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29 January 2015

Post-traumatic spatial disorder: you see it, looking at old volcanoes. In Paris, I’m not so sure…

Memories of place and disaster telescope, but Will Self finds Paris much as it ever is.

By Will Self

I remember arriving by boat, the steep cliffs glowing in the setting sun. I remember climbing laboriously up the cliff face, and then ranging along the clifftop itself, searching for an abandoned house we could sleep in. We didn’t have to look far; there were scores of them. I remember spreading out my sleeping bag on a whitewashed floor, then awaking at dawn with the scent of thyme and salt in my nostrils. I got up and walked out on to a terrace from where I could see the violet-purple bowl of the volcanic caldera; it was extraordinary to imagine that a mere 3,600 years ago a great mound of earth and rock would have risen out of this airy gulf. Some believed the island had been the model for Atlantis, and that its explosive destruction had sealed it for ever in the mythic.

As the sun rose higher I wandered among the wrecked houses. The Santorini archipelago remained subject to earthquakes, and there had been a devastating eruption only 20 years earlier. Peering into the dark sockets of unglazed windows, I wondered whether it was possible for a place to register the traumas that had been visited upon it – whether, if you like, the genius loci can go loco.

That was in 1977, when as a 16-year-old I island-hopped across the Cyclades, but as I stepped off the Eurostar last Wednesday morning the question returned to me: would it be possible to apprehend the impact specifically of violently aroused human emotion on a physical location, even if those human beings were absent? Certainly St Pancras Station had been quieter than usual and the train emptier of passengers, despite a complement of armed French policiers. A computer-nerdy-looking man who sat on the other side of the aisle, tapping, toggling and eating polythene sandwiches, gently fulminated about the Prime Minister’s announcement that, should he be re-elected, he would introduce a bill to ban computer encryption. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Without encryption, internet banking becomes impossible.”

Beside me a beautifully dressed and groomed man with the anthracite hair and olive skin of the Middle East was reading, in French, a book on the Algerian Sufi Abd el-Kader. Encryption or mysticism? Two numinous sides of the same phenomenal coin, I thought. So I discussed Sufism with my companion and we discovered we’d both been to Konya to attend the festival at which the storied dervishes whirl – and because there’d been a minor earthquake in Central Anatolia while I was there, this returned me to the question of PTSD (post-traumatic spatial disorder).

Surely, when it came to ambience one had to draw a distinction between man-made atrocities and natural disasters? I recalled the silent towers of Pripyat, the Ukrainian city of 50,000 people that was evacuated in a matter of hours after the meltdown of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and which I visited a quarter-century later. Entering the warped remains of a two-storey school that had been invaded by ruderals, I came upon a weird shrine: a child’s pedal car, a rag doll at the wheel, on to which had been stuck Lenin’s face, torn from some propagandising poster.

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Had the ambience of Pripyat been any different, I wondered, from that of San Francisco, which in the early 1990s still bore the stigmata of its recent crucifixion on the San Andreas Fault: clapboard houses slumped on the steep sides of Nob Hill; freeway overpasses twisted into Möbius strips going nowhere; the downtown chock-full of the homeless, shuffling along behind their shopping trolleys.

Was it the human presence that had made the latter seem so much worse, their dark mood adumbrating the darkened city streets? Certainly, Manhattan a month after the 11 September 2001 attacks was a surpassing gloomy place, what with the tattered flyers showing the faces of the missing still fluttering on the walls of Grand Central Station. I remember coming upon a gathering of Buddhists in Times Square performing the ceremony to mark the end of the bardo, the intermediate state between a victim’s death and their reincarnation, and wondering at how, while they might be about to experience rebirth, the city itself remained in a terrible limbo.

On the evening of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, I walked with my wife in to the West End to see a performance of Hedda Gabler at the Duke of York’s Theatre on St Martin’s Lane. We walked against the heavy flow of detrained commuters tramping home from the city to the ’burbs: a strange spectacle, as if at one fell blow the entire metropolis had travelled 150 years back in time. The auditorium was less than a third full. In the interval we stood on the balcony of the crush bar and watched a blood-red sun setting over a voided Trafalgar Square; then, with Hedda’s suicidal pistol shot still ringing in our ears, we made our way home, each of us making his own strange connections between the
madness of individuals and the unfolding nightmare of history.

In Paris, all three million copies of the memorial issue of Charlie Hebdo had already been snapped up; outside the Gare du Nord, taxis were jockeying for position; and as I walked towards the river I could hear all about me the deep susurrus of commerce. Massacre or not – it was business as usual.

Next week: Real Meals