When Will Met Matthew

The question was where to play Will Self.

He would be a dominant presence in central defence, of course, but what we needed was a goal-scorer. As player-manager, I saw him in the role of the traditional centre-forward  –  a big lad in the number 9 shirt who could wind up the opposition and knew where the goal was.

If we could just persuade Selfy to play for us, Geography wouldn’t know what hit them.

The year was 1994. I was reaching the end of a six-month semester as Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. One of my duties was to work with students on the famous MA course in creative writing, run by Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain.

When not in a seminar room discussing metafiction, interiority and the unreliable narrator, I would sometimes play football with the would-be novelists. There was a a rough-and-ready all-weather pitch at the UEA –   astroturf on what felt like concrete  – and, by this late stage in the semester, we had the makings of a team. There were ten of us, eight men, two women, and a rival faculty, Geography, had agreed to a game. All we needed now was a centre-forward.

By a stroke of luck, our game was due to be played soon after a visit by Will Self, whom I had invited to do a public reading and interview at the Sainsbury Centre, followed by a chat to the students.

I knew Will vaguely – through our mutual friend Willie Donaldson, I think  –  but not well enough to know whether he was likely to don a track suit and join our writers’ team. He was in his early thirties at the time, lean, fit-looking and competitive.  I was quietly confident that he would be up for a game.

Will’s first novel My Idea of Fun had just been published to a considerable fuss, and there was a good crowd in the Sainsbury Centre where he put on an impressive, if slightly scary performance, reciting in a booming voice an extract from the novel which he had learned by heart.

Later, I took him to a seminar room where he chatted to the MA students. Writing was a solitary business, he explained at one point. You had to be an outsider to do it. You would not by nature be  –  his voice hardened with disgust at the thought   – a team player.  ‘I mean, you’re never going to find, for example, a football team of writers,’ he added.

Ah. Here was a tricky moment for all of us. Owning up to the fact that, not only were we team players but we actually had our own writers’ football squad would be tantamount to confessing that we were not the genuine outsider article. I switched the conversation back to narrative voice.

A few weeks later, Will returned for a party for the students I was holding at my house near Diss, and there I introduced him to a 22 year-old student called Matthew Humphreys, an intense and quietly spoken Liverpudlian who was at work on a science fiction novel.

Will was about to move to Southwold for a few months to work on a new book and  had told me that he was looking for an assistant. When I mentioned the idea to Matthew, he was interested. He admired Will’s work and, like the other students, was approaching that tricky moment when he would leave the campus with his MA and have to make his way in the world as a professional writer.

Across my kitchen table, a sozzled and slightly stoned interview took place.

That meeting, and the six months which followed,  are the subject of a funny, perceptive and occasionally tender memoir called Self & I, which has just been published. Matthew Humphreys is now, for family reasons explained in his book, Matthew De Abaitua. He has written three novels, one short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Prize. His book The Art of Camping was Book of the Year in the Economist. He teaches creative writing at the University of Essex. He is probably more firmly ensconced  in the literary establishment than Will Self was back in 1994.

For some reason. the best books about writing are by would-be authors, following and studying the habits and behaviour of an older, established writer. Nicholson Baker did it with John Updike in the very funny U & I, and Paul Theroux served up VS Naipaul in the considerably more anguished and savage Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

What  makes Matthew’s book different is that his subject and former boss is hardly more than a decade older than him. With two books published, Will may have played the part of literary enfant terrible in those days, but he too was on the make and less secure in himself, one suspects, that he ever let on. He too was paddling like hell, trying to be noticed, to establish not only his books but his persona.  The sub-title of Self and I, ‘a memoir of literary ambition’, refers to both author and subject.

The story of Self & I  is given an additional poignancy by the fact that it  is set in a time when literary fiction was still on the high ground of cultural life, cheerfully snobbish about the market before the twin forces of the commercialism and the internet began to take their toll.

‘There had been almost no talk of readers at the University of East Anglia MA in Creative Writing. Frankly, in those days, readers got what they were given. Readers were basically losers. Now the opposite is true, and writers are the losers constantly trying to insinuate themselves in the affections of the winners, the readers.’

Post-UEA and in a cottage in Southwold, Matthew is given a crash-course in the realities of the life of a working writer  – the obsessiveness, the networking, the self-importance which helps you ride the daily humiliations, the brief moments of hope and longer moments of futility, the restless ambition, the competitiveness, the image-making, even when out on the lam in London.

‘Will makes Soho happen for us. It is a burden of expectation for him, one that he throws off then takes up again in a way that is hard to anticipate. In Soho, it is difficult to tell self-destruction and self-advancement apart, sliding sideways along the bar rail, measuring out progress in cigarettes and sea breeze cocktails. Masked ambition is the feeling I most associate with those evenings, moving from place to place in an entourage.’

Will Self emerges from these pages rather as one might  expect –  clever, mercurial, difficult, interesting, and quite often a bit of a pillock. As for Matthew, one senses that his six months as Self’s assistant taught him rather more about the literary world than his nine-month UEA course.

Years later, he has written such an entertaining and original study of literary ambition, masked and unmasked, that I feel strangely proud to have made that introduction fourteen years ago.

And, as it happened, we didn’t need Selfy up front at all. The Creative Writing X1, showing true teamwork, beat Geography 3-1.

SELF & I (Lightning Books, £14.99) has just been published – more details here.