Will Self: PsychoGeography

Atlantic crossing
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The Independent Online

Thanks Mum. Were it not for your obsessive diary-keeping, I might never have known that I once traversed the Atlantic by ship. True, I did have a jellyfish of a memory, a two-year-old's gelatinous perceptions, trawled from deep time, and refracted by waters of the Lethe: a much-loved teddy bear with corduroy ears; round portholes, a white-painted railing ... Er, that's it. But your diary really does the business, Mum, setting down our 1963 crossing, from Southampton to Quebec, in all its prosaic detail.

How I sympathise with my father, who on the night preceding departure, is introduced thus: "A tired Peter packed last night - reluctant but he did it." I, too, have the greatest difficulty in packing, and sometimes think I would travel more if there were an identical set of my own effects at every prospective destination. Presumably that's what the very rich - and fascist dictators - aspire to.

On board the Franconia, as the ship beat down the Channel, my mother set down in her diary a combination of geographical ignorance and rather touching arrogance: "Today we are off the coast of Cornwall: I thought it was Ireland, but another lady thought it was Scotland, so I've at least not exceeded her." Meanwhile, my older brother and I were soon behaving uncannily like my own small boys: "W threw two pieces of potato on the floor, J dipped his head and got a spoonful of minced chicken in his eye."

As on any sea voyage, mealtimes seem to have been the chief focus for social interaction, and Mum's inevitable disapprobation: "Two young American girls at our table last night, going back to Calif. after a year in France. I took an instant dislike to them, for their smug expectation that the glories of France were for them. Was I ever so lacking in humbleness?" Mum was American herself, but while her countrywomen's sense of entitlement bothered her, the Atlantic terrified her: "In the night I awoke to clothing swaying on hooks & Willie." (That's me.) "I sat on the easy chair with him & felt so happy & lucky. This morning both of them were ill, so we dressed them and took them on deck for fresh air. A very long day. I saw the imminent breaking up of the ship every moment, & ourselves & our beautiful young drowning in hideously cold & salty water."

Not to be facetious, but would a freshwater inundation have been any better? Poor Mum, not only subject to this marine neurosis, but also my father's watery analysis: "V. tired," she writes two days later. "Peter rightly says it's my 'disposition' - anxiety tires one. I am quite exhausted." Still, when not worn out by small children and the vast ocean, Mum did find time to cast a jaundiced eye over herself and her husband: "I look very lumpy & unattractive in my clothes, my face looks worn. P has developed a great lump of varicose veins on his leg. I can't think my looks are all age - but some, perhaps." She was, of course, five years younger than I am now.

However, the most pleasing entry in the diary comes when the Franconia draws near to North America: "Sun & wind today, steely gray waves, long line of land on the horizon (Newfoundland) & a rocky looking mountain (Belle Isle?). P said he met someone who had been shipwrecked here (in 1910?) & had to live weeks on berries." The whole anecdote is my father to a T - or a P - especially the detail of "on berries"; I can just hear my father pronouncing this with considerable relish, as if being marooned were an opportunity to re-enact the healthful regimen of an interwar, Fabian summer school.

Other aspects of the diary are not quite so cosy. My parents' marriage was never a tranquil one, and Mum confined every rebarbative misgiving between narrow feint bars. "These," she writes at one point, "are the wages of meaningless marriage." Which leads me to consider whether or not the virtues of air travel are not emotional quite as much as economic. True, couples can argue quite as well on planes as they once did on liners, yet there isn't the time for this kind of festering despair.

Still, it was all drawing to an end. On 3 September, Mum reports: "Land outside the porthole"; and then, for the next 10 days, the Franconia wends its way up the St Lawrence "taking on one pilot after another". We finally docked in Quebec on the 13th, and the passengers were confined to the non-air-conditioned theatre, while the luggage was offloaded. Here I disgraced myself with diarrhoea, soiling my clothes, and a chair in first class, much to Mum's distraction. Ah! Even at two, I was an anarchist abroad.