We were somewhere around Droylsden on the edge of Greater Manchester when the drugs began to take hold.
I remember saying something like… let’s stop at the Asda in Ashton and get supplies. Wrong move, Bubba, wrong move. The supermarket was far too bright, as though a nuclear bomb had detonated in aisle five, just by the frozen veg. Hurriedly, we bought cigarettes and bourbon and wine and John Smiths. Truly, it was going to be a long and brutal night.
“Do we need cake?” barked my attorney Antony, far too loud for the environment.
“That’s hard to say,” I muttered under my breath, an unlit cigarette hanging limp from its holder. “Depends how deep undercover we plan to go.”
Ye gads, what was the point in even thinking? What depth is there other than deep? The check-out chick looked us up and down, as though we’d parachuted in from outerspace. Things were degenerating rapidly, unwinding like a ball of wool. How did it come to this?
I remember when I started this column — six or seven or who-the-hell-knows years ago — and I made preparatory notes. One was about the tone it should take and it read something like “a cross between Fear and Loathing and Withnail & I, between Hunter S. Thompson and Richard E. Grant”. That’s where I wanted to be: halfway between the decadence of the US and the dandyness of the UK, that mid Atlantic point symbolised by the out-to-sea, castaway nature of the collective middle initial. S.E.A.
My company for this mission into the savage sweet heartland of the Wrong Side was a brown seventies Mercedes called der Fraulein, a Stetson I bought in Vegas, several pairs of increasingly ridiculous sunglasses, and a bootful of various uppers and downers and lefters and righters and pills and thrills to take you every which way and loose. And, a cardboard cutout writer in the passenger seat.
Our first point of call had been to drop by the surgery of Dr Herman, proprietor of Manchester’s finest head shop. The good doctor — a prescription for every occasion. Our medication included Trichocerus Peruvianus (aka Peruvian Torch cactus), Columbian mushrooms and several Hawaiian Baby Woodrise Seeds. Now, pimped to the max, we were driving through green countryside, like the cue ball in some game of surreal pool, the green felt countryside like baize beneath our wheels.
Hunter S. Thompson changed everything, turned everything on its head. New Journalism. Gonzo Journalism. It’s guiding principal: fuck the story, unleash the mini bar. Requirements are simply an ego the size of a Zeppelin, its engine fuelled by chemicals. The point of the story is an irrelevance, an intrusion, an annoyance. Simply climb in and start drinking until things start to go wrong. They always do.
In the dark ages Stalybridge had just one club, called Shades. The town soon became known as ShadyBridge. Then they opened another one and lo, there was much rejoicing. The locals got kind of carried away with themselves and a local radio station christened the place StalyVegas (pronounced Stay-lee-vay-gas). It’s a strange town — the very edge of Manchester, nestled in the shadow of the hills and Saddleworth Moor, where green turns to grey. Stick to the roads boys, stick to the roads. We drove der Fraulein through downtown, past the shimmering glitter of Cosmo Bingo, cricking our necks to drink in the neon, plastic splendour of a Tuesday afternoon in Stalybridge. Could life possibly be any sweeter?
Well, the only hotel in Stalybridge is called Thompson’s. How strangely beautiful is that? Thompson’s Cross. The one I have nailed him to, now he is dead. Christians have their Bible; my good book is a first edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that I bought from the States and had shipped over. Everything you will ever need to run your life is within those pages. My attorney swung der Fraulein into the carpark and turned off the engine. We were here now, there was no going back. We had long since dropped off reality’s freeway, many exits back.
Dr Hunter S. Thompson. Of course, I never knew him, but I read him enough to maybe know him a little. Without him there would be no Wrong Side. He broke all the rules, broke down the fence and let the cattle run free. If you want serious stuff, kindly turn the page and move on. Keep turning, Travis. Quick quick, your kind aren’t welcome around these pages. Still here? Is everybody in? Is everybody… in? The ceremony is about to begin.
We checked in and I phoned Alix Walker — a friend, a DJ, a dapper gent and, more importantly, a local of StalyVegas who wanted to show us around town. He knew the kooks and korners of its mean streets, but none of that mattered now I had settled on my plan. He arrived, sober and straight.
“Alix, my plan relies on your ability to accelerate from zero to idiot in about the time it takes you to ingest one of these mushrooms and wash it down with this here can of John Smiths.”
His eyes lit up. I knew he’d be in. “I’m in. What’s the plan?”
“The plan? We go… nowhere. What do you think? It’s beautiful, right? My only thought is to stay within the comfortable pink walls of this little girl’s room, consume the entirety of the booze and potions we have brought with us, next level everything, talk bollocks until the sun comes up, and then set fire to Hunter… “
“Sure, why not. It’s an obituary.”
“Then? Then… and this is the truly beautiful part… we get off. Hightail it for the hills and never look back, not even for the memories.”
The plan was beautiful in its symmetry and simplicity. I had my whole record collection in a little white box on the bedside cabinet; I had the company of good people; and the fuel to keep the engine of the evening running. Everything I wanted, and needed, was within the four walls of this room.
Hunter knew he was an idiot. People think I’m an idiot and, of course, they’re right. An imbecile with a pen and a bottle of booze and the goodwill of a publisher to puke that heady cocktail up onto the page. I never wanted to join a provincial newspaper in Bumfuck Egypt and write stories about cats up trees. I wanted to sit still and take so many potions the top of my head would flip open like a bottle of Heinz and all this goofy gonzo juice would pour out in glorious Technicolor, like thought ketchup upon the page.
Baggy thoughts, loose times and good vibrations in this doll’s house in StalyVegas. Christ knows what madness lurks outside, what beasts roam these moors in March. In this guesthouse bedroom we are kings.
The hall toilet flushed. There were other people in the rooms of this guesthouse. Civilians. I could imagine them holding a glass to the wall, trying to make out what sounded like… well… like three idiots, high on booze and mushrooms, toasting a cardboard cutout and giggling like schoolgirls. Never, in their wildest imagination, would they be able to get a handle on what madness was unfolding, or be able to explain what they had heard on this Tuesday afternoon in Stalybridge. The truth would be too brutal for such a fragile imagination, the ring of horror would make it shatter like a chandelier.
My ambition in writing is only this: that the best I have ever written could somehow share company with the worst of the Doctor’s. That our fictional personas could possibly be imagined sitting together in some fabulous place, tucked away in the pages of a bar built from words.
Staying in is the new going out. Why go out for burgers when you’ve got steak at home, right Bubba? We had a case of beer, wine and bourbon. The mushrooms had gone but we had the Matucan cacti, and after that was done in, we still had the pills. The evening had only just begun. I wanted a cigarette. I haven’t smoked in years but the occasion warranted it.
Hunter S. Thompson, sixty seven years old, shot himself in the head and ended it all. Res ipsa loquitor. Let the good times roll. I miss him very much.
Some time around dawn we left the room, and took Hunter down to a disused railway line, beneath an old brick bridge. I poured lighter fuel over the cardboard and set alight to the Doctor and he was soon consumed in fire. The surgery is closed, but the Doctor is always on call. A loco locum. Selah, and so much for all that. Thank you for the words and the stories you wove them into, and for the nonsense and the chaos.
Thank you for the Fear and the Loathing. [March 2005]
For Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005