Will Self began his journey at Kennedy Airport, then he headed to the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel, a trek which required walking on the expressways at night.
Mr. Self has been clean for eight years or so, and some of the energy he used to expend on carousing now goes into epic hikes, sometimes as long as 100 miles — from London, say, into the Lea Valley and through the Epping Forest to north Essex.
A Literary Visitor Strolls in From the Airport
Will Self’s new novel, “The Book of Dave” (Bloomsbury USA), is about a London cabdriver who inadvertently founds a religion when a ranting diatribe he buries in the garden of his ex-wife is dug up five centuries later, in a now post-apocalyptic world, and becomes a sacred text. Mr. Self’s own text is immensely learned in cabbie lore and even creates a cab-based “Clockwork Orange”-like language, in which the sun is the “foglamp,” for example, and the moon an “édlite.”
When Mr. Self recently traveled to New York, however, he did not take a taxi from his house in South London to Heathrow. He walked the whole 26 miles. Upon arriving in New York, he walked from Kennedy Airport to the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel — a journey more perilous than he expected, because it involved a nighttime traverse of expressways with no curbs.
The next morning Mr. Self, who is unusually tall and very thin and has a long, melancholy face that he once described as looking “like a bag full of genitals,” packed his knapsack, rolled a cigarette and, puffing from a Hunter Thompson-style cigarette holder, set off on foot for Manhattan.
Smoking is Mr. Self’s only remaining vice. He used to be a prodigious drinker and drug-taker, famous for late-night altercations, not always coherent public appearances and marathon hours at trendy spots like the Groucho Club. During Britain’s general election of 1997, he set a new standard for journalistic infamy by getting himself bounced off John Major’s campaign plane for snorting heroin in the bathroom.
But Mr. Self has been clean for eight years or so, and some of the energy he used to expend on carousing now goes into epic hikes, sometimes as long as 100 miles — from London, say, into the Lea Valley and through the Epping Forest to north Essex.
“Alcohol and drugs tend to keep you from taking walks,” he said while in New York. “Or at least walks of the right kind,” and he added that walking made him feel better than drugs ever had. “But I’m not addicted,” he said. “I don’t need to score a walk.”
By Mr. Self’s usual standards, the walk from Kennedy to Manhattan, about 20 miles, is a mere stroll. What recommended it was that it would take him through parts of the city that most people never notice while driving in a car: an experience that Mr. Self, a student of psycho-geography, believes has imposed a “windscreen-based virtuality” on travel, cutting us off from experiencing our own topography.
“People don’t know where they are anymore, “ he said, adding: “In the post-industrial age, this is the only form of real exploration left. Anyone can go and see the Ituri pygmy, but how many people have walked all the way from the airport to the city?”
Mr. Self’s route, which had been suggested by his friend the American novelist Rick Moody, first took him along Conduit Avenue, under the Van Wyck Expressway and through the middle-class neighborhood of South Ozone Park, where at the corner of 127th Street he paused to admire a particularly elaborate Christmas display.
“It’s a work of beauty and a joy to behold,” he told the homeowner. The morning was foggy and unseasonably warm, and a few blocks later, near the entrance to Aqueduct Race Track, he shed his jacket and announced: “We’ll, we’re only a fraction of the way there, but in terms of my longer walk, starting in London, I’m already halfway, and I can say that I am ludicrously happy. I am in a state of almost absurd satori.”
A little farther along, when Conduit Avenue ran temporarily out of sidewalk, he paused to consult with a passerby, who at first seemed to be insisting that the only way to Manhattan was to join the traffic whizzing past. “It wasn’t that he didn’t know where we are,” Mr. Self said. “It’s that he couldn’t conceptually grasp the idea of walking to New York. I love that.”
Not long after negotiating the Cross Bay Parkway overpass, Mr. Self decided to go “off piste,” as he put it, borrowing the term used to describe groomed ski runs. He ignored Mr. Moody’s instructions and headed straight west on Glenmore Avenue, through East New York and Brownsville. Glenmore at this point slices through a long, grim stretch of low-rise apartments, pocket-size auto-body shops, razor-wired vacant lots harboring high-strung dogs, and a surprising number of churches, including one, Glenmore Avenue Presbyterian, that featured a Sunday-morning “Apocalipsis” service.
“What could be more suitable?” said Mr. Self, who had just been discussing the apocalyptic theme in his own novel and those of H. G. Wells.
There were not many pedestrians out at 11:30 in the morning, and dressed all in black and snapping pictures with a digital camera, Mr. Self was a sight sufficiently exotic that he was tailed for a while by a black S.U.V. He seemed relieved when he encountered, next to the bridge over the Long Island Rail Road, a busy, noisy junkyard where metal was being squashed.
“The city is flowing out to embrace us,” he said.
Through the housing project at the end of Glenmore, a little zigzag and on to Eastern Parkway, where Mr. Self, looking back for a second, said: “There is a deep sadness to American poverty, greater than the sadness of any other kind. It’s because America has such an ideology of success.”
But then he brightened and said: “Perhaps we’ll feel better when we get to the Brooklyn Bridge. We’ll hear the skirl of the Gershwin clarinets, and we’ll believe in the dream of possibility once again.”
Proceeding along Eastern Parkway, Mr. Self studied the streetscape carefully, eager to discern the exact point when it turned from a black and Hispanic neighborhood to an Orthodox Jewish one, and was delighted when he spotted a guy in a yarmulke talking to two coffee-colored men.
“There!” he said. “There’s the interface!” A little later, after pausing briefly near the Utica Avenue intersection to inspect, in vain, a curbside book table for Will Self titles, he caught a whiff of subway. “Ah,” he said. “The afflatus of the city’s bowels — now we’re getting into the real body of the city.”
But he was disappointed that on this route the city offered no dramatic prospect of itself, not even when he detoured up Mount Prospect in Prospect Park. “It really should be called Ex-Prospect Park,” he grumbled.
Mr. Self stopped for lunch at the Burrito Bar on Flatbush Avenue before pressing onward and over the Brooklyn Bridge, looking with satisfaction at what he pronounced “the greatest man-made vista there has ever been.” He pointed with pleasure to McKim, Mead & White’s Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street on the Manhattan side of the river, and said, “Look, it has these classical bottom stories and then a Belle Époque treatment at the top, and in between it’s just bland and uninteresting. It’s like a stretch limousine.”
He added, “Actually, instead of looking at individual buildings, it makes more metaphorical sense to think of New York as one enormous chunk of masonry that has been cut up and carved away. It says, ‘This is the ultimate polis, through which humans move like nematodes.’ ”
On that note, still striding briskly, he walked down into Manhattan and across Little Italy to his hotel, where he freshened up a bit before walking to the National Arts Club that evening for a reception announcing the inauguration of a writers’ retreat on the Scottish island of Jura. Mr. Self is to be the first writer in residence there, and having written in his novel “Cock and Bull” about a man who develops a vagina and a woman who sprouts a penis, plans to work on a new project about unruly growth: a short story called “Haydn’s Nasal Polyp.”
He was grateful for the honor, he said, though he didn’t quite see the point of financing writers to isolate themselves.
“In literary terms, it’s sort of like having a tummy tuck,” he said. “You’re imposing an outside discipline on something that happens quite naturally. It’s all I can do to keep myself from being isolated all the time.”