The smack of hypocrisy

Will Self, writer and sometime drug user, is hired by 'The Observer' for his bad-boy reputation. So why did they lose their nerve, asks Suzanne Moore
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The Independent Online
As a concerned citizen I for one am enormously relieved that The Mirror has set up a "Have you ever taken drugs on Major's jet?" hotline. Apparently only one woman has phoned in. She sounded rather sheepish and called herself "Norma" but would say little else. She claimed not to have met the novelist and writer Will Self, but admitted that ever since reading his novel Cock and Bull she had found herself wanting more and more of him. What has started off as fun, peer-group pressure even, had resulted in a serious habit. She had even been found trying to score day-old copies of The Observer in run-down newsagent's in King's Cross just to get a quick hit.

Did "Norma" recognise, I wonder, the aircraft toilet pictured in The Mirror? I am slightly worried because I did. John Major's toilet looks remarkably similar to aircraft toilets the world over. I trust it is the real thing. Still, if you stare hard enough at the picture, you can without the aid of any class A drugs achieve a semi-hallucinatory trance-like state. You can imagine being locked in that toilet while outside sits honest John and his strangely deluded colleagues. You know that ranked behind them are the gentlemen of the press so desperate for something, anything, to happen to liven up this zombiefied election that they are prepared to snitch on their colleagues, and you could get a little paranoid and you might want a little something to calm you down. Just something to keep you clear, to enable you to scream to your readers at the top of your voice "Just say no" to the whole toxic facade.

If Will Self were a "proper" journalist he would have downed a bottle of Scotch, nodded off, and garnered his quotes from the Media Party machinery just like everyone else. His innocence is rather touching. Maybe he even thought there might be a real story and something might happen. And now there is and it is him.

As the election coverage implodes into a circular dissection of the media process itself, it is perhaps fitting that journalists themselves are emerging as the personalities of the campaign. In the white corner we have Martin Bell and in the black, Will Self, the baddest of the bad, so bad that he once turned up to a restaurant he was reviewing drunk! So deeply wicked that he was not allowed on the Blair bus, which of course only transports teetotal vegans around the county. Poor Will, to be deprived of the opportunity to get up close and personal with Tony Blair. How can he live with himself?

Quite easily I should think, for Mr Self, whatever one thinks of his writing, is not a hypocrite. He has been open about his drug-taking in the past. He has written eloquently about his heroes, who include William Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson, JG Ballard and Chris Morris. (Indeed one expected Morris to emerge from the sidelines ranting on about "smack-heroin" as The Guardian once memorably called it.)

Such a list hardly conjures up the image of someone who likes a quiet night in and that of course is exactly why The Observer sent him flying with the Prime Minister in the first place. They wanted him to spice things up and he has. Only a couple of weeks ago in a piece in the New Statesman about gonzo journalism, the highly fictive and personalised reportage practised by Hunter S Thompson, Self asked whether illegal drugs were essential to the gonzo methodology? He concluded they were one of the best available options, acknowledging that drugs, though illegal, perhaps no longer possess "much potential for torque, for a clarifying lens to be held up against the culture that refuses to tolerate them".

Well, whatever he did or didn't do, the combination of the words heroin, toilet and John Major are so irresistible that many things become very clear indeed: The Observer's hypocrisy, the continuing refusal to have any sort of serious conversation about drug use in this country, the denial of the establishment in accepting or even acknowledging that there are two cultures in this country, one for whom drugs are a part of life and one for whom they are not.

Another of Self's employers, Ian Hargreaves, editor of the New Statesman, who has commissioned Self to do the "On the Road" pieces with Ralph Steadman, cartoonist and one-time Thompson compadre, does not seem ruffled by the whole farrago. His main concern is that he gets his copy from Self this week. "When you hire a writer like Will, you hire them for a different kind of writing," he says. Such a cool attitude make the actions of The Observer look even more hysterical. Self has not been charged. Surely they could have slapped his wrist when even The Mirror has sympathy for Self, citing mitigating circumstances such as the "mind-numbing boredom" of working for The Observer and being forced to listen to Tory election speeches. "That's enough to drive anyone over the edge," declares The Voice of The Mirror, who also insists with somewhat less sophistication, "Drugs are wrong."

I am not suggesting that drugs are right, just that they are around, that some people take them some of the time. There have always been writers who can write like angels under their influence, just as there have been writers who merely think they can write like angels and are too out of it to know the difference. Gonzo journalism, the bastard son of Tom Wolfe's new journalism has become assimilated into the mainstream via various music writers, by the legions of columnists and by the Loaded lads. Now merely writing about being naughty, getting wasted and having ill-advised sex is the story. Gonzo journalism has always contained within it a kind of braying machismo. Detached from any political moorings, any real desire to change the world, it has largely become a case of style parading as subversion for it merely reinforces the status quo. Yet Hunter S Thompson, for all his self-induced madness, got the story, did the job. His perceptions may have been altered by drugs but we feel he told us the truth. This one hopes is still a laudable aim for a journalist, whether one uses illegal substances to get there or not.

A certain kind of truth has emerged here, whatever Self's intention. And I must tell mine. Will Self is a friend, a decent and charming man who I would happily trust to look after my children. As a gonzo baby-sitter he reigns supreme. As for the rest of his alleged activities - in such a narrow-minded, closed-down, hypocritical time and space we need the likes of Self to give us a smack in the face, a shot in the arm. Let's hope some common sense kicks in before all this metaphor abuse gets really out of hand.

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