Absurdist jokes, ruminations on rambling and 'dizzying, synaesthetic' descriptions of London are the order of the day
Will Self is tall. He glowers from the lectern on the stage of the Black Box in Belfast tonight like a malevolent lamppost, staring balefully out into the audience as he struggles to adjust his microphone stand. Except he isn’t really struggling – it is, rather, a lead in to ten minutes of finely-honed shtick.
This is the first surprise of the evening at this Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival gig. The respected academic and garlanded author is an assured dead-pan comic, with wide ranging material, including deft one liners – 'Extreme height is a disability like any other' – and autobiographical anecdotes.
One such joke story about his nudist parents trotting out the truism that 'We’re all naked beneath our clothes' leads Self to reveal that he is not in fact naked beneath his clothes 'because I wear two sets of clothes!'
There are also, of course, absurdist fabulations. During an extended ramble about rambling – Self being a keen walker – he speculates on the efficacy of underwear made from sphagnum moss, an invention he claims on behalf of the Inuit. 'Imagine it, a living bio-organic nappy for when it’s too cold to go outside to use the loo.'
There is barely a ripple of laughter from the packed-out crowd. This is, ostensibly at least, a literary event, and the audience seems slightly wrong-footed by Self’s Catskills quality turn. Thankfully, this indifference doesn’t last long. By the end of the evening, they are hooting like Guardian-reading geese. But for now they are on safer ground when Self starts to read from his most recent book, the Man Booker short-listed Umbrella.
It’s an early sequence in the book featuring Audrey Death, a 14-year old cockney girl living in London. The year is 1903. Self launches into the reading with surprising passion, donnish glasses on the end of his nose and his hand on his hip like a catalogue model for Victorian pallbearers. His reading is fluent and precise – he can do policemen in different voices – thrusting and confident, sneering and snarling for Audrey’s father, the bumptious Rothschild (nee Sam).
It’s a dizzying, synaesthetic snap-shot of fin-de siècle 'Lunnun' – busy, populous, blaring and stinking. It seethes with detail, bibulous and fizzing with teetering minutiae. Words totter, loosely stacked. The performance – and it is a performance – is fantastic. Self doesn’t miss a line, stutter or cough.
He reads it as an actor would – no, better than an actor. He reads it as only the writer could, owning the text, living the text, hitting the stresses, correctly judging each breath, gauging the rhythm of each line. He should, of course, they’re his words. But his is a rare skill; most writers aren’t able to project that inner voice, never mind the babble of voices that this story requires.
Self’s second reading is from his earlier short-story collection, Liver, his inspiration explained away thus: 'The four stories being of relative size to the chambers of the human liver. What? Who wouldn’t want to read that?' He reads from 'Foie Humane', a story based on a lightly disguised Colony Room, watering hole of choice to the seedy underbelly of London’s boozing Bohemia, which Self visited as a young man in the late 1970s.
Describing the atmosphere of the place, rechristened The Plantation Club, as 'vicious high camp', it is incarnated in the person of Val, Self’s stand in for the real-life owner, Ian Board, a bitch in dark glasses with an unkind word for everyone. The story contains classic Self, with London bustling with 'furious insect intensity' and an elderly actor’s moobs declared 'alcohol induced gynecomastia'.
Finally there is a Q&A with the affable author holding court on a variety of his obsessions: psychogeography, working methods, the relative dryness of French academic discourse – 'We like a text to be moist, like a Victoria sponge'. He is expansive, charming and thoroughly entertaining, and the hour spent in his company flies by. It's not often you can say that about a book reading.
The 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 12.