Will Self sets out along the Thames to rediscover the city chronicled by the famous diarist, in the Guardian here.
Real meals: really disgusting meals
I do feel some commitment to public service and as one in four people reading this will be obese, while the other three are merely “overweight”, now seems the right time to do some. Service, I mean – because we’ve all been serving ourselves too much over what’s called the “festive” season and January is the time to take stock . . . not make it. In furtherance of your resolutions, I’m dedicating this week’s column to really disgusting meals. Yes, you heard me right: meals of a true revoltingness such as to turn the stomach of the most hardened gourmand – so sit back and . . . retch.
For my part, it’s difficult to say what the most disgusting meal I’ve ever eaten was. The first one that occurs to me was a wintry repast in every sense. Brixton, January 1983: a frozen young Self picks his way gingerly over bare floorboards to the kitchen. This being a late-20th-century squat, there is no fridge, nor, given that its inhabitants are all on the dole, is there any milk to put in it.
There is, however, a box of cornflakes and another, smaller box with a white and powdery substance in it, so the shivering younger me concocts a bowl of cereal out of these ingredients, simply adding water, and pads back to his revolting fart-sack of a sleeping bag, which is coiled atop a pile of malodorous mattresses. An hour or so later, one of his rather handier housemates, intent on toshing the gaff up, comes looking for the Polyfilla.
By way of an explanation for younger readers: powdered milk was a fairly common phenomenon back in the day, being portion for portion a lot cheaper than the liquid variety, as well as (something I made clear above) not requiring refrigeration. As to why I was able to consume an entire bowl of industrial-strength mastic without noticing, well, what do you think I was getting up to in a Brixton squat in 1983? Flipping out – that’s what, not flipping fucking eggs. I was constipated for a month, which was something of a blessing, as it cut my food bills significantly.
Or maybe the most disgusting meal was the one I had (or rather, began to have) in Delhi in 2000. I’d flown in that evening to cover an arms fair for a programme I was making for the BBC, exposing HMG’s involvement in the international death-metal trade, or IDMT. (Cast your mind back . . . waaay back, to a time of yore, when a mythical, red-bearded, gnome-like foreign secretary spoke of an “ethical foreign policy”.) We were met at the airport by Auntie’s local fixer, a jolly Tamil with one of those implausibly long strings of consonants for a name, who drove us and our abbreviations straight to the old city for dinner.
I remember, perfectly vividly, standing for a moment before we entered the establishment and looking around at the bewildering scene: on the far side of the road, the ancient mud-brick flanks of the Red Fort rose from a hugger-mugger of chai stalls, around which cycle rickshaws and tuk-tuks jockeyed for functionally useless position. Everywhere my eyes alighted, there were people, people, and more hungry-looking people – hundreds, nay, thousands of them, all with the glazed eyes and listless expression of the famished. Once inside, our fixer ordered a slew of dishes, which duly arrived, bish-bosh-bash! The aluminium karahis slammed down on the table so hard that even the flies, stoned on ghee, struggled stickily into the air. The food looked appetising and smelled incredible. I lifted a forkload of steaming chicken curry to my lips and, as it touched them, I actually felt (do I kid you? No) the entamoebae histolyticae leaping into my mouth. I set my fork down and ate no more.
Pointlessly, because, as I knew fine well, it was already too late. I spent the best part of the next few days attempting to interview senior Indian politicians and military officers with my buttocks as tightly clenched as Mike Tyson’s right fist. Strictly speaking, the meal wasn’t “disgusting” – at least not superficially – but once I realised that it was a sort of resort hotel for intestinal parasites . . . the insight affected not only this chicken curry, but all the others I’ve eaten in my life, which were retrospectively rendered . . . utterly disgusting.
Some people shudder at the thought of jellied eels, or blanch if an oyster approaches. Not I. Moreover, if you find yourself eating too many disgusting meals, the problem undoubtedly lies with you, who should simply shut your mouth, rise from the table and walk away. Just as hunger is the finest flavouring (think how much those listless multitudes in the lee of the Red Fort would have enjoyed my curry), so it also seems to exist in a strange symbiosis with greed. Guzzle too much – it doesn’t matter what on – and sooner or later you’ll reach the “Pringles point”, at which the entire world crumbles into a salty mush seething with additives and your gorge rises – and keeps on rising.
Anyway, let me leave you there, with your gorge suspended in disbelief. Keep it up! It’s great exercise and by the time February’s wan fingers caress your sallow chops, you’ll be match-fit again for a year’s worth of greasy takeaways, pullulating curries and the odd bowl of Polyfilla.
My Christmas night in A&E
Read Will Self writing about the NHS in the Guardian here.
On barbed wire
I well remember the 2011 riots. On my manor, in south London, things really kicked off at Clapham Junction where, summoned by BlackBerry direct messaging, the crowds assembled and laid waste to the Arding & Hobbs department store, then set fire to Party Superstores, which went up in a whoosh of synthetic-onesie-fuelled flames. Sitting in our house in Stockwell, we watched the evening news and saw the computer graphics depicting the rioting creeping like sepsis along the arterial routes. The crazed mob had reached Clapham High Street and was headed our way.
Being leftists of the bubbly sort, we were booked to fly to the south of France for a weekend with friends who have a house in the Luberon. Should we leave the house to be ransacked? Or perhaps one of us should stay behind and beat off the acquisitive mob with our redoubtable “grand slam” St Louis Cardinals baseball bat? I thought at the time how much more secure we would feel if our Victorian terraced house were festooned in razor wire and every exterior horizontal surface bristled with fence spikes and pigeon barbs.
My friend Noel “Razor” Smith has a thing about razor wire. (A word about Noel’s sobriquet: since his release from prison on licence after serving 13 years of a life sentence for armed robbery, he has dropped the “Razor”, which isn’t really the right nom de plume for the fine writer he has become – but I’ve included it to twit my fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard, whose bohemian pipe dreams include naming his former flatmate at the Hovel “Razors”. My Razor at least has the virtue of being real, and considerably more acuminate.) He claims that the use of razor wire in British prisons is illegal – but I’ve been unable to discover any evidence of this. Surely so long as you frontage up as a bourgeois homeowner – let alone a prison guvnor – you’re entirely free to coat your property in whatever skin-piercing points, flesh-ripping blades and potentially disembowelling pikestaffs you can order on the web.
It’s oft remarked that Britain is the most CCTV-surveilled country in the world, but I wonder if we may be the most repulsive one as well. Nowadays, I seldom walk down a suburban street without seeing at least one house that is as barbellate as a sea anemone: most of these paranoiacs stick to the good old methods, Dickens’s Mr Wemmick probably secured his mini-castle in Walworth with shards of bottle glass concreted into the tops of the walls. Frankly, I can never pass by such wounding-in-waiting without shuddering; after all, we all know what it’s like to cut ourselves on glass – the few shocked seconds while we contemplate the neat unzipping of the human bag, followed by the red, red tide – whereas the fence spikes and anti-climb barriers that have sprouted all over the British built environment in the past 20 years look capable of inflicting the sorts of wounds not visited on the human body since Agincourt. Steel palisade fences, the tips of which have been cut to a sharp, inverted V and trisected to form nasty tridents; steel mesh baffles arranged like the blades of a water wheel; curling and sharply edged barbs, resembling nothing so much as bundles of extremely long anodised toenail clippings; and top-of-the-wall barriers that look as if they’ve been welded together out of medieval Japanese weaponry.
The interesting thought exercise is to work back from the deterrent and imagine what sort of attackers the designer imagined it would fend off: screeching samurai? Omnivorous orcs? Rampageous Rumpelstiltskins? Berserker bashi-bazouks? Or perhaps none of these – it’s just that, in the inner eye of such imagineers, perfectly ordinary folk, out for a stroll with their dogs, take on the aspect of blood-crazed incendiarists.
A friend of mine tells me that at the university where he teaches, all these kinds of spikes are levelled at the students, while thickets of CCTV cameras are implanted willy-nilly and pseudo-police 4x4s ceaselessly patrol. There’s a gate on to the campus that closes at dark, but students often climb over it to avoid the walk round by the main entrance. The gate is of the tridentate palisade variety and, my informant says, no fewer than three of their number have lost fingers attempting to scale it in the past few years. I’ve no idea if this is true – but if it is, it suggests an ulterior purpose. After all, any self-respecting rapist, thief or would-be murderer has the gumption to go round by the main entrance: it’s only the lazy and pissed-up students who risk getting shafted.
So, it occurs to me that – at least in this instance – the spikes have a preventative rather than deterrent function. Even allowing for inebriated disinhibition, there are only certain sorts of people reckless enough to climb these sorts of fences and arguably they are the rioters of the future. It’s a disturbing idea: the fence spike as a punishment for pre-criminals. It’s this sort of institution, more than a little reminiscent of the Ludovico Institute in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, that seems purpose-designed to generate the web-addled, couch-borne consumers of the near future. Happy New Year, everyone!
Will Self on David Bowie: ‘We won’t see his like again’
Like a million other baby-boomers I’ve been revisiting the soundtrack of my early adolescence this week – I confess, although no great rock fan nowadays, I cried when I heard David Bowie had died. Cried for all sorts of reasons – not least, because unlike so many famous people in this era when medical science is our religion and disease is diabolic, Bowie had refused to go public with news of his cancer, or offer us ringside seats while he “battled” with it. (A ridiculous metaphoric construction – and no doubt one Bowie himself, with his fine lyrical sensibility, would’ve eschewed.) One minute he was, if not present, at least immanent in the way of all great and influential artists ? the next he was gone.
Again, unlike “Sir Mick” and “Sir Elton”, Bowie had refused state honours from the British government. And he’d done it not once, but twice – the message was clear: he didn’t seek status or preferment in this world, at least not the sort politicians dole out. I never met him myself – indeed, my only direct connection to him was fairly bizarre: a copy of Alethea Hayter’s classic work of literary-critical history, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, with “David Bowie” inscribed in the flyleaf, together with his Swiss address, in charmingly juvenile, cursive handwriting. I’d acquired the book from a friend, Kevin Armstrong, who at the time – mid-1980s – was playing guitar in Bowie’s Tin Machine band. It kicked around the house for some years until, suffering from my conscience I mailed it back to him.
He never thanked me, even though I’d put a return address – but I bore no ill-will; I reasoned he must be busy. Or, if not busy, like some deity who’d created not just one world but many, he was resting from his labours. I wouldn’t claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie’s oeuvre, but then I don’t need to – his music, in common with that of the Beatles, actually constitutes the backdrop on to which the transitory experiences of my own life have been projected; a romantic imagination indeed. Bowie is always described as a chameleon – a shape-shifter, whose artistic success was directly related to his willingness to reinvent himself in a bewildering array of guises and poses.
But I don’t see it like that at all: the great achievement of English popular music artists resulted from the willingness of a handful of visionaries not simply to slavishly copy American rock ‘n roll, but to hybridise this music with indigenous British popular culture, specifically with the music hall. Like the quick-change vaudevillians, Lennon, Bowie and their successors (one thinks of Morrissey) wrote mythopoeic songs that implied the existence of entire cultural realms – ones that were obscure and yet tantalisingly familiar, inhabited as they were by the likes of Sergeant Pepper, Aleister Crowley and the Bewlay brothers. It was in these alternative worlds, spun into existence from riffs and melodies and hook-lines, that Ziggy Stardust struck attitudes, the Jean Genie slinked about, and the Spiders from Mars cavorted – and it was around these worlds that Major Tom orbited, awaiting his rendezvous with the Star Man.
Lying in bed, with the covers pulled up over my head and a cheap Japanese transistor radio pressed to my ear, I really thought I could see those sailors fighting in the dancehall – really believed I understood the lines, “Pour me out another phone / I’ll ring and see if your friends are home.” Perhaps in a way I did understand them – because Bowie’s music offered this total immersion, an experience more akin to ones offered by contemporary digitised virtual reality than the analogue past. I was never a Bowie obsessive – I engaged fervidly with his music at times, then cooled and drifted away. I might’ve been expected to cleave to the work of his heroin-addled Berlin years – Low, Heroes – but I didn’t: Bowie loomed so large – was so fucking big during those years, that it became a point of honour for anyone with pretensions to being avant garde to try to avoid him.
Some albums couldn’t be avoided, though – Hunky Dory, which I spent an entire summer listening to when I was 16 (in 1977 it already seemed like a mysterious relic from a distant cultural past – haunting and elegiac); and oddly, Let’s Dance, which the hipsters of the early 1980s reviled for its poppy perfection, but which I adored as perfect driving music. (The summer of 1983 I spent driving very fast to its percussive beats along the French Riviera, then stumbling into town … just like a sacred cow.) When I saw Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, I, in common with many others, assumed Bowie had been typecast as the infinitely sad, painfully vulnerable alien – but when I saw the music video of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, I felt joined so tightly to him at the hip that our bones grated, so perfectly did the sounds and images evoke the torturous and negative realm of drug addiction.
Bowie didn’t do public grandstanding – he didn’t, Bono-style, set himself up as a saintly figure, relieving the burden of his own conscience with conspicuous acts of charity. Instead he released two albums in the past decade – the second days before his death – that in their several ways were elegies for a life lived with furious intensity. Yet how strange it is to be living through the period when these great artists are dying – Bowie and his peers were avatars of the ephemeral, whose art was conjured out of the sexually frustrated gyrations of teenagers, but over the decades both they and it grew and matured into a sort of classicism. All of which is by way of saying: we won’t see his like again.
On location: on my imaginary island
The method of loci was a mnemonic system developed in the classical period as an aid to displays of rhetoric. By imagining a series of discrete loci and conceptualising the facts needed to be recalled as a number of objects placed within these locations, the orator could gain access to his memories by visualising himself walking from place to place and retrieving the tropes, figures and other information that he needs.
Repurposed as the “memory palace”, the method of loci makes an appearance in Thomas Harris’s paean to successful psychopathy, the 1999 thriller Hannibal:
“Like scholars before him, Dr Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp. Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.”
Well, my body isn’t bound on a violent ward, and nor do I employ this mnemonic technique to cut a dash on the podium, but I am intrigued by the connections between spatial awareness and memory. When I’ve taken one of my long solo walks, I lull myself to sleep at night by running the “film” of that day’s trek back; and I’m almost always struck by how much more I recall than I can remember of, say, what I did during a static period.
Recent research in neuroscience highlights the interdependency of our spatial awareness and our capacity to build long-term memory – which in turn suggests what our evolutionary history would imply: our capacity for any recall at all derives from the need to be able to tell other members of our group where the food resources are. It follows that MPs’ use of satnav to drive to McDonald’s is almost certainly connected to the decline in parliamentary debate.
However, it is the second purpose of Dr Lecter’s memory palace I cleave to most; I, too, have an imaginary location I often go to in moments of stress, such as when I’m trying to get to sleep but unfortunately have forgotten to take a long walk. Some evolutionary psychologists believe our aesthetic sense – including our delight in certain landscapes – is a function of survival pressures. They point to the great fondness that people from diverse cultures evince for lightly wooded, gently hilly scenes (preferably with a rill and a hint of the lacustrine in the mid-ground) as evidence of how our African savannah origins have stayed with us. If this is at all true, it’s a rather bizarre thought that our own lowland British landscape, with its melange of woodland and meadowland, may be a recapitulation in temperate terms of our semi-tropical origins.
My special place isn’t a bosky glade, though – rather, when I’ve had a bad day in the big shitty city, I find my balm by stealing away to my own private island. It’s off the coast of Scotland in an unspecified location that’s reachable in a small boat (given reasonable seas) in an hour or so from the nearest populated landfall. My island is about a mile by two miles and is shaped like a drop of water, its southern end curling to form a small natural harbour. The high point of the island is roughly 600 feet, and steep slopes decline from this peak to form low cliffs at the north end. The flora and fauna are much as you would expect: heather, grass and bracken; wild sheep and goats; plenty of seafowl, and seals basking on the rocks. There are the remains of a Pictish brough on the west coast and those of a small chapel on the east. My own croft stands above the southerly bay, and is simple in the extreme, with thick, whitewashed stone walls and a tile roof. Inside there’s a small kitchen equipped with a solid-fuel-burning stove, and a single main room, with a sleeping platform up above in the rafters. Lying on my spartan mattress, I can gaze through a dormer window at the whitecaps out to sea, and the calmer inshore waters.
Being psychologically acute readers, you will have already analysed my method of loci and understood that this isn’t simply a phantasmal away day, but a profound search for security on my part: my island is too small and remote to be of interest to anyone much; moreover, I’ve organised things so that I am entirely self-sufficient. Not being remotely handy, I haven’t equipped the house and its environs with any tricky technology. Water comes from an outside pump, heat from the stove and an open fireplace, lighting from oil lamps and candles. It’s taken years of sleepy rumination, but I’m now quite adept at husbanding the goats and sheep I’ve redomesticated. I have a small boat for lobster fishing. I forage for samphire and other edibles on the foreshore, and grow my tatties, neeps and kale in a strategically sheltered greenhouse.
I’m happy in my imaginary place because it is devoid of that hellish thing: other people. Of course, were I more like that superior mnemonist, Dr Lecter, I would simply murder them – then I could remain happily home alone.
Real meals: Chipotle Mexican Grill
It’s spelled “Chipotle”, as in the Nahuatl name for the fiery jalapeño chilli, but pronounced “Chi-pôte-lay”, which a recent ad campaign for the chain apparently makes great play of. We’re talking the Chipotle Mexican Grill, here – and frankly that’s about as Mexican as the outfit gets, given that it was the brainchild of a professionally trained chef, the child of a pharmaceutical exec who was born in Indianapolis, raised in Boulder, Colorado, and found his inspiration scarfing Mexican street food in San Francisco’s Mission District – although he was working as a sous chef at Stars, an über-tony eatery, at the time.
Chi-pôte-lay has had a few tussles with immigration officials over workers who were hired with duff papers – and one assumes that these folk, together with many more of their workers, have Mexican origins. Oh, and some Mexican dude was reportedly refused a drink once in a branch of Chi-pôte-lay, because it wouldn’t accept his Mexican passport as ID.
Steve Ells, who got the whole burrito rolling in 1993, has a long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, humane farming… blah, blah, bleurgh. It’s not that I’m agin such things – far from it – and nor do I feel that those who prioritise these concerns above the requirement for absolute economic equality are class traitors (what class – to whom could they be betrayed?)… Nevertheless, there’s still something faintly nauseating about Ells salsa-ing away with nearly $30m last year while his very modest-wage peons sweated over identical metal tubs full of guacamole, rice, lettuce, salsa, spicy beef, pork and chicken, together with a few other pinto beans and bobs at some 1,700 locations the world over… 1,700!
That’s what it’s like, the chain-restaurant-reviewing business: you notice a new, corporate-looking food outlet and think to yourself, “Mmm, I wonder if that’s the beginning of a chain?”… Then you turn away and, before you know it, you feel its heavy links clanking around your neck…
Still, at least the Chi-pôte-lay that I went to in central London had a smooth ramp and well-maintained handrail for dis- or differently abled customers integrated into its entrance, rather than stuck round the side (or inexistent), and that was nice…
The next positive was the decor and the lighting quality: mid-tan woodblock floors, darker-wood laminated furniture, zinc-topped counters, round downlights and the otherwise harsh neon strip lights wooden-box-shaded above those counters. Interior lighting is so odd… When you stop to think about it, it has taken electric lighting about a century to get to the point where it can replicate the warm tones and steady permeability of gas…
Anyway, Chi-pôte-lay felt very soothing indeed. Still more soothing was the menu’s simplicity: you can have combos of all those ingredients listed above in tacos, a burrito or a bowl… There were drinks to one side in a cooler and brown-bagged tortilla chips, together with dips (in the aforementioned modular dispensers) by the till… Guys in aprons flame-grilled in the background and other guys in the foreground assembled the meals… That’s it…
I like Mexican food well enough. (Do I really mean this? No, what I mean is: drunk or stoned, I have scarfed a few late-night burritos in LA and San Francisco and other points in the American south-west, much in the spirit with which Brit revellers neck kebabs.) But there is a world of difference between the culinary treasure of the Sierra Madre and some mass-market slop fired up with a few handfuls of chipotle and a dash of Tabasco…
I had the pork, brown rice, pinto beans, lettuce, guacamole… My companion chose the chicken burrito with mild salsa… We sat at a counter fronted by a large, plate-glass window that looked out on to Tottenham Court Road… On the far side the ghost of Foyles bookshop past had taken up residence in the corpse of Saint Martin’s School of Art…
My food came in a brown, oval, eco-cardboard dish that was a little too kidney-shaped for my taste… The food tasted all right – a little bland… You might say: “Well, that’s because you didn’t have the proper Mexican bits… ” But I think it a fair judge of an establishment how it serves basic ingredients, basically cooked… On that basis, I’m happy to award Chi-pôte-lay four fat, gold, spicy stars – and as far as I’m concerned it can begin pathway-planning its expansion to 3,500 outlets worldwide…
My companion was less hortatory. He stubbed out the nub end of his burrito on the little space blanket of silvered paper it had been wrapped in and sneered: “Basically, it’s a very slightly upmarket Subway.” I caught the full force of his critique with immediate effect and thought: “He’s right!” Bland isn’t good enough, given that it’s £19.95 for blandness that might well cost a tenner elsewhere… And especially when it cloaks such a chilly exercise in simulation…
Chi-pôte-lay isn’t only frequently mispronounced. It’s also continuously misconceived.
Town planning as state security in Paris
Baudelaire writes, “Mainte fleur épanche á regret/Son parfum doux comme un secret/Dans les solitudes profondes.” And George Dillon translates, “Many a flower has bloomed and spent/The secret of its passionate scent/Upon the wilderness profound.” I stand outside La Belle Équipe on the corner of the rue Faidherbe and the rue de Charonne staring down at the great tattered mess of handmade cards, poesies, rotting bouquets wrapped in cellophane and hundreds of little aluminium sockets that once held the stumps of tea lights. A fortnight ago, at about 9.30pm, two gunmen opened fire on the people who were sitting and drinking on the café’s terrace. When they stopped, 19 were dead and nine more were critically injured.
I’m with a small group of postgraduate students from the University of London’s Paris conservatoire; they are doing a Master’s that takes as its subject matter the city itself, and my sessions alternate between the seminar room and themed promenades. Before 13 November the plan had been to examine the traces of political violence in the city’s built environment by walking the sites of the May 1968 événements – the area around the Sorbonne, the rue Saint-Jacques and rue des Écoles – where students tore up the cobbles to throw at the police, thereby discovering the beach beneath the street. Obviously there had been some soul-searching after the attacks: to pretend they hadn’t taken place would be absurd; yet might it not be crass, exploitative even, to shoehorn them into our syllabus?
I stand ready to be corrected, but I don’t remember these bricolage shrines being assembled in the years before Diana Spencer’s death in August 1997. The evening after it happened I joined the silent crowds shuffling through Kensington Gardens and watched, awed, as great barricades of blooms, cards and stuffed animals shivered into being. Ever since, all kinds of fatalities – accidental and malicious, multiple and singular – have been so honoured. It’s as if we have decided, collectively yet tacitly, to confound Baudelaire’s gloomy aperçu. The flower stands as an obvious symbol of the transitory nature of human life; yet by ranging them thus, in their thousands, we seek to defy the wilderness of our own extinction, and our sense of insignificance in the paved deserts and concrete canyons of the city. For is it not the case, that whether we’re sitting on the terrace of La Belle Équipe or powering through the Pont de l’Alma underpass, we are no more substantial than the shadows thrown by the overarching buildings?
Even so, the scent of some flowers lingers longer than others; in the days following the Paris shootings a few voices were raised in the British press – voices that had the temerity to observe: no, this wasn’t the worst massacre on the streets of Paris since the Second World War. That dubious distinction belongs to the estimated 200 Algerians who were rounded up by the police on 17 October 1961 and beaten to death. Some were despatched on the streets where they had been protesting against arbitrary arrest and torture; others were killed at police stations, or in the sports arenas where they had been taken. Many of their bound corpses were thrown unceremoniously into the Seine.
Crowds form and swell and march and shout and scream; crowds stream and course and cataract through the streets; crowds irrigate the great tree of state and the red rose of revolution alike. Paris is a city built in concentric rings, each one another defensive barrier against the marauding hordes from without; the ninth and last of them is the Périphérique, where Diana died. Paris is also a city where town planning has been enacted as a form of state security, so beset have successive regimes been by the maddened mob. Haussmann’s boulevards, either radial or forming grids, were devised with the express aim of making it possible to maintain the city in a state of emergency, and under martial law.
This has now come to pass. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx compared the dictator unflatteringly to his uncle: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” De Gaulle, tragically, brought back the Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon to command the Paris police in the years leading up to the massacre of the Algerians; farcically, since 13 November, the M’sieur Hulot who now tenants the Élysée Palace has unleashed his own jet-powered dogs of war to scent-mark a territory contested from time out of mind.
I’m still standing outside La Belle Équipe – still looking at the terminal and flowery moraine. Later that afternoon, we took a lift to the panoramic terrace of the Institut du Monde Arabe and gazed out over the rumpled roofscape of inner-city Paris, and it appeared to me like a great tattered mess of handmade cards, poesies, rotting bouquets wrapped in cellophane and hundreds of little aluminium sockets that once held the stumps of tea lights. Only the teams we support are beautiful; only the results of their matches are worth remembering. The rest rot unrecalled.
On location: the Trafford Centre
Last year I bought a copy of JG Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.
But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.
This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the Imax cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.
But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?
Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.
The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.
While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the present-day built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.
Self Drives: Maxwell’s Equations
All five episodes of Will Self’s 600 mile trip on the trail of physicist James Clerk Maxwell are now available to listen to on the Radio 4 website here.
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