By Gemma Brosnan
SIMON MASON is author of ‘Too High, Too Far, Too Soon’ , the searingly honest memoir of a man at the centre of Britpop in the Nineties dealing drugs to its biggest stars before heroin kicked him off the guest-list to the kerb of despair.
From the streets of unemployed Kilburn to the alleys of crack-fuelled L.A., Simon’s brutal descriptions of a desperate man clinging to a crumbling edge are insightful, heart-breaking and humorous with all pretence spared.
Gemma Brosnan catches up with Simon Mason to find out more
Gemma: What inspired you to write the book in the first place?
Simon: As a kid, I wanted to be Jim Morrison so I always used to write stuff and over the years I kept diaries and somehow managed to keep hold of them, even when I was shuffling about the West End sleeping in hostels, I always had a bag with my diaries in and when I cleaned up I thought ‘there’s a lot of work here, why not try and write a book about it’ as I’m a bit self-obsessed like that.
Gemma: How much of the content is based on the original diaries and how much has the luxury of hindsight?
Simon: I think the time I had between getting clean and writing the book was needed to have a level of objectivity. I started out with nearly 160,000 words, some of which was written a very long time ago, literally a diary wholesale cut and paste, some of it was from when I was bouncing around in recovery and some of it when I was clean which was a bit more consistent.
Gemma: The material is intensely personal – at what point did you decide it was ready for the outside world?
Simon: I got an agent through one of those random acts of the universe – right person, right place, right time – and he was kind enough to say that in his opinion, out of the 160,000 words, there were probably around 20,000 that were quite good and the rest of it was an exercise in someone learning how to write. He suggested that I start from the end with the style that I’d found so I went back and started again last year and rewrote the whole thing using the original document as a template which gave me a great framework of time and dates and allowed me to remember things. When I finished a chapter and read it back and thought ‘that says what I want it to say, that’s the truth as far as I can remember it and it’s genuine and authentic’ I was happy. I’m clearly not Noam Chomsky or Stephen Fry, I’m Simon Mason and that’s how I’ve learnt to write and that’s what works.
Gemma: How long did it take you to finish from that point?
Simon: I stayed in last summer as it was quite wet and rubbish and I didn’t watch the Olympics so about three months.
Gemma: What was your writing routine like?
Simon: I took a sabbatical from a job I didn’t really like and a room in a friend’s house so I downsized, paid off 3-4 month’s rent and wrote 5-6 days a week, 4-5 hours a day, most of the time. I got a publisher and an editor and I sent her what I’d written so it was whittled down and comes in at about 90,000 words now. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t go in that might find its way into my next book.
Gemma: Is there a reason why you chose not to refer to certain bands or people by name such as referring to Oasis as the Manchester (City) Frisbee Team?
Simon: It became a little game, really. I haven’t personally met any of these people for a very long time, but I’m not saying anything that isn’t well documented and if I wanted to write a shabby kiss and tell, I would have done that while I was a junkie.
Gemma: There isn’t much kissing or sex at all which surprised me considering the amount of drugs and rock n roll?
Simon: Heroin, sex and crack don’t mix, you can take my word for it on that. There was also a relationship I was in for a long time so I deliberately avoided that as my behaviour for the most part was disgraceful. I had a long conversation with my ex-wife about the need to include her in the story and she was fine with that and I retained her anonymity. At the end of the day, the only person who looks sad and pathetic in the book is me, I don’t make any judgement calls on anyone else or portray a resentful, vile, bile infested attitude to anyone else. This is me, these were the things I did and some of the choices I made and some stuff that happened to me and I try to stay away from any blame or self-pity.
Gemma: What kind of music were you listening to during the writing process?
Simon: Music reignites the memory so every chapter was me, the laptop and YouTube and every chapter starts with a song title. Music was the first thing that allowed me to escape myself and it still does that. When I was writing about being very young, I was listening to lots of The Jam and The Who. That’s the beauty of music, it just takes you right back and there’s a good reason why my memory isn’t great so it was a great mechanism to have.
Gemma: Did you find the writing process cathartic?
Simon: I’ve thought about that a lot and I don’t think I realised until probably about six months after I’d finished quite how difficult it had been. When I got the first copy of it and read it for the first time, I felt really sad and thought that if that was someone I cared about or God forbid a child, it would be really difficult. I’d done a lot of putting to bed during recovery with the 12 steps stuff, but to have it all in one place and just go ‘Wow, that’s some journey’ was cleansing and involved a lot of letting go as once you’ve freed it to the world, it’s not yours anymore and you’ve also run out of the privilege of saying you’re writing a book because you’ve finished.
Gemma: During the book, there is a pivotal moment when you have to stay sober to take your nephew ice-skating for his birthday and this is the moment you decide to get clean. Why did that moment inspire you to get and stay clean above all of the others?
Simon: That’s a really good question and I don’t know what the answer is. I think a combination of physically being in such a bad way and having exhausted every possible solution that my own thinking could come up with and finally being able to recognise that I’d exhausted every other way out. I’d moved countries, I’d been in band, I’d not been in band, I’d tried stopping one drug, not stopping another, I’d tried everything and somehow that crystallisation found its way through my own bullshit and got me to a place where maybe I was just ready to heal. It could have been that, it could have been something else, just right place, right time and not being able to find any other reason to carry on so either consciously or subconsciously it was like ‘I’m going to lose my family and I can’t do this anymore’.
Gemma: On the subject of family, you also mention at the end of your book the impact of the birth of your daughter being by far the biggest high you’ve ever had and how important she is to you. Do you think it would have been as easy to stay clean without her arrival?
Simon: This might sound quite difficult for some people to read, but I don’t stay clean for her. She’s the best reason I’ve got, but my own experience shows me that trying to stay clean for any other person or cause has a very limited timescale, so she is the centre of my universe, but I stay clean for myself and because my life is better without drink and drugs in it.
Gemma: I also found it quite sad at the end of the book that despite your marriage being able to survive all of the traumatic highs and lows of your addiction, it wasn’t able to survive once you got clean. Do you have any reason why this happened?
Simon: It’s not that unusual, actually and those scenarios are a therapist’s wet dream – why would something survive years of unpleasantness and then when on the surface everything seems to generally be in a better state of repair, why doesn’t it work? Because it didn’t. Sadly a lot of marriages don’t work and ours was just another one that didn’t work. Maybe the clarity that recovery gives people makes them realise that something isn’t going to work, maybe there was a sense of guilt because of what we’d been through that we tried to make something work that was never going to. We’d given it time and opportunity and leaving was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever made, but we were arguing a lot and I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in an environment where two parents were like that, it didn’t seem like the right thing to do and I get on well with my ex, we’re good friends and I can see my daughter whenever I want, which I do and it’s better than ever.
Gemma: You’ve had the likes of Irvine Welsh, Suzanne Moore, Russell Brand and James Brown championing the book – what was that like?
Simon: Well, that’s quite a wide selection and it’s really nice to hear that stuff, but the nicest review was an unsolicited email from a mum who read a blog I wrote before the book came out who had struggled to understand her son’s addiction and finally felt she had an understanding of him and his problems and changed her approach to her relationship with him and got him into rehab. He is now three months clean so that sits top of the pile for me – it’s fucking marvellous that the tragedy of my own experiences have helped someone and hopefully we’re going to get the book into prison libraries as both a literary and drug awareness aid which would be fantastic.
Gemma: Do you think if you’d stuck with booze, coke and weed and not gone anywhere near heroin, things would have turned out differently?
Simon: I was never going to stop using a substance until it stopped doing what I needed it to do as ultimately drug addicts keep exploring different substances, trying to find the right combination to exist within ourselves. That’s how I see it, so I kept sticking my nose in the trough until I find something to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself which was to allow me to exist and that might sound quite strange to people who have never used drugs, but that’s how I see it now with the benefit of hindsight. If it hadn’t been heroin, I would have drunk myself to death, if it hadn’t have been booze, I would have snorted myself to death – that’s just what I’m like. The other thing I try and steer anyway from is pinning my addiction on one thing. I thoroughly enjoyed my drug taking as most people do for a period of time, but there was a tipping point as described in the last third of the book which certainly doesn’t make pleasant reading as it was a futile exercise in self medicating, avoiding and trying to hide from the past.
Gemma: What advice would you give to your daughter regarding drugs?
Simon: I have my own experience, but I don’t think telling people not to do drugs has any effect and ever will. I’d tell her I love her and I’m there for her and she can tell me anything. The reality is that most people, thank God, don’t get anywhere near the pattern of destructive behaviour I did, but the percentage that remain is still a lot of people drinking and drugging themselves to death so clearly the whole prohibition stance of illegality doesn’t work.
Gemma: You’re meeting Baroness Meacher in a few weeks to discuss why the current drug policy doesn’t work. What are your suggestions going to be to her?
Simon: Putting people in jail because they are drug addicts doesn’t work. I was in Pentonville prison a few weeks ago and I had some friends in this meeting and I asked them how long it would take them to score, they said five minutes which is no secret – it’s the same in any jail in the world. In Portugal – and I’ve used in Portugal – there was a shanty town neighbourhood in Lisbon where the unspoken policy at the time was ‘it’s happening, so we’ll just let it happen here’. Subsequent to that, they had a paragon shift in the way they viewed addiction so without going the full mile into decriminalisation and the legalisation of it all, they now look at drug addiction as a medical issue. Instead of just charging and putting drug users in jail, they present options around addressing addiction in a more humanistic way rather than demonising, stigmatising and giving out criminal records. It’s had massive effects in terms of breaking the revolving door cycle of users in and out of jail and it’s a great example to show politicians here that a different approach works.
Gemma: You’re working on your second novel – what can fans of your first book expect?
Simon: The next book I’m working on is fiction, although when you’ve had the kind of life I’ve had that generally just means changing the names. It’s called ‘Lola’ and is set over 40 years about a little girl who grows up in a pub in Soho which is inspired by a collection of amazing stories and is a new challenge for me as it’s a different animal, but eventually I’ll run out of excuses not to sit down and finish it.
Gemma: Are you worried about living up to the first novel?
Simon: Well, I’m not in bestseller territory yet, so I’m still writing for myself and I write about what I know which is the human condition and a world which most people only voyeurs are to. And as Irvine Welsh said at Stoke Newington Literary Festival: “It’s better to be a one-trick pony than a no-trick donkey”.
Simon Mason performs at Writer’s Telling Stories  for Action on Addiction, Soho Theatre, Sunday 1st December 2013
To buy a copy ‘Too High, Too Far, Too Soon’ go to Amazon