Auberon Waugh's Rage column in The Oldie, May 28th, 1993
It would be absurdly glib to describe seventeen-year-old Philip Barber and his friend Paul Chapman, eighteen, as typical British teenagers, just because they subjected seventy-six year old Ruth Denyer to a two-hour ordeal of torture before raping and murdering her.
What may make them more typical - or at any rate puts them in a bigger class of British teenager - is that both had a long record of crime before they turned their attentions to Miss Denyer: Barber had 14 offences, having started on driving without a licence, then theft, assault on a policeman, threatening to blow up a neighbour’s house... Chapman had 12 offences by the time he was fourteen, including arson, burglary and actual bodily harm. Both boys were seriously injured when they crashed a stolen car last year.
Nothing very exceptional there, of course. Boys will be boys. Both had been shuffled from special school to special school, from social worker to social worker. Their torture of Miss Denyer included jabbing a toasting fork into her stomach and face, at first slowly in order to make it hurt as much as possible, then with such strength that the fork went through her neck and into her spinal cord.
Yet Barber came from a loving home. He looks, as does his friend Chapman, like an ordinary, unpleasant British teenager. The only clue to his behaviour, apart from the usual dabbling in drugs and regular inhalation of lighter fuel, may be his diet. At one stage, it was noticed that particular foods and soft drinks made his behaviour worse. They were dropped from his diet, and his behaviour improved miraculously.
He started making model aeroplanes. But the diet fell by the wayside, as Miss Denyer learned to her cost.
We are not told what the food and soft drinks were, but I doubt whether the food was navarin d’agneau au printempsor even souffle aux epinards. Whatever it was, I think we can be sure it was rich in monosodium glutamate - hamburgers, I should guess, rather than fish fingers or baked beans, which never did anybody harm. As for the soft drink concerned, I would not dare to hazard a guess, for fear of a mammoth libel action.
I venture on this dangerous ground because it seems to me we may be unnecessarily defeatist about the young. Last week Voluntary Service Overseas announced that it was launching a drive to recruit the over-fifties. It had decided that older people have strengths lacking in the young. As David Green, VSO’s dirctor, put it: ‘Older people have a tremendous breadth of experience - in life and work - and are very well sorted out personally.’ Any of us could have told Mr Green that, but I thought the whole purpose of VSO was to get these dangerous and unpleasant young people out of the country until they have sorted themselves out. For a nation which can no longer afford a compulsory national service and whose police force has gone to pieces, it was our best protection against the toasting forks of the young. To announce that they are not reliable enough even to be sent abroad seems to be the final surrender.
Diet may well hold the key. Few young people today are articulate enough to talk to anyone except specially trained ‘counsellors’ - even then, I suspect, they have little of interest to say - but there are exceptions to this. The June issue of Vanity Fair carries a memorable profile of Will Self - ‘England’s hottest young writer since Martin Amis’ who is about to take America by storm - by Zoe Heller.
Self, who is described by Martin Amis as ‘thrillingly heartless, terrifyingly brainy’ comes from standard, respectable upper middle-class north London - Hampstead Garden Suburb, father a professor in public administration at LSE, American mother in publishing - and went through the standard training of marijuana at twelve, then amphetamines, heroin at eighteen, seven years a hardcore junkie...
‘I always wanted to be in print and part of the justification for the drugs was that this is what real writers did - you know, they leapt into capsules and blasted off.’ One of Self’s problems may have been a rather stuffy mother: ‘When I went to my mother at the age of sixteen and said, “Wow, mum, you’ve got to try this acid, man. It really opens your mind.and she was just, like, “Oh, Big deal.” Her attitude was very unimpressed. I think she regretted it later on, but at the time, it was, like, “Acid? How passé.”'
Despite this discouragement. Self recently published a pair of novellas: Cock is the story of a young woman who grows a penis; Bull is about a young man who develops a vagina in the bend of his knee. There can be little doubt that they made him the greatest novelist of our time. His next one, My Idea of Fun, starts with the narrator telling how he has just decapitated a tramp on the London Underground and proceeded to a form of sexual congress with the dead man’s neck.
Self explains that this episode is an honest account of his own psyche: ‘That’s what it’s like, living in my head.’ His American publisher, Morgan Entrekin, enthuses: ‘The stuff Will is dealing with, it’s the Zeitgeist, it’s in the air. That’s one of the great things about Will - he’s such a contemporary writer, such a 90s writer.’
All this is undoubtedly true, but I wonder if the best clue to the enigma which is Will Self might not be found in his diet.