By Sophie Perry
On Friday the 16th October, residents of Hillingdon and its surrounding areas gathered in Brunel's Antonin Artaud building to enjoy the premier event of the Hillingdon Literary Festival, 'An Evening with Will Self'. The talk, lead by the man himself, focused on Self’s area of research, psycho-geography, which can be defined as ‘the psychological and political relationship between the built and the natural environment’.
As an author, Will Self has produced numerous novels, Cock and Bull (1992), The Butt (2008) and Shark (2014), as well as novellas, short story collections and non-fiction works. He has also written political commentary and acted as a journalist for a number of national newspapers. In 2012 he was appointed as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University and is a lecturer for Arts and Humanities students at all levels of their degree.
Le Nurb had the chance to speak with Will Self about his research, teaching, career and education.
Le Nurb: You have an Oxford education, so why choose to teach at Brunel?
Will Self: The things I find interesting about Brunel are its location on the outskirts of London. That feeds into what I’m interested in so if you were at the event the other night you could see why I would wish to teach at Brunel rather than Oxford. Oxford hasn’t got the same psychogeographical credentials. I also like the student body, I like the fact we've got a very large number of students from ethnic minorities in the student population. That’s really interesting, that’s how we’re changing as a country. Here at Brunel, this is the future. Oxford is emphatically the past.
LN: If you had attended Brunel instead of Oxford, do you think you would still be where you are today?
WS: Its networking, isn’t it? Elite education is a very useful for networking. It's true because you meet all the people who wind up in the elite, there’s no denying that. Do I think I got my breaks because of that? In part yes, I did get some breaks because of going to Oxford. Take my first book. I mean, obviously it was published because it was a stone cold work of genius, but it was also published because my then girlfriend worked for a publisher and was able to give it directly to the right people who recommended that it be published.
LN: Tell me about the modules you teach at Brunel, what is your favourite?
WS: My module is the pyschogeography one and that’s taught almost completely on foot and out of doors, going around actually looking at the built environment and trying to get in touch with how it affects us, what it’s like to move though them, discussing transportation, looking at how walking affects the way we feel and think. Why do you see so many people in headphones, why are so many people driving in cars with the music turned up? It’s because there’s a basic level of anxiety about the wider environment and an underlying apprehension which I would argue is true that in certain key and important ways we are not free. The rest of the teaching I do, if you can call it teaching, is pretty standard stuff. I’ve just been teaching Ulysses to my third years and I teach on the Reading Resilience module for first year English students.
LN: One of your research areas is the changing state of the novel, do you believe English degrees, or Literary Festivals, are as relevant as they once were?
WS: Well literary festivals are entirely a function of my own career. I mean, I don’t cause them, what I mean is they are co-extensive with my own literary career so it’s funny to hear you talking about them dying out. They didn’t exist twenty five years ago. When I started in the nineties almost all public events for writers were held in bookshops and you’d have a bookstore reading. The reason that's evolved into lit-fests is because people have started to detach the oral and performative component of literature from the written component.
LN: Where is your favourite place to walk?
WS: I just like walking, well, wherever I am. I always walk from home in South London. The whole point of my kind of practice is to be where you are but I do have an affection for the Isle of Grain, also known as the Hoo Peninsula in the Thames estuary. That is where I first went when I began being a psychogeographer, though, at the time, I didn’t know that's what it was called.
LN: What book would you recommend for every student should read, that is not your own?
WS: Well I wouldn’t recommend my own anyway. It’s difficult because you’re recommending books to a lot of people who don’t want to read books, then if you’re recommending a book to people who do like read books they’ve probably read it already. We live in a recommendation culture don’t we? I think what makes an interested and engaged young reader is somebody who goes into libraries and rummages for themselves.
LN: How do you feel about the changing state of University?
WS: Negative. I don’t think we should have moved to a fee model at all and we should have kept a grant system. I didn’t have to have a job when I was at University it was paid for and I didn’t have any debt when I left.
LN: You have had a varied career, what is the worst interview you have ever done?
WS: One that immediately comes to mind was when a guy came all the way from Scotland to interview me in London and he hadn’t read the book. If it was just for a radio thing you could accept that, especially if you write 400 page modernist novels. You don’t necessarily expect someone doing a two or three minute interview to have read them. But if you are coming to do a pre-publication interview that’s going to be a big press piece, maybe a four thousand word interview, you better bloody read the book.
LN: What did five year old Will Self want to be?
WS: I quite liked running away when I was five, so probably just somewhere else.
LN: Tips for any aspiring writers out there?
WS: If you’re talking about serious writing, ask yourself: Am I prepared for a working life that will consist of long periods of solitary confinement? In a thirty or forty years working life as much as twenty years will probably be spent on your own... in a room... typing.