London: ‘Psycho Too’ begins with a mini-epic journey from the home of writer JG Ballard in England to a sinking archipelago of sand called ‘The World’ off the coast of Dubai.
The link between Ballard`s impending death from prostate cancer and the trip to "a collection of artificial islands scooped out of the Arabian Sea, and bulldozed into an approximation of the world`s landmasses," isn`t entirely clear, but Self enjoys a good hike and spins a good yarn along the way.
In recent years, Self has apparently replaced a notorious drug habit with an addiction to walking long distances — a healthier alternative, but not without its limitations.
After all, England is an island and Self presumably has other things to do with his time — like writing novels and his Psychogeography column for The Independent newspaper — of which this book is largely a collection.
So Self tends to walk only about as far as the nearest airport, port or train station, then continues walking upon arrival to his hotel and points beyond.
The reason for this has to do with "Psychogeography" — also the title of an earlier book of collected essays — which has something to do with the way the mind intersects with the physical world, the interplay between man and his surroundings and such.
If nothing else, Self`s method tells the reader a lot about where transport hubs are located in relation to large cities.
In Dubai, it provides for a lot of riffing on the likes of T.E. Lawrence and a host of earlier desert explorers, but mostly shows the difficulty of finding a good walking map in a city with few natural landmarks, designed almost exclusively for car travel.
The punishing sun and lack of directions cause Self to question the very nature of his endeavor, and while he does end up taking a taxi back to the airport, his perseverance is impressive.
His eventual arrival at the dwindling archipelago is especially timely considering Dubai World`s recent brush with multibillion dollar debt default and the more recent inauguration of the Burj Dubai — the world`s tallest building.
He wraps up the story with some comparisons to J.G. Ballard`s writings, but by then, one suspects Self is less interested in his destination than the journey itself.
The rest of the book is made up of 50 collected newspaper columns and they suffer from being considerably shorter than the opening essay`s 60 odd pages.
Self`s finely wrought literary style is better suited for the long haul, and confined to a couple of pages, he often appears to be just getting started when he has to finish.
Not all of the columns involve walking, but the best ones do. An especially good one involves a hike along a fast eroding stretch of England`s coastline, complete with insouciant Englishmen sipping tea in the face of collapsing cliffs.
‘Psycho Too’ is illustrated by Ralph Steadman, best known for working with the late "new journalism" pioneer Hunter S. Thompson.
The pairing of Steadman with Self inevitably draws comparisons with the earlier duo and in this way ‘Psycho Too’ may be seen as a post-rehab take on the "new journalism" — one that begins with 12 steps and just keeps going.
First Published: Thursday, January 07, 2010, 14:23