“London has been flooded many times. Until the late 19th century, and the construction of the Thames embankments as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s grand sewerage works, the high-water mark of the tidal river was an arbitrary dividing line between liquid and solid. All along the river’s banks there was a fretwork of jetties and inlets, and when the waters rose too high they would inundate the streets.
“At an event organised by the Writers’ Centre in Norwich the other week, one of the volunteers – a woman perhaps a few years older than me – observed that when she was young writers were semi-mythical creatures, farouche, barely ever seen in the flesh, and their only spoor faded black-and-white photographs on the backs of their books. In some ways this was an exaggeration – there have always been writers (and by this I mean specifically fiction ones) – who’ve had a public profile. In the States this was, perhaps, carried off with a little more swagger, but we Brits always had our fair crop of novelists – and even poets – who were also public intellectuals. However, given the relative paucity of media forums – a mere brace of television channels, a triad of radio ones – these were inevitably only either the most personally egregious, or the most politically or socially plangent.
“Each year some 140,000 inmates pass through British prisons, of whom as many as 70,000 have some form of addictive illness. They move from one environment in which drugs are both sustenance and currency while crime is the means to pay for it, to another in which exactly the same is the case – only with greater intensity.
“Let’s assume that each of these inmates procures just a single gram of heroin while inside; this would imply that 70 kilos of heroin are smuggled into prisons during that year. In fact, as any reasonably dispassionate professional would tell you, the quantities are far larger.
“Out in paperback this year was Steve Coll’s masterful The Bin Ladens (Penguin, £10.99). I read it on a trip to Dubai, and not since Jonathan Raban’s Arabia Through the Looking Glass have I read a better outsider’s take on the Arab world. Coll is exhaustive in his detail, but his writing crackles with energy.”
From the Daily Telegraph, November 28.
“There are occasions when Archive on 4 just works. Saturday night’s Self on Ballard (Radio 4) was one. In the programme, Will Self reviewed the life and work of JG Ballard with both intellect and feeling. The men were friends until Ballard’s death in April. Self presented snippets of interviews with Ballard recorded at various stages of his life, together with judiciously selected readings of his works.”
To read the rest of the Daily Telegraph review of Self’s recent Archive on 4 programme, visit the Telegraph website.
Read about Will Self and his son’s trip to Sicily, in the footsteps of the cosa nostra.