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The Story of O: The Autobiography of an Irish Outlaw

By Olaf Tyaransen

Writing as someone who thought fifty was a tad young for Martin Amis to be giving us the benefit of his Experience, it is difficult to know what to make of someone who decides to write their autobiography (first instalment?) at the age of twenty-nine. However, I realised recently that I was fighting a losing battle in my detestation of the glut of personal memoirs that has exploded on the Irish publishing scene in the past few years. There is a rather unseemly arrogance, or maybe wilfully blind unselfconsciousness, about people who suffer under the illusion that their own lives are somehow interesting enough to merit telling complete strangers about them. But, in a sense, one may as well castigate Tyaransen for his presumption as Frank (or Malachy) McCourt or Nuala O’Faolain for theirs, even if they were a little older when they determined to tell us the story of their lives (up until then). Nor should it be forgotten that William S. Burroughs’ started his distinguished literary career with a straightforward confessional piece.

There were other signifiers that did not favourably predispose me to this particular addition to the genre: the appropriation of the title of Pauline Reage’s erotic classic (although Tyaransen maintains that in his case the O stands for ‘overdue’); the self-congratulatory bad boy sub-title, with its implication that smoking dope is an (ahem!) big deal, major offence (although it emerges in the course of the book that there are a lot of people out there who still think it is); and the so-hip-it-hurts Graham Knuttle portrait of the author which graces the cover (when is this one trick pony artist going to advance his style?). Add to this Tyaransen’s reputation as a ‘personality journalist’, and the dye was nearly cast. But, surprise surprise, what’s between the covers actually works. Hell, I’m even tempted to pen an autobiographical sketch myself, about battling the bottle, and call it DTs Story. Not that it would be true, mind.

For those of you who don’t know, Tyaransen started life working in a night-club in Galway, after a rebellious adolescence and less than glowing Leaving Certificate. He had a poetry collection, The Consequences of Slaughtering Butterflies, published by Salmon when he was twenty-one. He started contributing to, and then editing, local freesheets, while becoming Galway correspondent for Hot Press as well. There comes a time in the lives of men, and so he relocated to Dublin, where it was easier to establish a more prominent profile for himself at Hot Press. He has also worked for the now defunct Himself, and the Sunday Independent. He is probably most closely associated in the Irish public consciousness with the campaign to legalise cannabis, forming the Cannabis Legalisation Party with University College Cork law lecturer Tim Murphy, and running as a single-issue candidate in the 1997 general election in the Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown constituency, polling 348 first-preference votes.

The moral crux of the matter is whether you think Olaf was putting himself forward merely to increase further his public profile, or if he was acting out of strong convictions on the issue and, as a corollary, whether or not that story is worth telling. What won me over, in the end, apart from the serviceable prose (give or take a few weak, ill-advised puns), is the writer’s palpable honesty. He is truthful enough to admit that he had mixed motives, but according to him there was more emphasis on the latter reason. This puts his priorities in the right order, in my opinion, when compared with those of most politicians, who have nothing more on their minds than their own popularity ratings, and the party line. Tyaransen is open about his taste for notoriety: ‘I’ve never been particularly adverse (sic) to publicity, after all, and there was little point in denying that the thought of being in the limelight hadn’t both occurred and appealed to me.’; but this is tempered with: ‘The truth was that I did it because - at heart - I felt that what I was saying was right, and because I couldn’t stand listening to the misinformed rabble-rousing rhetoric being spouted by small-minded hick politicians for a single second longer. The publicity I was most concerned about getting was for the issue, and not for myself. That was why I took a political stand, that was why I did what I did. And fuck anybody who thinks otherwise!’ He was encouraged to run by Hot Press, and also in reaction to the opposition of his straight, conventionally-minded ex-girlfriend, who said she was thinking about getting back together with him, but there was no chance if his name went forward on a cannabis legalisation ticket. It would be interesting to speculate if the author would have had such a rough, self-abusive ride, had he had a more supportive, like-minded, partner.

Of course, it goes without saying that cannabis, and indeed all drugs currently proscribed, should be legalised as soon as possible. (1) This is as plain as the nose on any sensible person’s face. I mean, we’ve all taken drugs, haven’t we? Well, haven’t we? The majority of the best rock, and indeed jazz, blues, soul, country, reggae and dance groups ran on various combinations of such natural and/or artificial stimulants, to say nothing of a huge number of the more successful poets, dramatists and novelists. Too much of any of them is bad for you, but then eating too many marsh mallows is bad for you too, and they’re not illegal. One has only to look at the flourishing of gangsterism and organised crime that the so-called ‘noble experiment’ of prohibiting alcohol in 1920s America gave rise to, and apply simple logic to the current situation, to conclude that an end to prohibition is the only answer to drug-related crime throughout the world, not least because it criminalises a group of people who should not be criminalised, i.e. drug-users.

There are several reasons why this will not happen, almost exclusively to do with the amount of people whose business it would severely curtail if it did. Apart from the obvious, i.e. drug sellers - from the biggest, richest ‘Baron’, as they’ve been dubbed, to your local neighbourhood dealer - there’s the police who enforce these laws, the judges, barristers and solicitors who try to apprehended offenders, the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the prescription drugs, some of which have largely the same effect as those currently proscribed, which are then prescribed by the general practitioners and psychiatrists who are supposed to help people with their ‘addiction’, their ‘inadequacy’, their ‘anti-social behaviour’, their ‘lack of self-esteem’, their ‘reality contact’, and their ‘faulty adjustment’. Indeed, the way drug-users are ‘treated’ is perhaps the most pernicious element of the cycle, since any discourse so steeped in cliché can only further alienate the more original and creative of minds. As Will Self has Dr Gyggle suggest in My Idea of Fun: ‘They say failed doctors become psychiatrists, and failed psychiatrists specialise in addiction.’

Here, we must ask a couple of apposite questions, like: ‘For whom is the drug problem a problem?’, and, ‘Why is ‘use’ always ‘abuse’ in medico-legal terms?’ William Burroughs, from whom I would take most of my cues when to comes to drugs and drug treatment programmes, since at least he had some first-hand, insider experience of what he was talking about, points to the crass redundancy of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy for treatment of excessive, or indeed any, drug use, in an article he wrote for The British Journal of Addiction, Vol. 53, No 2, in 1956, republished as an appendix to his first novel, Naked Lunch:

Morphine addiction is a metabolic illness brought about by the

use of morphine. In my opinion psychological treatment is not

only useless, it is contraindicated. Statistically the people who

become addicted to morphine are those who have access to it:

doctors, nurses, anyone in contact with black market sources.

In Persia where opium is sold without control in opium shops,

70 per cent of the adult population is addicted. So we should

psycho-analyse several million Persians to find out what deep

conflicts and anxieties have driven them to the use of opium?

I think not. According to my experience most addicts are not

neurotic and do not need psychotherapy. Apomorphine treatment

and access to apomorphine in the event of relapse would certainly

give a higher percentage of permanent cures than any programme

of "psychological rehabilitation".

Psychological rehabilitation also does not take account of the fact that many people have deep conflicts and anxieties, but not everyone engages in excessive (i.e. harmful to themselves) drug use. Burroughs has also opined that substituting methadone for heroin is about as useful as substituting gin for whiskey.

A final irony of current treatment programmes is that, as with most things, it is easier to be a drug user with money and connections in this society than it is to be one without either. Thus, not only will more wealthy offenders have access to better legal representation in the event of being charged with a drug-related offence, but the wayward sons and daughters of the professional classes (i.e. the lawyers and doctors doing the trying and treating), have the cushion of being packed off to expensive clinics in England, while those from a less well off background have to go on lengthy waiting lists for less than salubrious institutions like Coolmine. (A bit like the abortion trail, that, isn’t it?) Suffice to say that, at present, the farcical treatment available, and indeed the majority of psychiatric treatment in general, is little better than a post-religious form of social and sexual control, and a legalised form of character assassination.

Tyaransen is also admirably, self-laceratingly open about his artistic failures, acknowledging that he lacked the necessary focus and dedication to write a novel, and admitting that he sold his soul to journalism and drowned his talent in alcohol, a la Marcello, the central character in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Such lycanthropism, or better still, fence-straggling, between the creative and the commercial, the fictive and the factual, modes of writing, is always a dangerous zone to get into, but I’m prepared to cut him some slack here, since life is hard, and we all have to make a buck while we try to write The Book. Hell, that’s what I’m doing now, even if for what DT suspects is rather less remuneration than that of OT. (2) We’re all artists, struggling in the face of commerce. But some of us are better artists, and less susceptible to blandishments, than others.

There are reasons to dislike him, such as his accounts of drooling over his by-lines from shop to shop, and his pushiness and brassneck. But then, he is seriously invested in journalism as a career. More worrying is the kind of celebrity journalism he goes in for, since that is what casts doubt over his genuineness as a campaigner. The idea of promoting oneself as a rebel, and indulging in outlaw chic, simply because one favours the legalisation of cannabis, struck me initially as a relatively cheap shoot, a very easy thing to do. But, ensconced in the civility of a compact and bijou Harold’s Cross residence, where I take a break from my prolonged creative efforts, and my accompanying perusal of Proust, Gide, Robbe-Grillet and Perec, only to read The Guardian over a cappuccino at the corner Cafe Bar, perhaps I underestimated the extent of what Tyaransen rather annoyingly refers to several times as ‘redneckery’ out there. (Tim Murphy, who ran on the same ticket in Cork, was asked by one radio interviewer if he injected the cannabis himself, while Olaf was asked during another radio interview in Dublin if the fact that he advocated the removal of cannabis prohibition also meant that he was gay.) Perhaps even scarier than ‘redneckery’ though, and which Mr T doesn’t mention, is the uptightness of the D4 set, who pontificate in concerned, platitudinous tones about ‘the tone of society’. But maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the opprobrium Tyaransen attracted, since right on my own doorstep, residents are objecting vociferously to the opening of a shelter for homeless people, since they associate homelessness with substance abuse. As someone who could easily have been rendered homeless through a long and serious illness (completely unrelated to drug or alcohol use I might add), I am appalled by these selfish, self-righteous, smug attitudes.

There is a more serious point to be made about the rise of the kind of celebrity journalism Tyaransen does, and which now appears in Hot Press magazine. Since the untimely (as most deaths are) death of Bill Graham, and the elevation of Declan Lynch to bigger but hardly better things as court jester in the Sunday Independent, where he can give us the benefit of gems such as Paul Durcan is the only worthwhile poet in Ireland, one only rarely comes across a knowledgeable, insightful, well-researched article, written out of obvious love and appreciation and discernment, in the pages of Hot Press, a self-congratulatory magazine now so in bed with the Irish music ‘industry’, as they call it these days, that it is almost impossible to find any objective criticism in it. But the likes of Graham flourished in the days before The Triumph of The Bean Counters, back when rock music actually meant something, both aesthetically and as a form with the potential for effecting social change. One only had to read editor Niall Stokes’ recent interview with The Corrs, where he salivated sycophantically over them, even going so far as to discuss their favourite recipes, in text so obviously given the once-over by a PR person, to realise the fundamental truth of this assertion. (The Corrs are, as every right-thinking person knows, CRAP, yet the only negative criticism they have received in print on this island of which I’m aware has come from Michael Ross in the Oirish Sunday Times, who referred to their ‘vacuous rapacity’, and from Henry McGee in The Sunday Tribune, who deftly compared them with The Nolan Sisters - and there wasn’t much heavyweight fuss about them in their day.) Thus, it is odd to find Tyaransen referring to Hot Press as ‘weirdly alternative’ and ‘revolutionary’. There is no reason why rock criticism should be of any less a standard than that applied to any of the other arts. Yet one only very occasionally comes across an article in Hot Press as satisfying as those which appear with some regularity in British magazines like Mojo or Uncut. There is no critic there of comparable ability with Greil Marcus, or Ian Penman. And while Lester Bangs may have been just as ego-fuelled and conscious of his own public image as someone like Tyaransen, his fascination with and love of the work of his interviewees was never in doubt and, as the series of head-to-heads with Lou Reed collected in Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung showed, were both more risky and more amusing than most of what comes out in Hot Press every fortnight. Maybe ‘the biz’ was always just as bad as it is now, as Neil Young’s mid-70s ‘doom trilogy’ or even the history of Hollywood would indicate, but maybe its reach and power weren’t so extensive, and maybe journalists - and performers - weren’t so complicit with it. More so than ever, rock journalism is, as the late Frank Zappa observed, ‘Written by people who can’t write, about people who can’t play, for people who can’t read.’ End of rant.

Back to O’s story. There are a couple of glitches. In his introduction, Howard Marks displays that he hasn’t lost his schoolboy sense of humour, but probably doesn’t help his case, by referring to Mary Harney as ‘an obese prohibitionist’. Like her or loathe her, this is just name-calling. (By the way, Ms Harney, this is one voter who hasn’t yet forgotten L’Affaire O’Flaherty). Also, Coole Park was not the home of Maude Gonne, as erroneously stated on p.28, but of Lady Gregory. However, in a somewhat uneven book, lapses into cheap rhetoric are balanced by some nice descriptive writing, like the account of Celtic Tiger Dublin on p.99.

To wind up, I wound up liking the subject of this book, even if he was writing mostly about himself. He took a stand about something a lot of people in the media would agree with him on, but would never express publicly. So he became a front man, with the attendant risks of becoming a fall guy. I happen to agree with his arguments on this issue, even if I have no desire or inclination to go on a crusade about it, and not through cowardice, but because I’ve got better things to do, other fish to fry. This review contains more editorialising than usual, but for once I’m reviewing a journalist rather than a novelist. So what if he’s not the bohemian beat poet or razor-sharp, smart-assed novelist he imagined himself to be. He is a journalist, and a good one. If he could curb his fascination with and awe of celebrity, and become less interested in cultivating his own, he might even be a great one.

(1) Opinions expressed in Books Ireland are not necessarily those of the editors.

(2) Opinions expressed in Books Ireland are still not necessarily those of the editors.

First published in Books Ireland

 

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