Will Self: PsychoGeography #94

The pornography of escape
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The Independent Online

Don't worry - you don't need to be Tom Lubbock to figure this one out. Obviously the flushing carcass symbolises the notion that life is a circular process that cannot be adequately encompassed by the objectification and reification of traditional Western thought; which means that the innards in the pan must be the world we have created - while the miserable shitter is Mother Earth herself, making void of her toxic waste products.

True, I don't normally see Ralph belonging among the Symbolists, but in the absence of any scrawled slogans or ink-spattered rants I think this interpretation becomes inescapable - and what a rich view it is! As Ralph etches the whole past, present and future of humankind between the pissy tiles of public convenience, this graphic is a map and the territory too. It is 1:1 - entirely in scale. Looking at it I cannot help recall the American comedian Stephen Wright's gag: "I've got a map of the USA actual size. This year, instead of going on vacation, I folded it."

I came to consciousness with maps and bowel movements inextricably linked in my mind. My father used to read maps when at stool, and since we were the kind of bohos who never had a lock on the door, I would often burst in to find him there, an old bull, squatting over his own dung, while he traced the migrations of some imaginary herd. I couldn't at that time see what possible solace he could gain from this fantasy walking - now I understand it only too well. When he projected himself .000005 size into this papery realm, he was no longer a middle-aged academic confined to a crapper in north London; instead he bestrid hill and dale with the wind in his remaining hair.

Perhaps for this reason I've never felt disposed to collect maps myself, perceiving cartography as I do as the true pornography of escapism, filthy pictures to be hidden behind the U-bend. I say a map must be functional, a plan - pure and simple, look at it for too long and you begin to imagine all sorts of awful possibilities: Zephyrs crouching beyond the four corners, Mercator stretching landmasses like silly putty, anthropophagi burying their head in the fizzing sands of Tierra del Fuego, unicorns prancing about Ultima Thule. No, no - we can't be doing with that.

I do understand the seductiveness of the map that is the territory. One of my favourite short stories is Peter Carey's "The Cartographers". In this tale of the un-cathected, mapmakers are constantly engaged in surveying the hinterland of a vast continent, much as the Forth Rail Bridge is continuously repainted, for if they neglect anywhere too long, it disappears. So preoccupied are the cartographers with the outer limits, that they neglect those regions closer to home that people take for granted. Returning to the city, the cartographer who narrates the story finds that prominent buildings are evaporating. Then, during a row with his self-piteous father, he sees the antimacassar starting to show through the old man's head.

My dad ended up in Australia - where Carey hails from - still sitting on the toilet reading maps. I, on the other hand, am stuck here in London with a full-size map of the city the only thing I look at while I write. On the other three walls there are: a map of the island of Foula in Shetland, an OS Landplan map of Hampstead (purely for research purposes, it's massive scale 1:5000 means that I can see individual suburbanites committing adultery), and a map of the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary. But it's the London street plan on the window blind which torments me. Surely this is the epitome of the cloistered life I'm forced to leave? Looking at a representation of the thing I struggle every day to render in words?

There's worse - far worse, because ever since Ralph's filthy little picture came winging its way through electronic space I have been tormented by the close resemblance that the River Thames has, as it snakes its way out of town, to the U-bend of a humungous toilet. Thanks Ralph - for nothing.