What ho, world. Blessay or blissertation number three coming up in a moment. It has taken me a little longer than I had hoped to furnish the site with its third upload. There are reasons and I shall go through them quickly.
Why So Late? My first blog entry, Devices and Desires (see below) went some way towards expressing my extreme passion for things digital. It resulted in a very charming enquiry from the Guardian newspaper in London. Would I be interested in providing a weekly column on the subject of the gadget, the electronic doo-dad and the world of the gismoidal? I thought about this longish and hardish.
I wrote newspaper columns through much of the eighties and nineties, and enjoyed it greatly. But for all kinds of reasons I was more than happy to retire. Feeling stale, tiring of the deadlines, hating myself for manufacturing cheap, easy rants – the line of least resistance when you rack your brains for weekly copy is to think of something you hate. That way lies the death of the soul IM(not so)HO. All those feature columns with titles like J’Accuse, Bile, Spleen and so on. Nasty. Won’t Do. It all came to a head when an editor called me up and asked if I could do a “1200 word hate piece on Christmas”. Not a blush, not a murmur of apology. Time to reach for my hat and streak for the horizon, I felt. Plus, by this time I was pretty deeply into … ah, but wait, that’s for the main body of the blessay.
Anyway, the upshot of my longish and hardish thinking the other day was to reply with a ‘yes’. Five hundred or so words a week for the Saturday Guardian on the subject of geeky dorky toys, digital advances, lordly overviews of the online scene – just my bag. The ‘lead times’ for these magazines are bizarrely long, so I’ve had to provide a longer introductory article and the first two columns proper in advance. The writing of them has kept me from my blog table.
At the same time I have finished shooting the second series of Kingdom and now find myself in the United States of America on Day One of a great adventure: filming in every state of the union for a BBC documentary. My mode of transport of choice is a black London cab.
American Sunrise I was possibly the first person in America to see the sun this morning.
There’s a proud boast. I was standing on the harbour wall at Eastport, Maine staring out across the bay at a beautiful, beautiful sunrise. Eastport, Maine styles itself the easternmost city in America. The Lowestoft of the USA, if you will. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around so I allowed myself to believe that I was indeed the first to see the sun rise in America that day.
I took a picture to commemorate the event.
The land you see on the horizon there is actually Canada, where she twists round the topmost corner of Maine at Passamaquoddy Bay, so the picture is taken from as far east as you can go in the USA. Actually, that’s a moot point. Part of Alaskan territory (now water rather than ice) actually crosses the dateline or Antimeridian so in theory Alaska can be called the easternmost and westernmost state in America which is rather naughty of it, but there you are.
Meanwhile, back in Maine on the first day of my documentary filming, the Motel East, where the crew and I are staying, may be out of range of cellular phones but, mirabile dictu, it has wi-fi, so I am able to send this to my site. We start the actual filming this afternoon. I shall be hauling in lobster pots and looking stylish in a sou’wester. That’s the idea anyway. Probably heaving my guts up over the taff-rail, if they have such a thing.
I really enjoy making documentaries. Fearsome hard work, but deeply satisfying. After Manic Depression, HIV/AIDS and the life and work of Gutenberg (yet to be shown on BBC4 some time later in the year I think) a jaunt around every state of America may seem rather trivial or self-indulgent, but I hope that won’t be how it comes across. America is important. We have seen perhaps a little too much of British people going over to sneer at rednecks, laugh at freaks and wring their hands at nutters. The America I’ve visited (and I’ve crossed it before in traditional fashion; shiny red Mustang convertible, diner to diner, motel to motel. Very Bruce Dern) have always seemed to me to be more than ordinarily kind, friendly, hospitable, polite, thoughtful and honourable. Well, I’m visiting with an open mind but that has been my experience thus far. Maine for four nights, then New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York… you get the idea.
Little Competition If you happen to be in America and you chance to see my cab … which as you can see is left-hand drive and proudly (or perhaps stupidly) bears my name …
… why not take a picture and tell me where and when it was taken. I shall devise a worthy prize. Note that I haven’t revealed its licence plate. No photoshopped fraudulence please, only genuine pictures revealing the genuine cab can qualify.
A thank you once more for all the extraordinary comments, criticisms and suggestions that have come to the site. Your participation gladdens my heart inexpressibly. We are working on the look and feel of the blog pages, fully aware that the style, colourways and user experience haven’t pleased everyone. The server seems to have settled down and finds itself able to cope with the third of a million who have wiped their feet on its doorstep in the past two weeks. Many thanks to all of you: you are very, very welcome.
I have already bumped into two readers of the Let Fame blessay who have made me giggle with the self-consciousness such a meeting was bound to engender, given all my stern observations and unkind proscriptions. I fear I may have made life insupportably difficult for those who spot me in the street and want to speak to me. That wasn’t my intention. Go on. I don’t bite and if I’m in a tearing hurry I’ll say so…
And now to the main body.
I Give Up A short blessay on addiction.
Have I an “addictive personality?” Am I an addiction addict? Is there some gene in me that predisposes me to dependency? Did I inherit a demonstrable physical tendency or was it a character flaw? Am I simply weak? Weak-willed, self-indulgent, lacking in character, moral fibre, decency, strength of mind, honesty and courage?
Is that even a fair array of choices? Maybe there’s an admixture of weakness, genetic propensity and hedonistic degradation in me. Perhaps I should calm down and let myself off the hook in some areas while justly castigating myself in others.
Let’s lay out the history first. Incidentally, I know there is nothing quite so yawn-worthy as a ‘my drugs hell’ confessional, so I’ll try and get it out of the way as swiftly as I can.
The Tuck Shop It starts with sweets. Candy as they say over here in America. For most children these seemed to be just a pleasant experience. ‘Oh great, sweets. Mm. Yes please!’ For me however it was quite different. Sweets were by way of being a manifestation of the divine. Chronologically sweets came before sex, but they came with the same monumental, heart-thumping significance. Mouth parted, slight panting, eyes unfocussed … sweeeeeets. A Homer Simpsony drool and murmur even though it hadn’t been invented yet. Sweets carried the same element of rush, thrill, disappointment and self-disgust as sex and as every subsequent addictive substance. Even as they’re in your hand, even as they move into your mouth you are dissatisfied because it means you will soon not have them. They will be gone. You will be sweetless and in despair.
There’s colour and shape, there’s mouthfeel: crunch, snap, melt, pop, fizz, burst, crack, chew and slither. The textures: jelly, brittle, foamy, moussey, waxy, firm, hard, pappy. Lick, swallow, suck, pump, bite, savour, roll. Flavour: fruity, sour, salty, citric, deep, rich, wild, soft, bold, earthy, loud – and above all there’s sugar. Sugar, sugar, sugar.
Lust, desire, pleasure demanded, pleasure received, reward, punishment, deferral, delay, arrival, joy, rush, gorging, rush, rush, rush sickness, shame, guilt. Crash. Down. Despair. Need … more, more sugar, more rush, more reward. Need it now. No money left. Help. Steal. Need. Discovery. Exposure. Shame.
Well, there you have it. A prepubescent drug addiction that has all the narrative shapes, dimensions, sensations and horrors of sex addiction, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction or any other damned addiction.
Result in my case? Missing teeth and a back jaw full of mercury amalgam. Canings, and punishments for stealing and breaking bounds to visit the village sweetery. Night time raids on the school tuck shop or the kitchens. Fry=bad boy. Fry=trouble. Fry=mixed-up mess.
I became a rebel. A miscreant. I was churlish and truculent, occasionally high as a kite, other times lonely, slow and miserable. The outlines of manic depression showed, but had the ruts been carved by three or four years of hopeless sugar addiction? Which was the chicken and which the egg? I already had manic depressive tendencies and therefore self-medicated on sugar? Or the highs and lows, rewards and punishments of sugar, did they trigger the neurons and prime the pumps of endocrines in a way that caused the first cyclings of what was then to become a bipolar disorder?
And why? My brother never had it. He liked sweets, sure, but to that extent? Never. Genetic, then? My father never ate puddings (doesn’t to this day); my mother prefers sour fruit to sweet. My sister doesn’t have a sweet tooth either. I was the only one with this craving, this wild, transgressive, sexual lust for sweets.
As I go over my feelings about this, I wonder if sweets didn’t shape me entirely: the savage, gnawing yearning, the greed for them blended with romantic and sexual feelings. Masturbation began, all that. Sweets opened up a pathway, they established one thing and one thing hugely. I must get pleasure. I must reward myself. That’s the beast to which sugar gave birth. These days we express the urge in the language of endocrines and neurotransmitters. We talk now of endorphins, of serotonin, noradrenalin, tryptophan and dopamine. Sweets began it. They carved through the brain and left their imprint. Pleasure, reward. Rush, crash. High low. Mania. Depression. The cycle has to be fed. Self-medication, we bipolar people call it.
The Leaf Arrives At fifteen I find a new substance to feed the ravenous beast within. Tobacco. “A cigarette is the perfect kind of perfect pleasure,” Wilde said. “It is exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied.” I thought at first that this was just Oscar talking all pretty and silly. But of course he got it right. A cigarette is the perfect instrument of addiction. Perfect. It has no function, no point, no quality other than to make itself needful to the smoker. It doesn’t taste pleasant, it doesn’t modify mood (except inasmuch as it quells the need for itself) it doesn’t offer texture, elation, hallucination, bouquet, nourishment, calorific value, anything. And ultimately, as Wilde pointed out, it never satisfies: it is always necessary to have another.
Imagine that one day someone hit himself lightly on the head with a parsnip. Instead of stopping (for this is a foolish thing to do) he carried on doing it. When he eventually did stop he went about his business but discovered, much to his surprise, that he had a sudden unconquerable urge to hit himself lightly on the head with a parsnip all over again. So he did. And the more he did it, the more he needed to do it. The act of doing it gave him a tiny surge of joy, a little rush of pleasure that had to be elicited, never mind what a twazzock he looked, parsnipping himself on the head all day.
Smoking is no less stupid than that. In fact it is a whole bicycle-shed more stupid, because it’s smelly, unsociable, carcinogenic etc etc etc. But the principle is the same: smoking has absolutely no point other than to stop the misery of not smoking. Smokers claim that it aids concentration, soothes the nerves and so on, but we know really that it only does those things because it’s tobacco addiction that messes with concentration and jangles the nerves in the first place. Tapping your head lightly with a parsnip would aid concentration too if not doing it made you all jumpy and desperate.
All this is obvious. But when there’s a beast inside you that wants, needs, insists upon feeding, a beast that knows how to press the little button in the brain that releases all those wonderful, surging delicious endorphins, when that beast is there, then new ways must be found to let him find and press the button. Sugar is okay, self-abuse is jolly of course, but can’t really be done in the street without exciting comment. Forward, tobacco.
So, I’m fifteen. I have bad teeth and I smoke. Every half an hour or so I can guarantee the small release of bliss that the cigarette delivers. That it achieves this by delivering a small release of agony that only another cigarette can alleviate is neither here nor there to me. I credit the cigarette with healing powers and am proud to be a smoker. It sits well with the unorthodox, maverick rebelliousness I fool myself is my style. It’s cooler, more radical and soulfully alienated than a Cadbury’s Curly-Wurly and a foam shrimp. Photographs of Jean Paul Sartre reveal that he has a cigarette dangling from his mouth, not a sherbet fountain. It is revealing that amongst my favourite sweets were candy cigarettes, chocolate cigarettes, cigars and pipes and that strange shredded coconut wrapped in a wax paper and presented as a simulacrum of rolling tobacco.
Almost twenty years pass with me in this state. I am not an alcoholic. I like a drink from time to time, but I have never veered even close to alcoholism, I don’t know why, it is just the case. I can’t abide cannabis. Makes me feel nauseous. Maybe it’s just that sugar has taught me to dislike downers: dope and drink are depressants, cigarettes and sugar are stimulants. So I smoke like Sheffield in the 1850s. I drink a great deal of coffee. I still like sweets. I am starting to become much more addicted to food in general. From having been one who just scoffed the fuel he needed without thinking, I have started to become a gourmand, if not a gourmet. My metabolism changes and I start to put on weight.
Hello, Charlie On the documentary I made about manic depression I spoke to many about their experiences with alcohol and drugs; I spoke too about my own use of cocaine. What a strange thing to do, I think, to suck powder up into your nose. A bit like tapping yourself lightly on the head with a parsnip, only sillier.
But … there’s a difference. Unlike parsnips and unlike tobacco, this substance alters mood and energy levels. It’s the new sugar. There’s a rush.
I didn’t like to ingest cocaine when working, either writing or performing. Work provides its own buzz, its own reward, deeper and more satisfying than any drug I’ve ever met. But my down time, my play time was often fuelled by the sherbet of shame, ‘the devil’s dandruff’ as Robin Williams called it.
To cut a long, meandering and tedious story short, I stopped all that some four years ago. Took the decision one night. ‘No more coke,’ I said to myself and never touched the stuff again. I never had the slightest withdrawal pang, nothing like the agonies of giving up smoking. Now there’s a brute …
Wrestling the leaf I tried to give up smoking on my thirtieth birthday. That lasted less than a week and, dispirited, I didn’t try again until last year. I had kicked coke, surely I could knock nicotine on the head with just as much insouciance and ease?
A very nice man from the Allen Carr Institute gave me a free session. I was out in the street firing up the old Marlboro Mediums ten minutes later, actually rather resentful of the ‘technique’, which I’m sure is splendid but certainly didn’t suit me.
Then, as I started filming the first series of Kingdom up in Norfolk I bought a shed-load of nicotine replacement itemries – the cigarette holder type, the mints and lozenges, the patches and the foul gum. Bless my blimey, but that technique truly seemed to work! It was agony and I slipped up a few times, but it really did seem to sever the tie. I finished three months of filming a real live non-smoker. I had even stopped chewing and sucking the nicotine therapy gunk too. Then I had cause to go to America. Now, you may think America is a pretty good place not to smoke and generally you’d be right, but I had flown to Los Angeles specifically to do something I hadn’t done in any major way during my new life as a non-smoker. I had gone there to write. It was a screenplay and I needed to be in LA for the meetings that accompanied this particular script.
So there I am, in a room of the Chateau Marmont, sitting in front of my laptop, stretching out my arms, cracking my knuckles and preparing to type the traditional
FADE IN: INT.
and … there’s something terribly, terribly wrong. A huge great hole has opened up in my interior, in my INT. It takes me some time to realise what it is. I cannot write without a cigarette. But I’ve given up! This can’t be true.
But it was. It had nothing to do with nicotine, that was long gone from my system. It was some hard-wired problem deep inside me. I had never been a writer without a cigarette and the act of writing and the act of smoking were so connected in my head that the former seemed impossible without the latter. In fact I first started writing seriously and consistently (albeit unpublishedly) at the age of fifteen, just when I started smoking. For thirty-five years the two had gone together.
You can believe I tried, I really did try that day in the Chateau Marmont, to conquer this nonsensical problem. It was so clearly psychological and not physiological that surely it couldn’t be beyond my powers to use my mind to free itself of its own self-imposed shackles? A bit of self-administered NLP, perhaps? (though do see the excellent Robert Todd Carroll’s sceptical dictionary for another point of view…)
Well, there was a deadline and the clock was ticking. I sweated out a day in which …
FADE IN: INT.
… was all I managed to write. Then I called down for a packet of cigs and the script was finished in three weeks.
Damn. I was a smoker again.
This year, a week into the E series of the QI programme I do for the BBC, I tried again. This time I enlisted the help of a drug: Zyban. It started life as an antidepressant and is marketed as such in America, I believe, under the brand name Welbutrin. I began a course of that and within a week was stubbing out cigarettes. Eleven days in and I lit my last. Of course I wasn’t writing much then, but I was prepared to believe that this time I could do it. And then along came a new quitting drug, called, in the UK at least, Champix (Chantix in the US?). This was supposed to be even better at helping smokers stop, and although I had stopped I enlisted on a course of this too, just to make assurance doubly sure as Macbeth liked to say.
And here I am, some five months later, still not smoking. I’ve also managed at the same time to start controlling my weight a bit better, more or less cutting out sugar.
But … So. Goodbye ciggies. That particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off, in Basil Fawlty’s great phrase. And so have just about all the other avenues. Coke, sweets, eating.
Forty years of expecting bursts of pleasure to come as punctuation marks during the day, as rewards for work being done or work being finished, all that is over. No line of coke to signal the end of labours, no smoke between set-ups when filming, no sweeties of any kind. No rushes and therefore fewer daily highs and lows and therefore fewer triggerings of manic episodes or depressions. Which is good.
And yet … is that it now? A life on a plateau? It’s possible I will live longer (but so possible too that I’ll keel over or be run over or stabbed or poisoned anyway and then what will have been the point of living the joyless life?) and it’s certain that I feel physically better now than I have for decades, but oh the ache inside.
Sorry What a whinge. What a dreadful self-pitying whine. I do apologise, everyone. But I have the writer’s primary vanity which is to suppose that if I have experienced something and been somewhere then others will have too. I have the feeling that my generation might have been the first to be set on this path of sugar addiction. Subsequent generations may have taken it further and have certainly been quicker to leap from sugar to narcotics, but I think we baby-boomers were the pioneers.
There’s a personal irony here. My maternal grandfather was one of a handful of men responsible for developing the cultivation of sugar beet and its refinery in the United Kingdom. His British Sugar Corporation became Silver Spoon and successfully marketed its drug to me and my peers.
Anyway. I have my work and I seem to be able to write now without smoking. I have absolutely no desire for a cigarette, I have successfully characterised them as smelly and noxious in my mind: but oh, I do have a need for that surging wave of bliss, that hit of heaven that once they gave. Well, not a need, but a want. And wants are greater than needs.
I shall leave you now and toddle down the hill to the Moose Island Grocery Store and see if they sell parsnips.