LETTER from THE EDITOR

From the tedious de Quincey to the grotesquely overrated William Burroughs, drug habits have more often tended to ruin great writers
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The Independent Online
There has been much criticism, not least in these pages, about The Observer's sacking of Will Self, the gaunt and sometime drug-abusing novelist: Suzanne Moore made an eloquent argument on his behalf, and as someone who uses him as a babysitter, she should know. And yet, I am not so sure. My problem is not that I think journalists should be people of spotless reputation - rather the reverse - but that the whole culture which links drink 'n' drugs to fine writing has such a rotten record.

On the literary side, there are very few serious druggies who are readable. From the enormously tedious de Quincey to the grotesquely overrated William Burroughs, via the pathetic decline of F Scott Fitzgerald, drug habits have more often tended to ruin potentially great writers than make them. Good writing tends to involve huge concentration and long hours of grindingly hard work, not the few brilliant phrases flung down in the middle of the night of the drug-artist myth. I thought Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh was very good, but then again I suspect the man had a secret and hidden habit - sitting down at a table for many hours at a time with copious supplies of paper, tea and toast. (Given his reputation, I guess that's a serious libel.)

You may object: but Self has been fired as a journalist, and when has journalism ever had anything to do with fine writing? Fair point, oh Reader, though there are a fair few phrase-spinners in the trade even so. But even journalism has improved since the days when serious alcohol abuse from 11am onwards was considered a necessary qualification. Journalistic romantics who look back fondly on the days when would-be Brendan Behans poured out of Fleet Street pubs to spin some golden paragraphs should go back and look at what actually got written. The ``pissed old hack'' of Private Eye fame produced golden streams, no doubt, but rarely, I fear, of prose.

The best campaign comment so far comes from a fine writer and wit whose indulgences have not, so far as I know, been chiefly chemical, the vaguely aristocratic American liberal Gore Vidal. Asked about the relative right- wingness of the Tory and Labour parties, Vidal magnificently growled: "I do not come to Lilliputia with a measuring stick.'' This has caused some offence among the Lilliputians, but they fail to understand the Vidal humour. This was, after all, the man who coined the essential thought that ``whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies'' and who savagely dismissed America's astronauts while they were being regarded as national heroes, as ``Rotarians in outer space''. British politics escapes him lightly.

And finally ... every editor has weak spots and blind spots. We have an excellent and witty fashion team here; on Tuesday, Melanie Rickey wrote a wonderful piece about Stella McCartney, the latest British designer to take over a big Paris fashion house. But I have to admit I struggle vainly to understand the whole business. All those bizarre clothes, those unexpected bulges of flesh, those spikes and gold lame thongs. They look odd enough when draped around some of the most beautiful people in the world; they would be frankly hilarious when worn by the rest of us. I don't know whether it's Maoism or Presbyterianism that prompts the thought, but wouldn't things be far more satisfactory if we all wore standard- issue blue pyjamas. Though, come to think of it, as a besuited middle- aged man, that's roughly what I do wear.

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