Author Will Self is a man of many talents, but chief amongst them is his ability to eloquently speak on everything from sports to the Unabomber. We heard from the man himself at FutureFest earlier this year, and here’s what he had to say...

Will Self on Sports

All those poor athletes working to win gold medals, what must they feel when they look back on a life. It’s not that I’m anti-sport or anything; you may notice that I’m extremely fit.

Richard Ford wrote a book called The Sportswriter and he made the observation, it’s perhaps a little unfair but it’s so obvious, if you are a really committed sportsperson you basically do the same thing over and over again for years. Usain Bolt just goes running up and down, like a rat frankly, over and over and over again. That’s not terribly playful.

Competitive sport has become our paradigm for play and for fun, and it’s no fun and it’s not playing

There’s a certain degree of labour to playing nowadays. I think competitive sport best exemplifies this. I was very struck by all of the interviews that the athletes gave during the Olympics. They’d all worked so hard to be there. They’d worked for four years, since the last Olympics, so they could play, and when they lost they moaned and wept and kvetched and tore out their remaining hair about how hard they’d worked to play. Silly people. I think competitive sport has become our paradigm for play and for fun, and it’s no fun and it’s not playing.

When we’re not agonising over all the work we have to do to compete in the Olympics, we’re on our way to work playing Candy Crush; fitting in a little bit of anesthes, a little bit of brain deadidness before the day’s task begins. I think what computer games offer us is the kind of flow state that sportsmen describe, but we experience in all sorts of aspects of our working lives, which is having a skill that we’re super good at so we can do it without really thinking, so we’re doing something but we’re daydreaming. We seem to find this playful, but again I venture to suggest to you that it’s nothing of the sort. It’s scheduled. It isn’t fun. It’s shit.

Will Self on architecture

One of my favourite views in contemporary London is to walk down Borough High Street from Elephant and Castle, and as you come down Borough High Street you’ll see Irvine Sellar and Renzo Piano’s magnificent Shard building lifting off into the heavens. What could be a more Promethean sign of the desire of London property developers to cash-in on international flight capital than the Shard.

At a certain point on Borough High Street you will see that St Georges the Church is completely framed, its spire is framed by the façade of the Shard. St Georges, near contemporary of the Hawksmoor Church, was built in the early 1800s. I’m quite confident that it will be there after the Shard has gone.

A lot of the big buildings that have gone up in the city recently have 75 to 100-year spans; they’re like giant tents that are being erected for a festival of capitalism that will be over quite shortly, no need to worry about that. But probably the church will still be there, so what the city presents us with this is this radical series of temporal disjunctions, different timescales of buildings and beings moving about among the buildings.

Will Self on travel

I got obsessed by the idea, probably because I put my phone on airport mode so much, of walking to airports. So I stated off walking to Heathrow. London is in indeed one of the greenest cities we know, and you can walk all the way from central London to Heathrow terminal 5 only doing 2 miles on public roads. It’s a lovely bucolic walk.

If you do walk to an airport, fly and then walk from the other end you essentially reconfigure the entire world in terms of your individual awareness simply by that act alone

Then, fly to JFK in New York and walk from JFK to Manhattan. It’s about the same distance unsurprisingly. It’s two days walk, and if you time it right you’ve literally got two days walking. When I did it for the first time I arrived at my hotel in lower Manhattan and I was pretty tired, and my head said to my body ‘that was pretty tiring body, two-days walking and that plane flight in between’, my body said ‘what plane flight? You’ve been walking for two days, we must be on a continuous land mass’. It really felt – my extraception, my proprioception, my awareness told me that Long Island sound had been savagely penetrated by the Isle of Grain and that London and New York had become a continuous built-up area.

Think about it, just in terms of evolutionary psychology your body’s awareness of movement through space is far more deeply programmed than your conceptual awareness of the reality of international flight. We just don’t really know what we’re doing when we’re sitting on the plane playing Candy Crush; we cannot register the movement of the plane through the air. It’s just a jump cut. But if you do walk to an airport, fly and then walk from the other end you essentially reconfigure the entire world in terms of your individual awareness simply by that act alone.

Will Self on literature

In one of perhaps the most famous stories of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, people agonise a lot about what it means when the guy transforms into an enormous bug. But if you look at the story again it’s very important that it starts with Gregor Samsa, the poor downtrodden salesman being late for work.

His state of metamorphosis is introduced by the failure of his alarm clock to go off, and really the metamorphosis of Kafka’s story is someone resiling from industrial time. Really what he gets up to, poor old Gregor Samsa once he’s turned into a bug, is a kind of playing, a sort of awful playtime once he is removed from this zone of complete calibration of industrial time.

Will Self on dating

There’s a great fetishisation in our culture of the notion of individuality, even something like a website or an app like Tinder or Grindr that introduces you to other bodies than you can violently perform congruous with is presented as something that is to do with your individuality.

You’re matching a set of unique characteristics to another set so they fit like Lego blocks. But are you really so unique? I don’t think so; I don’t think I am either actually.

Will Self on work

When I take a contract to write a novel I’m basically saying to the publisher: ‘I’m going to invent a world in the next year’. What could be more vertiginous than that; that’s an extremely scary feeling. If I look at some of my heroes and their extreme playfulness: Philip Petit, who walked the tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, or to my way of thinking the great prisoner of consciousness of our age in contemporary Britain, Stephen Gough, who’s been in jail for many, many years simply because he wants to walk around the place naked, that’s profound ilinx; that’s profound vertigo.

You might think of Stephen Gough’s life as a miserable and wasted life, but I bet it isn’t. I know it isn’t because he’s engaged in and he’s understood that play lies at the core of existence and particularly in the contemporary world where our opportunities and range of modalities available for play is so absent. I want you to experience vertigo. I want you to teeter on the edge and I want you to evade situations of pre-programmed play because I think they’re deathly.

Will Self on playing


Image courtesy of Ian McGowan. Featured image courtesy of Valerie Bennett

I think that people’s idea of what play is has become very, very distorted and crushed, kind-of Candy Crushed really. Play has become something to be inserted into people’s lives, to be programmed, to be fitted into a timetable, into a schedule. My idea of play is that playing should be fun. You should experience fun.

What is fun? It’s kind-of hard to define, but one thing I think we can agree with about fun is if you think about when you were a child and you played, you remember those eternal summer evenings the gloaming gilding the tips of the trees, do you remember the fact that you lost track of time?

When you have fun, fun is a quintessential atemporal experience: you lose contact with how old you are. You’re having fun with your children; you become a child with them. You’re having fun when you are a child you aren’t conscious of being childlike anymore, and yet most of the kinds of play we’re currently involved in are far from being atemporal.

Will Self on politics and religion

Some people say that, of course, all of life is a game, and actually our ideas of play and fun support the notion that all of life is a game. A very simple way of looking at the right-left declivity in politics is that those on the right think that in the game of life the winner takes all and those on the left think the game of life can be a zero-sum game, everybody will gain.

We really are the lab rats that we’ve created. We enjoy nothing more than having a definite objective to aim towards

People who have a Judeo-Christian worldview think that they have to work all their lives and then when they die they go to a special playground where they play forever, and the fact that it’s forever is very, very strong and suggestive. That forever is an atemporal period. It’s a fun space heaven in which it’s always that lovely childhood in which you’re playing in the gloaming. People on the left, Marxists, they also believe that eventually society through work will arrive at a state of complete play. That’s what the communist utopia is; it’s a kind of secular version of heaven.

Remember the famous lines from Marx’s Capitol: ‘after the revolution a man will fish in the morning and write poetry in the afternoon’. The key factor here is the abolition of work of course. Work and play are seen as antithetical. We don’t want to work we want to play, but every single survey, psychological, sociological it doesn’t matter what angle you come at it from, leads you to the conclusion that people love work and hate play. People are never more unhappy than when they’re on holiday. Every single survey shows this. We really are the lab rats that we’ve created. We enjoy nothing more than having a definite objective to aim towards.

Will Self on the Unabomber’s work

Think about the poor-old Unabomber out in his hut in Montana whittling bomb parts for 25 years so that he can destroy the technocratic world. It looks awfully like hard work to me. It looks like very hard work being a survivalist and going off the grid.

It looks like you’d have to concentrate on it a lot, and you’d have to take it profoundly seriously. It’s not a lot of fun is it? It’s certainly not atemporal. Probably all the time the Unabomber was making his bombs, whittling away at his little bit of wood, he was checking his watch. Was he going to have enough time, 20, 30 years, to get it all done?

Will Self on death

You aren’t going to live forever. I always like the headline in the US satire mag The Onion ‘World death rate holds steady at 100%’. I spoke to a group of GPs for an NHS thing about a year ago, and I came out with that line, and a horrible bumfluffy doctor at the back stuck his hand up and said: ‘Actually that’s not strictly true because you haven’t taken into account all the people who are alive at the moment who might not die’. And that was a GP.

factor-archive-30It does slightly describe the kind of derangement of our culture; we’ve taken our ability to present ourselves electronically and digitally with a permanent now and arrogated that to our idea of heaven. If we’re on the left we’ve arrogated it to our idea of the communist utopia, and we think we’re going to play there, but we’re not going to be playing there. We’re only going to be playing Candy Crush.

The European Union is in a state of deep disarray, and it’s not just about Brexit. We discover just how fractured things have become, and why the Euro could be not long for this world

It started with such hope. The European Community, and later the European Union, would unite Europe, putting to bed the animosity and warring that had plagued the world for the first half of the twentieth century.

“Here you have countries that had been at war and whose institutions had either been disgraced, in the case of Germany and Italy, or more-or-less destroyed,” explained Sir Stephen Wall, a former British diplomat and representative for the UK’s Foreign Office in Brussels, in a talk at FutureFest last month. “So all of them coming together in this economic project, which would tie them together in a way that made war unthinkable, was very positive thing.”

But here in 2016, things have gone more or less completely to shit. Obviously there’s Brexit, but tensions in Europe go far beyond a grumpy 52% of Brits.

Many parts of Europe still haven’t recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, with youth unemployment running so high in some areas of the continent that it will likely leave a scar on generations of young people for the rest of their lives.
Then there’s the migrant crisis; a complex web of issues that has tested the binds of the EU to near breaking point. And that’s not to mention the disparity between rich and poor nations within the EU, and the resulting power struggle that produces.

It’s perhaps no wonder that Grexit (Greece), Frexit (France) and even perhaps Nexit (the Netherlands) are now being proposed, and that many are questioning how much longer the Euro can last. But can the European Union be saved?

Britain’s divorce

While Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is certainly not the only issue in the continent, or even – arguably – the most pressing, it has been hugely significant for Europe.
Part of the problem is that when the referendum was called, the majority of those in power never expected Vote Leave to win, and refused to engage seriously with any of the practical realities of what a post-EU Britain would look like. As a result, politicians are now scrambling to come up with a plan, and there is considerable disagreement about what Brexit actually means, largely around the hot-button issues of trade and migration.

europe-mapFor Britain the challenge now is to separate the emotion from the reality, and develop a firm plan that businesses and would-be trade partners can begin to build their own strategies around.

“We have to move beyond lies and things that appeal to sentiment, and we have to try and deal in fact and understand what actually happened, and what the actual consequences of our actions are when we do something as enormous as vote to leave the EU,” summarised Matt Kelly, editor of the post-Brexit-launched newspaper The New European.

“I think one of the issues for us is what kind of country do we want to be?” added Wall. “Because one of the things that was very absent, I thought, from the debate as we went up to the referendum was any sense of Britain’s place in the rest of the world.”

As Britain searches for its own identity, however, the rest of the EU also faces the task of repairing the damage caused to the wider continent. No country has ever left the European Union before, and the road to recovery will no doubt be fraught with unforeseen problems.

Beyond Brexit

One of the biggest concerns for many European politicians is that Britain’s departure from the European Union will prompt other countries to do the same. A Grexit, for example, has been discussed since before Britain even proposed the vote, and was actually the source of the dreadful name.

We are on the eve of two events which could spell the end of Western institutions as we know them

There are fears too that France, which may well elect far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen as president in 2017, may also leave. And as one of the original ‘Inner Six’ members of the European Community, as well as one of Europe’s largest economies, France’s departure may be more than the union can recover from.

“I was at another gig where a Polish politician said we are on the eve of two events which could spell the end of Western institutions as we know them,” said Wall.

“The first would be the election of Trump in the United States, in which case he said Trump would do a Yalta-type deal with the Russians and that would spell the end of NATO. And the second event could be the election of Marie Le Pen as the president of France next spring, in which case he said France would leave the European Union and that would be the collapse of the European Union.

“Now those may be rather extreme versions of the pretty immediate future, on the other hand none of us looking at the opinion polls either in France or the United States would say those things are absolutely improbable, rather the contrary.”

The rest vs the centre

Perhaps one of the greatest tensions in European Union is between the wealthy and, typically, more powerful centre countries and those on the edges of the continent.

“There are serious issues about the way in which the various parts of Europe are being treated by the centre, and of course the big countries,” explained Vicky Pryce, economist and board member of the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).

“So the eastern Europeans think that they’re just not listened to, at all. They’ve been hit by this migration crisis, all these people coming through, barriers erected, and that has really pulled Europe apart. [And because] they feel they’re not listened to, they don’t really take part in a number of decisions, because their voice isn’t really heard.”

In other parts of Europe similar resentment of the centre has come about as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, which eight years later is still having an ongoing effect.

There are serious issues about the way in which the various parts of Europe are being treated by the centre

“The periphery countries were so hit by the financial crisis and had to take on huge debts because there was no redistribution that was already in place when the Euro was set up,” Pryce explained.

“There was no ability to just shift funds to help the poorer countries. You had to borrow it. And what happened of course, just to save banks, save the German banks, the French banks who had all made huge amounts of money lending to the likes of Greece and everyone else, it was the citizen who took those on.

“The result is, as I’m sure you’re aware, that in places like Greece a quarter of its GDP has disappeared – 25% – and there’s 23% unemployment, 54% youth unemployment and actually it’s not very different from some of the other countries in terms of the unemployment figures.

“Italy is very high, but Spain also just hit about 20%: huge, huge youth unemployment is going on.”

This has, unsurprisingly, led to deep resentment in these countries, where many citizens feel powerful countries within the EU are restricting their ability to recover for self-serving reasons.

“Those countries feel what Europe has given them is a straitjacket: no growth, no ability to get rid of all this burden of debt that’s out there, and with the result, of course, that the populations don’t like it; they don’t like the institutions, they don’t like what’s going on,” explained Pryce.

“So there’s a whole group of countries that feel disenfranchised that cannot influence the centre, which actually I’m afraid is mainly made up of the Germans.”

Euro demise?

The reality is that from a financial point of view, multiple EU countries have a very stark future ahead.

euros“It is unsustainable to have the debt that Greece has at present, and unless there’s a restructuring, then something else will have to give,” said Pryce.

“But Greece isn’t the only one. Greece has a debt to GDP ratio of about a 180%, which is quite large. But Italy has a debt to GDP ratio of about 137%, Ireland 130%, Portugal 129%.

“There are so many countries which actually have an unsustainable future as things stand at present, and I think that is going to cause a big problem.”

All these countries share the Euro, which puts the currency itself at tremendous risk; it ties all economies together, but with such variation in their levels of debt growth there is a high chance of instability.

“I really seriously think that there is a chance that the Euro is not going to be with us in 10 years time,” said Pryce.

The future

Despite the incredible tension and resentment, there remains a strong desire across the majority of countries to make the European Union work. But for this to happen, some aspects of the organisation may need to change.
“With 27 countries of very different stages of economic development you have got tensions, which I don’t think leads to the breakup of the European Union, but I think we’re going to have to see much more diversity within the EU,” said Wall.

“We already have it to some extent: some countries are part of the Eurozone, some are not, some are in the Schengen frontier-free thing, some are not.”

Wall also gave the example of Hungary, which is having a referendum to decide whether the country will follow EU rules to accept more refugees. It’s clearly an important decision for the country, but it could also have an impact on how centralised EU law is permitted to be interpreted by different nations.

“If the referendum supports him in saying no we won’t take them, which is against the decision of the European Union, will anyone be in a position to sanction him? Almost certainly no,” said Wall.

factor-archive-29“So that kind of centrality – with the European commission enforcing the laws of the European Court etc – I think we’re going to see slightly less of that centrality.

“The question is whether the EU has the flexibility to amend the way it operates to hold what is now a fairly disparate group of countries together.”