Will Self: PsychoGeography

When the wind blows
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The Independent Online

In the annals of bad journalism (a copious volume that sits on top of St Peter's reception desk), my Psychogeography column of the 16 December last is not, perhaps, the very worst. Nevertheless, filed - due to the long lead times for printing the quality item you hold in your hand - on the 5th, almost everything I wrote was violently and vortically contradicted, two days later, when on the 7th, a tornado struck Kensal Rise in north-west London.

In my column, I averred that British weather was, on the whole, a supremely mundane phenomenon, and took the piss out of Michael Fish for failing, throughout his long, meteorological career, to even consider the relationship between national climate and national character. Luckily for me, I did forget that it was also Fish who failed to forecast the great storm of October 1987; for had I done so, I would certainly have squeezed a cheap gag or two out of it. That's my way.

Still, no one expected a tornado to sweep along Whitmore Gardens NW10, shortly after 11am on the 7th - least of all the residents. I hate to think of any of them, reading this magazine, while sitting in the wreckage of their un-fitted kitchen, nursing their wounds, and waiting for the kettle to boil so they could make the loss-adjustor a cup of tea. "Wanker" would be their entirely reasonable response, to my blithe generalisations about our temperate clime. Yes, a wanker who's never seen the side of a house torn off by a mighty whirl of wind, or felt its foundations shift beneath his feet. A wanker who, while wheelie bins were being tossed about like, er, wheelie bins, north of the river, was safely ensconced in sarf London, typing away at some old bollocks.

And it's not as if I don't know Kensal Rise; this is no terra incognita for me, no vast and mythical, antipodean continent, where people walk around with their heads tucked under their arms. Oh, no. True, I've never stopped there for long, but the district has loomed large in my imagination over the years. Ah! Kensal Rise, with your solidly tedious, late-Victorian houses, that look to have mullions of dried snot; and your avenues of savagely pollarded trees, which look like the amputated limbs of giants. Lo! You are not desirable Queens Park, but then nor are you undesirable Harlesden.

Harlesden, where I set a short story called The Rock of Crack as Big as The Ritz, is only a half mile to the west, yet a world away. You can't imagine anyone in Kensal Rise - as Danny, the protagonist of the story did - finding the eponymous rock of crack. In Kensal Rise, you'd be stretching credulity if you had a character discover a rock of crack as big as a wheelie bin. It's just not that sort of neighbourhood. I only mention this because Ralph's picture this week (above) reminds me of all the travails involved in designing the cover of the booklet edition of the story.

I wanted a photo-real image of the south side of Piccadilly, with a giant rock of crack in place of The Ritz. The publishers agreed readily enough, but despite my careful briefing, the result looked like the hotel had been substituted for a huge lump of snowy ice rather than crack cocaine. I suppose it would've been asking too much of the designer that he or she actually go up to Harlesden and get some crack for the cover shoot - although I did consider doing just this. Ah well, it hardly mattered that much, the essential message of the story - that we are all victims of unquantifiably large desires - remained intact.

I like to think that this is what Ralph's picture also conveys: the tiny, human figures, struggling to ascend the frozen arêtes and crevasses of an awesome ice cap; who, even when completely dwarfed by this sublime phenomenon, nevertheless struggle to assert their puny egos. "Me!" cries the leader; "No me!" challenges some idiot in the van, while another, sycophantic toiler yea-says, "Him!" Indeed, if I may wrap up my periphrastic homily for the New Year in this time-honoured, Anglican fashion: are we not all like these brave fellows? Do we not, every one of us, seek to attain the highest of goals? And are we not thwarted, not only by our pernicious and self-destructive habits, but by our inability to foresee whatever lies ahead?

In the wake of the Kensal Rise tornado a spokesman from the Met Office said: "It's quite helpful to think of them [as being] like a spinning ice-skater who then pulls their arms in and will go faster and faster." To which the only possible reply can be: helpful to whom, exactly?

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