Will Self at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
- Brian Donaldson
- 15 July 2010
This article is from 2010
Having forged a reputation for consuming acres of narcotics and swallowing many dictionaries whole, Will Self owns a career that flits between high art and panel shows. Brian Donaldson takes a trip through the alphabet of this former wild boy of British letters
A is for Alice in Wonderland
A voracious reader as a child, Will Self skipped between adult and kids’ fiction, including reading all 650 pages of Frank Herbert’s Dune at the age of ten. But the book that had the biggest impact on the mind of the young Self was Lewis Carroll’s classic. The book remains ‘embedded on my cerebellum’ and when asked to scribble an intro to an edition of the book in 2000, he wrote, ‘All the hallmarks of the way my fictional sensibility developed are in there: obsessions with scale, sacrificing the sensible in favour of the intelligible or vice versa, preoccupations with transmogrification and with different levels of reality.’
B is for Bollinger
In 2008, The Butt received the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction at the Hay Festival. The feverishly high tension that would normally precede the announcement of such a prestigious award was somewhat punctured by the fact that his entry in the programme described him as the ‘winner of the 2008 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.’ Whoops. While perfectly chuffed at receiving this gong, he drily commented upon the ‘gales of laughter’ that had failed to accompany a reading from his winning book.
C is for Children
He has four kids from two marriages. With current wife, the Motherwell-born journalist Deborah Orr, he is the dad of Ivan and Luther, while Alexis and Madeleine hail from his first marriage to Kate Chancellor, the sister of Anna aka Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
D is for Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo
Self penned this short story as part of Penguin’s 70th birthday celebrations back in 1995. It concerns a London psychiatrist who chronicles the breakdown of his marriage while detailing the problems he’s experiencing with his motor.
E is for Exeter College
Philosophy, Politics and Economics were his specialist subjects at this, the fourth oldest college at Oxford. Among his esteemed fellow alumni are Martin Amis, Alan Bennett, Richard Burton, Russell Harty and Philip Pullman.
F is for Feeding Frenzy
This collection featured Self’s restaurant reviews for The Observer in the mid-90s. Deliciously caustic, they had audiences chortling into their soup and restaurateurs blowing a gasket. One of them was so upset that a plan was hatched to spread a vile rumour that Self had attempted to buy drugs from a doorman of an eaterie.
G is for George Osborne Crack Whore Tax Nude Bear Outrage Psychiatrist
This was the title of a recent blog on Self’s website. The piece was about the time he took a walk down into London’s sewers.
H is for Heroin
Arguably his lowest moment came when he tried to get high on Prime Minister John Major’s jet during the 1997 general election campaign. Sacked by The Observer, he found the whole brouhaha a tad hypocritical: ‘I’m a hack who gets hired because I do drugs.’
I is for Introductions
Self is a popular penner of intros and forewords to republished books such as Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine.
J is for Jonathan Self
His brother began his career as an ad copywriter but got into books with his 2001 memoir, Self Abuse, which told of a difficult childhood at the hands of his hot-headed mum and distant dad, and recalls one incident when Jonathan went for Will with a bread knife.
K is for Karl Pilkington
Ricky Gervais’ hapless sidekick made a Comedy Lab film for Channel 4 in 2007 entitled ‘Satisfied Fool’ in which he contacted ‘intelligent people’ to discover whether having big brains made a person happier. Pilkington first approached Self via email challenging him to a game of Scrabble. When they finally came face to face, Self quickly reached boiling point and threw the dome-headed loon out of his house with these words: ‘It’s been almost nice to meet you. I don’t know whether to kick you down the street or softly bathe you in bubbles.’
L is for Liver
Self’s mother, father and father-in-law all died of liver cancer. In 2008 he published a collection of stories called Liver, subtitled ‘A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes’. The eponymous tale featured a terminally ill cancer sufferer who goes to Zurich to take advantage of the local facilities for assisted suicide. But soon enough, things turn decidedly odd.
M is for Martin Amis
A staunch supporter of Amis, Self once declared that although he is a foot taller, he always feels dwarfed when Amis enters a room. Recently, they attended a literary festival in Paris together, swapping compliments left, right and centre. Self insisted Amis was the most important writer in English since the 1960s while Amis reckoned Self was the result of a romantic union between Jorge Luis Borges and JG Ballard.
N is for New Lanark
When Self heads up to meet his Motherwell in-laws, he stays in the New Lanark Mill Hotel, housed on the site of Robert Owen’s pioneering social reforms of the early 19th century.
O is for Orwell
Self followed in the footsteps of Eric Blair by heading off to Jura to become a writer-in-residence for a few weeks in 2007. Orwell had holed himself up on the island in 1948 to complete 1984. In anticipation of his trip, Self stated: ‘To say that I find the prospect exciting, or that I believe the island will prove inspiring, would be the sort of gross, tight-lipped understatement that only an Englishman would dream of making.’
P is for Post-it notes
His study is absolutely covered in the things. Self’s books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-its which go up on the walls of his office room. They contain short-story ideas, metaphors, gags and characters, and when he’s done with them, they come down off the wall and into scrapbooks.
Q is for Quantity Theory of Insanity
His literary debut was this short story collection, published in 1991, four years after he finished the book. His advance was £1700, a figure which his agent strongly advised him to accept as ‘no one wants short stories’. He still enjoys reminding publishers who turned it down that ‘it remains in print and is still selling nicely’.
R is for Reality art
In 2002 he took part in a ‘reality art’ project in a one-bedroom flat on the 20th floor of a tower block in Liverpool, writing a short piece of fiction while being watched by members of the public. The event was sponsored by Liverpool Housing Action Trust to mark the passing of high-rise housing in the city.
S is for Spats
No self-respecting former enfant terrible’s reputation can ever be complete without a solid CV of massive public fallings-out. Among his stramashes are a battle royale with self-anointed Tory spokeslady Carol Vorderman on Question Time in March and a spectacular clash with Rosie Boycott when she printed a conversation about the John Major election scandal, which he had assumed was off-the-record. But his finest hour is surely the Radio Five Live books discussion with Richard Littlejohn. Under a constant barrage of savage criticism from Self, Littlejohn lost his way somewhat by describing his own novel as more complex than Tolstoy.
T is for TV
In 2002, he made his most audacious move yet by appearing as a permanent team captain on Vic ‘n’ Bob’s Shooting Stars when the show returned after a five-year hiatus. He also made regular appearances on Have I Got News for You but seemed to burn his bridges with the show when he chided Paul Merton and Ian Hislop for being, ‘Plump, middle-aged multimillionaires sitting behind a desk making jokes about Clive Anderson’s hair style when actual proper satire was needed.’
U is for University College Junior School
This posh liberal Hampstead educational centre was where the young Self was taught. He recalls his Latin teacher, Mr Marston, having a profound effect on him. A former sergeant in the marines, Marston’s preferred mode of dress was a full Batman rig-out. As Self recalls: ‘He was fond of telling us how one officer used to peer down the barrels of his platoon’s rifles. He came to the last soldier and ordered him to pull the trigger. Which he did, and blew the officer’s head off. Mr Marston told this as if it was a parable, but I’m still not exactly sure what the meaning is.’
V is for Vocabulary.
Self’s is genuinely jaw-dropping. You wouldn’t catch Richard ‘Tolstoy’ Littlejohn chucking words such ‘anfractuous’, ‘hispid’, ‘anaphylaxis’ and ‘viscid’ around, now would you?
W is for Walking
He loves a good stroll. Self has often spoken of his love for crossing London by foot but in 2006 expressed a wish to walk from his home in Vauxhall to the Crowne Plaza in Manhattan to exorcise some of his own demons and to somehow create closure between his dead American mother and his deceased British dad. He now views walking as his new addiction: ‘The 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks – both urban and rural – of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect whereby I allow my mind to “slip its gears”. All of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs.’
X is for Xanthe Mosley
A portrait artist who has painted the Self family.
Y is for Yellow cardigan
The item of clothing which Self believes best reflects the modern Liberal Democrat.
Z is for Zack Busner
A recurring character in many of Self’s books (including Grey Area, The Book of Dave and Great Apes), Busner is a London psychiatrist and psychoanalyst prone to self-promotion at the expense of his patients. Self even suggests that Doc Zack helped him cure his OCD in 2007. This claim appears in his forthcoming Walking to Hollywood, an ‘inventive memoir’ which Self furtherly describes as ‘Angela’s Ashes rewritten by Groucho Marx’.
Will Self, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 29 Aug (solo event), 9.30pm, £10 (£8); 30 Aug (with Donald S Murray), 8.30pm, £10 (£8).