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.

As the afternoon wore on Luther’s littler legs began to ache, but after crossing the Thames by the foot-passenger ferry, and strolling past Pope and Swift’s old hangout, Marble Hill House, I began to feel progressively unburdened. By the time we were trolling up the long grim suburban avenue that links the River Crane to Feltham I was entering a familiar blissful zone: every manky, run-down semi we passed seemed imbued with profound pathos, while the London-brick drum of All Saints Church at Hanworth struck me as a neglected modernist gem. Sensible though I am that there’s something a little queasy about this studiedly romantic anti-romanticism, I still find it impossible to resist. It’s the sheer oddity of the long-distance urban walk that produces the effect: having slipped the net of conventional space-time relations, everything appears as new, while the world – despite only retreating at walking distance – becomes speedily distant. Behind the glass of the Feltham cop shop’s noticeboard, Paul Stephenson declared: ‘I am today an immensely proud policeman to be entrusted with leadership of the Met’ – but that was back in January 2009.

We found the Travelodge in the eight-storey Axiom House, which forms an integral part of a shopping centre predictable in its Tesco, its timber cladding, its chain coffee stores – all the bubbling of the boom years, around which swirled the real local economy of pound shops, pubs and betting joints. We put up at the Travelodge because they’re ‘pet-friendly’ – on this walk we were accompanied by our Jack Russell instead of my usual black dog. Child and dog slept heavily, but I scrunched up by the small window, smoking illegally and staring out to the northwest where the sodium-lit realm of the airport showed up as an orange nimbus against the purple night sky. In the morning, David Cameron was holding an emergency press conference on the television stuck in the top left-hand corner of the breakfast room: ‘Work is at the heart of a responsible society,’ he politely hectored the assembled hacks, while we sloped off on our walking holiday.

Beside the Duke of Northumberland’s River – really a drainage channel – I discussed potential off-road routes with an elderly man who was swimming his Labradors in the silky water. No, we couldn’t follow the canal past the airport, he told us, before asking where we were headed. Eton, I replied – at least that’s where we’re staying tonight. ‘Eton,’ he mused, turning sightless eyes on me (cataracts, he explained) and shaking his head in frank dubiety, ‘walking all the way to Eton.’ On a television in the pub beside the Bedfont Estate where we stopped for a Coke an hour later, Cameron was still at it. In the flock-heavy bar a circular vending rack offered drinkers – of whom there were none – the opportunity to buy snacks in support of Help for Heroes. Opposite the pub St Mary’s Church boasted extravagant 40-foot-high yew topiary: a fowl dyad, opposing each other atop two coiled uprights linked by a lintel in the shape of a serpent. The symbolism of this was difficult to divine, not least because the entire airport margin had the feel of a stage set: the house and shopfronts sharply etched by the sunshine, while behind them yawned the black hole of utopia – in its literal sense.

At Stanwell, where there were almost-fields bordering steel-ribbed cargo sheds, we finally left the airport’s purlieu and entered reservoir country, where chain-link fences topped with coils of razor wire seemingly protect sheep-grazed grassy banks. The signs that warn of deep water and the danger of drowning are altogether incredible until – as I have done – you break in, scale the berms and find yourself looking out over the silvered aerial sea of London’s drinking water. Unfortunately Luther didn’t have the oomph for this – he’d twisted his ankle while larking with a spirited Staffy in a park where the sole, modular bench-cum-shelter was sprayed with a sole graffito: luke loves dick in bum.

I coaxed him on along bramble-edged paths, stressing that he needn’t persist if he wasn’t enjoying himself, but we both knew this was persiflage: we’d said we would walk all the way to Fosbury in Wiltshire and we were both equally determined. There followed a cheerless transit of the M25 and another five miles under the flight path, along traffic-swished roads, limping on and off the verges, until we reached Horton, where Milton had retreated to in the 1630s. Berkyn Manor Farm, where the latterly sightless poet had undertaken his course of private study, was now overlooked by CCTV. A few hundred yards on, in the viciously manicured front garden of a house, a small statue of a caricatured African – minstrel lips, gloss-black skin – hefted an outsize hand of bananas.

Datchet was anticipating a Psychic Fayre, while its wedding shop, Daisy Love, specialised in ‘fuller figure gowns’. The red-brick Georgian houses and half-timbered cottages of the once pretty town centre were caught in a vice of rush-hour traffic. Reunited with the Thames we’d last seen at Twickenham, we brewed tea on our portable stove and looked across to the far bank, where signs warned against mooring alongside the monarchical demesne. The queen’s model farm appeared larger and lusher than life – its ripe wheat fields an older gold, the crowns of its oaks especially glossy. Over it loomed the biscuit-barrel-shaped tower of Windsor Castle, which, 45 minutes later, we were standing beside, a little stunned by the cobbled, pedestrianised streets of this haut-bourgeois clone-town lined with retailers familiar to us from London: JoJo Maman Bébé, Jack Wills, Lush and Kiehl’s. Immediately outside the gates to the castle precinct a young homeless man slumped unconscious in a doorway – I photographed him as we went by, and someone passing the other way tutted at the image-theft.

Once again, despite the day’s walk, I found myself unable to sleep that night. The Christopher is a coaching inn on the Eton side of the river. Behind its olde worlde façade a tarmac lane extends, lined with refurbed hutches full of swags, pelmets and throw cushions – all the luxury stuffing. Boy and dog slept, I pored over the maps worried about the next day’s long walk to Reading – pushing 20 miles by my estimation. In the event, it was me who was the problem. Most of the day was OK: there was a blissful mid-morning stop under an ash tree in a stubble field five miles beyond the outskirts of Windsor when I realised both that we could no longer hear the jets, and simultaneously that we were in true countryside rather than smeared suburbia. Then, mid-afternoon, after miles of pathways and drowsy lanes, we found ourselves, between the M4 and Twyford, in a patch of land sufficiently remote that not even a car could be heard: all was green, gold, the shimmering of heat over wheat and the childhood castles of white cumulus. But then, heading along a busy B-road towards the Thames at Sonning, the footpath ran out and it became too dangerous to proceed, while the subsidised fields to either side were guarded by double-stranded barbed wire and hawthorn hedges. Dancing on the verge I had a little hissy fit, spitting about how an Englishman couldn’t even walk through his own countryside anymore without risking death by the driven – then I bit down on the bitumen, and we walked the two miles round via the stinking, rasping runnel of the A4.

Still, the meadows, doubled in the limpid Thames, calmed me; a fisherman told us he was after barbel and had high hopes. Night seeped in as roads, railways, river and canal reached their confluence at the skeletal form of a gasometer cradle outlined against the last chilly flush of twilight. We tended from the Thames path along the Kennet and Avon Canal, which brought us through denser and denser urbanity – pocket-sized council estates, 19th-century warehousing and 21st-century loft conversions – into the city centre. For the last mile or so we were accompanied by a young man from the Punjab who was studying in Reading: No, he didn’t know which bridge we should cross, but he was less disoriented than us, because he could phone a friend – which he duly did.

Sitting eating takeaway pizza on the lip of a concrete tree pot, we watched the crowd of young men drinking and laughing outside the Hobgoblin pub. Broad Street was a long chain of chain stores; there were roving packs of hoodies and high heels, but the atmosphere was entirely benign. At the west end of town, beyond the junction with Oxford Road, we found Middle Eastern grocers, storefront chapels, thrift shops – all the furnishings of an inner-city ethnic minority enclave. Turning into Russell Street I realised that the B&B I’d booked for the night functioned principally as a hostel for social security claimants – a suspicion formed initially by the plethora of rooms on each ascending floor and the subdivided plywood cubbyhole we were shown into, then definitively established when I descended to have a smoke on the doorstep.

To begin with I was alone, serenaded by an unseen drunk in the run-down Queen Anne house opposite who screeched over and over again – Fucking cunt! Fucking cunt! – until someone came and shut the front door. Then I was joined by the harassed-looking proprietor of our establishment who puffed on a filter-tip while admitting that, yes, it was a stressful job – particularly stressful this evening because there was a tenant he wanted to leave who wouldn’t. On cue, the Thames Valley constabulary arrived mob-handed: four beefy, squeaky-clean young men in knife-proof vests, extendable truncheons a-dangling, hip-hung radios a-squawking, debouched from a patrol car. Two of them went into the property to have words with Rosie, while the others remained with us.

‘She was placed with you by CMS,’ one of the cops said to the proprietor. ‘And now, after only six hours, you want her to leave.’ I assumed CMS stood for Community Medical Services. One of the other cops emerged and said: ‘The boy who was here with Rosie has gone now, but she’s experiencing some perceptual problems – I believe she has some mental health issues.’

The proprietor stood teetering on his dignity. ‘She told me that she was scared by Asian men – but we’re all Asian men here!’

‘Listen,’ the lead cop replied – he had a truculent northern accent belied by his jargon. ‘If you take clients of this kind you can’t expect not to have problems – and there’s Rosie’s human rights want considering.’ Then Rosie herself appeared in the doorway. She was wanly pretty, looked about 18, and was wearing a floor-length peasant skirt and cradling a two-litre bottle of Pepsi, most of which had been drunk. One of the cops withdrew into the vestibule to consult with her then returned: ‘She says she wants to stay.’ The proprietor began to remonstrate, and sensing that the stand-off might carry on for a while I slipped away to bed.

The following evening we found ourselves eight or so miles further west – but a world apart. It had been a leisurely and latterly rain-dappled day strolling along the canal towpath, part of the time in a waterworld of flooded gravel pits. Luther was enchanted by the old swing bridges that he could open with the slightest pressure, while I was delighted by the ease with which I could strike up conversations when I was accompanied by a child. Many people asked us where we were going; most then stopped to chat and divulge their own wanderings. Ivor, a gap-toothed Afro-Caribbean man of about my own age but with a far larger dog, had accompanied us some of the way out of Reading. He was a painter, he said, who had done an art degree as a mature student: ‘It did me head in.’ Now he made pictures with a utopian/African theme. The longest walk he’d ever done was from Aldershot to Reading – he had been born in Eton.

Standing outside the lilac-painted front door of the flower-wreathed little cottage on the outskirts of the village of Sulhampstead, listening to some dogs wuffle about inside, I wondered where our hostess had got to – she’d sounded both jolly and reliable on the phone. A pick-up pulled up and a man in his sixties with moleskin trousers and the distinctively weathered face of a farmer got out. Soon we were petting the freed dogs and discussing the wheat harvest – his wife, Anne, was at a Women’s Institute meeting and would be home shortly.

We slept that night on immaculate linen in a room full of dinky amenities – wicker baskets of potpourri and shower gels, an Earl Grey-stocked tea tray – and awoke to the sound of soft rain falling. Anne, an absurdly fit-looking sexagenarian, sat with us while we ate breakfast. They had moved out of the big house some years ago, and now their son, Simon, who worked in computers in London, lived there while they still farmed the land. She had taken up scuba diving a few years ago – hence, I supposed, the unsettling juvenescence – but it was difficult to get her husband away from the farm. Anne was the first person we’d encountered who seemed unfazed by our journey, merely asking what part of Wiltshire our friends lived in, before returning to the telling of the beads of her life – a rural rosary reassuring as The Archers.

We walked on through the rain for a further ten miserable miles before, drenched to the skin, we took refuge in the Newbury Travelodge. The following day, we struck away from the canal side, and through copses whirring with pheasants, made our way across country to the escarpment of the Wiltshire Downs. Once over them, the sense of a still deeper countryside was as palpable as the absence of machine noise: the wind soughed, and the mud sucked our boot soles as we strode the final miles along green lanes overhung by ash, oak and lime. Our friends and their dogs had come out to meet us – one of the retrievers, naughtily, had killed a partridge en route.

After a weekend of strange atemporal slumbering, we boarded the train back to London from Andover. It took 90 minutes to cover the distance it had taken us six days to walk. The party shop that had been torched during the riots 13 days before had the aspect of one of the skull masks it used to sell – the gaping blackened windows like eye sockets. The Metropolitan Police, belatedly ‘Working Together for a Safer London’, had posted stills of rioters ‘caught on camera’ in the window of the fulsomely looted Debenhams. Clutching pairs of shoes and making mobile phone calls, the kids looked exactly like what they were: extreme and specialised consumers. Walking the final couple of miles home across Clapham Common, Luther and the dog loping at my side, I thought about our journey. People often say that London is a case apart, but we had taken a sort of core-sample – a biopsy, even – of the city’s hinterland, and the results suggested to me that the Great Wen had indeed metastasised. In quite small towns the churches remained Anglican, while the hostelries – including pubs – were Asian-run; islands of deprivation swam in lagoons of affluence, and vice versa. The disjunction between distance travelled and socio-economic gradient traversed was – relatively speaking – as extreme as in inner London. I’m not saying that a radial walk would necessarily have a positive impact on our policymakers, but I can’t help feeling that if they want to enact joined-up government, they should understand how it all fits together.

As for Luther, I suppose I’d thought he might experience my sense of paradoxically liberating orientation, and my wonderment at the way feet alone can free you from the oppressions of the modern world. But instead he felt only a sense of achievement – which, when you come to think of it, is fair enough.