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News  Absinthe helps make sense of a crazy world
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Absinthe helps make sense of a crazy world

From America
By Irvine Welsh
From, The Daily Telegraph

I'm cheating a wee bit this week. My column is coming not from America but from Prague, in the Czech Republic. However the US, or at least a certain version of it, seems more visible here than ever, still dominating every television news programme.

I've flown in for the Prague Writers' Festival, one of those fine literary beanos that we men and women of letters sometimes feel moved to attend. These events are fun if taken in the right spirit; you get to meet people from different cultures, experience the cut and thrust of debate, and occasionally indulge in some old-fashioned bad behaviour. As this year's festival is in memory of William Burroughs, this seemed a fitting approach. Burroughs was a most celebrated writer, especially in the latter part of his long life. Over the past 30 years, every literary young buck or pop star craving some arty credibility just had to get their picture taken alongside old Bill. It's either a tribute to his brilliance or a sad indictment of the conformity of today's writing that, half a decade after his death, he still feels like our most startlingly contemporary novelist. When asked about the evils that governments and corporations are capable of, he replied: "There's absolutely no limit to what the control mentality will do. "Coalition ordnance has pounded Iraqi forces to defeat in this one-sided turkey shoot we're still ridiculously calling a "war". This has been legitimised by a cheerleading media doctoring the news in the most ham-fisted way. The most obvious offender was television news's collusion with the US military's blatant set-up of the toppling of Saddam's statue. Burroughs's writings on misinformation and disinformation seem more alarmingly pertinent than ever.Meanwhile, we in the chattering classes continue, admittedly somewhat effetely, to put in our tuppence worth. Stick a load of writers together in such times, and you couldn't keep politics out of it if you tried.

Winding round the cobble-stoned streets, glancing up at the towering spires while nicely lubricated by Czech beers and absinthe, Prague seems the perfect setting for such an event. In the often spiky but good-natured discussions, the definite star of the festival is Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy. Her serene, humorous manner, her grasp of the issues around globalisation and her selfless dedication make the rest of us look like intellectual lightweights or posturing, self-serving bores. We're not that bad, it's just that she's so good.As you might have gathered by now, I seldom write about being a writer. I've yet to find a way in which you can make sitting at a word processor for three hours before the pub screams at you seem either a glamorous or dramatic undertaking. Any fun to be had is going on in your head. Tomorrow it's probable that it'll be replaced by despair. While in Britain we love nothing better than dealing in occupational stereotypes, the truth is that writers, like plumbers or teachers, are a pretty mixed bunch. In this scenario, some are at their best sitting in their rooms, battering their laptops. This sort can look mildly autistic when a well-meaning sucker approaches them for a chat after an event. Others will chew the fat with anybody and take off partying at the drop of a hat. Still more, like myself, will shunt with disconcerting effortlessness back and forth between those two states of mind. You do need to pace yourself: it can sometimes seem like a long week. The opening night was a drab affair with extended speeches from local dignitaries and sponsors. Tedious enough but, when accompanied by jet lag and a gospel choir, you can count me out. I was stoically enduring this with the American writer Jeff Eugenides. We discovered that we had mutual friends, first in New York, then in Los Angeles. Then jet lag really kicked in and I excused myself, sneaking out into the snowy Prague night and heading back to the hotel and my bed.

The next morning I was fresher, happy to be in eastern Europe. I have a substantial readership here and I always get treated excellently. The people are nowhere near as spoilt, stiff-arsed and selfish as we can be in the West. Right now it seemed as good place as any from which to get a perspective on our crazy world. It gets even better when Inka, my friend from Sofia and a top woman, hits town. I've already found an Irish bar that shows British football. With Inka's help, I find a sushi place and then a wonderfully tacky disco bar. We spend our evening dancing, drinking margaritas and crying on each other's shoulders about our far-off American loves.

The following night, staggering in after more dancing at the somewhat uninspiringly named Club Acropolis, I'm a little surprised to see Jeff Eugenides sitting up quaffing champagne. I know that he had an early start and a busy day ahead. Jeff's expression is an endearing mix of well-chuffed and totally bewildered, the mystery being solved when he tells us he's just heard that he's won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex.

The next day I'm at my press conference, talking to festival director Michael March. He was saying he had found it hard to get the Czech press to take notice of Jeff, who is yet to be published in this country. With a mischievous twinkle, Michael waved his mobile phone and sang a line from that Dinah Washington classic, What a Diff'rence a Day Makes!

Later on, Inka and I are at dinner with Arundhati Roy. When we pile into the back of a cab to get to the hotel, I mention to Arundhati that Roy is a Scottish surname. She asks me if I am thinking of Rob Roy. I tell her that I was actually contemplating Kenneth Roy, explaining that he was a newscaster on Scottish Television when I was growing up. Due to his deadpan delivery, he became a cult figure in our circles. I got a shock when, some time ago, I picked up a Scottish newspaper and Ken chastised me as a terrible and malign influence on Caledonian culture. Well, I suppose that's what comes of a misspent youth watching too much television news.

Last modification of this page: 5th March 2003 13:20

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