Will Self is an unmistakable presence on stage; tall, lugubrious and craggy, hunched behind his lectern like a cross between a demagogue, a funeral director and an Anglepoise lamp. He’s a man of many parts (most of them working): a novelist, journalist, ‘opinion-monger’, Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University, a self-described “retired half-Jew” and militant walker (but never pedestrian).
In many ways he’s about half-a-dozen Literary Festival speakers for the price of one.
We started with an excerpt from Self’s latest novel, “Phone”, the third part of a modernist trilogy (1500 pages in total) along with ‘Umbrella’ (2012) and Shark (2014). ‘Phone’ is over 500 pages of text, unbroken by paragraphs or chapters. Apparently it was described by one tabloid reviewer as like ‘being submerged in a fragrant bath’. This reviewers’ idea of a fragrant bath and mine obviously differ, but the excerpt was well read and the prose delighted in Self’s usual dexterous and textured use of the English language.
Then Self moved on to the “opinion-mongering” section. Specifically the topic of antisemitism. More specifically the topic of “Good Old Fashioned Antisemitism”, how it intersects with all the other forms of antisemitism and the possibility that antisemitism in the UK is reaching a kind on critical mass.
The current situation on the West Bank was discussed and he also opined that racism, as such, doesn’t exist in Britain any more as its been replaced by a muddy, yet intense, atmosphere of prejudice and bigotry. All this was tempered by Self’s abrasive wit, but he gave a number of refreshing blunt, yet finessed, views on a variety of Gordian topics.
And finally there was the fun of the Q & A section. That was lively. The first inquisitor questioned his stance on the current Labour party leadership. Self clarified his position, but that was rebuffed by the audience member as she had read something to the contrary “on Google”.
There also was some further spirited, but reasoned, debate on the topic of antisemitism and Israel.
He was questioned on the future of the literary novel (Self’s take was that it wasn’t going to die out, but sales were likely to retreat further into a middle class niche) and he further mused on the author’s quandary of how many novels they might have time left to write as they grow older.
My favourite moment, however, was when one lady quite innocently asked if his name really was “Will Self”. The author was able to reassure her that his professional appellation wasn’t a knowing pen-name but his actual given moniker from birth.
Fun fact: the surname “Self” derives from the Old English name “Saulf” meaning “Sea Wolf”.
And then, as quickly as it had begun, our audience with Will Self was over and he retired to autograph his novel. An hour wasn’t really enough to contain him, but sixty(ish) minutes in the company of this saternine, yet mercurial personality was an hour very well spent.