Self examination

Will Self, the most notorious - and some say the best - novelist of his generation is discussed by friends and family. Illustration by John Springs
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Indy Lifestyle Online
He has been compared to William Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson, Francisco Goldman, Spalding Gray and an omelette of JG Ballard and David Lodge. On a visit to Brazil, he received "more attention than V S Naipaul". His prose employs more recondite words than any novelist since Anthony Burgess. And last month, after covering John Major's election from the lavatory of his plane, Will Self, 37, was accused in banner headlines of improper horseplay and dismissed from the Observer.

But that's already history. His new novel, Great Apes, is upon us. Its conceit is of a young artist waking up as a chimpanzee in a world where the chimp has become the successful primate. Cock and Bull was about sex, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis about drugs, and My Idea of Fun about evil. Great Apes, we learn, is about... the family?

Susannah Self, opera singer and cousin

"I've got this photo of me with him and his elder brother Joss - who was portrayed in Slump as the psychiatrist - and Will's about three here, very short, with a very round face, bright, bright white hair, and with this determined frump on his face - but with a grin underneath, a sense that he was top dog. He was certainly top dog over us elder children - we just weren't of the same calibre and we knew it. He had the undivided attention of both his sophisticated, left-wing Hampstead parents - although, actually, they lived in Hampstead Garden suburb in a utilitarian Fifties house where TV wasn't allowed and ornaments were declared `anti-socialist'.

Will's mother - who's very much the character portrayed in the first chapter of Will's Quantity Theory of Insanity - always had plenty of southern fried chicken and brownies in the kitchen. Tremendously homely. His father, Peter, was a towering intellectual presence and everyone talked in extremely loud voices. They absolutely adored him. There was a sense that the one thing that held together their difficult marriage was their total adoration of their little Willy. Day in, day out, they had nothing but pathological wonder for their incredibly naughty and difficult creation.

Because I love him dearly, I did an opera based on Slump at the Lyric Hammersmith, me playing my version of Will. I think the best scene was the sex scene between him (me) and his girlfriend, who complains afterwards that it wasn't good for her and he replies, `Frankly, I'd prefer if we made breakfast than love again'. And I noticed Will and a girlfriend sitting in the audience, at this point, with their heads in their hands.

His mother was furious with Will for his drugs and everything. Her heart was broken by it. But she sold all her savings to send him to drug rehabilitation in Bristol, and it really worked for him. He controlled it. He's got an enormous sense of omnipotence and self-belief, and that enrages everybody, myself included. I wouldn't say he's always easy to love. My sister said to him at his mother's funeral, `What are you going to do now?' and he replied, `I'm going off to masturbate'."

William Donaldson, the author of Henry Root

"I think I've still got a letter of his ideas for books he wanted to write with me - real toilet- book ideas, Christmas stuff. The idea that Will Self was going to do comic books for Xmas, He must look back and think `gorblimey' and wince.

Then I felt very stupid because here was me, this old boy, being invited to dinner by this clever young man in his lovely country kitchen house, and the first thing he did was roll a joint, which horrified me - the idea of sitting there in my blue John Lewis Partnership jacket with people 40 years younger than myself. I've smoked pot for 40 years but certainly wouldn't want to smoke pot with people 40 years younger - or older - than me.

Then suddenly it got worse, and the house was invaded by hundreds of sweet little Tatler types exclaiming, `We're going to chase the dragon'. They said, `You mustn't go', and I said `I'm not going to sit around with little girls smoking heroin. Why would you want to do it in front of a grown-up?' And they said, `Stay, it would be very judgmental if you went'. I said, `Fuck this - why do you want to lie around on the floor next to a man looking like Denis Thatcher?'

I said to Will, `That's the scary part, isn't it - scoring?' And he said `Yes, nothing excited me more than going to some terrifying fucking crack house in Ladbroke Grove'. He obviously likes slumming a bit."

Mark Honigsbaum, journalist

"We used to share a flat in the first year at Oxford - me and my girlfriend, and Will and a chap called Pete. Will and Pete would hole up in his room reading philosophy and chain-smoking cannabis from bongs, while downstairs dishes would pile up in the sink and the fabric of the house would fall apart.

We realised Will was a latent genius, but what finally made us say `enough is enough!' is when we came out of the living room to discover that Will had nailed old milk-cartons to the ceiling and there were strange bulbs and funguses growing in them. I think it was a general protest directed against our nagging bourgeois sensibilities. He was going though his anarchist period - he dressed, North London-style, in a donkey jacket with a woollen skull-cap. We were all doing PPE and studying philosophy, and everything was always dressed up with pretentious bollocks.

But he didn't perform well. He was holed up with Kant and a syringe. During the final exams, he turned up progressively later and later for each paper. For the philosophy paper, he walked in half an hour late, very ostentatiously wearing dark glasses, and legend has it that, instead of answering the question on behaviourism, Will drew a cartoon featuring two bald-headed philosophers with beards, one standing behind the other one with a long stick with a carrot on the end. The caption read: `Behaviourists feverishly debate'. He got a Third!"

Toby Young, ex-editor Modern Review

"He's the Norman Mailer of literary London. Very aggressive - particularly when he's under the influence.

We were having a heated discussion in Green Street about whether or not it was foolish of Martin Amis to spend pounds 20,000 having his teeth done. I was arguing that it was an act of vanity which didn't fit very well with Amis's generally sardonic persona. Self became very agitated and said I had no idea what it was like for people born before systematic fluoridisation, then attempted to remove my own teeth with his fists.

First time I met him, I thought he'd invented his name to sound like an Amis character. He came to see me, pre-novels, and said he was writing advertising copy or working for the electricity board or something - some very tedious job. He struck me that he'd swallowed a dictionary. I thought `If I had an hour to spare, I might try and work out what he's just said'.

He surrounds himself with sycophants who share his high opinion of himself. Most of his close friends have their tongues up his arse. You'll sit there and someone will describe him as the most important writer of the late 20th century, and Self laps it up.

I remember once witnessing Self accusing [literary journalist] Tom Shone, who'd slept with two girls after Will had slept with them because Shone had an obsession with him. He felt Tom couldn't have any other motivation to sleep with these very attractive girls other than to sexually undermine him. The man's astonishly egocentric."

Matthew Freud, publicist

"We first met in puberty when we were 12 or 13 and spent holidays in Suffolk. We were both picking beans, down on our fucking knees for 10 pence an hour. They're quite intimate childhood memories. My chief vision of him is at a very strange village fete, where he was wearing a medieval costume. He was standing just to the side of everyone in this extraordinary costume, smoking a clay pipe. He was always a bit side-on, Will, smoking a clay pipe. But what I must stress is that what makes Will unique is that his persona is not manufactured. This is absolutely who he is and it's always been who he is - and I don't think it was ever fantastically easy being Self. Even then he had various... mmm, gangs drawn to him."

Martin Rowson, cartoonist & collaborator

"His reputation precedes him as some kind of druggie monster, but he's not like that at all - he's very sentimental and soft-hearted. One thing sums it up. We were covering the Newbury roads protest, and drove down there to see the donga camp, and he was giving me directions round the back streets from his house in White City, and he suddenly said, "Watch out for that bussy-wussy, Marty!" - which I found terribly endearing. `Bussy-wussy' words often drop into his conversation, and I have to ask myself, `Would William Burroughs say something like that?'"

Ralph Steadman, Gonzo cartoonist and illustrator of Self's New Statesman column

"I saw a photo and thought, `Young Pete Townshend'. And, funnily enough, when I read his restaurant column, I sensed a certain kind of spirit there which had somehow been engendered by his admiration for Gonzo, a kind of rebellious maverick feeling. I said that before knowing he was inspired and infected by Gonzotic experiences, just as Hunter based himself on Hemingway and Faulkner. Faulkner said the truth is always much more interesting than the fiction, and Hunter realised his truth would be to live it and then maybe become it. I think it tickled Will's fancy, the idea of writing to illustrations drawn by me, like Hunter often did. Although I must say he's been a lot more obedient than Hunter ever was.

We've never met, we've only ever worked by fax and phone, and when he saw figures of fairly ineffectual-looking people wearing gas masks in one of my pictures, he wrote, `What surprised most people is how willingly they went to the gas chambers'. I thought, `Jesus, I wasn't thinking about it that way - seeing gas chamber victims as a metaphor for our political system!' Jesus, what a thing to write - it's only an election!"

John McVicar, Groucho pool-partner

"He's a big man, constitutionally - lucky that he's genetically favoured. Most big minds often don't have the physical side to go with it. He really can drink and smoke most people under the table, and get up the next day and work hard. I'm sure the amount of gear he's taken would have crushed most people. If you got him, say, to row a boat, you'll see that basic bullock strength.

He's got a responsibility now to be good, to be a big talent. In their forties, a writer's big works have to start coming off the presses, so I think he's realising he has to dedicate himself completely to a great novel every two years, and I think that's becoming a heavy responsibility.

Morgan Entrekin, New York agent

" He's been a big hit here - He's been compared to Nabokov and Burroughs. He's the heir-apparent to Marty [Amis], a very dear friend and I love the guy. He has down-time but he's very rarely a bump on a log. As I described Great Apes to Liz Calder at Bloomsbury, `This is like Planet of the Apes written by Jonathan Swift on acid!' He's got a sort of heat-seeking missile way of looking. There's some times I say to Will, `Where in the world does some of this stuff come from, baby?'

John Walsh, literary journalist

"You suddenly run into him at the Groucho and he's thoroughly wired and babbling away about how various people are `after him'. It's as if he's in some rather bad B-movie. He knows his way around paranoia.

I've also had terribly nice chats with the dear cove, where he's talked with fantastic passion about some tiny semantic crux - this writerly affectation to be entranced by, say, the Edwardian phrase `queer as Dick's hat band'. He will detruffle for little bits of exotica like this. He described some cigars for me as `Tetanusy'.

The trouble with Will is, he's the kind of guy who would rather use the word terpsichorean than the word dancing. His problem is that he went to Martin Amis's - and also my - college in Oxford: Exeter. But he studied PPE by mistake. Now he's trying to write a series of Eng Lit essays saying, `Is this good enough? Damn it, I should have done English!'."

Beryl Bainbridge, novelist

"I've never read him, but I went to his mother's funeral. She was a secretary at Duckworth's. I didn't know about him until a few years ago when I saw a recitation he gave at the Groucho - he spoke and moved and used props. I just thought he was amazing. I don't understand people who write modern novels, but he struck me as highly intelligent - so much so that that thing on the PM's plane just seems to me tragic. What the hell is he doing?"

Hanif Kureishi, author and film-maker

"I'm afraid I've never read him. I just run into him around Shepherd's Bush with his kids. He just seems like a really good family man to me"