A London-based collection of stories including recent Will Self stories like “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” and “The Sweet Smell of Psychosis’.
The extraordinary story of a 65-yr-old woman who lies dying in a London hospital. As she’s in the process of being ferried across to the other world (which turns out to be remarkably like this one), she reflects on her husbands, her children, her entire life. Brilliant and witty as always, Self has this time written a novel that carries a huge emotional punch in its portrait of a wonderful middle-aged woman – based apparently on his mother.
Will Self reads a life of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious dope dealer of modern times, and recalls his own adventures in the land of addiction
“I’ve got cocaine running around my brain!” So chanted Dillinger, the reggae toaster, in a mid-1970s paean to the white stuff that was an instant hit with those of us adolescent delinquents intent on an instant hit. Dillinger wasn’t the first or the last reggae star to take his moniker from a famous outlaw, but his cheerful little ditty was a curtain-raiser on a quarter-century during which the only criminal act in the global village worth talking about has been the production, export and sale of drugs.
At the tail-end of Mark Bowden’s impressively single-minded account of the hunt and execution of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious dope dealer of our era, one consumption statistic is belatedly supplied. In the year of Escobar’s death, 1993, the best estimate is that between 243 and 340 tonnes of cocaine were sold in the United States alone, and it is further estimated that Americans paid $30.8bn for the white powder.
But we all know this already: the cocaine trade is full of lines, more damned lines, and statistics. When I began doing cocaine regularly in the late Seventies, a gramme cost between Â£70 and Â£80. The quality was variable, a lot was pharmaceutical (obtained by break-ins on chemists), but much of it was still smuggled into Britain by individual freebooters, often rough bits of posh. I knew at least a couple of old Etonians who regularly jetted off to Bogota, picked up a key, and brought it back through customs tucked in the capacious crotches of their Turnbull & Asser green corduroy trousers. This is the kind of penny-ante trafficking glorified by Robert Sabbag in his autobiographical Snowblind. In those days, sniffing a line was, erroneously, perceived as the preserve of Studio 54 jet-setters and ageing roues, hangovers from some unhappy valley of interwar Arcadia.
In fact, cocaine had always been part of drug addiction, and remained so. In my early days, I encountered older addicts who could recall being prescribed injectable cocaine in “jacks” (small, soluble, pure cubes of the drug) under the medical maintenance model of treatment that used to prevail in Britain. These addicts were part of the criminalised core of drug users who, when cocaine increased in availability, became the early adopters, first of freebasing (precipitating a smokeable salt of cocaine by mixing it with ether or acetone) and then of crack (doing the same thing with bicarbonate of soda).
Those of us who had used cocaine intravenously were not at all surprised by the intense effects of the drug when inhaled. The big distinction between sniffing coke and smoking or fixing it is the speed with which it is absorbed into the brain; with sniffing, it takes three or four minutes; with smoking or fixing, it takes around six seconds. This produces a huge rush, which is followed almost immediately by a profound comedown. The only way to get back up is to take another hit, but because your tolerance has already been hugely increased, you require more to produce the same effect, and more and more ad infinitum. Except that nobody can afford an infinite amount of cocaine, even though I estimate, with my own, back-of-the-envelope methods, that the street price of the drug is now less than 30 per cent of what it was a quarter-century ago.
It isn’t solely that crack cocaine is in and of itself highly addictive that makes it such a devastating drug in our society; it’s more that it acts as a turbo-charger on people who have addictive personalities. In circles of recovering drug addicts, I often hear my peers say they are “grateful” to crack, because it so accelerated their own addictive disease that they had no choice but to stop – or else die. However, even on this bobsleigh run of toxicity, there is still plenty of lying, stealing, violence and psychosis. Crack has winnowed out whole urban communities, both in the US and now here, like some bizarre plague of ephemeral pleasure; a grotesque synecdoche of rapacious, global capitalism, which, in its reduction of all of a human’s life to the business of meaningless consumption, exactly enshrines William Burroughs’s adage that addictive drugs are a perfect commodity, because instead of selling them to people, you sell people to them.
But you won’t find much about the effects of cocaine – either sociological or existential – in Killing Pablo. If you want to understand the former, I urge you to read Land of Opportunity: one family’s quest for the American dream in the age of crack by William Adler (which was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in the US, but is now sadly out of print). This is a coruscating account of the family that dominated the Detroit crack business during the epidemic years of the early 1980s, and how they did it using good old American business know-how. If you want to understand the existential effects, I modestly offer my own account of a crack cocaine rush in my short story “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz”.
No, what Bowden excels at in this tome is a long, painstaking investigation into the tough tough boys and their tough tough toys, who fought in the Eighties and early Nineties to control the Colombian cocaine trade. This book is ostensibly a blow-by-blow account of the political shenanigans, corruption, compromise and murder, that led to Escobar’s execution (which was in all probability delivered in cold blood by a bullet to the brain, possibly even fired by an American Special Services operative). But the real pay-off for the entire exercise comes with Bowden’s remarks about the head of the American Drug Enforcement Agency station in Colombia in the wake of the killing: “Toft worried that they had created a monster. They had opened a bridge between the Colombian government, its top politicians and generals, and the Cali cartel that would be difficult, if not impossible, to close down.”
And so, indeed, it has proved to be. In the hunt to kill Escobar, the North American narco-warriors suborned still further the civil law and democracy of Colombia, a nation already devastated by years of political violence and extremism. By encouraging the Colombians to use the sicarios (hired killers) of the country’s other powerful drug cartel to pick off and murder Escobar’s Medellin people, the CIA, the FBI, Delta Force, Centra Spike and all the other shadowy American agencies who pitched in on the War Against Drugs acted as midwives to that monster.
Bowden’s account of the rise to power of the man known in his native city as “El Doctor” is thoroughly researched. His uncovering of the inter-agency feuding that surrounded the hunt for him is exemplary. His detailing of technological toys employed to hunt Escobar down is exhaustive. With Escobar on the run (and heavily protected by a populace to whom he was a folk hero), the only way he could be located was by using sophisticated listening devices capable of picking up the signals from the mobile phones and radios he used to communicate with his organisation. At one time, three American agencies had their spy planes aloft over Medellin. Bowden provides a convincing and systematic account of why Colombian political culture proved so tragically vulnerable to the corruption the cocaine trade brought with it.
But what is most bizarre about Killing Pablo is the consuming, ravening narrative hole in the text. Reading it is like watching Jaws without the shark. Apart from a couple of offhand remarks about wealthy Yanks wasting their money on marching powder, there is absolutely no cocaine in the book at all. If you came to this book without any background knowledge, I think you’d be genuinely flummoxed as to what all the fuss was about. You certainly don’t discover from its pages the extent of the cocaine problem in Colombia itself (catastrophic, unsurprisingly).
And this matters. Just as the futility of US policy should, by rights, adumbrate the whole sorry story – yet is revealed only at the denouement – so the psychic and cultural reality of the drug itself is crucial. Ploughing my way through Killing Pablo, I was reminded of Howard Marks’s autobiography, Mr Nice, which, while ostensibly about hashish smuggling, was so freighted with tedious detail about dates, numbers and quantities that it could just as easily have been the life story of an accountant. I have every expectation that Killing Pablo will do just as well commercially as Marks’s book did: they both fulfill a vital need among the reading public for drug-free books about drugs.
4th June 2001
[This short story was first published in Dr Mukti And Other Tales Of Woe]
Then he was back, suddenly and savagely. Not that he knew he was back, he simply found himself in a room full of monsters, lanky, pasty giants clad in disgusting nether garments, who, rather than beat him compassionately into stability, kept their distance and moaned. Their vocalisations were so low and febrile, so ghostly. They made no signs that he could comprehend and when he could bear it no longer he attacked.
They sedated him – that much he knew. When he came to again he was in a padded cell on the psychiatric ward of a hospital. While he had no clear memory of what lay either side of this nasty null space, he grasped that he’d been in a similar one before, for it felt familiar to him.
The monsters came and pressed their sharp muzzles against the tiny panel of toughened glass in the door. Periodically they entered the cell so as to inject him with drugs and he sprayed them. Once he was docile they wiped away the shit and piss. They told him that he had a history of this kind of thing, so they weren’t inclined to pay any attention to his panicky vocalisations or frantic signing.
Fearing he was mad – for they were animals – he found that he could understand them, even though their long, thin, hairless fingers were so flaccid and insignificant. One of them took an interest in him, coming to sit beside him on the wipeable surface, pen and notebook in its static hand. When he tried to impart the whole story of what had happened to him with the intensity that it required, this creature reared back from his agitating fingers. If he managed to touch it, it hit a button and others came to restrain him, then probed him with the fat needle. But if he could keep back from the white-robed animal, while it watched him warily all the time, it grunted assent and feigned sympathy.
He told it that it and its kind were monstrous aliens to him, that they should have fur all over their bodies, not just on their tubular heads. He told it that to him their eyebrow ridges were grotesquely nude, while their exposed skin was repulsively soft. He told it that because their fingers were so still and their toes were sheathed in leather he could not fully believe in anything they tried to communicate. He told it that unless he could see their anal scrags and genital swellings he could not be sure they were like him in any meaningful way. He told it that their very odour was offensive to him, a thin stench blanketed with toxic chemicals which rasped his nostrils and made him gag.
When, in turn, it asked him what the dominant creatures were like where he came from, he told it chimpanzees, we are chimps. Chimpanzees inhabit the whole earth, chimps knuckle-walking in the streets, chimps displaying in the government buildings and brachiating through the trees in the public parks. The most vivid expression of social life was, he told it, a crowd of chimps mating and fighting, their fur erect. Then he implored it to touch him, to caress him, to groom him thoroughly as any caring chimpanzee would do, but still it remained aloof.
Instead of grooming him it told him that he was deluded, that his vision of a chimpanzee society was only that, a fantasy built up out of satirical books and science-fiction films. It told him that chimpanzees were animals, nothing more. That only a few tens of thousands remained alive in the wild, and their numbers were declining rapidly as they were hunted for food by the poor people who dwelled in the equatorial jungle.
Who were these ‘pee-pul’? he asked. The vocalisation, so unfamiliar, so infantile, yet came to him unbidden. These people, it said, were humans, benighted humans but humans all the same. And like all other humans they could walk erect and speak many different languages. Humans possessed the most advanced technologies and performed great feats of construction. Humans had been to the moon and sent their machines still further into space. It was humans who ruled this earth and all other creatures were subordinate to them, mere gammas and deltas in the evolutionary hierarchy. Hearing these absurdities he yammered and howled and gnashed and threw himself about the cell in a frenzied display until the others came and they sheathed their fat needle in his scrawny, quaking flesh.
When they’d all gone he dragged himself upright and staggered to the door. In the glass panel he saw his own pitiful muzzle reflected. But could it be his, because like theirs it was scarcely lined. He had a tuft of fine hair on top of his head and sparse tufts sprouted on his muzzle, but apart from more thin patches around his hidden scrag and exposed penis his body was bare under his dirty robe. He felt weak, unbearably weak, and his awareness of the space about him was awfully hazy. His peripheral vision was almost non-existent and, even after this long period in this one room, he still couldn’t grasp the positions of the few things allowed to him, the cardboard table and chair, the plastic piss pot. Often, moving backwards, he knocked the piss pot over and sprayed his own urine into his frightened muzzle.
The humans told him that his weakness was good. They told him that the low cries he increasingly uttered were a sign he was recovering. They encouraged him to take the pills they gave him rather than waiting for the needle, and respectful – as all apes must be – of the hierarchy in which he found himself, he obeyed. As a reward they allowed him out of the cell and on to a ward of others who they assured him were like himself.
They were, in part at least. They gurned and howled like chimpanzees, and like chimps they tried to get their fingers in his fur. They yammered and fought like chimps, and on several occasions he even saw them attempt to mount one another, although this was frustrated by their absurd nether garments. Then the attendants came, as languorous as ever, limping on their rigid legs, and dragged them apart.
At first he couldn’t tell which creatures were female because he couldn’t see their sexual swellings or if they were in oestrus. But after a while he realised that the smaller ones with the longer, finer head fur tended to be females, and by thrusting his muzzle close to their crotches he could tell when they were ovulating. This behaviour, far from being appreciated, was met with bass cries of horror on the part of his captors, so he learnt not to do it and to cower away from the females.
After what must have been weeks on the ward he was allowed to visit the hospital cafeteria with one of the nurses. He was led out into the public areas of the building. Here he saw still more humans, buttoned up tight in their stupid clothing, ignoring each other and staring straight ahead with their oddly monocular gazes. The throngs on the stairways and in the corridors parted instinctively to allow the passage of the throngs coming in the opposite direction. The humans’ movements were at once abrupt and languid as they wafted past.
He sat with the nurse in the cafeteria and ate their awful carbohydrate mush and rotten carrion. The only fruit available looked injection-moulded and stank of chemicals. Heading back to the ward they passed by the revolving door in the main hall. Slices of the outside world were cut up and flung at him: a red bus, a black cab, an orange milk float. Across the road he could make out a terrace of red-brick houses, and on one of them a street sign he recognised. It read ‘Fulham Palace Road’. He didn’t screech, he didn’t cachinnate, he didn’t lash out, but in the numb core of him something gave way and he was forced to acknowledge that it was true, that this was the world he’d always known, but now it was dominated by the loathsome animals. It was the planet of the humans.
After this day what his captors chose to call his recovery rapidly progressed. While his movements still felt stilted, crippled even, to them they were only side effects of the medication. He took very little interest in their world but he stopped spraying them when they brought him food. They told him that since he was getting better he should know that he was a person of some standing, that he had a family, friends and a career. They brought two infants to see him and told him that they were his. He sat on the far side of a Formica-topped table from the two sub-adult males and the female who they told him had once been his consort, but he felt no affection for them, or kinship. They looked like all the rest, with their brutish muzzles, their staring eyes, their jerky yet slow gestures. He managed to display a few signs of interest in them, but was glad when they went. They didn’t return.
It was the same with the other humans they told him were his friends and colleagues. He stared at them, they stared back at him. They groaned their pathetic reassurances, he groaned back his excruciating sense of total dislocation. To one or two of them he attempted an explanation of the other world he’d lived in, its exhilarating vigour and violent intimacy, its rank scents and sensual smells, its cathartic fighting and speedy mating. However, they looked either shocked, bored, or repelled, and sometimes all three. He was glad when these visits began to decline, and still more pleased when they ceased altogether.
They told him that he had to leave the hospital, that he was well enough now to manage by himself in what they called sheltered accommodation. He hoped this would be a great grove of trees, their branches cunningly interleaved, which he could disappear into and where he could build his nest, high above the threatening ground with its legions of bipedal ghosts. It turned out to be a mean little block of bedsitting rooms, single-storeyed and set around a square of dirty grass, smeared with dog shit and glittering with broken glass. The dogs frightened him; where he’d come from they hadn’t been domesticated. The world outside his room frightened him as well. It was exactly the same as the city he remembered but a third larger to match the scale of its current lofty inhabitants. When he had to go outside, he preferred not to look up at the tops of the buildings, their vast size made him dizzy. He inched along the inside of the pavement, occasionally, despite himself, dropping to his knuckles and scuttling on all fours.
The nether garments he had to wear made him feel constricted, breathless. When he was certain he couldn’t be observed – usually as he skulked on a patch of waste ground near the block – he’d loosen them and let his genitals flop out into the cool air. Fortunately he didn’t have to go out that often. A human came to clean his room and would also shop for the plastic fruit he hated but still desired. The same human helped him to fill out the forms he needed to get money from the post office. These were the only interactions he could tolerate, for if he spent too long with any individual human – no matter how palsied and strange he still found them – he’d be compelled to grasp for their shoulder, thrust his muzzle close to theirs, while entreating them with agitated fingers to bury their fingers in his head fur, or mock-mate him, or hit him so as to convince him that he was still alive, still chimp.
Doctors came every week to give him injections. He obeyed them when they told him to take his other medication with unfailing regularity, for he found that if he didn’t the world became a still more terrifying place, as his energy level rose and his perception widened, until he had an irrepressible urge to scamper up the façades of buildings, or force the humans he encountered to acknowledge his dominance by kissing his hairless arse.
The creature who’d first listened to him in the Charing Cross Hospital still came to see him from time to time, and at her suggestion he began to attend an art therapy group held in the community centre attached to his sheltered accommodation. She told him, this doctor, that she’d met him years before after his first breakdown. She told him that he’d once been a very famous and successful artist, and that she was sure the way forward for him – if not to total recovery at least towards some acceptance of his condition – lay through his art. Although he thought she was stupid this did make a peculiar kind of sense, for the world he found himself in was so grindingly itself that he could find no way of describing it in any other terms. A chair was a chair, a car a car, a house a house. If he wanted the other world back – the planet of the apes to which he hearkened with every fibre of his being – then he would have to paint it into life. Perhaps in the process he would discover an idiom which would make it bearable to speak of being human.
He went to the art therapy sessions and sat with the other sick beings. The brushes, charcoals and pencils felt familiar, but his own fingers remained alien to him, too long and bony, too weak for him to manage the fine muscle control necessary to render the depictions he envisaged. He wanted to make small canvases, thickly layered, which would portray the teeming world he’d lost, with its bristly figures so closely meshed that they’d appear as a single, heaving rug of warm connectivity. But when he tried to execute them his brushstrokes were too clumsy and the paintings turned out as muddy daubs.
The human who supervised the group tried to encourage him, saying that the paintings were different, a little unsettling perhaps, but definitely worth continuing with. He brought another human to see them, a female who said that she ran a small gallery of outsider art and she’d like to have two or three of them to exhibit. Outsider art. The expression made him howl with derision. How far outside she had no way of comprehending. Outside of time, outside of space, outside of this whole miserable world with its sexless, peg-legged, slick-skinned, feeble-fingered inhabitants.
Yet he went to see the gallery and met some of the people associated with it. He could tell how peculiar they found him, and often after he’d turned away his acute hearing picked up the things they said behind his back.
“Simon Dykes, y’know …” they said.
“What, the painter?”
“But he was so well known at one time, there’s stuff of his in the Tate, isn’t there?”
“That’s right, but he had a breakdown, two in fact, very severe as you can see. He’s little more than a shell of a man, hardly anything left in him that’s human.”
“Odd, most peculiar, and these mucky little things are his?”
“I’m afraid so, I think she only shows them for their curiosity value. Even compared to the work of other mentally ill painters they have no discernible merit. If they bear comparison with anything it’s those paintings done by chimpanzees under the tutelage of animal psychologists.”
It was a time of war and oppression. From what he heard at the gallery millions of humans were being starved, tortured and murdered by their own species. How the gallery goers made him laugh with their talk of ‘humanity’ and ‘human rights’. They thought themselves the very lords of creation as they supped their alcoholic grape juice with their fat wet lips. Standing there in their sagging bags of skin, never touching, never hugging, never – that he could see – mating, their very perception of the world a single cone of certainty, which projected out from their ugly muzzles, only to dip down to the ground within a few feet.
At one of these gatherings a female approached him and made signs indicating that she was interested in something else besides disparaging him. The odours were, as ever, masked with tight garments and smelly water, but he could tell she was in oestrus. When she suggested he accompany her back to her home and then encouraged him to join her in her nest, the thought of finally getting to grips with another – even another of another species – was too much for him to resist.
But oh the revulsion of the soft stroking and feeble palping she forced upon him! There was no intimate force or erotic vigour to this encounter. When she made it clear through her guttural groans that he should mate her, he found himself lapsing into more natural and cohering behaviour. He grabbed her head fur tightly, rammed into her tiny swelling deeply, then cuffed her with true affection. She moaned pathetically, dragged herself from under him, and backed into the corner of the nest with the insane look of a half-broken animal on her muzzle.
“It’s my fault …” she whimpered. “It’s my fault.”
He returned to his sheltered accommodation, expecting the doctors to come for him, to net him and stab him with their poison-tipped spears. But they never did.
He gathered other things about his past from the female doctor who still came to see him. Apparently, after his last breakdown, he’d been treated by a very eminent, very well-known doctor. The doctor – a former colleague of the female’s – had even taken him into his own group in an attempt to heal him.
He discovered where the doctor lived and went there. It was a hilltop suburb, where the windows of the large houses looked out over a stretch of open heathland to the grey city below. Crossing the heath to reach the doctor’s house, he allowed himself to believe he was back in the world he loved, reunited with his tough and hairy body. He leapt for low-hanging branches and swung from them, he beat his chest and waa-barked in the gathering darkness, he tore at his nether garments and exposed himself to the night air. The few humans he encountered ran away from him, screaming in a most satisfying fashion.
When he arrived at the doctor’s house his clothes were in tatters and he was bleeding in several places. He leapt over the garden gate and knuckle-walked up to the front door which he banged on with both fists. After a while the door swung open to reveal a fat male with sparse white head fur. The famous doctor looked at him with that expression – at once blank and meaninglessly quizzical – which he’d come to understand was typical of the species. The doctor uttered no vocalisation, nor did his twisted old digits make any sign. After a while he shut the door again.
He sat there on his haunches and his large ears picked up the sound of a telephone being dialled inside the house, then low mutters. Isn’t it strange, he reflected, how when I had the delusion that I was human they couldn’t do enough to help me, but now that they’re certain I am one they don’t care at all.
Then squatting down still further he readied himself for the arrival of the ambulance, the siren of which he could already hear, screeching its way through the alien jungle.
A new novella and four new short stories from Will Self (his first since 1999’s Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys), which see him return to the disturbing and ruckled terrain of his bestselling first collection. Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe is another warped window on the wibbly-wobbly world of fear and fun that Self – like some malevolent deity – has fashioned over the years.
Other short stories collections:
Tough Tough Toys For Tough Tough Boys
The Quantum Theory Of Insanity
Penguin 2002 edition
Introduction by Will Self
‘Junk is not, like alcohol or a weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.’ In this complete and unexpurgated edtion of Burroughs’ famous book, he depicts the addict’s life: his hallucinations, his ghostly noctural wanderings, his strange sexuality and his hunger for the needle. Junky remains one of the most accurate and mesmerising account of addiction ever written.
[This essay appears in the British Library edition of Essays on Alasdair Gray, edited by Phil Moores. Reproduced by kind permission of the British Library. © The British Library 2002]
A letter arrives from Phil Moores whose address is listed as follows: British Library, Customer Services, Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa, Wetherby, West Yorkshire. He encloses a selection of essays about the work of the Scottish novelist, artist, poet and politico-philosophic eminence grise, Alasdair Gray. You are holding this book in your hand so you know what those essays are, but picture to yourself (and let it be a Gray illustration, all firm, flowing pen-and-ink lines, precise adumbration, colour – if at all – in smooth, monochrome blocks), my own investigation of these enclosures.
Detail 1: I sit, islanded in light from a globular steel reading lamp of fifties vintage. Around me on the purple-black floorboards are sheaves of paper, my brow is furrowed, my chin is tripled, my fingers play a chord upon my cheek.
Detail 2: I go to my spare bedroom and retrieve the copy of Gray’s novel ‘Something Leather’, that the author gave me himself. (At that time, the early nineties, Gray carried a small rucksack full of his own titles, which he offered for sale at readings. Mine is inscribed; ‘To Will Self, in memory of our outing to Cardiff’. We went to Wales by train from London, with an American performance poet called Peter Plate. My wife tells me that Plate usually likes to pack a gun, but alas, in Cardiff this was not possible. The hotel was glutinously rendered and fusty in the extreme. There may well have been diamond patterned mullions. After the three of us had given a reading – of which I remember little, saving that a Welsh poet gave me a copy of his self-published collection ‘The Stuff of Love’, good title that – Plate, Gray and I retired to the hotel and drank a lot of whisky. The bar was tiny, the hotelier obese. Either Gray, Plate and I carried the hotelier to bed, or Gray, the hotelier and I carried Plate to bed, or there was some further variation of this, or, just possibly, we all dossed down together on the floor of the bar. At any rate, we were all also up bright and early the following morning, Gray his usual self, shy, gentle, yet strident and immensely talkative. Mm.), and begin to reread it.
Detail 3: In the hallway, where the larger hardbacks are kept, I retrieve my copy of Gray’s ‘The Book of Prefaces’, sent to me by Gray’s erstwhile English publisher, Liz Calder (for reasons of Scottishness and Loyalty, Gray has been subject to publishing books alternately with Calder’s house, Bloomsbury, and Canongate. Liz Calder worships Gray as if he is a small, bespectacled, grey bearded deity. It could be that Gray is the God in Liz’s narrative. God is in all Gray’s narratives. Somewhere.)
Detail 4: In mine and my wife’s bedroom I face a wall of books and intone ‘I wonder where that copy of Lan – ‘ but then see it.
Detail 5: I have retreated, together with books and papers, to my study at the top of the house, where I write this introduction (‘introduction’ in the loosest sense, what could be more otiose than to gloss a collection of critical essays with one more?) on a flat screen monitor I bought a month ago in the Tottenham Court Road. (Toby, who used to ‘do’ my computers for me, said that it was pointless replacing the old monitor when it packed in, and that I should upgrade the whole system. Contrarily, I decided to downgrade Toby instead.)
Gray does not type himself. All these vignettes of me-writing-the-introduction are linked together by tendrils of vines, or stalks of thistles, or organs of the body, or lobes of the brain, or are poised in conch shells and skulls, alembics and crucibles, mortars and other vessels of that sort. Moores feels that: ‘It’s sad that there is still a gap for this book for a writer/artist of Alasdair’s importance: perhaps it’s because he’s Scottish, perhaps because he wasn’t young enough to grab the media’s attention like others of the 80s “Granta Young Novelists”, but whatever the reason his profile is still too low. Perhaps this book will help (but probably not).’
Hmm. Such pessimism and cynicism in one so young (and I envision Moores as young, although a Document Supply Centre is not where you would expect to find anyone who was not – at least psychically – a valetudinarian.)
Personally, I find it very easy to imagine Gray as a svelte, highly photogenic, metropolitan novelist. In the mid-nineties, when I went often up to Orkney to write, on a couple of occasions, when I was passing through Glasgow, I took Gray and his partner Morag MacAlpine out to dinner at the Ubiquitous Chip, a restaurant where Gray himself – some years before – had done murals on the walls of the staircase leading to the lavatories. Gray would strike attitudes over his Troon-landed cod, reminding me of no one much besides Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’.
Anyway, who gives a fuck about his profile? Literary art is not a competition of any kind at all, what could it be like to win? Suffice to say, Gray is in my estimation a great writer, perhaps the greatest living in this archipelago today. Others agree. I’ve only just now looked up ‘Lanark’, his magnum opus, on the Amazon.com website (this dumb, digital, obsolete computer multi-tasks, as do Gray’s analogue fictions), the sales were respectable, the reader reviews fulsome. One said: ‘I owe my life to this book. In 1984 I was marooned in the Roehampton Limb- fitting Centre, the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident, whereby an out of control invalid carriage ran me over several times. The specialists all concurred that I would never walk again, even with the most advanced prostheses they had on offer. After reading ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray, such was my Apprehension of a New Jerusalem, arrived at by the author’s Fulsome Humanity, tempered by the Judiciousness of his Despair, and the Percipience of his Neo-Marxist Critique of the Established Authorities, that seemingly in response to one of the novel’s own Fantastical Conceits, I found myself growing, in a matter of days, two superb, reptilian nether limbs. These have not only served me better than my own human legs as a form of locomotion, they have also made me a Sexual Commodity much in demand on the burgeoning fetish scene of the South West London suburbs.’ Any encomium I could add to this would be worse than pathetic.
Gray’s friends and collaborators are represented in this collection, as are his fans. Some essays deal with Gray’s fiction, some with his political; writing, others with his exegetical labours, and others still with his visual art. I have attempted, through this fantastical schema – part reverie, part parody, part fantasy – to suggest to you quite how important I view Gray to be. In Scotland, where the fruits of the Enlightenment are still to be found rotting on the concrete floors of deracinated orchards, Gray represents quite as much of a phenomenon as he does to those of us south of the border. However, to the Scottish, Gray is at least imaginable, whereas to the English he is barely conceivable. A creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision is not something to be sought in the native land of the hypocrite. Although, that being noted, much documentation concerning Gray’s work now reposes in Wetherby, and you have this fine volume in your hand. Treasure it. Grip it tightly.
Will Self 2002
Edited by Phil Moores
Introduction by Will Self
From “Lanark” to “The Book of Prefaces”, Alasdair Gray, more than any other writer still working, can be claimed as the modern successor to William Blake. As well as being award-winning tales, his books are also works of art, from the embossed boards to his own illustrations: books, not texts. Since “Lanark” appeared in 1981, Gray has produced work of all kinds – novels, short stories, poetry, polemic, plays – all of which retain the sense of humour, Scottish heart, intellectual curiosity and unique style that is Gray’s mark. This volume of essays contains a detailed bibliography of Gray’s writing and design, illustrations of his artwork and original essays from such diverse hands as the poet Professor Philip Hobsbaum, Kevin Williamson, author of “Drugs” and “The Party Line”, and Jonathan Coe, author of “The Rotters’ Club”. In addition, the illustrated jacket has been designed by Alasdair Gray himself, who is also contributing a personal view of his career to date.
Then to the Wolseley for an after-show supper. This was my first trip to this happening eatery – and how pleasingly daft it is. The decor looks as if the old car showroom has been remodelled as a cross between the Batcave and a fin-de-siecle Viennese coffee house. However, instead of caped crusaders the banquettes were stacked with the usual Footballers’ wives and nouveau riche provincials.
The food was goodish, excellent trimmings, including superb espresso, but my companion’s halibut came swimming in a sauce as thin and salty as the sea it had been pulled from. Worse still was the behaviour of the staff. When we arrived the Maitre D’ said “Please wait in the bar Mr Self until your table is ready.” But when that time came he stuck his head round the corner and cried “Come on, Will!”. While that sort of wanton familiarity may be all right with Privy Councillors – it’s anathema to me.
Like most London householders I deplore the rise of thuggish trick-or-treaters. Hulking young fellows turn up on your doorstep demanding sweets, their costumes consisting of little more than a hoodie pulled down over their eyes and a scarf wound round their mouths. If you were to refuse, they look well capable of “tricking” you with a few rounds from a Glock. Still, such antics do have their upside. I went out on Monday evening wearing nothing but my habitual Will Self horror mask, and came back a couple of hours later with my pockets stuffed with all manner of cachoux, truffles and other expensive bonbons.
To the Criterion for the revival of Simon Gray’s 1975 satire on middle-class mores, Otherwise Engaged. Anthony Head and the other flared-jeans-wearing players were superb. The set was a delight – a perfect recreation of an echt Hampstead home during the Heath administration, right down to the Eames recliner, the Hockney print on the wall and the Habitat lampshade. The strange thing was that just as this modernist decor hadn’t dated at all over the past thirty years, nor had the Anglo-Saxon bourgeois attitudes so cleverly skewered by Gray.
Here was the same tedious preoccupation with the superiority of an Oxbridge education, the same fatuous remarks about literature and publishing, the same misogyny masquerading as permissiveness. The only line in the play that jibed at all was when one character – a public school teacher – remarked that soon private education and healthcare would be abolished.
How strange it is to recall a time when Britain seemed on the brink of a socialist dawn! And yet, if Otherwise Engaged demonstrated anything conclusively, it’s that despite Thatcher and Blair the metropolitan middle class have enjoyed – if that’s the right word – an era of unparalleled social stability.
I don’t imagine there will be too much mourning today for the defunct ministerial career of David Blunkett. Only the prurient could wish this farceur to go on stumbling through Westminster with his trousers round his ankles. Only the deluded can imagine that his work on the pensions crisis would’ve averted it. Blunkett’s supporters say he was drawn into his dodgy DNA dealings by the need to pay for the court costs arising from his battle with Kimberley Quinn over access to their child William. More morally conservative types might say: tough titty, if you embark on an affair with a married woman you’ve got it coming. Slightly more liberal pundits would incline to the view that while adultery is understandable, inadequate contraception is not.
My feeling is that there’s something breathtakingly crass about having any dealings with a firm specialising in paternity testing, when you yourself have inflicted so much damage on so many people by an act of unthinking insemination. It’s impossible for anyone but Blunkett and Quinn to know the full extent to of their mutual acrimony – but I would argue that it’s also only they who can solve it, and make adequate provision, both emotional and financial, for their child.
Over the past 20 years an elaborate bureaucracy has been built up in this country, the aim of which is entirely to stop sundered parents from fighting with each other, and force them to put the needs of their offspring first. The Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service, the Child Support Agency, the Family Courts, the Lord Chancellor’s Department, umpteen family lawyers, family therapists and trained mediators have been hurled into the breach. Yet when all’s said and done – and more importantly spent – fathers don’t want to provide financial support for their children get away with it, and mothers who refuse to comply with court orders on access do as well.
I know of so many mucky and sad situations where legal interventions, far from bringing warring parents to their sense, have merely inflamed their passions and ushered them into a Bleak House of litigation. If Blunkett and Quinn, their affair over, had had the good sense to approach its aftermath as responsible and mature individuals, then perhaps the future happiness of their child would’ve been assured. Ministerial careers may only last a few years – sexual passion a few minutes, but relationships between parents always last a lifetime.
Apparently a survey has revealed that 67% of children believe that their mothers are the adult in the family who “wears the trousers”. My only surprise is that it’s not 100%. Where are these third of fathers who effortlessly juggle the work/life balance? Who remember recorder lessons and gym kit while dealing with an office crisis? Who know instinctively when the carrot and the stick should be deployed? I don’t see them on television, I don’t read their top-tips in the magazines. I suspect these children are deluded and that in our metrosexual age they’ve simply mistaken one trouser wearer for another.