Selfish career takes off in the lavatory

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The Independent Online
I said the other day that nothing interesting had happened in the election so far. I take that back, after the episode of Mr Will Self taking heroin in the Prime Minister's aeroplane.

There was nothing particularly interesting in the idea of Mr Self taking heroin in the lavatory in the PM's private aeroplane, of course, as that took place in private. What is interesting is everyone's reactions to it. My own reaction is that it was very funny, given the contrast between the shocking act and the pompous facade of a Tory battle plane. But as Mr Self himself has said, he was hired to write for newspapers on the basis of his image as a sort of notorious drug-related trendy talent so it is rather cruel and unfair to be fired for exactly the same reason.

As he has also said, it is ironic to see the PM's plane awash in free alcohol and yet to have his own activities seen as something especially reprehensible, even though nobody on the plane was affected by what he was doing and it didn't affect his capacity to do his writing job.

It reminded me of two things.

It reminded me first of a time when I was on a chartered plane to New York 20 years ago, carrying the cream and the dregs of Fleet Street's journalists as well as the hippy gang that wrote and edited Oz. Everyone in fact from Lunchtime O'Booze to Richard Neville.

We were all being flown free to America to review a new rock group called Brinsley Schwarz. The Oz crowd sat up front in the plane and looked cool. The tabloid mob sat at the back and looked seedy. In New York we all got out and did our own thing then got back in the plane home, at which time Richard Neville approached me and said: "I want you to remember this scene, Miles. There at the back are the gentlemen of the press who won't speak to us hippies because we are supposedly monsters of depravity and spend all our time smoking terrible things. Yet here we all are, sitting reading our novels and works of philosophy and puffing nothing worse than a Gauloise, while if you go and inspect the gentlemen of the press you will find they are slurping back all the alcohol they can get and feasting their nasty little eyes on all the full-frontal pornography you can't get in Britain which they have bought in New York and will hide from their wives when they get home."

I went and had a look, and it was true.

The second thing the Self episode reminded me of was a book by Quentin Crisp. Not the Naked Civil Servant, but his less famous follow-up, How To Have A Lifestyle. Everyone should read this book, or at least anyone who wants to bring a little real style into their life, as opposed to the fake style which comes with designer labels.

The best way of summing up Crisp's subversive message about creative artists is to repeat what he said about the failure of Henry Moore. If you saw a Henry Moore sculpture, said Crisp, you would recognise it instantly. But if Moore himself came into a gallery, nobody would know who he was. Therefore, even if he was a success as an artist, he was an utter failure as a stylist.

You don't have to swallow this whole to see the sense of what Crisp means. You can see why, for instance, although Salvador Dali was never the best of the surrealist painters, his personal public lifestyle meant he was always the most famous of them all.

So although Self might think now that he has dealt a blow to his career, I think that on the Crisp scale of things he has advanced solidly. His name and lifestyle are suddenly known to thousands of people who had never heard of him or who, like me, have never read his books. Very few writers manage to transcend their books. Jeffrey Archer managed it, if only because it would be hard to be less interesting than his books.

I think it is possible that if Will Self handles it all correctly, and even if he never takes drugs again, he will one day look back and see that the moment he took a bit of heroin in the PM's airborne lavatory was the day his career really took off.