This was published to celebrate Father’s Day, June 15 2008:
Will Self was born in 1961 and raised in an ‘effortlessly dull’ north London suburb. His father, Peter, held the chair in public administration at the London School of Economics. Self’s parents divorced when he was 18. He worked as a copywriter and a New Statesman cartoonist before his first collection of short stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, was published to critical and popular acclaim in 1991. Doris Lessing said of Quantity …, ‘absurdity unfurls logically from absurdity, but always as a mirror of what we are living in — and wish we didn’t.’
A while back I found myself staying with friends outside Lyme Regis. Looking out along the beach at Charmouth, where the 12-year-old Mary Anning, out fossicking in 1811, discovered the remains of an ichthyosaur, and so began the revolution in natural history that would culminate in Darwinism, a strange intimation descended on me: yes, I had been here before, although not for many years. In fact, not since I, too, was 12. I had come to Lyme Regis with my father but what really impinged on me was that we had walked there, from Taunton, a distance of more than 20 miles. From Charmouth we had gone on, via Bridport, to Cerne Abbas, where, after lying about on the celebrated Giant, we’d sat up late in a pub discussing the future of socialism with some holidaying miners. I couldn’t recall where the walking tour ended but I did remember long, hot days and many precocious half-pints of shandy (my father had a total disregard for licensing laws).
Ours was an ambulatory, ludic and pedagogic relationship. My mother and father separated when I was nine, and although my father ambled back to the family home from time to time, over the next eight years, until I went to university, we mostly met either at his club, the Reform on Pall Mall, where we played endless games of snooker and billiards or else took walking tours together.
I’m saddened, now, by the extent to which the animosity of my parents towards each other influenced my perception of my father. I tended to take my mother’s view of him: he was solipsistic, criminally self-absorbed, and incapable of true sympathy. He was a male chauvinist, and, despite his left-leaning politics, an unreconstructed upper-middle-class snob. Moreover, he was a cosseted mummy’s boy (my grandmother didn’t die until she was 96). But the truth was that I loved the long, gloomy afternoons at the Reform, and loved even more the walking tours. In fact, even though I couldn’t acknowledge it at the time, I loved my father.
He was a natural teacher — possibly a great one. He held the chair in public administration at the London School of Economics but his interests were wide-ranging: from metaphysics and political theory to urban planning and back again, and on those tramps he inculcated me with both his own analytic rigour and his love of happy disputation.
He was also a storyteller. When my brother and I were small, and would climb into his bed in the morning, he kept us enthralled with a saga about a giant called Edward who lived in a house on Hampstead Heath and worked as a consulting private detective. My father was the presiding spirit of something called the Carr Society (named after the crime writer John Dickson Carr), a group of like-minded men who pub-crawled across the Chilterns, telling each other detective stories they’d made up. When I grew older I went on one or two Carr Society walks and was called upon to spontaneously compose a story of my own — excellent training for a writer.
Growing up in the 1970s, I couldn’t help but be conscious of my father’s whiff of anachronism. He once announced that he would be taking me to Muswell Hill ‘to buy some dancing pumps’. He often called upon me to put on my ‘little jerkin’. He himself habitually wore grey flannel Oxford bags, tweed jackets and gabardine macs — no cagoule ever got near him. He was 42 when I was born so I only ever knew him in middle age, and his own character had been formed in the 1930s.
As I grew older — and wilder — my anger towards, and rejection of, my father increased. He could never understand my proclivity for drink and drugs. As I said, he had no time for licensing laws, and never objected to my drinking and smoking — both of which he enjoyed. ‘But,’ he would counsel me, ‘you should exercise moderation in all things.’ He himself had an unflappable and distinctly phlegmatic manner (although within seethed a distinctly Romantic nature). The strange thing is that while I recall violently arguing with him, and feeling enormous animosity when he was absent, right up until his death, aged 79 in 1999, we enjoyed each other’s company.
Not that we saw each other a great deal. My father emigrated to Australia in 1980. For a seemingly slow and orotund man he had a tremendous work ethic, and rather than take retirement in the UK he took up a new academic post at the Australian National University in Canberra. He was teaching up until 12 weeks before his death, and his last book, Rolling Back the Market , a critique of the slavish belief in free-market economics, was published posthumously.
When I went out to see him in Australia, or he visited England, our relationship always resumed its walking and talking course. He was a somewhat distant, but for all that loving, grandfather to the three of my children whom he knew, and one of the last recollections I have of him being in the house where I’m writing this was of him picking up his youngest grandchild. No mean feat.
I’ve said it before — and I’ll say it again: it always seems to me that we come to know our same-sex parents through the bodily and the involuntary through a kind of fossicking of our own physical strata. As we come to resemble our fathers, so we re-encounter the individual who reared us. I turned 42 four years after my father died. Since then, with each succeeding year I feel I’ve come to know him better and better: I feel him in my habits of mind and my physical quirks. I sense him in my capacity for companionable solitude — both writing and musing — and, naturally, I am aware of his presence, both within and beside me, as I set off on yet another long walk.