Will self

Model villages aren’t just for kids

When you leave Bekonscot, the world looks different. The semis and grass verges of suburban Beaconsfield seem slightly wrong: too large, too assertive. It takes a minute or two to adjust your perspective — to size yourself up, or bring the surrounding houses down. In that moment, you experience the sensation described by Will Self in Scale, his morphine-addled hymn to Britain’s most celebrated model village: ‘Some people lose their sense of proportion; I’ve lost my sense of scale.’ Well, supply your own lockdown metaphor. As we emerge, muzzy-headed, from extended voyages around our own living rooms, the government’s recent announcement that we are now free to visit ‘amusement arcades,

In search of Pygmalion

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

What’s the big idea?

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams dates from the late 1940s. He hadn’t quite reached the peaks of sentimental delicacy he found in his golden period but he was getting there. As a lesser-known curiosity, the script deserves a production that explains itself openly and plainly. Rebecca Frecknall has directed a beautiful and sometimes bizarre-looking show which is beset by ‘great ideas’. What a great idea to encircle the stage with upright pianos that the actors can cavort on, and whose exposed innards can twinkle with atmospheric lights at poignant moments. The pianos are an ingenious and handsome solo effort but they serve the designer’s ends and not the play’s.

Self discovery

It’s a pity Will Self didn’t embark on his bus tour round Britain before the Brexit vote. If he had, we might have all had a better understanding of what’s going on in the shires. In his series of ten short programmes on Radio 4, Great British Bus Journey (produced by Laurence Grissell), Self sets out to emulate Daniel Defoe, William Cobbett and J.B. Priestley by taking the bus not to the big centres of life in the UK but those smaller towns and cities we often rush past on the motorway or have no reason to add to our bucket list. Places like Plymouth, Preston, East Kilbride, Wolverhampton and

All’s well that ends well | 2 November 2017

Mandy was 38 when she was told she was ‘in the end stage’, suffering from COPD and finding it more and more difficult to breathe. Matthew, in his twenties, was given just four to five years of life after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. Vivek, also in his twenties, is confined to a wheelchair because he suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is already reliant on a ventilator for much of the time. Sophie has stage four lung cancer and tumours in her lungs, lymph nodes, bones and brain. You might think a programme made up of their thoughts, words, experiences would be one of lament and moping, misery

Books Podcast: Will Self

In this week’s Books Podcast, I’m joined by the novelist, broadcaster and serial user of arcane words Will Self. He has just published Phone, the third and final volume of the difficult but brilliant trilogy he began five years ago with the Man Booker shortlisted Umbrella. He talks to me about recurring characters, modernism, hating Tony Blair before it was fashionable, and how there’s more psychosis about than you think… You can listen to our conversation here: And if you enjoyed that, please do subscribe on iTunes for a new podcast every Thursday.

On the road | 1 December 2016

‘We’re going to get lots of negative attention from environmentalists,’ he cackled, great puffs of blue-grey smoke emerging from the exhaust of his two-stroke car. Will Self was crossing Tower Bridge in a Trabant, that most potent symbol of the East German socialist state, bending almost double to fit himself round the steering wheel (he’s six foot five inches in his socks) and cursing the lack of wing mirrors. Things could only get worse as he and his old friend Michael Shamash set off on their 700-mile trek across the Channel to Zwickau, in the former GDR, home of the Trabant car. Imagine trying to merge on to a German

You can’t forget what Will Self says – even if you wish you could

It lasted for just a few seconds but was such a graphic illustration of the statistics behind the bombing campaign in Syria — and not a word was spoken. Martha Kearney called it an ‘audio graphic’ on the World at One on Monday and explained how Neal Razzell and James Beard for the World Service had been monitoring the number of US combat missions on Islamic State targets in Syria, hour by hour, 24/7, and comparing them with earlier bombing campaigns. Each electronic beat we heard represents one hour, Razzell told us; each beep represents the launch of one combat mission. For Syria, the electronic beeps between each beat were

Time out of mind

There can hardly be two novelists less alike than Sebastian Faulks and Will Self, in style and in content. Faulks writes in the grand tradition of realist fiction: a list of his themes might include the brutality and waste of war, France and, of course, romantic love. Self, meanwhile, has created dystopias in which to satirise different aspects of humanity, while conjuring with all manner of stylistic invention. The one area of shared interest has been the history of psychiatry. Here, with Faulks’s new book, their preoccupations further converge. A student of literature on the lookout for a dissertation topic could do a lot worse than The Psychotic Century: 20th

Deadly, not dull

Blimey, there has been so much good stuff to watch on telly of late: the Grand National, the Boat Race and the Masters; The Island with Bear Grylls; the final of University Challenge (bravura performance from Caius’s Loveday, though how the winning Cambridge team’s hearts must have sunk when they realised that the public intellectual chosen to present this year’s prize was that literary equivalent of a Dalí melting clock poster on a pretentious fifth former’s bedroom wall — Will Self); and, of course, the first episode of the new season’s Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, Monday). I’m assuming you’re all on board with Thrones, now, and that it doesn’t

Dickens’s dark side: walking at night helped ease his conscience at killing off characters

In England, walking about at night was a crime for a very long time. William the Conqueror ordained that a bell should be rung at 8 p.m., at which point Londoners were supposed to put their fires and candles out and their heads down. Again and again, until modern times, Matthew Beaumont tells us, specifically nocturnal laws were promulgated against draw-latchets, roberdsmen, barraters, roysterers, roarers, harlots and other nefarious nightwalkers — including those ‘eavesdroppers’ who stood listening in the close darkness where the rain dripped from a house’s eaves. Beaumont reads such laws as being designed to exert political and social control. To walk the city streets at night, by

I don’t want to live under Islamic blasphemy law. That doesn’t make me racist

I have spent most of the last fortnight debating Islam and blasphemy and wanted to take the opportunity to put down a few unwritten thoughts. In the immediate aftermath of the Paris atrocities most of the people who thought the journalists and cartoonists in some sense ‘had it coming to them’ kept their heads down.  I encountered a few who did not, including Asghar Bukhari from the MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Committee).  In the aftermath of the atrocity Asghar was immediately eager to smear the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo as racists.  From what he and others of his ilk have been sending around since, they appear to have

Will Self is wrong (again): online reading isn’t negligent reading

Dim the lights, half-muffle the bells, replace your Hatchard’s bookmark with a strip of black crepe: the novel is dead. Again. Will Self broke the news in last Saturday’s Guardian, proclaiming in characteristically sepulchral tones that ‘our literary culture is sealed’. He has form in this regard: this latest article follows another Guardian piece in May this year whose headline assures us that ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’, and will presumably be followed by ‘The novel has ceased to be’, ‘Bereft of life, the novel rests in peace’, and ‘The novel has kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined

Will Self is in no position to criticise George Orwell

In The Mating Season, P.G. Wodehouse – perhaps George Orwell’s only rival as the century’s greatest English writer – puts this piece of advice into Bertie Wooster’s gormless gob: ‘In dishing up this narrative for family consumption, it has been my constant aim throughout to get the right word in the right place and to avoid fobbing the customers off with something weak and inexpressive when they have a right to expect the telling phrase. It means a bit of extra work, but one has one’s code.’ Orwell, I think, would have approved of Bertie’s code. If Will Self – who recently put out an essay describing Orwell as ‘the supreme

Cad of the year 2014: The nominations are in…

Taki What a pity this competition is not open to members of the fairer sex. Marie Christine of Kent would make an ideal winner. Among the men, of course, we have an embarrassment of riches. Tony Blair, John Bercow, Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross, A.A. Gill, Charles Saatchi, I could go on until the next millennium. However agonising it was to pick the cad of all cads, do step forward Matthew Freud, a man I’m fortunate to say I have never met but have heard and read enough about to convince me he’s the one. In his never-ending quest for power, riches and fame, Freud has managed to reach the depths of

Michael Gove and the Ship of Fools

It lies rigged and fully masted in the harbour, the Ship of Fools, and soon it will be crewed by some of our favourite smarties. Is that Shami Chakrabarti charging down the gangway? It surely is. Those sharp elbows can be identified at a hundred paces. And is she being followed by Hanif Kureishi and Jeanette Winterson, eyes bulging like bulldog’s whatsits? Yes, they’re on parade too. Oh look, they’ve brought a chaplain, the Rev Giles Fraser. All shipshape and Bristol-fashion. Now they can cast off. If a person may be judged by the quality of his enemies then Michael Gove currently rests only slightly lower than the angels. As

Will Self, writer in residence at BBC Radio 4

I see that Will Self is being lined up as a “writer in residence” at BBC Radio Four. I think this is very good news. Self is an excellent writer and while obviously of the left, is not doctrinaire or predictable in his views. He has wit, he is well-read and very clever. Good luck to him. I commissioned Will to do an essay every week for the Today programme back when I was editor (1998-2003). They were invariably funny, provocative and beautifully expressed; he takes such a pleasure in using our language. But I alternated Will with Freddy Forsyth, who I fancied was a similarly iconoclastic voice, but from

Across the literary pages: Will Self special

The inclusion of Will Self on the Booker long list was like a flashing neon sign pointing towards ‘Serious Literature’ and away from last year’s much criticised populism. In a recent interview in the Observer, the columnist, cultural pundit, professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University and novelist asserted ‘I don’t write for readers.’ Anyone brave enough to pick up Umbrella (at once a reference to James Joyce, to anti-shell device in the trenches, to a retracted foreskin revealing a prepuce, to an intra-muscular syringe and to the structure of the novel which spans out from a single scene) would find, as Mark Lawson in the Guardian also put it, ‘no textual divisions,


Will Self loves to go a-wandering; this much we know. For the past few years, he has followed the lead of authors such as Iain Sinclair, and undertaken huge, looping walks around city and country, before writing about the experience afterwards — in his case, in a column for the Independent. This ‘psychogeography’ (for such is it called) is meant to be an exercise more for the mind than for the legs. The dedicated psycho- geographer stomps across ground that is soaked in human interaction, history, myth and potential. His pen seeks out the significance in it all, cosmic or otherwise. And so we arrive at Self’s latest book, Walking