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Lunch with DBC Pierre is not for the faint-hearted. Legends swirl around him; the launch party for his first novel was rumoured to have gone on for days. His cheerfully ravaged face bears witness to a life lived too well, across several continents.
Vernon God Little, the wildly funny and transgressive story of the aftermath of an American school shooting, was the shock winner of the Man Booker prize in 2003, beating Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. A debut widely seen as undisciplined and naïve managed to win one of the world’s biggest literary prizes. (Now, of course, it reads like a classic.) The joy of the win was overshadowed, however, by a sudden stink: the weekend before the prizegiving, it was revealed that Vernon’s author was a former drug addict and a conman who had cheated an elderly friend out of a substantial sum. “Dirty But Clean” was at pains to stress that his £50,000 prize money would go to reimburse the man.
Despite this, Pierre was winning hearts and minds. The literary world likes a party animal, and in a mixed-up time when bad-boy authors such as James Frey are known for exaggerating, ironising and fictionalising their woes, Pierre seemed an uncomplicated scamp in the Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas mould. Yet for all the wild man rep, he was also gentle and polite in interviews, friendly and forthcoming with festival audiences.
His new novel Lights out in Wonderland has all the verbal wit and energy of Vernon, with a dash of its author’s life story in the tale of cracked Gabriel Brockwell, a poet who decides on the first page to take his own life. But not before he’s been on the bender to end all benders. The quest takes him to Tokyo, for a seafood-themed sex scene and a dish of fugu, the potentially lethal Japanese fish delicacy. Then it’s on to Berlin, where Gabriel attends a banquet in the disused Tempelhof airport, at which various endangered species are dished up. Given that I don’t fancy either fugu or bushmeat, I suggest that we meet at St John, the famous “nose-to-tail” chop house for some suitably grisly fare. Pierre, however, wants to go to Mestizo, his favourite Mexican restaurant in London. Given that he was brought up in Mexico City, it has to be worth a try.
The restaurant, of warehouse-like proportions, lies in the bleak hinterland behind Euston station. The staff do that trick of taking two people booked at the same table to opposite ends of the room, so I’m crunching my way through complimentary nachos and sauces (delicious) when I get a text from Pierre’s publicist: “He’s already there.” I spot a pensive, black-clad figure, sitting facing the wall and go over. I notice that he hasn’t touched his nachos.
Relocated to my table, he starts enthusing about tequila. When he was growing up, it was awful stuff: “That’s why you needed the salt and the lime, to take the flavour away.” Now, he explains, tequila has been transformed, as refined as a malt whisky. I am drinking a bottle of mineral water and a silky, non-alcoholic drink called horchata. “Great stuff. It’s made with rice water, the stuff we throw away down the sink. Very good for you,” Pierre says. He studies the drinks menu.
“We’re going Dutch, yeah?” A charming phrase – one I haven’t heard in a long time. I explain that it’s on the FT. “They’re paying for both of us?” he says. “Oh, we’re never going to get out of here!”
A long discussion with the waiter ensues in Spanish; Pierre seems to be discussing the provenance of every tequila in the place. His eventual choice comes with two shot glasses, one red, one green, a sort of deconstructed Bloody Mary. I stick to the mineral water – for now.
We order cactus salad to start (“very nutritious”), then a cheese and potato enchilada for me and meat tacos for him. The tortillas are special here, he explains, made on the premises – and it’s true: they are light and delectable. “You should come here on Thursday nights, to the bar downstairs. It saves you the plane fare to Mexico City.”
It’s hard not to feel that a person who changes their name is determinedly leaving certain aspects of their history or psyche behind. Born Peter Finlay, Pierre adopted and adapted the name of a cartoon character. His voice has an Australian twang and upward inflection (he was born there), he now lives in Ireland, and he has family in the north of England. Once or twice, he refers to human beings as “they” as though he were from somewhere else entirely. He’s hard to pin down on dates and facts – not, I sense, out of any evasiveness, but because there’s always a more interesting story or anecdote to swerve into.
I raise the question of image, and how much he plays up to his. The first thing his Italian publisher said to him, he says, was, “‘You have to develop a figura. Don’t be yourself, that will destroy you.’ I thought, (a) it’s probably too late, and (b) what would that be? She told me these amazing stories about Hemingway, Gore Vidal and Kerouac. These were very strange men and, she argued, they had to have something to protect their real life. Which is more arrogant, which is more humble?” he muses. “To be straight, or to give a persona?”
For Pierre, catapulted into notoriety by his first book, the question has force. I ask him about that Man Booker night. “Yeah, that was mad. But we’ve come through that. Done the 12-step programme. It’s like being a recovering alcoholic.” What was he thinking when the announcement was made? “There’s no thinking! It was unbelievable, just unbelievable. There’s no preparing for it. And I never got my pudding.” The evening culminated with Pierre stranded outside his own party because it was too full to get in.
He had no vocation to be a writer when young. “No, it was too hard for me, and I’ll tell you a secret.” He looks owlish. “I never learnt to hold a pen, incredibly enough. I mean obviously I write, and I draw fairly well, but the way I have of grasping a pen, it’s just exhausting, it’s much too tense and tight.”
As a result, he “always imagined literature and books to be the province of much more educated people than me. I never realised that simply travelling and being observant and having a feeling for people and for life is more or less what you needed to write a book. It was a surprise that probably just having a lot of furniture in the soul was what it needed. I’ll have a tequila,” he says to the hovering waiter. “¿No se puede fumar, no? Gracias. It would be nice, eh, between courses,” he says ruefully.
His father, a plant geneticist, went to Mexico with the UN to work on high-resistance crops. From the age of 14 to 18, young Peter attended a British school for the children of expats and embassy staff. The atmosphere at school, he says, “just burned like magnesium, full of really dangerous passion. These were rich children, so in many cases it was just babysitting for kids whose parents were going to buy their future.” He learned “how to drink and how to smoke marijuana. Just perfect.”
I’ve been working my way through a litre bottle of mineral water, which Pierre doesn’t touch. At some stage he persuades me to join him in a tequila. I ask him in what order I should drink it with the red and green shots. “It’s completely up to you.” He’s right, the tequila is mellow and smooth. “Isn’t that nice? Cheers!”
Life between Mexico and the Booker seems to have been a haze of international vagabondage: “I was unemployed for f***ing 10 years or more,” he says. There’s a sudden glimpse of a less PR-friendly rebellion when he talks about his new life in Ireland, and its fabled tolerance of lairy authors. “It’s not that I’m on the streets of the town causing trouble, because I never am – I live in the country – but I believe you have to give space to your artists and Ireland does. Here, if I piss up against a wall, I get busted regardless.” In Ireland – he lives in a remote part of County Leitrim, his nearest neighbour a mile away – they cut him some slack, though not, he hastens to add, for that particular misdemeanour.
“You can be as poor as shit,” he says feelingly, “but if you’re an artist, people know you’re gonna have a strange life and that’s great. We’ve lost it a little bit here?” he says with that upward tilt. “You have to make money to be an artist. Poor artists aren’t respected. Do you want a ciggie?”
I ask him whether he socialises with other authors in Ireland. “My nearest writer, though I never met him – I came close all the time – was John McGahern. Sadly passed.” McGahern, the author of the Booker-shortlisted Amongst Women, who died in 2006, lived “seven miles down the hill. People were always saying, ‘Oh, go and knock on his door, he’d love to meet you.’ But one of the strange things about suddenly becoming a writer is that nothing really qualifies me, as a stranger, to go to a man’s door and say, ‘Hi, I’m another writer.’ ”
Pierre has met fellow Booker winner John Banville, author of The Sea. “That’s proper literature,” he says quietly. “That’s the real thing. My pinnacle of humanity is someone who can self-create without having too many crutches.” It’s a serious tribute, but he promptly adds: “You can have a good drink with him, too. Now –” he leans over conspiratorially – “would you like to try something I’ve only ever had in Mexico City? I’m not even sure they do it here.”
He calls the waiter for another long discussion. The only words I understand are “Johnny Walker”. Two brimming glasses arrive on a tray. “¡Salud!” Chink. “Good luck,” says the waiter.
That doesn’t taste bad at all, I say. Rather like a whisky mac.
“That’s all right, isn’t it? It’s a sweet tequila liqueur. Yeah, you see?” he laughs. “It’s a good drop. You can only have two of them, I think. It’s the human limit.”
It’s getting very difficult to keep the conversation on track, but I suddenly remember what I was going to tell him right at the beginning. I’m wearing Jicky, I say, the perfume that his protagonist Gabriel carries everywhere like a totem – he even drinks it in a cocktail. But I think it’s worn off. He grabs my wrist. “No! It’s there, I can still smell the citrus.” Jicky, created in 1889, represents for Pierre the fin-de-siècle decadence of JK Huysmans and Oscar Wilde.
“It’s supposed to be the first one with three layers of scent. I actually wrote a handwritten letter to Guerlain here in London, you know: ‘I’m a writer, could I have a sample?’ Cos the thing’s about 170 quid for the real one in a Baccarat bottle. And I never f***ing heard back from them!”
Perhaps still thinking about that lost pudding, he insists we share a portion of carjetas, a kind of crêpe raft in a sea of caramel with an ice-cream island. “Straight from the goat, the real thing, it’s hard core!” When it arrives, he eyes it warily. “I might just finish my beer.”
At some stage I call for the bill, squint at it – what are all those figures? – and pay. We carry on talking and drinking: football, Keats, Richard Dawkins, Machiavelli, Henry VIII, conspiracy theories, the future of the planet.
The lunchtime staff have long gone and Pierre summons a waitress. Whatever he’s saying to her, she doesn’t like it. She shakes her head and grimaces.
“Don’t worry,” says Pierre. “She’s Spanish.” The waitress returns with a half-full bottle of golden liquid with – urgh! – a black-and-yellow worm bobbing inside. “Mezcal!” breathes Pierre in reverence. They must really, really like him in here, because when she returns with a glass, the worm is floating dolefully within it.
“We’ll share it,” says Pierre. There’s no way, I think. I take a quick sip of the mezcal and hand back the glass. The worm is protruding from his lips and he roguishly waggles it before chomping it down. It’s a revolting sight.
I have a beer. The restaurant is filling up for the night. It’s time to go home.
“Well, I think,” says DBC Pierre, “we should have one more for the road.”
‘Lights Out in Wonderland’ (Faber) is published on Thursday
103 Hampstead Road, Camden, London NW1
1 litre sparkling water £3.90
Horchata (sweet rice drink) £1.80
2 x mixers shots £1.60
Small sparkling water £1.90
3 x Don Julio Reposado tequilas £39.00
2 x cactus salad £11.30
Cheese & potato enchilada £9.80
Meat taco £6.80
2 x Pacifico beers £7.80
Crêpes with caramel £4.20
2 x Johnnie Walkers £15.60
2 x sweet tequila liqueurs £14.00
Total (not including service) £117.70
Literary licence: ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’
The myth (sometimes the reality) of the wild man of letters – boozy, brawling and debauched – is as old as the dawn of modern literature, and François Villon, France’s first great lyrical poet, was the prototype, writes Bruce Millar. A denizen of low-life Paris, he is thought to have killed at least one man in a street fight and led a gang of robbers before being banished from the city at the age of 31 in 1462.
William Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe met an early death at the age of 29, in 1593, stabbed in the eye after an alleged row over a drinks bill.
There were others, including the bawdy Restoration poet John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, and Scotland’s womanising, whisky-drinking Robbie Burns – but it was late 18th-century Romantics who established the stereotype. Ever since, épater les bourgeois has been as important to many writers as finding le mot juste.
Lord Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know” in the words of cast-off lover Lady Caroline Lamb, was ostracised by a society shocked at his incestuous affair with Augusta Leigh, his half-sister. In his life and in poems such as “Childe Harold” and “Don Juan”, he cultivated the image of the moody, untamed loner. Today, Byronic is the epithet of choice for bad-boy rock stars from Jim Morrison to Pete Doherty.
Shelley, four years younger than Byron, twice eloped with girls of 16 – the second time with Mary Godwin, taking with them her half-sister, Jane Clairmont, to make up a ménage-à-trois.
The Romantics also added drug-taking to the equation – although, as Ed Gray and Iain Smith pointed out in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment in 2003, “psychoactive drugs have been closely linked to all forms of literature for as long as humans have been writing”.
Still, Thomas De Quincey has been credited with inventing recreational drug use in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1820). Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously composed the fragment “Kubla Khan” under the influence of laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol), and became an early example of drug burn-out, unable to write poetry after the age of 30. Opium was also the conduit for prose classics including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Back in France the three self-styled poètes maudits Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine cemented the idea of the writer standing outside society. Rimbaud declared his intent to “systematically derange” his senses, and conducted a drug-fuelled affair with Verlaine that ended in gunshots.
Across the Atlantic, five of the US’s first six winners of the Nobel Prize for literature had drink problems: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. As fellow American writer and satirist Dorothy Parker put it, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
Gray and Smith cite various explanations for writerly substance abuse. Baudelaire and Nietzsche believed intoxication was essential to creativity. Some, like Malcolm Lowry and Jack Kerouac, sought spiritual enlightenment. Others needed to numb over-sensitive souls: Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Scott Fitzgerald, Lowry and Kerouac (again).
The late psychiatrist Felix Post suggested that creative writers of all types are excessively prone to depression, manic disorders and alcoholism compared with both other artists and non-artists, finding In his 1996 study of 100 writers, that 93 fitted this pattern.
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