Photograph via Flickr by Nathan Jones
Excerpted from the novel Walking to Hollywood: Memories of Before the Fall.
“Excuse me sir, you have too many things in your pockets.”
We stood on a desert island of carpet tiles somewhere in the placid lagoon of Pearson International Airport. I was a pre-wrecked Crusoe; she was a squat mermaid of South Asian extraction with blue-black hair. She wore a nylon jacket with fluorescent patches that bulged at the hips and the fishtail of her lower body was poured into black slacks. At least it was healthy flesh and not all the necrotic stuff I had wadded into the Barbour, stuff she began to gingerly extract with rubber-gloved hands, laying it all out on the brushed steel.
I waited with the Ohrwurm boring into me: a tiny finger-flutter of the keys, the entire orchestra dangling from the pianist’s hangnail
The security woman unearthed the tiny plastic tomb within which this vast and resonant performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto—by Daniel Barenboim with the London Philharmonic—was interred. She bunched up the skirt of the Barbour, appalled to discover yet another pocket—the poacher’s —and unzipping it removed the small corpse of my rolled-up plastic trousers.
Leaving Tor-Buff-Chester (a mega-region embracing Toronto that stretches all the way from Buffalo to Quebec City, and has an annual $530 billion of economic activity) was proving more difficult than anticipated. “The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in large ones,” contended Uncle Vladimir—meaning “bore” as in “induce tedium.” I didn’t feel that way: My ability to build a concert hall in the inches between my ears was the only thing that made all of this —the queuing, the carpet tiling, the pornographic X-raying of my possessions—remotely tolerable.
Then, aloft, as the Northwest flight skipped across the dimple Great Lakes, I dipped carottes coupées et pellées in trempette ranch , while little Daniel braced himself in the aisle and puuuushed! with his fluttery finger, so that the entire fuselage of the plane widened and the trolley dollies could dance about one another in Busby Beethoven routines.
There were 216 private jets booked into Miami International Airport for the Miami Basel Art Fair. “Fine art is a luxury good, and so there is a natural marketing synergy, a comparable customer profile, and a similar trend cycle,” or so said Jeremy Laing, the Canadian fashion wunderkind. I wondered if Sherman would be there: He was outwardly disdainful of money, contending that if he sought the maximum for his pieces and ruthlessly hired, fired, and even circumvented his gallerists, it was only to further the work.
“I’m just a very little man making very big things,” he’d said when I last taxed him with posing for the cover of a glossy auction house magazine. “And you have to appreciate the costs involved: the planning, the technical drawings, the lobbying—materials and fabrication are only the tip of the iceberg.”
I hadn’t observed that the end result was as egotistic as any other monumentalism, and that really spending his money extravagantly might be of more benefit to others than these iron giants trampling down the hills, or standing forlorn in the Seine. I hadn’t, for the shameful reason but there was also Sherman’s indisputable generosity: restaurant bills paid without a murmur, plane tickets chucked like paper darts, and opera seats offered offhand.
And yet and yet I was never entirely comfortable with his largesse; was it all adding up to a costly obligation? Besides, Sherman devalued his gifts by exhibiting the appetitive disdain I’d noticed in others like him—those who, by their own efforts, had worked their way up from a comfortable childhood to being seriously rich.
Sherman had shirts and suits tailored by the score; and, as he advanced through life, Baltie brought up the rear, picking up the clothes that had been discarded by his boss because they were slightly soiled. Sherman bought bottles of Cristal, drank half a glass, then, gripped by a whim for a pint of lager, climbed down from tables doodled with costly food—dots of Beluga caviar, scrawls of langoustine—and marched away, leaving Baltie to settle the bill. Sherman—having already extracted a Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto from the humidor that went everywhere with them—would wait at the curb: a fire hydrant spurting smoke. Needless to say, the expensive cigar was stomped to shreds after a few puffs.
“When I see a guy lighting a cigarette as I turn the corner, I don’t think he’s gonna be taking the bus!”
I could see her point, but I’d been waiting for the service for a while and even in the northern Californian sunshine everything was weighing heavily on me: I needed a smoke. The timing was wrong for a walk into town — besides, without a Reichman to goad I didn’t really have the oomph. I thought of the days ahead of me, the paltry rituals of a man alone in a strange city: reading suppers — possibly a concert, an excursion to see the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Metroline bus blatted along I-29, through the cleft of the buttocky hills, one of which bore the tattoo CITY OF INDUSTRY. I’d never liked San Francisco in all the time I’d been visiting; for me the city always remained tangled in the fallen freeways of the 1989 earthquake, and these, in turn, contained within their distressed steel and clots of concrete the ghost of the 1906 earthquake with its subprime fatalities—300, 3,000, or 30,000? The Tenderloin was a cut of putrefying meat, crawling with tramp-flies and shoved in the face of tourists, and in the Prescott Hotel on Post Street where I had slumped, stifled by swags, pelmets, tassels, throw cushions — all the amniotic padding of an embryonic luxury — I noticed for the first terrifying time that reflected in the mirror the label of the mineral water bottle read NAIVE.
No doubt in Sacramento there would be a state capitol that was a copy—near enough—of the one in Washington;
it was the same throughout the States: prêt-à-porter legislatures and courts
I couldn’t believe that San Francisco had been hiding these big things from me—but there they were, floodlit: a concert hall, a city hall, some kind of library or museum, all stacked along avenues wide enough to gladden Albert Speer. No doubt in Sacramento there would be a state capitol that was a copy—near enough—of the one in Washington; it was the same throughout the States: prêt-à-porter legislatures and courts, bought from the Great Framers up in heaven.
I had booked the best seat in the house, the plush throne of B1 in the balcony. High above the stage dangled enormous transparent sound-bafflers, and as the soloist mounted the keys with his fingers, climbing up and up to the tremolo peak of the allegro, I wondered how great a compass of emotion might be contained between one note and another, dreadfully pinched by the minims. The Ohrwurm bored on into my cheesy brain, proof—if any were needed—that I was already dead.
I zombied back towards the Prescott under a full and ruddy moon, appraising the bitten-off cripples along Market Street: What diabolic ghoul could have taken that leg or arm? Surely not these slim Latino girls bussed in from the Bay Area? They sported fetching light-up devil horns and glittery red micro-mini dresses, and cavorted on the sidewalks goosing one another with outsized plastic forks.
Ploughing my way through burger ’n’ fries in the laminated belly of the Pinecrest Diner, I envied them all the easily converted currencies of youth: sex and bullshit. Envied even the kid who sat opposite me, the hood of his H. H. Geiger alien rubber suit pushed up off his brow to expose the pained maquillage of pimples and white-blond bum-fluff.
At the Prescott yet again, I naïvely slept, then cynically dream-dollied myself in through the doors of the Moscone Convention Center. The Little People of America were gathered—no less grotesque than any who sport celluloid name badges, yet certainly no greater. My mobile phone rang and I answered it as quickly as I could, although not fast enough: a clutch of dwarfs swarmed about me. “Have some goddamn respect,” said a termagant with a perm as tight and prickly as a burr. “Can’t you see there’re royalty present?”
What gives? Sherman’s voice in my ear.
Are you attending some kind of levee?
“I thought the lady told you to cut that out!”
The phone was snatched from my hand, and before I could remonstrate there was a Nagasaki of flashes, a low moan, and the dwarfs surged towards the main doors—then were checked by a force field of awe.
Tiptoeing into the convention center came a brother and sister; they had the same white-golden hair, worn shoulder length, and must have been in their late teens. They held hands, and seemed not so much shy as bemused by the adoration they had provoked. I noticed first the tiny patchwork denim bag the girl wore slung over one shoulder, then their savagely undershot jaws and keel noses, then their stature: for they stood at most twenty, maybe twenty-one inches high.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” said the burr-headed woman, clutching my leg so fiercely that her nails dug into the tendon behind my knee.
“Beautiful,” sighed the little man who’d snatched my phone. He pulled a silk handkerchief from his blazer pocket and mopped his eyes.
I understood that these were the dwarfs’ dwarfs, embodying for them all the aesthetic qualities the actual-sized ascribe to the miniature. Wishing Lévi-Strauss was with me, I found myself being pushed forward, and instinctively I offered my hand to the primordial dwarf girl. She rearranged the strap of her handbag and I was acutely aware of the quail’s ribcage beneath her doll’s cardigan—then the grossness of my fingers, with their elephant’s knees knuckles and fertile crescents of dirt beneath the nails. As our hands Sistined together, she turned to quicksilver and burst into a spray of droplets, one of which hung from the chin of the burr-headed woman. I stared at this bubble world and saw in its mirrored convexity the dwarf conventioneers, the concrete and glass of the foyer, and my own moon face, cratered by its passage through deep space.
I awoke with the Barbour’s waxen arms wrapped around me, my face buried in its musty tartan lining, its double zips nipping my neck—and couldn’t stop weeping until a young woman in the line for the breakfast buffet offered me a Kleenex and said, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.” Determined to walk away these black-and-blues, I went back to my room, packed the Barbour’s pockets, and then headed out into the sunshine.
The temperature was in the mid-seventies and the jacket wasn’t a mistake—it was burden that had to be endured as I toiled up Nob and downhill, passing show couples with show dogs posing outside pacific patisseries.
The temperature was in the mid-seventies and the jacket wasn’t a mistake—it was a burden that had to be endured as I toiled up Nob and downhill, passing show couples with show dogs posing outside pacific patisseries. I cursed myself for a fool: Far from being unencumbered here was I, beneath an ice cream headache, sweating with the exertion of carrying a shooting jacket.
At Marina Boulevard, where the Palace of Fine Arts hid its Moorish fakery behind an arras of pines, I nearly gave up — my progression was purely arithmetic. Only the previous week, when I was either 53,710 or 537 miles away, district officials had scuttled the idea of plastering the Golden Gate with corporate advertising. “If you ain’t into this you real sucka,” J. J. Bigga told the 500- — 50&8212;? 5,000-—? – strong audience at the Cow Palace House repos were up 622 percent to 10,427 in the last quarteror was it 104,270, or even 1,042? At Crissy Field, I stopped a bucktoothed Scotswoman on a bike and asked her for directions to the inconceivably big thing that arced through the haze to the green hills above Sausalito, and she looked at me the way the sane look at the mad.
I plodded on – the Barbour was a waxwork effigy of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, which melted across my shoulders. I set the sludge down on the grass and molded it into a semblance of Alcatraz, which stood off in the bay. Then I took it up once more and went on, while my LongPen shaded in an afternoon two months previously: an exhibition of Ron Mueck works at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, where, wandering through the rooms, I was arrested by the follicle-perfect dummy of a depressed woman lying in bed, her white face five times life size. Around the peak of her nose a security guard came hurrying — he told me to stop taking photographs. Perhaps if he’d been a Canadian he would’ve added, civilly, “It’ll do you no good to confront your past writ large. Besides, that is not your mother, wrung out by postnatal depression and eking out the years between parturition and cancer with gardening and library books.”
At the time, I’d realized that what Mueck was doing reversed everything I thought I understood about the distortion of scale: far from his giantess being a purely intelligible object, she was all feeling — her desperation magnified until it filled the gallery with the ultrasonic howl of a harpooned leviathan—
Mounting the path that switchbacked up through Fort Point National Heritage Site, I was seized not by the Ektachrome of the evergreens and the waters of the bay; nor by the towers of the bridge that rose up before me, which appeared sandy-damp, as if freshly molded by giant hands, then raised by massed Lilliputians drawing on their steel cables. What grabbed me were the walkers, in their T-shirts and sneakers, their jeans and sweatpants, who converging on the bridge’s approach reached a pedestrian density I’d seldom seen in the States before, except in an airport concourse, a mall, or midtown Manhattan.
THERE IS HOPE. MAKE THE CALL. THE CONSEQUENCES OF JUMPING FROM THIS BRIDGE ARE FATAL AND TRAGIC.
I, better than most, understood the compelling urge to walk across a big thing, an urge separated by a mere carpaccio of neurons from the compelling urge to throw yourself off it. It goes without saying that thoughts of suicide were never absent, but burbled repetitively in my ear — “Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself” — just as did the stream of anxiety: “You forgot to turn off the gas/shut-and-lock the door” and, more recently, the times-ten/divide-by-ten tic. It took only the signs to alert me: EMERGENCY PHONE AND CRISIS COUNSELING and then, a few score paces on, CRISIS COUNSELING. THERE IS HOPE. MAKE THE CALL. THE CONSEQUENCES OF JUMPING FROM THIS BRIDGE ARE FATAL AND TRAGIC.
If I had had any reservations at all the “and tragic” banished them entirely. The composers of the signs understood entirely not merely the anger-born-of-fear of the felo de se — in my view an emotion much exaggerated — but, more importantly, our narcissism. Yes! A tragedy! That’s what it would be, a fucking tragedy, I had been cut down in my prime, after struggling manfully for years against this debilitating condition, one that I had — still more tragically — vouchsafed to hardly a soul. My notebooks, left open on the table in my room at the Prescott, would explain all that, explain also the awful shame that pursued me, the tiny Eumenides sprung from the Titan’s blood.
By the time I had reached the middle of the bridge, and was standing there listening to the wind shear lament through the cables, and watching the drop yawn below me, I had succumbed to its sublime contours. If the monumental was an architecture of social control, then what could be said of monumental bridges, save that they were very obviously for jumping off—that they in fact ordered you to jump off them? “Jump!” they bellowed, sergeant majors on the vast parade ground of civilization, and so the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenlanders, the Romans, and now the entire West did their bidding.
What possible purchase could Section 2193 of the State of California’s Penal Code have on the profound gravity of this situation; for this was about physics, about small things and big things — people hardly entered into it. And in those last few moments, when a woman in a hijab heading one way and a Japanese-American woman eating a beanshoot salad from a Tupperware container as she strolled the other, simultaneously gasped as I vaulted nimbly on to the thick, rivet-warty girder of the balustrade, my loved ones were of scarcely any concern, being irredeemably actual size.
I had hoped for what? A game of Scrabble on the way down, or to get married, or at the very least to link hands with a serendipitous octet of fellow self-murderers—the drop had certainly looked big enough for such skydiving antics. After all, the waves in the bay were wrinkles, while from up there downtown San Francisco had no more civilization than a playroom Lego ruin.
I had cast the beastly Barbour aside, and so was meeting my fate without any baggage at all, no plasticized Beethoven, no paperback Great Expectations, no rolled-up plastic trousers, no waxed cotton class suit; I was going to my execution as every baby boomer should: in a T-shirt and Levi’s, bravely refusing Ray-Bans.
As I fell towards the deceptively yielding pavé of the bay (and, believe me, like all suicides, I knew just how hard the impact would be, foresaw entirely the Faroese slaughter of my expiration: a small pink whale gashed open and wallowing in a cloudy red stain), I also anticipated feeling this consolation: that I had cast the beastly Barbour aside, and so was meeting my fate without any baggage at all, no plasticized Beethoven, no paperback Great Expectations, no rolled-up plastic trousers, no waxed cotton class suit; I was going to my execution as every baby boomer should: in a T-shirt and Levi’s, bravely refusing Ray-Bans.
So it was with a sense of fretful — almost pettish — annoyance that I realized Death was bopping me on the head without any more ado, that my extinction, far from being profoundly protracted, was to have all the grand tragedy of a prankster creeping up behind me and suddenly yanking down the woolly hat I’d forgotten I was sporting, so that I was entombed in a tickly darkness — for all eternity.
I came to in a large, poorly-lit room notable for a tacky earthenware statue of the Buddha on a low table. This Gautama had an expression not so much spiritual as obscurely self-satisfied, while the joss sticks set before him curdled brown smoke into the gloom. Around me shuffled the shades, all dressed in floppy shirts and baggy pants of faun, umber and other earthy tones, which looked to be woven from flax, or hemp, or some other retro-fiber.
“For our dharma discussion today,” announced the sandy Sangha, “I will be taking suggestions; anything you wish guidance on I am happy to consider—”
My groan hearkened one of these souls to me; he or she was suitably intersex, with sepia hair scraped into a mule tail and circular wire-rimmed spectacles. “Would you like an herbal tea?” he or she asked gently. “We’ve got most varieties, cardamom, caraway seed, ginger?”
“Whatever,” I pleaded, and he or she footed soundlessly away.
A lissome man, with a sandy trowel-shaped beard and the tense look of someone who practices yoga furiously, mounted the low platform behind the Buddha and concertinaed into a full lotus as easily as I might’ve scratched my arse (when alive). Despite my recent death I could sense the aggression radiating from this man, and as he picked up a small brass mallet and tapped a bell, his mild features writhed with barely repressed fury.
I was remarkably unfazed.
“For our dharma discussion today,” announced the sandy Sangha, “I will be taking suggestions; anything you wish guidance on I am happy to consider—”
“It’s vervain,” said the shade, pressing a tepid mug into my hand. “Enjoy.”
Remarkably unfazed because this all seemed altogether just: that the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology should turn out to be correct and that my own bardo should — at least initially — take the form of a room full of the angriest people in the world: occidental Buddhists. Of course, what would begin to happen when my ego started to disintegrate I shuddered to think; presumably in place of the multi-headed demons that tormented Tibetans I’d be visited with my own bogeybeings; perhaps the fibrous Buddhists would transmogrify into giant Bionicles, those weirdly skeletal robotic toys loved by my youngest child that had techno-scimitars and laser guns for arms, and could be posed on their long legs so as to delve surgically in their victims’ innards.
“Drug addiction and the dharma,” offered one seeker. “Dharma and movement practice,” said a second. “The three pearls,” a third in lotus position said, his thick glasses like an insect’s compound eyes.
“OK, OK,” the Sangha snorted. “That’s enough — we could go on all night taking suggestions and have no time for instruction.”
The seekers tittered obsequiously, while behind the Sangha’s enlightened head I could see the dark ballooning of a massive and unconstrained ego.
“I’m, I’m ” I grasped the wrist of the exiguous herbalist who had coiled into the canvas chair beside me, “not dead, am I?”
“Heavens no,” s/he replied in a beige undertone. “You poor man, you fell backwards from the parapet of the Golden Gate Bridge on to the walkway there and were brought by paramedics into the rescue center. We get a lot of sufferers such as yourself; if there isn’t absolute proof that a person is trying suicide” — “trying,” I liked that, it suggested that suicide was only one of the options available from the smorgasbord of inexistence — “then the Bridge cops are happy to, like, outsource—”
“It seems,” the sandy Sangha’s gentle voice was viciously clenched, “that someone with us this evening has a more nuanced interpretation of the three pearls; so, would you like to share?”
The herbalist bowed his/her head in abject shame. I, however, was on the point of rising up and chinning the fraud, but was forestalled by a commotion from the doors — that and the sharp pain in the back of my head, which was — I now realized — swathed in a crêpe bandage.
One of the slipshod sannyasis came shuffling down the aisle and bent to whisper, “Your friend is here now to collect you.”
Friend? What friend? As I limped to the door, passing by the rows of outlines of devotion, I racked my bruised brain: I had no friend in San Francisco, nor — without being self-piteous — did I have that many friends anywhere. Besides, how might such a friend have found me?
The answer to the second question came in the form of the Barbour, thrust into my unwilling arms so that it hung, slick and black as a roosting flying fox. The answer to the first was Sherman Oaks, who stood out on the Sausalito sidewalk, pulling intemperately on a stogie.
In that instant of recognition, my eyes drinking in the scant three feet of him, I realized a thing at once terrifying and beautiful: it wasn’t that the Buddhists had been rendered indistinct by their quest for the white void, or that the community hall within which they were assembled was any more vapid than such places usually are — it was me. Had I suffered some pinpoint-accurate injury to my visual cortex, or was this only a form of hysteria? Whichever the case, the result was the same: Casting wildly about the main street of the chichi resort town, I could make out the outlines of all intermediately sized things — such as cars, people and the no-good pagoda of the Spinnaker seafood restaurant — but not their infill; whereas the very large things that blocked in the horizon — the hills, the bridge, Alcatraz — retained their detailing even in the twilight.
Then there was Sherman, who, with his potbelly and droopy ears, was truly the presiding spirit of the very little, and who stood proud of the indistinctiveness of his setting, just as the very little things in the window of the Swarovski’s across the road — crystal strawberries dimpled with brilliants, vitrified bouquets half an inch high — leapt to my retina and swarmed there as veridical as after-images.
Naturally, I said nothing of this to Sherman, who anyway only left off barking into his own phone to bark at me: “They checked your phone to see who you’d called recently, then rang a few people. I happened to have been in SF for the Web 2.0 thing, flew here from Miami, so I came out to get you, you dumb fuck.”
The outline of a Range Rover pulled up to the curb, the outline of Baltie at the wheel.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I have to see some people at Stanford in the morning, then I’ll be with you at lunchtime—” He broke off again: “Go on, get in the car willya?”
I got into the back seat and Sherman clambered into the front. Baltie’s shape said “Hi,” with that special tone people reserve for failed suicides, at once sympathetic and reassuringly annoyed, as if to say: See the trouble you’ve put us to!
Within minutes, we were tooling back over the bridge, the tires of the big car drumming the deck plates, the mighty lyre of the cables strumming past. At last, shorn of the encumbrance of any human scale whatsoever — no finicky aerials or water-tank bobbins — the San Francisco skyline acquired, for me, the majesty others always claimed they found in it. Once we were down off the bridge and auguring into the core of downtown, the sidewalks were as unthreatening as Hanna-Barbera backdrops, the homeless mere silhouettes, the traffic no longer steely, but graphite—reduced to a few pencil marks on the fronts of the buildings.
I made a conscious decision to say nothing of this nothingness to Sherman, while he treated my rescue as simply another chore to be completed with dispatch. “What’ve you got on here” he rapped as the Range Rover pulled up beside the Prescott. I muttered something about a book reading at the City Lights in two days’ time. “Fine, then. You can come out to Stanford and the Google campus with me tomorrow in the day — we’ll pick you up around ten. If you need me you’ve got the number, we’re staying in the Transamerica building, they rent out a penthouse suite.”
As I prepared to insert my stick body into the line drawing of my bed, I pictured Sherman in his odd accommodation, at the very apex of the Transamerica’s forty-eight-story white granite-faced pyramid. With Baltie a hieroglyph on the marble wall, Sherman rollicked back and forth in this despotic bed and breakfast, stubbing out a Hoyo here, snatching up a glass of champagne over there, consulting a sale catalog while he barked at Borzois in Kiev, or Pekineses in Beijing. I wondered if, in all that restless communication, he had taken the time to reassure my family, who might have been concerned by the phone call from the paramedics who had scooped me up from the Golden Gate Bridge. Wondered this — yet felt powerless to call them myself.
This is latest episode in my relationship with Sherman had taken things to another level. I knew that my behavior in the past had been shameful, yet this very Dickensian coincidence — of which I could’ve had no great expectation when I teetered atop the parapet — brought home to me quite how much psychic baggage I was carrying with me.
Perhaps I should’ve felt more disturbed by the excision of any sense of proportion that I had once had, and its replacement by a thick fog of mediocrity welling up from San Francisco Bay. I didn’t, though, for since having come to Marin County and listened to the pugnacious Sangha, I had been blissfully free of the multiplier and the divisor.
Lying in the darkness of the Prescott, I ran over the stats: the bridge was 8,981 feet long, the longest span was 4,200 feet. It was 746 feet high, and there were eighty thousand miles of wire in its main cables, while approximately 1,200,000 rivets had been used in its construction. Between its completion in 1937 and 2005, more than twelve hundred people had jumped the 245 feet to their death in the chill waters below. Twelve hundred, not 120 nor yet 120,000 but 1,200 — these figures were incontrovertible: the facts on the ground.
Copyright © 2011 Will Self
Will Self is the author of The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Grey Area, Cock and Bull, My Idea of Fun, Junk Mail, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, Great Apes, Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, Dorian, How the Dead Live, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2002, The Book of Dave, Psychogeography, Psycho Too, and The Butt. He lives in South London.
The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall: I reread this book every year or so. It’s the account of the round-the-world solo yacht race in 1968, told from the point of view of its most quixotic and ill-fated entrant, the British yachtsmen and inventor Donald Crowhurst. His boat was woefully inadequate, and early on in the race Crowhurst took the fateful decision to “fake” his log entries while skulking around in the Atlantic, then rejoin on the race as it came back from the antipodes. In the event, as other yachts floundered or dropped out, he was left in the position of having to “win” the race if he rejoined it—realizing if he did so he would face scrutiny he would be unable to withstand, Crowhurst had a mental breakdown and eventually committed suicide. His boat was found floating in the Bermuda Triangle, with his orderly logbooks—real and fake—on board. Tomalin and Hall do an astonishing job of reconstructing the last few months of a mind in extremis.
The Man Who Was Thursday (Penguin Classics) by G.K. Chesterton: Sometimes called a metaphysical thriller, this is one of the strangest, funniest and most acute books you’ll ever read—it’s as fresh as paint today, and it was originally published in 1908. On the surface, an account of grand anarchist conspiracy dedicated to the overthrow of civilization; it’s really an exaggerated spoof of all terrorists and their supposed vanquishers. It’s a great book to read in conjunction with Conrad’s rather more serieux and po-faced The Secret Agent.
The People of the Abyssby Jack London: London’s 1904 account of an anthropological expedition to the East End of London. He attempted to persuade the travel agent Thomas Cook to arrange his trip, but they balked—instead, he abandoned his bourgeois trappings, bought some cheap clothes, took down-at-heel lodgings, and went defiantly native. Written at the very apex of the British Empire, this is a brilliant evocation of grinding poverty and of the scrofulous underbelly of capitalism. George Orwell modeled his own Down and Out in Paris in London on London’s earlier book, and I daresay quite a few other explorers of urban inner space have done the same.
Author photograph by Polly Borland.