Will Self: PsychoGeography

Industrial revolutions
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The Independent Online

Sunday lunch, organic carrion, five others present, as far as I know all of them have good hearing. I say, "I'm going to cycle from Liverpool, along the ship canal, to Manchester tomorrow." No one acknowledges this, so I say it again: "I'm going to ... &c." It is as if they can't hear me at all, the conversation has passed on - to types of corkscrew, child development, Marx's facial hair (Groucho, not Karl) - leaving me bobbing in its wake. I'm not so foolish as to be unable to comprehend why this should be: my remark is the analog of the journey it describes. These metropolitan types might go to Liverpool for an art biennale, or to Manchester for a conference, but the idea that these two, proximate cities can be journeyed between, purely for the sake of it, is way off the edge of their flat and papery world.

Then there are those other, fatal words: "cycling" and "ship" and "canal"; all guaranteed to make even active minds shut right down. Had I casually let fall that I was going on a rainforest safari with the Irturi pygmies of the Congo, or even, sotto voce, that I was considering two weeks of colonic irrigation in Chiang Mai, they would all have been agog.

So, next morning, I found myself standing on Runcorn Station having detrained, and the 7.13 to Lime Street was pulling away, and many thousands of obsolete stair rods had been pressed back into service so they could rain down on me. Yet, no matter how inauspicious a start, I still felt liberated. Once more I'd pulled it off, and loosed the so-called "lines of desire" with which urban planners lash us to workplace, retail outlet and real estate.

I assembled the foldaway bike and pedalled away into the maelstrom that howled about the steel girders of the bridge across the swirling, turbid Mersey. I'd abandoned the idea of the full push from the 'pool. I had limited time, and I'm not an amphibian. Nevertheless, I soon felt like one, pumping up the towpath of the St Helen's canal, my waterproofs as slick as sealskin. The aim of following the ship canal all the way had also been dropped, when the map confirmed what common sense - never my strongest - should have told me; namely, that ships don't get towed along paths. Instead, I would follow the Trans-Pennine Trail, replete with graffiti-obscured info-boards, and shuttered ranger stations.

On I slithered, through a watery world carved by the tail of the Mersey as it lashed in its flood plain. Past the fat-bellied deities of the Runcorn Power Station cooling towers, where I could hear metal being tortured behind closed doors, while steam clouds of preternatural brightness plumped above the reed beds. I may wax lyrical - but then why shouldn't I? When I joined the ship canal itself, at Warrington, I felt my wheel fitting into a groove scoured out over centuries by the most historically significant motive forces Eurasia has ever known.

The ship canal: a pre-rail, eotechnic form of transport, hypertrophied by coal and steel. Manchester: the manufactory of the world for a hundred years. Liverpool: its port - and the line of the canal, extended in space across the Atlantic to America, like a water spout from chthonic past shooting into the post-industrial future. And it was, of course, deserted, except for a man walking a Scotty dog under a golfing brolly, his feet crackling on empty White Lightning bottles, while a hub cap gleamed on the eroding bank.

At a massive set of locks, lowered over by a red brick building bearing the optimistic legend "New World Gas Cookers", I left the ship canal, and followed the route of a dismantled railway across country to Altrincham. The rain cleared, and from the embankment I could see jets hurled up by Manchester Airport to spear the cloud cover. I joined the Cheshire Ring canal for a few miles, before, at Sale, sodden and chapped, decided to chuck the proverbial towel in. I folded up the bike and boarded a tramcar, which ran up on an elevated section through the outskirts of the conurbation, before, at Old Trafford, suddenly dipping down to the ground and merging with the road traffic.

It was a fitting end to such a journey: the seeming-train transforming into a bus. I had traversed mighty canals that were now weedy backwaters, and the muddy sloughs of defunct iron roads. This part of the world was not a landscape at all, but a palimpsest, worked over again and again by the busy hands of humankind. At dinner that night, in a Thai restaurant, I announced to my five Mancunian companions - none of whom, so far as I know, were hard of hearing - "I cycled from Runcorn to Sale today." And this remark went blissfully unacknowledged.