Will Self: PsychoGeography

Ordinary rendition
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Ralph Steadman writes: "'It is now clear to everyone that the suicide of civilisation is in progress ... Whenever there is lost the consciousness that every man is an object of concern for us just because he is a man, civilisation and morals are shaken and the advance to fully developed inhumanity is only a question of time ...' As you know, Albert Schweitzer said that and he is fucking right.

So, how are you gonna crucify a child in Basra, or Gaza – or anywhere in the Middle East – if you've just blown his arms off?

OK. Much love, Ralphxx.

PS: I don't know why but I can't sleep without having the news on throughout the night ..."

Yes, bad call that, sleeping with the news on – I do it too. My dreamscape is shot to pieces with bullet holes, I wander through them from Cromarty, Firth, Tyne and Dogger, into the Congolese jungle where 10-year-old child soldiers kill each other over mobile phone components, hardly an easeful repose.

My collaborator, it has to be said, is an emotional man – a feeling man – and he's not exactly up and light at the moment. But then, people often ask me: where does Ralph get the savagery of his graphic style? And I am compelled to answer: why, from the savagery of the world, of course, and now why don't you piss off and leave me alone, there's 20 more babies here for me to fillet then fry before sun-down.

But while Ralph's gaze rakes distance vistas, I must confess that mine is usually radically foreshortened. I may sleep with the World Service burbling Outlook in my ear, but by day I'm tuned into the Home one. I refer, of course, to the alley that I can see from the window of my writing room. In PsychoGeography passim I have hymned the tumultuous and bawling life that issues from this uterine canal of brick and concrete, but Ralph's appeal to the savagery of humans in conflict zones only drives me to conclude, yet again: such savagery begins at home.

My boys used to call the alley "Shit Alley", but that aspect of it has been dealt with. In recent months, on a fairly regular basis, a group of workmen come down the alley wearing blue plastic jumpsuits, facemasks and rubber gloves. On their backs they have tanks full, presumably, of some ultimate-strength disinfectant; this they liberally spray in crevices, wheelie bins and between the paving stones, looking all the while like the Cybermen's subcontractors.

The spraying may have dealt with the shit, and the rats, and the pervasive smell of urine, but there's little to be done about the people: the dealers still deal in the alley, the pissers still piss in it, the kids still race their stolen motorcycles then torch them. The alley still has a minatory vibe, and the man I dubbed "the Assyrian" still pushes his frieze of a face through it twice daily, on his way to buy a demijohn of mineral water from the shop.

(Apropos of the Assyrian, I've discovered, of course, that he's a Trinidadian, plays the pans in a steel band, and has obsessive-compulsive disorder – hence the water. I used to think I'd hate this aspect of long-term residence in one spot: the gradual silting up of your life with those of the others that surround you, but the truth is, I rather like it. Nevertheless, I still think of him as "the Assyrian", and probably always will.)

No, the real problem with the alley is the hut where the big steel wheelie bin for the flats lives. I can understand its appeal: it's snug, conveniently sited, and if stinky at least it's dry. Homeless people sleep in the hut, curled round the wheels of the bin, and junkies smoke crack and shoot up in it. Prior to writing this column I went down to take a closer look, and saw the blobs of polythene, the burnt matches and makeshift pipes I fully expected. There was a nice fit between the way the rubbish chute descends into the hut, and how the human detritus is compelled to gather around it while disposing of their own consciousness.

From my window I can see the daily routine of the Community Support officers, who, with commendable thoroughness, open the double doors of the hut, extract whatever human detritus they find there, then detain him or her. This very ordinary kind of rendition is the visual wallpaper to my supposedly "creative" life: I'm up here on the fourth floor, while they – to quote Bob Dylan – are "down in the alleyway looking for clues". But clues of what? Surely only the very dull, suburban savagery that's the hallmark of our patch of the world? To paraphrase Ralph: how are you gonna put handcuffs on a man in south London, if he's just lost his arm through shooting up and hitting an artery?