Will Self – Novelists are Gods

Will Self writer/thinker/polemicist/critic and an avid walker, returns to Hull brandishing a new text commissioned by Humber Mouth, published by Wrecking Ball Press, Responding to the theme How Was Your Day? He will shortly read the work in his unmistakable drawl, but first Will espouses his fondness for Hull.

Crowds gather to hear Will Self at final event Humber Mouth 2017 Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

He talks knowledgeably about walks he has taken along the Holderness Coast, from Flamborough to Spurn Point, how he got a great deal of satisfaction by walking on and below, the cliff edges. Referencing a news item on Nationwide, he recalls footage of a man whose hard-standing is disappearing, at a rate of six feet every year. ’Silly fucker, you’re on a cliff,’ he says pointedly, raising a laugh from the crowd.

One of the reasons behind the walk was that Will rather liked the idea of walking upon a vanishing landscape – like a work by artist Richard Long. Whilst admiring the giant concrete sound mirrors, used to give early warning for Zeppelin raids during the war, barely 50 yards away a part of the cliff face came away and crashed below. Recalling a second trip he’d took with his son, where the two walked from London to Whitby he clearly remembers crossing the Humber Bridge: ‘Hull looked beautiful… after four days in Lincolnshire: and it was raining,’ another laugh.

Introducing the art of memoir writing and his reading, Will explains he has taken an unorthodox approach and written himself as a character in the piece. Using the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche he expands on the idea of memoir, memory and the desire to create more favourable versions of yourself. “Memory says, ‘I did that.’ Pride replies, ‘I could not have done that.’ Eventually, memory yields.”

It is set in an institution of sorts, where he is undergoing treatment for drug addiction he reads:

‘On another occasion, when I accused him and his fellow counsellors of brainwashing us, he was unrepentant: We have to wash your brain, Will… he angled his cleanly-shaven chin at me, adamant: because it’s dirty…’

The question How Was Your Day? annoys him as he recalls his time at the centre, faced with punitive rules and regulations, he recalls visits from a girlfriend, his father, vigils with a night watchman, concluding how these events collectively, become the substance of self. From my understanding, this commissioned piece will develop, in time, into a larger work.

‘Remember Tony Blair wearing glasses, everyone thought he was losing his grip,’ says Will launching into a polemic against political correctness over myopia and Mr. Magoo concluding, ‘It is because of the demographic reversal, the blow of age when they put on their glasses and look at their loved ones,’ more laughter, particularly from the direction of the more senior persons, sitting in the audience.

Introducing his modernist trilogy Umbrella (short-listed for Man Booker in 2012) Shark (2014) and the latest Phone published in July this year.  I see with mild amusement that I have scrawled ‘bone’ in my notes. ‘Technological innovation… warfare… evolution in human psychopathology…’ he says, expanding upon the themes in the book.

Digressing for a moment, he sits in his chair upon the library stage and ponders the question, ‘How does the novel come about?

‘Novelists are Gods, there was a time where they’d be greeted at the station by the Mayor and Mayoress with invites to a swinging party; nubiles with cocaine in their belly buttons: now it’s a couple of Twixs and cup of tepid tea,’ he says suddenly looking downcast and forlorn.

Connecting the gun emplacements, which provided the most efficient way to kill,  along the Flanders frontline in 1915-18, to the advent of the Model T Ford production line in Detroit years earlier, he outlines modern warfare. ‘Nuclear power… atomic bomb… World War II. The Indianapolis had delivered parts of the first atomic bomb when it was hit, sending a 1000 men into the water.’ It is reported that surrounded by sharks they awaited rescue but none came. Will likens this to an act of collective punishment by Mother Earth. Turning to more recent times he describes the Iraq War, as being ‘bi-directional’ then ties together digital media, autism and Alzheimers, suggesting the smart phone came about just at the right time for an ageing population: ‘… a pervasive urban myth that smart phones were created by non-empathetic autists…’   

Will reminds the audience that 500 of our armed forces died in Afghanistan. ‘That many were lost in just three minutes during the first day of the Somme. We have out sourced warfare, wage war for the wrong reasons and in bad faith, believing the responsibility to lie with the Army, Secret State, M16 and the political classes,’

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

He begins to read from new novel Phone describing how the Times Reviewer had said it was ‘imbuggeringly difficult’.  We catch up with the now 78 year old psychiatrist protagonist Zack Busner, who is considering the exotic breakfast, provided in the Hilton, Manchester. ‘Shape shifting legume, monstrous artichoke… tonging black bread’ enjoying the descriptions I glance at the Stage screen to my left, translating into text the words, just seconds after Will reads them. The words ‘Lord’ and ‘Coe’ flash up momentarily… I think our woman in London is finding the verbose prose a tricky proposition. Perhaps this digital stenographer – one of just 23 in the country who turn voice into text in this way so rapidly – is the unsung hero of the festival?

‘No Caller ID’ Busner is now ruminating on the phones capacity for sentience, in order to make this determination.

He embarks on a second reading, introducing a character called Camilla, sat in the passenger seat recalling hazy fragments of what we can only assume, is a real incident, namely a rape in a rape field. It is visceral language, emotive description, an inner monologue, set against the banality of a car journey in the rain, her autistic son endlessly counting things from the back seat.

Will makes an observation about the statue of Larkin in the station – perhaps thinking about his own journey home: ‘No way was he 7 foot high, maybe it is a weird rarified metaphor for Larkin’s work – talk me through that one Hull Council… when you’ve got the time.’

The final reading is set in an army barracks where officers pore over a laptop screen, viewing images of  barbarism, with severed body parts littering the screen. The atrocities are discussed by the British officers with horrifying nonchalance. The descriptions of what they are seeing on the screen become more and more extreme, repugnant. The characters within this passage, can only be viewed in the lowest possible terms, despite them all being middle and upper class toffs: serving officers seemingly playing at army.

I become entranced by the screen again, noting which words appear and which do not, as if the screen is making a judgement call, on what is suitable for our eyes to see.

With barely a wave Will Self concludes the passage adding, ‘I hope I’ve proved it’s not difficult, never mind imbuggeringly so; whatever that means,’ then hurriedly, he departs the front of the stage.

Maybe that is the point, the abruptness leaving you with feelings of repulsion, sullied. Maybe the line about ‘Ali Babas’ didn’t play as well as he thought it might… Having imparted something of himself on us, maybe it is we who now posses the dirty brain.