Will Self: PsychoGeography

Pants on fire!
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The Independent Online

This is not a nice story. During the mid-1980s, I did a cartoon strip for the New Statesman called "Slump", about a man whose response to the recession was to go to bed. Indefinitely. I saw it as a kind of middle-class synthesis of Andy Capp and Goncharov's "Oblomov". I also saw it as about the only money I was making at the time. This was the pre-electronic era, and I didn't merit a motorbike courier, so I would take my cartoon down to the Staggers's office in Farringdon myself.

Often on these mornings I'd have an awesomely bad hangover: the drink and drugs from the night before lying in an inky pool on my forebrain. One day I dropped my cartoon off and went to fill up my 2CV at a petrol station. (You could still buy petrol in fluid ounces in those days, which was what made it practicable for me to run a car at all.) I was so addled that I poked the nozzle at the car's flank and a great spray of essence splashed on to my trousers. Despite this dousing, I was still so addled when I resumed driving towards King's Cross, that I sparked my Zippo and made to light a cigarette.

With a "fffumph!" my petrol-soaked jeans burst into flame. Big flames - flames so lascivious that they licked the windscreen. For a few, stunned seconds I continued driving, then I slewed the car into the kerb, leapt out, and stood there on the pavement. This hardly improved my predicament. I saw the scene as if mysteriously disembodied: a man, standing on the Farringdon Road, with his nether regions aflame, as if mimicking that Pink Floyd album cover. I was conscious that within a few more moments I was going to be severely - perhaps irreparably - burnt.

Then a Good Thing happened. A van screeched to halt and what my mother would've called "A Knight of the Open Road" leapt out. He screamed at me: "Get down on the ground!" and then, when I was supine, he yanked my burning trousers off me. Before I knew it my saviour had leapt back in his van and driven away, leaving me intensely grateful but shocked. Naturally I hadn't troubled to put on any pants that morning, so I was now standing, in the Farringdon Road, on a perfectly workaday morning, buck-naked from the waist down.

Despite the Knight I was quite badly burned - without him I'd've been toast. But I only recount this anecdote, because my 1985 balls of fire seem to me highly symbolic. I'll go further, for I think it not fanciful to say of that young man that was myself, standing there in the exhausted runnel of the Farringdon Road, that he was a harbinger - nay a personification too - of the coming oil peak. For what is the entire globalised world but a bemused, half-naked human, its reproductive organs singed by petrol thoughtlessly ignited?

I went up to Telford the other day to take part in some TV debate programme. North of Birmingham the landscape was blanketed with snow. Down south there hasn't been snow that's lain on the ground for more than a day or so for about a decade. This snow was not that flocculent sludge, which runs off with the next day's rain, but something altogether more enduring. It lay in sharp vees in the crooks of trees. Individual twigs glistened with hoar frost. The railway sidings were mounded with drifts - this was snow such as I remembered from childhood. So strange to see England thus caparisoned by cold; it was as if I'd wandered through the back of the wardrobe and found myself in a post-industrial Narnia, where Mr Tumnus worked long hours for crap pay, in a call centre operated by the White Witch.

On the programme with me was an absurd old Tory grandee - let's call him Sir Bufton-Tufton. Anyway, the talk turned - as it does - to renewable energy, and Sir Bufton vouchsafed that he found the wind farms proposed for the Lake District an altogether unacceptable despoiling of this natural landscape.

"Natural in what sense?" I enquired. "After all, the Lake District is a manmade vista quite as much as the Black Country. It's a product of deforestation for arable land and grazing."

"Ah," replies Sir B, "but when did that happen?"

"Well," I answered, "most of it was probably cleared by the time of the Romans."

"That's an awfully long time ago!" Sir B rejoined, as if this somehow put such human activities on a par with millions of years of carboniferous deposition.

I only mention this because I find it difficult to rid myself of the vision of Sir Bufton, stark naked, his petrol-soaked balls on fire. So much less aesthetically pleasing than a wind turbine, wouldn't you concur?