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15 February 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 12:19pm

Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey is powerfully endearing

This radio show has none of the tendentiousness, mysticism and arrogance of the “wandering about talking” form.

By Antonia Quirke

“James Joyce took his readers into the bathroom. I’m going to take you into the coach bathroom.” Will Self, on a bus somewhere approaching Preston, sits on a “dinky winky little commode” and submits to some “tricky business”, sounding at ease. Self on the bog. Why not?

In another episode of his powerfully endearing 10-part series of 15-minuters (now available on iPlayer), in which he tours the UK’s smaller towns and cities via omnibus (he’s an enthusiast), Self comments on the “fulsome” coach passenger announcement. “I was expecting a little addendum on Kant’s categorical imperative,” he nods, on the way to East Kilbride, watching the low sun out of the window. Mentioning Bede and Dr Johnson, Self wonders how long it would take to travel the nation’s micro-regions via donkey.

Radio is for Self, I think, the perfect form. Psychogeography. Dread term. It usually means waffle. It means: on my way, I’m going to meet the world’s most boring ramblers, and be pompous about access to what are termed “secret histories” or “county histories” when, actually, they’re just history. There is none of this with Self. None of the tendentiousness, mysticism and hard-to-define arrogance of the “wandering about talking” form.

Self wouldn’t sound woeful if he saw a supermarket where there was once a temple of Mithras. He doesn’t bang on about ley lines, or “echoes”. He rarely spots a slaughterhouse next to a sewage works. You don’t sit there listening, feeling weirdly full. His approach is generous. He wants to communicate – to get listeners.

In Preston, he speaks to mosque goers and you just catch the end of him saying relaxedly, “pitch in as you like” to his interlocutors. In another episode (Middlesbrough) he describes London as erroneously fancying itself to be “bo-la-ho” (freewheeling, responsive) – possibly a made-up term.

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Rare words emerge casually via Self, often as comedy. A friend recently heard him describe James Joyce as “diplopic” (having double vision). Nobody has used that word for 20 years. You never doubt that this is who Self is, and the effect is quite profound. Radio as a fast-working pill. 

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Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey
BBC Radio 4

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist