Will Self's London

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Will Self‘s magnificent new novel, ’The Book of Dave‘, enters the troubled mind of a London cabbie. Time Out joins the author on a journey through the capital – taking in razed rookeries, bonkers Bloomsbury, Euston‘s ’bad feng shui‘ and a cab that doesn‘t turn up.

  • It was such a simple idea, too… marking the publication of Will Self’s new novel ‘The Book of Dave’ – the tragicomic tale of a London cabbie whose delusional rantings inspire a religion – by getting Self to take us, in a black cab, on a route of his choosing. Self suggests we travel from his house in Stockwell to Euston. A car is duly booked from (name and shame!) Computer Cabs. But despite regular telephonic prodding, it never turns up.

    Twenty minutes standing in the middle of South Lambeth Road with our arms outstretched yields little save cramp. So we bundle into Phil the photographer’s car and rely on Self for The Knowledge, which, it turns out, he has in spades: ‘Okay, this is what we’ll do: hit Clapham Road, down to the Oval, take a left down Kennington Lane, round the back of Waterloo, over Waterloo Bridge, straight up Kingsway, across Russell Square and then up to Euston… ’

    Were Self’s fictional Dave Rudman here with us, he’d be as impressed as Phil and I. But Self shrugs off our praise. ‘The Knowledge takes two or three years to learn. It’s not something you can just pick up. I’m an obsessive Londoner, and my problems with cabs are that I think I know the city. And of course I don’t really, no more than anyone else.’

    London traffic has been a feature of Self’s fiction since the story ‘Waiting’ in his first book, 1991’s ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’, in which couriers mystically intuit routes across the capital. ‘I’ve been thinking about traffic jams in London for 15 fucking years,’ he observes. ‘I’ve got to the point where I can’t drive in London, I find it so stressful.’

    9.45am: Oval

    [Turning out of Albert Square and on to Clapham Road] ‘Whatserface from “Ab Fab” lives here. Not Jennifer Saunders, the other one. Joanna Lumley. And over there is the Freemans catalogue building – crucial for knickerwear. We’re in Oval now, where that guy was burnt out of his shop the other day, so we’re on a negative ley line. This bit of south London is the heartland of Operation Trident, black-on-black gun crime, police-on-Brazilian-electrician gun crime… Then suddenly there’s a new power line because you’ve got the Gherkin dead ahead, and you’re immediately into this City tangent.

    ‘One of my continual beefs with cabbies – and you slightly get this in the book – is that if I pick a cab up in Euston or Waterloo or anywhere on that tangent, invariably they’ll take the river route back to Stockwell and do this great oxbow. But cabbies don’t make more money by going slowly – that’s a myth. So why do they do it? I’ve talked it through with mates who are cabbies, and they say that when you’ve been doing the job for a while, you just get stuck in arterial routes. Too many cabbies – and other people for that matter – think of the river as a straight line. But of course it isn’t: this is the bulge of south London that is actually north London. If the river was a straight line, it would be running up Clapham Road.’

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