Will Self: PsychoGeography

Hideous towns
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The Independent Online

Antony is going to Flevoland, where he's erecting an enormous anthropoid statue, derived, as usual, from a cast of his own body. This one is going to be 25-metres high and welded together from the same steel girders used to build electricity pylons. We're walking along the South Downs Way as he describes this to me: it's a flat, grey day, and the grey-green humpbacked hills are like so many awesome cetaceans, migrating along the Sussex Weald.

There are pylons marching over the Downs, and as Antony discourses knowledgeably upon them, waving his long arms about, it's difficult not to see them as wreathed in high-tension cable; while the pylons stride along, slamming down one concrete boot after another, and occasionally snapping: "Very good!"

If Antony sees a polder, it only makes him bolder, and Flevoland has to be the biggest polder of them all – thousands of square kilometres of reclaimed Zuider Zee. To begin with, the pancake of drying silt, wrested from the sea, was settled by Dutch fundamentalists, the kind who believe buttons to be the work of Satan. Lowlands, low church – you get the photo. But Flevoland proved too much of a pays bas even for them, and they retreated.

By the late 1980s the ersatz towns of Flevoland were experiencing real social problems, as Surinamese immigrants were dumped in them, and in the absence of any light on the horizon – only dykes – turned to drug-dealing and violence. But now Flevoland is on the up: doughty Dutch burghers have encouraged the Surinamese to build a scale reconstruction of a Batavian fort – with a scale model of a Dutch East India ship moored alongside. It's a nice – and very cloggy – conceit, this: a creation of land, and on it a recreation of colonialism; there's no terra more nullis than the bottom of the sea. Meanwhile wind farms have blossomed – hence Antony's Homo pylonis.

I passionately desire to go to Flevoland – all the more so when John, the architect, reveals that he's also off there on an unheard of site visit. John – as has been remarked in PsychoGeographies passim – usually takes such a lackadaisical approach to his métier, that's he sometimes turns a corner to be confronted, unexpectedly, by a 10-storey building that he himself has designed, with no comprehension of how it got there. Flevoland is ideal for his conception of the built environment: a slate blanker than a sheet of paper or a VDU screen.

Once he's there we exchange texts: "It's appalling, every junk-food outlet and crappy postmodern building you've ever conceived of all in one place."

"But can you walk across it?" I demand.

"Yes," comes the reply. "But you'd go insane!"

Perhaps I already am insane, because while this is going on I'm far nearer to the Highlands than the Netherlands, driving north on the A73 from Airdrie, together with a squad of two small boys in camouflage kit, heading for yet another frenzied assault on Stirling Castle. But first, we stop off in Cumbernauld. This, the first of the Scottish new towns, was built in the 1950s to accommodate overspill from Glasgow's bombed tenements.

Poor, poor Cumbernauld: poured and hammered into being in the white heat of Britain's brief affair with Modernism – ever since, rejected and derided as the ugliest town in the land. Channel 4 viewers have even voted to have it blown up – without specifying evacuation first. Yet why such savagery? We can't all live in Poundbury, or otherwise crawl up the Prince of Wales's arse. Admittedly, it is a brilliant October day, but Cumbernauld doesn't seem such a dreadful place to me; in fact, it doesn't even look like a town at all: but the biggest motorway service centre ever conceived of, straddling the A8011 like a steel and concrete cabre tossed by the McGods.

Cumbernauld has the distinction of having been Britain's first shopping mall – and its first multi-level covered town. It may be derided now, because its penthouse apartments never found tenants and have cracked and spalled with time, but the mall remains, almost a kilometre of retail outlets! I take the boys to Greggs to liberate some doughnuts, and then we give the flightless smokers outside the Kestrel a swerve and head on to the Royal Burgh, where – to be blunt – we find the same thing.

With its princely apartments, vast kitchens, arching chapel and soaring great hall; its garden, its battlements, and its Argyll and Sutherlanders' regimental museum – not forgetting its plentiful retail opportunities (if, that is, you get off on shortbread and pipe bands), Stirling Castle clearly beats Cumbernauld as the first multi-level covered town in this neck of the woods.

En fin, I may not have made it to Flevoland, but I have proved – to my own satisfaction at least – that wherever you go in this world the Flevoland dialectic still obtains: a go-round of bricks and mortar as relentless as the waves in the North Sea. Very good!