Edinburgh: Memory, landscape and the buildings of our childhood
Wednesday 25 August 1999
GAP STUDIO THEATRE
THE TALK, "Urban Landscapes", proved to be an intriguing journey into the imaginations of Andrew O'Hagan and Will Self, slamming Self's distinctive satirical slant next to a more sensitive, elegiac response from O'Hagan. O'Hagan revealed he was "one of those sad-case children who stared at buildings the whole time," and confessed that "buildings are as close to me as many people". Self said that he experienced the city as "something akin to my skin. A lot of my jokes are [based on the fact] that the city is a body in which I am engrafted."
Watching the two writers sitting on either side of a table was a striking example of how Nature doesn't purpose-build appearances in the way that architects design buildings. If Self's distinctive face did not decorate so many picture by-lines and book-jackets, you would have guessed it was he - with his hollow cheeks and tortured eyes - who had written the more sensitive, introspective Our Fathers.
O'Hagan's more solid build and firmly-cropped receding hair seemed, by contrast, startlingly prosaic for the man who reduced the room to a hush when he emotionally described the destruction of one community's tower block.
Although both showed with equal eloquence how landscape had affected both their emotional and their intellectual lives, it was evident that, for O'Hagan, his ideas were very strongly tied to emotional experiences, while for Self they seemed more like glorious games. O'Hagan described with feeling how, when he was very young, he had read James Joyce's story "The Dead". "In the very first paragraph he describes the house where the action takes place as looking gaunt, and these two lights at the top, like eyes. I couldn't get that image out of my mind because I always felt that buildings had personalities."
Self accounted for his more cynical approach to the city by explaining that he had been born in Old Charing Cross Hospital, and had grown up in an area flooded with the histories and personalities of other people. It was partly because of this that he felt "reduced" and "alienated" by his environment, which also led to an obsession with scale, and the way characters could either be magnified - like the 60ft adulterer in his short story "Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual" - or diminished by their alienation.
Despite their conflicting approaches, the two writers ultimately agreed that a seemingly fixed physical landscape is distorted time and time again by the imaginations of those who visited it. O'Hagan, who grew up in a new housing estate, and felt a strong need to provide it with a history said it was "part of literature's job to enable people to live in a place imaginatively". Self reflected on how his imagination transformed the city, and concluded: "If you took my fictional map with which to rebuild London, it would probably look externally like a toilet."
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