Will Self: PsychoGeography

Postcard from Cognac
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The Independent Online

Last week Ralph Steadman and his wife Anna were invited to a "Festival of Love and Wine" in the little village of Jonsac, near Cognac. Ralph told me – lapsing into his native Franglais – that it was: "Très beau, et avec beaucoup des hommes qui porter bouteilles du cognac pour desgorges all over les friggin' guests. Nobody knew what to do and we waited and waited for things to happen, all the while succumbing to a certain tedium vitae, rather than the aqua sort. Eventually, I was summoned to the stage with all of these French Cartoonists.

"Shocking bunch; look, I'm not as hung up on being thought of as a 'cartoonist' as I might've been in the past; the art I've produced over the years – whether pictorial, written, sculptural, or in collaboration with composers – now speaks for itself, but it's an axiom of cartoonists that their style of caricature is invariably based on their own appearance. Either that, or they get into the filthy trade because they are cartoon-like. Anyway, this lot, being French cartoonists, all had droopy white Goscinny and Uderzo moustaches, and they were all prat-falling and slap-sticking around, snatching cognac bottles and awarding each other diplomas. Ridicule!

"When I spoke, I said 'Je crois qu'il y a plus des personnes sur l'étage que sur les chaises avant.' That got a phlegmy laugh, then I took my diploma and vigorously mimed the anal penetration of President Sarkozy. That didn't get a laugh; in truth, I don't think the French cartoonists knew where they were. You're familiar with that Saul Steinberg drawing A New Yorker's View of the World, in which the main Manhattan avenues take up the bulk of the picture, then the rest of the US occupies about 20 per cent, then countries like China are merely sandwiched in at the margins. Well, the point is that Steinberg wasn't trying to be funny – that is how most cartoonists actually view the world, because years of compressing all of human existence – our hopes, our fears, our philosophies and technologies – into ink-ruled boxes, have left them with a hopelessly schematic and solipsistic sense of geography.

"After that we sloped off until the prochaine jour. Bizarrely, we were being put up by an English couple. They were nice enough, Gervaise Myers used to be a banker in the City, but a few years ago he upped sticks, moved to France, and wrote a light-hearted account of his new life called Toujours Cognac, that became a surprise bestseller. His wife, Lorelei, wore a horned helmet and posed topless on an ornamental rockery. Anyway, we holed up with the Myerses until late afternoon on the Saturday.

"When we got back to the Festival things had taken a turn for the worse. There were these Cartoonist clowns, lewdly dressed as cartoon babies in nappies, etc, and sucking on bottles full of cognac-laced milk. Next, six 'pregnant' virgins à la Greek tried charming us with a strangely trippy dance; with their evocations of innocence and decadence, the dancers might've been from Milton's Comus. I began to feel distinctly disturbed, and Anna grew very hostile when one of the cartoon babies asked to be changed.

"It was time to get out – there's only so much of any festival that anyone can take, and there are so many bloody festivals nowadays, festivals within festivals. Someone should start the 'Festival of Festivals', invite all the swine who organise festivals, then show them a truly bad time. We sloped back to the Myerses, where Gervaise – who's something of a gastropodophile – was preparing a snail soup. Actually, Gervaise doesn't only husband, harvest and cook snails, he also has interesting theories about the origins of agriculture, having discovered an enormous Palaeolithic midden of snail shells near to his house. He believes that all agriculture originates with snail farming, and that up until around 13,000 BCE Europeans largely moved about on their stomachs, in emulation of their revered main protein source.

"As the soup inched its way down our gullets, and our eye stalks began to droop, Gervaise got out his molluscophone, an instrument not unlike a tuba, but built from thousands of snails' shells. I could've listened to him poot and toot all night – but Lorelei lured me on to the rockery.

"The following morning we headed back to Paris and visited an exhibition at the Musée Picasso. It covers all the most important phases of the artist's career, from Le Bateaux-Lavoir of 1901, through his years at the Rue Grand Augustin, to his country sojourns. Of course, I'm an enormous admirer of Picasso's vitality, his wrestling with the formal possibilities of the figurative, his participation in – and alienation from – all the most important art movements of the 20th century, but I think it's only as a cartoonist that he comes fully into his own."