A Lesson for the Whores

Page added: 1997
Last updated: 2002

Update: This article refers to The Proud Highway, the first volume of letters

By Michael Bywater, New Statesman, December 19/26, 1997

It's 5 o'clock in the morning now, and I've spent the past two hours carefully saddle-soaping. every strand of a 110 BeastMaster whip from Paradiso Bodyworks ... which happens to be true, but that is not the point. Anyone who ever has to write anything about Hunter S Thompson starts off with something like that, and most of the time you know the bastards are lying; that they're sitting in some sensibly mortgaged house somewhere with a brushed-cotton wife snuffling under the duvet. "Are you coming to bed, darling? It's nearly 11 o'clock..."

There's something about Dr Thompson that makes journalists want to be him, to claim some spurious professional kinship. It needs to be stamped out. You don't become a Hell's Angel by buying a Levi trucker jacket in Regent Street, tearing the sleeves off and vomiting on it a few times. You have to earn the colours, and you don't earn them by climbing the ladder, paying the income tax, and partexchanging the car every two years.

Journalists know this. Yet whenever they have anything to do with Thompson, they come over all gonzo, impressionistic, savage, as though they're hoping to be taken for wild men themselves, independent frontier spirits with a damned big Magnum and a soft-top car and, good goddamn, hookers, probably ... and they'll by gosh have whoever they want to have, and if that means half-adozen long-legged big-breasted whores roped to the cross-beams, then so be it because that's what this life is all about, this journalist's life, this man's life.

It's about as convincing as Hugh Grant, or the average modern corporate executive. The truth about Dr Thompson is that he shames the entire feeble-minded, opportunist, nest-leathering trade. By holding himself aloof, by refusing to lick arse, by remaining an honest man in a pack of greasy thieves -- above all, by using his entire armoury of fictionwriter's tools to get as close as he can to telling the truth --he has managed to render himself more or less unemployable. Which is a strange consequence of telling the truth, when that is supposed to be the function of the trade.

But it isn't. Nobody with any sense of what is right, nobody with any tiny shrivelled damn to spare for what is true -- let alone what is moral -- can have the slightest illusion that that's what journalism is about, either in the US or here. The trade has become appallingly debased. The prole tabloids fart and chunder out their stinking mixture of lies, sentimentality and PR drivel. The middle ground is occupied by papers dedicated to the scratchy, thin-lipped self-abuse of suburban voyeurs. And the "qualities", poised achingly on their cold, narrow ridge, are collapsing more and more into bright, witless consumerism on one side and selfparody on the other. Politics and the national life are seldom covered, except in the terms of reference of a mad, flateyed, spittle-flecked shitweasel of a party spin-doctor. Journalists who should know better allow themselves to be gangbanged by PR shills, treating their effluvium like street whores, grimacing but swallowing it.

To be complicit in this dull, Disneyland, World of Interiors, mail-order-catalogue bunco racket, and then face Dr Thompson's meticulously excoriating prose, is to be flayed and then emasculated. Part of it was luck. He was lucky to be writing in America in the 1960s, when things were happening, when it looked as though change -- real change, not the vibrating semi-stasis that Tony Blair seems to find so thrilling --might actually come about. Newspaper editors then were prepared to risk commissioning someone who would have seemed a palpable madman, who wrote to one reluctant editor: "Don't think that the lack of an invitation from you will keep me from getting down that way and, when I do, remind me to first kick your teeth in and then jam a bronze plaque far into your small intestine."

We want this sort of thing. We know we should be writing this sort of thing to the swine because, until we do, nothing is going to stop them taking over. And Dr Thompson exists as a horrible reminder that we are failing in our moral duty.

Our moral duty. For a man whose public persona is that of almost universal incontinence, Dr Thompson is in reality a powerful, incorruptible moral force. Any man who tries to buy Dr Thompson will be asking to have his thorax blown apart by nine ounces of buckshot, and that upsets the rest of us who didn't have the attitude or the balls to stand up for what is obviously right, or to say what so clearly needs to be said. Our mouths have become so mealy that, as a trade, we can barely speak, but most of time we just go "Yum, yum! This mealy stuff is delicious," and long to be accepted.

Which is why Dr Thompson upsets us so much, so that we try to defuse the bastard by parodying his style. It's a dumb thing to do, and it dooms us, just as the night-club lap-dancer who snares a rich husband blows the whole deal the minute she goes into high necks and long skirts and stops waggling her butt in his face.

We've never needed Dr Thompson more. The more writing there is, the less any of it seems to address anything except shopping, suburban sex games and the ratty little game plans of career politicians. The world gets smaller the more of it we know, and the more we're told about it the more ignorant we become. We need writers such as Thompson to truffle up information like a journalist and then go for the telling detail like a novelist, and dress it all up in a fictitious nightmare of drug abuse and drunken incompetence, so we don't feel so bad about what our instincts tell us is true.

He knew all about it from the start. The letters (this is only the first volume; there are boxes and boxes, 20,000 of them, stored at New Orleans University, next to Richard Nixon's papers) show a man of incredible self-assurance, energy, anger, resilience and a refusal to compromise. "I already am the new Scott Fitzgerald," he writes at one point, "I just haven't been discovered yet."

Above all, they show a professional, and one who won't be duped or put upon. He'd rather starve. But to the young Thompson the world still seemed big enough -- America still seemed big enough -- to support him, and grown-up enough to know the truth about whatever it was he wanted to write about: the campaign trail, the hideous human degradation of Las Vegas, the Hell's Angels, the people on the margins, the profiteers, back-scratchers, pig-roasters, gladhanders and log-rollers ... and, above all, the politicians. Because the clearest thing of all is that Thompson is a truly political animal; not in the Mandelson mould (Thompson would have put a crick in Mandy's neck before he could spin one damn thread) but in the Swiftian sense. If he weren't writing about America in the 1960s, he could have been a 17th-century malcontent, distributing seditious pamphlets from the steps of St Paul's.

The letters here show Thompson with the gloves off -- and his fists are still knotted in righteous rage. He fights with landlords, petitions for work, boasts about his projects, extracts the money for a car from his mother, rails at agents, chivvies friends, marries, buys dogs, cameras, motorcycles and guns which he cannot afford; and all of it in immaculate, energised, high-tension prose. But all the time, he knows what a man must do. "We must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal ... a man has to BE something; he has to matter," he writes, aged not quite 20. "A man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing, for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life -- the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual."

Well, good. Mistah Thompson, he not dead yet. Still telling the truth. But not in the way some fools believe, those fools who think that the opening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- the drugs, the ether -- is literally true. (How could he have written the stuff, if it were; how could he have lived?) William Kennedy -- the proposed recipient of the intestinal plaque says, in the preface: "Journals and book publishers have been foisting his work on the gullible public as journalism, when in truth it is nothing but a pack of lies ... I hope this is a lesson to us all."

Yes. A lesson, a history of the 1960s, insight into a hell of a writer -- and really lousy advice for anyone who wants to be a successful journalist with share options, a chauffeur and a seat on the board. Because Thompson is writing about integrity and where's the money in that?