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Interview with Will Self

How to walk from London to New York City in a day

(Casey Kelbaugh)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Pagan Kennedy
December 2, 2007

ONE MORNING A year ago, author Will Self sucked the life out of a cigarette and - careful not to wake the children - crept down the stairs in his house. Then he plunged out into the gloaming to begin his long walk from London to Manhattan.

Officially, of course, such a feat is impossible, given the ocean that separates them. But Self had discovered the secret of concatenating one city onto another, at least in his own mind. He would hike for hours through the exurbs of London until he reached Heathrow; next he would scramble up an oily embankment and scoot around a chain-link fence to dash straight into the airport terminal; then he would sleep on the plane, for all purposes erasing the flight from memory; then, once he reached JFK Airport, he would sneak along a service road, hoping not to be apprehended as a terrorist, and begin the long trek to the Lower East Side. Will Self, the son of a Yank and a Brit, was about to sew two cities into one imaginary metropolis.

The author has become one of the leading - and one of the few - practitioners of a science called psychogeography. In the 1960s, the French Situationists coined the term to describe a radical method of mapping cities. Through aimless walks, they would recover what was unnoticed in the urban landscape, performing a phrenology of all its bumps and dollops. Self has revived the science and put his own stamp on it. He espouses walks from Point A to a ridiculously distant Point B as a method of reclaiming the in-between landscapes, and of hurtling himself into a pre-industrial sense of time.

This fall, on tour to promote his collection of essays, "Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place," the author traveled in characteristic style: he walked much of the way.

IDEAS: During this tour, you often left airports on foot, is that right?

SELF: Yes. I walked from Pearson Airport to downtown Toronto....I also walked from [the LA airport] to Watts on the night of Halloween. And I walked from O'Hare some of the way into Chicago. You can't get out of the Chicago airport directly, so I took the subway to the first stop, and then I walked five minutes and I was standing on a riverbank looking a deer in the face at twilight. That was the kind of moment of the modern sublime that I'm aiming for. Plane after plane flying above me, a hundred feet over my head, while I was in this bucolic setting. And then I walked to the nearest Wal-Mart 7 miles away.

IDEAS: What were you after in Wal-Mart?

SELF: Some socks. Also, I'd read about Wal-Mart and its controversies, and it's synonymous with a kind of aggressive capitalist retailing. In the language of Guy Debord and the Situationists, [Wal-Mart is] the very epitome of the society of the spectacle.

IDEAS: What were you hoping you'd experience on your book-tour walkabout?

SELF: I'm interested in orientation. I've been traveling around the States on author tours for 15 tours now. A lot of these North American cities I've been in and out of numerous times, but I never knew where I was. That's an abuse of me and an abuse of the city, to reduce it to an assemblage of cab rides, bookstores, encounters with journalists, barrooms, and then back to the airport. These walks allowed me to reclaim these cities.

IDEAS: So it's a way of mapping territory in your head?

SELF: Yes, just like a migratory bird does. I told a friend that I'd walked out of O'Hare and he grimaced and he said, "That must be awful." But he doesn't know what's outside of O'Hare. There's an enormous swath of countryside. My [walking] practice wins back this bucolia.

IDEAS: You mentioned in your book that, years ago, you ended up in Boston on Cheers Day.

SELF: Yes, I was drinking heavily at the time and so I tottered into the bar at Logan Airport and had a beer with dummies of Cliff and Norm. The TV show "Cheers" was always about incorporating the viewer into a cozy vision of amity. What irony to plant a dummy in an airport to be your friend - it shows how empty the promise is.

IDEAS: Just by walking to and from airports, could you really somehow stitch together London and New York?

SELF: It really works. If you walk from your home to the airport and you fly somewhere else and you walk to your destination, your body's memory is more vivid than your mind's. The plane flight is nothing; the walk is everything. [At the end], when I walked into my hotel in Manhattan, it really felt as if the Long Island Sound had been rammed into the Thames Estuary. It was the most bizarre sensation.

IDEAS: In the book, you recount how you once walked something like 10 hours to a business meeting. You appeared in the office and told people that you had just spent all that time traveling on foot to see them. This disturbed them. You really upset their notion of time.

SELF: Yes, that was a sales conference for my publisher in Britain. [The salespeople] were shocked that I walked there. [When you do that], you don't just slow time down, you send it into reversal. People remember reading Jane Austen in which the young ladies go on a visit and they get a little sniffle and they have to stay for three weeks. People have a race memory of that. They think, "We're back in the 18th century!"

IDEAS: Yes, there's an arrogance about time now.

SELF: Especially jet travel, which is an astonishing thing. It's the strangest thing, apart from major surgery, that's likely to happen to us in our lifetime. And yet everything about our culture conspires to make it dull. And you have to ask yourself why. We will ourselves - with the assistance of the airplane companies - into a stupor. The airlines want passengers to be soporific because it makes them easy to handle. It's amazing how deaf and blind people become to the experience of flying.

IDEAS: In the book, you quoted from your mother's diary. She said she liked plane travel because it was one place where couples couldn't fight.

SELF: Yes, although I remember the good-old, bad-old days of being drunk and smoking and having sex on aircraft. Presumably this doesn't happen anymore.

IDEAS: Sex on airplanes? Are you speaking from experience?

SELF: Yes. Well, yes. Is it necessary to elaborate? Sex is ubiquitous and stereotypic. I haven't got any extra genitalia or anything.

IDEAS: Still, I was hoping for a good anecdote.

SELF: You know, it's very interesting that this new Airbus has come in, with a double bed on it. But people are not meant to have sex in it. So you provide a bed and then you say people can't have sex in it. That sums up the attitude toward flying: Put people in a metal fuselage, throw them up into the sky, haul them across thousands of miles of sea and desert, and then you expect them not to get excited. But it is exciting. It is.

Pagan Kennedy is author of nine books, most recently "The First Man-Made Man." She can be reached through her website, home.comcast.net/~pagankennedy.

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