Will Self

  • List.co.uk
  • 8 August 2006

This article is from 2006.

In Will Self's new book his characters speak in a Cockney dialect and he acknowledges that in writing it down he looked to Irvine Welsh's dialect-heavy writing for inspiration. So, with a little help from Ruth Hedges, Welsh, our guest editor, sat down with Self to chat about language, cycling and 'oily little' David Cameron.

IW: This is a time the Scottish press revel in their power, before the festival. The Scotsman suddenly becomes the New York Times, they really fancy themselves - The List as well! [laughs]

WS: I never say anything bad about the Scottish press because it’s just not worth my while really. My wife’s Scots, my parents in law are in Motherwell - they’ll be at the festival. There’s no escaping.

IW: It’s weird because, what I’ve found is that the tabloids are just following your family and good friends round. I’ve had a lot of fucking crap. And basically, it’s made me pretty circumspect in the things I say because of it.

WS: So where are you living at the moment?

IW: I’m living in Dublin.

WS: How long have you been there?

IW: Two years, like. I’m just starting to enjoy it. One of the reasons I wanted to live there was because I don’t really know that many people there, and so I can just kind of get on with stuff. I’ve got into that mode now. For the last five years I’ve been in San Francisco, Chicago, London, back to Edinburgh. I’ve not stayed in one place for more than a year and it just kills you basically. I mean, it’s great fun, but it does your head in, and I just want to be in one place.

WS: Any particular reason for choosing Dublin?

IW: It just feels like a decent place to be. I always get asked about the tax thing, but I don’t need to do it for tax reasons. If I’d wanted to do it for tax reasons, I’d have done it five years ago, for making serious money.

WS: Yeah, yeah, it’s a bit late now. The Rolling Stones paid 1.6% tax on £260 million earnings. But why should this surprise us? This is the band that had their world tour sponsored by an underpants manufacturer. These are not subversive forces at all, they’re the arch Conservatives, they’re the Blairs of rock music.

IW: I just had the Mail really disappointed that I’m not a Tory. I’ve always fucking loathed and detested Blair. I just thought that Cameron was exactly the same, a fucking oily little bastard with no principals at all. But I said I think he’ll probably win the election because he’s got less baggage than Blair.

WS: Yeah, I think he will win. The British public now have a reliable appetite for style and no substance.

IW: It’s amazing. Blair’s got no credibility now with Iraq. This is a guy who’s done all these things, and then Cameron’s saying, ‘Well I would have done exactly the same fucking thing.’ So you’ve got somebody who’s totally morally bankrupt, and you’ve got someone else who’s saying, ‘Well I’d be just as morally bankrupt as him.’ Blair’s just so much his role model.

WS: Actually, tactically what he’ll do is he’ll allow his front bench to stake out slightly alternative positions. He’ll write down a vacuous portfolio of a manifesto, and it’ll all be pulled in again if they win it. Politics is a very tedious business in this country, there’s no doubt about it. I mean look at the current conflict in the Lebanon. There are very few positions of opposition that can be stated now. Galloway’s a fucking…I don’t know what he is, but you don’t want to throw your lot in with Respect.

IW: You want someone with a bit of political muscle and wider credibility.

WS: You’re throwing your lot in with him [Galloway], and essentially a kind of revoltist Muslim group.

IW: Well that’s it. There’s no broad based thing. And it’s also the Gorgeous George cult, because he’s a one man band, basically. You become one of his groupies. It’s not a good place to be.

RH: And what about Tommy Sheridan? The SNP have fallen apart without him.

IW: Yeah they have.

WS: When’s the Sheridan verdict in?

IW: I’m not sure, I’m not sure. Quite soon now.

WS: I’ve actually followed it in the tabs because it’s been such drama, hasn’t it? His wife says he’s like a monkey, but actually ice doesn’t adhere to hair. If I’d been there I would have gone, ‘Objection! Objection! I’ve indulged in this sexual game.’

IW: It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. His credibility won’t be restored by it. The damage has been done.


WS: I’m interested because your books remain quite rooted while you’ve been peripatetic.

IW: Yeah, I’ve finished one which is coming out next year. The stories are not set in Edinburgh at all.

WS: I haven’t started a new one, and I don’t think I’ll start writing till the end of the year. I don’t like that feeling of being in abeyance, but it’s also quite powerful to get very pregnant with ideas. But I’m the antithesis of you because I never go anywhere. I was born about 500 yards from here, and I’ve become more and more rooted in London as the years have gone on.

WS: Some of the new book is in this trans-literated Cockney, phonetically translated. But it has its own dio-critical marks. It’s mixed up with text language as well. You know, Irvine and to some extent, James Kelman, were the guides on that. I remember with Irvine’s books that once you get into them, quite quickly you just hear it in your inner ear. And I think if you’re really familiar with a hard Cockney accent, it’s a lot easier.

IW: It’s a visualisation as well. You notice the same words written down on the page, and you have to say it out, and I think people are quite used to that now.

WS: I think you start to internalise it yourself as a writer. I mean, he’s [Welsh] been doing it for years. I’ve flirted with phonetic transcription, but this is the first book where I’ve done huge sections of it. I wanted to do two things. I wanted to do what Irvine does, and also do what Russell Hoban does with his book ‘Ridley Walker’ with a deteriorated English. If you can imagine what English is like if it’s decayed, like an Isotope that’s gone through a half life, you’re groping for meaning in it. Irvine’s doing a different thing, because in a sense he’s writing a living tongue, a demotic tongue. But those sections of my book are set 700 years in the future. If I want a writer telling me it’s 700 years in the future I want to believe it. So it came out of that. The text language bit is just a kind of nod to the present. I’ve got teenagers and the way that they speak, teenage slang, at the moment is fantastically vibrant. Oh, it’s so good. I’m amazed. People of our generation slightly wrote off teenagers as not having militant sub-cultures any more. But actually linguistically it’s fantastically rich. It’s a lot to do with the immigrant influx over the last 20 years.

The List: Irvine, have you noticed any changes in the Edinburgh dialect?

IW: It’s weird because kids there have been influenced by that, but it’s gone onto another hybrid now that’s totally unrecognisable from say, ‘Trainspotting’ kind of dialogue, but it’s got elements. It’s weird, I mean, it would take me a long time to try and replicate that. I wouldn’t even try and get into doing it, because it would just be too difficult for me. I don’t know if I’d have the ear for it any more.

WS: There’s something I want to do. There’s a story I wrote ten years ago about a guy who’s driving from Caithness down through Scotland to England, and it’s got a character in it who’s got a strong Caithness accent. And I’d like to write it up as a screenplay. I’ve always had this idea that if you want to do a road movie in Britain you’ve got to start in Caithness. You’re never going to get enough fucking road otherwise. But I was thinking how I really want to do the Caithness accent. I’d have to go up there with a tape recorder and put an ad in the local paper, and say could some young men come in to the pub with a tape recorder. If want to do it properly that’s what you’ve got to do. Unless you’re in the language stream, you can’t really do it.

IW: And I’m not really in that now, and it’s hard. It’s difficult to work out where I’m at now with things. I’ve just put this book in and it’s got ten stories in and one is set in Fife; that’s the only one that’s set in Scotland. It’s kind of semi-dialect. There’s one set in France, there’s one set in the Canary Islands, there’s one set in Nevada, and one set in San Francisco. I think there’s one in Chicago as well, there’s nothing in Edinburgh. Just one in Fife, and I’ve gone kind of hyper-Fife, but it’s not Fife as Fifers would recognise it, which again is going to be contentious. I’m just waiting for the flack now.

WS: I’ve got this obsession with the idea that you’ve got to have an internal map of a place before you can set anything. Do you think that’s important?

IW: Yes, I think so. I think you’ve got to understand at least in your own terms that…I mean, my Cowdenbeath isn’t necessarily the real Cowdenbeath, but it kind of makes sense to me. It’s just a weird thing that can just trigger it off. I stayed in Dunfermline for a while, and when I was going past on the train, I used to see this pub called the New Goth. It goes way back, and you used to have all these old Goth taverns, with the drinking laws that used to come from Gothenburg. And you think, this is a Goth pub that’s in Cowdenbeath, but of course it’s not, it’s a pub that’s got old guys that drink their beer and whisky and young guys that play pool. So I came into the town with my head all stirred up with this nonsense that’s nothing to do with the town at all. I like that kind of interplay, coming from my own fucking crap, and trying to reconcile the reality, and getting something out of it.

WS: If I was in Dublin I’d be overpowered by Joyce’s presence.

IW: Yeah, the whole Joyce/Beckett thing, it casts such a large shadow. And you know what Ireland’s like about its heritage. It’s the whole thing of marketing a sense of Irishness that nobody else has done so ruthlessly. You’ve got the Joyce heritage trail. It’s omnipresent, it’s everywhere. The Beckett celebrations have just finished, and you think, ‘How the fuck would he feel about that?’ It’s amazing.

WS: Well, fairly negative, but I think Joyce would feel fairly negative as well. I’ve been having this kind of Joyce year, because I want my next novel to be a kind of modernist novel, and it occurred to me that you couldn’t write a Modernist novel now.

IW: No, I think it would be almost impossible.

WS: So I thought, I’ll set it around 1900. So I started going back and re-reading Joyce, and it occurred to me reading Richard Ellman’s biography of him, you wouldn’t have had Joyce without physical force Republicanism. That he was able to be an artistic revolutionary because there was an armed revolutionary movement in Ireland. And I put that to my wife who Scots, and said, ‘Maybe that’s one of the disjunctions between Scotland and Ireland is that they actually go and pick up guns and shot at the English.’ And she got very angry at that, but do you think there’s any truth in that? There are very notable and important Scots writers from that period on, but here isn’t someone of Joyce’s stature really, is there?

IW: No there’s not. I think that anything like that, there’s bound to be something that comes out of that, something strong that comes out of that kind of political insurrection. It’s like the whole thing about the Easter Risings, it’s almost like there’s an anti-Easter Risings. They’re sort of dissing the whole idea of it now.

WS: It’s resurgence in the compromise that Michael Collins and the free staters made, isn’t it? Part of the contemporary cutting off of the Real IRA is to denigrate the Easter Rising. But Joyce’s college friend, Skeffington, was shot during the Easter Rising, this was his best buddy; he had a vital connection to the guys who actually took up arms. And his response which was exile, he repudiated violence. Very interesting currents. You’re a kind of anti-Joyce, because you’re going into Ireland.

IW: Yes. There doesn’t seem to be a literary salon in the same kind of way as other places though. I mean even Edinburgh where everyone who writes roughly knows each other - it’s a small thing. Or down here you’ve got the Groucho and Soho House, you’ve not really got that in Dublin.

The List: And is that a good thing?

IW: Not having to engage with anyone like that is fucking brilliant.

WS: I think London’s so big, it’s quite easy not to engage even when you’re here.

IW: I kind of miss it [London]. I was so glad to leave, but I get to the stage now, when every time I come back I enjoy it.

WS: Cycle, that’s the key.

IW: What’s it like cycling in London. Do motorists treat you with respect?

WS: No, of course not. It’s a constant psychic battle. Sometimes I’ll be lying in bed and I’ll be thinking, am I up to going over the top? Can I cut the wire and get out there? But once you’re out there, it’s kind of Zen. For me the kind of top Londoners are the guys, usually cycle couriers, who ride fixed wheel bikes, where they have no free wheel, so they’re just breaking with the pedals, because they have to be completely within the flow of the city, they have to anticipate everything. I think London has changed immeasurable for the better in my adult lifetime. I love it that if you get a minicab the guy that’s driving it probably knows Nairobi better than he does London. That kind of completely alternative mapping that goes on.

IW: Yes and you’ve got to guide them. You’ve got to know where the fuck you’re going. It’s the complete reversal of what the taxi driver-client role should be.

The List: So why did you choose Dave, your hero, to be the archetypal, black London cab driver?

WS: Well, without being pretentious, he’s the kind of Bloom figure for me; he’s an everyman. In one sense, it’s against his humanity. The fact that he’s a taxi driver is almost incidental, but in terms of the structure of the book, this idea of London being flooded is very powerful, and it’s one that’s been in the literary canon for a long time. But I thought, who’s going to remember the city best if it goes under? And it’s going to have to be the London cab drivers knowledge. They have to know every street and notable building within a six mile radius of Charring Cross. They’ve done these brain scans that show that the posterior hippocampus is bigger than in ordinary brains because they have to hold so much information. And I just thought, well how amazing that this cab driver sets down his Knowledge and it gets discovered hundreds of years in the future and is used as a template to rebuild the city in some way. I had a mate whose ex-brother in law was a cab driver and I went out with him and learned. And the more I learned about cabbies, the more sympathetic I became towards them, the more I sensed that they were a London everyman in that kind of way. They are the people who are most within the city. I like him [Dave].

IW: There is that thing as well that they are confessionals, and it’s like that emotional labour thing. You’re expected to put up with all this kind of crap.

WS: And there’s no escape from it. The very barrier; it’s a travelling confessional box. But I think it’s interesting that there’s a culture of wanting goodies still. That fiction has to be about good people. Or at any rate it constantly comes up again and again - ‘Do these characters find redemption? Do they turn out to be nice?’ There’s this total fucking chocolate box view of what fiction should provide.

IW: A lot of writers as well, there’s almost this wish-fulfilment thing that goes on to create these characters and view these qualities of decency.

WS: You’re allowed to do baddies in psychopathic thrillers. You’re allowed to do a cartoon baddie. What you cannot do is present humanity that is less than good, and not allow it to become good.


IW: I hate British politics now. It’s just horrible, it’s so soul destroying and intractable and there’s no sense that it’s going to change in any positive way. When you set yourself up against it, all you’re doing is moaning, and it’s no good to you. That’s the way I feel I’m automatically cast when I engage with it. That’s why I feel a lot of people are so disengaged now.

WS: I think you’ve got to be dictated to by your characters. The level of political engagement that people have is sporadic. I mean you’ll meet people who say they’re political activists, but in fact they’re only thinking about it for about 2% of the time. Most of the time they’re just thinking about their next fucking wank or Chicken Dansak. I think as a fiction writer to capture that discontinuity about the way that people engage with the world is a real challenge. You know it’s like after 9/11 people said well this is a great climacteric, everyone’s going to engage. But it’s bollocks. For a great mass of people in the west, very little, if not nothing changed in the first months afterwards. You could say it’s filtering through now…

IW: It’s very difficult now because it’s all tied up with consumerism. So if you accept that kind of consumerist society. Politics is about avoiding politics; it’s about managing politics, or stopping politics from actually happening. It’s so locked into our culture now, it’s difficult to get beyond that.

WS: The whole political spectrum shifted on its axis way to the right, so that Blair and Bush can stand up and say that they’re a force for moderation. People like Thatcher won here, so people like their politics to be managerial, so they can concentrate on their patio furniture. The Apostles of dumping the debt launched their own clothing line. They’re involved in commercialising a supposedly radical movement - they have to make it consumer friendly. It is a kind of ideology free zone - if you’re a socialist, you’re fucking Tommy Sheridan. There is no way out.

IW: One of the things that annoys a lot of reviewers about my own books is that they see working class people as swearing and angry, and it’s very difficult for people in power and upper middleclass people to deal with working class anger. They just don’t get beyond - these people are angry, and what have they got to be angry about? Well, they’ve got to be angry about us. Eventually at some point they might even do something about it, so that’s the fear.

WS: Yeah, I think it’s even cruder than that, they don’t want to look at what’s at the end of their fork. I think a great tranche of British literature is written by people who read too many novels about people who read too many novels for people who read too many novels. It’s a self-contained bubble of self-referentiality. What I can’t bear is books in which nobody watches television because that’s what people do. If you want to reflect the world you live in, there’s got to be quite a lot of TV in there.

Will Self (with Rick Moody), 12 Aug, noon, £7 (£5), Wil Self (with Edward St Aubyn), 13 Aug, 3pm, £7 (£5).

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