Will Self: On JB Priestley and the art of literature

Will Self is in Yorkshire this week to deliver the inaugural JB Priestley Lecture. He talks to Chris Bond about the demise of culture and why he believes the North is better than the South.

Will Self is in Huddersfield this week to give the inaugural JB Priestley Lecture.
Will Self is in Huddersfield this week to give the inaugural JB Priestley Lecture.

ON the face of it JB Priestley and Will Self are somewhat unlikely bedfellows.

Priestley was the populist Bradford-born novelist, playwright and broadcaster, while Self is an uncompromising writer and commentator known for his caustic wit and dark, surreal novels.

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But Self believes they do share some similarities. “We’re both middle class and vaguely left wing, and I have been known to smoke a pipe...” he says, mischievously.

“I’ve actually just re-read his book English Journey about his travels through England. I’m very interested in psychogeography, which is about the relationship between psychology and place, and Priestley’s book is a proto-typical psychogeographical text.

“Priestley was also a broadcaster whose broadcasts during the Second World War had a big impact, and I’m a figure people recognise on TV. He was also a journalist and I’m a journalist, so there is some affinity there, too,” he says.

“It’s true there’s no real comparison between our literary work, he wrote populist novels that were descriptions of social and emotional mores and mine are far from that... although I wish mine were a bit more popular.”

Self will be in Yorkshire on Wednesday to deliver the first JB Priestley Lecture at the University of Huddersfield. “Priestley had that very English style of engagement in his work and he also had that ‘Grub Street’ vibe, which I think we both share.”

Priestley’s plays are undergoing something of a resurgence and his most famous play, An Inspector Calls, was adapted for TV recently. In many ways English Journey was a precursor to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Priestley himself was a bigger literary figure during the 1930s and 40s than Orwell.

Even so, Self feels the Yorkshireman has been undervalued since his death. “When I tried to buy a copy of English Journey I was surprised to find it wasn’t in print. It’s an interesting and remarkable book but Priestley’s problem is that he isn’t sufficiently prescient for people to bring him into the Orwell category.”

Self is unafraid of tackling controversial themes and venturing into areas many other writers fear to tread. He’s also a prolific TV and radio broadcaster who has appeared on programmes as wide ranging at BBC’s Question Time and the comedy panel game show Shooting Stars.

He’s become known for his curmudgeonly outlook on life but a conversation with the 54 year-old is never less than engaging and always spiked with humour.

People might also be surprised to learn that he has great affection for the North of England. “I’m a southerner and people know that I’m from London but if I had another life I’d want to be born in the North because it’s just better,” he says.

“If you were positioned in the Peak District, near somewhere like Kinder Scout, you would be in striking distance of beautiful walks and you’d have everything you could possibly want – Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Manchester would be within fairly easy reach and you’d have all you need in terms culture, art and architecture. You would have fantastic countryside and a diverse urban fabric.”

In his lecture, Self will be talking about Priestley as well as his own work, including his latest trilogy of novels – the first two of which are the highly praised Umbrella and Shark. Together they explore the strange relationship between psychopathology, war and technology in the modern world, themes that have long fascinated him. “Society has always been riven by war but through drone strikes and control and command we have become efficient in distancing ourselves from its devastation and I find that a very interesting phenomena.”

He admits that his books have become darker in tone. “I’ve changed stylistically and as I get older I don’t find things as funny any more. Whereas when I was younger there was nothing I believed that couldn’t be solved by laughter.”

Self’s novels have a reputation for being hard work, especially his more recent work. He’s well aware of this perception but refuses to be swayed by it. “Some people find it pretentious but I don’t write for a specific readership. That’s not to say I don’t care about the reader. As a journalist I do write for a certain audience, but with my novels I write from the heart and I write how I want. And if people want to read it then that’s fine, and if they don’t then that’s equally fine. But I’m not going to adapt what I do for a specific readership.

“People come to my events because I can talk well and read well, but they don’t tend to buy my books. People get their culture in an easy way; we’re not a reading culture. My last two novels really aren’t that difficult, certainly not compared to the high modernism of the early 20th century, people like James Joyce and Virginia Wolf. It’s a sign of a culture that doesn’t take writing as seriously as it once did and that’s fine, the world spirit moves on.”

Despite his public profile and the fact he’s become a recognised literary figure (his novel Umbrella was nominated for the Man Booker Prize), he says he’s not part of the whole literary scene. “I don’t go to literary parties or prizes and I don’t sit on committees.”

He’s sceptical of the growing glut of literary awards. “Literary prizes have become infinitely more important than they were in the past. People think there’s something weirdly democratic about a prize, a bit like Britain’s Got Talent.”

He is also critical of the rise of e-books. “Digital reading is destroying not just publishing but the literary form that came into being out of that particular technology, namely books. If people think the novel will survive they are completely mad.”

His scepticism extends to what he sees as our over-reliance on technology. “People seem to think that technology is something we make happen, but I think it’s something that happens to humans. The unintended consequences caused by new forms of technology are all around us. We think we’re making progress and snatching fire from the gods, but we’re just clever apes with long sticks.”

Self has written more than 20 books, including non-fiction and short stories, but is concerned about the direction culture is heading. “To have written this number of books I could feel reasonably satisfied of some sense of a continuing literary culture. But I think the literary culture that Priestley lived through and which I lived through as a young man, was relatively shorted lived.”

Despite such misgivings he has no plans to embark on a new career. “For me, writing is about engagement and discussion and it’s what I do, in the same way a spider spins its web.”

Will Self is giving the inaugural 
JB Priestley Lecture at the University of Huddersfield on Wednesday at 6pm. Admission is free. Call 01484 471873.