Your that modernist guy, like Will Self?

Posted: August 4, 2012 in Publishing

I was attending a writers thing this morning. My bit was to do a little talk on comedy writing. Especially on how to make time to explore, a situation and hit if form different angles. “Oh,” this guy said, “Your that modernist guy, like Will Self!”
“I am?” I said. Okay, I will be first to say I have no idea what a ‘modernist’ is. In a recent debate on Litreactor I described my writing  as ‘mal écrit’ I said it was a French term. It was funny because over a couple of days, a few people messaged me, who google-translated it found I described my genre as ‘Poorly written.’ But, this has been happening a lot lately, being compared to Will Self. Not in writing talent, I might add. I struggle to see myself as a writer, let alone a talented one. Will Self is a massive talent with an impressive body of work. The comparisons made are in genre and our back stories.

I think this came about as my book has been mentioned in the ‘Not the booker prize’ Guardian competition (Don’t get excited – it won’t win!) alongside an article by Will Self. He paints a depressing scene of his past. Squalid damp walls, a bed of three mattresses and drugs via a mayonnaise jar as he murders a tiny cactus. Struggle for his art type thing.

Here is where I have a problem with the comparison. I see us as similar as Elephants and Sea-cows. Yeah, some distant DNA shared, because we both write, but that is about it. Self might have lived in squalor, been through some hard yards. Difference being he had options. Too a degree he chose too live how he lived. It’s like a middle class vagrancy tourism. I had often seen it in some of the dives I squatted at. Some of the companions I met were rebelling against the tyranny of middle class parents. Post university or on gap years. Spent peering into the abyss as a muse. Options change everything. At any given moment, you have a way out. It’s easy to binge on drugs when you have an income stream to hit. It’s like those folk who moan “Oh, yahh, I’ve booked into rehab for my drug problem.” At £500 a week? Motherfucker if you can still afford £500 a week you ain’t got that bad a problem!
Self is a fantastic writer. Dare I say it, a national treasure. He is though, an Oxford educated, son of a Professor at the London School of economics and a publishers assistant. As middle class as you can get, if not higher. Like others I knew, I imagine he could at any time get a financial hand-out. A hot meal or a return to home. Taking the risk of walking a high wire is oh so much easier if there is a safety net. He volunteered that lifestyle. Me not so. I’m not saying people like Will Self had a head start in the marathon that is life. What I do know is people like me have to run a marathon just to get to the starting line.

Many think vagrants sleep in boxes. Not so, that is a TV thing. Boxes are collected to line the floor and use as a mattress. Often vagrants break in to building sites, disused factories or abandoned buildings. Sleeping on a cold concrete floor will leave you lame the following day, and this is something you couldn’t risk. Smart squatters or vagrants try to sleep on the fist floor. Because crack heads and the like will find the first place to ‘hit up’ and crash. There can be violent clashes, because at about £10 a gram for heroin, enough for about 4 hits, robbery or the attempts were frequent. Add to that folk coming out of a club and see violence on vagrants as a sport. I know all of this, because from the age of 14 through to 17 I was a ‘rough sleeper.’ I had no options. It was my life. I know how it feels to have the cold gnaw at your bones and the best time to seek out food from public bins. I would loved to have been  ‘A bookish child I sopped up texts as if I were blotting paper and they were fluid.’ as Self describes himself. My childhood was spent hiding from beatings, working to the small hours and breaking into caravans for things to steal, or for food.

I like Self. I like his forensic approach to literature and his knowledge of writers. However I bristle at when he says things like ”In the winter of last year I was staying in a flat in Dartmouth in Devon, which has been lent to me for 20 years now as a writing bolthole. It was bitterly cold, and as I hammered at the keys of the typewriter, I felt a dreadful intractability about the text I was working on – no matter that I had eschewed the simple past and dived into the dangerous waters.”
For those of you who don’t know Dartmouth. Because I do. It is an exclusive retreat for the vastly wealthy. Huge houses, overlooking a stunningly beautiful river. It isn’t hard to work out he was staying in some wealthy socialite’s holiday home that is vacant through winter. The way he mentions being bitterly cold and a typewriter, suggests some run down shanty. Put the heating on and plug in the laptop that was in the photo that accompanied the article. Your in Dartmouth, all the homes are mansions – It’s hardly the ghetto. He could easily walk to the center and eaten at one of the two celebrity chef’s restaurants. There is nobody like me in Dartmouth. I live in Plymouth, Dartmouth people used to fear us because we’d burgle their houses in winter. I don’t have the free use of a millionaires holiday home for winter. I find it ironic that Self is staying in a holiday second or third home, no doubt owned by a millionaire. Those whom have bought up all the properties, so that the area is too expensive for locals to live there and decimating the area. Dartmouth in winter, there will be no lights on because hardly anyone lives there in the cold months as it is the summer playground of the super rich.

So in hindsight, I quite like my genre of ‘mal écrit’ and my knowledge of literature spans ‘Like it’ or ‘Don’t like it’ regardless of whom or what it is. And if anyone asks, no I don’t think I am anything like Will Self.

  1. I have many artist friends. One in particular, who now has a cushy professorship and pension to look forward to tells a regular story to his female students about living in New York City under a ping-pong table in the rec- room of a defunct hospital. “There was no heat, so I taped the paint brushes to my mittens.” One day I will head back to Yale to let all the gorgeous slender young things who come and the go from his office hours at wee hours of the night that in fact he lived with a girlfriend who worked a day job in a Houston Street walk up. Yes it was smaller than a tennis court and larger than a ping pong table but there was heat.
    Memory becomes better than fiction?
    Love your work baby.

  2. monty says:

    A long overdue kicking for Mr Self. His boho Oxbridge breed is nauseating in the extreme and has a stanglehold on just about every aspect of literary production in the UK. Blast them to hell…

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