Deals with high style

BOOKS: DRINK & DRUGS: JUNK MAIL by Will Self, Bloomsbury pounds 12.99

"BAN This Sick Stunt!" roared the Daily Mirror in September, when the latest single by pop group Pulp included in its packaging an innocuous-looking origami diagram. It was a step-by-step guide to folding a little envelope called a speed wrap, used "for hiding illegal drugs", in the Mirror's words. What then, would they make of Will Self's new book, which has a painting of a speed wrap on its cover (Characteristic drug- dealing envelope No 4 by Neal Brown, to be precise)? When Will Self talks about junk, you can be pretty certain that he doesn't mean rusting cars and old tin cans.

Junk Mail is a collection of book reviews, interviews, articles and cartoons, dealing, so to speak, with "the politics, culture, literature and ritual of intoxication". Or so it claims on the back cover. Actually it's not so thrilling, or so focused. The "On Drugs" section fills only a quarter of the book. "On Other Things", the material on the remaining 300 pages, "represents the fruits of being prepared to do more or less what any editor asks me to do," says Self in his introduction, "having calculated the ratio of glibness to money that the commission represents."

When that other star of page, screen and Groucho Club, Stephen Fry, collected his jottings in a book called Paperweight, he headed a few of the pieces with apologies for their insubstantiality, and said that the volume as a whole should be viewed as, simply, a paperweight: a heavy object of lightweight significance. In both Self's and Fry's cases, the caveats are irritating. It's not worth the glazier's bill for me to throw stones at other journalists' glibness, but it seems fair to say that if you're ashamed of an article, you shouldn't reprint it in a hardback anthology, and if you're not ashamed of it, you should omit the disingenuous disclaimers.

Here, the fruits of being prepared to do what editors ask can be bitterly under-ripe: a very brief encounter with the novelist Tim Willocks, for instance; a quick glance at a new edition of Louis-Ferdinand Celine; a jokey look at life on Orkney. And while Stephen Fry always sounds like Stephen Fry, even when he's acting, the impeccably professional Self adapts his style according to the articles' original homes, from the Evening Standard to Modern Painters. The result is a schizophrenic hodge-podge, lacking an authoritative single voice to give it a semblance of unity.

Self has a vocabulary similar to Fry's, but this is not necessarily a plus. It wouldn't necessarily be marked down as a minus either, if Self hadn't accused a writer in one of his reviews of "sheer involuted obtuseness", and complained of the "annoying jargon" and "wilful obscurantism" of another. He quotes a fairly easily comprehensible sentence as evidence, and in the same review, Self himself comes up with "bogus syncretism" and the "hydra of relativism".

More rewarding are the longer pieces, or rather those which seem to have been motivated by curiosity as well as a need to pay the rent and the supplier. Self seems to enjoy the role of journalist as private eye, speeding up and down the road to interview subjects, and this enthusiasm - added to his knack of reproducing conversation and his off-beat literary approaches - pays off. He is best on his main interests: motorways, "English culture", and the authors at the top left of his bookcase: Woody Allen, Martin Amis, J G Ballard and William Burroughs.

But his obsession is drugs. Once Self has written a few more pieces on the subject, they will deserve to be compiled in one volume, along the lines of Martin Amis's journalism on all things American, The Moronic Inferno. A daily user of dope and speed at 15, and of heroin at 17 (how did he afford it?), Self hasn't quite grown out of his fascination with the outlaw glamour and ritualism of illegal narcotics. He'll scold Burroughs for trading in "self-realisation for the noxious draft of notoriety" in one article, and yet he'll enjoy a swig of notoriety himself in the next.

Still, he writes passionately and humorously, whether he is speaking to Thomas Szasz, the American "anti-psychiatrist" who believes that all drugs should be freely available, or when reporting a melodramatic visit to a crack-dealer's den. But in that damning introduction, Self says that he had planned to write a non-fiction book-length treatise on drugs, but gave up. In Junk Mail, "scattered throughout the various pieces were all the arguments and points of information that I would have wished to bring together in a book". Scattered is right. He assumes a great deal of prior knowledge in some articles and not enough in others. I wish he had persevered with the full-length work instead.

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home