Will Self: PsychoGeography

Global warning
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It's the time of year when we forego the pleasures of the beach in order to visit Dr Thurm Angstrom, in his claustrophobic office at Reading University's Department of Comparative Environmental Science. Regular readers of this column will be familiar with Dr Angstrom, whose laughable excursus, Sweaty Hearth: Transliterating Domestic Space in the Age of Climate Change, was one of the great publishing failures of last year. An initial print run of 100,000 copies, printed on non-biodegradable polyurethane sheeting, were instantly remaindered then dumped off the coast of Cornwall by the psychotically depressed publisher.

The reef of Sweaty Hearths subsequently distorted the ocean currents so catastrophically that a freak tsunami engulfed Rick Stein's famous fish restaurant in Padstow, and swept it out into the Atlantic, where it was harpooned by an illegal Japanese whaler. The first I heard about it was when a distraught Ms Billings wrote to me to say that her elderly parents – together with several other middle-class English couples – had recently appeared as an entry on the menu of an exclusive Osaka restaurant, right underneath sushi made from the notoriously poisonous fugu blowfish.

But the crazed Dr Angstrom didn't want to talk about this: he'd summoned me to discuss the Russian territorial claim to the Arctic seabed. "I'm 100 per cent behind the Russians," were his opening words. "This is a bold new day for humankind!" I ignored the lack of any politesse – Angstrom is not a Jane Austen character – and focused instead on the changes in the man: gone was the penis sheath and lean nudity of the previous year; instead, he was sporting a full set of furs suitable for subzero temperatures.

"I'm only wearing these," the deranged climate scientist told me, "because soon they won't be a sartorial option at all; the polar icecap is shrinking, and calving ice floes the size of Reading every 24 hours! Under such circumstances the Russians are doing the only sensible thing."

"But surely," I objected, taking a seat upon a pile of bound proofs of Angstrom's latest tome, Cold Hearth: Igloo Cities in the Age of Global Warming, "there's a distinctly savage irony implied here: the Russians have their eye on the gas and oil reserves beneath the Arctic seabed, and if they then exploit them it will only increase carbon emissions, speeding the entire go-round of civilisation's destruction!"

He fixed me with a roving eye that recalled that of Nanook of the North: "Some," he chose his words judiciously, "might regard it as a virtuous circle, after all, more warming, less ice. Less ice – more access to the mineral deposits!"

"My God, man!" I expostulated. "You're behaving as if global warming is a good thing!"

"Isn't it?" Angstrom rose, picked up a narwhal tusk and climbed on to his paper-cluttered desk. Here he began to dance a fierce jig, conducting himself with the tusk, while singing: "Burn, baby, burn, global inferno! Burn, baby, burn... " He halted abruptly. "No," he resumed, tapping a wall map of the Arctic with the end of the tusk, "you cannot combat the inevitable, you can only go with the floe!

"Consider Roald Amundsen, he deliberately sought out the pack ice with his ship the Fram – which, incidentally, means 'forward' in Norwegian – then remained there, trapped for a year, in order to discover the secrets of survival in those climes."

"Um," I interjected, "Dr Angstrom, I don't know if I'm just being obtuse, but where's all this leading?"

"It's absurdly simple," he said, tapping the edge of the icecap with his tusk. "Here, in the southeast of England we have a critical shortage in the availability of greenfield building land, while up here in the Arctic, an iron-hard level surface the size of Reading becomes available every day! By my calculations, each of these floe-cities – if they are built – can be reinforced and provided with integrated freezer units that will keep them viable for at least 99 years. During this time, the New Readings will slowly float down through the North Atlantic, then the Irish Sea, eventually coming ashore here," the tusk tapped lower, "at Aberystwyth on the coast of Wales. As Amundsen would say: Forward!"

"B-but," it was a feeble objection to these delusions of icy grandeur – but the best I could manage – "what if the Russians, despite dropping their flag on to the seabed, don't succeed with their claim?"

"Well," Angstrom looked stricken, "then, I have to concede, we're sunk. A Canadian Arctic seabed would be problematic – an American one catastrophic."

"How so?"

"Well," he sighed deeply. "The whole plan is tightly calibrated with the continued rise in British house prices – hence the 99-year time period. In the USA there are these bloody sub-prime mortgages, not at all the sort of borrowing we want. Buying one of our properties with that kind of financing... well, it would be like sinking the foundations in... in..."


"Quite so."