Chris Beckett writes:
âMy books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-it notes, the Post-its go up on the walls of the room [âŚ] short story ideas, tropes, metaphors, gags, characters, etc. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.â (âWriters' Rooms: Will Selfâ, The Guardian, 6 April 2007.)
Hereâs Selfâs writing room in 71 photographs: http://www.will-self.com/writing-room/index.php
The photographs capture the scale of the authorâs devotion to the little yellow pad. The scrapbooks into which Self has gathered the âpost-itâ notes now form part of his archive at the British Library. Grid-like on the wall, and grid-like in the scrapbooks, the notes intrigue and fascinate. They are little doorways into the text, little honeycomb cells of access.
Having recently read How the Dead Live (2000), a group of âpost-itâ notes in the novelâs scrapbook caught my eye.
I smiled at the note about the minicab driver who crosses London by an internal map of Lagos (second row, third from left â see p. 310 of the novel). I remembered Lily Bloomâs heavy-smoking fantasy of an elaborate contraption to feed her a continuous supply of ready-lit cigarettes â think cogs, wheels and pulleys, think Heath Robinson â drawn by the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (first row, novel p. 300). I noted Lilyâs anxious âdieting listsâ, and I caught her familiar combative tone in âvery few people are fond of meâ (second row) although I canât find the words in the book. I then wondered about the striking phrase âginny mistâ (second row, second from the left). When I found âginny mistâ in the published text (p. 101), I saw that the image had been deftly extended and deepened: âI remember this lack of sensation; itâs happened enough times to me in this bedroom, usually in a ginny mist, a forest of juniperâ.
Looking through the scrapbook for Walking to Hollywood (my current reading), I discovered a group of âpost-itâ notes on Scientology. The unreliable narrator of the novel, a writer called Will Self who has lost his capacity to suspend disbelief, goes on a walking odyssey to Hollywood to discover who killed the movies, and has CGI firmly in his sights. In this novel of seems and simulacra, everyone looks like a familiar actor, even Self, who is âplayedâ by Pete Postlethwaite and/or David Thewlis. âActors feel like Thetansâ says one post-it note (see below, second row, second note from the left). L. Ron Hubbardâs cult is described in the novel as a mash-up of âAstounding Stories, the Bhagavad Gita and The Psychopathology of Everyday Lifeâ (p. 141).
In the late 1980s, the narrator once âinveigledâ himself on to an introductory Scientology weekend course at the Saint Hill Manor headquarters, near East Grinstead, but was firmly rejected when they discovered his âhomosexual inclinationsâ. Thereafter, he was repeatedly rebuffed: âover the coming years I went on pitching up at Tottenham Court Road, in disguises and under assumed names, armed with strategies for âfoolingâ the Capacity Analysis. It was all to no avail: the smiling Scientologists would let me take the test again, then send me on my way, with the advice that I see a doctor, a therapist, a priest â do anything, in short, but submit myself to their own mind controlâ (p. 141). Among the background notes for Walking to Hollywood are the results of a Scientology personality test displayed as a graph (Hubbardâs OCA, the so-called âOxford Capacity Analysisâ). The test was undertaken by one (thinly disguised) Wihh [sic] Orr at the Scientology Life Improvement Center, Sunset Boulevard, 14 June 2008.
Returning home from Los Angeles, Self finds that the (cartoon) âsuperpowersâ he possessed in LA have vanished, only to be replaced by a growing sense that his âmental facultiesâ are deteriorating. He walks the crumbling coastline of East Yorkshire and meditates morbidly on âthe fuzziness and forgetfulnessâ (p. 329) that has descended on him. Like the cliffs he walks along, his foot-weary narrative is eroded and âbreaks offâ, along with a sense of purpose and identity: âThis would be a unique walk of erasure â a forty-mile extended metaphor for my own embattled persona, as its foundations were washed awayâ (p. 345).
âThe fictional account breaks off short: it is erodedâ.
Before starting out on his littoral tramp of East Yorkshire â an ambulatory coda to the morphing masks of LA â Self muses: âIt was true that in the decade since I had stopped drinking and taking drugs my short-term memory seemed to have improved; at any rate, I no longer needed the elaborate system of Post-it notes stuck to the walls of my writing room that had for years served me as a kind of random access. If I maintained this, it was more as an art installation, or magic ritual [âŚ] (p. 330).
And so perhaps we have then, in a sense, in the Walking to Hollywood scrapbook, Selfâs final scrapbook post-it note: not the very last physically â the pages of notes continue beyond it â but the note that points, with the satisfying force of circularity, not only to âpost-itâ notes as a subject within the text but also to the end of the writerâs practical need for them. The art installation has had its final show. RAM is no longer required on the walls.
âAmnesia / Post-itsâ (third row, first left). And: âMy family. Who are they? Why havenât they forgotten me?' (far right).
However, Self quickly decides that his reasoning for the end of the writing room installation is delusional. It is not that his short-term memory has greatly improved, it is just that he now works differently, is better at his trade: âI now wrote books with the workmanlike despatch of a carpenter turning out tables, this busy practice obscuring the loss of much I had once knownâ (p. 331).
Next week, I start to catalogue the two novels that followed the âwayward and melancholicâ (Selfâs description) Walking to Hollywood: they are Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014). A cursory glance at what the boxes contain suggests that the narrator is indeed an unreliable fellow. Not only are there yellow notes hiding in the drafts of Umbrella, but there is also a scrapbook for Shark. Perhaps we really shouldnât believe a word he says.
Chris Beckettâs blog on the family papers in the Self archive is here: http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2017/02/first-report-from-the-will-self-archive-family-matters.html
Images of material from the Will Self archive are used with kind permission of the author.