William Donaldson's Week: Off the rails at the front line

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The Independent Online
WHEN, almost 20 years ago, Ken Tynan said how much he hoped for my sake that I'd be unable to handle the pressures of success, he may not have taken into account the problem of my recurring indigestion.

Be that as it may, and keen to follow the advice he gave me then ('To publicise the work, you must go spectacularly off the rails yourself'), I found myself on Tuesday evening coolly loitering at the front line - to be precise, the Marquee Restaurant at one of London's smartest West End hotels.

'The front line?' you may be thinking. 'Off the rails?' We're having our legs pulled here. Anything shocking in the Daily Telegraph?'

You'd be wrong, as it happens. The chef's my main man and I'm here to pick up the rock of freebase cocaine that I mentioned in last week's column.

Following the example of fashionable young American novelists, and keen to consolidate my present point- of-sale standing as a red hot ticket, I judged it best, you may remember, that I become addicted to cocaine myself - king-hitting strangers in the Groucho Club, being cured by Christians in a rehabilitation clinic and retiring to a log cabin in the north, from which I would eventually emerge with an older woman on my arm and the manuscript of Root Around Britain (to be published in the spring by Methuen and broadcast - in spite of the best efforts of the pseudonymous caption writer Slot - by Central Television).

Not much fun, of course, but someone's got to do it. So I'm sitting alone in the Marquee Restaurant, surrounded by seal-sleek diners with little pink hands and disgusting gourmet appetites, and I'm thinking, for some reason, how odd it is that certain things catch on while others don't.

Take football. Suppose you were in the business of inventing stuff, sat down one day and, after a lot of thought, came up with blueprints for alternative games: soccer and rugger. Of the two, you'd expect rugger - fast, violent, alive with the satisfactory thud of fat men smacking into each other at 30mph - to catch the imagination, but you'd run soccer past the marketing men just in case a few dancing nellies might want to kick each other from behind on a Saturday afternoon.

Imagine your surprise when soccer took off, leaving rugger to be appreciated by the discriminating few. It's the same with cocaine. After your failure to get rugger off the ground, you experiment with some white powder from Peru, shortly seeking another meeting with the marketing men.

'I've cracked it this time,' you say. 'Cook a little of this with some bicarbonate of soda, wait for a rock to form and then smoke it through a water pipe fashioned from a lemonade bottle.'

'What will happen?' the marketing men ask.

'Nothing at all,' you say. 'That's because you put in too much bicarbonate of soda. It might help your indigestion, though.'

'Hm,' the marketing men say. 'How much did that cost?'

' pounds 75,' you say.

'Hm,' they say again. 'And

what happens if you mix it

correctly?'

'Thirty seconds of euphoria followed by hours, perhaps months, of unimaginable horror. Your eyes bulge with paranoia, your nerves twang and snap like banjo strings, you go bankrupt and retire to a rehabilitation clinic where merciless Christians humiliate you by placing you on a podium with a bucket on your head.

'A luxury product,' the marketing men say. 'We can move this one.'

So here I am at the front line, and I'm playing it cool in spite of getting a lot of hassle from the matre d', who wants me to order from the a la carte, but I say I'm chilling out, that I'm here to see my main man, the chef, that I wouldn't have come to the front line were it not for the fact that Wimbledon fortnight meant, as usual, that the conventional sources had dried up. And the matre d' gets the picture and he potters off to hassle the other diners.

And then the chef appears, in starched white apron and a tall hat almost covering his dreadlocks, and he sits down and says that we must chat naturally so as not to alert the matre d' - Anton Mosimann, after all, must sometimes have mingled with the punters in his hat - and after chatting naturally for a while, the chef and I leave the Marquee Restaurant and if you're still waiting for your bombe surprise that's your hard cheese, because we pass through the foyer, the chef and I, and by tipping one doorman, beat some Arabs for a taxi, and we drive all over London, and the chef, in his hat, dives in and out of buildings, and eventually I have in my hand, in exchange for several hundred pounds, a rock the size of a billiard ball.

And I take this home and smoke it through my lemonade bottle and nothing happens. I've bought the bicarb. My indigestion's better, but this isn't what Tynan had in mind, I think. Nor will Methuen be pleased. They expect me to be off the rails and in and out of the clinic by Christmas at the latest. I'll get cracking next week - which should be easier, what with Wimbledon fortnight being over. And soon the soccer season starts.

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