Wizard Contrivances

Jon Day

  • Umbrella by Will Self
    Bloomsbury, 397 pp, £18.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 2014 8

‘I have forgotten my umbrella,’ Nietzsche wrote in the margins of an unpublished manuscript. Whether he wanted to remind himself of the phrase, which he put in inverted commas, or of the umbrella itself, isn’t known. ‘It is always possible that it means nothing at all or that it has no decidable meaning,’ Derrida commented. ‘What if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something?’ The forgetability of umbrellas – as Will Self suggests in his ninth novel – tells us something about modernity. ‘When did the umbrella first become an article to be routinely forgotten rather than assiduously remembered?’ Self asks. ‘Surely, to begin with, they would’ve been expensive items, invested with strong affect and not to be casually abandoned,’ as they are nowadays, ‘given their cheapness and ubiquity’.[*] Umbrella finds its title in Ulysses (‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’) and it bulges with the objets trouvés of the early 20th century: shells, radios, kinematographs, advertising slogans, telegraphs and omnibuses. Umbrellas seem appropriate objects for Self’s attention, with their combination of engineering elegance and absurdity. They lurk in the wings of 20th-century history: the Hindenburg, a cloth bag stretched over metal struts, was essentially an enormous, gas-filled umbrella; in 1971 the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by a pellet of poison shot from an umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge. With its lightness, strength and tricksy mechanism the umbrella has many of the qualities of Self’s prose.

The plot of Umbrella is a fictional reworking of the events described by Oliver Sacks in Awakenings, when patients who had spent decades in a catatonic state after contracting a virus after the First World War were temporarily woken up by a new drug, L-Dopa. In Self’s version of events, the administrator of the wonder drug is not Sacks but Dr Zachary Busner, a character who has appeared in several of his earlier books. In Walking to Hollywood (2010), Self described him as ‘the consultant psychiatrist at Heath Hospital, who for over a quarter of a century had played a major role in my life – part therapist, part mentor, part friend, part inspiration, part hierophant, part demiurge … wholly suspect’. Busner’s marriage is failing, and there are hints of a brother who has succumbed to madness, but these sadnesses are kept in the background. As Umbrella begins he has recently left the Concept House, an R.D. Laing-inspired anti-psychiatry commune in Willesden in which he guided patients on LSD-fuelled trips of self-discovery, for Friern Hospital, a hulking Victorian mental asylum in a North London suburb, which was formerly known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Friern had six miles of corridors, surfaced with bitumen, and a ward round was said to take five hours. ‘These are roadway distances,’ Busner thinks, ‘a hundred yards, a hundred feet, a hundred more, a North Circular of the soul.’ Until 1993, when it was sold off as a result of the Community Care Act, the hospital housed several thousand patients. I used to go past it on the bus to school as it waited for redevelopment, an embodiment of the suburban gothic that is Self’s most pronounced Ballardian inheritance. The gates, which had always stood open, are now locked: the asylum has been turned into a block of flats called Princess Park Manor.

Back in 1971, Busner arrives at work:

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[*] Oddly, the statistics tell a different story. According to the London Lost Property Office, 87,356 umbrellas were lost on the Underground in 1934 (when records began); last year the figure was 7798.