Will Self was all alone on the stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival’s main venue, with a bitterly cold autumnal wind blowing outside the big festival tent. Self looked relaxed, and he effortlessly held the audience’s attention for 60 minutes. This event was late, uncharacteristically for the Book Festival, due to the previous gathering, which involved a certain Peter Mandelson promoting his new book.
“Did anybody go and see Peter Mandelson?” Self asked the audience. Some raised their hands only to be met with Self’s subtle, yet unmistakable, gaze of something between disapproval and utter contempt.
“Lord Mandelson. Lord Mandelson of socialism.” And a pause.
Self knows the power of the pause like a literary Miles Davis, he is in fact a musician with thoughts and words as his chords and melodies. “What do they think they’re playing at?” Pause. “It never ceases to amaze me. Even the nicest of them. Melvin Bragg said to me years ago: 'You gotta understand, I only took a peerage in order to abolish it.'” Pause. “We’re still waiting, Mel.”
Self then summed up the House of Lords like this: “People. If someone’s status is determined by a hat with balls on it, what does that tell you about the political culture? It’s not good.”
Self read three excerpts from his latest work Walking to Hollywood, a fictionalised tale of, among others, his own travels to Los Angeles, and indeed walking to Hollywood. He walked to Heathrow, stopping at Pinewood Studios, flew to LA and then walked around over there, in a country where everyone drives and seemingly only the mad would resort to walking. The last part of Walking to Hollywood was inspired by a walk Self took along the coast of East Yorkshire. The piece is about “loss of all sorts, the loss of memory as one gets older, the loss of the past.”
“This astonishing coastline is the fastest eroding coast in Europe, it loses six feet every year. I thought, if I walk this entire 35 miles coastline within six feet of the cliff edge, I would take a walk that it would be impossible for anybody to ever take again. It would be a kind of self-cancelling walk. I thought this would be a kind of extended metaphor for this whole process in middle-age of kind of loss, loss of youth, loss of memory.”
It’s easy to admire Will Self. He’s a word geyser, a fireworks of thoughts, and basically the funniest grumpy old man around. “I keep seeing an ad in the London Tube. A kind of, you know, comedian’s book, which says: ‘pant-wettingly funny’. And I often wondered to myself in what sense could this be an endorsement?”
Will Self, The Dreams and Fantasies of an Obsessive-compulsive Flâneur, was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 29 August