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On a visit to a Californian ghost town, I understand why the crowd abhors reason

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Sometimes the crowd is the madness – at others it’s the absence of the crowd that is. Standing with the father of my youngest son’s schoolfriend we survey the prospect: a large triangle of close-cropped grass is bald-faced-on-to on two sides by semis of 1960s vintage – the contracting metal of cooling engine blocks ticks in the cool summer evening. There is a sense of spaciousness – exposure, even – at odds with the conurbation that we both know surrounds us.

Nasty nick

“We’ve been here for over ten years,” the father figure says, adopting a hands-in-pockets stance, “and y’know what.”

“What.” I counter his rhetorical question with one of my own.

“During that entire time we’ve never so much as locked the front door once – not once. Hell, I even leave the key in the ignition of my car. And y’know what.”

“What.” If it weren’t that he was making an apposite observation this reflexivity would be intolerable.

“None of the neighbours has ever had a break-in either – and y’know why.”

“Why.” In point of fact, I know why.

“’Cause of the nick, of course,” he gestures to the hypotenuse of the triangle, which is formed by a 25-foot-high wall of ageing London stock brick; beyond this can be seen the peaked roofs, the mucal rendering, the barred lancet windows of HMP Wandsworth. We are both silent for a while – I’ve no idea what the paterfamilias is thinking about but I’m meditating on the crowd of felons in the nick: each one probably at this time banged up for the night in his cell. A particulate crowd – a crowd of isolates, each of one is not regarded and therefore becomes undifferentiated, faceless and to be ignored.

One might’ve thought that even to the averagely sussed, cracked-up, aggravated burglar, the juju that surrounds the prison – where, no doubt, he has spent time himself – would be countered by the following reasoning: “No one probably dares go near the gaffs in back of the nick – those straight-goers probably leave their doors unlocked. All I’ll have to do is stroll round and carry off some rich fucking pickings.” But as friend’s father’s testimony confirmed, if there’s one thing the crowd abhors, it’s reason.

Cut to Bodie, a ghost town in the middle east of California, on the Nevada border. Bodie once had upwards of 40,000 inhabitants, daily newspapers, taverns, hotels, schools and so forth. At the height of the Gold Rush it was the second biggest city in California after San Francisco. When the seams became unprofitable, the crowd ebbed away until at the time of the vast fire in the early 1930s that destroyed 90 per cent of the buildings there were only a handful of people left. Now the only residents are temporary ones; tourists who drive the ten miles of winding – and latterly dirt – road from Highway 395, pay their $20 and then mosey about the revenant of the town’s grid pattern, stopping to admire the echt weathering of the church, the general store and some barns, houses and assorted lean-tos. Up on the hillside is the flaking bulk of the Standard Stamp Mill, where the ore was crushed and refined – but this is, quite reasonably, classed as a dangerous structure and can only be visited in an organised crowd (called “a tour group”).

Standing in the cinematic rain, the sky umber overhead, I find myself curiously heartened by the way the State of California has resisted the impulse to gussy Bodie up. True, there has been some artful rearrangement, some gathering together of curios into implausibly exact arrays but on the whole Bodie has been left alone. The crowd respond to this arty desuetude by moving about the ruined buildings gently and quietly – or is it perhaps that only those who already feel themselves on the way to being revenants choose to visit ghost towns? Although there was some enthusiasm in the family for visiting Alcatraz, this proved impossible because the tour groups had to be booked long in advance, such is its popularity.

Just deserts

In Bodie, where absences touched one another lightly on the edge of the great expanse of America Deserta, I wondered at the strangeness of it all: to superstitiously avoid one jail but wildly flock to another is surely definitive proof – if any were needed – that there’s nowt so queer as folk. One of the reasons they need to corral visitors to Alcatraz is that the temptation to pilfer the few remaining relics is so great. I wish I’d had my son’s friend’s father along with me, so I could ask him what he thought of this paradox – but only rhetorically, of course.

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 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?