PsychoGeography: Will Self

Manhattan homesick blues
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The Independent Online

Joe Petro, who does beautiful silkscreen prints of his artist friends' works, calls me from New York. He's just been lunching with Ralph Steadman and Kurt Vonnegut in midtown Manhattan. Ralph has given Joe a screed to fax me - the drawing that explains it will follow electronically in a day or so. "How is Ralph?" I bellow down the line. Even people of my generation (I was half-90 this September), still find transatlantic phone calls both implausible and enervating: as we were having to project our voices for 3,000 miles, while also suspending disbelief. I remember my mother learning the news of my grandmother's death in Chicago over breakfast in London. She slit the blue, airmail letter with a butter knife, smoothed out the crumpled sheet, read it, and then her face crumpled up as mortality bit.

"Not great!" Joe fog-horns back. "He and Anna were in Toronto last week, and they say it was like some kind of fascist regime. They couldn't have a cigarette anywhere." I mutter-tut sympathetically, although I know of no totalitarian system that actually bothers with such prohibitions, only so-called liberal democracies. "We were just having a great lunch with Kurt, few drinks, smoking some cigarettes ..." Again, with the cigarettes! Is this what the valetudinarians of the 1960s have come to, a vicious, hacking circle in which they once more hide, puffing, behind the bike sheds? " ... but Ralph had to go. I tellya, Will, these book tours can be punishing ..."

No need to tell me, Joe, I know. I think it was AN Wilson who said that the only time he cried during his adult life was on a US book tour. I feel for Ralph and Anna, hounded from Starbucks to Barnes & Noble, jittery with caffeine and prey to the awful, emotional lability of nicotine withdrawal. Two days later a J-peg of this drawing (right) arrives by e-mail. Ralph's caption reads: "Now Kurt Vonnegut likes to eat Italian and drink a couple of Manhattans in New York City. I have this filthy habit of drawing on the paper that is used to cover the tables & I captured Kurt and the proprietor who wouldn't give his name. The proprietor was no art lover because he plonked the Manhattans down on the drawing, slopping the bourbon & vermouth all over this fine portrait which gave me the idea in the first - "

There is a "place" missing here, yet Ralph goes on to gloss the associations between writers and cafés: Jimmy Joyce and Sam Beckett on the Left Bank; Larry Durrell and Henry Miller in Theo's on the Greek island of Halki; Hemingway in Montparnasse. It's quite clear to me what's going on here: Ralph is homesick. Unbelievable though it seems to me, he's probably missing the pub near his gaff outside Maidstone. It's called something like the Lamb & Flag, or the Sheep & Escutcheon, and I've been there with Ralph and Anna for a pie with appropriate garnish, although I'd be mightily surprised if Jimmy Whistler and Oscar Wilde were ever patrons of this royalist café.

Still, what do I know? I have the luxury of being a homebody, having hardly strayed from the city of my birth except to gather copy for this column. The nearest I've ever got to the Celestial Empire is the restaurant China China on Gerrard Street in Soho, where I've eaten lunch at least once a week for the past 20 years. Sometimes I'll do a little writing in there, but mostly I just eat soup. For years the waiters completely ignored me, but recently they've taken to stopping by my table and saying things such as "Writing, are you?" and "What are you working on now?" I've considered moving my business up the road to Lee Ho Fook's, but this eatery already has its own literary associations, and even a line in the late Warren Zevon's song "Werewolves of London"; to whit: "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand / He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fook's / Ah-oooh! etc etc ..."

I can't see Ralph and Kurt adapting well to China China. No Manhattans, and no tablecloths for Ralph to draw on. Still, being Chinese, they don't give a shit if you smoke thousands of cigarettes all at once. As for Vonnegut, he undoubtedly appreciates things being gemütlich. You recall that he was one of only seven US POWs to survive the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, by sheltering in an underground meatpacking cellar known as "Slaughterhouse Five". "Carnage unfathomable," is now he's described it. He was put to work gathering corpses for burial: "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes."

Not quite Toronto, eh, Joe.