In conversation with Will Self
From Idler 2, November 1993
This interview is still one of my favourites.
I was quite nervous of Will, knowing him only by reputation, and he did indeed turn out to be rather scary.
I met him in the terraced house in Shepherds Bush where he lived at the time, in the summer of 1993. He was on the wagon on the evening I went over, but smoked copious amounts of draw.
He gave me a bottle of white wine, which I drank very quickly out of nerves. I hadn’t eaten, so became extremely drunk. I also shared several joints and a pipe with him. By the end of the interview I could hardly talk. Will, however, seemed to become more articulate the more he smoked.
Self went on to become a great friend to the Idler, giving us advice, encouragement and writing some terrific pieces for no fee whatsoever.
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Will Self has a distinguished history of idleness. At 12 he renounced all sporting activity and involved himself in counter-cultural pursuits. In his twenties he drew a cartoon strip for the New Statesman, Slump, which featured a proto- idler who never got out of bed. It was semi-autobiographical, as Self himself rarely rose either. Following a flirtation with the world of business as a magazine publisher, he found himself experiencing success as a novelist, writer of short stories and journalist. The Idler met Self – lanky, loud and louche – in this latest of his multiple personalities and discussed driving, drugs, small businesses and the will to dullness.
Idler: Are you an Idler?
Self: I’m an incredibly indolent person. I have an enormous natural inability to do … virtually anything, actually. For long periods of my life I just lay in bed and read novels. When people used to ask me what I did, I would say, “I lie in bed and read philanthropic novels”. Somewhere round the house is an edition of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu which I re-covered entirely so that the spine read “Lying in bed reading philanthropic novels” because that’s all I fucking did, you know. When I did Slump for the Statesman, I had that and I had a gig at City Limits, the frontispiece cartoon on the letters page. One paid me 35 quid, the other paid me 70, that’s 105. I had a free flat. And that was it. It took me a morning to do the cartoons. The rest of the time I did nothing. Between ’82 and when I started in a serious suit and tie business in ’86, I did very little. That was the nadir of my idleness.
Idler: Were you confident in your idleness, or did it depress you?
Self: I’m reviewing Burroughs’ letters at the moment: great literary idler, did fuck all with his life except shoot drugs. And you can see that there was a real purpose to it. He was reacting against the Eisenhower era in the States, and the only proper response was to do nothing. It’s less arguable that you can get away with that now, that there’s any justification for it. So, I wasn’t particularly confident in it. The only sense in which I was confident in my idleness was as a writer. I wrote all the time, although I knew nothing I wrote was fit to publish, so that was my justification for doing nothing. Above and beyond that, no, it used to depress me enormously.
Idler: Did you feel pressure to do something?
Self: Well, I wanted to be a philosopher, which is the idlest occupation in the world. I wanted to be involved in abstract thought, but because of various problems with the authorities I wasn’t able to pull that one off. A lifetime of idleness in academia would have really suited me. So I was thrown out, as it were. Other than that, there seemed no possible idle occupations, so writing … although writing isn’t exactly idleness. There’s an enormous tension between indolence and languor.
Idler: Dr Johnson said that idlers can be stimulated to activity, as ponderous bodies, forced into velocity, move with a violence proportionate to their own weight.
Self: Inertia, yes, fascinating, the property of inertia. I’ve written three books in three years and I write a lot of journalism, and people seem to think that I’m incredibly hard-working. But in fact I’m incredibly idle. And I’m not one of those boys who would say that and then creep off and study; I am genuinely idle.
Idler: Do you have any problems with procrastination?
Self: No, I’m highly disciplined. I do nothing and then I do something. But it’s taken years of investigating idleness in all its forms to be able to achieve this. My discipline is borne out of concerted study of idleness. And of course, drugs are particularly useful if you want to be idle. I mean, you can’t get much more idle than that. If you spend a significant proportion of your life in underground car-parks waiting for dealers…
Idler: Is that one of the things that attracted you to drugs?
Self: They legitimise idleness. Particularly heroin, which has its own internal logic. As Burroughs says, there’s time and there’s junk time. You can’t do fuck all. You cannot fucking pass a sentence when you are smacked out. You can write on pot. Pot’s another great drug. Heroin is the bride and pot is the groom and they’re at the altar together. And they’re very British drugs. The British are hash-smokers and heroin-takers. Cocaine doesn’t suit Britain. If I were a dictator, I would ban coke and legalise heroin and pot. Hah!
Idler: What about exploratory psychedelics?
Self: A lot of people turn into trees, don’t they? You must know people who did over a hundred acid trips who now resemble vegetable forms of life. In terms of producing terminal idleness, acid is probably quite good.
Idler: But don’t you find things like that give you the opportunity to enter your own head, and pursue idle thoughts with a luxury you don’t normally get?
Self: Oh no, I think acid’s terribly zippy. I did a couple of hundred trips, but I never really saw it as a good idle drug. I used to take it with black bombers, which are time-release amphetamines – 24 hour very smooth speed rush. To take acid on top of that, and smoke, that is not idle.
Idler: But it can be at the end. When you’ve been dancing all night, in the morning you can have some nice thoughts.
Self: I don’t do psychotropic drugs any more. I do E occasionally; all those things make me feel very cerebral now. I am now a true idler and the thought of dancing on Ecstasy seems ridiculous – I’d much rather talk about Kent. Of course, a key idle character is Dunbar in Catch 22, he cultivates boredom in order to increase his life span. His disappearance is in keeping with this. Hmmm.
Idler: How does your interest in cars and motorways relate to idleness?
Self: Britain is too small; if you have a high powered car to drive around in it’s like a roundabout. So it’s very idle and boring. I used to have a very bad driving habit indeed. I was completely on the wagon for about four years, didn’t do any drugs or drink. And topped 47,000 miles, a lot of which was purposeless. I still do it sometimes – I did 400 miles last Saturday. It’s ecstatically boring, motorway driving. I loved it, I just loved it. I don’t think people should say sheer weight of traffic, you should say mere weight of traffic. This is because when you get into a fucking three – lane jam at 12 at night, when you’re banked up for miles and miles, gradually it starts to free itself. You’re expecting some kind of Goddard-style smash with heads bleeding and tears and body parts lying everywhere, and when you eventually get there, it’s nothing, nothing, the traffic starts to move again. What happens is that a sine wave is generated down the stream of traffic. So someone’s peeing on the hard shoulder, so one person brakes, next person brakes, so the amplitude of the sine wave increases till Muggins at the back is in a jam. So that’s mere weight of traffic, which is a phenomenon I adore and court assiduously. When I got onto the A303 and mere weight of traffic had banked up all the way from Stonehenge back to these roundabouts, I was loving it. I love the frustration on the faces of people, I get transfixed by it, because as an idler I just couldn’t give a fuck. It’s just pleasure. Also I drive an exceedingly crappy car, which is full of shit. It’s a Citro?�n DSA, it’s got dents in it, it looks like a pile of shit. What I like is meta-jams. It was so annoying when Ben Elton wrote that dreadful book about traffic jams. Obviously, I’m very much in the shadow of Ballard and his obsession with traffic.
Idler: Have you ever been in a serious car accident?
Self: Yes, several. It’s no fun at all. I was in a three-car write off crash on Chelsea Bridge. There’s nothing idle about a car crash.
Idler: But I drove off the motorway and flipped over once. And there is a kind of idle moment when you’re walking down from the car to the hard shoulder across a wet field.
Self:You call that idle do you? I think the definition’s getting a tad elastic there … yeah.
Idler: Cars do allow you to enter idleness, when you’re driving you can get into those extended …
Self: Reveries.Yes that’s what it’s all about. This cultural taboo against thinking – anti-intellectualism exists in England because of this protestant work ethic which demands that people shouldn’t be idle – ergo they shouldn’t think. So driving is a good way to recapture that. It’s very close to philosophising, large amounts of motorway driving.
Idler: That’s why people like it so much …
Self: Do they though? I don’t know anyone who likes it.
Idler: You don’t think the fact that of all these people driving long distances on motorways has anything to do with a sublimated desire to get back to idleness?
Self: No I don’t. I would take a much grimmer view of the generality of mankind. I think they’re just getting from A to B, and worrying about which service station to go to. Motorways are more real than anything.
Idler: Perhaps even more in the US.
Self: Americans have a problem with idleness, they’re not very good at it, in the same way that their culture is not very ironic. But here … London is a big city, it’s got genuine edge, and it’s still boring. We really have cracked it. It’s very, very dull. And for a person preoccupied by idleness there’s no other place to be.
Idler: What about the Continental version of idleness, where everyone’s outside?
Self: Oh, that’s terribly Epicurean. We don’t like that at all. That sounds too much like fun. Which is inimical to your idler. There are virtually no fun nerves left.
Idler: I had an idea for a column about fun, which would investigate the weird ways we have developed to try and have fun – Velcro walls, Alton towers – and try and figure out what fun is and why we’re trying to have it.
Self: Could have been good. I wanted to do a column called Dull Life for The Spectator. But I couldn’t work out whether it was going to be quotidian, Nicholson Baker-style micro-observation, or whether it was going to be a joke of extreme density. One I wrote was based on the M40, on work I did when I was working in publishing, driving to see middle-managers. There was some sort of paint-gun incident – an enormous fantasy based around how the dullest drives are the most exciting, and it’s only by penetrating the core of idleness that you can experience transcendence.
Idler: One doesn’t try and shy away from the material world, you can enjoy MTV …
Self: Erm … popular culture. No I’m not very keen on popular culture. That’s where I part company with the Modern Review people. I think that’s a load of cobblers, really just affectation. I myself have virtually no interest in … anything. My character Dr Busner has a motto:
“I have no interests but interest.” He appears in a new story I’ve written about a drug called Inclusion. When you take Inclusion you can include things in your life formerly not in it. You might be watching the telly, and curling would come on and curling would become incorporated in your life in a very genuine way, not just as background. The trouble with Inclusion is that you can’t control it’s effects.
Idler: I suppose that’s quite similar to the way people of an ironic bent get into MTV.
Self: I don’t know why they get into MTV, it’s a mystery to me. Youth subculture really did end in 1976; this is a genuinely literally decadent age. Of course they’re going to watch MTV.
Idler What do you mean, youth culture ended in 1976? There are loads of interesting things going on in youth culture now.
Self: No there aren’t. They’re really boring. I find the rave thing deeply dull. You talk to hardcore ravers, you hear the most asinine panoply of recycled cobblers you’ve ever heard in your life. Don’t you think so?
Idler: No, not really. Youth culture as a reaction against conventional society may have finished, so you get people who are …
Self: There’s no avant-garde. There’s no inter-generational input from young people into the mainstream culture that is valid or interesting. That’s what I mean. And that’s for demographic reasons. In my next novel I’m going to write about this particular problem, demography. It’s to do with the baby boom, and the way population ages, and that affects the culture in a very critical way. It’s why this culture is so dull. Hmm! You’ve got to take the long view. I take the long view. That’s another reason why I’m obsessed with motorways. I hope you realise I’m making this interview intentionally camp and ridiculous, and supercilious, and bogus. Otherwise we might just expire with tedium.
Idler: What things interest you in an active way?
Self: Erm. Virtually nothing, actually. Interest is like a Satanic cult – groups of people abusing you with interest. It’s a sinister, horrific thought, a dreadful conspiratorial thought. We’d better keep it to ourselves.
Idler: So you don’t engage with some aspects of modern culture, but you do engage with motorways. Why some things and not others?
Self: Give me motorway caf?�s over MTV any day of the week.
Idler: I think a good article would be a tour of motorway caf?�s, possibly on the M25.
Self: Absolutely. I wanted to do it with celebrities. But anyway that’s all very dull isn’t it. Dullness, really, is me. I’m dull rather than idle. I become idle in contemplating the dull. If you use a gloss on Schopenhauer, dullness is my equivalent of the will to power. Will to dullness. But I’m bored with dullness itself now. I must admit I feel faint flickerings of some kind of interest.
Idler: Having been an idler, what’s your attitude to being high profile?
Self: It’s very boring isn’t it? Enjoyment is not a word that exists in my vocabulary.
Idler: How have you engaged with that side of your work …success, basically?
Self: Yes, I believe that’s what they call it. I do think that the construct that people call the English literary establishment is so full of shit that it’s good fun to spoof it.
Idler:Do you feel like that with journalism, too?
Self: No, I feel genuinely guilty about not being a more conscientious journalist. I think I’m part of a rather dull tendency in journalism that is quite reprehensible … actually, I’m just not very good at it. I’m quite good at the reporting, but I’m much more Hunter Thompson really. But because we’re so terminally decadent, we’re not like Hunter Thompson when he wrote Fear and Loathing, we’re like Hunter Thompson as he is now. Which is horrific.
Idler: But given this unfortunately young and active body …
Self: That’s part of idleness, of course. The annoyance with the body. Your body is like a dog – if you start exercising it, it will start scratching at the door, so it’s wise to keep it down.
Idler: Have you ever had any encounters with sport and exercise?
Self: I once jogged to the ashtray … I realised early on that I couldn’t win, so I opted out, mostly by about 12. It’s something I find terminally dull. If one’s going to level here, I have huge vicarious interest. I’m an interest voyeur. I like to sit and watch people being interested. There ought to be a law against it. Personally I wouldn’t even know what to do with a football. I’ve managed to completely suppress all sporting interest. I’m just a pansy intellectual …
Idler: Where does your interest in mental health come from?
Self: Well it is interesting isn’t it? So we’d better not talk about it.
Idler: But I’d hate to exclude interest entirely from this …
Self: All sorts of sources is the answer. But the most profound was during a big acid phase when I was living in Oxford, and a lot of schizophrenics moved into the house. There was this situation where you were really wiggy and out on the edge, and these people were wiggy and out on the edge, and this seemed like the thing. Do a lot of drugs and hang out with schizophrenics. One used to sit across the breakfast table from me going “You are the great white spirit, you live in the fifth dimension, you control everything by wires,” and I was “Yeah, right.” So that was a real catalyst, and I was getting these realisations that people who are mentally ill are really ill, they’re really mad. There was an epistemological break, that this wasn’t to do with language. All that stuff is so interesting, I don’t really want to talk about it, I’ll get too excited.