“Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!” So, it is said, the gladiators of old addressed the Roman emperors before they went about the entertaining business of mutual butchering. It was drizzling and outside the grey-dun hulk of the Colosseum there was a small gaggle of modern Romans dressed up not as gladiators but as tacky-looking legionaries. I wanted to accost them and say: “You can do better than this: hanging around in this Gibbonian drag, hustling the odd euro by having your picture taken with marauding phalanxes of orthodontically challenged Benelux schoolkids.” Then I wanted to climb up on a shattered column, strike a pose and orate: “Give me your poor and huddled masses of legionary impersonators! Come with me to London, where there are plenty of creative opportunities for enterprising folk prepared to spray-paint themselves silver and stand on a cardboard box all day!”
Listen to Will Self’s talk at the Writers’ Centre Norwich last Friday:
Listen to Will Self’s contribution to this BBC4 programme about the birth of modern art here (starts at the 21min mark and is available until May 29).
I once had lunch with the late Malcolm McLaren. It was during his short-lived run for the London mayoralty and I confess I can remember none of the following: a) where we ate; b) what we ate; I’d like to be able to say that both these amnesias were because of the strange and unearthly fascination exerted on me by the discourse of this famed bowdleriser of the Situationist International’s détournement, but sad to relate I cannot recall; c) a single word that he said. This must’ve been in the early years of the last decade – at any rate, not that long ago. By contrast, I can recall, note-and-letter-perfect, “Buffalo Gals”, the proto-hiphop ditty McLaren released in 1982, including his serially offending yelps of “Two buffalo gals go around the outside/’Round the outside, ’round the outside …” Such is the queer pretzel-shaped path that time’s arrow describes.
At the time of Diana Spencer’s funeral in 1997, I remember writing this: “When the corpse of a 36-year-old woman is dragged around town on a cart you have to acknowledge something strange is going on . . .” My concern was to consider the death-drag as an example of how London acted as a stage set upon which collective fantasies of intimacy with power were being played out. Sixteen years on, the sentence requires only minor adaptation to establish the necessary degree of anthropological estrangement from the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.
Will Self’s Wreford Watson lecture, Decontaminating the Union: Post-Industrial Landscapes and the British Psyche, given at the University of Edinburgh last September, is now available to watch.
Listen to Will Self talking about pessimism in this New Statesman podcast.
Watch Will Self in conversation with Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s books editor, at the recent London Book Fair.