Nigel Farage stares despondently at a submerged quad bike. Photo: Getty
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J G Ballard’s Shepperton is under water – so turn on your mind, relax and float upstream

Will Self on the floods.

On the cover of the Daily Mail the other day, there was an aerial photograph of the Thameside town of Shepperton, its achingly dull semis and prosaic garage forecourts submerged in the muddy brown effluvium. The editor of the New Statesman emailed me: “Your pal Jim wouldn’t have been surprised.” This reference to the late J G Ballard, for many years Shepperton’s most notorious resident, got me thinking about the strange conceptual flotsam that the current deluges are dumping on the floodplain of our collective psyche.

Ballard’s fiction brought into sharp relief many of the jagged realities submerged beneath our comforting sense of homeliness. His world was at once relentlessly anthropic – a sodium-lit landscape of motorway fly­overs and concretised modernism – and subject to largely inexplicable environmental disasters. In his novels and stories, he drowned the world, parched it, crystallised it and blew it to pieces with a wind from nowhere. Neither the riverside residents of Wraysbury nor the seafront ones of Aberystwyth would find his oeuvre remotely escapist at the moment.

Ballard said of these odd juxtapositions between the banal and the extreme that they, in part, reflected the impact of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, which he had witnessed as a child. Growing up in the comfortable European concession, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, Ballard learned from the war that, “Reality as we mostly perceive it is a social construct”; the skull always lies beneath the skin, whether it’s the human capacity for evil or the weather’s for wanton destruction. You would have to have a very stony heart not to sympathise with the victims of the current flooding: encouraged by successive governments and by uncritical neoliberalism to place their faith and their savings in bricks and mortar, they now have to face the truth that a property bubble won’t keep them afloat.

Ballard found in the landscape around Shepperton strange echoes of the Shanghai of his childhood. In place of the flooded paddy fields, there were the vast reservoirs that rear up out of Staines Moor to the west of Heathrow Airport. If you walk from Shepperton to Heathrow – which I have done, partly in homage to Ballard – you pick your way between the grassy flanks of these leviathans, oddly conscious that like a unitary tribe of Israel you are in a man-made defile created in an artificial sea held in suspension above your head. Then, when your flight takes off, you see these acres of drinking-water-in-waiting glistening beneath you, with the Thames worming alongside, a natural flourish signed beneath the marks of man.

Our geography, for all that we valorise “areas of outstanding natural beauty”, is overwhelmingly a human construct: we understand places in terms of the economic imperatives associated with them. We drive to work, or to buy stuff, or to paid-for leisure activities – even our relationships are mediated by mileage costs and time constraints. And Britain, being the first industrialised nation and a smallish land mass to boot, bears the impress of the human foot more heavily than almost anywhere else. Even in the middle of Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands, you are surrounded by a wilderness that is the product of Iron Age clearance.

The British unconscious registers this, while our daily go-round is tightly circumscribed by concrete and clay brick; so is it any wonder that when Bide-a-Wee gets resolutely pissed on, its inhabitants look to Cameron, that anagrammatic Cnut, to stem the tide? The practice of psychogeography owes its origins to the French surrealists and after them was crystallised by the situationists; both these quasi-Marxist groupuscules looked to the dérive – or aimless drift – through the city as a means of freeing the individual from the physical constraints imposed on her by the nexus of late capitalism. I should imagine the last thing the washed-out householders of Surrey, Berkshire, Somerset, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire et al want to do is drift anywhere but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from going against the prevailing current. To undertake psychogeography is to experience place in a transcendent and unbounded way – to feel the reality of things peeling from the social construction of location, location, location.

In the months to come, I will be writing columns that recount my psychogeographic practice – which I took up in my forties when I began to find this anthropic home of ours almost suffocating in its claustrophobia. Put another way, I could no longer bear to look at the three plaster ducks flying on the wall – I wanted to experience animated ones, paddling in a real brook. But this is not about nature worship – it is about resiling from the dominant consumerist culture that makes a place just a fungible commodity to be traded in the global market: you’ve done Prague, why not have a bit of Bratislava?

No doubt in a few weeks Shepperton will be high and dry once more but perhaps its residents’ biblical experience will lead them to seek out the sort of gnosis the one-time inhabitant of 36 Old Charlton Road excelled in producing. The art of living to the full consists not in securing a place for your home in this ever-inconstant and turbulent world, but in being at home in it even when the apocalyptic horsemen are stabled next door.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.