Will Self: PsychoGeography

Once upon a time in the West
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The Independent Online

To Bristol, to liaise with Pat, the highest bidder in last Christmas's Independent charity auction. It transpires that it wasn't Pat herself who placed the bid for my psychogeographic audit, but her husband, Richard. Pat suspects that this may be to compensate for an entire married life of last-minute, smelly-water presents. As her compensatory gift, I tell her, I must act as her servant for the afternoon. "Oh," Pat's a little freaked out. "I hope not like Dirk Bogarde in the film of the same name." "No, no," I reassure her, "not like that at all."

Pat has a suspiciously good turn of phrase, something I note as she drives us away from the station in her Volvo estate. Indicating the concrete behemoths in the city centre, which are wrapped up in plastic sheeting prior to demolition, she says: "It reminds me of a magician's trick: they cover the rabbit with a cloth, and when they whip it away it's disappeared." She also betrays a certain whimsy, drawing my attention to the truncated limb of a bridge which once spanned the dual carriageway, she remarks that "Richard worked out a way of crossing the city without ever setting foot on the ground." In my mind's eye I picture him, this suited ape, swooping from multi-storey car park to shopping centre, as he traversed the inner-city jungle.

We leave the car by Pat's home, high on the bluffs above Bristol, then set off between Georgian facades, back downtown. Pat discourses on the Cromwellian redoubt that used to stand on the hilltop - and we both agree that "redoubt" is one of our favourite words. We tumble down Spring Hill, through the 1960s shopping quarter, and pitch up at Castle Park, where the fortress Cromwell demolished once stood. Ho-hum, we both agreed: you raze some, you build some.

On we promenade, into the remains of Bristol's old financial district. We poke our heads into St Nicholas's Market, once the stock exchange, and then trot down the hill to that central trough, the banjaxed form of which has never been comprehensible to me. Pat explains that this was once a harbour holding ocean-going ships. At once, the incomprehensible jumble of Bristol resolves itself with great clarity: the positioning of the docks, the Avon, the Clifton Gorge - all of it is focused on this bizarre, landlocked basin. Pat conjures up the tracery of rigging against the house fronts, and the mephitic stench of discharged bilge. All gone, and replaced by the Municipality with a routine water feature and some lamp standards. Four-wheel-drives rev where once four-masters anchored.

We wander on past the Watershed to the new Millennium Square, where life-size bronzes of famous Bristolians - Cary Grant, John Cabot, Thomas Chatterton - recline in the lee of infotainment museums. Eventually we finish up at the Mud Dock Café, where, over lunch, I interrogate Pat concerning her relationship with place. A girlhood spent in rural Kent, with a Londoner mother and a Scots father, was succeeded by training as a nurse and midwife, followed by sojourns in Canada and the West Indies. But the key axis of Pat's geographical life has been between London and Bristol: the M4 is her seesaw. During the late 1980s she and Richard lived in Hackney, where they had two sons, but a job drove them west, and slowly, inexorably, as the years passed and her sons' vowels became more orotund, so Pat sank down into her new, dry dock.

If any further confirmation of her rootedness were required, Pat now supplies the clincher. I should've guessed it, what with the turn of phrase, the sharp eye for observation, and the instinctive grasp of our drive across Bristol as a narrative in the making: Pat, it transpires, is a novelist. In fact, she's Pat Ferguson, the author of six novels, one of which, It So Happens, was long-listed for last year's Orange Prize. It's hard to tell who's more embarrassed by this revelation but on balance I think it's me. Still, now I know she's a writer I can ask her that most important question: where are her books set? She concedes that while the earlier ones were firmly located in London and Kent, the last two tales unfurled, if not in actual bricks-and-mortar Bristol, then at least in a very Bristol-like place.

After lunch we go to visit the SS Great Britain in her dry dock. We both admire the elegant concave-into-convex curve of the mighty ship's steel hull. Then, in the infotainment zone, I try on a stovepipe hat, as sported by Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself. I think I look distinctly dapper. Pat may have taken 15-odd years to become an adoptive daughter of Bristol, but I am to the manner born.