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Plus Gainsbourg Que Gainsbourg - an Interview from New Welsh Review

INTERVIEW by Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 92

Plus Gainsbourg Que Gainsbourg

Based on a conversation between Horatio Clare, Richard Gwyn and NWR editor Gwen Davies at Hay Festival, 30 May, 2011

Horatio Clare is the author of Truant, Notes from the Slippery Slope Richard Gwyn's memoir The Vagabond's Breakfast was published in April.

NWR: Richard; In your memoir you tell how your good friend calling you a 'prisoner of duality' helped you relinquish nine years of vagrancy, mainly in Crete and northern Spain, and return to your family near Crickhowell.

the experience is not one of sadness or regret for a path not taken, but a fluttering excitement, a... thrill at the thorough randomness of all existence, of the multitude of choices laid before me every day that I lived as a wanderer and a vagrant.

Horatio: you were a dope addict a decade later, during the 90s. In Truant, you initially share this grandiose worldview, 'the fundamental point of taking drugs was to peel away the road, to see through dark glass, to find and open invisible doors'. Later though, you decide to cease wanting that other, the extra, the alternative.

There are more things in heaven and earth...but [I have] all the proof of those 'more things' that I will ever require. I mean to leave it all alone. The surface of the world is more than enough for me.

Is addiction a refusal to accept one single, present reality?

HC: Yes, though a single reality seems slightly suspicious to me, as though we had an encompassing view of all that reality may contain. If we agree that there is a single probable reality, then I would say that wilfully and chaotically re-odering their perception of it allows dope smokers to play in that overlap between what we sense, what we suspect and what we think we know.

So, I can go to Abergavenny station and take a taxi home and it's a very nice drive. But if I do the same thing having eaten a lump of hash, the station may become as exotic as Grand Central, the evening mist might seem as mysterious as the fogs of time, my sense of self might fragment, as if I am living in Italo Calvino novel - If On A Winter's Night A Traveller Swallows Some Hash... And the taxi, however it is driven, might seem like Aladdin's magic carpet ride. Addiction is what happens when you can't bear to allow Aladdin's carpet to turn back into Station Taxis.

RG: I'd say possibly, Yes, it is. If you have a predisposition to always be looking beyond or outside your present reality - then intoxication (whether with alcohol or drugs) will likely exaggerate that impulse. If you are an addict then you suffer from a progressive illness which will only make your disengagement from a single, present reality the more extreme. The drugs, or the alcohol do that. But in the line you quoted, when I say I was seduced by the idea that every instant contains the potential for an infinity of outcomes, well that is a theme that the book deals with at some length, and I don't think it necessarily has anything to do with addiction. In fact I see it as a good thing, at least when you are young. It simply reflects a state of terminal inquiring restlessness, of seeking out new pastures, something which age, with any luck, diminishes.

However, to go back to addiction, constant immersion in an altered state of mind does lead to an entirely subjective way of experiencing life, a solipsistic universe in which the addict takes on god-like qualities, feels himself or herself to be master of the universe. The quote from Marguerite Duras says it all: “Alcohol doesn't console, it doesn't fill up anyone's psychological gaps, all it replaces is the lack of God.” It encourages us in our folly, so we believe ourselves to be god-like. It is a complete delusion of course, but addiction, in my experience, mimics the characteristics of a spiritual quest. When I was drinking, I was on a kind of mission. But perhaps that's the kind of attitude I have anyway; I'm kind of obsessive in pursuit of whatever I happen to be doing at any given moment. Alcohol and drugs just make it worse. The problem is that when you're in that state, any ability to actually do things well goes out the window, and you end up being ridiculous.

NWR: Horatio, your book is particularly good on the attractions of the 'anti-hero'

A bad boy does not necessarily lack friends, associates, even good women. There is a blend of resentment and exultation in him... Look out, here comes trouble. Anything could happen now.

And Richard, your memoir is a publicist's dream: 'writer has year to live unless he gets a liver transplant!' Publishers can market an addict's chaotic life or an insomniac's hallucinations much more easily than they can accounts of comfortable, orderly lives. These memoirs have their quotas of 'eccentric characters' and 'colourful anecdotes' involving illegal possession of milk floats, cooking roadkill goose, jumping freight trains and polishing a desk to within a splinter of its life.

'Riding the Freight Train' from Truant by Horatio Clare
'Plus Gainsbourg que Gainsbourg' from The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

Both memoirs quote Blake's 'the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom'
Do you find yourself playing a publisher's game of marketing 'excess', inventing hierarchies of addiction or pain?

RG: It's never occurred to me, no. I would find that completely disingenuous, adapting my writing towards a market. I can only write what I want to write. Besides, life is too short to do otherwise. Of course there are hierarchies, just as in re-hab there is a hierarchy of addictive valency, a kind of inverted worthiness depending on the severity of one's addiction, or even drug of choice. Rightly or wrongly, some addictions are just considered harder than others.

HC: I was never in the running for biggest stoner - I was an addict, but within that vast hierarchy I was not a heavyweight. It was never my intention to market excess: I wanted to explore its ordinary consequences. I wanted to show what happens when a fairly normal individual smokes a fairly normal excess of what has become - sadly - fairly normal dope (skunk) and finds he has a fairly common reaction to it: psychosis. It seemed to be a common story which had somehow escaped the exploration of proper telling - you used to hear, oh, so and so lost it. Or, poor so-and-so came off the rails - and so another life became a footnote. I wanted to write about the people in those footnotes - how they survived, or didn't.

Of course I wish I had written Fear and Loathing in Crickhowell, for the title alone, and naturally publishers and reviewers and bookshops want the superlative: the most appalling, the most degraded. James Frey, for example, had to make it up to give it to them. One reviewer complained that my activities weren't sufficiently scandalous; he would have enjoyed the book more if I had embellished. But entertaining reviewers is not my job. In 'Truant' my job was to give the most honest and clear-sighted account of what I had heard, seen, done, researched and discovered.

NWR: One of Truant's mantras is 'times with dope and no money pass easier than times with money and no dope'. Vagabond meanwhile regrets the waste and waiting inherent in the vagrant lifestyle, and later registers the irony of time-expanding insomnia caused by hepatitis C.
Do addicts experience time in a different way? How did you explore the theme of time in your books?

...the hours spent outside cafes nursing a single drink, of rendezvous with potential employers who never turned up, of having to listen to the interminably tedious advice of a certain breed of traveler, of the inane chatter of junkies and petty criminals.

RG: That mantra [about 'time with dope'] is a catchphrase from the hippy comic magazine The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers that came out in the seventies. How funny that it has survived. When under the influence, yes - time moves very differently, especially with psychotropics - and even when drinking, yes. That's just the drug working on your brain. My experience of time expanding with insomnia is rather different. If you don't sleep, some very strange things start happening with your perception of time because you do away with the ordinary frontiers of day and night. The waking hours and sleeping hours that the rest of the world takes for granted, they disintegrate. You inhabit a kind of perpetual twilight. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. In writing the book I was influenced by the way my perception of time was affected by sleeplessness, and the effect I sought to reproduce was of slipping in and out of the past, of the ambivalence of being in a present while waiting for a life-saving operation without which there would be no personal future. Imposing this flaky experiencing of time on the architecture of the book was probably the hardest task I have faced as a writer, but once I understood what I was doing, it made a lot of sense. We don't necessarily experience time as a linear narrative, so why should we reproduce it in that way?

HC: Time passes slowly and with great intensity when you smoke cannabis. Howard Marks points out that since time cannot slow down, the only possible explanation is that the brain is working faster. With the rush of serotonin you experience, access to memory seems enhanced (the destruction of memory may be related to a powerful overlaying of new and intense thoughts, apprehensions and suspicions).

I would say that in the ascendant phase of smoking there is a transformed sense of self - partly an erasure of self - in the light of a wonder (and, often, an amusement) at the world. Unfortunately in the descending phase the price you pay may involve a refocused and negative sense of self - paranoia - and of time: so either you stay stoned, or you drop out of the capsule, back into the world, perhaps aware that you have wasted a lot of time... Or perhaps feeling you had a delightful afternoon.

I am not anti-dope, incidentally. I am anti ignorance, and anti skunk, and anti the criminalisation of dope. (I think it should be legalised, and treated as recreational pleasure with risks, like alcohol or sky diving. You don't see teenagers drinking meths, because society has a regulatory method for booze. You definitely don't see much black-market sky-diving, without instruction or safety systems.)

Truant traces time and addiction experienced in waves, according with a pattern of giving up and relapsing. Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened to me on dope was a mystical experience in a bus on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, when I felt I fell through time. At the time it seemed like the merest - though most terrifying - brush with the hand of God. I can understand why an observer might think it was down to too much skunk colliding with the mysterious and well-documented relationship between time and buses, however.

NWR: Many reviewers have singled out your lack of self-pity and blame in Vagabond, Richard. In press coverage you made great pains to emphasise how badly you treated your family, and there is no ounce of psycho-analysis in the book; fitting, I suppose, for someone trained as an anthropologist. And you too, Horatio, blame no one for your dope addiction, aside from a brief rant about Rizla and some joking about policemen as surrogate fathers. Instead, you both chose to recreate specifically historical periods. Richard, in Vagabond, it is the 80s, yourself a self-proclaimed 'exile from Thatcher'. You describe an 'appalling sense of mission' which you think your peers shared, and identify it as a reaction to the purposeful role World War II created in your parents' generation. In] Truant, Major's 90s yuppy society is also dubbed a 'protracted political adolescence... [marked by] childish security... [and] absence of war'.

All the commuters, all the office workers, all the rich and anxious... making money, then coming in to get drunk, calling their dealers, sorting out their drugs for the weekend... like first class passengers in one of the beautiful jets which soar... over the pub... Nothing can go wrong, what could go wrong, nothing's wrong... so far, so good... 'But it's not the fall, it's the landing.'

Whatever the cause, I experienced a hunger for danger... It took me years to figure out what it was I was lacked, why I had this appalling sense of mission, but I believe now that it was... because young men of my generation had no war to go to... the context in which we grew up, inundated with tales of bombing raids and struggle and hardship and loss... we... felt our own escape to be a kind of curse.

NWR: Does war help young men resist addiction? Are you substituting a sociological cause for a psychological problem?

HC: I say in the book that the absence of war in the 90s, or rather the absence of war's reality to us (we could bomb distant countries without paying any obvious price) contributed to our hedonism, our spiritual materialism. In using that phrase I was talking about the absence of cause, of call, of peril, of consequence, in marked contrast to the experiences of our parent's generation. And I wrote about a sense of frustration that late capitalism - though many of us felt it stank, knew it stank - was held to be the only game in town. I stand by that analysis: dope smoking rocketed, statistically, throughout the nineties.

It has actually dropped slightly and levelled off in this century. That might be because suddenly the certainties are gone, the consequences are with us, and the causes - be they peace, or the environment, or just financial survival - are suddenly more obvious and urgent. Maybe my generation's experiences and choices look less attractive to the next generation. It seems anecdotally true. I don't think war helps anything, but if you read Sebastian Junger's wonderful book, War, there is no question that a craving for intensity of experience is a young man's trait, and that war supplies that intensity. Why else are playstations so popular? Playstations may be preferable to actual combat, but they are also depressingly compatible with over-indulgence of dope.

Of course some of us are born with underlying psychological vulnerabilities; most of us, I suspect, since to be alive is to be psychologically vulnerable. But only the foolish or the unlucky head straight for the thing that will trigger the problems. I was certainly more foolish than unlucky.

RG: What young men do, across cultures and across history, is look for trouble. And they compete. In pre-industrial societies they compete for food in the hunt, compete for women, compete for property. This is elementary stuff, whatever political correctness might suppose. I don't think I was saying that war helps young men resist addiction - I mean, look at Gertrude Stein's 'Lost Generation' of poets and novelists after World War One, so many of whom became drunks and addicts. No, what I said was that there is always a pressure on young men to compete in some way, and historically there has been an expectation on young men to compete with the warlike actions of their ancestors. It is only very recently, and in affluent cultures, that this tendency has begun to unravel. Young men grow up today without a clearly identifiable set of role models. They can choose from a whole range of models, real, invented and virtual. From an anthropologist's perspective it is an unprecedented and unique situation. I play down psychological causes because they aren't of great interest to me as a writer (or as a reader for that matter): I prefer to record what I see around me and allow readers to draw their own conclusions about psychological motivation.

NWR: The image, Horatio, of yourself at fifteen at boarding school, wearing your home-made poncho, is striking, and you evoke it to raise the possibility of some innate 'madness' that led to your vulnerability to dope, which in turn led to addiction and fed into or caused what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

...the madness... and... depression [have] never come without drugs... take drugs, act mad, stop drugs, get depression, get better, take drugs.

Half of your book, Richard, deals with hepatitis C, which brought you close to death in 2007-08, and which has symptoms of hallucination and acute insomnia. You have specialised as an academic in 'narratives of illness'.
Is addiction an illness? How did you approach writing about illness?

HC: If addiction is an illness it is a strange one. Are smokers ill? In as much as nicotine dependency is causing their brains to demand another cigarette, which is killing the smoker - yes. But the first steps along the road to that illness were taken in full knowledge of where it would probably go. To start and to give up are choices - whereas you can't choose not to have most illnesses.

Science is beginning to identify various genes linked with addictions. Conditions previously associated with willpower or self-control are being found to be a response to the stimulation of certain receptors in the mid brain. Does it mean that some of us are more vulnerable to the 'illness' of addiction? Perhaps. But you might argue that in the absence of drugs to block these receptors we who are addicted (I have nicotine and caffine issues) simply need to practice more self-control. It is certain there are stages of addiction - to alcohol, for example - that are unquestionably illnesses.

Dope is not supposed to be physiologically addictive, but it is - can be - so habit-forming that the distinction is meaningless. I know people who are never without dope - never. They are perfectly habituated to it, so although they are certainly addicts they do not apparently suffer any ill-effects. Thus they are not just living with an illness, but relishing it.

In my own case, and in many people's, dope can light the fuses on all sorts of psychological demolition charges - depression and mania are particularly nasty illnesses, and linked to dope smoking. I thought of my Truant years as a dark and swirling and shameful swamp - by writing I hoped to construct a path through them, see them clearly, and hopefully illuminate them for anyone else who might be interested.

RG: Substance abuse doesn't start out as an illness: it usually starts out as a way of having fun - or else experiencing life in a more involved and exciting way. Ironically it sometimes develops into a way of shutting out the world, for some people more quickly than for others. So addiction doesn't start out as illness but will lead to illness and is therefore rightly pathologised. Once illness sets in, most other considerations become secondary. Addictive illness has a way of taking over a person's life, and unfortunately not only the addict's, but the lives of those close to the addict also.

NWR: I am no mystic (nor Christian), but I was struck by the similarity of a guardian-angel figure, associated towards the end of each book, with a revelation and your recovery. In Richard's case she is a 'gypsy waif' who 'dances down the aisle' of Barcelona's Santa Maria del Mar. In Horatio's she is an androgynous, agile, hooded Muslim snooker ace. As Horatio says, 'a revelation on drugs is not a revelation at all'.
What is your attitude to moments of apparent revelation or salvation attached to a guardian angel figure?

HC: A skeptic might say that a revelation might simply be a moment when the brain produces a clear thought - miraculously, perhaps, from the addled mess you have made of it. Such moments as I have experienced range from the "Ah, yes, of course," to "Oh my Almighty Lord, I see now that I am a worm, and you have given me, just for a moment, an encompassing vision of that wormhood - I have become a worm fully conscious of my worm-ness, and just because a philosopher might argue that that is impossible does not mean it did not appear to this worm to have happened to this worm. And I am going to try to be a better worm in future..."

My attitude to revelation of any sort is thus gratitude, and - during one or two particularly intense experiences, a mixture of Holy dread and humbleness. Guardian angels come in all shapes, though I have noticed many of them are driving taxis. I had a quietly revelatory conversation with a taxi driver in San Francisco a while ago. 'Everyone smokes dope - I mean, 70 percent of my passengers,' he said - which is strange because far from being a paranoid or inarticulate city, San Francisco is the future. Whenever I have been I have seen things that eventually come here. People working in cafes and at home on computers: I saw it there years before it became normal here. Then there was Pilates! I should have opened a studio back in the early nineties - I would have been rich. And now? Well, in their present and our future, all city taxis are hybrids, and there are medical marijuana facilities which mean those who need it can get it. The city and the state of California has a mature attitude to the stuff: I don't mean a free for all, I mean an intelligent approach which treats it with as much caution as we should treat alcohol, and a discrimination which allows the informed enjoyment of a natural pleasure (with clear cultural quality controls - no San Franciscan would touch the poisonous rubbish that British children have pressed on them by their street dealers) without the hypocrisy, criminality and ignorance which have done so much damage here.

RG: Revelatory moments, moments of epiphany, are deeply rooted in storytelling. They are a universal feature of fairytale and myth. I guess writers almost unconsciously absorb them as tropes into their writing. But I'm not sure writers (or even ex-addicts) have any more of a penchant for fantasy than other people. Whatever we call it, most of us spend a large proportion of our waking hours daydreaming - indulging in some kind of fantasy. Among the archetypal or iconic figures we conjure are ones that we recognise from reality, but also invented ones. And we map these iconic figures onto our own reality. Or else the opposite happens, and figures from our own reality suddenly take on iconic or mythic status, which sometimes happens when we fall in love. I think that happens a lot. Our waking lives are configured with characters from myth. We might recognise Dionysus or Aphrodite or Hecate in our actions or the actions of people around us. Part of our job as writers is identifying them.

'Taxi HQ Spiritual Home', from Truant by Horatio Clare

'Gypsy Waif, from The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn


previous interview: Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch
next interview: Maria Donovan


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