Lux­ury Ad­dict

Must stop­ping smok­ing be an or­deal re­quir­ing ti­tanic re­serves of self-de­nial? Not a bit of it, says our ed­i­torat-large, whose cos­set­ted wal­low in the sybaritic sur­round­ings of an English coun­try house ho­tel cast out the de­mon nico­tine in record time, and

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Will Self

How best to quit smok­ing? Go cold turkey in the Clive­den House ho­tel, writes Will Self

at our monthly lunch, the edi­tor of our no­ble and up­stand­ing or­gan looked at me wearily across the ta­ble — wearily, and a lit­tle cravenly. “So,” he said, “how did it go?”

I looked back at him, and, try­ing not to sound too sprightly, replied: “Pretty good — by which I mean, I’ll be a fort­night clean come Thurs­day.”

He shook his head sadly, and there was an al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble wob­ble in his cheeks — the first faint stir­rings, one sus­pects, of the jowls-to-come.

“Funny,” he said, “a few years ago, all my writ­ers were ask­ing to be sent ab­seil­ing down the north face of the Eiger, or on a drive across the Sa­hara, or hunt­ing po­lar bears in Spits­ber­gen. Now, the only thing any of you want is to be con­fined some­where soft and safe, while be­ing de­prived of what­ever vice it is that af­flicts you. How the mighty are fallen!”

I could’ve made those in­cip­i­ent jowls twitch a bit more, by ob­serv­ing that we hadn’t ex­actly fallen — sim­ply aged, along with you, dear read­ers. And more­over, I knew why Alex was look­ing so down in the mouth: he suf­fers from ex­actly the same vice as me, a chronic and deeply in­grained ad­dic­tion to nico­tine in all its myr­iad and ram­i­fy­ing forms. Reg­u­lar read­ers of this mag­a­zine have prob­a­bly ab­sorbed a fair amount of my writ­ing about my nico­tine habit over the years; for some, this may have been a gate­way to my writ­ing about all my other bad habits, and for that I apol­o­gise. I’m only too aware of how in­ju­ri­ous to health such writ­ing can be, and more­over that it’s far from be­ing a vic­tim­less crime — there’s such a thing as se­condary read­ing...

But bear with me, please, for af­ter 44 years of puff­ing, chew­ing, suck­ing and snort­ing, it re­ally is over for me. Why, if La Div­ina Ni­cotina were to ap­pear be­fore me right now, ar­rayed in her silki­est and most in­tox­i­cat­ingly re­veal­ing ap­parel — the smoky tresses of her own sen­sual com­bus­tion — I would sim­ply wave her away with these air-fresh­en­ing words: “I do not know you.”

The Ital­ian writer Italo Svevo, en­cour­aged by no less a smoker than James Joyce, pub­lished a novel in 1923 called Zeno’s Con­science.

Its epony­mous an­ti­hero is a fu­ri­ous nico­tine ad­dict, one who never man­ages to kick the habit. Zeno’s ra­tio­nale is noth­ing of the sort: “Who knows,” he con­tends, “whether, if I had given up smok­ing, I should re­ally have be­come the strong, per­fect man I imag­ined? Per­haps it was this very doubt that bound me to my vice, be­cause life is so much pleas­an­ter if one is able to be­lieve in one’s own la­tent great­ness.”

As we parted af­ter lunch, Alex wished me well in my con­tin­u­ing ab­sti­nence — but I knew he didn’t re­ally mean it: he wanted my great­ness to re­main as la­tent as his own! Yes, it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s heroin, booze or fags, hard­core ad­dicts hate it when one of their num­ber gets clean. Whereas the rest of the world saw a strong and per­fect man strid­ing along Brewer Street, Alex saw a rat, swim­ming away from his smoky, sink­ing ship.

But how, I hear you, gen­tle reader, coo… How, Will, did you exit the mo­tor­way of ex­cess and coast to a gen­tle halt in the es­cape lane of, if not wis­dom, at any rate mod­er­ate san­ity? (I mean to say, who the ruddy fuck goes on smok­ing into his sixth decade? I once asked John McVicar, the leg­endary hard man and at one time “Bri­tain’s Most Wanted Man” if he’d ever smoked, be­cause it seemed some­how in­evitable that a char­ac­ter like him, who be­longed to that Six­ties black-and-white-film-and-greyand-blue-smoke Lon­don, the one fea­tur­ing the Krays and Chris­tine Keeler — of whom more later — would’ve done so. And he fixed me with a gim­let eye, and ex­haled, “’Course I did — but as soon as I read Richard Doll’s re­port con­nect­ing it to cancer I gave it up… That would’ve been around 1960.”) The an­swer is, hurt­ing, raw, stressed and, habit-shack­led reader, lashed to the mon­strously me­chan­i­cal go-round of your own ad­dic­tions: lux­ury! Yes, unashamed, fives­tar, no-holds-barred, plumped-up and dusted down, im­pec­ca­bly served and grandiosely set lux­ury — the prover­bial sil­ver spoon, rest­ing on a vel­vet cush­ion float­ing in a pool of warm cus­tard, or pos­si­bly vichys­soise.

Thing is: I’ve done time (all right, granted only a few hours, but the Old Bill did take away my belt and shoelaces), and I’ve done re­hab, but nei­ther of these ab­so­lute pro­hi­bi­tions availed me any more than the re­peated at­tempts I’ve made to curb this or that ad­dic­tion, at­tempts which have in­vari­ably ended with the sub­sti­tu­tion of one per­ni­cious habit for another. (See

Esquire pas­sim for a haunt­ing de­scrip­tion of how my vap­ing got so out of con­trol that I’d reg­u­larly awaken with the witch’s tit of the va­por­iser clenched be­tween my avid jaws.)

And when I say I’ve “done re­hab’’, I mean tough re­hab, not some touchy-feely desert

drum cir­cle, be­cause back in the day it was be­lieved that in or­der to drive out the par­a­sitic devil of ad­dic­tion, you had to kill its pusil­lan­i­mous host: the hu­man ego. I re­mem­ber my coun­sel­lor say­ing to me: “They call us brain­wash­ers here, Will, but we have to wash your brain, ’cos it’s dirty.” My dirty brain was served up to the pum­melling of group ther­apy, whereby my fel­low ad­dicts — in a bizarre recre­ation of the “crit­i­cism ses­sions” that typ­i­fied Mao’s Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion — hu­mil­i­ated me back into some sem­blance of clean­li­ness.

Mens sana in cor­pore sano and all that Latin jazz. I man­aged to stay sano for two or three years (this was in the late Eight­ies), but I can’t help feel­ing that the set­ting for my re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion wasn’t al­to­gether con­ducive to the right

mens sana. I’m talk­ing Tup­per­ware and plas­tic stack­ing chairs; lam­i­nate floors and Polystyrene ceil­ings — I’m talk­ing a world of self-de­nial — in­clud­ing deny­ing that this Self is an im­pos­si­bly grandiose fel­low, who de­mands the sort of Wag­ne­r­ian pomp and be­jew­elled cir­cum­stance favoured by Mad King Lud­wig II of Bavaria if his squalid lit­tle habits are to be cur­tailed.

en­ter clive­den house: a stu­pen­dously large and or­nate coun­try pile dumped on the Thames braes to the west of Lon­don. At var­i­ous times the abode of dukes, duen­nas, and the odd Prince of Wales, there have been three houses on the site, the third and present in­cum­bent be­ing a hu­mungous mash-up of the Ro­man Cin­que­cento and the Pal­la­dian, which was de­signed by Charles Barry (of Houses of Par­lia­ment fame) and com­pleted in 1852.

Clive­den achieved its great­est no­to­ri­ety dur­ing the last cen­tury, when its then chate­laine, Nancy As­tor, presided over a racy Thir­ties po­lit­i­cal sa­lon known as “the Clive­den Set”. She her­self was Bri­tain’s first woman MP, and her per­sonal style ran to di­vided skirts and mo­tor­cy­cles; our kind of esquire, one might say. Guests in­cluded every­one who was any­one, from Char­lie Chap­lin to Win­ston Churchill, but it was in the early Six­ties that the gaff reached a sort of crescendo of posh naugh­ti­ness.

At that time, the tenant of Spring Cot­tage on the Clive­den Es­tate was one Stephen Ward, an os­teopath and so­cialite, whose kicks con­sisted in be­ing a sort of am­a­teur pro­curer-cum-pimp to the great and the notso-good. I’m not go­ing to run over all the ins and outs of the Pro­fumo af­fair here: if you don’t know how the Bri­tish estab­lish­ment was fi­nally dragged down into the tabloid mosh pit, where it’s re­mained, get­ting a sound kick­ing to this day, then you’re no kind of an esquire at all.

Suf­fice to say, Ward, the then 19-yearold Chris­tine Keeler (she of the fa­mous nude re­versed shot on wooden stack­ing chair), and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies (aged 16), were all pretty heavy smok­ers — cer­tainly if Scan­dal, the 1989 film about the af­fair is to be be­lieved. It could be that dear old John Hurt was type­cast for the role of Ward — which is not to sug­gest that the late, great ac­tor was a pan­der — but boy could he puff! I re­mem­ber see­ing him reg­u­larly, dur­ing my un­der­age drink­ing years in the Sev­en­ties, prop­ping up the bar in The Flask in Hamp­stead vil­lage, knock­ing down the sauce, and al­ways with un mé­got poised on his bot­tom lip.

Any­way, the As­tors rather played down the whole scan­dalous as­so­ci­a­tion dur­ing their suzerainty, and, of course, the en­tire vast estab­lish­ment is now em­phat­i­cally smoke-free, al­though DVDs of the film are on sale at re­cep­tion in the house, should any­one need re­mind­ing of that in­no­cent era when the only scan­dalous thing about a mid­dle-aged de­fence min­is­ter shag­ging a 19-year-old girl was that she also hap­pened to be shag­ging a Soviet spook.

Any­way, I set­tled on Clive­den as the per­fect set­ting within which to un­dergo the rigours of with­draw­ing from my per­ni­cious 44-year de­pen­dency on nico­tine, be­cause I wanted — among many other things — to fi­nally join the estab­lish­ment: fol­low­ing Italo Svevo’s Zeno, this was the sort of strong, per­fect man I wished to be: one with a five-piece set of Sam­sonite hand-tooled leather lug­gage, and a brand new Land Rover Dis­cov­ery to load them into. The sort of strong, per­fect — and let’s face it, rich — man, who cheer­fully re­gards this as­ton­ish­ing estab­lish­ment (motto: “Noth­ing or­di­nary ever hap­pened here, nor could it”) as a species of air­port ho­tel, given its prox­im­ity to Heathrow.

Yes! Af­ter years of tatty mis­ery, mak­ing do with bide-a-wee-style bed and break­fasts where obese land­ladies serve ran­cid fry-ups and the sheets are so syn­thetic they cling to you like shrouds, I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence Prince Charles lev­els of per­sonal in­dul­gence. Harold Nicolson, the cel­e­brated di­arist and hus­band to gar­den­ing geezer-girl Vita Sackville-West, said of Clive­den: “To live here would be like liv­ing on the stage of the Scala The­atre in Mi­lan.” Well, so be it! I thought, the night be­fore I set out: bring on the over­weight prima don­nas, and may they crush me to death with their op­u­lent ca­vort­ing!

My re­hab com­pan­ion and I en­trained from Padding­ton to Maiden­head. I’d last vis­ited the con­stituency of our Vir­gin Queen, Mrs May, to ap­pear on an episode of the BBC’s Ques­tion Time. One of my fel­low pan­el­lists had been Nigel Farage, and I’d had the great plea­sure of call­ing him, on live tele­vi­sion, “a grubby lit­tle

Af­ter 44 years, it re­ally is over for me. Why, if La Div­ina Ni­cotina were to ap­pear be­fore me right now, ar­rayed in her silki­est and most in­tox­i­cat­ingly re­veal­ing ap­parel, I would sim­ply wave her away with these air-fresh­en­ing words: ‘I do not know you’

op­por­tunist, rid­ing on the coat­tails of his­tory”. Of course, Farage was way too cool to rise to this, and sim­ply do­nated his ha­bit­ual shiteat­ing grin to the cam­era, but it re­mains one of my finest put-downs; why, I’d stubbed the man out as if he were one of the fil­ter-tips he him­self peren­ni­ally puffs upon.

Yes! As my taxi car­omed along the lanes, and swung in through the gates of Clive­den, I saw a Churchillian fu­ture ahead of me, one in which such bon mots fell as ca­su­ally from my lips as cig­a­rettes had once been raised to them. The Farage stub­bing-out had been a sort of sym­pa­thetic magic, a sym­bolic act pre­sag­ing the fi­nal ex­tin­guish­ing of the real thing.

And as my re­hab com­pan­ion and I en­tered the Grand Hall, to be wel­comed by a beam­ing and burly chap called Michael Chaloner, who would be our Vir­gil through­out our stay in the un­der­world of the über-rich, it struck me that it was al­ready ris­ing 15 hours since I’d last in­gested any nico­tine, and that I felt per­fectly all right: a lit­tle nervy, granted, and rather emo­tion­ally… la­bile — but I’d by no means turned into the slaver­ing homi­ci­dal ma­niac I’d an­tic­i­pated.

Was this, I won­dered, be­cause I was look­ing for­ward to tak­ing up res­i­dence in the Shrews­bury Suite? A set of rooms on the first floor of the west wing that are so el­e­gantly ap­pointed, with such mag­nif­i­cent views out over the sur­round­ing coun­try, that — get this — they have their own guest­book. Ac­tu­ally, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if ev­ery sin­gle toi­let at Clive­den had its own guest­book be­cause this is an estab­lish­ment that’s con­stantly be­ing memo­ri­alised. Hell, since it’s ac­tu­ally owned by the Na­tional Trust, it’s al­ready a pub­lic mon­u­ment of sorts. Sit­ting in the woody vast­ness of the li­brary, ei­ther sip­ping our cock­tails or our tea, my com­pan­ion and I would stare out over the truly mas­sive parterre, and see there the ghastly hoi pol­loi, clad in brightly coloured gar­ments of ny­lon and Gore-Tex, drag­ging their equally vile off­spring be­tween the neatly clipped hedges. (For those of you too lower class to know what a parterre is, I have no wise, defin­ing words — only a soupçon of pity.)

Bags de­posited by the four-poster in the Shrews­bury Suite, we ad­journed first to the As­tor Grill for a lit­tle light lun­cheon, and then to the spa, where my com­pan­ion re­ceived some sort of mys­te­ri­ous “treat­ment”, while I availed my­self of first the sauna, and then the steam room, in­tent on sweat­ing out the last fugi­tive mol­e­cules of nico­tinic acid. The grill room was fairly sparsely ten­anted, the spa still emp­tier. As I dripped, I found it hard not to think of the scene in Thunderball, in which Sean Con­nery's James Bond is lashed to a stretch­ing ma­chine at a health farm by an agent of Spec­tre who’s co­in­ci­den­tally tak­ing a cure. Bond is al­most torn in two by the er­rant gym equip­ment, but then that’s what you get if you waste tax­pay­ers’ money on such an estab­lish­ment. If Bond had ad­dressed his is­sues at Clive­den in­stead, he’d have avoided all as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts, al­though he’d prob­a­bly have found it dif­fi­cult to re­sist the ex­trav­a­gantly dry Mar­ti­nis.

i’ve writ­ten in these pages be­fore about my pos­i­tive aver­sion to lux­ury. Not, you ap­pre­ci­ate, that I don’t like Egyp­tian cot­ton sheets, haute cui­sine and im­pec­ca­bly man­nered ser­vice as much as the next spoilt dick, but just be­cause lux­ury, no mat­ter how op­u­lent, is never in my ex­pe­ri­ence lux­u­ri­ous enough: there’s al­ways some dry lit­tle pea lodged deep in­side the mat­tress, that nonethe­less ren­ders this lit­tle princess black and blue by morn­ing. Per­haps it was be­cause my trip to Clive­den was so goalo­ri­ented that I didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence the pea ef­fect; this meant I com­pared the estab­lish­ment not with the Sun­set Tower in Los An­ge­les or the Ho­tel Arts in Barcelona, but with Broad­way Lodge in We­ston-su­per-Mare.

As I’ve al­ready re­marked, I’ve done con­ven­tional re­hab and from the lux­ury point of view it sucks dog shit, what with its tough love, and hav­ing to grout the splash­back in the shower stall be­fore you can take a shower. It sucks from the ser­vice an­gle as well, what with all that rig­or­ous hon­esty; I was fed up with peo­ple telling me I was a self-de­ceiv­ing liar. In­stead, I wanted to bask in my self-de­cep­tion, while peo­ple were paid to say how very nice it was to see me, their man­ner strongly im­ply­ing that I was one of the most es­timable fel­lows ever to be born.

This is the sort of feed­back the staff at Clive­den pos­i­tively ex­cel at and we were borne on a pink cloud of ap­pro­ba­tion from spa to suite, to the li­brary for cock­tails, and fi­nally to the beau­ti­fully ap­pointed An­dré Gar­rett Restau­rant for din­ner. I’m not go­ing to itemise all the yummy dishes we ate any­more than I’m go­ing to ex­haus­tively de­scribe the decor — that’s what web­sites are for. What I can tell you, is that the food was of such pi­quancy, and the ser­vice of such sub­tle ob­se­quious­ness, that when the long meal ended — let alone be­fore — I didn’t feel the slight­est need of my ha­bit­ual, smoky di­ges­tif.

Yes, yes, I ap­pre­ci­ate that pro­vid­ing Clive­den-style re­hab for all of Bri­tain’s smok­ers, drinkers, dragon-chasers and crack­heads would place a con­sid­er­able bur­den on the tax­payer but I ask you, aren’t the costs of our nox­ious ad­dic­tions al­ready beg­gar­ing the na­tion? Be­sides, I was able to kick La Div­ina Ni­cotina into touch with a mere two nights at Clive­den, whereas the min­i­mum stay in pri­mary care at the likes of The Pri­ory takes six to eight weeks and costs north of 20 grand!

If James Bond had ad­dressed his health is­sues at Clive­den, he’d have avoided all as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts, al­though he’d prob­a­bly have found it dif­fi­cult to re­sist the ex­trav­a­gantly dry Mar­ti­nis

True, Clive­den doesn’t have any spe­cial­ist staff on hand to deal with the hor­rors of with­drawal, but it does have Mr Chaloner, who, on the sec­ond af­ter­noon of our stay, took us for a ram­ble through the ex­tra­or­di­nary house, stop­ping here and there to re­mark on some an­cient pec­ca­dillo of its pre­vi­ous own­ers, whether it be Lady As­tor’s son’s pen­chant for mem­bers of his own sex, or the back pas­sages of the great house it­self which ver­mic­u­late its thick walls, such that a staff mem­ber can pop up more or less any­where, then dis­ap­pear just as read­ily. The aim was, of course, to keep down­stairs down­stairs, even when it was — so to speak — up­stairs. Now, if you’d have told me I’d be un­der­tak­ing a tour of a Na­tional Trust prop­erty less than 48 hours af­ter quit­ting the gaspers, I’d have asked you for a fag, so shocked would I have been. If you’d have told me I’d ac­tu­ally be en­joy­ing it, I’d have lit it. True, Chaloner was an ex­em­plary guide, witty and just a lit­tle ir­rev­er­ent: I sus­pect it’s at his in­sti­ga­tion that the Lego bust of Churchill was placed be­hind the re­cep­tion desk; a lit­tle re­minder, per­haps, that even the most ex­alt­edly aris­to­cratic among us can still be per­fectly re­al­is­ti­cally de­picted in… plas­tic.

But I spent most of that day in a sort of pink­ish haze any­way. The pre­vi­ous evening, sur­feited with fine din­ing, we’d re­paired to the Shrews­bury Suite, choos­ing the route which took us out­doors, so I could feel the cool night air in my re­viv­i­fy­ing air-sacs. The last thing I’d no­ticed be­fore we went in again, was the or­nate, 100ft-high clock tower that looms over the sta­ble block of the house. With its half open stair­case and four, golden clock faces, it’s an ar­rest­ing sight, but more strik­ing still is the statue that sur­mounts it: a re­pro­duc­tion, I later learned, of the one that tops off the July Col­umn in the Place de la Bastille, Paris. This winged male fig­ure seems a lit­tle too revo­lu­tion­ary for such a con­text, es­pe­cially given it’s an al­le­gory: the chain in its left hand rep­re­sent­ing the struck-off fet­ters of slav­ery, the torch in its right the very flame of lib­erty it­self.

Still, coat­ing the thing in two lay­ers of 23-carat gold leaf helps to bling Le Genié de la Lib­erté up a lit­tle and be­sides, since this lat­est it­er­a­tion of the sculp­ture (which keeps get­ting hit by re­ac­tionary light­ning) has only been in situ at Clive­den since 2012, I de­cided it was en­tirely aimed at… moi. Af­ter all, had I not struck off the fet­ters of my nico­tine ad­dic­tion, and had my large col­lec­tion of dis­pos­able bu­tane lighters not been re­pur­posed into a ver­i­ta­ble bea­con cel­e­brat­ing my freedom?

And so I had slept deep that night. At least un­til the small hours which was when, in the re­cent past, I’d have awak­ened to have a cig­a­rette. Why? Be­cause as any­one with a scin­tilla of med­i­cal knowl­edge can tell you: smok­ing at night doesn’t count. But in the plumped-up dark­ness of the Shrews­bury, as tightly wrapped up in the four-poster bed as a han­drolled Ha­vana cigar, I came to con­scious­ness in the midst of a full-blown panic at­tack: gasp­ing for air, and splut­ter­ing to my long­suf­fer­ing com­pan­ion: “I’m dead! I’m dead!” It was the un­ac­cus­tomed dark­ness of the suite, I think — only the very rich can bask in such Sty­gian in­te­ri­ors nowa­days, the rest of us have to suf­fer light pol­lu­tion in­fil­trat­ing our cheap drapes — this, and yes, I had died that night.

By which I mean that the smok­ing, chew­ing, snort­ing, vap­ing I died that night, the I who be­lieved nico­tine had any­thing to of­fer him be­yond blood, sweat and the mis­ery of an early grave; the I that had posed with a cig­a­rette in his lips, imag­in­ing him­self some sort of sub­ur­ban fuck­ing Steve McQueen, ever since he was tall enough to put his 26p on the counter and ask for 20 Play­ers No 6. Yes! I arose the fol­low­ing morn­ing the strong and per­fect man that Alex Bilmes so en­vies.

And re­mained that man for the rest of my stay at Clive­den, dur­ing which we had a t’ai chi ses­sion with a soon to be 80-year-old woman called Judy who looked 20 years younger than that, while mov­ing with the coiled strength and sup­ple­ness usu­ally at­trib­uted to James Bond. Un­like 007, though, I sus­pect Judy had never so much as seen a handmade Balkan Mix­ture cig­a­rette, let alone smoked push­ing-60 a day.

It’s cus­tom­ary when you leave re­hab to un­dergo a sim­ple cer­e­mony dur­ing which your peers wish you well, and of­fer their con­tin­u­ing strength and sup­port, while you, welling up with tears, tell them how much you love them, and that you’re a changed man. Well, con­sider this ar­ti­cle to have been that cer­e­mony, and re­mem­ber, dear, dear read­ers, don’t be suck­ered in by any talk of spar­tan fit­ness regimes, or harsh psy­cho­log­i­cal cleansing, you heard it here first: lux­ury is in­deed the new re­hab.

Will Self stayed at Clive­den House ho­tel, Berk­shire, Eng­land SL6; clive­den­

Now a five-star coun­try ho­tel, Berk­shire’s Grade I-listed Clive­den House boasts a colour­ful 350-year-his­tory of play­ing host to roy­alty, prom­i­nent politi­cians and the Six­ties Pro­fumo scan­dal

The French Din­ing Room at Clive­den House, typ­i­cal of the op­u­lence in which the au­thor im­mersed him­self to com­plete his self-man­aged re­hab pro­gramme

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