William Woodard Self was born in Westminster, London and brought up in north London, between the suburbs of East Finchley and Hampstead Garden Suburb. His parents were Peter John Otter Self, Professor of Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and Elaine Rosenbloom, a Jewish woman from Queens, New York, who worked as a publisher’s assistant. His paternal grandfather, Sir Albert Henry Self, with working class origins in Fulham, was a high-ranking civil servant and President of the Modern Churchmen’s Union, who was also deputy chairman of the British Electricity Authority and Chairman of the Electricity Council. He is also descended from the 19th century educationalist Nathaniel Woodard, hence his middle name. As a child, Self spent a year living in Ithaca in upstate New York.
Self’s parents separated when he was nine, and divorced when he was 18. Despite the intellectual encouragement given by his parents, he was an emotionally confused and self-destructive child, harming himself with cigarette ends and knives before getting into drugs.
Self was a voracious reader from a young age. When he was ten, he developed an interest in works of science fiction such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and those of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Into his teenage years, Self claimed to have been “overawed by the canon”, stifling his ability to express himself. Nevertheless, Self’s dabbling with drugs grew in step with his prolific reading. Self started smoking marijuana at the age of 12, graduating through amphetamines, cocaine, and LSD to heroin, which he started injecting at 18.
Self attended University College School, an independent school for boys in Hampstead. He later attended Christ’s College, Finchley, from where he went to Exeter College at the University of Oxford, reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics, graduating with a third class degree. He claims to have only attended two lectures. At Oxford he became editor of and frequent contributor to an underground left-wing student newspaper called Red Herring/Oxford Strumpet, copies of which are archived in the Bodleian Library. His reasons for reading PPE rather than English literature were discussed by Self in an interview with The Guardian newspaper: