Sam Mills

In search of Pygmalion

Matthew De Abaitua was employed as an amanuensis, but soon found himself in the role of lonely caretaker

In 1994, Matthew De Abaitua, an aspiring writer and student on East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA, applies for a job as Will Self’s amanuensis. The first interview is preceded by Self passing De Abaitua a tobacco pouch and a large bag of weed, with the instruction: ‘Make something out of that.’ In the second, they meet at Self’s remote cottage and fire an air rifle at whiskey bottles. Matthew is 22, and spent his previous summer working as a security guard in Liverpool; Self is 33, has just published My Idea of Fun and appeared on the famous ’93 Granta list, and is a well-respected author embracing a mad, bad and dangerous to know persona.

De Abaitua is not merely an assistant. The word amanuensis, he reminds us, originates from the Latin for ‘slave at hand’. His tasks range from doing the laundry and buying a new sofa for Self’s cottage to reading not only the writer’s own oeuvre, but the works that have influenced him as well as his current reading matter. Matthew simmers with ambition, and his identity is as yet unformed; he is in search of a Pygmalion and Self is willing to sculpt him, educating him in matters of middle-class mores and how to get ahead in the literary world.

De Abaitua is no Jeeves, however; he gets plenty of comic mileage from the gap between their classes and life experience. When Self’s former wife and present girlfriend telephone, he risks causing offence by muddling the two, explaining ‘all posh women sound the same to me’. On another occasion, he neglects to wash the duvets, to the discomfort of Self’s guests, for Self enlightens him that ‘your duvet is about 80 per cent sperm’. If Self is rather a strict master, he is also a generous one, using his contacts to get De Abaitua published in the Idler, which subsequently leads to a life-changing internship.

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