Will Self: PsychoGeography #97

The London bombings
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The Independent Online

The inane wife of the festival's vice-chairman moved with great alacrity to establish her credentials. I'd just arrived from a dun hotel in the northern provincial town, for this modest gathering of bourgeois culturati. I'd been watching the television news. The reporter was standing on top of the parade of shops diagonally opposite to the Tube station near my London home. He was reporting on the accidental shooting, by armed police, of a young Brazilian. Earlier I'd spoken to my own wife - and she was understandably agitated.

"Oh!" the dizzy spouse exclaimed, when I explained the situation, "I know just how you feel - we used to own a house near Edgware Road tube station." I boggled at the way her sympathy could annihilate time, distance and possibility quite so radically. I considered pointing out to her the distinction between the actual and the hypothetical which underscores every waking moment of every organic life form, then thought better of it. If she hadn't grasped this by now, she'd probably go to her grave convinced that everything was about her.

A couple of days later I passed by the Tube and saw the police handing out flyers to the hurrying commuters, asking for witnesses to their own mortal cock-up to come forward. It was a comforting sight - more comforting than the bunches of withering flowers, with their hand-scrawled cards, which formed a shrine to the young Brazilian electrician. On the one hand we had - we hoped - the due process of an independent inquiry, on the other modern, magical thought, the obeah of the inner city.

Still, it was difficult not to fall pray to magical thinking in London during July. On the seventh the suicide bombers struck in four locations: Edgware Road, Russell Square, Tavistock Place and Aldgate East. They were frustrated in their attempt to inscribe a nihilistic cross on the map of London, only because of disruptions on the very tube system they were targeting. They succeeded in taking many lives - and wrecking many more. Two weeks later another team had a crack at Shepherd's Bush, the Oval, Hackney and Warren Street. This time, mercifully, their own material let them down.

For any Londoner, the giant Xs being painted on the urban canvas with blood suggested the unsettling proximity of the angel of death. The locations of these outrages - actual and potential - intersected with our own narratives: we had lived, worked, loved and travelled where they took place. You didn't need to be superstitious to feel that it was coming closer.

No, on reflection it occurred to me that the vice-chairman's wife wasn't so inane after all. The terrorists were engaged in a murderous act of psychogeography - arguably, they were the maddest town planners around. They had succeeded in entirely fusing the physical layout of the city to its human content, while at the same time annihilating time, distance and possibility. Organised terror makes everyone a psychic victim - it's all about me. Their ideological motivation may have been radically different from that of Guy Debord and the original psychogeographers, yet like the Situationists these particular interpreters of Islam regarded the modern city as a contrived spectacle and sought ways in which expose it as such. The detonator was their dérive.

So long as the deaths occur in the police recruiting line-ups of Baghdad, or the markets of Jerusalem, or even the office blocks of Manhattan, they can remain on a par with any mediatized representation - fictional or factual, same difference. But when the TV reporter is standing on top of the local dry cleaners, and you can look simultaneously at image and representation, it is no longer possible - in Baudrillard's classic formulation - to assert that the Gulf War never actually happened.

During the IRA's bombing campaign in the 1970s, they attacked a television shop 200 yards from my school. A television shop! Surely not a credible target. The Republicans, of course, were materialist secessionists; they had no notion of an ulterior world beyond that of mere appearances, whether it be a virgin-infested heaven or a united Ireland. Nor was blowing up a television an ironic statement - although, as ironic statements go, it is quite a good one.

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