Read Will Self’s piece on the garden bridge in the Guardian here.
Will Self sets out along the Thames to rediscover the city chronicled by the famous diarist, in the Guardian here.
Read Will Self writing about the NHS in the Guardian here.
Read this short story by Will Self at the Guardian here.
At the outset of this account of a circum-global journey, Malachy Tallack is at pains to establish the nature of the north: “There is,” he writes, “the tree line, above which the boreal forest gives way to tundra; the southern limit of permafrost; the Arctic Circle; the sixtieth parallel. Other measurements are also made. Temperature, precipitation, accessibility, population density: all are calculated, and a level of ‘nordicity’ can be assigned, according to a scale developed in the 1970s by the geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin.” Tallack opts to follow the 60th parallel of longitude, which passes through his Shetland home; Greenland; a whole swath of Canada and Alaska; a still greater swath of Siberia; the former Russian capital, St Petersburg; Finland, Sweden and Norway; before eventually depositing him back by the ancient broch – or fortified iron age dwelling – on the Shetland isle of Mousa, which is where he began.
Tallack is keen to stress that the boreal is no ultima Thule: “Above all else, for those who live there, the north is home. It is neither remote nor isolated nor far away; it is the centre of the world.” I’d agree with him there: I may not have his nordicity CV, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Northern Isles of Scotland, and lived a blustery winter in Orkney during which my sense of the world’s orientation was radically recalibrated: Spitsbergen became a plausible holiday destination, and Edinburgh seemed a positively balmy prospect, while London steamed in my imagination. And I, too, have been taken by the sensuous lines of the ancient brochs – after a trip to Shetland I had a scale model of Mousa built in my very metropolitan back garden. Where I further cleave to Tallack is in his belief that our relationship with place is fundamentally emotional (or should be).
This, then, is a book about belonging rather than a conventional travelogue. Tallack is one of a burgeoning group of young travel writers – of whom Robert Macfarlane is the cynosure – who have reinvigorated their increasingly tired genre with elements of psychogeography: the study of how places make us feel. These journeymen and women understand intuitively – if not explicitly – that the globalised world is all used up when it comes to strange vistas and marvellous creatures; now the only course for the true adventurer is to strike out for the known, then accurately record your own resultant sense of the unheimlich. The problem for the new school is they lug along in their knapsacks the same standard-issue English romanticism as their forebears – Leigh Fermor, Thubron, Newby et al. This makes their writing oddly strained, as they try to mitigate their entirely understandable sense of alienation (after all, what are they up to, pretending to “explore” using scheduled public transport?), by slapping down on the page dollops of either nature writing or pained self-analysis.
Read the rest of Will’s review at the Guardian here.
Read Will’s review in the Guardian here.
Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, whose many books have done perhaps more than any other body of work to explain the mysteries of the brain to a general readership, is a strong supporter of the “narrativity” theory of the human subject. Suitably enough – given this is an autobiography – Sacks restates the notion here: “Each of us … constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and is defined by this narrative.” Elsewhere he asserts: “I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.” Setting to one side the truth or otherwise of this contention (personally I think it’s only the social being that is narrated – to ourselves we are always “such stuff as dreams are made on”), for a man who views his life in dramatic terms, On the Move presents the reader with some quite startling narrative leaps. Perhaps the most extreme of these are two seemingly throwaway remarks Sacks makes concerning his sexual life: aged 21, and desperate to lose his virginity, he found himself in the tolerant atmosphere of Amsterdam – yet, trammelled by his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and the social repression of the era, he was unable to act, and instead sat in a bar all evening drinking “Dutch gin for Dutch courage”. He remembered nothing between staggering out of the bar and awaking the next morning in a strange bed, being served coffee by a man who explained: “He had seen me lying dead drunk in the gutter … had taken me home … and buggered me.” A demon even at that age when it came to details, Sacks asked “Was it nice?” to which his ravager replied “Yes … Very nice”, before rounding off the bizarre episode by commiserating: “He was sorry I was too out of it to enjoy it as well.”
The second remark is even stranger: swimming in Hampstead ponds on his 40th birthday, Sacks was approached by a handsome young student from Harvard. A delightful week-long interlude followed: “ … the days full, the nights intimate, a happy, festive, loving week”. It was a great benison – all the greater, because: “It was just as well that I had no foreknowledge of the future, for after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next 35 years.”
Accustomed to the current obsession with “identity” (and sex for that matter), we might expect the autobiography of a gay man – especially one from a Jewish immigrant background who ends up emigrating to the US from Britain – to be preoccupied by differences of sexuality and heritage. But Sacks is a man of his generation, and while no prude, nor a jealous guard of his own privacy, nonetheless the personal and existential aspects of this autobiography are definitely secondary to the main business of his life, which has been the practice of neurology and the chronicling of the insights this practice has afforded. In part the light touch on these matters can be explained by a desire not to repeat himself: Sacks’s memoir of his boyhood, Uncle Tungsten, brilliantly realised a portrait of his eccentric family of medics, scientists and technologists, while also recording the traumas of his wartime evacuation and the burgeoning of his own vocation.
Read the rest of Will Self’s review of On the Move at the Guardian here.