HOW WE MET; JIM CRACE AND WILL SELF

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The Independent Culture
The writer Jim Crace, 49, grew up in north London. He started writing in 1970, after voluntary work in Africa. He won the Whitbread First Novel Prize for Continent in 1986; since then he has written a further three novels. He lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children. The writer and journalist Will Self, 33, also grew up in north London. His short story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1993. Separated from his wife, he has two children and lives in Suffolk. He is wo rking on a collection of journalistic pieces. JIM CRACE: Four years ago I had a call from Phil Tew, an English lecturer. He said that we'd been at school together, and would I go and talk to a group of his students in Wolverhampton. I hadn't a clue who he was. Then I realised that because of the age difference between us, our connection with Enfield Grammar must be extremely tenuous. He was in the first year when I was re-sitting my A-levels. I wasn't inclined to say yes - until he mentioned that Will Self had already agreed to come. That did it. I didn't mind making an effort if it meant meeting Will Self, who was the serial drug abuser and enfant terrible of modern writing.

Wolverhampton was the start of a double-act that Will and I are now wheeled out to perform at literary events all over the place. These festivals and seminars can be dull and pompous, but with Will it's always fun. He's one of the most well-read people I've met and has a huge and dangerous vocabulary. I remember waiting for him, wondering what kind of car he'd be driving. That day, I'd read a brilliant piece he'd written about driving on motorways, and how, as you leave the fast lane, you go from being a sergeant-major to a lowly corporal. I imagined Will arriving in some flashy acid-ridden vehicle. When he drove up in an ordinary Citroen, I thought it quite bizarre.

I was confronted by this very tall man with Bulgarian pimp sideburns which were sharp enough to stab him in the lips. He looked like he'd been up all night. When you get to know him, Will's not like his media image. He's unpretentious and not in the least judgemental. He has one of the most original minds I've ever met. He's opinionated, certainly, but his opinions are exciting.

We didn't even talk about what we were going to discuss with the students - we just did it. Will has genuine empathy with aspiring, tortured young writers. Unlike me, he genuinely believes in the power of literature to change the world. Our first performance was so enjoyable we thought we'd do it again. It was obvious that someone like Will wasn't going to get out his tennis racquet or sit on the crossbar of my bike, activities about which I'm passionate, so if I was going to see him again, it would have to be as part of our double-act.

Our backgrounds are very different. Will told me that when he was seven his father would give him a tumbler-full of brandy. My family was very puritanical. Will has, like Icarus, flown very close to the sun with alcohol and drugs. Before a reading, he's likely to ask for three double Jameson's - straight - with no ice. All I want is a cup of tea. Although it's not really something to joke about, I think it's wonderfully ironic that, at the age of 33, Will should be suffering from gout. He says that his drinking binges are now under control, and I believe him. When he came up for the Birming-ham Literary festival, he couldn't even finish a glass of beer.

I wasn't sure what would happen the first time Will came to stay. He would he react to my nuclear family? I have to say that this man, who has an image of living on the edge of society, was nice to my children and even got a response from my 13-year- old son, which is saying something. In the evening, when I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth, he asked if I would mind if he smoked in the bedroom. He has a level of politeness which is extraordinary.

Last year we were invited to the Melbourne Festival, where a private letter of acceptance I had written to the organisers - in which I referred to Will as a "substance abuser" - was published in the newspaper. He was, with good reason, absolutely furious, fearing the drug squad might des-cend on him. His irritation is terrifying: he has an operatic temper which could be compared to a missile going off. All the publicity attracted huge interest and 600 people turned up. The two of us had been out at a nightclub until 5am and were wrecks when we arrived at the hall. We were taking an even bigger risk than usual. Will, as always, was brilliant, and when it was all over we hugged each other on stage - it was like two friends celebrating having ridden rapids together. I could forgive Will anything, although that's probably because we don't see each other very often. If we were next door neighbours, I'm sure the novelty would wear off.

WILL SELF: After I left university, my gig was working with a guy called Phil Tew for the GLC selling inflatables to put up in parks. Phil was a fairly obstreperous bloke, and one day he just disappeared. Four years ago he popped up as an academic - as people do - in the guise of an English literature lecturer, and asked me up to Wolverhampton, to talk to some of his students. I doubt if I'd have said yes if he hadn't mentioned that Jim Crace had already agreed to come. Jim is one of those writers for whom I have huge literary envy, simply because of what people write on the back of his books. It's what I call blurb admiration.

In my head, I'd got Jim way out of scale. I'd imagined him to be taller, and was quite shocked that he wasn't. I was also extremely shocked to discover that he is nearly 50. He seems like my contemporary, but there are 17 years between us. I've never felt there was an age gap because I was old at 15 and Jim was probably young at 20. Although we didn't plan anything, our rap to the Wolverhampton students went very well. At the time I was extremely depressed. Jim, in his subtle way, could see something was wrong. He has a great gift for understanding. From the moment we met, there's never been any petty rivalry between us. We've developed this rap - the high falutin' crap about the tortured life of an artist and the literati scene. Once upon a time I was a would-be writer, so I empathise with the aspiring writers who come to hear us. Jim does a witty demolition of the myth of a writer's life. We seem like complete opposites, but underneath I think we're fairly similar. Even though Jim insists he is this deadpan ordinary Joe to my extravagant personality, there is a point where we converge.

I appear at literary festivals only because it means I'll see Jim. Only he could have got me up to a group called the Birmingham Writers to appear with Richard Neville, David Lodge and a scriptwriter from The Archers. One of the most important things about our friendship is that there is a shorthand between us; there was none of that getting-to-know-you stuff. As two political activists, both of us knew the other was completely politically sound.

Staying with Jim and his family in their house wasn't as odd as I might have imagined. Until he invited me to the house, I'd only ever met him when both of us were away from our usual working environment. His young son is a very talented artist, and Jim is obviously proud of him. He has this terribly secure middle- class home life, but I have a feeling that despite all the tennis and gardening, Jim's quite highly-strung.

The rooms where we work look very different. I wouldn't dream of saying that Jim's study demonstrates anal retention, but his marker pens are colour-coded and the distance bet-ween his keyboard and chair is painstakingly measured out. As someone who writes surreal, method writing, you wouldn't expect me to have a neat study, but I don't think that when I'm in a writing phase our way of working is that different. He writes from 10am until 3.15pm and then goes to pick up the kids from school. I work from 9am until 12pm, take a break and then go back to do a second draft.

Last year, when we were invited to the Melbourne Festival, I was angry that the organisers had taken Jim's private letter and printed it in the newspaper. Basically, he'd written that we were warm acquaintances and had shared the podium a couple of times before, but we couldn't be more different as writers or people. Jim wrote: "He's an intellectual and a serial substance abuser. I'm a bone-brained puritan. He'd widely read and an expert on the current British literary scene, whereas I live in Birmingham and couldn't give a damn. I'd like a glass of water and a hard- backed chair. Will would like the skin of a cane toad topped by three double Irishes in a straight glass; no ice..."

As a writer, he does things that I can't do. I wish him many more books and to stay as unworldly and as uncontaminated as he is now. !

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