location, its height above terra firma, its positioning in the welter of the world; for this is the still point at the exact centre of the ever expanding shock wave of your life.
For years it mattered to me that I had been born in the Charing Cross Hospital. Not, you understand, Ralph Tubbs’s air terminal for the pathologically grounded on the Fulham Palace Road, but the old Charing Cross Hospital, slap-bang in the middle of London. Here, I fondly felt, I was ushered, expelled into life but paces from the Strand, the high-tension cable that connects the financial and regal powers of the land. Here, I considered, I was within dandling distance of the eight, fake statues of Queen Eleanor that mark the spot where – Dr Johnson averred – “The full tide of human existence is to be met.” Here, I was convinced, on a clear day of profound stillness, Bow Bells might be heard, their brassy clanging hammering me into the shape of a Cockney.
It pleased me to believe that Benjamin Golding’s hospital, founded in 1818 in Suffolk Street, and transliterated a few years later to 28 Villiers Street, was my fount. I liked even more the vile Terry Farrell development the Thatcher era shat down atop Charing Cross Station, and which I felt certain obscured my very origins with its lumps of concrete, curvilinear steel and smoked glass. Liked it, not least because I ascended the windy decks while it was under construction, in my then capacity as a lowly corporate puffer, and looked out on the bend of Thames, pewter under a leaden winter sky.
How wrong I was – about everything. It wasn’t until I set out to discover precisely where I was born that I found out the painful truth: far from old Charing Cross Hospital being razed, it has instead been transmogrified … into a police station. I was propelled into the world two hundred yards north of where I had thought – and so the wonky trajectory of my life was amply explained. I identified the building from a photograph in the Museum of London archive. It occupies the triangle formed by Agar Street, William the Fourth Street and Chandos Place, and is now separated from the hubbub of the Strand by a scarified, paved area. Designed by Decimus Burton, the foundation stone of the new old Charing Cross Hospital was lain in 1831. Decimus Burton, purveyor of sculpted blocks of hard cream to the Regency and then the Victorians. Decimus Burton, whose fantasias on the neoclassical stud Regents Park and line the margins of Hyde Park. Decimus Burton – the Terry Farrell of his day.
I suppose there is a niceness to this disappearance: pioneering healthcare replaced by paranoid law enforcement; blind birth giving way to the blinkered investigation of death. There’s a niceness also about the way that the new Charing Cross Hospital compromises the debatable land of Fulham and Hammersmith, dragging the centre of town out there, only for it to be Dead on Arrival. The new Charing Cross Hospital is a very nice hospital: it has hundreds of bed, it treats all comers. It has a pioneering transgender clinic – but no facilities for examining its own metamorphosis.
I went to see the old hospital, and cycling along Exeter Street I was honked loudly from behind then shouldered into the kerb by a monstrous American SUV. “What the fuck d’you think you’re doing!” I bawled at the driver, and he, not understanding that this was a rhetorical question, halted with a squeal, got out, came over to where I was struggling to dismount, said “Who d’jew fink I am, some fucking punk!” Then hit me in the face. Salt blood and toothy fragments filled my mouth. A stagehand from the theatre on the left was shouting – a mobile phoner outside the restaurant on the right was shouting as well. The anti-sophist was already back in his shooting brake and squealing around the corner. I had received a natal blow and was breathing heavily. I stood in the ever expanding shock wave of my own life, and, since the stagehand had got the licence number – I called the police. After all, it’s not that often you get the opportunity to summon help from your birthplace.
A day later I went to speak to the Detective Constable in charge of the case. She wanted to get photographs of my extremely minor injuries and flesh-out my statement. Being in the lobby of the police station felt like a homecoming. I could imagine my father, that quintessential interwar man, striding up and down this stage-shaped space, under the smoked-glass sconces, while waiting for news of my arrival. Behind the duty desk there was a board full of missing persons notices and appeals for assistance in murder inquiries: Camilla Gordon last seen alive leaving the Blue Bunny. Do You Recognise This Man? (Yes, of course I do, he looks exactly like a forensic pathologist’s reconstruction of a decomposed murder victim – I’d recognise him anywhere.) But there was no flyer reading: Charing Cross Hospital, last seen leaving Charing Cross in a westerly direction. In the corner a revolving strip of pinprick red lights made the slogan: IF YOU HAVE BEEN THE VICTIM OF A THEFT WHERE FORCE HAS BEEN USED TO STEAL YOUR PROPERTY PLEASE INFORM THE STATION OFFICER YOU HAVE PRIORITY OVER OTHER CALLERS.
The Detective Constable I’d come to see pitched up and ushered me in. I followed her down a distempered corridor, coated with a carpet so flat and dun that it looked spread rather than lain. Doors opened off to the right, affording glimpses of offices full of obsolete computer equipment and paunchy administrators. Water-cooler tanks, blue, ribbed, plastic, lay on the floor like the discarded shell casings of a liquid bombardment. To the left there were windows; in their metal frames I saw the metallic mangle of police vehicles jumbled up in the triangular yard. We went upstairs.
In a tiny cubicle of a room as featureless as a desert, we were joined by the snapper. She wore a brown woolly and brown corduroy trousers; was she, I wondered, deliberately camouflaged? She encouraged me to roll back my lip and show my chipped tooth. The flashbulb exploded, and into the charged atmosphere I made the lighthearted remark, “I was born here y’know.” The snapper, the DC – they took it well. “There’s been a lot of smoking done in this room,” the cop said and I wondered: “Before or since?”
I wasn’t sorry to leave the nick – I never am. When I was born, in 1961, I had a congenital inguinal hernia. My mother wasn’t able to feed me – they had to put me on a drip. I lay for six weeks – or so she assured me – in “a little cage”, until I was old enough for them to operate. As I strode along the Strand I wondered what had happened to the little cage; had it, like the hospital, transmogrified? Or was it perhaps still here, being used by the Met to contain tiny offenders?
From London: City of Disappearances by Iain Sinclair
[This essay appears in the British Library edition of Essays on Alasdair Gray, edited by Phil Moores. Reproduced by kind permission of the British Library. © The British Library 2002]
A letter arrives from Phil Moores whose address is listed as follows: British Library, Customer Services, Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa, Wetherby, West Yorkshire. He encloses a selection of essays about the work of the Scottish novelist, artist, poet and politico-philosophic eminence grise, Alasdair Gray. You are holding this book in your hand so you know what those essays are, but picture to yourself (and let it be a Gray illustration, all firm, flowing pen-and-ink lines, precise adumbration, colour – if at all – in smooth, monochrome blocks), my own investigation of these enclosures.
Detail 1: I sit, islanded in light from a globular steel reading lamp of fifties vintage. Around me on the purple-black floorboards are sheaves of paper, my brow is furrowed, my chin is tripled, my fingers play a chord upon my cheek.
Detail 2: I go to my spare bedroom and retrieve the copy of Gray’s novel ‘Something Leather’, that the author gave me himself. (At that time, the early nineties, Gray carried a small rucksack full of his own titles, which he offered for sale at readings. Mine is inscribed; ‘To Will Self, in memory of our outing to Cardiff’. We went to Wales by train from London, with an American performance poet called Peter Plate. My wife tells me that Plate usually likes to pack a gun, but alas, in Cardiff this was not possible. The hotel was glutinously rendered and fusty in the extreme. There may well have been diamond patterned mullions. After the three of us had given a reading – of which I remember little, saving that a Welsh poet gave me a copy of his self-published collection ‘The Stuff of Love’, good title that – Plate, Gray and I retired to the hotel and drank a lot of whisky. The bar was tiny, the hotelier obese. Either Gray, Plate and I carried the hotelier to bed, or Gray, the hotelier and I carried Plate to bed, or there was some further variation of this, or, just possibly, we all dossed down together on the floor of the bar. At any rate, we were all also up bright and early the following morning, Gray his usual self, shy, gentle, yet strident and immensely talkative. Mm.), and begin to reread it.
Detail 3: In the hallway, where the larger hardbacks are kept, I retrieve my copy of Gray’s ‘The Book of Prefaces’, sent to me by Gray’s erstwhile English publisher, Liz Calder (for reasons of Scottishness and Loyalty, Gray has been subject to publishing books alternately with Calder’s house, Bloomsbury, and Canongate. Liz Calder worships Gray as if he is a small, bespectacled, grey bearded deity. It could be that Gray is the God in Liz’s narrative. God is in all Gray’s narratives. Somewhere.)
Detail 4: In mine and my wife’s bedroom I face a wall of books and intone ‘I wonder where that copy of Lan – ‘ but then see it.
Detail 5: I have retreated, together with books and papers, to my study at the top of the house, where I write this introduction (‘introduction’ in the loosest sense, what could be more otiose than to gloss a collection of critical essays with one more?) on a flat screen monitor I bought a month ago in the Tottenham Court Road. (Toby, who used to ‘do’ my computers for me, said that it was pointless replacing the old monitor when it packed in, and that I should upgrade the whole system. Contrarily, I decided to downgrade Toby instead.)
Gray does not type himself. All these vignettes of me-writing-the-introduction are linked together by tendrils of vines, or stalks of thistles, or organs of the body, or lobes of the brain, or are poised in conch shells and skulls, alembics and crucibles, mortars and other vessels of that sort. Moores feels that: ‘It’s sad that there is still a gap for this book for a writer/artist of Alasdair’s importance: perhaps it’s because he’s Scottish, perhaps because he wasn’t young enough to grab the media’s attention like others of the 80s “Granta Young Novelists”, but whatever the reason his profile is still too low. Perhaps this book will help (but probably not).’
Hmm. Such pessimism and cynicism in one so young (and I envision Moores as young, although a Document Supply Centre is not where you would expect to find anyone who was not – at least psychically – a valetudinarian.)
Personally, I find it very easy to imagine Gray as a svelte, highly photogenic, metropolitan novelist. In the mid-nineties, when I went often up to Orkney to write, on a couple of occasions, when I was passing through Glasgow, I took Gray and his partner Morag MacAlpine out to dinner at the Ubiquitous Chip, a restaurant where Gray himself – some years before – had done murals on the walls of the staircase leading to the lavatories. Gray would strike attitudes over his Troon-landed cod, reminding me of no one much besides Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’.
Anyway, who gives a fuck about his profile? Literary art is not a competition of any kind at all, what could it be like to win? Suffice to say, Gray is in my estimation a great writer, perhaps the greatest living in this archipelago today. Others agree. I’ve only just now looked up ‘Lanark’, his magnum opus, on the Amazon.com website (this dumb, digital, obsolete computer multi-tasks, as do Gray’s analogue fictions), the sales were respectable, the reader reviews fulsome. One said: ‘I owe my life to this book. In 1984 I was marooned in the Roehampton Limb- fitting Centre, the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident, whereby an out of control invalid carriage ran me over several times. The specialists all concurred that I would never walk again, even with the most advanced prostheses they had on offer. After reading ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray, such was my Apprehension of a New Jerusalem, arrived at by the author’s Fulsome Humanity, tempered by the Judiciousness of his Despair, and the Percipience of his Neo-Marxist Critique of the Established Authorities, that seemingly in response to one of the novel’s own Fantastical Conceits, I found myself growing, in a matter of days, two superb, reptilian nether limbs. These have not only served me better than my own human legs as a form of locomotion, they have also made me a Sexual Commodity much in demand on the burgeoning fetish scene of the South West London suburbs.’ Any encomium I could add to this would be worse than pathetic.
Gray’s friends and collaborators are represented in this collection, as are his fans. Some essays deal with Gray’s fiction, some with his political; writing, others with his exegetical labours, and others still with his visual art. I have attempted, through this fantastical schema – part reverie, part parody, part fantasy – to suggest to you quite how important I view Gray to be. In Scotland, where the fruits of the Enlightenment are still to be found rotting on the concrete floors of deracinated orchards, Gray represents quite as much of a phenomenon as he does to those of us south of the border. However, to the Scottish, Gray is at least imaginable, whereas to the English he is barely conceivable. A creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision is not something to be sought in the native land of the hypocrite. Although, that being noted, much documentation concerning Gray’s work now reposes in Wetherby, and you have this fine volume in your hand. Treasure it. Grip it tightly.
Will Self 2002