The New York Times
Junk Mailby Will Self
Will Self is one of the most important British novelists of his generation, and he is as acclaimed in the UK for his outstanding, daring journalism as he is for his fiction. Now finally available in America, Junk Mail is an original selection of pieces from Self's nonfiction and journalism that will introduce American readers to Self as a literary journalist par excellence.
Animated by the scathing brilliance and unflinching determination to walk the road less traveled, Junk Mail is an often irreverent trawl through a landscape of drugs, culture, art, literature, and current events topics Self illuminates with a keen and entirely original eye. We follow Self into the operation of an upstanding crack dealer, behind the myth of the "pragmatist" approach to drug legalization on the streets of Amsterdam, and to lunch with Indian author Salman Rushdie. Whether he is writing about bad boy British artist Damien Hirst, how literary renegade William Burroughs has changed our outlook on art and intoxication, or what the current state of transsexuality has to say about gender for all of us, this is a lively and necessary anthology from one of the defining voices of our times.
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By Will Self
Black CatCopyright © 2006 Will Self
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNew Crack City
A journalist friend of mine asks me to take her out on the street and show her some crack dealing in action. I can't understand why she needs my help. You only have to stand outside the main entrance to King's Cross for five minutes to start spotting the street people who are revolved with drugs. King's Cross has always had a name for prostitution, and where there are brasses there's always smack; and nowadays if you're anywhere in London where there's smack, then there will be crack as well. The two go together like foie gras and toast.
Still, I suppose I can understand why my journalist friend needs me. The London street drug scene is as subject to the caste principle as any other part of English society; druggies identify one another by eye contact and little else. As Raymond Chandler once remarked: 'It's difficult to tell a well-controlled doper apart from a vegetarian bookkeeper.' All up and down the promenade outside King's Cross, druggies are making eye contact with one another. There are Italians-they're principally interested in smack-and a contingent of young black men hanging out with white prostitutes. These men are pimps as well as being crack dealers.
We watch the scene: dealers carry rocks of crack or tiny packets of smack wrapped up in silver foiland cling-film inside their cheeks. When a punter scores, he discreetly tucks the money into the dealer's hand, the dealer drops the rock or the smack out of his mouth and into the punter's palm. The whole transaction takes only a few seconds. 'Why aren't the police doing anything?' moans my journalist friend. 'It's all so blatant.'
And it is. But what can the police do? Snarl up the whole of King's Cross in the middle of the rush hour while they try and nab a few street dealers? Supposing they do manage to collar them: the dealers will have swallowed their stash. Fear is a fantastic lubricant.
We've seen the street action, and my journalist friend wants to check out a crack den: do I know of one? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I have some friends in the East End who are well-established crack and smack dealers, but they're not the sort of people who accept house calls, especially from journalists. What a shame I can't take my voyeuristic friend, but I can take you ...
The day's action is just beginning up at Bob's place. It's about seven in the evening. Someone has been to see the Cypriot and they're washing up a quarter ounce of powdered cocaine in the kitchen of Bob's flat.
Bob's flat is situated at the very end of the outside walkway on the top floor of a thirties council block in Hackney. It's a good position for a drug dealer. The police have to come up four flights and get through a locked, bolted and chained door and a barred gate set in the flat's internal passageway before they can gain access. The windows are also barred.
Not that this deters them. To give the constabulary their due, they have turned Bob's place over several times recently, but they never find anything. Bob keeps his stash up his anus. The police know this but they can't be bothered to pull him in and fence with his brief while they wait for it to come out. Bob would have a good brief as well. Bob's family are well established in this area; this has been their manor for years. Three generations of the family have been hard men around here, respected men. Before they got into drugs they were into another kind of blag altogether: armed robbery.
Bob once told me how they made the switch: 'Chance, really. We were doing a number on this Nigerian bloke. We knew he had something but we didn't know what. It was six kilos of brown. I got the flicker down on the floor with my shooter in his ear and said: "You're fucking lucky we're not the old bill!"'
Bob is a talkative soul: bright, articulate and possessed of a gallows humour that counts for wit in this society. But Bob is mighty keen on that rock. Sometimes he'll be up for several days on end rocking it. Not that the crack is his core business-that's still smack.
As William Burroughs so pithily observed, smack is the only commodity that you don't have to sell to people; instead, you sell people to it. And the people who it buys come in all shapes and sizes. At Bob's, most of them get dealt with through the bars of the safety gate in the long, dark corridor that runs the length of the flat. The clientele are a really mixed bunch; all the way from shot-to-pieces street junkies, indistinguishable from alcoholics apart from the abscesses on their hands, to the smart end of the carriage trade: a young man, incongruously dressed in a velvet-collared crombie, is buying a rock and a bag of brown when we arrive. He has an accent that would sit more comfortably in St James's than in a Hackney council estate.
Bob doesn't have a pit bull or a Rottweiler; he doesn't need one. The other dealers around here all know who his family are and they respect them. But what about the Yardies? They don't respect man or beast. The word on the scene is that they carry automatic weapons and aren't afraid to use them. They have no respect for the conventions of the London criminal world. I asked Bob about it. 'Yardies?' he snorted. 'They're just another bunch of coons.'
In truth, there are always a lot of black people around at Bob's place. They're heavily involved in the crack scene. Most of them are second- and even third-generation English. They talk like Bob and his family, and a lot of them have done bird together. Bob's current dealing partner, Bruno, is black, and Bob himself has been scoring half ounces of smack through a Yardie.
I'll take you down the dark corridor to the kitchen where Bruno is washing up. Bob's place is always pretty cluttered, so mind the stuff lying around in the hall. Like a lot of professional dealers, Bob is eclectic in his activities. There are always consumer durables lying around the flat that have either been swapped for drugs, or are stolen goods waiting for a buyer. Bob loves gadgets, and he'll often detain an antsy punter and force him to watch while Bob takes the latest laptop computing device through its paces.
Bruno is holding a whisky miniature over the steam that's spouting from an electric kettle. The little bottle has a solution of acetone, water and powdered cocaine in it. As we watch, Bruno takes a long metal rod and dips it down the neck of the bottle. A large crystal forms around the rod almost immediately. This is crack cocaine. The fresh rocks have to dry out on a bit of kitchen towel for a while, but then they're ready to smoke.
There are no Coke cans with holes in them round at Bob's. This is a piping household. The pipes are small glass things that look like they belong in the laboratory. The bowl is formed by pressing a piece of gauze down the barrel of a thin Pyrex stem; fragments of crack are sprinkled on top of a bed of ash; the outside of the stem is heated with a blowtorch until the crack begins to deliquesce and melt, then the thick white smoke is drawn off, through the glass body of the pipe and out through a long, flat stem. Smoking a crack pipe properly is an art form.
If you came at the right time, Bob might ask you to join him-if he likes you, that is. And you could while away the evening doing pipe after pipe, with the odd chase of smack in between to stop yourself having a heart attack, or a stroke or the screaming ad dabs. If you stay, you'll have some amicable conversations with people-one of the Yardies might drop by. The English blacks are also dismissive of them. Bruno says: 'Yardies? They're just down from the trees, man.' It is almost universally agreed that the Yardies overplayed their hand in London. They were easy to spot, too flamboyant for our pinched, petit bourgeois drug culture. The Met has managed to have the bulk of them deported, but their influence as a catalyst to the drug scene has gone on working.
But now Bob is expecting his dad, whose flat this is and who is due out on a spot of home leave. It's not that he doesn't want his dad to know that he's dealing out of the flat: far from it. In fact, Bob's dad will expect a commission. It's rather that he won't want to see a lot of low-life punters hanging around the place. So we say our goodbyes:
'Stay safe, man.'
'Yeah, mind yet backs.'
Security is always variable at Bob's; sometimes, when he's especially lucid, it's fantastic. He drills punters to carefully wrap crack and smack and stash the little waterproof bundles, either up their anuses or in their mouths. As Bob says: 'The filth pull a lot of punters as they're leaving here, and they sweat you, so make sure you stash that gear 'cos I don't want to do ten because some dozy prannet had it in his band.' But at other times, you'll find six or seven addicts scratching outside the door of the flat, waiting for the Man. And there are young black kids running up and down the walkways of the flats, taunting the addicts, especially the white ones.
Even out in the street, Bob's influence is still felt. A tall, young black dude in a BMW CSi notices us coming out of Bob's block and calls us over. 'Have we come from Bob's? And do we want to go somewhere else where we can go on rocking?' Well, of course we do! We have our public to satisfy.
Basie drives us back up towards the Cross. It's dark now. He keeps up a running monologue for our benefit; it's sheer braggadocio: 'Yeah, I've bin back to Africa, man. I hung so much paper in Morocco they probably thought I was decorating the place.' He isn't altogether bullshitting. I know from Bob that Basie is both successful at 'hanging paper' (passing false cheques) and at Bob's traditional blag: sprinting into financial institutions with the old sawn-off. I've seen Basie round at Bob's before. Sometimes he'll have a couple of quite classy tarts with him who look vaguely Mayfairy: all caramel tan streaky blonde hair and bright pink lips. If it wasn't for the hungry look and the strained eyes, one might almost take them for PR account handlers.
Up at the Cross, we turn into a backstreet and park the wedge. There's a crack house here that conforms a little more to our public's expectation. It's a squat with smashed windows and no electricity. Once Basie has got us inside, we are confronted with a throng of black faces. Everyone here is either buying, selling or smoking crack. Candles form islands of yellow light around which ivoried faces contort with drawing on the little glass pipes.
The atmosphere here is a lot heavier. Sure, Bob's place isn't exactly a picnic, but at least at his flat there is the sense that there actually are rules to be transgressed. Of course, it's bullshit to say there is honour among thieves, but there is a hierarchy of modified trust: 'I think you're a pukkah bloke, and I'll trust you and look out (or you until it's slightly more in my favour to do otherwise.' it's an ethic of enlightened self-interest that isn't that dissimilar to any other rapacious free market where young men vie with one another to possess and trade in commodities. And, after all, isn't that what Mrs T wanted us to do? Tool around London in our Peugeot 205s and Golf GTIs, cellular phones at the ready, hanging out to cut the competitive mustard.
But, at the crack house in King's Cross, we have no cachet, and we have the feeling here of being very, isolated: a wrong move, a word out of place, and these people might get very, nasty'. The people here are much more 'streety' and they have very, little to lose.
We've seen what we wanted to see, we've come full circle; you don't want to stay in the crack zone, do you? No, I didn't think so. Turn the page, get on with the next article, go home.
Evening Standard, September 1991
Chapter TwoOn Junky
I have it on the desk beside me as I write-the first edition of Junky by William S. Burroughs. The world has changed a great deal in the fifty-odd years since it was originally published, and some of those changes are evident in the differences between the first edition of this memorable work and the one you are currently holding in your hands.
Entitled Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict and authored pseudonymously by 'William Lee' (Burroughs's mother's maiden name-he didn't look too far for a nom de plume), the Ace Original retailed for thirty-five cents, and as a 'Double Book' was bound back-to-back with Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant. The two-books-in-one format was not uncommon in 1950s America, but besides the obvious similarity in subject matter, A. A. Wyn, Burroughs's publisher, felt that he had to balance such an unapologetic account of drug addiction with an abridgement of these memoirs of a Federal Bureau of Narcotics' agent, which originally appeared in 1941.
Since, in the hysterical, anti-drug culture of post-war America, potential censure could easily reduce self-censorship, it's remarkable that Junky found a publisher at all. Despite its subhead, Wyn did think the book had a redemptive capability, as the protagonist made efforts to free himself of his addiction, but he also insisted that Burroughs preface the work with an autobiographical sketch that would explain to the reader how it was that someone such as himself-a Harvard graduate from a Social Register family-came to be a drug addict. The same cautious instinct led Wyn to interpolate bracketed disclaimers after most of Burroughs's (often factually correct but radically unorthodox, and sometimes outright wacky) statements about the nature of intoxication and chemical dependency. Thus, when Burroughs stated: 'Perhaps if a junkie could keep himself in a constant state of kicking, he would live to a phenomenal age.' The bracket reads '(Ed. Note: This is contradicted by recognized medical authority.)'
Burroughs's preface (now restyled as a 'prologue') still stands first in the current edition, but relegated to the rear of the text is the glossary of junk lingo and jive talk with which he sought to initiate his square readership to the hip world. And for Burroughs the term 'hip' referred resolutely to the heroin subculture. The bracketed editorial notes have been excised.
Both Junkie and Narcotic Agent have covers of beautiful garishness, featuring 1950s damsels in distress. The blonde lovely on the cover of Helbrant's book is being handcuffed (presumably by the eponymous 'Agent', although his face and figure are hidden in the shadows), while clad only in her slip. The presence of ashtray, hypodermic and spoon on the table in front of her goes a long way to explain her expression of serene indifference. However, on the cover of Junkie we are given a more actively dramatic portrayal: a craggy-browed man is grabbing a blonde lovely from behind, one of his arms is around her neck, while the other grasps her hand, within which is paper package. The table beside them has been knocked in the fray, propelling a spoon, a hypodermic and even a gas ring, into inner space.
This cover illustration is, in fact, just that: an illustration of a scene described by Burroughs in the book. 'When my wife saw I was getting the habit again, she did something she had never done before. I was cooking up a shot two days after I'd connected with Old Ike. My wife grabbed the spoon and threw the junk on the floor. I slapped her twice across the face and she threw herself on the bed, sobbing ...' That this uncredited-and now forgotten-hack artist should have chosen one of the small handful of episodes featuring the protagonist's wife to use for the cover illustration, represents one of those nastily serendipitous ironies that Burroughs himself almost always chose to view as evidence of the magical universe.
From double book to stand alone; from Ace Original to Penguin Modern Classic; from unredeemed confession to cult novel; from a cheap shocker to a refined taste-the history of this text in a strange way acts as an allegory of the way the heroin subculture Burroughs depicted has mutated, spread and engrafted itself with the corpus of the wider society, in the process irretrievably altering that upon which it parasitises. Just as-if you turn to his glossary-you will see how many arcane drug terms have metastasised into the vigorous language.
Excerpted from JUNK MAIL by Will Self Copyright © 2006 by Will Self. Excerpted by permission.
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