Will Self Loathing: Urbanité, the Crowd and the Bigotry of the ‘New Normal’

I never thought it would be so easy to take people’s freedoms away, and so hard to persuade them to take them back

Attributed to Boris Johnson. BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 20th May 2020

A self-contained but all seeing city-dweller, the flâneur has been variously seen as an icon of modernity, master of the empowered male gaze, and embodiment of anguished urbanité in retreat from the inhospitable environment of the city and its threatening crowds

Richard Wrigley, (2014) The Flâneur Abroad: Historical and International Perspectives (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

Implemented as an extreme measure for an extreme crisis, lockdown has worryingly morphed in to a ‘new normal’ and has given rise to a new urban presence – the anti- flâneur, or flâneur in reverse. The art of flânerie, derives from negotiating the tension between the desired detached anonymity of the strolling voyeur, whilst simultaneously being immersed in the stimuli of the city and its crowds. As Wrigley suggests, in order to perform the part of ‘anguished urbanité’ in retreat, one must first have the threatening crowds from which one is meant to retreat from. This post- flâneur flâneur, derives pleasure, not from their aesthetic distance from the crowd, whilst also being a physical part of it, but from the veritable absence of the crowd all together. This is urbanité contented. No longer at odds with the hostility of the city scape, the empty urban landscape of the unfree city is where this new anti-urban aesthete feels most at home.

Writing in the New European the British novelist, Will Self reflects upon how “the pandemic has returned us to the correct order of things”. 

Coronavirus provides the latest comfort blanket within which city dwelling anti-urbanites, can wrap themselves in, and continue to propagate their Malthusian misanthropy

An account of a walk taken with his partner through North London’s Alexander Park, the article recounts Self’s sense of satisfaction in the absolute emptiness of the lockdown city scape. Despite its hardship’s lockdown is something Self thinks should be celebrated. Whilst millions of Britons endure the very real pain of not being able to see, or indeed touch, family, loved ones and friends, Self rejoices in the physical absence of other human beings. The restrictions imposed upon the city’s inhabitants has he suggests “ brought London’s history back to life”:

“…the notoriously polluted London air has grown clearer and cleaner; and towards the small hours, the streets are almost completely empty. A couple of nights ago, I heard a nightingale sing in Kennington Lane. I myself haven’t been in a car or on the Tube for a month now – instead walking everywhere. Each night, I head out with my partner, and we quarter and re-quarter the unfashionable regions for an hour or so…”

Lockdown London is the antithesis of the London Self constructs in the novel The Book of Dave.  Published in 2006, The Book of Dave tells the story of Dave, a London taxi driver. Dave is angry, mentally ill, and recently separated from his wife, Michelle, who he thinks is keeping him from seeing his son. Notwithstanding Dave is also a self-proclaimed racist with a particular dislike for blacks, Jews and Arabs. Following a disastrous hair transplant, where hair from his groin is implanted on to his head, Dave suffers the indignity of having a head full of pubic hair.  Such is Dave’s estrangement from the world he sets out to write a book – the eponymous ‘Book of Dave’ of the novels title. Dave buries the book. However, following a catastrophic flood some centuries later, the book is rediscovered and becomes the founding text for a violent and misogynistic cult. 

Throughout the novel much of the dialogue is written in Mokni, an inarticulate white patois – a mash up of cockney, text shorthand, and taxi driver slang. The New York Times thought the novel meaningless shit (what they actually said was that the reader is “ultimately left with a pair of grotesque worlds, facing each other like two mirrors, but reflecting nothing” – but that’s what they meant). Others, including Self, consider the novel a parody of religious fanaticism and a warning against the dogmatic blindness of belief. However, like much of his work, The Book of Dave – more neo-feudal than postmodern – reeks of the author’s aristocratic contempt of the world that exists outside his gated imagination. 

Coronavirus provides the latest comfort blanket within which city dwelling anti-urbanites, can wrap themselves in, and continue to propagate their Malthusian misanthropy. Immunity from the herd, has always been the desired ‘new normal’ for this modern-day elite, for whom Covid -19 and its attendant threats serve as a form of spatial cleansing. Dave the taxi driver, and all the other ‘racists and anti-Semites’, that Self thinks populate the public realm, are well and truly shut up, by being shut in.

In the The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustav Le Bon argues that the crowd – by which he means the democratic masses – are incapable of rational moral reasoning. Instead, he argues, they are driven by a primitive, brutalist instinct.

“In crowds”, Le Bon observes, “the foolish, ignorant, and envious persons are freed from the sense of their insignificance and powerlessness and are possessed instead by the notion of brutal and temporary but immense sense.” (The Crowd, 2002 page 22). 

The empty urban landscape of the unfree city is where this new anti-urban aesthete feels most at home

However, against the crowd stands the “isolated individual” – virtuous, enlightened and civilised. All one need do is substitute the isolated individual of Le Bon’s text with the ‘self-isolating individual’ of Self’s lockdown utopia and we have the exact description of the dominant prejudice of our age.

First published in English in 1895, the dust jacket blurb on my edition claims Le Bon’s text had a profound impact on both Hitler and Mussolini. The Guardian quite liked The Book of Dave

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