“so I was smacked out on the prime minister’s jet, big deal.” Thus British author Will Self, whose past has earned him the hyphenate title “author-former heroin addict,” summed up his shenanigans on then-Prime Minister John Major’s campaign plane last April.
Big deal, indeed. For days, during the rough and tumble election, the question “Did he or didn’t he shoot up on the PM’s plane?” dominated the British press. Originally, Self denied “acting oddly” and spending “a long time in the lavatory.” But later he told journalists, “I had a bad patch with smack and I did take a tiny nub end of gear on the fucking flight.”
The controversy surrounding Self’s alleged shooting spree nicely dovetailed with the publication of his latest novel, “Great Apes.” “Great Apes” could use all the hoopla it can get: Beyond an astonishing resemblance to the “Planet of the Apes” movies, there isn’t a hell of a lot to recommend it. Self, author of “The Quantity Theory of Insanity” and “My Idea of Fun,” among other works, has a certain literary reputation, but it’s hard to separate it from his personal notoriety. As Lesley White noted in the Times of London, “Most of us have never met Will Self, nor read his novella about a woman who sprouts a penis; but we are all aware of his pose, his junkie past, the naughtiness that once declared it was as easy to get crack as a rail ticket at King’s Cross station.”
Considering his past antics, Self had to do something pretty special to whip up interest in “Great Apes” — and coyly confessing to shooting skag on the Major’s plane definitely qualified. If there were any doubts about Self’s motives, they were answered by his publicists, who thoughtfully included an array of clippings on the campaign heroin incident and his junkie past in the “Great Apes” press kit.
This wasn’t the first of Self’s media manipulations. When he first appeared on the literary scene over five years ago, the word got out that he was a hoax, possibly a front for some extracurricular writing by his friend Martin Amis. It didn’t hurt the mini-controversy that Self, in interviews, seemed much more interested in discussing his Nintendo scores than his writing. Self’s career has further benefited from high-class logrolling on his book jackets, where Amis, Nick Hornby, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard and the Sunday Times regularly sing his praises. (Some of these blurbs are somewhat underwhelming: of “The Quantity Theory of Insanity,” Hornby negligibly trumpeted “There isn’t anything like this in British fiction.”)
Self has often stated his admiration for playwright Dennis Potter and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who both used terminal illnesses to focus the British media on their final testaments. Self wants the same kind of glory, and has done his best to make sure he doesn’t have to die to get it.
Self belongs to a fine tradition of British writers who’ve resorted to extra-curricular activities to get attention in this media-saturated island. Last Christmas, Jeannette Winterson, another Brit novelist, drew attention to her latest book, “Gut Symmetries,” with the revelation that she’d spent a portion of her pre-published life as a lesbian hooker for prim suburban ladies visiting London for shopping. She gave details of pick-up bars and hotels and spiced the yarn with claims that she had been primarily paid in expensive kitchenware that the suburban dames had put on their husbands’ credit cards. Winterson’s colleagues doubted her, but did admit she does have a lot of good kitchenware.
Besides glory, Self has proudly proclaimed his earnest desire to acquire large bags of cash. As he wrote in his 1994 manifesto on contemporary British culture, “Valley of the Corn Dollies,” his work “represents the fruits of being prepared to do more or less what any editor asks me to do, having calculated the ratio of glibness to money that the commission represents.”
He has also long had a love/hate relationship with the British press. Of his 18-month stint as the London Observer’s restaurant critic, Self remarked, “I have preferred to bite the hand that feeds me — after generously slathering it with tomato ketchup.”
The genesis of Self’s hijacking of the British media to sell his new book can be found in “Valley of the Corn Dollies,” where he observes: “There are two nations in England therefore, the cool nation and the undeniably uncool one. It follows that there is a cool culture and an uncool culture. It’s the sort of exercise that a great many English journalists take to with great enthusiasm … journalists writing about journalists … I myself have considered asking all my journalist friends to contribute to a collection of the most facile and meretricious examples of this genre. It would be entitled ‘The New Glib.’”
Self’s I-was-strung-out-on-John-Major’s plane tale is the apotheosis of the New Glib, with a trendy junkie twist. Martin Amis summed it up in a published conversation with Self, when he stated, “Personalities are much more accessible than a corpus of work. Everyone can understand a person … In TV age terms, it’s pretty onerous to have to wade through a body of work, when all you’re interested in is personalities.”
Meanwhile, Self continues to flog his “dangerous” personality for all it’s worth. Picking up on a lucrative gig pioneered by William S. Burroughs, Self can be heard on an album by rappers Bomb the Bass reciting one of his pieces, “5 ml Barrel,” a baroque tale about injecting kaolin and morphine. He’s widely touted as one of the big-name guests on Ruby Wax’s new BBC2 late-night talk show. He’s even trying to pick up a couple of bucks on this side of the Atlantic with superficially naughty puff pieces in recent issues of Spy and George.
You’ve got to give the man credit — Self works hard and he knows how to use his pose of self-lacerating honesty. As he writes in the introduction to “Junk Mail,” a collection of journalism, “I knew damn well that a large part of what sold the treatment of the book to its potential publisher was the expectation that I would publicly grass on [inform on] myself.” Watching him turn the worst tendencies of the British press to his own profit, it’s hard not to feel a rush of pure glee.
July 16, 1997
Dominic Patten is a Brit by birth, an American by heritage and a firm believer in the pleasure principle. He is currently working on a screenplay based on the life of William Randolph Hearst’s longtime mistress, Marion Davies.