I did few things last week more enjoyable than reading Will Self’s new novel. One of them was hearing Will read from it on Friday afternoon at the Oxford Playhouse. The book is not the one that the writer is displaying in the publicity photograph above. That was his last novel, Liver. His latest is Walking to Hollywood, published by Bloomsbury at £17.99 (though like most book prices these days this is notional since it can nearly always be bought more cheaply — £11.01 from Amazon).
An engaging blend of fiction and memoir, the book chronicles three journeys undertaken by Will, mostly on foot, in Canada and the US and along the eroding coast of East Yorkshire. His electrifying prose is reminiscent of the work of William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson (writers much associated — as Self used to be — with the ingestion of drugs). At times, too, he is capable of great tenderness. A passage concerning a baby seal, found stabbed to death on a Yorkshire beach, is unbearably moving.
Thrilling as it is to read, though, the book seemed even more so when performed — that’s the right word — by the author. Self might easily, I think, have followed his studies at Exeter College, Oxford, with a career as an actor or stand-up comedian, for he has an impeccable sense of timing, of the importance of pace and stress. He mentioned to the Playhouse audience that he had been recording a talking book earlier in the day. Let us hope the book was Walking to Hollywood — it would be great to hear it in its entirety.
My admiration for Self was increased on Friday not just by his readings, but by what he had to say in between them about matters of current concern. One was the slaughter by the police of lawyer (and Christ Church alumnus) Mark Saunders (“the special guns squad of the Met have said they will all walk out if one of their number is ever charged with unlawful killing”); another was the planned withdrawal of family allowances from the rich, which he thinks a good thing. I agree with him on both.