PsychoGeography: Will Self and Ralph Steadman take Manhattan

Each week, our much-loved PsychoGeography column travels through time and space. Now the column has become a book – and in this exclusive extract Will Self marches to Manhattan
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'Honor escapes he who runs after it'

Jewish proverb, from my great-grandfather's notebook

Prologue: Before the walk

I resolved to walk to New York; in the interests of writing about the experience, certainly, yet also with objectives at once more pedestrian and more ambitious.

This was, perhaps, to be the defining journey so far as my particular brand of psychogeography is concerned. Although we psychogeographers are all disciples of the film-maker and social theorist Guy Debord and those rollicking Situationists who tottered, soused, across the stage set of 1960s Paris, thereby hoping to tear down the scenery of the "Society of the Spectacle" with their devilish dérive, there are still profound differences between us. While we all want to unpick this conundrum – the manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place – the ways in which we go about the task, are various.

Some see psychogeography as concerned with the personality of place itself. Thus, in his novels and biographies, Peter Ackroyd practises a " phrenology" of London. He feels up the bumps of the city and so defines its character and proclivities. To read Ackroyd is to become aware that while the physical and political structure of London may have mutated down the ages, as torrents of men and women coursed through its streets, yet their individuality is as nothing, set beside the city's own enduring personification.

Others, such as my friend Nick Papadimitriou, pursue what he prefers to term "deep topography": minutely detailed, multi-level examinations of select locales that impact upon the writer's own microscopic inner-eye. He manufactures slides, in which are pinioned ecology, history, poetry and sociology. Nick points out that most of the psychogeographic fraternity are really only local historians with an attitude problem. Indeed, real, professional local historians view us as insufferably bogus and travelling – if anywhere at all – right up ourselves.

On the night before I set off to walk to New York, my wife looked quizzically at me, as one might regard someone who, whether through disorganisation or ineptitude, had ended up making a journey both senseless and tedious, and, putting her head charmingly on one side, said: " Remind me again, why is it that you're going to New York?"

Doubtless there was an element of affectionate ribbing in this: she knows that I know that she knows that I know, that while she views my psychogeographic peregrinations as marching along the poorly marked, crinkle-cut frontier between boredom and pretension, she none the less not only encourages, but even enjoins them, because of their beneficial impact on my mental health, and, by extension, that of our family.

I will answer my wife's question for you – but not yet. Mine are not writerly journeys in the accepted sense: Rousseau philosophising à pied, Goethe rattling into Switzerland in a coach, Cobbett on his clopping gee-gee, assorted Borrows and Stevensons plodding with their donkeys, Greene rocking on a train, Thesiger with a camel up his arse. Even in the modern era there remain writers firmly convinced that there are still discoverable terrains – human, physical, cultural – and ways of traversing them, so as to be able to convey their "novelty" in words. I am not of their number.

I find it uncanny to be in a world in which, as I write this very sentence, I will travel 30 or 40 miles through the upper atmosphere, while – in search of the mot juste – glancing either over the shoulder of the kidult watching The Ant Bully or at the photographic scenes of Oxford colleges that adorn the bulkheads of this Boeing 757 aircraft, on its flight from JFK to Heathrow.

I can only speak for myself: a mammoth depression tramples me, and my mind reaches vanishing point as it negligently orbits the planet; to think, at all, of taking a package tour to visit the Ituri pygmies of the Congolese rainforest, or fostering a globalised economy that will, in the fullness of its exaltation, make it possible for them to visit me.

No. I resolved to walk to New York because I wanted to explore. Here was a true Empty Quarter, and, as with other long walks I have taken out of my native city, I had the strong hunch that this would be the first time in the post-industrial era that anyone had ventured across it. True, I had walked from central London to Heathrow before, and I had heard of one adventurer who had walked from JFK to Manhattan, but I was certain I would be the first person to go the whole way, with only the mute, incurious interlude of a club-class seat to interfere with the steady, two-mile-an-hour, metronomic rhythm of my legs, parting and marrying, parting and marrying.

This is one part of the answer to my wife's question; the second is to observe that I had reasons to go to New York: relatives to see, a writers' residency to launch, an interview in connection with the US publication of one of my novels. Whatever my wife thought (or thought I didn't think).

This was what distinguishes my psychogeography from that of the others. This was to be no randomised transit, intended to outfox prescribed folkways. (You read of such things, on the web, natch: proceeding across Toronto by throwing a dice, journeying to unlovely parts of Florence with carefully contrived non-deliberation.) And nor was it to be like the treks undertaken by Iain Sinclair, that Celtic Englishman whose circumnavigation of the M25, or travail along the A13 to Southend, were dogged, shamanic attempts to storm these concrete bastions – with their bark-chip, shrubbery-planted revetments – laying siege with the trebuchet of his prose-poetry; and catapulting great hunks of stony verbiage into them, so that the capitalists abandoned their cars and ran, screaming, tongues cleaved to the roofs of their mouths.

No. I resolved to walk to New York because I had business there, to explore; and, also, because in so doing, I hoped to suture up one of the wounds in my divided psyche: to sew together my American and my English flesh, my mother's and my father's body bags, sundered by marriage, rived by death. And maybe even, at a more grandiose level to expiate the sense of weird culpability that had dogged me, ever since 11 September 2001, when, returning from lunch with our then one-month-old youngest son, my wife, out of pure, journalistic reflex, snapped on the rolling news channel.

First we saw recorded footage of the North Tower being hit by American Airlines Flight 11; and then, seamlessly, live footage of the South Tower, as United Airlines Flight 175 punched a hole in its façade that had all the cartoon noir simplicity of Mickey Mouse's silhouette. Jaw slack, mind numb, I stared at the shaken-up snow globe of Manhattan for a while, then said to my wife: "Well, there's nothing much I can do about this, I'm going upstairs to work." Only to have her, 20 minutes later, shout up three storeys of our London house: "Look! The whole building is collapsing, I really think you ought to be watching this!"

Indeed, I ought. And not to minimise my own part in it (how would this be possible?), things were not the same afterwards, for me, for the dead, the maimed and the traumatised, for Muslims, martyrs, Republicans, Jews and even journalists. So, I resolved to walk to New York in the spirit of peace, tracked lazily overhead, as I traversed west London, by the fat fuselages of the long procession of jets that caromed down the crystal hill of the flight path into Heathrow.

Could my own, slow advance, needle-limbs piercing and re-piercing the fabric of reality, sew up this singularity, this tear in the space-time continuum through which medievalism had prolapsed? Legs slowing down ... a trick-turning ape balancing the globe ... slower and slower, then halting it altogether – a long fermata: serpentine, hairy arms bat at biplanes – before reversing it ... walking backwards to roll back the years to some poorly imagined Arcadian past, where livestock, saints and the virginal abide by the Laws and a pleasing sfumato obscures everything.

On my walk to New York, passing through Wandsworth Park, I was struck by the industrial blower mounted on the back of a small truck that was sending the old-gold autumnal leaves skittering away across the combed grass. This was like some hackneyed filmic symbol – the pages of a calendar torn off by invisible hands – used to denote the passage of time. And walking, too, blows back the years, especially in urban contexts. The solitary walker is, himself, an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveller. The first time I walked to Heathrow Airport, I reached the road tunnel that plunges beneath the runways and into the terminal complex, only to find the following sign: "No pedestrian access. Go back to the Renaissance." This was, of course, a hotel on the Bath Road from where you are required to take a shuttle bus.

Yes, this was to be a peaceable protest, this discontinuous march from Stockwell in south London to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If I was assaulting a tyranny it was one of distance, and of a form of transportation that decentres and destabilises us, making all of us that can afford it subjects of a ribbon empire that encircles the globe. This is a papery and insubstantial realm, like a sanitary strip wrapped around a toilet bowl.

It's Wednesday, and I must be in Bangkok, Benin or Beijing, although not because I know in any meaningful sense where I am; for, if you were to take me outside this hotel, I'd be hard pressed to point north, let alone tell you what lay in that direction. When we marvel at the hermetic culture of the foreign bases, from which, sated by roast meals and entertained by imported TV shows, our fucked-up troops emerge to fuck up those who can't afford airline seats, we should rightly understand that we too belong to this army of disorientation, sallying forth from Holiday Inns and Hiltons, on missions of search & acquisition.

Bite down on this, why don't you? Bin Laden spoke of 9/11 as a " spectacular", a horrid echo of Debord. And his terrorist affiliates weren't only attacking the Twin Towers as the supreme interfusion of capitalistic symbol and Western hegemonic reality, they were also attacking our transport system. Try to think of the civilians killed as collateral damage, as we do when we bunker-bust in Afghanistan and Iraq or our proxies do in the Lebanon and Somalia.

Even in England's own greening, our home-grown religious maniacs understood which form of transport was appropriate (as did the Moroccan Al-Qa'eda freelancers who wreaked pre-emptive vengeance on Madrid). They may have been led by a lowly classroom assistant, yet as they petted and aroused their new primitivism via the internet there was this nascent awareness: that just as the Modernism of New York reached its apogee in the 1920s, with its pre-stressed steel and poured concrete buildings, so London's own Modernist era was at the turn of the previous century: the soaring glass and iron rail terminuses, the deep-level Tube system augured through the clay of the Thames Valley. The "spectaculars" of both 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London were thus attacks on our notion of ourselves as, above all, a mobile society, ever stimulating our ever- growing, ever-more-turgid economy with rapid movements of hand and eye.

Still, if the spectacularists were intent on dividing and ruling, then they couldn't have done better. The seeming unanimity in the first, shocked months after 9/11 was just that. Soon enough, we began to other each other.

The opposition to the retributive attacks on Afghanistan began quickly here in London. I was going to public meetings within days, and a local Stop the War coalition committee was set up. Attending this, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the platform apparatchiks and the masses. The latter were rentiers living off the consumer credit provided by their ever-escalating property values; the former, the same rent-a-proles that I'd seen at leftist groupuscules a quarter-century before, right down to their Doctor Marten's boots; right up to their shop-worn rhetoric. When I addressed the meeting I said only this: that for every "comrade" one of them uttered they could guarantee losing another hundred – or thousand – potential supporters.

It's only the benefit of hind-facetiousness that leads me to observe how queer it was that while these unrepentant Trotskyists were, with dull predictability, using one coalition as a front for their belated attempts to kick-start the permanent revolution, so their recusant brothers and sisters were the éminences grises behind another one; a coalition that, even as we fruitlessly deliberated, was kicking the chocks away from its B52s.

And so it went on: the grapes of wrath trailed across Afghanistan and Iraq, the bitter vendage of civilian deaths, then the hypostatisation of terror through the cirrhotic liver of another failed state. Yet, throughout all of this, what mattered most was the way we were divided: from our consciences, from our own, delusional sense of righteousness. As if the dreadful, old world of left and right were any less binary than this terrible new one? Both the best, the worst and – more importantly – the mediocre, lacked all conviction, while all three moieties were, none the less, full of passionate intensity.

What became clear to me in the short term was how wrong I'd been: at the back end of 2001, all the way through to March 2003, the numbers in Britain opposing the West's interventionism grew and grew. For every "comrade" uttered at a meeting, a hundred more rushed to the colours, rallying beneath a burning Stars and Stripes. The climacteric came for me when a good friend told me how he had wept with joy to see the flag of the USA set light to in Whitehall.

Now, hang on a minute, I thought: I'm an American. And ever since a little – and very understandable – contretemps with the black shirts of Homeland Security, as I was entering the States in 2002 (a trifling matter of drugs convictions), I had been compelled to activate my citizenship and travel to the US on a US passport. Yet even without this very personal goad, I like to think the sheer mirror-imaging of one array of Manicheans by another would have jibed, and made me realise that what was needed here was a little less ideology – not still more; a little less posturing about human rights and a little more hand-to-hand contact.

So much to heal with my feet: along with the semi-self-hatred of a demi-Jew, I now had the internecine conflict between my American and my English sides. Not that this was of a form that my parents would have understood, dying as they both had, before the spectacularists really got going. Nor was theirs a transatlantic marriage fraught by the way either of them pronounced " either". True, my father, towards the end of his own life, was subject to saying that my mother's might have been happier if she'd married "a nice, little Jewish man", but I never remember him saying anything at all about the fact that his second wife was an American.

As for my mother, she was bipartisan in the extreme: opining at one and the same time that she loathed what the States had become politically, while never for a second dreaming of renouncing her citizenship; and, indeed, taking the trouble to ensure that my brother, Jonathan, and I would share it.

After she died, I found a letter in my mother's papers, apparently solicited by her from a cousin in Ohio. It's dated 1980 and this cousin writes that, on cleaning out his basement, he came upon a few books belonging to my great-grandfather. One of these, a prayer book published in Russia in 1883, had some Hebrew handwriting on its endpapers. This, the cousin took the trouble to have translated.

It's slim pickings. Written in November 1919, on the first page my great-grandfather employs the Star of David as a device and writes in each section, thus: "My name. This is. The ritual slaughterer Isaac son of Rabbi Yehuda Zalkind or Rosenbloom. Born in Villna." The rest is a list of holy books the patriarch particularly favoured, some proverbs and a few terse remarks about his offspring. Isaac's second son, my grandfather, is glossed: "My son Yaakov was born the day after Yom Kippur. It was a Tuesday at 6.00 in the morning. October 7, 1891. 24 Watrin Street [sic?], America."

Why thanks, Isaac, that really hammers it down. It is almost as if you anticipated the topographical obsession of your descendant, and decided to utterly frustrate it. It's beautifully succinct, that address; expressing an ideation, I would say, as much as a location. In its way, my great-grandfather's imagining of America was as bald as any spectacularist's.

My mother spoke little of her childhood and was profoundly uneasy with her Jewishness. She denied ever having been bas mitzvahed – which was untrue. In retrospect, she was a typical, third-generation immigrant. At one time my mother implied that we were Poles, at another, Russians. Villna, certainly, is in Belarus. I suspect she either didn't know, didn't want to know, and maybe even didn't care. The "Rosenbloom" was, so far as she was concerned, an insult; and being by nature a resentful person, she liked to dwell on this. She bought the old canard that this was a joke name, imposed on us by wiseacre Ellis Island officialdom, probably Irish-Americans. In due course my Uncle Bob changed his name to Ross.

From where did we come to New York? And, more importantly, how? I know not. Isaac writes: "I left Romshishiak Falk Havana on September 11, 1888. I came to America November 26, 1888 on Wednesday." Is this a progression of places: Romshishiak – Falk – Havana, as Joyce summed up his itinerary for the 1900s: "Trieste – Zurich – Paris"? The timing would seem to suggest it. One thing is for certain: whatever his route, my great-grandfather didn't walk to New York.

Walk One: Bucolic London

Enough. 7.30am, Wednesday 29 November 2006. Coffee drunk, cigarette smoked, bowels evacuated, and I'm off, tiptoeing from the Victorian house in Stockwell where my wife and children are still abed. A four-storey, terraced house I've lived and written in this last decade, gradually cluttering up the locale with more and more narrative, on paper and in memory.

I'm keyed up as I head off along the road; the sky behind the block of flats ahead is cloudless and still a paving-stone grey; yet it brightens from pace to pace – the day will be clear. I'm conscious that even if I'll only be gone a matter of days I will not return from the walk to New York the same man. I shall have learnt something. Paul Theroux writes, in The Great Railway Bazaar, of sliding past the backs of London houses, as the first train of many carries him off. At the foot of the railway embankment properly settled lives are piled – cucumber frames and washing lines effulgent in the morning sunlight – while with each click-clackety mile, the writer becomes more exiguous, more of an observer.

But here, in Stockwell, striding down to the Wandsworth Road and working my way through the redbrick blocks of the interwar, London County Council flats, I'm still heavily embodied. The hydrocephalic brow of Lambeth College – a building of surpassing ugliness, Brutalism as deformity – has featured in one of my stories, as has this very route, set down – if not exactly immortalised – in another of my tales, "The Five Swing Walk".

I have limned then hymned the fly-tipped garbage at the bottom of these flats: the Stella Artois boxes, crushed picnic chairs, torn-out MDF kitchen units and garish plastic toys – even the swollen gonads of the humped, black rubbish bags. I have meditated upon our local equivalents of a catafalque – angle irons sprouting from brick, strung with barbed wire and steel mesh, webbed with polythene – more times than I care to think. Oft times London is a heavy coffin, borne upon such security ornamentation.

The wholesale fruit and vegetable market at Nine Elms is stirring, diesels cough and splutter. Casual workers – Kosovan, by the looks of them – clamber over the wall and down on to a vertically aligned pallet. They've come a long way from the Balkans to take this short cut through the Patmore Estate. They limp off ahead of me between the chequerboard blocks along Thessaly Road. I walk the children to Battersea Park down this road, I cycle this way if I am going anywhere in the west of London. Always, the small parade of shops beneath the last block of flats has struck me as the saddest, the most miserable encrustation of commerce: FF Foodfare, Better Buys of Battersea, Thessaly Newsagents – stinky little caves full of tomato soup, sugar and cut-price alcohol.

Now, the encrustation has been crushed. A month ago a crane working on the adjacent building site collapsed on to these flats. A local man, Michael Alexa, aged 23, was killed washing his car. The crane operator was also killed. The flats are now knock-kneed and condemned; the end of the building has been roughly truncated. In the gutter are stooks of faded flowers in cellophane funnels, together with handwritten condolence cards: the wayside shrine of contemporary folk religion.

Barratt Homes – whose crane did for Mr Alexa – are putting up new apartments here in anticipation of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's behemoth dominates this quarter of London – perhaps, psychically, the entire city. The footprint of the building is larger than Trafalgar Square; the main turbine hall could engulf Wren's St Paul's, dome and all. Its distinctive, inverse-pool-table shape squats on the beer-soaked pub carpet of the London sky, yet for almost a quarter-century now the hulk has been hollowed out: an awesome shell of a Modernist ruin.

In Battersea Park a few commuters are hurrying along the gravel paths and potholed roadways. The gondola that adverts the Gondola Café is heeled over in the muddy waters of the boating lake. On the far shore rises the rockery, where my smaller children like to clamber in teensy ravines choked with empty beer cans. So the sublime ends. I work my way down through the glades and avenues, a Victorian conception of a municipal garden-for-all, imposed atop this old shambles where once gypsies camped and knackers boiled horses' corpses down for glue.

Over towards Chelsea shines the single, gold ball atop the Chelsea Harbour development. In his 2001 novel Millennium People J G Ballard made an apocalyptic dystopia of Chelsea Harbour, wreathing the ugly pagoda of its central tower with the smoke from the Volvos and Range Rovers set on fire by its revolting tenants: bored, nihilistic bourgeois; spectacularists seeking some vivification in violence. I now realise, on this very walk, that Jim has made this Thames littoral his own. Not that he really cares about London per se, although, looked at another way, he is the purest psychogeographer of us all, ever dissolving the particular and the historical in the transient and the psychic.

Past Battersea Bridge I breast the ebb tide of commuters walking, jogging and cycling along the riverside path. I am the reverse commuter, for while they head from the suburbs into the city centre, I pack my briefcase and walk to work on the periphery; it's there that I stake my claim, mine my words. I'm gathering pace – and satisfactorily losing definition. Soon I'll be Ballardian myself, my name a prosaic Anglo-Saxon puzzle – Vaughan, Ventriss, Laing – which, even when solved, will tell you only my profession and my class.

I think William Blake would've depicted the walk to New York thus: with me a small figure, crushed beneath the dead weight of the blue sky, while across this loose swathe the fuselages of the aircraft coming in to land at Heathrow are struggling to separate from one another, like the proto-Muybridge, time-lapse etchings that the bad genius made of angels and human traffic. The nose cones of 747s and Airbuses stretched apart, between them stria of ectoplasm, time-goo.

At Battersea Reach the riverbanks draw back. Think Rotterdam, and the kindergarten Cubism of Dutch contemporary architecture, yet bowdlerised still further by the cost considerations of these London developers. The world is getting hotter; hotter right here as I head inland, sopping up monoxide as I circumambulate the gyroscopic advertising hoarding that dangles above the roundabout at the end of Wandsworth Bridge. Maybe I should buy the Navman sat-nav advertised on a fly-poster, a snip at £149.99, inclusive of free set-up and demo? With a satellite navigation system, I need never again inhabit the physical world; I can simply look from dash-mounted screen to windscreen and back again, as I drive – on instrumentation alone – from my office workstation to my domestic entertainment system. What a blessed relief.

Blessed relief from Jew's Lane and the gnomon of a lamp-post, its hard shadow lying across a cycle path, defined by paint as thick as toothpaste. Blessed relief from the old London brick of a Fuller's pub, that's advertised, bizarrely, by a sign depicting a giant hand picking up an ocean-going liner. London Pride – that's Fuller's finest tipple. In my drinking days I had plenty of it – pride, that is. Blessed relief from the Wandsworth waste depot: yellowy container-loads of composted shit, blood and obsolete electrical goods, being winched out over the river, then down on to barges, that in turn will be pushed through the twisting colon of the Thames, downriver.

Here, the Wandle, one of London's lost rivers, joins the Thames. Two years ago, in the summer, I turned left at this fluvial junction and followed its course upstream, past William Morris's wallpaper factory at Merton and Lady Hamilton's house. A female psychogeographer, if ever there was one, Emma diverted the Wandle to run through her grounds, and dubbed it "The Nile" in honour of her lopsided squeeze. I went on, past where the Wandle rises at Carshalton, thence to Croydon, thence up and on to the North Downs, where, at a curious feature called the Norr Chalk Pinnacle, I could see the entire lower valley of the Thames spread out before me: the flybuzz of aircraft circling over Heathrow, the tiny minarets of the city, the Jew's harp of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, vibrating at Dartford.

I plodded on, down into the Surrey weald, up into the Ashdown Forest, down into the Sussex weald and up again on to the South Downs. I didn't stop until I reached Newhaven, three days after I'd quit the Thames. I've been doing this for a few years now: stepping from my London house and stalking a hundred miles or so into the hinterland. In middle age I no longer want to know where I'm going – only where I've been all these years.

This summer I walked from where I live now, to where I was born, to where I grew up, to where I was at school, to where I was at university. Stockwell – Charing Cross – Hampstead Garden Suburb – Finchley – Oxford. When I was a teenager I assumed that I'd travel – and far. Then my father emigrated, my mother died and my brothers moved abroad, while I remained here, in London. Now I realise I never wanted to travel at all, simply get away from – what psychotherapeutic geographers dub – my Family of Origin. How good of them to leave me in vacant possession of an entire metropolis, so that I could furnish it with my own memories, dreams and reflections.

It's time to part from Father Thames – I'll meet him again at Richmond Bridge. I turn aside from the river, take a diagonal traverse across Barnes Common and foot it up Priory Lane, through Roehampton Gate and into the park.

Which I've never liked, really. Never liked its trees, artificially grouped: Yikes! I want to cry, here comes the copse! The last day of November and the leaves are still on the oaks and beeches, mellow gold and brown as Old Holborn hand-rolling tobacco. Beneath this canopy lie artily deposed trunks, strewn about on the tawny sward. Their bark stripped by the deer, they're like the toppled torsos in some De Chirico dreamscape.

I've never liked Richmond Park's contrived ambience of the farouche – a centuries' old shtick. The scale of Richmond Park is wrong: people come here to drive about in their SUVs and look at the deer, and, in fairness, this being the time of the annual cull – the deer, that is, not the people – they are in great numbers, the stags photogenically tossing their antlers. But if an SUV in central London is a solecism, here in the park it's an insult. The local council certainly think so – they've become the first in London to levy a special tax on the hypertrophied all-terrain baby-buggies, the Porsche Cayennes and Volkswagen Touaregs. Vehicles, I was told recently, that are known to cognescenti as "badge cars". Henry VIII would have approved. I picture him hunting deer armed with a 9mm Glock pistol, from the front seat of his Range Rover Vogue. He is impersonated by Ray Winstone, who, on cornering his prey, snarls: "Gotcha, you filfy littul toerag ..."

I gain the crest of the hill and there it is, falling away behind me, swags and ruches of greenery and brick, under the blue-painted ceiling of its recent conversion: New London, city of the toppermost property prices. I can see a golden drop of sunlight on the glans of the Swiss Re Tower (Lord Foster's phallus, commonly known as the Gherkin), and the inverted pool table of Battersea Power Station. I can see the Hampstead massif and the BT Tower. I can see my life, entire, in a single saccade.

Then I go over the top, past the Royal Star and Garter Home, a redbrick semi on steroids with neoclassical breast implants. I trudge down Richmond Hill, past the kind of shops my mother would have damned as "chi-chi" – although not without a trace of envy. Where did she get all this snobbery from? True, she attended Richmond Hill High School herself. But I thought that was Richmond Hill on Long Island. Did they anticipate Nancy Mitford there? Was every particular divided into U and Non-U? Expressions my mother also coveted as her own.

Mediterraneo, The Gooday Gallery (in this stands a man, wearing a shirt, the entire back of which is the more comely front of Botticelli's Venus), Natural Flooring, a florist called The Wild Bunch, a kids' clothing store dubbed Neck and Neck. After she died, in the neurotic sediment of her diaries and journals – 40 years of minutely described sexual obsession and phobia – I found lists of these: "The Mane Event", " Hair Today"; punning retail concerns had preoccupied her. Why, Mother? Oh, why?

At Richmond Bridge the Riverside development is to my right: a grotesque confabulation of old and new-tricked-out-as-old. The 19th-century town hall, the 18th-century Heron House, Laxton's 1856 Italianate Tower House – all have been soldered together by an awful mucilage of Georgian-cum-Palladian office bollix, complete with cupolas and columns aplenty. Nine thousand nine hundred square metres of office space in all, falling down to the river in a series of terraces; grassy ghats upon which the bourgeoisie should rightfully be burnt alive for sanctioning such ugliness at all. It's courtesy of the "architect" Quinlan Terry, natch, pseudo-artificer by appointment to Chucky "HRH" Windsor, who would doubtless concur with his protégé that "Modernism is a sign of the fall from grace".

It's suitable that this – my first and last Thames crossing – should be mediated on the one hand by Our Tel and on the other by the bridge itself: five pure spans, rendered in Portland stone, completed in 1777, it's the oldest in the burgh. London – as has been remarked – was only a Modernist city a hundred years ago. Ever since, it's been in steady flight from the present, putting on its airbrakes with an anguished howl, landing on the short airstrip provided by a ha-ha, in an imagined, Arcadian past.

And there, standing in the middle of the bridge, as if detached from his own rather less Arcadian past, wearing a khaki anorak and sporting a woolly watch cap, a canvas army surplus rucksack on his shoulder, an Ordnance Survey map poking from his pocket, is Nick Papadimitriou, waiting to walk with me the last nine miles to Heathrow. Nine miles that will take us through territory he knows well: Twickenham and Hounslow Heath, where he botanises and meditates, Feltham, where he did time in borstal. Further on is the site of the new Terminal 5, formerly the Bedfont Court Estate, which Nick has hymned in his own writings as a lost Arcadia of municipal smallholdings.

Nick and I pass by Marble Hill House, a delightful Palladian villa built for some kingly mistress or another. Pope visited, Walpole visited – I've never been in. But then I've been to Agra and not the Taj Mahal, Grenada and not the Alhambra. Addiction can do that to you, clamp on the brick-wall blinkers so that for decades you trot around in circles, wherever you may be. I've awoken now, in my forties, to find myself in an unexplored sylvan glade. Is it any wonder I can't stop pacing forwards?

Nick is, to be frank, irrepressible. He is a walking compendium of fact, opinion and supposition: a great Blue Nile of verbiage, that, when it's diverted to mingle with my own thoughtful tributary, completely alters its hue. He's good to walk with and, over 20 years now, we've done a few together. Too few, because in those two decades there have been many long hiatuses: Nick shivering for aeons on suburban station platforms, paralysed on his way to hit on suspicious chemists for codeine linctus, a purloined volume of experimental poetry digging into his hip; and me, another of the seven suburban sleepers, slumbering in some numb, tarry cul-de-sac.

So, thus engaged, we walk along Heath Road, a curving interwar shopping parade, with its mansard roofs and snotty rendering. Past the Twickenham Green Baptist Church, a startling folly: the Gothic envisioned by Orwell's Gordon Comstock. Hard by it there's a small shop selling Star Wars costumes. Darth Vader's head sits, unceremoniously, on a shelf. It's a snip, at £350, this creepy sci-fi chimera: part gas mask, part Samurai-cum-Nazi helmet. Nick and I are a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, here on the outer rim of Twickenham.

We grew up within a couple of miles of each other, on the northern section of this particular London layer. For the city is like a tree, growing ring after ring of brick and privet. An expert – a London dendrochronologist, if you will – can assay precisely the period of the ring he's penetrating, and tell you what other 'burbs lie within it; thus: Twickenham, Isleworth, Brentford, Ealing, Wembley, Hendon, Finchley, and so on, round to Mitcham and Merton. We even turn off the Staines Road on to a "Meadway", a grassy little avenue of semis exactly like the "Meadway" in the Finchley suburb where I grew up.

And then we turn off this and along the banks of the River Crane, a surprisingly fast-flowing little rill. The Crane loops south here, although eventually it will turn north and, after being fed through the charcoal tanks of the sewage works at Isleworth, join the Thames. This, perhaps, is the hardest thing to explain about the walk to New York: bucolic London. "You walked to Heathrow?" people will ask me in succeeding weeks. " Wasn't that awfully grim? I mean, didn't you have to slog along the hard shoulder of the A4?" And then I tell them: "Oh no, you don't understand, probably only four of the 17-odd miles were on roads at all, the rest ..." are like this: the babbling brook, the damp tongue of leaf-pressed Tarmac snaking through the grass, the sentinel yews and tipping rowans, the massy oaks still in leaf.

Palisade and picket fences run along the house backs, grubby greenhouses and rusty climbing frames clash in the gardens; then, as we penetrate further into the Nature Reserve, banks of brambles and nettles boil up and the path becomes a muddy slough wending along the riverbank. Up ahead looms the brick, oasthouse-shape of the Shot Tower, where shot was manufactured in the nineteenth century; globules of molten lead plummeting into deadly spheroids. Somewhere beyond this little lost world we can hear the tedious plaint of an ambulance siren.

Nick is entirely at home here, secure in this neglected and underimagined interzone. From time to time he will go into minor ecstasies over a manhole cover, a concrete sluice, or other evidence of interwar, riverine infrastructure. By the Shot Tower a great convocation of ring-necked parakeets are eee-chew-chew-chattering in an ash overrun with ivy. Their bottle-green and iridescent-blue markings are dull in the gathering cloud of mid-afternoon. Alien interlopers, exotic escapees from garden aviaries: like other economic migrants they have gravitated towards the airport.

Then, at Baber Bridge we're out, back on the Staines Road, traffic swishes by a tyre shop staffed entirely by Asians. The suburban flatlands of north Feltham and Hatton stretch on either side of the road, mean bungalows and boarded-up pubs, a kebab hut styled "Turkish Delight". The Perspex bus shelters are brides scarified by knife-wielding bachelors. One scratched tag even reads "FAKER".

This is an environment leeched by the airport, which now we can hear, hollowly booming and howling in the near-distance, a black hole of internationalism, into which all the matter of outer London is sucked, only for it to emerge, sweaty and frowsty, in Stockholm or St John, Rio de Janeiro or Singapore. Yet the grey sky is curiously void of jets, the fat-bellied fowl that have flown with me all the way from Stockwell. Where are they? Waddling over yonder on rubber-wheels-for-webbed-feet.

We turn off the Staines Road, cross a canal with the grandiose title " The Duke of Northumberland's River", and pass by a school, alongside a scrubby field of allotments, that turns into a dirty pasture grazed by knock-kneed old tool sheds. It's four in the afternoon, and the kids are coming out of the chain-link gates, escorted by parents who look as if they might be the type to poke petrol-soaked rags through a paediatrician's letterbox.

Then, at last, at the end of Cain's Lane, we see it: the perimeter fence of Heathrow, and through its dull diamonds I can make out the tail fin of an intersuburban spaceship: "United Airlines". The last bungalow on Cain's Lane has a 1970s vintage white Cadillac parked outside of it, and in its front garden a mess of other, dismembered American cars. Can this, I wonder, be a harbinger of some kind?

Walking beside the Great South West Road is scary – heading up the slip road into Terminal 4 scarier still. We never knew how cosy the River Crane was until we found ourselves in this oily place, which repels us transparent, watery pedestrians. The sun has disappeared; the sweep of the grey-grassed embankments, the constriction of the knobbly concrete verges and the enfilades of dipping sodium lights that wade in them are all threatening. We are not wanted here, where there are no walkways, only 40-foot-high smiling Singaporean girls captioned: "First to Fly the A380 from Heathrow" . We trip across elevated roundabouts and squeeze alongside crash barriers, ever wary for the pounce of cops or security guards; when Nick and I at last gain the terminal we're stressed out enough to find succour in a Starbucks tea and a bar of condensed muesli.

It's time for us to part. In under half an hour the whole, loose skein of the afternoon will have been unravelled for Nick, when the Heathrow Express deposits him in Paddington Station, to become once more a lonely wanderer in the sea of city folk.

An Interlude: New-found-land

As for me, I check in and head through Security. They ask me if I mind having a full body scan, and I don't demur. Why would I? We all have to do our bit; the threat of terror induces in us all the desire to fulfil our civic duty of being permanently under suspicion. This is a strange, self-accusatory doublethink.

Unlacing my walking boots, I wait behind blue nylon bafflers for my turn to be zapped, idly inspecting a clipboard that notes the remarks of those who have declined the signal honour: "Says she is pregnant", "In a wheelchair", and the outrageous: "Is it because I is black?" This last is a play upon the shtick of the north-London comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen in his alter ego as Ali G, the most famous resident of the nearby suburb of Staines. That Ali G is fictional only confirms the fact that Staines is an unterburgh.

I call over the Security man:

"That's an extremely stupid thing to leave in plain view," I observe. "Someone could get themselves into a lot of trouble."

"You're not meant to read that!" he snaps, and snatches the clipboard from its peg.

"I read everything," I say, quite as testily, "I'm a journalist."

Seconds later I find myself sky side, unscanned and wandering in my stockinged feet through the shiny, happy chancel of this Aeolian temple, past Agent Provocateur, Harrods, Church's and Austin Reed. The England of prosperity-through-ever-rising-consumer-demand is here writ small and cloistered. Normally, on my long-distance walks, anoesis descends within a few miles: the mental tape loop of infuriating resentments, or inane pop lyrics, or nonce phrases gives way to the greeny-beige noise of the outdoors. This time, however, the walk has been a clamber through a psychic lumber room; and it's only now, as I watch a Bloomberg news thread spool across a monitor, that I realise – or rather fail to – that I've finally tranced out.

What can be more null than these, the last few instants before an intercontinental flight, meted out by the unwanted drags on a necessitated cigarette? There are Swedes at the next table in the Ask bar; beyond them Hassidim in their silky coats hustle Samsonite luggage; still other religious sectaries – women, this time – trip by me with white napkins pinioned to their hair. I rouse myself to stump along through this un-place and experience beneath my now-weary feet the passive, feline sag of the travelator. Then the last, scuffed yards of corrugated corridor, then the last frayed strip of red and yellow duct tape.

In the upper cabin of the British Airways jumbo, secreted in my pod, I call a friend in London and tell him of my great achievement. He laughs: " Funny, you and Gaddafi both." I ask for an explanation, and it transpires that the Libyan leader, pissed off by the failure of his cavalcade to arrive on time, set out to walk into town from Lagos Airport.

"How far did he get?" I enquire.

"Oh," my friend replies, "only a couple of hundred yards – he had 300 heavily armed bodyguards with him."

I push the slick nodule, and, slumbering, dream of the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, his green robes flapping in the fume-laden convections as he trudges resolutely off from Tripoli to Lagos, a walk that sucks the very Sahara from the bedrock and sends it, a plume of sand, twisting into the sky...

... and wake to hear the tail end of the safety announcements, and the only address that truly matters, the one to the crew: "Doors to automatic and cross check." We're off, the jumbo tromping leadenly around the precincts of the terminal, then picking up speed and trumpeting into the sky. Sequestered in the howdah sits a mahout in headphones, a sturdy unexcitable fellow: Saint-Exupéry with a semi in Staines.

I have no business here in business class. The man in the pod next to me – we form a copula, anonymous lovers spent by mercantile soixante-neuf – has a Ken Follett paperback tented on his thigh, while a VDU screen obscures his fleshy face. He changed into tan chinos before take-off and asked the stewardess for a Diet Sprite that she was unable to provide. Hell, this is still England, after all.

When the seatbelt light is extinguished I rise and amble to a gap where I can do some stretching. First, hand on a seatback, I hold one leg up against the opposing buttock, like an ageing Antinous; then, arms braced against a bulkhead and the other leg extended, I push the plane westwards.

Walk Two: Suburban New York

Down the crystal hill we toboggan, leaping over cols and schussing into arêtes of the air, then the wardrobe clunk of the plane landing and its trundle into JFK. I'm off first and striding along corridors with floors speckled pale blue, grey and green: the Pointillism of the institutional. New countries are, first and foremost, new colour schemes. The ideal immigrant is a wannabe interior decorator. No queue at Immigration, because I've swapped one passport for the other. Nevertheless, I've come here, to the United States of America, and I am as alien as if I'd pulled up to the stand in a flying saucer, because while every single person in this terminal is going to roll out of it tonight, I'm intent on striding.

This has always been the most worrying part of the walk to New York, the egress from JFK. All the maps are worse than useless. They show expressways and beltways and parkways – but indicate no pedestrian rights of way. I cannot tell, from the map, if roads are elevated or sunk in the ground. The intersections between service roads and throughways may be equipped with sidewalks, or only cold, hard shoulders. Like I said, I had heard of one man who'd walked out of JFK, I even know him, but I couldn't do anything as sensible as ask him how he did it. No, with a very British lack of preparedness – like Robert Falcon Scott, eschewing the huskies – I relish this terra incognita, this genuinely newfound land.

Striding outside the terminal for a cigarette, I pace, puffing, up and down the confines of the sidewalk. Darkness has fallen, it's 9pm, and beyond this oasis, planted with light palms by the overhead lighting, the concrete bled of the airport is all around. I can see cabs, the lifts up to the Skytrain, private cars picking up and dropping off, but no conceivable way of exiting the terminal except along the roadway itself.

Back inside I approach the Ground Transportation desk, just for the hell of it: this is staffed by Elizabeth and Keisha, the former heavyset and dour, the latter young and enthusiastic. Elizabeth couldn't be less interested in my need to walk out of JFK, but Keisha – once I've explained how I've already walked from my London home to Heathrow – gets it:

"Oh, I see!" she exclaims. "It's, like, a quest."

No, no, it is a quest – there's no likeness implied. It's a quest for identity, and a search to find that urgent commingling of blood and soil. But no matter what enthusiasm she may possess, Keisha still has no idea of how to walk out of JFK. It's left to me to hitch up my nylon rucksack, pull down my tweed cap, and step off the kerb into the night. It's warm in this, the Country of the Climate Change Deniers, and the man wearing a cashmere pullover under a cagoule is a poltroon. Within yards of the terminal I'm sweating, while striding purposefully along the hard shoulder.

Luckily, the airport is shutting down for the night, so traffic passes me in little fits and hissing spurts. That I'm dressed in black is providential; even so, every second I expect a police siren to squawk and blades of blue light to slash through the orangey morass. In the mid-distance I can see the Kennedy Expressway, paring away towards the Nassau. How am I going to avoid being sucked into this? Will there be a slip road out of here? A hundred metres, 200 ... 500 ... and there it is! A single-lane chute up and away from this trackless waste of Tarmac. At the top there's a homely stop sign, then it falls back down again to join another highway, but at least here there's a verge.

Plodding along this, still sweaty and fearful, I see a taxi lot over on the far side. Where there's a taxi lot, I figure, there has to be a way out of the airport at street level. Should I risk crossing six lanes and two crash barriers to reach it? Or should I keep on keeping on? After another 500m and no sign of a way forward, I decide on the traverse, and start off, only to beat a retreat when a swarm of enemy chariots bears down on me.

At last, I see a second slip road. It leads me to the right, loops under the overpass. I work my way between some cargo hangars – then suddenly: here I am, strolling across the bridge over the Belt Parkway and on to 150th Street. I'm no longer in terra nullis, I'm in South Ozone Park, NY. A gas station looms up ahead and it looks like the cosiest, most gemütlich thing I've seen in all my born days. There's a thicket of Stars and Stripes planted by the doors.

Inside there's a charming Asian clerk with band aids on the fingers of one hand and a rubber glove on the other. He's sold out of Poland Spring Water. A black man stands by a rack of Hershey Bars and M&Ms, rubbing at a scratch card with a dime. The front page of The New York Post features the "bimbo summit" of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Clearly, I have stepped on to America.

The Crowne-Plaza Hotel at Baisley Park, Jamaica, has nothing to recommend it save its proximity to the airport – and I like that. I even like my room, which, as is traditional for the unaccompanied male guest, arriving on foot, late in the evening, is right next to the elevator shaft. A restless night ensues; I sleep with the radio on and in between the clunks and whirrs of the elevator, news rolls into me of Danny DeVito, drunk on The Barbara Walters Show; the continuing investigation into the shooting by cops of an unarmed black man, Sean Bell, on his stag night in nearby Queens.

I wake to the weather forecast for boulevardiers: a spruce lady in red, in front of the eighty-eight-foot-high spruce outside the Rockefeller Center, which is topped with a Swarovski star. By mid-afternoon, she tells us, the high in Central Park will be 70 degrees, the warmest November day since 1991, and the second-warmest ever recorded. I needn't have brought the pullover, or my tombstone of a book, either, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A Caro. My brother sent it to me, in anticipation of my walk. Surely the biography of Moses – the key figure in city planning and governance for nigh on half a century – will be enough to anchor me in the city? After all, Baisley Pond Park, the scrap of Astroturf underlay without the Crowne-Plaza, is a Moses plantation. Isn't this one of the frame of referents that I can peg my observations to, as I trudge through East New York and Brooklyn?

For this is the worry. I may have escaped from the Empty Quarter of JFK, yet Jamaica, Ozone Park, Woodhaven, Brownsville, these – as Midge Ure would doubtless have sung, if faced by the same predicament – mean nothing to me; in place of London's narrative plenitude I'm faced by the blank slate of New York. Will anything occur to me as I plod along? Will I see anything? Talk to anybody? Or might I be thrown back into my own wildly prosaic psychic hinterland, and find myself besieged there, fending off a couplet from a 1970s pop song? "Everyone's a winner, baby..."

Unfortunately, after only a chapter or two it became clear to me that Caro couldn't supply the goods. Not his fault but mine entirely. You cannot implant a lifetime of memories and impressions with a little light reading; you cannot familiarise yourself with a city through the career of its pre-eminent public administrator. Caro's Power Broker would be an anchor all right, dragging the rucksack down between my shoulder blades, threatening to yank me on to my back. Gregor Samsa in a black cagoule. Grim.

As to my route, for some reason my brother has pushed the idea that I must head up through Jamaica, then Queens, then over the Queensboro Bridge and on to 58th Street in Manhattan. But I've resisted this, preferring to head west through Brooklyn. I'm staying in the Lower East Side, so why would I want to walk 60 blocks downtown?

First, breakfast. Muesli, juice, fruit, coffee, half-fat milk, more coffee. I'm sluggish in the face of so much carefully arranged carbohydrate. I go to spoon what I assume to be blueberries on to my muesli, only to discover that they're chocolate drops. I'm galvanising my bowels in the bowels of the Crowne-Plaza, surrounded by ornate mirrors, a tiled floor, blown-up photographs of iconic figures – skirty Marilyn, boxy Muhammad-to-be – and a silvery prop plane flying over the Empire State Building.

My father would often say things such as "Have you got your little sacheverel?" A term for a rucksack that's so recondite I can't find it in the OED. He also referred to jackets as "jerkins", and shoes as "dancing pumps". He rambled hither and thither in flannel trousers lashed with a thin leather belt, and from time to time ungirded himself to rearrange the distempered elephant's ears of his flannel underwear. I think of him, forever adrift between the wars, as I pack up in my room, check out, and head back to the lobby to meet my new companion for the first leg of the New York walk.

Charles "Chip" McGrath, "Writer-at-Large" for The New York Times, has his spiral-bound reporter's pad to the ready. I didn't know exactly what to expect of McGrath – who I've been corresponding with by e-mail, in order to set up this rendezvous – but I've got it roughly right. He's softly spoken, reserved, urbane. With his greying temples, reticent eyes behind oval glasses and uncertain, grizzled mouth, he looks like a Muppet Show sock puppet that also happens to be a Yale alumnus. Statler, Waldorf and McGrath.

Chip is to accompany me some of the way into New York, and write the walk up for a piece in The New York Times. I'm divided over this: it certainly compromises my plans; it's difficult to see how a stranger – especially one with his own agenda – is going to help me to either achieve ambulatory sartori, or any deeper absorption into the urban landscape. On the other hand, I've come here for a number of reasons, and one of them is to try and publicise my latest novel to be published in the USA; a novel that has received a kicking in the review pages of Chip's own newspaper. Not that this is unexpected, although if any single notice can do for a novel in this country it's a bad one in The New York Times. If walking with Chip can somehow redress the negative coverage, then this can only be a good thing. In a world in which a new book is published every 40 seconds, what else can a journeyman writer do? I am, it occurs to me, exactly like my great-grandfather Isaac, dressed in black and hawking my skills from literary community to literary community.

After some remarks on unsuitable footwear – Chip contends that, as a golfer, he knows what he's doing – we set off. He's brought a snapper with him, a freelance called Casey Kelbaugh, who has a regulation goatee and a mountain bike. Moving through Baisley Pond Park, and then along North Conduit, Casey circles and re-circles us, as if herding our odd couplet.

Initially a little shy, Chip and I soon establish mutual acquaintances then plot out the territory between these landmarks. There's this discourse, and there's also my need to get across to him my quest; to have him take seriously the Gestalt – compounded of place, progress and Weltanschauung – which informs my every tread through this dun and unprepossessing 'burb. It's a little uneasy, for me, skipping round him and quoting myself: all interviews are dangerous and destabilising, presenting the opportunity to ape one's own ideal, an opening that must be refused.

North Conduit rumbles with trucks, and the sky is yet low and grey. America announces itself to be parched and desiccated: all seems flatter, lower and wider than Europe. A coil of polythene on the sidewalk recalls Laura Palmer's shrink-wrapped corpse in David Lynch's Twin Peaks. The signs hanging from the spans of fly-overs direct the traffic back towards the airport. My calf muscles tell me that I am walking for the second day, and this bodily mediation of space is far more powerful than any jet engine. Moreover, Jamaica is believably coextensive with Feltham – it has the same feel of the metropolitan periphery, an interzone, underimagined and seldom depicted. So, to me, it feels as if I have continued to bore, like a worm, through the same urban tree ring.

Chip estimates the prices of these detached white clapboard houses at $400,000, and pronounces South Ozone Park to be "ethnic". Here are some of the subjects we discuss as we walk: the Chinese Communist regime – Chip believes they've cut a deal with their citizens: things for democracy. Golf, and in particular Chinese golf – according to Chip the regime is building some interesting, ecologically sound courses. The shootings in Jamaica: nobody would wish to prejudice the enquiry into how it was that the NYPD fired 31 shots at the stag party leaving the bar, but Chip has a friend on the force who told him that undercover cops working in such places are allowed one alcoholic drink in the course of their duties, so as to avoid arousing suspicion. Chip thinks it conceivable that some of these officers "may've abused the privilege".

By the Aqueduct Race Track we ask an elderly man for directions, and inadvertently voice our ultimate destination. It isn't fair, really, for he's painfully disoriented by the very fact of our enquiry. Walking to New York? With his cap crammed down on his round head and his hound's-tooth check jacket he looks at us, annoyed: it's we who must be in the wrong, for on this scrap of waste ground, the Race Track looming in the mist, he knows where he is.

The cloud has burnt off, and it does, indeed, promise to be a fine spring day in November. I'm a little footsore, and to be frank, verging on sadness. People always say that you can't walk in American cities – implying that the very sidewalks curl up in front of your feet, or that the traffic mows you down. But that isn't it: no one walks through East New York, I'm forced to conclude, because it's so fucking dull. Mile on mile of tract houses and apartment blocks, with only plastic Santas to break the monotony. Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, offering "New Naked Chicken Strips, Only 1 Carb per Strip", constitutes a visual feast. Yesterday's stroll beside the Thames, romp through Richmond Park and meditative progress beside the River Crane now looks in my mind's eye like a Watteau, complete with lavender flounces, airborne cherubs and diaphanous, trailing greenery. These memories are paintings hung on the leafless branches of fume-smoked trees.

At last, we swing off the thoroughfare and along Glenmore Avenue. This has a more human scale, even if the humans are obese and surly with poverty. Ragtag people are dumped on benches outside the Brooklyn Adult Care Center at 2830 Pitkin Avenue. Brooklyn has been described as the "city of a thousand churches", and here they all are: the Apocalipsis Pentecostal Church; the Zion Tabernacle of Deliverance Ministry; St Lydia's Episcopal Church; Christ the Rock Bible Institute; the Universal Temple. They vary wildly in style, from storefront, cinder-block God shops, to shingled Carpenter Gothic, to 19th-century banking blockhouses. One is an old synagogue, winnowed out by Christ, another a hefty, Greek Orthodox encampment complete with genetically modified, square-onion domes.

Glenmore Avenue is two arrow-straight miles of churches, frame houses, low-rise apartments. Nowhere in New York – the natives now say, not without a trace of regret – is truly dangerous any more, but this area is one of the poorest. Every twentieth dwelling is a condemned rat's nest, complete with municipal orders pasted to the boarded-up doors and filthy underpants espaliered on the railings.

Clearly, Chip, Casey and I do not belong here, but we attract little attention; there are few people on the streets mid-morning, midweek. Only once, as we near the projects at the end of the avenue, is there a frisson of old New York, the New York of discarded crack vials crunched underfoot and violent, illiterate men with writing on their trousers.

An SUV slows to a crawl along the kerb beside us, its tinted windows pulsing with the confinement of an insistent beat. One of them reels down to reveal four African-American faces giving us the once-over. It reels back up again, and the SUV moves off, only to circle the block and come level with us once more. "We're being dicked," I observe to Chip, "people are wondering what we're doing on their turf." Chip seems blithe about this – or perhaps he's preoccupied by something else. I suspect his loafers may be beginning to chafe.

Personally, I would relish the opportunity to engage the gun crew in a discussion of urban territoriality as it relates to topography; this would be the sort of rambling conversation – at once deeply patrician, yet prescriptively egalitarian – that I remember my father having with holidaying coal miners, when we walked from Taunton to Lyme Regis. A divorced-father-and sulky-son walking tour, back in the sunny uplands of the early 1970s.

East New York ends in the metallic gnashing of elevated railway tracks, freight and scrap yards. We stumble past a shut library, my bladder a painfully inflated balloon rammed in my crotch. We turn up Rockaway Avenue and I duck into an abandoned lot to pee. Then we're in Eastern Parkway. A half-mile on and there it is: the ethnic interface I've been waiting for. A Hassidim in a blue sweatshirt with "KITCHEN EXPO" written across its shoulders, stands chatting to a heavyset black man. Beyond them looms the Holy House of Prayer for All People (semicircular transverse arch, attached half-columns with foliated capitals, this recessed in red brick and strongly reminiscent of the Twickenham Green Baptist Church).

The Parkway rises towards affluence, and we labour up one of the two flanking median strips, past Ralph Avenue and the Trinity Methodist Church. The buildings are putting on weight, becoming solider and more self-assured. We gain Utica Avenue, and this is a proper city junction. There are people on the streets hurrying, with the kind of pecuniary and sumptuary motives that would gratify Adam Smith – or even Milton Friedman. From the entrance to the subway there comes a great meaty, oily, burnt-dust afflatus; down there, New York is moving its bowels, peristaltically pushing its populace through snaking colons and sooty back passages.

Here in the Parc Tower is Wishco Manor, Catering Kosher. Or here, between wars, it once was; for the neon letters are bleary with the years, and above them Washington Mutual reigns, while alongside them there's the indefatigable strength of Popeye with his chicken and biscuits. The frummers flap about the place in their ghetto get-ups. Their women – condemned by observance to eternal frumpiness – are less in evidence, and the only school kids I see are boys with skullcaps and spaniel locks, loitering on the steps of a cheder.

I like to think that, were I without Chip and Casey, I would engage some of the frummers in sage politico-religious discourse; encourage them towards a midrash that would enlighten us all as to the Divine Ingathering and the Clash of Civilisations. But, just as with the gun crew, I'm deluding myself. Far from being elevated by Crown Heights, I can feel my mood dipping. Far from feeling the walk to New York as an achievement, I'm beginning to think this is just another slog away from commitment and engagement, and towards empty-headedness. The Hassidim, it occurs to me, so mirror – with their literalism and their theocratic zeal – that which they revile; that they are like Calibans in homburgs, checking their appearance in the humungous pier glass of a glassy office block, only to become enraged by the brown face staring back at them: another Semite who's sought asylum on Prospero's isle.

Besides, why are Chip and Casey still with me? Is it something I've said or done? Chip was only meant to walk for an hour or so, but he's been dogging me for four now. It's 1.15, time for lunch, and still he lopes along with his book bag full of dress shoes, and his urbane conversation that so keeps urbanity at bay. The truth is, we agreed a few miles back that he'd gone over the tipping point, and the seesaw of the walk was now impelling him down towards Manhattan. Hell, he might as well come the whole way, and be the third man to have walked in from JFK. It'll be something to tell his womenfolk, should they need a sedative.

Past the Philadelphian Sabbath Cathedral, once a beautiful 1920s movie theatre, now decorticated by religion so that only the art deco husk remains. Then, for the purposes of enthusing Chip, as we reach the Brooklyn Museum and can see, in the notch of Washington Avenue, the towers of Midtown piercing the lunchtime smog, I go into a riff, imagining the skirling skein of a mournful clarinet slung out from the city to lasso me with its plaintiff notes: "Wawawawaaaawawawawaaawawawawawawawaaaaaaaaaaa...!" Rhapsody in Blue, yes, Gershwin's jazzy hymn to holy New York. What could be a better tocsin to awaken a footsore slogger, who's parted the Atlantic with his Gore-Tex boots, to the delights of this Canaan?

But unfortunately I've long since traduced this tune. Its synaesthetic horrors were confirmed for me by a bad acid trip in Oxford, in 1979, when, having pushed the button of a wickedly red microdot into my still-plastic psyche, I mistakenly chucked a '78 of it on to the turntable, only to hallucinate a Hades, populated by galvanised skeletons, banging out the "diddleumdumdumdiddleumdumdumdiddleumdumdum!" on the ribs of their fellows. Gross, it tipped me into a colloidal cesspit, where every thought or action whipped up thick waves of agonising nausea. I ended up lying at the bottom of a great, hollow spire, the interior of which was lined with thousands upon thousands of rows of disembodied mouths; all of them wide open, all of them screaming ... nothing.

In my novel How the Dead Live I employed Rhapsody in Blue as the metallic death rattle of Lily Bloom, the protagonist based on my own mother. Later, on my return from New York, I looked up the relevant section and was appalled to find this:

"It's a tune – not a rhapsody. A rinky-dink, tin-pan-crash-bang bit of Yid slickery, played out in the trash choked alleys around Times Square and Broadway. The city of my majority swims towards me now – out of the dusty deathly darkness of this suburban room an ocean away. At first I'm relieved to have this effortless ascendancy, rising in a smooth parabola from the coxcomb of Liberty into the clouds over the toe of Manhattan, so that the leggy length of the island rears below me, each neon street switched on by my own awareness.

" 'Diddleumdumdumdiddleumdumdumdiddleumdumdum!' A set of a certain unreal age, with no distinction between the fabricated and the constructed; between interior and exterior. A musical New York peopled by eternally young songsters clad in sky blue Runyon shmatte. See them dance down the block, pirouette around the corner, leap into the subway, while Top Cat trades gags with Officer Dibble and the Jetsons head home in their flivvers to White Plains."

Egregious, perhaps, to quote oneself, and contrived to use the future past – an uncomfortable tense at the best of times – in which to do so. But there it is, and it's not nice. Worse still, the resumption of this familiar Manhattan ennui, of interior-exteriority, is what I felt as I walked through Prospect Park to its highpoint, and failed to find any prospect at all. And this is what I continued to feel as we moved down through Grand Army Plaza, and Chip told me a George Bush anecdote, which made the lame-duck President seem even more hateful, in a kick-in-the-shins, frat-boy kind of a way. And this is what I felt as we proceeded on down Flatbush Avenue, and then stopped in at the Burrito Bar and Kitchen to eat unleavened satchels full of spicy meat paste to the noise of the Doobie Brothers.

And this is what I felt as, flatulent as the subway itself, I moved off down the scrag-end of Flatbush Avenue, turned into Tillary Street, and at last gained the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Rhapsody in Blue had grabbed me, all right, and shifted me into a simpler – yet even more savage – past. My mother's idiolect was like an infestation of head lice, irritating my psyche. Her savage putdowns: "emotionally tight-fisted", "dull ", "weak"; her delight in the expression "chagrined" . I recalled the desperate entry in her diaries, describing the final occasion on which she went to her ex-lover's studio apartment on Fulton Street, to retrieve her pitiful little things. Impedimenta she had attempted to place in that interior, in the hope of warding off the dreadful and approaching agoraphobia of death itself.

Standing in the middle of the gargantuan harpsichord that is the Brooklyn Bridge, I looked around at helicopters, launches, cyclists, the stalled traffic and the steady trains on the Manhattan Bridge – yet still I was enfolded in that dreadful interior-exteriority: my mother's clarinet moan and faltering snare drum heartbeat, resounding across the ocean. She had died 20 years before; yet only now did it feel as if I were truly listening. And because we had to – being within a few blocks of the pit – Chip and I fell to discussing 9/11, for not to do so would've been to leave a gaping, narrative hole. The walk without talk of this would've been like seeing Jaws, digitally re-edited so as to omit every reference – verbal or visual – to the shark.

At the base of one of the columns of the colonnade that runs alongside the municipal building at Centre and Chambers Streets in Manhattan, a Muslim was buckled in prayer on a rush beach mat. His white sneakers were off and neatly arranged next to him, and the grey seat of his trousers was in the air. Mecca may have been his ultimate objective, but to me it looked as if he were making obeisance to Manhattan itself.

The day was clouding over, and it impinged on me, looking up at the umpteen storeys of the block that in Manhattan's very elevation lay its decline. Only the gods lease office space on Olympus; yet here, on the 20th, 30th, 40th floor, a man picks his teeth with a paperclip, a woman adjusts her bra strap. Mars and Venus send out for pastrami on rye.

I was weary – so was Chip. As I suspected, he'd developed a blister. He left us at the first subway station, limping off through the afternoon crowds. Casey and I kept on, and the snapper, who'd spent the whole day circling around me on his mountain bike, as if I were visual carrion, now took on the role of my Virgil, leading me into the next circle of urban hell. We paused to examine a fanciful Chinese grotto – dinky greenery water plashing into teensy pools, the whole wreathed in dry-ice vapour, that was for sale on stall. Casey told me that there are 40,000 registered professional photographers in Manhattan. You can make of that what you will.

It was foolish of me to imagine that I could heal anything with my feet; after all this wasn't a demonstration. Besides, I can't stand marches: mass walking seems such a singularly inappropriate way of promoting peace and understanding. We went on the first of the big anti-war marches in London, in the autumn of 2002, and found ourselves trapped on the Embankment behind a claque of Muslim Association of Britain zealots, all of them screaming "Death to Israel!" Too much death in the air already – we thought, too much hatred. The children were repelled – so were we. We hung on for a while then turned tail and marched back across Waterloo Bridge to Chez Gerard, where we demonstrated our opposition to all conflict by eating steak and escargots.

It was an equally dumb idea to walk to New York. Wending my way through Little Italy, looking at the Christmas decorations strung from those oblique black fire escapes, I was conscious only of the heavy straps of sore muscle, stretched and then bunched at the backs of my calves. I could feel the sweaty pads of my socks scrunching into the toes of my boots. It had worked, though, walking to New York. It had done exactly what I wanted it to do: the Atlantic had been siphoned off, the continental shelf jacked up, and Hayes, Middlesex, had been rammed unceremoniously into South Ozone Park.

That I had walked, continuously, from Stockwell in south London to Rivington Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, could not be denied – for my body told me that this was so; that it had covered some 35 miles over the past two days. And the body's awareness is so much more plangent than that of any mere mind. Bodies like mine have been walking distances like these for hundreds – Yea! thousands – of millennia; what can a few score years of powered rolling and whistling flight mean set beside this immemorial trudge? My hotel stood opposite the Economy Candy Store (since 1937). I said farewell to Casey and entered. Two floors up, in Reception, functionaries in black Mao tunics caressed their keyboards, while behind them a monitor displayed an immaculate counterpane being disarranged by invisible hands. When the database maiden asked me if I'd had a good trip, I resisted the impulse to tell her I'd walked there from London. I've done this before, in similar circumstances, and the truth is: it gets you nowhere.

Another six storeys up and there it was: the floor-to-ceiling windows faced directly north, over the low rise of Greenwich Village to Midtown. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State, silver and gold urban jewellery, glinted in the late afternoon sun, which, purely to welcome me, had made a last, fleeting appearance. In the bathroom the freestanding sarcophagus of the bathtub sneered at me. I twisted the faucet and water, ridiculously, streamed from a hole in the ceiling. How I loathe hotels, establishments that try to convince you both that domesticity can be hired and that shitting is an "occasion".


Two days later I was upstate. It was breakfast time, and I sat eating croissants with my brother and sister-in-law at their house in Amenia Union. I asked him why exactly it was that he'd assumed I'd be walking from JFK through Queens to Manhattan.

"Oh, because Mother grew up there, of course. I thought you realised."

"She always told me she grew up on Long Island, although, come to think of it, I never asked her where."

Nick explained this discrepancy by pointing out that a Jewish girl, growing up in interwar Queens, but already with one foot on the first rung of the ladder up and out, might well choose to gloss her origins thus. To me, who had reached my majority in the north London suburbs, such posturing still seemed counterintuitive. All my own childhood I had wanted to get in there, if necessary to entomb myself in Charing Cross itself. Surely to be urban was always to be cool? Surely it was better to be within the Five Boroughs – and hence a bone fide Noo Yawker – than out in the sticks. Nick said: not so.

Then he admitted that while he knew Mother had grown up in Kew Gardens, near Forest Hills, he didn't know precisely where – he'd certainly never visited the apartment or house. And while I had felt sure, on reviewing this omission in my own geography, that her failure to tell me was a product of the fact that we were never in New York together, Nick said that she hadn't volunteered this information to him either.

There it was, the reason why the walk had seemed so limp, so inconclusive. I had missed my ambulatory connection, why, within an hour of leaving the Crowne-Plaza I could've been standing outside my mother's natal home; if, that is, I had known its location.

It was then that my brother switched into one of his most efficient modes: that of professional researcher. Within minutes he had established which directory might furnish me with the address, and where it could be found. A few minutes more and he'd found out which train I should catch back into the city. A scant half-hour later, I was waving goodbye to him as the Metro-North train pulled out of Brewster. Like the girl at JFK, my brother understood the notion of a quest perfectly well.

Some time later, after the train had clanked out of White Plains, and before it had rattled into Harlem at 125th Street, I saw another hunk of cut-and-shut architecture to the side of the tracks near Bronxville. The exposed black beams and white plaster of a Tudor house, raised up on a huge, redbrick plinth. Like all Tudorbethan, it seemed to imply that the Henrician dynasty had endured for nigh on half a millennium; all of us waiting for an heir, while the King himself grew fatter and fatter. But, really, the apartment block was another harbinger.

Caught up in my quest for Mother, memories of her came unbidden: Flat Rock outside Ithaca, wax lips, the automatic Rambler car, her doodles – not unlike the Jetsons' animations – her psychotropic migraines, the distempered rubber of her punitive girdles – incontinent memories of mother, pissing down from the silvery skies over New York.

In the Genealogy Section at the New York Public Library, the librarian referred me to the cabinet where I could find the microfiche of Polk's Directory for 1931. This, I hoped, would list my grandfather's residence in Kew Gardens. In a sense, I was way too late already. There was nothing to discuss – and no one to discuss it with. Also, like other middle-aged amateur genealogists, myopia was smearing my eyes. I had to borrow a magnifying glass off a lady, and even then the print appeared horribly tiny and dense. I fiddled to manifest my destiny, with knobs and cranks and lenses. Then, there it was – or they were: two Jack Rosenblooms that could, plausibly, be him. Two addresses in Kew Gardens that might be his: one at Talbot Place, the other directly on the Union Turnpike.

Back in 42nd Street I found it impossible to take a cab. I flexed my arm experimentally – but it wouldn't rise. I was, I realised, finally oriented in New York. I had located myself more completely in the city in the past four days than I had in 14 years of coming here regularly. I took the uptown local to 51st Street, walked through the connecting corridors to Lexington and 3rd, then took the E train out to Queens. Sitting in the jolting carriage, looking at the two Hispanic guys, their auditory canals connected directly to one another's by the wires of an iPod, it dawned on me that I too was now connected. At last, I had taken up my mother's New York mantle.

I had read up on Kew Gardens before I left my brother's house. I knew it was an interwar suburb, consciously named by its developers, at the turn of the twentieth century, after the famous botanical gardens in London. I also knew to expect "English'" and "neo-Tudor"-styled houses, interspersed with apartment blocks. I also knew that, like many an outer London suburb, Kew Gardens had first burgeoned because of the train that ran out from the city to the cemetery. Yet what nothing could've prepared me for was the feel of the place.

The prosperous, detached houses; the small, unitary shopping parades; the homely, brick apartment blocks; the Saturday afternoon drivers and pedestrians – purposive, yet not rushed. This was not the flitting déjà vu that Tarkovsky captures in his killing jar of a lens, this was not something I had ever seen before – or had even been tricked by synaptic glitch into believing I had seen before – no, Kew Gardens was somewhere I knew.

I knew the Kew Gardens Cinema, the Maple Grove Cemetery and the Leah B Weinberg Early Childhood Center. I re-encountered the childlike simplicity of Public School 99, with its cheerful motto "Two Buildings, One Heart", and, most especially, I recognised 8300 Talbot Place, a four-square, nine-storey apartment block, the honeyed brickwork of which gave off palpable waves of comfortable familiarity in a way that was – as the Germans might say – distinctly unheimlich.

I could picture my grandfather up there only too well: his fleshy nose, his slick vest, his money clip with the mother-of-pearl Indian head. I could picture my pretty grandmother as well, painting her laboured still lives of hard-working flowers. I could picture my uncle, in knickerbockers, and my mother, her curly hair in bunches. I could smell the food and dust of the rooms; I could hear the acrimony of their arguments.

Why? It dogged me as I walked back to the subway. Why had my mother omitted to mention, at any point in my childhood, that the north London suburb we lived in was an exact simulacrum of the New York neighbourhood she herself had grown up in? That Kew Gardens and East Finchley were located on the same Möbius strip, a ring of dendro-urbanity that, though it may have grown, twisting through time and space, nonetheless left our senses of place unavoidably on the same side.

Presumably because she couldn't stand it: couldn't stand the fact that she had moved and moved and moved again, changing places and jobs and husbands and eventually continents, only to end up somewhere recognisably the same. I couldn't blame her: I couldn't stand it myself. I'd walked all this way, only to discover that I'd never left home at all.