I’ve been going through my old notebooks. There’s about a suitcase worth going back 50 years or more. Most of it’s either useless or mundane: phone numbers and addresses of people I no longer know, notes from interviews I’ve already written up, I-Ching readings from long-gone situations, sketches for stories I’ve already had published, the forgotten detritus of a writer’s life.
The reason I’ve kept them is that, in amongst the rubble, there are occasional gems. Take this as an example, found in an old reporter’s notebook, yellowed with age:
Ode to Beauty
Your head is full of effluent
From the bowels of mankind
And you see the sea as blue
But it’s really unkind
You’re stuck inside a timewarp
You’re in 1993
God, I wish that you could see
The world as ugly, like me.
Your head is stuck and glued
In realms of triviality
Like what you’ll have for dinner
Or your boyfriend thinks you’re ugly
Just spare a thought for the billions
Of bloated corpses in the sea
God, I wish that you could see
The world as ugly, like me.
It has the air of an unfinished poem. It’s clever, but could be refined. You have the feeling that a lot more could be said using the same refrain. It wasn’t written by me, but by an old friend, Alan Ashcroft. He must’ve jotted it down in the notebook when I wasn’t looking. I knew him in the 1990s and early-2000s. He went by a variety of names: Big Ashie and Kodan were two. “Kodan” was a portmanteau name, combining Kojak with Hairy Dan. When I first met him he told me a trick for how to remember his surname. “Think of a tree house,” he said. I’ve remembered that to this day.
It was Alan who gave me the courage to take up writing in earnest. He was around to witness my first attempts. One day we got stoned together. We stayed up all night listening to my old vinyl collection and conceived a plan to launch a magazine. It was going to be called “The Id.” That was Alan’s title. I started writing material for it, but he never fulfilled his side of the bargain. The magazine never happened and I sent my stories off to The Guardian. The stories were accepted. That was the beginning of my writing career.
We undertook a few adventures together, most notably a trip up to Scotland that took over 48 hours after the engine in my van overheated on the motorway, leaving a trail of black smoke behind us. It was on the train to Glasgow, after we’d taken the van to be scrapped in Warrington, that I wrote the first words of my first book, Fierce Dancing.
He died in 2003. By then he’d become a heroin addict.
The last time I saw him he came to visit in Kent. I was living in a flat above a shop in Tankerton, a small suburb of Whitstable. He was living in Scotland at the time. That was where he was from: Renfrew near Glasgow. He rang me up. He told me his partner had kicked him out, and could he come to mine? I didn’t really want to see him. I was depressed at the time and knew that he’d be bad news, but he was very insistent, almost begging me over the phone. “Please Chris, I need a break.” In the end I relented.
The day of his arrival came. He was several hours late. He walked in, apologizing, sweating, moving his arms about as if to distract my attention. He asked for money. I recognized the tone straight away. He said he’d been mugged in London on the way down and all his money had been stolen. I knew immediately what really happened. He was familiar with London. He would’ve gone to King’s Cross, one of his old haunts, and found a dealer. He had an instinct for finding other drug users. He would’ve scored a few bags and had either used them up or was saving them till later.
We’d had a conversation on the phone about me not wanting to provide for him. He’d promised to transfer his methadone script to the chemist in Whitstable so he wouldn’t need to score. He said he’d bring money, and now here he was asking me for money. I lost my temper, bored with his lies. I was broke and annoyed at his imposition. I told him to leave. I only saw him once more after that, while he was still in Whitstable. He’d shacked up with some other junkies in the town, probably by sharing some of his stash. I bumped into him on the street. He said, “See, I know how to survive.” I shrugged and turned my back on him. That was the last time I saw him.
But hanging out with a heroin addict taught me many things. I remember walking down the street with him once while he described what the heroin feeling was like. “Mmmmm, scrummy, yummy, mummy, snuggle-down duvet,” he said, in a strange, guttural baby growl that sent shivers of revulsion down my spine. Another day we were walking passed a woman pushing a toddler in a stroller. He said, “I wish there was an adult version of that.”
I said, “They’re called wheelchairs Alan, and you’ll be in one soon enough.”
I was wrong; he was 37 when he died. But his comments made it clear to me what the appeal of heroin was. It’s a pain killer. It takes away discomfort. As such it infantilizes the user. You need some form of pain in your life in order to mature. Pain’s a stimulus to growth. Heroin users strive to be pain-free and are stuck in a permanent infantile state. Like toddlers, they’re only interested in themselves, and demand instant gratification. Like toddlers they see everyone else as mere factotums, persons to be exploited so that they can acquire more heroin. Relationships no longer matter. Friendship, loyalty, love, companionship, all of this is meaningless. Heroin is all they care about.
Alan was a writer too, at least when I met him. That’s why I liked him. I liked his poems. They were clever and poignant, with a twist, like the “Ode to Beauty,” above. But his writing was always in a state of suspension, awaiting the moment when he was no longer using. He’d read out a poem one year then, several years later, read the same poem to me, as if it were new. That line about being stuck in a time warp in 1993 was applicable to him, as was the final line: “God, I wish that you could see the world as ugly, like me.” It’s the ugliness that heroin users are trying to avoid, both in the world and in themselves, but meanwhile they’re busy creating even more ugliness in the process.
He once berated me for calling him a junkie. “We don’t use the ‘J’-word,” he said. “We don’t all mug old ladies for their pension books you know.” But in the end, that’s precisely what he was doing. From a cultured, intelligent, romantic, spiritual being with so much life, so much talent, he’d turned himself into a walking zombie. He’d do anything for a fix.
All the while he was nursing a secret pain. I discovered this later, when he confessed it to me. His dad had walked out on him when he was young. Later one of his mum’s boyfriends had sexually abused him. He’d suppressed that, shoving it deep down inside where no one could find it. It was probably this that started him on his heroin road, the need to stifle the pain of that memory. One day he came to visit me. I was living in Birmingham at the time. As always he was soon enmeshed in the drug underworld of the city. He met a young woman, and was chasing the dragon with her when she told him about her own abuse. That’s when it all came flooding back to him: the pain, and the humiliation. That thing he had been unable to face, the drunken adult bearing down upon him with all his strength, stinking of alcohol, making him do things he didn’t want to do.
He died in January, 2003. He’d gone back up to Scotland after his trip to Whitstable. The woman he was living with had thrown him out. She had a couple of kids and, despite being an addict herself, was trying to make the best of things. Living with him was like having an extra kid in the house, an extra mouth to feed. He never helped with the housework, never went to the school to pick the kids up, never went shopping. He used to lie around on the bed all day in a methadone haze, doing nothing but reading books. The kids had grown to hate him, so she threw him out.
After that he turned himself into a full-time junkie. He said there were gradations of junkiedom, from skin-popping and chasing the dragon, to the full junkie works, the needle, the spoon and the tourniquet. After that it was “scumbag junkie” and then, ‘rob-yer-granny junkie.’ Those were the terms he used. He’d reached the “rob-yer-granny” stage by now. He mugged a woman for her cash, got caught and, realizing how low he had sunk, went into rehab in a residential home in Newcastle in England. He was away from Scotland for about six months, but had been returned to go to court. His case worker thought that he’d be released into rehab care, but instead he was taken in on remand and sent to Greenock prison. His Mum and his sister, Suzann, went to visit him. He was full of remorse for what he’d done.
Finally he got bail and was back in the world. He was bouncing back and forth between his sister’s place and his mum’s. One day he came home to his sister’s from the pub. He was drunk. He said he’d had a great day chatting with all the old guys. No drugs. That night Suzann and he talked. She told him that she was sick of it all, that she’d reached the end of her rope. She said she was ashamed of him for what he’d done, but he was her big brother, and they only had each other. She said it was his last chance. If he continued on this path she wouldn’t give him any more chances.
The next day she was on a late shift. It was a Thursday. She told him they would go out tomorrow for his birthday. She bumped into him later on the way to work. He’d been to the dole office to pick up his welfare check. “You better not buy drugs and you better be in when I get home,” she told him. He gave her a hug promising he’d be good.
She said, “Stay the fuck away from her.” She meant the previous girlfriend who’d kicked him out. He said, “I’m just going to go for a couple of hours.” He said he wanted to make amends.
“Come home,” she said. “If you’re not there when I get home, don't come back. I'm no fool.”
“I promise,” he said. “I'm high on life. I’ve no interest in smack.”
“Yeah right.” she said, skeptically. “See you tonight.”
Her shift started at 2.30. About three hours later she got a call to come home from her mum’s friend. She thought it must be something to do with her mum. “What the fuck is up?” she pleaded.
“That’s when my world imploded,” she says now.
He didn't actually overdose. He smoked a small amount and his body reacted badly causing a pulmonary oedema. It’d been six months since his last taste. “Irony or what? He’d inject hundreds of pounds worth, no bother, and it took less than a fiver’s worth to kill him.”
When I heard that he’d died I was angry. I was storming up and down in my room shouting at him in my head. “You stupid idiot. You stupid great lunk.” I was angry that he’d left everyone else to pick up the pieces: his family and friends, the people who loved him.
I carried on being angry all the way up to Scotland for his funeral. He was from a protestant family. The coffin was on display at the front of the church. The minister read passages from the Bible and we sang hymns and said prayers from the protestant canon. But Alan had been a Krishna devotee. He was supposed to be burned not buried. I sat in the church fuming. I was supposed to make a speech, but was incoherent with rage. In the end all I could say was how disappointed I was that he was putting his Mum through all this grief. Afterwards I was angry at the wake. An ex-girlfriend of his who I’d known tried to speak to me, but I was flustered and didn’t recognize her. The anger got in the way.
It took till the following day before I worked out what I was really angry about. I went to see the woman he’d been living with, the one he’d gone round to see on the day he died. She wasn’t at the funeral, as many of his family blamed her for his death. I don’t know if she who gave him the heroin that had killed him, but he’d taken it in her company. She’d seen him turn blue and die before the ambulance could arrive.
Later we went to the pub together and she showed me a photograph from the early days, before he’d begun his descent into heroin madness. I looked at that picture, so fresh-faced and alive, slim and trim and bursting with life, before the methadone had bloated him out of shape, and a great sob of grief filled my chest. I burst into tears in the pub. I knew then what made me angry. It was because I loved him. I missed him. I was angry with him for bailing out on me and leaving me, angry because he’d died before I had a chance to forgive.
—Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone