Curious happenings surround the publication of the stage version of my short story “Scale”. Commissioned by the redoubtable young impresario Ian Osborne, the play — adverted on its title page as “a musical regression in five acts” — features snippets of some of the most ephemeral pop hits of 1992, sung onstage by what the directions describe as “a highly mannered soprano”. Brad Morrow, who publishes a literary journal called Conjunctions, out of Bard College in the States, expressed an interest in running the first act of “Scale”, but after the proofs arrived I realised that we had not sought permission for the use of such lyrical gems as “Rhythm is a Dancer” by that once-popular beat combo Snap.
I’ve been toying with a short story of this title for years, ever since hearing — or thinking I heard — a Radio 3 announcer say, with predictably risible stuffiness: “During the winter of 1772, Haydn, then resident in London, found himself unable to compose, so troubled was he by a nasal polyp.” There was something about the notion of Haydn’s nasal polyp — rather like Flaubert’s parrot, or Lenin’s brain, or Churchill’s black dog — that seemed almost purpose-built for a story title. Not that I really wanted to write anything serious about Haydn: this was going to be more a piss-take of that particular strain in contemporary letters, perhaps exemplified by the titles above, that seeks out profundity by yoking a mundane, or curious, thing — parrot, brain, polyp — to a great name.
At Marrocco’s on the front at Hove there is a queue of ice-cream malcontents, of whom we are five: my friend the photographer Polly Borland and I, together with three of our children. A bank of sea mist that’s been hovering offshore all afternoon is beginning to dip and sway in towards us; ahead of it comes a premonition of immemorial dankness, a Dickensian pong. I shouldn’t be surprised if, when it lifted, a prison hulk were revealed, its rotting spars piercing the shoreline of Worthing.
For once I’m tending more towards conspiracy rather than cock-up. Mostly I view conspiracy theorists as the anoraks of the secularised world — seeking for shadowy, omnipotent forces to revere in a postlapsarian world of disturbing chaos. But the recent debacle in Forest Gate, whereby 200 armed, chemically suited policemen stormed a house and maimed an innocent man — who just happened to be a Muslim — have got me thinking.
At 42 the Calls – a proto-boutique hotel in Leeds, which I’ve been frequenting for a decade or more on book tours – I am upgraded to a suite. And what a suite! This is no aircraft hangar, like the suite-with-gymnasium at the Hotel de Vin in Brum, but a charming collection of rooms: bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, tastefully rendered in white plaster and featuring low, rough-hewn wooden beams. However, the sitting room is dominated by an oval black table, complete with six high-backed chairs, and a wide-screen interactive television. It’s as if Anne Hathaway’s cottage had been impregnated by the Starship Enterprise and produced bastard offspring, all interior and no surface.
Every hotel room with a sufficiently big mirror reduces a man to the level of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The urge to order up scotch, do nude kung-fu and smash the mirror is almost insurmountable. It takes iron self-control to watch News 24 and then attempt sleep. At the Hotel de Vin in Birmingham all the suites are named after famous vintages and there’s even a vinous tinge to the wall coverings and the furniture. Last time I stayed here, I arrived at about midnight, and the old geezer on the desk said: ‘We have upgraded you, Mr Self, to the Ruinart Suite.’ ‘Oh, that’s awfully nice of you,’ I replied. ‘Yes,’ he leant forward conspiratorially ‘it has a gym.’ And it did: three Tunturi machines, a wet room, a power shower. The bed itself was about ten foot square, and would’ve happily accommodated an Eastern European volleyball team, pumped up on steroids and ready for anything. The trouble was, I was utterly exhausted. Nevertheless, I bent to the will of Barton Fink, the God of hotel chains, and exercised all night long.
I’ve been working all morning on the stage adaptation of my 1993 short story ‘Scale’, which appeared first in the literary magazine Granta and latterly in my collection ‘Grey Area’. Ostensibly the tale of a man with a severe DIY opiate addiction, living next to a model village, ‘Scale’ is perhaps my most Borgesian of stories, in that I tried to incorporate within it 5,ooo-odd years of human history (massive time scale), and every known literary genre – oral ballad, free verse, academic thesis, thriller, stream-of-consciousness &c. Naturally, there are also myriad plays on all the available senses of the word ‘scale’: kettle, music, lizard, bathroom &c. When I was writing it I gloried – as we monoglots all must – in the rich synonymy of the English language.
I’m back at the Sylver Surfer. I wanted to post a blog in Primrose Hill yesterday, when I staggered out of the dentist. But although this part of London may heave with the sexual antics of fashionable underpants designers and pretty-boy actors, pay-per internet access is thin on the ground.
When I come to think of it – and must we not all come to think of such things eventually? – cyber cafes are the tanning salons of the infosphere, they beckon you inside to bombard your cerebellum with sinister radiation; they encourage you to fritter away minutes and then hours playing the plastic piano of trivia.
The River Thames is a pewter-grey surface, ruckled by a chilly breeze. The South Lambeth Road is a hard S of tarmac. In one curve there are the Portuguese cafes, in the other a Days Inn Hotel that, quite frankly, none of us believe ever has any clients. I’m sitting in the Sylver Surfer Internet Cafe posting the first of what I hope will be many many blogs for this site. Why the Sylver Surfer? Well, it’s notionally the closest cyber-gaff to my own home, and I quite like the conceit of wending further and further away from the Self natal cleft as I make these posts. There’s this, and there’s also the fantastic obsolescence of my own computer equipment – which I haven’t upgraded for the past nine years. I’ve never deleted an email message either – there are over 15,000 in the inbox – and nor have I downloaded any of the software required to read the more advanced websites of today. As a result, my own site, put together by the inestimable Chrises, Mitchell and Hall, appears as a uniform field of colour on my home computer, which takes about fifteen minutes to download.