Will Self brings Samuel Pepys, one of history’s greatest diarists, to life in a special event at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Words: Alexander Larman
On 29 January, a rare and exciting event takes place in the august settings of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. To tie in with the new exhibition, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution, which is on now and runs until 28 March 2016, the venue is hosting a special Book Slam evening featuring the likes of author Alex Marshall, comedian Felicity Ward and the Chaps Choir.
One of Britain’s foremost literary figures, writer Will Self will also be there, reading what is coyly described as ‘a specially commissioned piece in the style of Samuel Pepys’. We caught up with everyone’s favourite polymath to find out what’s in store for the evening, and what significance the location has for him…
What exactly will your ‘Samuel Pepys experience’ involve?
Good question. I certainly don’t want to parody his style or do something too obvious. When I read the Diaries, what I feel he channels brilliantly – in part, obviously, because of their extempore composition – is the immediacy of things as a highly motile man revolves through early modern London seeing and smelling and hearing and tasting and calculating… It’s this sensibility – which is quite fearlessly forensic in the face of regime change and fiery apocalypse alike – that’s so very contemporary, by definition.
What do you think about Book Slam as an initiative?
It’s definitely the way literature is going. Digital is folding, spindling and mutilating the previously papery realm of literature. Spoken word, creative writing courses, literature as both therapy and journalism – these are all the strange phenomena we can expect to arise in the interregnum between two cultural epochs.
Have you always been an admirer of Pepys’ writing?
Pretty much. The great diarists all have this quality of great immediacy. Whether it’s Pepys, Kenneth Williams, or Lord Byron, it’s a tone that commands assent.
Are there any incidents in Pepys’ diaries that you find particularly amusing or revealing?
Well, the whole shenanigans surrounding Mrs Pepys’ supposed infidelity springs out as an inspired transmission across the centuries of life’s very timeless and most farcical unfoldings – but actually there are countless episodes I can think of, and I’ve only read a fraction of the behemoth.
Do you think that a diarist is always writing for a public audience, whether consciously or unintentionally?
I don’t know about public, but certainly an audience. When my mother died, my brother and I found 30 years’ worth of intimate diaries in boxes under her bed. You can’t tell me she didn’t want us to find and read them…
Do you think that social media and the internet are useful or harmful for the creative process?
Hard to know yet – and probably not for several generations, if ever. When you think about it, such large scale social and cultural judgements must rest, somehow, on an ability to apprehend ‘all of creativity’ – and how would that be possible?
Do you keep a diary of your own?
Only jottings as part of notes for fictions or essays. I’ve always felt diarising to be undermining of the fictive imagination, which so depends on the autobiographic for its own material.
Are there places in Greenwich that have any particular significance for you, and if so, why?
I’ve set several scenes in my last two novels – Umbrella and Shark – in Greenwich, so I’ve thought quite a bit about it. I do like the view from the park, by the Observatory, out over the great duodenal U-bend of the Isle of Dogs. It’s quite arresting. I feel the resonances of Conrad’s pathetic terrorists in The Secret Agent thronging here, just as I jostle with the shades of Guignol’s Band when I enter the foot tunnel under the Thames. The skyline that lifts you, loss-leadingly, up from the collapsed nationalist boil of the Dome – squeezed by time, popped by commerce – over the dirty pewter of the Thames, holds you suspended for long moments above great bunkers of twisted scrap, before depositing you on the Essex side, next to the conference centre most beloved of the international arms trade…