Will Self ponders anti-Semitism, punctuation, and whether flowers are the souls of bunny rabbits

17 May
Will Self

Will Self

Will Self has been described in many ways, but perhaps not often in the way he introduced himself, as a sunshine-filled Jeeves and Wooster character who believes, with a warm heart, that “flowers are the souls of bunny rabbits”.

Luckily, most of us in the audience were long enough in the tooth to see the sardonic humour bristling away, and not for a minute about to fall for such a feeble attempt at dislodging us from our understanding of the blunt nature of Will Self: author, raconteur, journalist, one-time stand-up-comedian, reviewer, and as he himself puts it, opinion monger.

The tall, casually dressed figure loomed over the Festival lectern and explained that he understood that people came to such events via any number of different motivations, but that perhaps most audience members at least had some sense of Will Self, the author of ‘difficult’ books. Difficult, that is, when presented amid a world of soundbites, talking heads, fake news and fast so-called knowledge, propagated and promoted by the advent, and mega-fast growth, of the internet, with its emails, Snapchats, Facebooks, and never-endingly updating websites.

For him, and probably many of the other digital immigrants in the packed Arts Centre auditorium, the world has changed. We are now like “rats in a wheel”, and long gone are the days when office entertainment was not all online but instead limited to spinning in your office chair. If you were lucky enough to have one.

Despite Will Self having the only speaking part, his presentation felt like a conversation in which we were fully involved, as real participants. Within a matter of moments we were rapt in the description of his latest book, Phone, the third book of a trilogy, following Umbrella and Shark, described by the Daily Mail as a “600 page doorstop of a novel” and then further, much to the incredulity of the author, as “like lying in a softly scented bath”.

To put us at ease over such a description, we were then treated to a reading from the book, which included a brief portrait of a woman wanting to get pregnant and having no interest in the pleasure of the man with whom she had agreed to perform coitus: “Who cares about the feelings of the fridge when they are getting the milk out?”

The reading also gave us the lines: “Difficult to be this self, that self, any fucking self at all.” Which somehow resonated with an earlier comment about all of us being full of swirling emotions, no matter what people think we are like, and perhaps being all the more poignant coming from an author born with a name such as his.

It is clear that after seven years, and fifteen hundred words, the trilogy has been a major work for Self, and one that has even had him pondering the mortality of the writer and the question of “how many more books are there to write?”

On which note, our presenter suggested that maybe he would be better off sticking to giving opinions instead. After all, he only has to offer half a dozen of these a year; much less work than writing novels and particularly enjoyable, knowing that, as an opinion monger who is broadcast on Sunday mornings, you can truly wake people up.

And so, without wanting to get too embroiled, or raise anything too controversial, Self introduced his Jewish descendancy on his maternal side, and the farcical idea that this somehow meant he was properly Jewish, whereas he might not have been had it been his father who was a Jew.

He went on to talk about how he had resigned as a Jew, and raised the issue of anti-Semitism; a topic that had been playing large on his mind lately, especially with events concerning Israel, Palestine and America over the last few days. With a writer’s avid description of prejudice against the Jewish ‘race’, the nub of Self’s point was that we should be allowed to be critical of the actions of the state of Israel, as currently constituted (a phrase which he was careful to keep repeating), without being branded anti-Semitic.

He also felt that anti-Semitism was on the rise in the United Kingdom, giving us a verbal picture of a Venn diagram with three areas described loosely as: the Zionist agenda; people’s feelings about Israel and Palestine; and what he entitled “Good old British anti-Semitism”, often governed by ignorance and simplistic beliefs about, for example, the Jews, or Yids, controlling everything.

This rise in prejudice against Jews, and other minorities, troubled him deeply, but Self reiterated the idea that he was still free to criticise a government’s actions, alluding to the uncomfortably strange concept that Palestine is like a “giant concentration camp”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the question and answer session that followed was, initially at least, dominated by the issue of anti-Semitism, which a number of questions, most of which were dealt with fairly abruptly and with some good humour.

Our host, Matt Holland, added his own Jewish history, or herstory, to the mix and shifted the subject back on to Self’s book, and a question about the lack of punctuation. After a humorous huff, and put down of Matt, Self then deftly answered further questions from the audience, talking more about his books, with an “assumption that at least some of you are fans of literature” and the way that the core ideas for his trilogy simply “downloaded into his mind” after he had completed Umbrella.

He talked about the power of good literature and how an MRI scan of a brain active with good writing will show every centre of the mind lighting up; but also how the future of fiction was bleak – it would not die but it would certainly, as proved already, be more marginalised as the Internet and mass television consumption grew ever more pervasive. Then a question about the topic of walking, and Self’s answer about the benefits of being alone with nothing but the power of the countryside for company.

With reference to his work on psychogeography, this seemed a fitting end to an entertaining, amusing and thought-provoking evening in Swindon, the hometown of Richard Jefferies, author, lover of the countryside, and someone whom Self has himself acknowledges.

The audience members, all, or at least mostly, smiling, headed down to clear the Waterstones shelves of Self’s books, and with a perhaps surprising shyness and gentleness, the author spent the rest of the evening signing them before rushing away in a blur of flowery bunny rabbit souls.

Will Self was speaking at Swindon Arts Centre as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature on Tuesday 15 May. Words by Mike Pringle. Image © Fernando Bagué

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