Diary

Will Self

In the first few years of the last decade I undertook a series of what I called – with a nod to Iain Sinclair’s circumambulation of London – ‘radial walks’. These were tramps of between three and five days from my home near the city’s centre out into its hinterland, following either a cardinal or an ordinal point of the compass, depending on which direction most appealed to me at the time. The first of these walks took me northeast up the Lea Valley, through Epping Forest, then followed a long path called the Essex Way that traversed the surprisingly deep country well to the north of the Thames corridor, before I debouched through Dedham Vale and the Stour Estuary to arrive at Harwich.

I had never met anyone who had walked all the way from central London to the countryside – indeed, apart from my ten-year-old son, of whom more shortly, I still haven’t – and before that initial outing I seriously doubted whether or not it was possible. I feared the city’s surly gravity would prove too much for me, or that a bizarre bucolic force field would hurl me back somewhere in the region of the M25. Cyril Connolly, himself not a notable hiker, once said that no city should be so large that a man could not walk out of it in a morning. London, while by no means on a par with the megacities of the emergent East or Africa, still takes a very long day to egress on foot: if you leave at around 7 a.m., and are reasonably fit, you may find yourself in open fields late that evening.

Following Connolly, what this says about London I’m not absolutely sure: all I do know is that after doing a couple of these radial walks – first northeast, then due south – I was altogether more grounded in the city of my birth. Like some migratory creature that orients itself by sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field, I felt for the first time in my life that I actually knew where I was. Of course, the radial walks, like my airport walks – which involved walking to a London airport, flying overseas then walking at the other end – were also a therapy devised by me to try and cope with my increasing alienation from mass transit systems and that reification of place itself which is the final redoubt of consumerism.

Needless to say it was a therapy that didn’t work – or, rather, as with a narcotic habit, I seemed to require bigger and bigger hits of distance in order to achieve the same localising effect. My last radial walk was a mournful northwestern peregrination to Oxford; my final airport walk, a curious hop, skip and limp from the late J.G. Ballard’s house in Shepperton to Heathrow Airport, where I enplaned for Dubai. In Dubai I dragged myself for two days across the overcooked city and then into the baking Empty Quarter, all the way dogged by a mounting depression. It seemed to me that in pitting my body against the slave-built gimcrack postmodernism of Dubai, I had lost: something inside me was broken, and I hung up my boots.

This made it hard when my youngest son, Luther, announced that he, too, would like to take a radial walk. I realise now that having grown up with his father regularly departing on these odd ventures, he simply thought that this was what people did: they packed a rucksack, booked B&Bs, got down the OS maps from their special shelf, plotted a route then struck out for the known. He had even decided on his destination: the manor house of friends of ours who live in prelapsarian splendour on the Wiltshire/ Hampshire border; friends who grow hundreds of acres of wheat, ride to hounds and potter in their walled garden. History, Stephen Dedalus groaned, is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake – but these friends of ours are for the most part happily slumberous.

For a couple of years I managed to put the child off on the grounds that he was too little, but this August I had to yield. I was intimidated by the route west – and rightly so. I had walked to Heathrow several times before, and it can be done fairly peacefully: either along the Grand Union Canal and across Hounslow Heath, or else via the Thames, Richmond Park, Twickenham and the River Crane. But these were walks that terminated at the terminals: now we would have to pass by the vast urban veldt. The first day, we followed the southerly route to Heathrow while the planes petulantly boomed overhead. Along the riverside, Luther mugged it up for my camera – striking attitudes with the duff public art we passed along the way. Our most love to loathe is John Ravera’s In Town, an anodised couple chucking their malshapen baby between them, which stands at the southern end of Battersea Bridge. We stopped at a vintage comic store in Putney where the proprietor, although a ringer for Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons, was rather less in thrall to his product: No, he told us, I don’t carry manga or anime, we sell wrinkly old comics to wrinkly old people.

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